Every Game I Played in 2016

There’s been a lot of praise for the games of 2016. Something I can’t really find myself agreeing with. I can only really think of one game that blew me away this year, The Last Guardian. It doesn’t compare to last year, which had both Undertale and Bloodborne as two of, in my opinion the greatest games of all time. Though it wasn’t a bad year… for games, I could think of worse years. It’s unfair to expect every year to reach that quality of last year, but a lot of games that seemed interesting just sort of bored me. I’ll go through every game that I played which launched this year and give you my opinion on them in the order I played them.

Firewatch

First game I played of the year and it was okay. One of the more interesting “walking simulators” I felt like it was mostly comprised of a few interesting ideas which it fails to follow up on. Specifically the small example of choice via gameplay when you encounter the girls in the lake there’s a few actions you can take like throwing the stereo in the lake, but that’s pretty much the only example of that kind of choice. The interaction between the two characters whose names I’ve forgotten was good enough and the method of dialogue choice was natural enough. The exploration was alright if you turn off the player marker on the map, but there’s not much reason to explore anywhere other than where the story directs you to, which makes the world feel less natural. It’s okay all it really needed to do was expand on its more interesting ideas.

Miitomo

This was a pretty funny time waster for a day or two, but it’s just a limited idea so it just doesn’t work beyond the very short lived time it was popular for.

Dark Souls III

The first really good game of the year. I’m a huge fan of From Software’s Souls games and Dark Souls III is a respectable entry in a series of masterpieces. Though it doesn’t even compare to Bloodborne or Dark Souls I, it should be praise to how good those games are that DS3 is still an amazing game itself. I found Dark Souls II fairly lacking, but III drops most of the mistakes of it’s predecessor, with great interconnected level design returning being a big point for me. In general I just haven’t been a fan of the lore of the Dark Souls sequels, particularly the cycles idea. Dark Souls III did end up relying on fanservice quite a bit which is used both effectively and not so much, I just found myself taking the story elements less seriously. One of the most effective uses of fan service, though, is Siegward of Catarina, a character resembling Siegmeyer from the first Dark Souls, a bumbling but loveable knight in onion like armour. In the original Dark Souls we end up helping him in his quest whenever as he is constantly in trouble, Dark Souls III completely subverts this by having a character who we end up relying on, he charges into battle to help you. That quest-line is the most memorable thing from Dark Souls III to me.

Ratchet and Clank

I loved the Ratchet and Clank games on PS2, so a reimagining of the original was something I was definitely going to get. It’s alright, I honestly haven’t found it to be that memorable I almost forgot it for this list, but it is fun enough for what it is. Nothing crazy just an alright game.

VA-11 HALL-11: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

This game quickly caught my attention out of nowhere and I found it fairly entertaining for a while but it failed to keep my attention because of the lack on interaction. It is a visual novel, I found the characters to be pretty interesting, I appreciated the setting, but I was expecting something more like Papers, Please. Probably my own fault for expecting that, if you like visual novels you’ll probably really like this. This Matthewmatosis video explains my own opinion on the game similarly.

Enter The Gungeon

I didn’t like it. I guess that style of rogue-like where you don’t keep any progress across deaths is not for me.¬† Though, I did find the actual shooting base gameplay to be fun. What especially annoys me is the randomized bosses which means you can’t focus on learning the boss attack patterns as you probably wont get that boss for another few attempts, the same issue I had with The Binding of Isaac. Many attempts just feel like a waste of time and not very satisfying.

Pokemon Go

I tried going out and catching some Pokemon a few times, it was really buggy and than I stopped being interested. It had a lot of potential, but the lack of trading and an actual battle system meant it ended up being something I just stopped caring about.

Pokemon Sun

This is a good game. I was very disappointed with Pokemon X and Y, but this makes up for them and more. The setting is great, especially how it uses the theme of evolution in isolation in it’s Alola form Pokemon and in the designs of many new Pokemon. Team Skull are entertaining and actually have realistic motivations. Though it is quite cutscene heavy and starts off really slow, it’s my favourite Pokemon game since Black and White.

The Last Guardian

I’ve already written about this. My game of the year.

Overwatch

I was late to overwatch, mainly because I was waiting until I could build a gaming PC. I got to it by the end of the year and yeah, it is really fun. It’s great how streamlined and accessible it is, it feels good to play. I’m finding Overwatch is really capturing my attention right now. I’m not really a fan of the lore, though. It takes itself way too seriously, even when I saw the CGI reveal trailer that everyone was wanking over I found it a little embarrassing. Compare Overwatch lore to TF2’s lore which realises it’s a dumb game about shooting people the same people and dying, so it makes its lore acknowledge why the same people are killing each other over and over again. Of course this doesn’t really matter because the game is still really fun, so who cares?

Dishonored 2

I’ve been slowly making my way through Dishonored 2. Not near finishing it but I have enjoyed it so far. The setting and level design really stands out to me. I just reached the Clockwork Mansion and the design is amazing, it feels exactly how it should, like the mad creation of a insane genius. I don’t think the stealth is amazing but it serves its purpose and makes the game very tense. Combined with the dark atmosphere the game is very imposing. The main story hasn’t been interesting so far, it starts with an interesting idea of the crown killer which has a lot of mystery and implications behind it, but that’s immediately overshadowed by an extremely similar set up to Dishonored 1 and then quickly wrapped up in the first mission. I just don’t find the plight of restoring a monarchy to be interesting, but everything else about the world, the lore, the characters, the world itself is incredibly interesting.

SUPERHOT

Didn’t like it. Not entirely sure why, I just found it boring. A neat idea but the levels felt very much based on trial and error and not much else. Not for me.

Event[0]

Game Maker’s Toolkit convinced me to try this one out and it is a really good idea. I enjoyed it a lot. The many mysteries here drew me in, who are these characters? How do I leave? Should I trust the AI, Kaizen? The interactions with the AI were entertaining and even when it didn’t understand what I was saying it still made sense in the context of the setting as it would seem like the AI is malfunctioning or purposefully trying to change the subject and avoid what I am saying. It was lacking in puzzle design but I still found what was there to be very entertaining, maybe there should have been just a little bit more to it.

Drawful 2

Crazily good party game, funny, clever and creative. I got this out on Christmas and New Years Eve and everyone had a good time. Way better than monopoly.

Fibbage XL

Similar to Drawful funny game of improvisation. A good party game, but I prefer Drawful.

My favourite games of the year are, The Last Guardian, Dark Souls III, Overwatch, Event [0] and Pokemon Sun. Dishonored 2 might be up there when I play more of it. In 2017 I’ll mostly be looking out for The Nintendo Switch, Zelda and Red Dead Redemption 2 (if it actually comes out in 2017)

Have a great year!

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Thoughts on The Last Guardian

Spoilers below.

Obviously, The Last Guardian is a game I’ve been waiting for. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Team Ico and Fumito Ueda’s previous work, with Shadow of the Colossus being one of my all time favourites. Obviously, The Last Guardian is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me, so it’ll be no surprise to find out that I really liked the game and it’s definitely my game of the year.

What really makes The Last Guardian is the many little moments scattered throughout. One of the earliest points where I realized I was going to like this game was just after I solved a puzzle, standing outside with Trico, who goes into a shallow pool of water and rolls around in it. The boy laughs “I thought you didn’t like water” I go up to stroke Trico, before continuing onwards. This is a slow paced game, a very slow paced game. If you rush through this you will miss all the important little character moments, the tiny pieces of foreshadowing. If you don’t stop and smell the roses, then there’s really not much to the game at all. This obviously means that this game wont appeal to many people who play games for very different reasons, but I don’t think that makes the game any less valuable.

In most respects The Last Guardian is more of a successor to Ico than it is Shadow of the Colossus, following on with the puzzle solving, character escorting, and exploration of a linear space, that made Ico so unique at the time. Trico is a large creature which the player will need to climb at various points, so there’s the big parallel with Shadow of the colossus. All 3 games explore the connection between the protagonist and another prevalent character, who you often rely on and explore the game with. The Last Guardian is the most prevalent and best example of this so far. Despite it being more comparable to Ico I think this is an element in which Shadow is more relevant. In Ico Yorda, was the ghostly girl we assisted through the world, but most of the time it was us helping her, occasionally she’d help us up or open a door for us, but we solved the puzzles, it’s only right at the end where she saves us in a major way. Shadow has a more mutual relationship, imagine travelling The Forbidden Lands without your horse, Agro. There’s even a few colossus that are unbeatable without her assistance.

The Last Guardian goes a step even further, in what I would call “interactive character development” Starting the relationship with an aggressive, chained up Trico, who will even attack the player and ending up with a Trico who whimpers when we’re not in sight. One of my favourite moments, towards the end, sees the player stormed by an army of knights, while Trico is held back by a stained glass eye which, throughout the whole game Trico has been in fear of, not being able to go near. Seeing us in an unhelpable situation he overcomes the fear jumping in to save us.

All of the puzzles in the game serve the purpose of furthering this relationship, they often aren’t complex, but they involve working with Trico or achieving some task that will help Trico and that’s what really sells the bond between these two characters, the interactivity of the relationship. Ueda knows, arguably better than any other, how to use the medium of games to tell a story.

One of the places where this bond really comes through is the combat. Here we see a major parallel with Ico. Where Yorda was captured by shadow creatures who would try to drag her away, the player had to beat them with a big stick to fend them off. In The Last Guardian the roles are reversed, kind of. Trico, will be doing most of the fighting, and enemies will attempt to pick you up and drag you away, but we’re not completely helpless. While the combat in Ico recieved many complaints. (I thought it was serviceable, but definitely felt out of place, and too “gamey”). The combat encounters in The Last Guardian are very interesting, they make sense, why would I be taking on these enemies when I have giant monster besides me. The most this little kid could be is a distraction, keep yourself safe while Trico deals with them, your role afterwards is to calm Trico down and remove any spears. Despite this less dominant role I still found the combat very engaging and enjoyable. It does shake itself up every now and again, which makes it feel more relevant and never like it’s just been inserted because it’s a video game and “video game need combat”. The combat furthers the relationship between the boy and Trico while remaining enjoyable and varied. The most memorable encounter for me was when two knights were holding up stained glass eye shields, preventing Trico from entering the area. The player has to go on ahead, alone. Taking on the knights without Trico’s help, you feel weak, but all you need to do is knock the shielded knights off the edge they’re standing by. It’s a challenge since there are more knights chasing after you, but it really drills into you just how important Trico is. It isn’t a mere NPC for us to escort, in fact sometimes you feel like the NPC being escorted. Trico is more than that, he is a companion, a friend.

I shouldn’t need to tell you about how impressive the animation work is, or how Trico acts like a real pet, it’s there, you can see it for yourself. I can tell you how by the end of the game I felt so attached to Trico that I did not want my this character to die. Often I might be expecting a character to die in a game, or sometimes even criticising a game for avoiding killing off a character when it makes sense to do so. Towards the end I might have thought Trico’s death was coming, I might have known it would be very impactful, but I didn’t care, I did not want that to happen.

Unfortunately I think the pacing does mess up towards the end. There are several climactic moments in the last 2-3 hours that are just broken up with menial moments of linear exploration, many of which don’t really involve many puzzles. I think it would have been far more appropriate to cut out the slower moments between the climatic final moments, such as Trico flying and the fight with the other beast, in particular I felt like the moments after you revive Trico, which lead to the ending, felt dragged out and unnecessary.

It’s a shame, because I didn’t enjoy the ending battle too much either. I felt like bringing in many other beasts distracted from the rivalry that had been built up between the two earlier, which should have came to a climatic fight. Instead Trico just gets beaten up helplessly, which makes the situation feel desperate until you realize you can just sort of sit around and nothing really happens, which really kills the tension. It would have been more believable to have Trico fight back and dodge, even if he is still clearly being over powered and can not overcome the enemy himself, it would make the scene far easier to believe over the time it takes to save Trico.

Shadow of the Colossus has probably my favourite ending of any game. One thing you’ll notice happening in all of Ueda’s endings is the protagonist fainting at some point, it’s the perfect excuse to take control away from the character in a way that make sense. The Last Guardian follows through with this, again. I was hoping for something more like Shadow of the Colossus where you’re given control over very important parts of the ending, even if you’re destined to the same fate every time and nothing you can do will change that. Though, The Last Guardian does set up something very different from the themes of Shadow’s ending, and I still found the its ending cutscene very effective, very powerful and it made sense. Requiring the player to call Trico to leave is a great choice too, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 3’s ending.

I would say The Last Guardian is a huge leap over Ico, but there is one thing in comparison to Ico that quite disappointed me, the level design. Ico has a more interconnected level design, similar to what is often seen is the Souls games now. I understand this isn’t so important to some people, but it’s something I really appreciate as it makes the setting feel more real and allows me to enjoy exportation far more. There are a few example of you returning to older locations but these pretty much only happen through scripted moments when intended by the games.

Sorry if the last few parts have been to negative, I have complaints about the game, but it is certainly my favourite game of 2016 and I will not soon forget it. Especially one part in particular, one part that I think my be my favourite moment in any game, ever.

The part when you’re separated from Trico, after he dives. Following a similar story beat in Ico. You would expect this to be a sad moment where you struggle without your partner, but that’s only part of it. You wake up after being separated from Trico. The place you’re in seems a little alien, where what appears to be glowing technological things are around, you may be confused, you might feel out of place or isolated. You go up a creepy elevator shaped like a cage, like something you’d expect to see in Sen’s Fortress in Dark Souls, you know this place probably isn’t safe. The path in front of you has collapsed, Trico would be able to jump that gap, you cannot, you have no choice but to climb across a narrow metal fence, you’re missing Trico right now. You continue climbing your way up crumbled stairs and broken ledges. The silence combined with the few clips lonely of music is reinforces the sense of isolation. You see feathers, is Trico okay? You follow the feathers to find a tail hanging from above, the music becomes somewhat joyful, but by this point you may realise, that’s not your Trico, as you climb the tail the music becomes only a little bit sinister. You jump across to a tree branch it creeks, you get a quick glance at the beast, it’s not Trico. The branch snaps, and the beast notices you. The emotions this scene provokes has already been incredible, but now begins an, intense, stressful escape scene, you can’t beat this thing, you have to run away, right now. Just when you find an elevator, when it’s going up and you’re approaching safety, the beast jumps up and drags you down. You’re helpless, stuck in a cage as it claws at you, there’s nothing to do. Then, a sound, the beast stops, turns around and eventually runs away. You’re safe, but still stuck. After rolling around hopelessly, the game fades to black and then cuts back with the boy waking up, you hear a distant roar, is that Trico? What else do you do but call for him? There’s a small hole in the roof of the cave, where the light of the outside shines in. Trico breaks through, the music is incredibly joyful, Trico is finally back.

Think about the range of emotions this scene takes you through building on the relationships already established in the game, your friendship with Trico and your rivalry with the other beast. It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s lonely, manipulative, stressful, and then joyful finally. I can’t think of a better example of an interactive scene in any game. In any industry filled with power fantasies The Last Guardian is not afraid to disempower you.

Now for a few details of the game and what I thought of them. Needing to clear the symbols off the screen to restart after a failure state is a nice touch, that makes death feel a bit more engaging and is more immersive than a game over screen. Narration was a little unnecessary, I think its only real reason to be there is to give the player hints on what to do, similar to Dormin in Shadow of the Colossus. A hint system that is consistent with the story, it succeeds in doing that. But during many story sections the narrator will just say the obvious when nothing needed to be said at all. The game is already showing, there’s no need to tell. The animation is as stunning as I would expect from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The graphics aren’t mind blowing but the game does look very nice, the way the light shimmers off Trico’s feathers, especially nearer the ending, is perfect.

The Last Guardian is a brilliant game, I’ll probably need some time to think about how much I truly appreciate it. I would say currently I prefer Shadow of the Colossus for its wider achievements, but I’d pick The Last Guardian over Ico, though all 3 games are incredible. It’s the only game I could think of where I was smiling¬† almost all throughout. I’ll praise a game enough for making me smile at certain points, but to have me just smiling during normal gameplay, that takes something special.

 

 

Dark Souls’ Estus Flask: The Best Healing Item

Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, the setting, the exploration, the combat, it all comes together to create a brilliant package. I think one of the many reasons the combat works so well is a pretty simple but ingenious element, the healing system. Dark Souls uses an item called the Estus Flask as its primary method of healing. Not only is it an undead favourite, it’s probably the most important item in the game.

The Estus Flask works like this: you get 5 chugs before it’s fully depleted, dying or resting at a bonfire, the Dark Souls equivalent of checkpoints, refills your uses. There’s a lot more to it than that, such as the kindling system, but we’ll get into that later. These rules are perfect because it means that the player can never get into the situation where they’ve ran out of healing items and need to grind for more. Given the challenging nature of the Souls games the player will likely rely on healing a lot, but often when players run up against a challenge they have a feeling of “just one more try” the fact that you have this reliable healing source means that the flow of playing the game and taking on challenges is never broken by the need to grind for more healing or even the threat of running out. This is especially important for how the bosses work in Dark Souls, it may take several attempts to learn their pattern and finally defeat them, but you can keep going back to confidently fight the boss knowing you will never need to grind.

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Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, the predecessor and successor to Dark Souls respectfully, both have these problems. They both have healing items you pick up throughout the game and attempt to supply you with it regularly, like how potions work in many games, but if you reach a particularly tough section your supply can be easily depleted, creating unnecessary annoyance on top of the challenge you’re already facing. One of my biggest issues with Bloodborne was, despite it releasing after Dark Souls, it had this inferior healing system.

There is another, rather contrasting, problem. If players do grind they can end up with far more healing items then they actually need, making the game easier. This is very possible in Demon’s Souls. The Estus Flask’s limited uses manages to solve this. This combined can create an interesting risk/reward situation in the game, that I’m sure many players have experienced, where if you run out of Estus uses or are close to doing so while in an unknown area you may contemplate whether to go back to the previous bonfire to gain back your Estus uses and try again, or continue in the hope another bonfire maybe be nearby and risk dying.

As the player progresses through the game, you find Fire Keeper Souls, which are used to upgrade your Estus Flask, so that it heals more HP. A pretty standard idea, to keep it relevant as you upgrade your health stat, but it does give you a nice little piece of lore about the fire keepers and you can also choose to kill fire keepers for more if you’re a terrible person, though you will need to keep one alive to upgrade the flask for your awful self.

The Estus Flask, as a game mechanic, manages to fit in with many other mechanics of Dark Souls perfectly. Considering 3 or 4 hits from many enemies can kill you healing regularly when on low health is really going to help get you through an area. Unlike Dark Souls, in many other games you heal by pausing the game, going into a menu and selecting the healing item, which then instantly restores your health. Not only is this unimmersive it can also trivialise combat. Instead the Estus Flask can be used by the press of a button during real time gameplay, but most importantly, much like every attack in Dark Souls it has its own, fairly lengthy, animation and timing. An element you think would be so simple actually means a lot as it allows healing to fit in as a strategic part of the combat. When fighting an enemy and you’re on low health you will have to prepare for the right opportunity to use the Estus Flask or they will likely punish you during the drinking animation. Meaning healing is not too easy to pull off, but works just like attacking an enemy would in Dark Souls’ combat, something you have to strategically do at the right moment.

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There are other ways to heal in Dark Souls, such as Humanity or Divine Blessing but those are both depletable resources so would generally be used as a last resort. You can also gain use of healing miracles with enough of the faith stat, though magic in general does make the game a lot easier, it’s worth noting that these healing miracles have a pretty long animation time which means it would be very hard to fit them in during combat, and are mostly intended for use in-between combat encounters, so Estus Flask still remains the primary healing source.

Which brings me to a very important mechanic that I’ve avoid until now, the kindling system. It has not appeared in any of the other Souls games, which I think is a shame, because it’s brilliant. The reason I think this is because there’s a lot of debate about whether Souls games should have an “easy mode” and I’m sure I’ll write about that another day, but the short answer is: no. The slightly less short answer is: there are already in-game solutions to make Dark Souls an easier experience. The Kindling system is just one of them. It works like this: throughout the game you collect a resource called Humanity, when resting at a bonfire Humanity can be used to reverse hollowing which enables features such as co-op but most importantly, kindling. Use another Humanity to kindle the bonfire and now you have 10 Estus uses after resting at that bonfire! Doubling your Estus usage makes a huge difference and should enable players to take on challenges they struggled with earlier. This is a far better solution than just having an easy mode, as it relies on an in-game resource and mechanic, meaning it fits into the setting more than just an option in the menu and there must be some kind of sacrifice of resources before kindling, making it a trade-off. Even if Humanity isn’t a particularly rare resource, the “too good to use” factor will make players consider before just kindling every bonfire straight away. If you’re finding a specific area challenging, kindling the bonfire for that area means you just get extra uses from just that bonfire and you can take on any further areas at the default level of challenge (5 Estus uses, unless you have over 5 Estus left over.) Whereas many players would stick to an easy mode even if they have the ability to take on a harder challenge. You also gain the Rite of Kindling later in the game which allows you to further kindle the bonfire for 15 and even 20 uses of the Flask.

For what Dark Souls does, the Estus Flask works perfectly as a healing system. It prevents unnecessary grinding, stops the player from having far more healing than is needed, creates a kind of dynamic difficulty setting and fits in perfectly as an element of Dark Souls’ combat. It’s one of the biggest improvements moving from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls. I can confidently say it’s the best system of healing in any game that I’ve played.

 

 

Okay, so this is the first post I’ve written out on here and feedback or other opinions are always welcome. I’d like to improve my writing, as I don’t think it’s great, but I do hope I’ve put across my ideas successfully. I hope to do more more discussions of game mechanics and also some reviews, but I’ve never ran a blog before so this is entirely new to me! Thanks for reading!