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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Halloween (2018) Review – 8.5/10

I saw the original Halloween (1978) in 2008. I watched it for a class I took on horror films. Even 30 years later, it still stood up as an excellent slasher film. What I like about it is that unlike many other slasher films of that era, it actually looks good as far as conventional film making practices. Many horror films, both in and out of the slasher genre, aren’t shot particularly well. They often have a very low budget look to them which in many ways became the standard and has since the early 80’s been done intentionally, which I personally think is a stupid genre trope. The original Halloween is responsible for creating and/or normalizing many of the slasher/horror tropes we are used to today and it’s within that context that one should watch Halloween (2018), the direct sequel to the original film.

*Please note that from here on whenever I say Halloween I’m referring to the 2018 film unless otherwise stated.

The first thing that needs to be noted about Halloween is the attention to detail and consistency within the timeline of the franchise/story. The original film takes place on Halloween 1978 in Haddonfield, IL. In the original film, it’s stated that the villain, Michael Myers, murdered his sister when he was six years old on Halloween 1963 in Haddonfield, IL. Halloween takes place on Halloween 2018, exactly 40 years to the day later, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in both films) facing off against Michael Myers in Haddonfield, IL again. It’s a beautiful coupling of history, canon, and aesthetic that many horror franchises have never and will never get to accomplish. And it makes the film way better. I assume this is even more the case if you watched the original in theaters 40 years ago. Note that this film acts as a direct sequel to the original and disregards all the various nonsense shown in the countless campy Halloween sequels and remakes that have been made over the years.

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Halloween is effective in its storytelling because it builds off of the original film’s ideas but modernizes them both in aesthetic and plot. It’s still Haddonfield, IL. It’s still a nice, presumably safe suburb full of happy families, friendly neighbors, and angsty but ultimately harmless teenagers. Though it’s set in 2018, a world full of various issues political, cultural, and otherwise, that’s not part of the film. Though it is commented on near the beginning in a single short conversation, the rest of the world doesn’t really matter here. This isn’t a story about the world or society at large. This is simply the story of maybe 100 people being affected by the actions of one man. You don’t have to read more into it and you shouldn’t. Whether it’s 1978 or 2018, teenagers still go to school, fool around when adults aren’t looking, and live mostly inconsequential, carefree lives. And that’s how it should be. Really that’s what Halloween, in the modern American context, is supposed to be about.

The Haddonfield of today may have some of the modern conveniences that weren’t present in 1978 like cell phones, but really little has changed. It still has a sheriff’s department instead of a police department. People still leave their back doors open. Most people don’t have security systems. It might not be how America is often depicted today in news media, but it’s the America people like to pretend still exists. And in many ways that makes it scarier. The most noticeable change in this film compared to the original and really most horror films of the 70’s and 80’s is that now there are considerably more Black people, with speaking parts, and none of them were the first one to die. #Progress!

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The film recreates a similar story where Michael has once again escaped custody the day before Halloween and has decided to return to his hometown to murder people at seemingly random for no explained reason. Really that’s my biggest beef with this and the original film. Michael simply is evil. We never get any insight into why he kills people and why he does it on Halloween. He just does. This movie takes the time to argue that some people just are pure evil. That there’s no explanation or justification for it. Michael Myers simply kills. While I may not like this explanation, it does accomplish two things rather well. First, it removes the need for a legitimate backstory and/or explanation. Often these come off cheesy and don’t necessarily make the film any better. I appreciate their presence in movies, but can admit that most of them don’t make any sense. How did the boy who drowned in the lake come back to life? How did the man become an evil spirit that hunts teens down in their dreams? Explanations justify the plot of the current story, but they often also leave the viewer with more questions than answers by the end of the movie.

The second thing a lack of justification accomplishes is that it makes the story even scarier. Films like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) give you a justification for the actions shown. The victims did something wrong and they are punished for it. Many slasher films work this way. Teenagers get killed because of bad behavior. This allows the viewer to not feel as bad for the victims when they get offed and allows them to remove themselves from the story, ultimately reducing the fear factor. It’s really easy to walk out of a theater after seeing a bunch of kids get murdered for covering up a manslaughter charge. You don’t even necessarily feel sorry for them at the end of the day. But if there is no reason for the violence and no specific justification for the victims chosen then that means everyone is a potential target. There’s nothing the characters and more importantly the viewer(s) can do to avoid being murdered. It’s simply a random case of bad luck where you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a case of weaker writing to achieve a stronger overall experience.

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In the case of specifically Laurie, it’s not even fully apparent that Michael had planned to go after her in this film. What it more seems to be is that he was just on a random killing spree and was maneuvered towards going after her again. Multiple characters go out of their way to try to put the two back together in order to see what will happen. This worked well here because it justified the story focusing on Laurie without giving up the original randomness of Michael’s victims. He kills almost indiscriminately based on who’s in his vicinity when no witnesses are present. By the end of the film a great many people had been killed by Michael, but only two of the murders shown on screen happened with other people present. There are a number of little details like this that make Halloween so much more than the original. Almost to the point where I’d be willing to believe that people had really spent the last 40 years planning this almost perfect sequel. I don’t want to go into too much specific detail about the main plot because it’s so tightly written that mentioning most things directly related to Laurie will spoil her story arc. Suffice it to say that they did a story that I didn’t expect but that I really liked. I found it to be a perfect ending to a 40 year struggle that was true to both the main characters.

The cinematography is excellent. It’s a very well shot film that takes advantage of the experience gained over the last four decades of horror films. The lighting, the angles, the cuts, and even the sound all comes together perfectly to create a very stressful yet entirely believable viewing experience. I also really appreciated that there was only one jump scare in the whole movie and it wasn’t done by Michael. It’s expressed intentionally as a Halloween prank within the movie and for me that’s important. Jump scares are the lazy man’s horror technique. I’m glad we’ve pretty much done away with them in horror movies in exchange for psychological terror. One of my favorite shots in the whole movie was when someone, who I won’t name for spoiler reasons, decides to try to turn the fight back on Michael only to get thrown out a window. But at this point the roles have been reversed and the camera expresses this very well. Michael gets distracted and when he looks back at the body lying outside it’s gone. The sequence proceeds to show Michael moving through the house searching for an intruder the way the prey usually is in this genre. It was a phenomenal sequence that humanized Michael. Many other shots and sequences were just as effective in their own ways at telling a great slasher horror story.

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While this is in many ways a higher minded slasher film that isn’t simply using gore to impress the audience, it’s still very graphic. Michael is at peak killing prowess and he’s not just using knives to kill people. Stabbing is just one of many ways he murders his victims this time around, but what’s also well done is the murders they didn’t show on screen. Many sequences cut or angle away from the actual violence and then show you the after math, leaving you to imagine what happened yourself. While this may not be the most visceral way to depict a murder story, it’s much stronger for the overall storytelling. You don’t have to dwell on every murder that takes place which keeps the pacing good. The film never drags on with violence even while showing you a slew of bodies left in Michael’s wake. Again, Halloween really shows itself as a high quality modern movie that just happens to be a slasher film rather than the classic low quality film that stereotypes the genre.

The acting was great. Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance has only gotten better with age. You really believed that she had been struggling with the memories of that night for 40 years. But other actors did a fine job as well. Will Patton as Sheriff Hawkins was exactly what I wanted him to be. This movie actually centers mostly on women of various ages and they all gave great performances. The writing definitely plays a role in this because the story was very realistic, thus making it even more believable. It’s not the cheesy somehow Michael is everywhere scenario. The characters just happen to move into his path and are killed as a consequence of that. There are really only two murders in the whole movie that seem completely intentional as targeted victims and Michael targeting them made perfect sense. I will say though that there are a number of classic dumb horror movie character moments that take place. They’re believable, but they continue the stereotype of people (in this case me) wanting to yell at the screen because why would you run into the woods when a psychopath is trying to murder you when you’re already on a road that cars drive on? The movie isn’t built on these moments, but a number of them occur and as a Black man I had to do everything in my power not to yell at the screen. What was great was that there actually is a Black kid in the movie that basically does this for one sequence. He tells the two older white kids what not to do, they don’t listen, and bad things happen to them. So kudos to you David Gordon Green for acknowledging your audience and for casting a hilarious Black kid.

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I’m not going to say there haven’t been other great pure American slasher films in the last 10 years, but I will say that I can’t recall any. It’s not my favorite genre so I haven’t devoted time to actively seeking them out, but in my opinion horror as a genre has moved away from the slasher idea. Halloween does the genre justice. It’s not just an excellent slasher film. It’s an excellent film that I might even argue is better than the original both in how it presents the genre and circumvents many of the tropes of the genre 40 years later. If you enjoyed the original film, this is a must watch. But even if you didn’t see the original and aren’t a fan of the genre, I still think you’ll enjoy this movie quite a bit.

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Spider-Man (PS4) Platinum Review – 8.4/10

I think this might be the first game I ever reviewed after I had already achieved the platinum trophy. Not the first game where I’ve finished the campaign, but specifically getting the full completion. Certainly the first open world game. For the record, I got the game day one and had acquired the platinum less than two weeks after it released. It just took me an extra week to get the review prepared. That’s short for any platinum. Much less an open world game. But length is not the only important factor when it comes to judging a game so while this is an important detail to consider, there’s a heck of a lot more to say about Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games.

I was not actually planning on pre-ordering Spider-Man. I literally made the purchase just two days before it released and the only reason I did was because I happened to roll into some extra money that day and I wanted the collector’s pin for preordering the digital deluxe edition. Otherwise I would have absolutely waited for a price drop. And after having gotten the platinum, I would still recommend waiting for a price drop. Mostly because of how short it is. That being said, it was quite the entertaining experience, short or not.

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Spider-Man is a beautiful game. Not Naughty Dog beautiful, but for a comic book game, it looks very good. What I really liked about it was the character renders. I could see the real actors in the characters and because I recognized a number of them, that impressed me. At the same time, the filler NPCs are kind of low quality. They aren’t generic, which is nice. They do look, dress, and sound different. You can even interact with them on a minor level as individuals. Because it is a comic book game, it looks like what a game based on a comic book should look like rather than actually looking like a comic book or trying too hard to look like real life. It hits that visual balance almost perfectly. The world looks great as well. I’m not from New York, but I have been there and I was very impressed with all the landmarks the game has. I have heard a number of New Yorkers complain that things are missing or flat out removed from the map. But I guess that’s to be expected. What’s really cool is that they’ve also layered in a bunch of Marvel Easter Egg locations. This includes places like the Embassy of Wakanda, the Sanctum Solarium, and the Murdock & Nelson Attorneys at Law Office. If I have to explain to you what any of those are then you’re not a Marvel Fan and it will be lost on you anyway. It is a very nice map, but it’s also very small. The whole thing is made up of only nine Infamous: Second Son style districts, none of which are particularly big.

This is a very fast paced game. Think Arkham City on steroids. You’re moving quickly with just about everything you do. Fighting is fast paced and often includes 15 or more enemies on the screen at one time. Swinging, probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, is extremely fast, free roaming, and variable. By all rights it should be a blur, but no such issues occur. The game truly handles like a dream. Even playing on an original PS4, I experienced no lag or other graphics related performance issues. The loading is a little slow, but not ridiculously so. The menus look really nice as well. They’re very simple. Not overly stylized or extremely detailed. But they present everything you need in a clean and clear manner that’s very accessible at a glance.

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The Spidey suits are without a doubt the most impressive visual aspect of the game. The level of detail is unreal for some of the 28 costumes available. The tips of the fingers. The fabric threads. The metal plating. It’s immaculate. The costumes look so good you can almost feel the fabric on some of them. But there are also a number of little things that really bring this game to life. Pedestrians in the streets. Planes flying over the city. The sunlight beaming on the water at dusk. Overall it’s a beautiful looking game.

The sound is expertly done in Spider-Man. It’s cartoony but practical. You hear the whooshes of his webs firing. You hear every punch and kick landed. The only thing that would have made it better was if little comic book style onomatopoeia appeared during fights. The voice acting is quite good. Each character was distinct. Many were played by actors you’re familiar with which really helped bring the audio visual experience to life. The music was good, albeit a bit repetitive, as is the case in most open world games. All in all, I was very happy with how the sound was handled in this game.

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The gameplay excels in a number of places but falls way short in others. The swinging is phenomenal. The best I’ve seen in any Spider-Man game, though I haven’t played them all. What’s good about it, albeit annoying at times, is that Insomniac Games really tried to create a realistic swinging experience. You have to take into account things like distance. You can’t just swing wherever you want. If you’re above the buildings, you have to wait till you fall beneath them so you have something to web to. You can swing upward but your speed will decrease due to drag and loss of momentum. Swinging and traversal is truly an art form. But at the same time they added a number of fail safes to make the experience more manageable for amateurs.   You can move in and out of swinging to parkour and wall running instantly. Spider-Man will automatically pass through, under, or between things like fire escapes and water towers when you swing into such confined spaces. It was made to be fun, not unruly. At the same time, this game sadly has terrible wall crawling mechanics. Wall running outside is great. It’s smooth and easy to control. But climbing around the inside of a room is just trash in this game. Simple maneuvers like crawling from wall to wall or wall to ceiling are so difficult. Spider-Man will do everything in his power to avoid changing between adjacent services. It’s easier just to jump off a wall and climb up the other one than to crawl between them. This was really depressing for me because what’s Spider-Man without wall crawling?

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Fighting is real smooth. The pacing is fast but manageable. You have an arsenal of eight gadgets to choose from by the end of the game and they all do something quite different. What I also really liked was that when you run out of stock of a specific gadget the game will automatically revert back to basic web shooting. This is very crucial for a smooth gameplay experience. Chaining combos is really smooth and easy to do in this game, and that’s what makes it so fun. Combining gadgets in different ways makes it an experience all your own. One thing I really appreciated was that the game never stops moving. If you’re in the middle of a fight and you go to change gadgets, a gadget wheel pops up in true Insomniac Games style. But you can still get hit while it’s up. Time slows down while the wheel is up to give you time to think, but you can’t just stand there indefinitely. This balance between Dark Souls where you have no time and Ratchet & Clank where you have unlimited time worked really well for a Spider-Man game and felt very appropriate. But aiming certain gadgets and special techniques can be a real pain. You have auto aim but it mostly focuses on the nearest enemy in sight. Sometimes that’s not who you want to hit. In general though, the game plays and controls very smoothly.

Probably the worst aspect of the gameplay is its repetitive nature. The gameplay is really solid, but so much of the game is just busy work to level up your stats and gear. The game’s development system is dually based on XP and tokens. XP is gained through basically everything. Fighting, hitting milestones like distance running on walls, completing objectives, and locating special items. You can hit a maximum level of 50 and then continue to level up in a prestige way where you remain at level 50 but your stats continue to go up every time you earn a certain amount of points. Leveling is automatic as far as stats are concerned but you do have to spend skill points to learn new skills and techniques. Some skills are extremely useful and will become the cornerstone of your gameplay style. Others you’ll mostly ignore. By the time you hit max level, you can learn all the skills and still have five points to spare. The other means of development comes from tokens. There are six types you can earn. Tokens try to be more variable than XP but in the long run they just seem more repetitive. Crime tokens are a good example of this.

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In each of the nine districts on the map, random crimes can happen at any time that you’re not in a mission/challenge. Dealing with crimes is optional and successfully stopping them nets you one to three crimes tokens. These tokens, when used in combination with other types, can be used to unlock suits and develop/unlock gadgets. Each district has you stop 20 crimes to get 100% completion. There are only a few types of crimes committed by four separate groups of criminals. You have to stop five of each. Almost all the crimes are the same. You fight a group of enemies without dying and you get your tokens. Occasionally you have to take out some snipers, locate a missing person, or stop runaway vehicles, but mostly it’s just win a fight. That’s nearly 180 random fights to deal with for a full completion. Plus chasing them down when they randomly appear on the map. It gets old. All the types of tokens work similarly. You do the same things over and over in order to unlock gear. There are little bonus objectives in each of these token missions/challenges, most of which you ultimately need to complete to get enough tokens to unlock everything, but after a while it all becomes a grind. It’s artificial additional playtime and many of the challenges aren’t even fun. Especially the challenge token missions. Some of them are just terrible and you’ll replay them over and over to try to get the gold completion for the additional tokens.

The story missions are great. I’d say 90% of the main campaign missions are absolute gold. Sometimes you have to play as people other than Spider-Man or Peter Parker and that can be boring and annoying at times, but all the story Spider-Man stuff was great. The boss fights. The stealth missions. The chase scenes. I was happy with all of it. Even the photography missions were pretty fun once I got used to them. The side missions are pretty good too. Really if the game wasn’t padded so much and was priced around Insomniac Games usual stuff, it would be a shorter but ultimately stronger game overall. The gameplay is great for the most part at a mechanical level, but the full completion gets old. The fact that you can hit level 50 (max level) well before the end of the game without mindlessly grinding says a lot about how much padding is in such a small map.

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This was one the best written comic book games I ever played. The writing is the way a comic book game should be. The villains are justified while also being over the top. There are multiple villains that show up over the course of the story and they all make sense. They aren’t just popping up to give you something to do. The story weaves them all together very well. The way they wrote Otto Octavius was just amazing. If you know the characters you know he’s going to become a problem later on, but the way they developed him over the course of the game was MCU quality writing. I was so impressed by the campaign narrative in this game. But it’s not just the plot that’s well written. This is a Spider-Man game. That means dialog is everything and the dialog is strong. The quips are funny and cheesy. JJ Jameson is a radio host who randomly appears on your feed while swinging around the city and he’s hilarious. Modernizing him away from newspapers and into podcasting was the right touch.

What’s really important to note is that this game isn’t just about Spider-Man. It’s also about Peter Parker, Miles Morals, and Mary Jane Watson. All of them play major roles in the plot of the game and act as playable characters at some point in the narrative. It’s not just a story about heroes and villains. It’s a story about people. And even some of the villains get some real character development, which is a good thing. The relationships and interactions the characters have with each other, including the villains, is what really makes this a great comic book experience. Probably the best game Insomniac Games ever wrote.

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Defining the replay value is a bit tough with this one. Especially having gotten the platinum in a single playthrough that took only 30-ish hours, which as I’ve said is short for an open world game in my opinion. The truth is that if you get 100% completion there are still some things you can do, like try to get golds in all the Task Master challenges and finish all the base challenge objectives, but you don’t gain anything from doing it. You do continue to get stronger by collecting XP even after you hit max level, but you don’t really need it by that point. Now of course the difficulty you play on will also play a factor here. The game has no difficulty based trophies and lets you change the difficulty level mid-game whenever you want. I played through the whole game on the hardest difficulty so there’s no reason for me to play it again. But if you didn’t play it on hard, maybe you’d want to do that in a second playthrough. But honestly, having unlocked and completed everything, I don’t really have any interest in playing through the game again. It was a great one and done experience with nothing left that I feel the need to do. Especially since I unlocked all the costumes and gadgets already. There will be a New Game Plus mode added soon, but I really don’t see any reason to play it after having gotten the platinum. DLC is on the way, so there’s that, but that doesn’t factor into replay value and probably won’t add enough content to justify the $80 price tag for the deluxe edition.

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On the other hand, this game has without a doubt the best, most addictive photo mode I’ve ever seen. It’s an amazing experience. It’s not perfect. There are definitely limitations with it that shouldn’t be there. But it’s genuinely one of the most entertaining parts of the game. You have so many filters, frames, and stickers at your disposal. You can take pictures anywhere, including cutscenes. And they can be manipulated in so many ways. I almost took the time to make my own comic book with screenshots created in the photo mode. And you really could. I took literally more than 3,000 pictures over the course of the game. Which I’m still not finished sorting as I write this, by the way. That does add quite a bit of value and length to the overall experience. Especially when you consider the 28 costumes you can take pictures in.

Overall I’m very happy with how Spider-Man turned out. Insomniac Games did a great job. It’s not a flawless game and I think it was a bit overhyped with all the 9’s it received, but it’s definitely one of the top games I’ve played in 2018. I would absolutely recommend playing this game but I will also say you can stand to wait for a price drop.

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Detroit: Become Human Review – 8.3/10

It’s hard to say whether or not I’m a fan of Quantic Dream. More appropriately known as David Cage’s interactive movie workshop, Quantic Dream is the game development studio that created Detroit: Become Human. It is their fifth game. I’ve played three games by David Cage: Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human. I’ve also heard only good things about Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) over the years, but I’ve never gotten to play it myself. Of the three games of his I’ve played, I liked one, absolutely hated one, and absolutely loved one. So while I’d say Quantic Dream doesn’t have a negative record with me, I also wouldn’t go as far as declaring myself a committed fan of the studio. All I can honestly say is that after playing Detroit, I would be happy to play the next game Cage puts out.

I was reluctant to play Detroit: Become Human when I first heard about it. Part of this came from the fact that I found the idea of setting a game about high technology and opulent wealth (to buy said technology) in Detroit to be laughable. It’s Detroit not San Francisco. The city isn’t known for its wealth or its high minded tech culture. But what I was more worried about was the fact that this game was coming from the same studio that sold me Beyond: Two Souls. I think Beyond is absolute trash. When I first heard about it I was really excited, and I did like Heavy Rain so I had confidence in the studio bringing out another hit. But Beyond is just the worst. It is so unbelievably bad as far as both gameplay and writing. So I was not excited to play another David Cage game after that. Luckily I was able to borrow a copy so I didn’t have to pay for Detroit, otherwise I might never have played it. Boy was my fears about the next Quantic Dream title wrong.

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I am happy to admit that I was wrong about Detroit. Not only is it an excellent game, it’s the best game Quantic Dream has ever made. (I’m assuming it’s better than Fahrenheit based on what I’ve seen of that game.) It more than made up for the travesty that was Beyond. It’s the first game they ever made that I’ll actually do a full replay of. In their past games, I’ve taken the time to replay certain sequences to see different outcomes but never the entire game. I will replay Detroit all the way through, making different decisions, and take the time to get the platinum. That’s how much better this game is compared to its predecessors.

Visually it’s great. It’s not the best PS4 game ever made, but it looks very good. Specifically how real the characters look. The character models are based on the real actors, some of which are notable personalities you’re probably familiar with like Clancy Brown and Lance Henriksen. This brings the game to life in ways that many games can’t because you already have a visual point of reference for many of the characters in the story. And the acting, I say acting here instead of just voice acting, is phenomenal. Jesse Williams, who I had only previously seen in Cabin in the Woods (2012) gives such a powerful performance that I wanted to see other stuff he’s in after I finished the game. I can’t remember saying that about any other character/actor in any other game I’ve ever played. The delivery of his lines and the emotion of his character model, Markus, were masterful. I truly saw the humanity in the android characters. I felt for them. I wanted them to be granted freedom and equal rights.

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It’s not just the characters that look good though. The landscapes, the neighborhoods, the graffiti, and everything else all comes together nicely to create a Detroit that I found believable in the world of the game. It’s probably the best looking game I’ve played this year set in a real world environment. Spider-Man comes in at a very close second for reference.

The sound is real good in this game. The sound track works well, the effects work well enough for what it is, and the voice acting is perfectly balanced. You feel like you’re actually in a world of other people. Conversations aren’t unrealistically loud to make sure you hear them. You can miss lots of stuff throughout the game if you aren’t listening and looking. Interactions can be completely missed because you didn’t notice the conversation going on low in the background. It’s a nice touch of realism, even while being kind of annoying when you miss something.

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Gameplay wise, this was much better than past games from Quantic Dream. There are still camera issues, but overall it’s a much cleaner gameplay experience than the other titles by them I’ve played.  Gameplay, specifically controls, was my biggest complaint about Beyond so it was nice to see them clean it up by a noticeable degree in Detroit. I didn’t have any control issues with QTEs. A lot of games in this genre often misread commands and end up making you fail where you know you shouldn’t have. This happens a lot when I play TellTale Games titles. Surprisingly, I only missed two action sequence QTE commands over the entire course of my first playthrough. Part of that may just be that I’m a lot more familiar with the genre now, but I think those results are very telling about how well the game responds. I had no such luck when I played Heavy Rain back on PS3.

What’s really nice about the gameplay in this one is that your decisions really do matter and for once the game directly and clearly shows you that and in what way they affect the overall story. At the end of each chapter you are shown an events flowchart that plots all the decisions and outcomes you made and where those led to. But what’s even more useful is the fact that it shows you how much you didn’t do. In most cases the game doesn’t reveal what other outcomes you could have gotten, but it does show you how many other outcomes were available with each decision/occurrence along the plot of each individual chapter. It also shows you how decisions and outcomes from previous chapters affected the chapter you just played as well as that they might possibly affect future chapters. A good example of this was early on when you are given the choice of whether or not to allow an android to join your resistance. It’s early on in the game and you don’t know who you can trust yet. You can choose to take him with you or leave him. If you chose to take him with you, several chapters later that same android sacrifices his life to save yours. Characters can permanently die in the story and without that android’s sacrifice one of my characters would have died at that moment, ruining my perfect survival first playthrough. I think this transparency of outcomes really makes the game better because then you really do feel like your decisions matter where most games make you feel like the outcomes are fixed even if the road to them has a few branches. Detroit doesn’t do that at all because it proves it to you every step of the way.

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Without a doubt, as with most games in this genre, it’s the writing that makes Detroit amazing. Much like Beyond, this story is grounded in science fiction, but what it does right is use science fiction that’s actually believable and grounded at least part in actual science. It may be about sentient robots, but it gives you a story that you can actually believe and connect with on a personal level, more akin to Heavy Rain. Not to mention we already have tons of other fiction about sentient machines trying to obtain their freedom. Detroit plays mostly the same bits from the singularity playbook, but it puts you, the player, into the role of the android instead of the humans fighting against them. This makes the experience so much more personal and in many ways introspective. You empathize with the androids and start thinking about what you would do in a world where people had to choose whether or not to recognize them as living, intelligent beings.

For me, through Markus, the story was very personal because of the racial undertones Cage was clearly drawing upon. The fact that I’m a lighter skinned African American, especially living in the current political climate, made me identify a lot with Markus who, at least in my playthrough, leads the android revolution. The game draws direct comparisons between the struggle of the androids and racial minorities in the real world. There is even a scene where an African American human character helps the androids and when asked why says it’s because her people experienced similar challenges in the past and were only able to achieve the position they had because of help from members of the ruling class/race.

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The game lets you make key decisions about the type of revolution you want to have and it affects the story greatly. It was an interesting experience to be able to choose what type of revolutionary you wanted to be. You can be completely peaceful. You can be violent. You can be a bit of both. And the game makes you take public opinion into account. I took advantage of this and got the outcome I wanted, but that often meant intentionally making decisions that I didn’t personally want to make, for the good of the android cause. In a way, that’s the most realistic gameplay scenario ever because politics, especially when it comes to civil rights, actually does work that way. It’s not whether or not the cause is right or wrong, but how the people in power perceive the cause that matters. The writing, and more specifically multiple possibilities within the writing, in pretty much every chapter is why I’ll be replaying this game from start to finish with different choices. I want to see everything this game has to offer.

I think I’ve already made it clear that Detroit has a decent amount of replay value. It’s certainly worth two complete playthroughs and possibly even more after that to experience every possible outcome. I will probably just rerun specific sequences to fill in the holes after my second playthrough rather than doing a full third. But the game is certainly good for 14+ hours of play. I wouldn’t have dropped $60 for it but at $20, the price I paid for Beyond, I would have been very happy with my purchase if I hadn’t of gotten to borrow a copy.

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I hope I’ve made it clear that you should definitely play Detroit: Become Human. It’s certainly worthy of being a PlayStation exclusive. I’m just sad that so many people won’t get to play it because for some reason they still don’t own a PS4. It’s well written, well executed, beautiful, and an emotional roller coaster that I haven’t been on in a game in quite some time. Even God of War (PS4) didn’t personally speak to me as much as this game did. Granted I don’t have a son or a great relationship with my father so much of the narrative impact was certainly lost on me with that one. But at the end of the day, you should definitely give Detroit a playthrough. You can clear the game once in less than eight hours.

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

Nioh vs Dark Souls

This past weekend, I finally finished the main story of Nioh. It took me just over 70 hours to complete. I am not finished with the game because there are several post-game missions, an entire new class of items you unlock by finishing the main story, a new game plus mode (which I probably don’t have time to play), and a number of DLC missions, which I do plan on completing. I have to say that this was an excellent game. I have some complaints, which is true for every game I’ve ever played, but overall Nioh was quite the positive gaming experience.

I played both the alpha and beta of the game, but didn’t get around to actually playing it till they had already announced the sequel, which was the main reason I finally got my ass in gear with this one. What I find interesting is that many people I’ve spoken to aren’t fans of Nioh because of their relationship with Dark Souls. I understand but don’t agree with this point of view. First, because the games really are quite different in many respects. And second, because Dark Souls I & II (still haven’t gotten around to III) are no more or less flawed than Nioh. All three of these games, and Bloodborne, all have their own issues which are subjective design choices that some people will like and others will hate, while many won’t care one way or the other. So rather than write a straight review of Nioh, I thought it would be more useful to write a comparison of Nioh to Dark Souls with a focus on some key design choices/differences between the two franchises.

Nioh Souls

Combat

People tend to differentiate Dark Souls from Bloodborne because of the combat pacing/style. Dark Souls is seen as the slower more defense focused game that relies heavily on technique and strategy. While Bloodborne is seen as the faster paced more offense focused game that relies more on real time skill and reaction. Having played both games, I can agree with this assessment on some level. I tend to prefer Dark Souls, which is interesting because I hate blocking in games generally. What I like about Nioh is that it allows the player a lot more differentiation while still keeping it really simple, when it comes to combat. Dark Souls offers you 22 different weapon types with various weapons in each category, but they’re all fairly similar, with the exception of magic. It’s one handed short weapons or two handed great weapons, plus bows for ranged attacks. The combat is focused much more on stats than actual weapon performance other than one handed vs two handed. But you do have a fair amount of control over the pacing of combat between those two differentiations, not to mention you have the option to play with or without a shield. You also have to take weight into account when playing Dark Souls and it has a huge effect on gameplay.

Bloodborne is less varied in specific weapon options with only a single version of each type of weapon, but each of the 15 weapon types is fairly different plus there are 11 different secondary weapons to choose from. You are afforded a lot more variation among the Bloodborne weapons, but the pacing of combat is very similar for all weapon types. Add this to the fact that there are no shields in Bloodborne and weight doesn’t have to be accounted for and you have a very fast paced, but less varied gameplay experience than Dark Souls.

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Tonfa is not available at the start of the game.

The problem with both Dark Souls and Bloodborne, when it comes to combat, is you have a lot of choices, but few options. Ranged attacks and magic aside, Dark Souls really just comes down to one handed vs two handed weapons, shield or no shield in the case of choosing one handed, and weight class, which affects agility. Bloodborne is similar in making you choose between one handed and two handed combat, but it gives the player the option of using any weapon in either way and allows you to change in real time. But with the lack of weight and similar style the weapons carry, you can pretty much commit to a play style early on and ride it out the whole game. For instance, I used two handed axe for probably 85% of the game.

Nioh takes a much different approach to combat differentiation than either Dark Souls or Bloodborne. While those two franchises approach the issue from the style of traditional action games, Nioh is more similar to a JRPG. Rather than bogging you down with tons of weapon types, there are only six: katana, axe, kusarigama, spear, dual-swords, and tonfa. As well as three ranged types: bow, rifle, hand cannon. Each weapon type is wholly different, but true differentiation comes from the fact that there are countless variations of each type of weapon as well as the ability to manipulate, reforge, and evolve them. The speed and style of combat is contingent on numerous factors. You have to account for weapon type, weapon stance (low, mid, high), armor weight, magic and ninja enhancements, natural weapon enhancements/buffs, learned skills/techniques, and you can forge your own buffs into weapons. All while also considering your character’s build. The thing I really like is that the game forces you to take the time to “master” all six weapon types to get maximum character bonuses. This allowed me to find which type of weapon actually works the best for my style of play. You also get to carry two main weapons and two ranged weapons which can be hot swapped at any time. While it’s easy to settle into a specific weapon type, you are still constantly honing and evolving your use of any weapon type as you learn new techniques, magical enhancements, and acquire different/better versions of a weapon type. Combat is never really mastered, so much as it slows down in its evolution.

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Economy

The Souls franchise, spanning all the way back to the original Demon’s Souls (2009), takes its name from the fact that the one and only currency available in the game is souls. You use them to level up, buy things, and upgrade gear. This system works because it’s simple. With a single currency to do everything, you don’t have to worry about exchange rates, what resource to focus on accumulating, or how to manage and distribute your rewards. You have one thing for everything all the time. The problem with this system is that when you die, and fail to reclaim your souls, you are royally screwed. You lose your progress towards everything you’re working towards all at the same time. That level up, those upgrades, that new weapon. It’s all gone in one foul swoop. Realizing this, Nioh went a different way.

Nioh has two currencies, amrita and gold. Amrita is the equivalent of souls but it can only be used to level up. Its sole purpose is to make you physically more capable. Gold is used for everything else. Buying items, selling items, upgrading gear, forging new gear, and pretty much everything else is done with gold. It’s the currency of the game. Amrita is simply the currency of your character’s development. In most games, xp is permanent while gold can be lost/stolen. In Nioh, it’s the reverse.  Just like with Dark Souls, you can lose your amrita when you die and fail to return to your corpse. But your gold is permanent until you spend it.

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What’s nice is that you get both gold and amrita from killing enemies, just at different rates. You can also choose to trade gear for either gold or amrita, depending on what you want. This is why I find this system superior. The player is given a choice in how to prioritize their loot. If you don’t want to level up but want better gear, you can choose to focus on amassing gold. If you want to level up, you focus on amassing amrita. And in the late game this becomes key because leveling up becomes way slower than improving your gear with crafting and upgrades.

There is technically a third currency called glory, which you get from fighting revenants, but it’s not as useful and it’s not required to get through the game. I honestly didn’t use it at all except to buy character transformations, which I’ll address in the appearance section.

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Multiplayer

One of the main selling points of Demon’s Souls, and by extension Dark Souls, was the multiplayer interactions. This includes co-op, PVP, and communication through hints. I have to say that both games franchises/games get a little right and a lot wrong, but in different ways. The worst part about PVP in Dark Souls is that it’s never by choice for the victim of invasion. You can be playing the game with no interest in fighting or even interacting with other players, soon to reach the next bonfire, only to be invaded and often killed by no fault of your own. One of the worst things in the game(s) is that there are invasion hot spots where you literally can’t progress forward because you can be back to back invaded by the same player who’s already proven to be stronger than you. One of the only ways around this is to play offline, but then you lose the ability to summon help, so it leaves you in a catch 22. Nioh doesn’t have this problem.

There is no invasion in Nioh. You never have to fight against anyone you don’t choose to. If you want a PVP match you have to go into the PVP lobby and create/find a match. That’s how it should be. But the regular game is not devoid of special interactions against other players, or at least a version of them. The revenant system is the bridge that connects PVP and PVE. When you die, you leave a corpse. It has your gear, traits, fighting style, and abilities. When other people play through a level, they can see your corpse and choose to challenge it in a duel. If they can defeat it, they get some gear matching the gear you were wearing when you died in that spot. You don’t actually lose any of your gear. What’s great about this system is you can see the level and class of gear of the corpse before battling it so you can decide which fights are worth your time as well as moderate how difficult these opponents are. This allows you to have the PVP experience and rewards without actually having to be bothered by other people or wait for them to be online in order to get rewards from fighting them. And the revenants are different from each other. They have different gear and use different tactics based on the player they’re derived from. Some use magic, some fight more conservatively, some are terribly easy even when they’re a much higher level. It’s a great system that allows everyone to have the encounters they want without negatively affecting those of other players in the process. And just to spice it up a bit, there are moments in the game where revenants are summoned automatically, similar to the bell ringing maidens in Bloodborne. In key areas there are sages playing a Japanese guitar like instrument. This automatically summons any revenant you get too close to within the vicinity of the music. Once you’ve killed the sage, the automatic summoning ceases. What’s really nice is that once the sages are killed they’re dead for good even after you die and respawn.

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Communication between disconnected players is an important part of both Dark Souls and Nioh, but it’s done in completely different ways. In Dark Souls you can leave messages for other players. This is a nice system, but it’s also annoying for everyone involved. As a person leaving a message you have to choose the best spot to leave it so that people will see it. You have to piece together a message with sentence fragments because you aren’t given the ability to just write whatever you want, which is a good thing. Even after all that work people still might not notice or take the time to read your message. And even if they do read your message, if they don’t up-vote it the message will eventually disappear no matter how useful it actually may have been. The person reading the message has to find it, actively read it, interpret the piecemeal language in the context of the current setting, and up-vote it to make sure it doesn’t disappear for other players. Very few people actually want to go through any of this trouble. Not to mention that it’s extremely difficult to leave helpful messages to players that also have to be located in places they will actually see. In reality, the only information players absolutely need in a Soulslike game is how other players died. Missing a chest sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. And if you really want to find all the items, you’ll use an online walkthrough. The only information that will truly affect players is knowing what’s coming to kill them. So Nioh focuses only on conveying information about deaths between players directly. This is also done through the revenant system and it’s way more convenient than the messaging in Dark Souls. When you die and leave a corpse/revenant, players can also see how you died. It’s easy because there aren’t even any commands needed unless you actually want to fight a revenant. Just walking near their corpses instantly tells players how they died, what level they were when they died, and the gear they were carrying. And that’s really all the information you need. Being able to see how other players died gives you a clear hint about what’s coming up to try and kill you so you can be ready.

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Clans are similar to Covenants in Dark Souls

I would say neither Nioh nor Dark Souls handles coop matchmaking well. Both do certain things well, but both also have fundamental flaws to their systems which make things terribly inconvenient for the player(s). Dark Souls has the more convenient summoning system in that you can at any time drop a sign in any location and other players can summon you. You can summon up to three people, which is really convenient. It’s a nice system because you can be playing the game and farming while waiting to be summoned. The hitch is that you can only summon people when you’re alive, which requires using an item or helping someone else beat a boss. Overall thissystem makes it so you never have to waste any time while waiting to get summoned by other people. Nioh fails in this regard. To play coop as the summoner, you can only summon people from in level shrines, which are the equivalent of bonfires. There are two to four per a stage. There is no alive or dead system in Nioh, which is a good thing, but summoning requires single use items, which you find as loot from killing enemies. You can carry up to 99 of these at a time, which is nice, but they are not easy to find early on in the game. So you have struggle alone early on if you actually want/need summons to move forward. Personally, I think Nioh is easier than Dark Souls and I didn’t summon anyone to beat the main story. This was not the case for Dark Souls I & II or Bloodborne for me. What’s really annoying about the system in Nioh is that you have to do it at a shrine, meaning you have to reset all the enemies you’ve already cleared to summon someone and you can’t summon from the boss door like you can in Dark Souls. But thankfully you can go back to shrines while a summon is active, refilling all yours and their health and items. Being summoned is even more inconvenient in Nioh. You can’t just drop a sign or ring a bell and go on with your day until summoned. You have to go to a menu on the world map and enter a summoning lobby. You then have to wait until you’re summoned to play in a stage. On the flip side, you can set parameters for summons such as which stage you’d liked to be summoned to and difficulty level. But if no one wants to summon then you just sit and wait rather than farming while you’re waiting. And you can be rejected by players once summoned, which might happen for various reasons.

What I find superior about summoning in Nioh compared to both Dark Souls and Bloodborne is that there are no level caps or level scaling. If you are on the first stage as a level 5 and you want to summon a friend who is level 150 and has already beaten the game, you can do that. If you want to bring in a high level player to stomp the boss for you, the game doesn’t scale them down to your level. It lets them play to the full extent of their power and abilities. And that’s how it should be. If you want to earn it, that should be your choice as the player. If you want your friends to help you, then that should be your choice as well. But you can only summon one player in Nioh as opposed to three in Dark Souls.

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Level Structure

Dark Souls and Bloodborne are full open world games where you make your way across the land finding bonfires or lanterns along the way, which can then be used as warp points. There isn’t really a right way to go, but you have to figure out where to go to move forward in the story. I find the system inconvenient because you have no real direction. Many people enjoy this style of play because they like feeling in control, but I find it a large waste of my time for games like this. Nioh is broken into missions. There is a world map with clearly defined main missions and sub-missions. Each individual mission is a contained open world that you can freely explore within the confines of, but there is an entrance. The only way out is by completing the mission objective, which is usually but not always to defeat a specific enemy, usually a boss. I prefer this system. The game has the same level of stress as any other Soulslike game while you’re in the thick of it, but you don’t always have to be in the thick of it. There is structure and clearly defined goals. You can skip sub-missions or play them all. You don’t accidentally miss bonus bosses before beating the game. You control everything because it’s all clearly laid out on a world map. This also makes organizing your matchmaking easier, even though the system in general is inferior, because you don’t have to deal with the trying to put your spot down in the right area problem you get in Dark Souls. You can handle all of that from the world map.

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Character Development

Character development at base level is similar between Dark Souls and Nioh. In Dark Souls you have nine stats that can be advanced one at a time in exchange for souls. In Nioh you have eight. These stats improve certain specific features of your character and make them better able to handle certain weapons, armor, skills, and general performance. It’s the same system. But the gear development and aesthetics systems are much more robust and user friendly in Nioh.

Developing weapons in Dark Souls is done by going to a black smith and trading materials and souls to level up a weapon. You can slightly differentiate the development of weapons by using different materials to take new development paths. The weapon’s performance is based solely on stats depending on the development paths you’ve taken with the specific weapon. In Nioh, you don’t level up weapons until the end game/NG+ when you get divine weapons, but that’s not relevant to a first play through. Weapons are split into five categories based on rarity (color in menu) which kind of translates to potential. The same is true for armor in all respects except familiarity, which I’ll explain. You can get the same piece of gear at any of the five rarity types. The rarity level defines how many natural enhancements it has and its maximum familiarity potential. Familiarity is essentially how much the attack stat on any weapon can increase with use. The highest possible familiarity is 999, but this is only available on divine items after beating the final main story missions. During the first playthrough, 900 is the maximum possible familiarity. So your goal is to get purple, the rarest type, rarity gear for all your items because it offers the highest familiarity bonus for weapons and the most natural enhancements on gear. Natural enhancements can be anything. Sometimes it’s more damage against certain enemy types. Sometimes it’s higher amrita (souls) yields. It can be resistance to certain types of damage or increased damage of a certain type. Even lower weight and blacksmith costs can appear as a gear enhancement. So even when you find a rare item with high starting stats, it might not be the enhancements that work best for you. That’s OK in Nioh though because you have the ability to reforge and evolve items. Gear can be broken down and crafted into new things. Gear can be absorbed into other gear to make it stronger, or weaker if you combine something stupid. You can even forge new stats into gear.

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In Dark Souls you don’t really have techniques. You have gear of various types and stats. But fighting is focused on the technical aspects of using that gear and applying it to the combat situation you’re in. There are heavy and light attacks and some charge moves, but that about does it for what you can do. Nioh has specialty techniques that you develop with special points in either samurai, ninja, or mage categories. These techniques can be specific combos, buffs, spells, specialty items, and specific moves. Many of them are tied to specific stances within specific weapon types. You can get really technical in this game if you want to and mastering certain techniques can make all the difference.

Appearance

Nioh has one the best appearance systems I’ve seen in any Soulslike game ever, and it doesn’t even have a character creator. Dark Souls lets you create your character, but you are stuck looking like whatever armor you are wearing, regardless of how bad it looks. It the problem of so many RPGs. Your best stuff doesn’t look cool and your cool stuff doesn’t perform the best. Nioh gets around this by letting you refashion gear. Any piece of gear you find can be skinned over to look like any other piece of gear regardless of what it is. Some gear looks awesome and some gear looks like trash. But with refashioning you just spend a modest amount of gold (modest for the end-game anyway) and you can make that awesome piece of gear look like whatever gear set you like. In my case I use the best mid-weight gear I have but I refashioned it to look like the DLC gold set, because I’m a sucker for shiny gold gear. I have the performance I need to succeed, and I shine while doing it. You can refashion weapons as well. Some weapons look so cool with elaborate designs and paint jobs, while others are boring and devoid of color. But appearance has nothing to do with performance. That’s why the refashioning system is so important.

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Nioh may let you customize your gear to look however you want, but you can’t create your own character. You play as William, a British white man with blonde hair. The only customization you have for him is his hair style. But what is nice is that you can get transformations. As mentioned previously, there is a third currency called glory. You can only get this from killing revenants. It can be used to buy special crafting materials, but what it’s most useful for is buying transformations. You have the ability to transform William into any character you meet in the game. That includes villains you face and female characters. You just buy the transformations with glory and you can change your appearance an unlimited number of times to whatever transformations you own.  Transformations do not affect gameplay or stats. It’s a nice way to let players look the way they want to in case you get tired of being a blonde white man running around killing monsters in Japan. For instance, I like being a Black Samurai, based on a historical character you duel later in the game.

End-Game

Both Nioh and Dark Souls have NG+ modes, but what’s nice about Nioh is that it has actual end-game content that takes place within your first playthrough. Defeating the final story stage unlocks several bonus sub-missions as well as more story that connects into the DLC. You also get a new class of items after you complete the final level, which can be used for this end-game content before you start a NG+ run. I will probably never play NG+ but I still have several hours of play to look forward to in Nioh before I put it on the shelf for good. I have never played past beating the final boss in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, because I simply had no reason to and have no interest in replaying the same game.

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What’s nice about the NG+ though is that it’s directly connected to your original playthrough. It’s not even called NG+. It’s referred to as “Way of the Strong”. From the world map you can switch between normal play and NG+ play from the same file as often as you like. The NG+ levels are the same stages with higher difficulty and better rewards but you don’t have to have a completely separate playthrough from your original. This is nice because it allows you grind with better yields or in normal difficulty at the same time, taking advantage of either depending on what your goals/needs are. And the DLC content is attached in the same way so you can always jump around to play whatever you want at any time. This is made possible because of the level based structure mentioned previously. So while I don’t see myself finishing NG+, I may very well run a few stages for better gear that I can then use to complete the end-game missions and DLC. It’s the best of all worlds.

I want to be clear in saying that I am not arguing that Nioh is superior to Dark Souls. I am arguing that Nioh is not a clone of Dark Souls. It’s part of the Soulslike genre which started with Demon’s Souls, but it is an original game with considerably different design choices, aesthetic, and gameplay. As with any two franchises or even just individual games, there are both good and bad things about both Nioh and Dark Souls and there’s no reason to ignore one simply because it’s not the other. If you haven’t played Nioh but you do play Dark Souls then I highly encourage you to try it out. Especially with the sequel on the way.

 

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Ant-Man & the Wasp Review – 7/10

I really liked the first Ant-Man (2015). It’s a very small, pun not intended, very personal story about a man just trying to do right by his kid while also trying to do the right thing and be the hero his kid wants him to be. And I think the story is made even stronger by the fact that he, Scott Lang, is ultimately recruited by Hank Pym, because he’s literally in the exact same situation. In a lot of ways it’s a story about fathers trying to give their daughters the lives they deserve. It’s not a huge plot with a super villain that’s threatening the whole world. The antagonist is just a scientist trying to make a name for himself with a technology that if put in the wrong hands could have terrible consequences. And yes it could end up changing the world, but the narrative keeps the story very enclosed within San Francisco to a small number of people. But that’s not what I wanted from the sequel.

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Ant-Man & the Wasp is set about two years after Captain America 3: Civil War and at the same time as Avengers: Infinity War, which Ant-Man does not appear in. In fact, it’s not until the very end of Ant-Man & the Wasp that they even make reference to Thanos and it’s very clear that’s it’s already too late for Ant-Man to even consider getting involved with that problem. Ant-Man & the Wasp is also a small scale plot with a limited number of players that again centers on the idea of fathers trying to protect and please their daughters. The difference is that in this film, romance, for both fathers from the first film, plays a larger role in the narrative. In many ways I would say this plot is even smaller than the first film. It’s not about trying to protect the world from a certain technology. There’s no evil scientist. Really there’s not even a proper villain. The film plays a lot more like Snatch (2000) where you have a number of different groups all seeking the same object for their own purposes, but none of them are out to do anything particularly good or bad with said object.

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One character, and his cronies, is out to sell the object for profit, but he’s not a super villain or particularly threatening. He doesn’t even really hurt anyone. He just wants the money. And at the beginning of the film he sincerely offers Team Ant-Man the chance to work together with him for profit, but they say no. The second group, which was sold as the villain in the marketing, is by no means a villain. She has a legitimate problem that is life threatening and she believes that it can only be solved by robbing Team Ant-Man so she’s trying to do that. But she doesn’t have some nefarious end goal and she doesn’t actually want to hurt people. She’s just in a bad situation. Finally, you have Team Ant-Man and they’re just as selfish as everyone else. They have a goal that won’t help anyone outside of Hank and Hope. It’s not going to hurt anyone, but by no means is it heroic or particularly noble. It’s just a self-serving goal that will enrich their personal lives. And it won’t even help Scott. In fact, the entire film is about how Hank and Hope are forcing Scott to help them even though he’s on house arrest with a few days left in his sentence and if he gets caught using the Ant-Man suit or leaving his house he’ll have to go back to prison and lose his daughter. So really the movie isn’t even about Ant-Man being a hero. It’s about Hank and Hope making Ant-Man help them get something they really want.

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The problem with this small, in many ways pointless narrative, is that it takes place after having already seen Captain America 3: Civil War, which is mentioned a number of times, and Avengers: Infinity War. In terms of Ant-Man, I wanted more. This is no longer the ex-convict just trying to get his life back together. This is a man who fought alongside the Avengers, against other Avengers, and lived. This is a man who we believed had escaped with Captain America at the end of Civil War. Not to mention, we’ve already seen Avengers: Infinity War. Who cares about this little vignette about the lives of the Pym family? I expect Ant-Man to be playing at Avengers level now. That doesn’t mean every Ant-Man movie needs to have other Avengers in it, but it does mean that the stories have to really matter. In Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard was destroyed. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the entire universe was saved from a mad celestial trying to replace all life with himself. In Doctor Strange, an infinity stone was revealed and the world was almost plunged into darkness by an evil being from a magical dimension. Ant-Man & the Wasp, which is not a debut film for the main title character, is about the same scale as Spider-Man: Homecoming as far as importance. Except Scott Lang isn’t a high school kid. And even in that Iron Man shows up. This film just under does it in a time where the MCU and the character are way past the kid gloves.

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I don’t want it to seem like the film was badly written, because it wasn’t. It was much funnier than the first one. The acting was great, including that of Michael Peña reprising his role as the over talkative friend. And most importantly, they really leaned into technology in this one. In the first movie, shrinking is used sparingly. It’s an origin film where Scott is just learning how to use it and really it’s under-utilized outside of a few fight sequences and sneaking around. In Ant-Man & the Wasp they use shrinking and growing a ton and it’s great. It was used realistically, as in they actually use it for pretty much all the things you would use it for if you had that technology at your fingertips. My only real complaint about the technology aspect was that way too many malfunctions occurred. It’s fair for a malfunction to happen once, especially at a really crucial moment. But there were multiple scenes where Scott’s suit, and only Scott’s suit, was malfunctioning. This was used for comic relief multiple times. But this is the second movie. By now the bugs should have been ironed out. Especially when they’re doing stuff like shrinking entire buildings and growing ants to the size of people. It just felt very lazy to keep playing the suit not working card over and over.

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As per all MCU films, the movie looked great. The shrinking and growing effects were very clean. The cinematography was solid. The costumes looked good. The sound was fine. I was happy with the soundtrack. It’s by every measureable standard a modern day Marvel film. But it was by no means in the top five or probably even top 10 MCU films. In a lot of ways it felt pointless. It introduced the Wasp and possibly a couple other important reoccurring characters, but the film itself didn’t accomplish much. Like they very well could have sent the Wasp with Ant-Man in Civil War, which is brought up in this film, and it would have accomplished exactly the same thing. Unless they really leverage the two other possibly important characters introduced in future films, this was pretty much the same thing we got in Ant-Man except now he has a partner. Ant-Man & the Wasp is not a bad film, but I could literally tell you everything you need to know about it in one sentence. In a lot of ways it’s one of the only films in the MCU where I could say you could really just skip it and it probably won’t affect the rest of the MCU, or your experience of it, that much.

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Ready Player One Review – 7.3/10

Let me start off this review by clarifying that I never read the book Ready Player One and I have no contextual understanding of how the movie compares to the book. So I’m going to write this review as if the book doesn’t exist or is not relevant to the discussion.

I went into Ready Player One very reluctantly. As I said, I haven’t read the book so I didn’t know what to expect. There was also a ton of hype, which for me is usually a turn off for IPs that I’m not already familiar with. I then read a review of the film from either Kotaku or IGN. I can’t remember but whichever site it was painted the film in a bad light. Or at least that’s how I read it. So I wasn’t very interested or that excited but I agreed to go see it at the behest of a friend. Before we get into the meat and potatoes, let me state very clearly that it was an enjoyable film that I’m glad I watched, but that’s only because of who I am or more specifically the things I’m interested in.

lead_960_540If I was to describe Ready Player One in a soft pitch, I would say it’s the 80’s pastiche of films like Back to the Future and the cultural outlook that spawned them, the modern cynicism of the current gaming community induced by greedy corporate interests in the gaming industry, and our hopes and dreams for futuristic technology a la Tron, or more appropriately Tron: Legacy, all mixed together into one dystopian landscape. Yes that’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get to it.

Ready Player One is a simple film. Plot wise it’s just any other good vs evil kid’s story with a dash of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The basic idea is that there’s a kid who comes from humble/poor beginnings and he wants to not be poor anymore. And by kid I mean young person who doesn’t have a real job or any actual responsibilities. The age of the main character, Wade Watts (Parzival) is actually 18, or soon to be, and since he doesn’t seem to be in school, legally speaking that makes him an adult. There’s a contest that can only have one winner, who will be made rich and put in charge of everything the kid cares about. There’s an evil entity (corporation in this case) trying to win the contest and take the prize for themselves. The kid teams up with other kids and they stop the evil corporation and win the contest. It’s Stranger Things. It’s It. It’s Star Wars. You’ve seen it all before. The plot isn’t really why you’re here. Yes this is a Spielberg film, but no it’s not a SPIELBERG film. Outside of effects and costume design, this movie will not be winning any Oscars. And that’s fine. But to be clear, this is no high minded plot about the future of technology. It’s just a kid’s fantasy story set to the backdrop of VR gaming in a world that actually looks like it’s on the horizon with the way things are going politically in the United States currently.

 

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The film was clearly written by a team of nerds who play video games today, but also played them yesterday. This is apparent because the film makes tons of references to games and pop culture going all the way back to the Atari 2600 and all the way to today with references like Overwatch. What I liked a lot about the movie was that it discusses and criticizes the direction the gaming industry has taken/is taking today. There are covert digs at companies like EA, Activision, and Microsoft for their predatory pricing and distribution practices. The movie mentions and complains about practices like in game ads, microtransactions, predatory pricing practices that turn people into gaming addicts and plunge them into debt, pay to play subscription schemes with cost based player rankings, paywalls, and other such modern industry bullshit. In many ways the movie is about an old schooler who created a video game that he thought was perfect, complaining about all the modern practices that turned his video game and gaming culture as a whole into the trashy money pit that it is today. This is very apparent in the fact that the villains aren’t actually evil in the traditional sense. They’re just a corporation trying to maximize profits at the expense of the public’s wellbeing and enjoyment. And while yes they are doing things that are extremely unethical, in most cases, just about everything they do is entirely legal by the standards of the world of the universe they’re located in. And sadly legal by our real life standards as well, for the most part. It’s not until way late into the movie when the stakes get super high that the “bad” CEO finally approves something blatantly evil and illegal. But even that was very believable by today’s standards.

As previously stated, there are tons of references to gaming culture of all types, but there are also tons of references to 80’s culture. This for me was kind of problematic. Now as a person who was born in 89, I enjoyed and appreciated literally every reference. I can say confidently that I probably got at least 90% of all references in the movie. And not just the gaming ones. There’s all kinds of stuff mentioned or shown in this film. Batman, Mortal Kombat, The Shining, Back to the Future, King Kong, Gundam, Godzilla, and the list goes on and on and on. But here’s the weird part. The gaming references span basically all of gaming history from the Atari 2600 all the way to today. You see tons of gaming stuff and you will know at least some of it. They even mention Twitch. But all the pop culture references outside of gaming seem to only span from about 1979 – 1999, with the latest overt reference being The Iron Giant (1999).

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Understand that this is a world set in 2045 where there’s a fully functioning VR world where you can literally create anything you want and be anything you want. As you can imagine, most people would not be original. They would just be copying things they know from their favorite IPs. The movie actually goes out of its way to pretend that this wouldn’t be the case. There are lots of avatars that are pulled right out of other stuff like people walking around looking like Arkham Harley Quinn, Tracer, Master Chief, and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, admittedly the newer versions. But for the most part people are pretty original. The bulk of the Avatars you see aren’t from other stuff. We all know that’s not how things would actually be because most people lack originality. I assume part of this was licensing issues and part of it was just that it would be boring if everything was something you’d already seen even if that’s how it would actually end up being. But my point is the scope of history referenced outside of gaming is extremely limited. It’s 2018. The main character was born in 2027. The movie starts in 2045. Why doesn’t the film reference anything past 1999? It’s odd. It’s made even more odd by the fact that the kid was born in 2027 because he knows way too much about the 80’s while also being an active member of his current society at only 18 years old.

Now the movie tries to justify this by saying that in his research to win the contest he had to study the 80’s intimately because the creator of the contest loved 80’s stuff. But the creator of the contest lived into the 2020’s or later. So the idea that he didn’t like or care about anything after 1999 is odd. It’s as if pop culture history stopped existing outside of video games for 30 straight years. Since we’re in 2018 now, we know this not to be true. Where are the Marvel references? Where are the 30 years of film history references? Where are all the anime references past the original Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)? Where’s Harry Potter? It’s weird that these kids seem to only like 80’s stuff as if literally nothing past the year 2000 outside of video games was interesting to a group of kids born after the year 2020. Even most kids today don’t know what an Atari 2600 is. Yet this kid somehow had time to learn intimate knowledge of all 470 (including homebrews) Atari 2600 games while keeping up with his own contemporary pop culture, but literally nothing else? That seems unrealistic.

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Now of course part of this comes from the fact that the book was written in 2011 by an author who was born in 1972. But we’re talking about a movie released in 2018. I would expect producers to have taken the time to fill in some history for the purposes of film making and reaching a larger audience. You know, to make money. For me, this closed bubble of history was fun because again, I was born in 89 and I like 80’s stuff. So I got and appreciated all the references. But a kid born in say 2002, who today would be about 16, won’t get most of it. Sadly they might not even recognize the car, which is the DeLorean. But that’s not their fault. They were born 12 years after the last time the DeLorean mattered (Back to the Future III) and 19 years after the original DeLorean went out of production. Of course they wouldn’t know what a DeLorean is. My point, which I’ve gone on for too long to make, is that the writing in this movie overall is just ok, that is to say at the caliber of 80’s mainstream film making. Things are done lazily when it comes to plot. There are inconsistencies in how history works. The main character falls in love way too fast, which I was glad the film took the time to address in the dialog. It’s just not a movie you should go see for plot. Unless of course you enjoy campy 80’s style plots. Then by all means.

Visually speaking, Ready Player One was phenomenal. That is the only word that can be used to describe The Oasis, the VR world that the bulk of the film takes place in. The idea is that the real world is so shitty that everyone, and I mean everyone, spends the bulk of their time in The Oasis. Again, very realistic based on the current trajectory of the United States. The whole of the movie takes place in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio. Even by today’s standards most people wouldn’t want to watch a move that takes place in Columbus, Ohio. People from Columbus, Ohio don’t even want to watch a movie that takes place in Columbus, Ohio. So it made all the sense in the world to set the movie there because then you wouldn’t think to yourself “Why don’t they spend more time showing me the real world?” Not once do you think that while watching this movie. In fact, the 20 or so real world minutes of this 2 hour and 19 minute film was probably too much time spent in real world Columbus, Ohio. But The Oasis was the most amazing thing ever, visually speaking.

RP1-ColumbusI almost went to see this movie in IMAX and I’m glad I didn’t because I think my head would have exploded. The race scene, which was probably my favorite scene in the whole movie, was insane. It was the way racing games will hopefully work one day. I would say the same thing for the FPS world scene. I hate online PVP games. I would absolutely play them if they looked and played like they do in this movie. When you watch this movie as a gamer, it almost brings tears to your eyes because you realize what we don’t have yet and that you might not live long enough to see it happen but know full well that one day it will. I was so overcome with disappointment when I got home from the theater and turned on my PS4. Because it just doesn’t compare. Our VR today is crap. I’ve said that so many times before I ever even heard about Ready Player One. And they actually do make an HTC VIVE reference in the movie, which I thought was cute. But once you watch the movie you start to really think about just how crappy current VR is . . . and make no mistake, it is crappy. It is a gorgeous movie. There’s tons of stuff happening on screen at the same time and it’s hard to keep track of it all, but it’s beautiful. And the war scene towards the end will break a gamer’s heart. Not because it looks cool, even though it does. But because as a gamer, you know that the community today is too greedy, toxic, and narcissistic to actually pull off something like what happens in that scene. The movie basically shows you the fantasy of every true gamer, but you know it would never happen that way in real life. I’m speaking vaguely here because I don’t want to spoil it.

The sound was also really good. I actually could see this movie winning an Oscar for sound editing. My girlfriend said the movie was too loud for her because of all the explosions and crazy stuff happening on screen at the same time. I thought it was awesome.

 

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Overall I really enjoyed the movie. I didn’t think I would going in, but it was just a really fun time. My girlfriend said she didn’t get more than a third of the references but she really enjoyed it too. It’s not a movie to go watch for expert film making and award winning acting. It’s just a playful homage to gaming culture and history written for actual gamers who grew up playing proper games and are now having to deal with the fact that things have gotten rather disappointing and expensive in exchange for considerably better graphics, but actually not that great by comparison to future VR prospects. If you’re a gamer and you started before the XBOX, you’ll love the movie. If you’re not a gamer and you didn’t grow up in the 80’s or 90’s, you probably won’t like it or even totally understand why anything happening is important.

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