Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Dave Critiques: Tales of Berseria - What it means to play a game that plays itself

Hey hey folks, and welcome to my critique of Tales of Berseria. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there might be spoilers in this video. If you wish to avoid them, please press pause, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

Near the end of Tales of Berseria, Velvet, the main character utters the line “My heart is ugly and full of contradictions”. This is the culmination of her character arc. What started the game as vengeance against Artorious for what happened to her and her brother devolves into more doubt and despair as her actions keep hurting people. As callous as she appears, this is taking a toll on her, and in showing that her quest was all for nothing because her brother willingly sacrificed himself, Innominat, one of the Gods of the world, hopes to drive her despair high enough to be able to feed on it and resurrect, robbing humanity of emotion and thus eradicating all suffering. Velvet’s path of vengeance is not one a hero would take, and it wasn’t until late in the game that it dawned on me that she wouldn’t have a happy ending because it would feel wrong to reward such a character for their actions even if they end up saving the world in the process.

Innominat’s plan, robbing humanity of free will, and Velvet being called The Lord of Calamity, plays into an observation I’ve had about Japanese role playing games for some time. They always seem to boil down to a battle between order and chaos. A band of heroes fighting a God who wants to control humanity for their own good. It’s a fight for free will. When Velvet utters that line about her heart being ugly and full of contradictions, she’s come to realise that the ability to follow her path, no matter the consequences is what makes her human, and that’s not cause for despair. It’s not that she’s ok with all the people she’s hurt in her quest for vengeance, but she acknowledges the full breadth of her emotions. This allows Velvet to grow and us as players to want to follow her story to its conclusion.

The phrase “ugly and full of contradictions”, and the theme of control versus free will are wonderful metaphors for what I wish to talk about in this critique, and that is Tales of Berseria’s battle system. A quick overview is required before I discuss it in more abstract terms. It’s a button masher. The four face buttons of the controller are linked to four separate four-move combos that the player can construct themselves or allow the CPU to craft. The A button’s combo by default is titled ‘you decide’ and pressing it will execute any attack that the CPU thinks is relevant based on your distance from an enemy, and whether or not there are multiple enemies around it. Each move has a cost to perform, and this is what the star gauge in the bottom left corner of the screen is for. At this point we have 4-hit combos that can be cycled through continually as long as we have the resources to execute them. Often killing an enemy will refill your star gauge and add another star onto it. If you want to kick things into a higher gear, that’s where Velvet’s consuming claw comes in.

By entering claw mode, Velvet’s combos no longer cap out at 4. You can button mash indefinitely. Kind of. To stop you staying in this overpowered mode, a couple of things happen. First, your health starts dropping. Slowly to begin, but the longer you stay in this mode, the faster it will drop. You can unleash the claw to regain health, but each use of it will remove one star gauge. If your health reaches 0 or you use up all your star gauges without recovery, Velvet will perform a specialised final attack before reverting to normal mode with only 1 health. At this point you can either sub out Velvet for another party member, use a healing item, or run away from the enemies and wait for a healing spell to be cast. As you might imagine, one of the tricks to performing well in combat is knowing when to enter and exit Velvet’s claw mode, and making decisions based on where your health and star gauge are at all times. Even with this understanding, there’s still a lot of button mashing, and I feel like I have little control over what Velvet is actually doing.

Which is the perfect segueway for talking about auto mode. You can set the AI for your party, how they act in certain situations, and then turn over to auto and watch the computer play through the battles for you. By default the game is set to semi-auto. This means that when you press the attack button, your character will get in range before executing the attack. In manual mode, you have to make sure you’re in range. Early on there was a joy in letting the CPU control Velvet every now and then. Many of the moves look flashy, and watching the computer chain them together, entering and exiting claw mode with ease was exhilarating. I think I started to understand how claw mode worked thanks to watching the CPU. After a while though I did begin to wonder what it means to play a video game that plays itself.

In my impressions video I talked about loving the characters and the motivation of Velvet. That held true until the credits. For me, the gameplay was the least enjoyable aspect of the game, and the combat the least enjoyable aspect of the gameplay. I would go through phases, often during a single play session, where I’d be playing the battles and thinking to myself, “there’s no reason for me to control this” and then after a while of letting the computer take over I’d say, “I want to play now. I want to feel like I’m actually doing something”. I think the combat was getting in the way of the story and the characters. Now an easy criticism to make of my feelings is why not just watch a Let’s Play if I’m only there for the story? I’ve talked before about how I feel that there’s a magic in playing a video game that watching it cannot capture. How even cutscenes are more impactful with controller in hand. I still feel this way. Also, I thought that if I had to watch someone else play through thousands of battles, I may as well be in control myself, even if I’m not.

Let’s unpack this thought of “there’s no reason for me to control this” while playing. Auto mode is deceptive. I talked before about combos. Even if you tap different face buttons, your combo will continue, jumping to that button’s combo until you stop attacking and the combo resets. In auto mode, the CPU would often pull off multiple first or second tier combo moves in a row. It would access moves that are flashy and perfect for the situation. Moves that I would never see hitting the ‘You Decide’ button while playing through the fights. I wondered if there was a difference between button mashing combos that the CPU chooses, and letting the CPU control combat in its entirety. It just doesn’t feel like I have any semblance of control, even in semi-auto mode. Maybe it’s because I’ve played Demon’s Souls where each attack is purposeful and measured, and I’ve played Bayonetta where the difference between button mashing and using the right move at the right time is in player understanding. Those games give you full control over what you do and when you do it. A player can set up their own combos and execute them at the right time in manual mode, but nothing about the way the game teaches the player the combat system facilitates this style of play. It tells the player “Yeah, there is a level of intricate setup and execution that can happen, but why would you want to do that? Just sit back and let us take care of everything. Enjoy the story”.

Returning to that idea of control versus free will. I think I’ve laid out that even while in control during battle, I felt that it was only superficial. It was about when to give the character I was controlling orders than actually executing attacks in real time. As I spent most of the game with Velvet, the only time I got to control any of the other characters was when she was forced out of claw mode, and I swapped her out to heal. Each character has their own quirks and special moves. I enjoyed how brutal Eizen’s punches were and Rokurou’s sword combos. Even Magilou’s bouncy magic was fun to see in action. I think I’d love to play a turn based version just so I would have control over each character, enjoying the whole party in combat as much as I enjoyed their dialogue during vignettes. Saying that though, there is also a joy in letting your party members run around and attack with their own autonomy, and it would be hypocritical of me to complain about how the game takes away a chunk of my free will and then hypothosize about doing the same to everyone else in my party.

Wrapping up, I think that the point I’m trying to make is ugly and full of contradictions. I can’t square my feelings about constantly wanting more control in the battle system, and then wanting to give it up by letting the CPU take over. Maybe I did myself a disservice not programming my own combos and executing them in manual mode. I’m reminded of FOOS, which stands for first order optimal strategies. The general idea is that once a player discovers a strategy that works, even if that strategy is boring, they will prefer it over experimenting with what might be more complex and rewarding game systems. Why? Because humans will always take the easiest option if it works. Over thousands of battles my optimal strategy was to let the CPU take over, and when that got boring, I let the CPU decide what attack I was going to use. Earlier I asked what it means to play a video game that plays itself. It either means having the player give up control is the optimal strategy, the gameplay is not engaging enough, its complexities are not taught well, these complexities are not needed to complete the game, or the gameplay was never the focus in the first place. In Tales of Berseria, these are all valid answers.

Thanks for watching. This is my first completed Tales game. I read they overhauled the combat system for this one, so fans of the series, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments, not only on how the combat may be different in other games, but your take on my experience with Berseria. If you enjoyed the video, please press the like button, share with your friends, and subscribe to the channel for more critiques, and I hope you’re all having a wonderful day.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Why Bit.Trip Presents: Runner 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is one of my favourite games

Hey hey folks, and welcome to episode 8 of Dave’s Favourite Games. This time around, Bit.Trip Presents: Runner 2. Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. I’m just going to call it Runner 2 from this point forward. Before we get to the game, I want to quickly talk about the Dave’s Favourite Games series. It doesn’t feel like it has its own identity yet and over the last year, I’ve felt it’s morphed into Dave’s Critiques but with games I love. Moving forward, the series will still cover games I love, but will focus on just what I love about them, instead of being critical of their faults. This is a place to celebrate the games covered. I’ll do my best not to spoil too much for those who haven’t played the game, in the hopes that they might want to play it for themselves. Ok, let’s continue.

One reason I looked forward to 2018 is that my 5 year rule would end for Runner 2. If you’ve watched my episode on Flower, you might remember that I feel a period of 5 years has to pass before any game can get on my favourites list. It has to withstand the test of time. I have thought about and replayed Runner 2 a few times since its release in 2013. Not only is it now eligible for me to make a video on it, but the timing couldn’t be better seeing that Runner 3 is released on May 22nd (if there are no delays).

Seeing that I’m trying to focus only on the positives, Runner 2 is a wonderful game for this approach. It has a goofy irreverence. There is a dedicated dance button to use as your character runs through the stage, increasing your score. Each character has different dance moves, and the characters include an upright pickle and a Hamburger with limbs in a disco suit. He’s my favourite. His name is Whetfart Cheeseborger. Many levels contain treasure chests that unlock costumes. Want to see Commandgirl Video in 80s gear? Captain Video in his nancy blueboy suit? Commander Video as Little Mac? There’s some wonderful costumes, and the final unlock is spectacular. Don’t worry, I won’t ruin it for you. Oh and the narrator is Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario. I didn’t need to look him up in the credits either. He lets you know.

Before I get too carried away, it’s probably best that I explain how the game works. Runner 2, like Bit.Trip Runner before it, is a rhythmic platformer. The levels start with a simple tune. Each stage has these pulsing red blocks that add to the complexity of the music when collected, but most importantly, all the obstacles are timed to this rhythm. As you jump, slide, kick, deflect and bounce, your actions create a musical soundscape, and if you’ve collected every piece of gold, the stage will culminate in firing a cannon into a target for extra points. It sounds a little odd, so what I’m going to do is show you an early level start to finish to demonstrate how things work.

Looks great huh. Another aspect I love is that most of the game is a player motivated challenge that feels essential to the core idea of what the game actually is. You don’t have to unlock Commander Video’s friends and their costumes, but it feels like you’re going against the spirit of the game if you don’t. You don’t have to collect all the gold in each stage, but it feels like you’re going against the spirit of the game if you don’t at least try. You don’t have to select the tough paths when you have a choice in a level, but then how are you going to collect all the costumes, unlock the other stages, and feel accomplished for rising to the challenge? So much of the game is optional, but aside from the cartridge levels which I personally don’t care for, I feel that everything else is required to enjoy my playthrough. I need more friends, I need all the costumes, I need to beat every stage, and I want to try my hardest to collect all the gold in every run.

Unlike most games I play, I find that Runner 2 is effortlessly able to get me into a flow state. Each stage has its own mini-flow with an easy start, rising action, and triumphant finish. What this does is create a larger wave of riding inside the flow state. Each time I loaded up the game it took about a level to get back into the swing of things, but from that point on I was a part of the game. I was able to know exactly what button to press and when, not only from the visuals of the incoming obstacles, not only from their place in the sound landscape, but from my own intuition. There were only a couple points in the whole game where this state was broken by my confusion about what the game wanted from me, and once this confusion was overcome, it was back to the joy of Commander Video’s adventure.

Let’s end by asking the overall question. Why is Bit.Trip Presents: Runner 2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien one of my favourite games? Few video games give me such a feeling of joy and accomplishment as I’m playing them. Not an accomplishment that I’ve slammed myself at a difficult challenge and been able to overcome it, but an accomplishment that I’m enjoying every moment of playing a video game. That I am able to handle anything that the game is throwing at me, because the game’s design is facilitating the state I need to be in to do so. I am perpetually engaged. I also appreciate how Runner 2 knows how light and goofy it is, and it takes every opportunity to revel in this goofiness. We need more overtly positive games. Hopefully the upcoming Runner 3 can keep this trend going.

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please like, comment, share, and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dave Critiques: Demon's Souls - How magic affected my playthrough

Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Demon’s Souls. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there might be spoilers in this video. If you wish to avoid them, please press pause, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

The Flamelurker is considered to be one of the most difficult bosses in Demon’s Souls. He’s large, he’s fast, and every attack carries fire damage with it. Fire damage will wreck you if you’re not prepared. I was prepared. Not only was I wearing a ring of flame resistance, I brought the Water Veil spell with me, which negates a good chunk of the fire damage. This doesn’t mean that the fight was easy. As I said, the Flamelurker is large and fast. My memory of the fight is less of a duel, and more of a dance. I rolled. I circled. I edged back and forth to avoid the damage of its breath and jumping attacks, while trying to expose its flank and get a couple of good hits in. Each time he hit me, it took off a small piece of health rather than a disastrous chunk. After what seemed like an eternity, I felled the beast. It turns out that before the fight I had forgotten to switch to my Uchigatana that would have delivered a lot more damage from a safer distance. I had fought the Flamelurker with a Crescent Falchion. Thanks to Water Veil, one of the toughest fights in the game, a fight in which I made a mistake in preparing myself for it became one of my favourite memories of the entire playthrough.

I decided to play through Demon’s Souls as a magic user. In the past I have ignored magic in RPGs because it has always seemed like an extra hassle. Melee or ranged combat is simple. Try and hit the thing with the weapon. Magic adds spell selection, mana management, and more upgrade decisions. It seems easier just to stick to swords. From the general internet commentary, sticking to swords is the most popular way to play any game in the Souls series. Especially in Demon’s Souls, magic can break the game, making certain tough bosses very easy to defeat. It’s said that you’re not getting the authentic Souls experience as a magic user. Now these ideas sound silly on the surface. If a game allows you a way to play it, playing the game that way is valid. It might not be the most popular path, but the developers included it for a reason. As I was skeptical about being able to get through one of these games on my own, I wanted to take the path of least resistance and the guide I was reading suggested magic as the best way to do that. This video will explore some of my thoughts playing through Demon’s Souls, and how using magic might have affected my experience.

Firstly, being a mage gave me confidence. Now it helped that I had played through the first stage previously, but being able to zap an enemy one to three times to drop them made the early stages a lot of fun. I felt powerful, especially when I took out the Phalanx without a second thought. Soul arrow, it’s big brother Soul Ray, and Flame Toss were my staples for most of the early and mid game. Firestorm was a godsend too, but I’ll discuss that and some other spells a little later. I think one of the benefits of playing a Souls game is in learning to face your fears. Gaining confidence through understanding of the game systems and eventually learning to have fun within them. For example, after a few hours of play, I stopped worrying about resource management.

What I mean is that I was afraid of running out of stamina when fighting enemies, and I was afraid of dying and losing all my souls. The more I played, the more I learned that stamina is always there for you when you need it as long as you don’t panic. I also learned that progress is a lot more important than souls. Defeating a boss always nets a large amount of the resource, alongside all the souls littered throughout the level. If you died along the way, you’ll usually have even more to use towards improving your character. I learned a lot of these lessons while grinding.

There were two instances where I took time out from progress to grind for a couple of hours. Both grind spots were in the Shrine of Storms. The first was early on in the playthrough when I was trying to gain enough souls to buy spells. I would loop through the first few skeletons in 4-1 with a combination of melee, soul arrow, and flame toss to take out the psychotic red eyed variant. This taught me just how different grinding in a Souls game is to grinding in other RPGs. Every enemy in Demon’s Souls can hurt you if you’re not careful, especially those roly-poly skeletons. Just when I thought I had mastered fighting them, I would make a mistake and lose a portion of my health. This taught me humility. No matter how good I thought I was, there was a thin line between success and failure. As I levelled up that line got a little thicker, but not to a point where I felt completely at ease.

The second grind was about 15 hours later. Level 4-2 had defeated me. I was re-evaluating my decision to not use a bow. After grinding to craft the Lava Bow, I wanted to keep upgrading my weapons and soul level until I felt confident enough to continue. One of the best grind spots in the game is in level 4-2, sniping the first Reaper and using the Evacuate miracle. With the Ring of Avarice and the Silver Bracelets, you get a guaranteed 6000 souls for a minute or two of gametime. This grinding session was very different to the first. There was no longer any need to pay attention. It was a repetitive exercise of going through the same motions over and over again. Yes aiming the bow caused some panic, but even that anxiety went away after a while. I put on a podcast and spent the next couple of hours here until I felt that I could tackle 4-2 successfully. This second session taught me that it’s very important to have goals while grinding in an RPG, and the right equipment and preparation is often more important than a higher soul level.

Now that I had the Lava Bow, taking out the skeletons on the edge of the cliff in 4-2 was a lot easier. With the Thief Ring equipped, the Storm Beasts rarely took time out of their flying schedule to fire their barbs at me. With a Dark Shield, I could mitigate the laser blast of the Reaper’s ghosts, and knowing where the final Reaper was hiding, I could snipe him from above. I learned that I didn’t have to deal with the second batch of invisible back stabbers as I had already looted the nook where they hide. All that was left was running through the room with the slugs, and using Firestorm to obliterate the Blind Old Hero.

Since we’re speaking about preparation, it might be a good time to discuss some of the more memorable boss encounters and how the right gear and magic helped me out. Soul Arrow helped me take out the Tower Knight, and the Armour Spider. Flame Toss helped me cheese The Adjudicator, and the False Idol. I had saved Biorr in 1-3 and brought along the spell Warding, which greatly reduces damage taken. This meant that the fight with The Penetrator turned into an absolute massacre. I’m relieved because his speed and ferocity intimidate me. For both Storm King and Old King Allant, I had used the Second Chance miracle, so dying would bring me back with half my health. I didn’t need it for Storm King, but I almost needed it with Old King Allant. My hands were visibly shaking when I finally put him away.

They were shaking because the Firestorm strategy didn’t work on Old King Allant. Firestorm is one of the most overpowered spells in the game. You summon a literal storm of fire around you that wipes the lifebar off a lot of the game’s bosses. Most go down in two hits if your magic stat is high enough. The problem is that it takes a bit of a wind up so the best time to use it is when an enemy has just executed a large attack and needs to recover. Run up next to them, Firestorm, retreat, gulp down some spice to replenish your mana, and look for an opportunity to finish the job. With Old King Allant, he was far too fast to take the full brunt of any Firestorm. A similar thing happened with the Maneaters. Each one should be taken out with one cast of the spell, but I was not expecting their speed, and not knowing exactly what the second one was going to do as it rushed towards me lead to a very close call. I’m very lucky I didn’t fall off the edge of the stage.

With how easy magic made fighting so many of these bosses, I wondered if I was robbing myself of the Demon’s Souls experience. Soul Ray and Flame Toss kept most enemies at bay, and after crafting a Moon Uchigatana, having a large magic stat meant that my melee attacks were quite devastating. Spells like Anti-magic Field feel like the only way to deal with the jailors of the Tower of Latria, especially their black phantom forms. It made the Old Monk a joke as well, although the game having gone offline at this point might have had more to do with it. Instead of fighting another real player, I was fighting a bare knuckled brawler who posed no threat. And as I was having these doubts while killing the later bosses, the oppressive organ music of the Nexus became more noticable, adding to that feeling that the way forward might not actually be the right way forward.

But another thought emerged. As the game went on and I became more confident, I started to engage enemies with my sword and shield because I knew I could take them on. I enjoyed using all the tips and tricks at my disposal to get through any way I knew how. Having gone through the game this way, I now see possibilities open to me that were not there before. I not only thought about playing through the game as a pure melee character, but after the credits were finished and my character loaded back into the Nexus with all her gear, I felt the pull to play through the game in New Game Plus mode, with perhaps a greater melee focus. I guess my final thoughts on how playing a magic user affected my Demon’s Souls experience is that magic is incredibly overpowered, but it was the tool required for me to gain the confidence I needed to enjoy Demon’s Souls. I also feel that with a mix of magic, melee, and ranged combat, I was able to engage with more of what the game has to offer. I’d recommend playing a magic user to anyone as a first time playthrough for these reasons. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please like, comment, share, and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Dave Critiques: A Hat in Time - The balance between charm and frustration

Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of A Hat in Time. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there might be spoilers in this video. If you wish to avoid them, please press pause, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

The Snatcher is the most memorable character of Subcon Forest. Aside from having a gleeful maniacal laugh, he traps you and has you sign a contract that makes you his servent in order to get your soul back. This is Hat Girl’s motivation for the rest of the chapter. At the end, he reveals that once his subordinates are no longer of any use to him, they are beheaded. It’s time for a boss fight. When I first attempted this fight during a late night play session, I was defeated more than once. Mostly because I couldn’t seem to work out how to read when Snatcher was going to slam the ground, and so would lose a lot of health being stunned by the slams and the ensuing shockwaves. The next day I came back to the game and defeated him on my first try. No issue whatsoever. What alluded me the night before was so simple now. In defeat he offers a contract where you’ll leave and never bother him again. Hat Girl in her mischievousness alters the contract to The Snatcher’s dismay, and this charming blend of character and humour is what I remember most fondly about the encounter, rather than the rage inducing moments.

I think A Hat in Time is a competent 3d platformer. Hat Girl’s moveset allows for some highly entertaining platforming challenges, but whether it’s due to the camera, a lack of precision, or most importantly, an inability to understand what the game wants of you, I found myself constantly angry and disappointed while playing. This disappointment and failure creates a negative feedback loop and it’s very easy for an entire game experience to be negatively coloured once the small frustrations start building up. To the game’s credit, that never happened. The Snatcher fight was probably me at my lowest point, and the next day I not only fought through it like it wasn’t a challenge, but I attempted the Mustache Girl fight as well, and defeated her on my first try. In my lowest moments, the game’s charm allowed me to persevere, and this video will be primarily discussing this push and pull between charm and gameplay.

I mentioned how it’s often unclear what the game wants from you. The hats are a good place to start as they play into the way the levels are designed, and the order you approach them in. Yarn is hidden around each stage and hats take a number of balls of yarn to stitch together. The first hat you receive, the Sprint Cap, is an exception to the usefulness of the other hats. It makes you run faster. Aside from allowing you to ride a scooter for a level in Subcon Forest, it’s just a way of getting around the world quicker. Every other hat works its way into the level deisgn in some way. The Ice Cap allows you to use the ice flippers to catapult you around. The Brewing Hat, which is what I was wearing most of the time allows you to throw explosives after a short charge. The Dweller’s Mask will allow you to interact with another reality for a short while, usually to uncover platforms where there were none before. Finally, the Time Stop Hat will stop time. I know right? But I never earned enough yarn to be able to wear it.

While certain areas of a chapter like the Alpine Skyline are locked off if you do not have the right hat, it is late enough in the game to assume that the player is at least close to being able to create one. Act 5 of Chapter 1 is missing because it requires the Time Stop Hat. This vexed me for the entire game as I wanted to complete the levels in order, and it felt wrong to move to Acts 6 and 7 without having played Act 5. A similar feeling happened with not having yet acquired the hookshot Badge in Chapter 3, or actually, most of Chapter 3 itself. You unlock the acts of that chapter by falling in The Snatcher’s traps, signing new contracts which open up the new acts. For the longest time I was searching for the last trap to open up Act 5. Maybe there’s something about Act 5s in this game. They may be cursed. I eventually made the decision to overcome my annoyance and play stages out or order, but having to break the numbering system never sat right with me.

This issue with the ordering of the levels is echoed in a problem I had with the platforming and the goals of certain stages. The uncertainty of what’s coming next. This can be seen as one of the game’s strengths. Each act is its own unique vision. The title cards always started me off in the best of moods, and just how much the game switches up what you’re doing is quite remarkable. Even in the same chapter. Two of the most memorable stages in my playthrough both came from Chapter 2, Battle of the Birds. Picture Perfect has you drumming up fan support, this goal regularly interrupted by Hat Girl getting her picture taken and an adorable polaroid appearing on the screen. Then there’s Murder on the Owl Express. I doubt I’m the only person who regards this as the best level in the game. You have to gather evidence to solve a murder while avoiding secret service spy crows and suspicious owl passengers. Whoever you select as the culprit at the end is the correct choice. You’re filming a movie after all. The journey was what was important, and by journey, I mean all the great footage you provided for The Conductor.

On the micro level things are different, and this is where I will talk about the platforming. Hat Girl’s moveset is a lot of fun to play with. The air dash makes movement a joy, because alongside the expected double jump, a dash will give you a third jump to reach your destination if you’ve already exhausted your double. Combine this with not only ledge grabs and wall jumps, but the ability to run up a wall when hitting the side of a platform, and there’s a lot of movement opportunities you have access to. The game takes full advantage of this. Yes there are the optional time rift challenges that are built to test these skills more overtly, but I’m thinking of the long form obstacle courses to acquire time pieces, like climbing the Windmill in Alpine Skyline.

The Windmill made me realise just how much the air dash can betray you. That wonderful idea of running up a wall if you miss a ledge is nullified if you air dash into it. Now this is my fault as I got too comfortable with just air dashing everywhere, including situations where I did not need to. Most of my frustration with the platforming was misusing the dash and the consequences of that action. There was also a bit of misjudging the distance of a double jump. There was the timing issue of platforming challenges involving the homing attack on the spiders, and often the camera seemed to get trapped or wouldn’t give the most opportune view of what I needed to do next. I often felt overwhelmed by my inability to adapt to what the game was throwing at me, even with all the tools at my disposal.

I wonder if the charm is to blame. I would list the charm of A Hat in Time as its greatest asset. I’ve already mentioned the title cards and in my impressions video I squeed about diving into a pile of pillows, and Hat Girl wearing a raincoat. There’s an amusing diary that you can read after each act provided you have the ice hat to access Hat Girl’s secret pillow lair. The Snatcher is charming in his goofy way. The Mafia are charming in their bumbling way. The Conductor and DJ Grooves are charming in their eccentric behaviour and speech, and the final fight with your friend turned enemy Mustache Girl is charming. Especially when all the other characters are throwing actual love at Hat Girl in order to defeat her nemesis. That tear Hat Girl has in her eye at the very end I identified with because for all my frustrations, it was this world and its characters that kept me going till the very end, and I too was sad to see them go..

I think that the charm lulls the player into a false sense of security. It makes them think that the game should be more forgiving than it is. It might also distract the player from what the game requires from them, or maybe often enough the signposting for what to do next just isn’t there. Does A Hat in Time want to be a challenge based 3d platformer or does it want to be a cute, humourous character based 3d platformer? Now there is no reason it can’t be both. The classics of the 3d platformer genre often achieve this balance, but here, the balance seems askew.

What are your thoughts? Was I alone with my frustrations in regards to the platforming, the camera, what to do next, and the ordering of the levels? Were you as enamoured by this world and its characters as I was? What were some of your favourite moments? Please let me know in the comments.

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please like, share, and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Dave Critiques - Pillars of Eternity: The gods must be crazy

Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Pillars of Eternity. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

In Dyrford Village you meet a noble named Lord Harond. His daughter Aelys has gone missing and he implores you to find her. Your investigation takes you to a Skaen temple underneath the town inhabited by cultists who worship the god and are performing blood rituals. Upon discovering their leader Wymund, you learn the awful truth. Aelys is Lord Harond’s niece, and he has impregnated her in order to carry on his bloodline. Wymund is tired of the aristocracy not paying for their debauchery and corruption. The priest has set Aelys up as a timebomb of sorts. She will return to Harond and through Skaen’s magic, extinguish their whole bloodline, serving as a warning to others that such vile behavior will not be tolerated.

The quest Blood Legacy is an example of many of the sidequests in Pillars of Eternity. The initial quest giver is either lying to you or not telling the whole truth. Upon further investigation you discover this, resulting in a decision to make whether or not the lying is justified and what action you will take against the parties involved. I used to agonise over moral decisions in RPGs but recently, I find myself picking what seems like the right answer in the moment and seeing where that leads me. Just like using this practise in real life, it doesn’t always lead to a good outcome. This is because our world, like Eora (the world in which Pillars takes place) is full of nuance and uncertainty. 

The world of Pillars is one where the soul exists, magic exists, but the Gods may or may not exist. For the first time in any RPG, I found myself reading a lot of the ingame books as well as using the ingame encyclopedia to read up on certain groups, gods, peoples, and the world’s history. I wish I could say it helped piece everything together, but as the credits rolled I was left with more questions than answers. Questions about important things, like the main character’s role in what is going on as you play through the game, and especially their relationship to Thaos, the antagonist. I’ll explain my theories on this a little later.

While your main character is a chosen one like in many RPGs (although what chose you is not altogether a positive), Pillars of Eternity is focused on the group instead of the individual. You can hire your own party members to assist you through the game’s combat, creating any classes you wish, but I would recommend having the game’s many side characters join your party. They each have their own personalities, troubles, and desires that unfold during the game. Each party member’s sidequest has multiple stages, and some like Durance’s don’t resolve until close to the closing credits. What endears you to these characters more than their personalities, is their utility in combat. You come to rely on what each character can do. So much so, that when new characters join, you might be like me and leave them waiting around in your stronghold, as you don’t want to disturb the party lineup you now depend on.

In Pillars, I found myself getting into a familiar rhythm with combat. I found strategies that worked for most encounters and only when that strategy failed did I start thinking about what else I could do. Then I incorporated aspects of this new strategy until I needed to adjust again, repeating until the end of the game. As pillars is a party based RPG, these strategies involved using each one of my 6 members in very particular ways. This is what I meant by growing close to my party members because of their utility in combat. Eder’s knockdown and defender abilities made him an ideal tank, capturing the enemy’s attention. If I needed a backup tank, Sagani’s pet did the trick, her bond with the creature helping her deal damage to this second attacker. Kana’s chants that strengthened the party were as invaluable as the buffs and debuffs that Durance laid down each fight, while Aloth’s arcane assault was great for AoE damage, using fireballs and concussive missiles on stronger or more numerous targets. My main character being a Cipher meant that Mind Blades was a great way to open up any encounter along with blinding or paralysing any difficult foe.

Despite the ability to pause the battle at any time and assign commands, battles have a sense of tension in them, leading to panic when things go wrong. I think this has to do with the encounter design. Whether it’s the combination of enemies, the location of battle, or a blending of the two, this is what forces the need for new tactics. Familiarising myself with what my spellcasters could do. The Wizard and Priest gained an absurd amount of spells each level, but even the few spells the Cipher has access to were ignored until difficult fights. I found myself reading through spell descriptions, and finding something that worked exceptionally well for that encounter, adding that spell into my optimal strategy rotation or saving it as the first thing to try when facing the next tough encounter. This “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” mentality kept the dangerous encounters interesting, with some fights lasting upward of 30 minutes without losing that sense of tension and excitement. The final boss and its guardians are an example of this. His ability to soul hop and buff himself and his allies caused many frustrated restarts and variations in strategy before he finally fell under the crack of a rifle

While combat is exciting, one thing I love about this type of RPG is that dialogue is just as important. Pillars of Eternity is combat heavy, but many encounters are avoided and quests completed through saying the right thing at the right time. I remember in the original Fallout games how important it was to pick the speech skill. Not that you’re forced to talk your way through Pillars. I imagine you could have a lot of fun slashing your way through everyone who looked at you funny, but a large amount of enjoyment and satisfaction I derived during my play was being able to talk my way out of a bad situation.

This push and pull between combat and dialogue is a thematic undercurrent of Pillars’ RPG power fantasy. As I levelled up, my characters grew ever more powerful and the fights became more trivial. At the same time, even after the final boss, I felt I had been powerless throughout the events of the narrative. An obvious example is no matter what choices are made during the trial at the end of act 2, the Duc dies and chaos ensues. An example possibly tied to my own ineptitude is not understanding my character’s past and the nature of Eora’s Gods. It’s not like I wasn’t paying attention either. I read many of the ingame books and took my time reading dialogue. In the end, I really don’t know what role my character played as Thaos’ right hand other than the one who betrayed Iovara. Is it just that my character’s association with Thaos in a past life lead her to follow him in this one? I mean Thaos’ plans associated with the Hollowborn are heinous and he definitely needed to be stopped, but I still remain confused about the personal nature of the conflict.

I remain confused about the Gods as well. The seeds of doubt are sewn related to their existence late in act 3. Wars have been fought because of these gods and people have done horrible things in their name, but perhaps the question of their existence carries more weight in a world where the soul is a verifiable truth. I was left believing the gods to be real, in a sense. You talk to the gods of your choosing at the end of the game. I had conversations with both Hylea and Wael (two of the only gods I cared to converse with. I would have liked to talk to Eothas as well, but he wasn’t available).

While I believe the Gods of Eora are real, I think of them as Greek Gods. This is a world of magic and power. Some beings have used both to elevate themselves to a level where they are revered, and they work to shape the world as they see fit. Of course as they all have differing philosophies as to how the world should be, they come into conflict and they play games with each other. Well, games might be a light way to put it. Magran straight up murders Eothas through her followers and Woedica has been sowing her own seeds of dismay for what sounds like centuries if the life of Thaos is any indication. The question that the player and their party wrestle with is if the Gods are not really gods, does it change anything? Do people need gods to believe in? Does it make life more bearable or does it lead to greater suffering? Is there a difference between a true god and a mortal that has used power to elevate themselves to such a position? A constant theme of many of the quests in Pillars is the danger of money and power. How it corrupts those who have a lot of it, and how they see themselves above consequence. How much greater is this righteousness when the level of power is raised exponentially?

I would love to hear your theories about the Watcher’s role in the game, whether the gods are real or not, and what that means for Eora. What are your thoughts on animancy? Did you view it as a danger? A necessary evil? Is some knowledge just too dangerous for people to have? The soul machines of the builders certainly lean towards that idea. Who was your favourite companion and why? What are your thoughts of the game in general? What did you think of this video? Let me know in the comments. 

Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed what I have to say, please like, share and subscribe, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.