Sunday, June 9, 2019

Hollow Knight and the joy of exploration | Dave Critiques #42


Hollow Knight is the best game I have played this year. I love it so much that after finishing my first playthrough with the bad ending and 76% world completion, I immediately started up another game and have been following a guide to see and experience everything I missed. So why do I love the game so much? That’s actually an easy answer, the exploration. There is so much to explore in Hollow Knight that even near the end of my playthrough I was opening up new areas. The scope is impressive, especially for a game made by such a small team. So why was the exploration so enjoyable? Well that’s what this video is here to answer. If you have any interest in playing Hollow Knight I advise you to go do so, and come back and watch this video once you’re finished. For everyone else, let’s continue.

In my notes I wrote that Hollow Knight is “A Metroidvania without signposts”. The more time I spend with that sentence, the sillier it seems. Most Metroidvania games do not have signposts, and Hollow Knight actually has quite a lot of them. What I think I meant was that a core feature of the genre is that from the opening areas of the game, there are sections that are inaccessible until the player gains the right upgrade. Whether it’s Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, or even games like Dark Souls, progression is fairly linear until a good portion of the way through. If that’s the case, why is there a joy of exploration in all these games despite their initial linearity? Well part of it is the tease of being able to access a new area later. When coming across an area we can’t get to, an idea has been planted in our mind that once we gain some new ability, we’ll be able to come back and see what’s hidden. We might get tired of all the teasing however, so from the start of the game we should be constantly finding secrets. Hollow Knight is full of hidden pathways with rewards at the end of them. Oh sure some are just geocaches or emblems that can be sold for more currency, but there are charms, grubs, mask and soul upgrades, new abilities, spells, bosses, and even new areas. That chime that sounds when a secret is uncovered is always a delight, and on more than one occasion following a breadcrumb of secrets and chimes led me somewhere I hadn’t been before, or opened up a new pathway to a place I had.

I think this enjoyment of secrets and their rewards play into the general aesthetic of the world as well. Hollownest is mysterious and hostile. Who is our character? Why have they come to this place? Just what happened to turn all these bugs into mindless killing machines, and can we do anything about it? We’re not wanted here. The inhabitants will kill us at a moment’s notice, and that combined with the treasure creates a sense of adventure. It’s like we’re raiding tombs. We’re excavating the secrets of this place, and where that doesn’t result in a tangible benefit, it at least can result in a sense of understanding.

I do wonder how much of Hollownest is required to visit for completion, and how much is optional. Until the City of Tears I think the path is fairly linear. Most players will beat the False Knight in the Forgotten Crossroads, walk into Greenpath, fight Hornet, and then take the path from Fog Canyon to the Queen’s Station. They’ll go into the Mantis village in the Fungal Wastes, gaining the wall jump ability before entering the City of Tears. After defeating Soul Master Crystal Peak is accessible, but if you saved up enough geo and bought the lantern, you could beat the Mantis Lords and go into Deepnest. You could even unlock the Royal Waterways and find yourself in the Ancient Basin. I think that the game wants you to go to Crystal Peak or Deepnest. Both lead to the Resting Grounds where the Dream Nail is acquired. From there it’s as simple as finding the dreamers in locations you’ve already visited, and defeating the Hollow Knight for the bad ending.

Now if you want the good ending, you do need to visit more of the world. You need to go to Kingdom’s Edge and fight Hornet again for the King’s Brand before heading into The Abyss for the Shade Cloak. You need to visit the Queen’s Gardens and defeat the Traitor Lord to meet the White Lady for part of the Kingsoul, not to mention travelling around the world to upgrade the Dream Nail to access the White Palace. I had thought that this meant that the only truly optional areas were the Howling Cliffs and the Royal Waterways, but to get the upgraded Dream Nail you most likely have to fight Gorb, and Isma’s tear certainly makes exploration easier.

Is the magic trick Hollow Knight performs simply the sheer amount of exploration and secrets on offer? I imagine that even a dedicated player without the use of a guide would be finding new parts of the world on subsequent playthroughs. How much of the joy of exploration is due to the benches? The more you explore, the further away you travel from a safe space, and the greater the tension. You might stumble upon a boss, die, and have to trek back, fighting your shade before seeing if you can take revenge. It could be the cartography. How the new additions to the map aren’t recorded until you make your way back to a bench. The further I played, the more joy I had in filling out every section of the map. Like I was mastering my understanding of the game space, even if I wasn’t a master of the platforming and combat required to traverse it.

Which is funny to say because the combat and platforming are such a prominent part of the game. I’d say the combat may even be the focus. It’s a simple, yet elegant system. The nail is short and can be slashed in front, above, or below while in air. Unlike other games, this downslash needs to be timed. The short nail is what made the timing so frustrating for me, and the downstrike was one aspect of the combat I never felt comfortable in my ability to execute. 

That feeling of not being able to grasp the downstrike echoed my general mood regarding the platforming. I never became comfortable with the wall jump. I’m used to a feather touch with wall jumping. Brush up against a wall and repel off. In Hollow Knight, you need to grip the wall. More time is needed before the jump can be executed. Throughout the whole game I never felt comfortable with movement and combat. I became more adept at using these systems as I played, but I never felt at ease controlling the Knight. Despite this, I do want to compliment the game that despite my frustrations with what I feel are two thirds of its core experience (the platforming and the combat), I enjoyed the exploration and atmosphere so much that I am playing through it again, and have been singing its praises to anyone who will listen.

When No More Heroes was released, one of the criticisms of the game was that its open world was empty and didn’t hold much for the player to do. I can no longer find a source, but I remember reading that Goichi Suda implemented this on purpose. He was making a point on how he found the open worlds in games like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas boring. I remember that being the first time understanding that a part of a game could be made frustrating or tedious to communicate an idea to the player. Since then I’ve come across other examples, most notably in the games of Fumito Ueda. Ico is a small boy, so his combat is nothing more than flailing about with a wooden stick, and Argo and Trico from Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian are animals who don’t always listen to the player’s instructions. They have their own autonomy.

I’ve always found this idea troubling because it can be used to excuse bad game design. Even if a designer says they put something players dislike in their game for a specific purpose, the execution of what they were trying to accomplish may not have been successful. What this means is that a lot of what we see as “good” or “bad” design can come down to a player’s interpretation, and the reasoning behind it (as it can with any decision made creating a work of art). I bring this idea up because the frustrations I had with the Knight’s controls could be for such a reason. The knight is a nobody. A failed experiment. One of tens of thousands. It could be said that the only reason the Knight accomplishes anything of renown is due to the help of the player, although he did pull himself out of the Abyss and leave Hollownest before we have a chance to control him. Who the Knight is creates a reason why I might find the platforming a little slipperier than I would like or the combat overwhelming and without a sense of power. It could also be why the game revolves around soul and healing. Like the Knight, you as the player are far from perfect. You’re both going to make lots of mistakes, but the game has given you a way to be able to keep going when that happens. Hallownest may be the home of the Knight, but it is unknown to the player, and as I found the exploration of Hollow Knight the most compelling aspect of the game, getting to uncover every nook and cranny of Hallownest felt like the Knight and the player coming to understand the world, and maybe even themselves, a little better.

Thanks for watching. One fear I had about starting the game again is that as I’m now familiar with the world, the exploration might no longer be as enjoyable and I’d be left with the elements that frustrated me in my first playthrough. I’m happy to report that is not the case. Part of the reason why is that I missed so many areas, hidden paths, and even bosses on my first playthrough. Through my research for this video, I have become more confident with my charm choices, and the use of spells, so the combat has become less frustrating. I’ve increased my skill with the down slash and with the platforming, but I am dreading having to put these skills to the test in the White Palace. This second playthrough is making me love the game even more.

So now I’d love to hear from you down in the comments. What is your experience with Hollow Knight? Was the exploration the main draw for you as well, or was it the combat and the platforming? If so, what about the platforming and combat do you enjoy so much? If you enjoyed the video, why not buy me a coffee? There’s a link in the description. If you’d like to help the channel in other ways, please like the video, share it on your favourite social media sites, and subscribe if you haven’t already. Until next time, I hope you’re all having, a wonderful day.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Two Weis: Mechanical and Narrative Justification in Sleeping Dogs | Dave Critiques #41



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

At multiple times during Sleeping Dogs, Wei Shen will be called in to have a meeting with his handler Raymond. Raymond is sympathetic to Wei’s double life, having to be part of the Sun On Yee Triad as well as respect the law as an undercover police officer. Wei does not return any sympathy or respect in these scenes. They are annoyances, interrupting his work, that is ultimately more important than someone in the police force making sure he’s ok. I understand the purpose of these scenes. We as the player are meant to sympathise with Wei. We want to get back to the enjoyment of playing the game. Beating up rival triad members, driving around town, engaging in shootouts and becoming further embroiled in triad drama. Despite this, I always felt that the heightened drama and tension of these exchanges felt unearned, especially because it felt that Wei was always in the right, and there were never any consequences for telling Raymond to go pound sand. After all, the cops are the good guys. Raymond may be an annoyance, but he would never do anything to put Wei in any more danger, and his threats to shut down the undercover operation hold little weight because despite being pulled further into the triad lifestyle, Wei is getting results.

A couple years ago I played Driver: San Francisco for an impressions video, and I remarked how enjoyable it was playing an open world game as a police officer. Not just because the missions were about helping people rather than causing violence, but it gave a reason to try and limit the carnage I might otherwise engage in seeing these games give players the tools to do so. Not that you can’t go on rampages in Sleeping Dogs, but being a cop puts a check on the damage I might otherwise be causing. In GTA IV for instance, I remember finding it amusing to walk up to random pedestrians and start punching them. I wanted to provoke a fight and see how it would escalate. In Sleeping Dogs there are lockboxes scattered throughout the world, and most of them are guarded by groups of triad members or other street gangs. This is a game sanctioned way to blow off some steam and engage in the melee combat system. Even near the end of the game, I would be driving or walking around when the glint of a lockbox would catch my eye, or I would notice the red goon markers on my minimap. I would take time out from heading towards the next mission to attack a few enemies and acquire some more cash that I had no use for. Beating people up in public is not following the letter of the law. That’s called assault. Seeing as the people I was beating up were bad people themselves, and I was undercover, the game gave me justification to wail away to my heart’s content. That’s the spirit.

And maybe that’s why the world of Sleeping Dogs feels so alive to me. I think I had more fun driving around Hong Kong than any other open world space. It might be the small things, like how following the GPS will take Wei through side alleys. This is his home, he knows the shortcuts. It might be the vendors who buff your stats whenever you buy food from them, or the people always having conversations outside your apartment. There’s a sense of ownership of the space by beating up the thugs. I’m making the city a better place. Visiting the shrines and looting the lockboxes is just a reward for my due diligence as a citizen. This is outside the mission structure. During the missions, all bets are off. I’ve hit pedestrians, crashed countless times, and generally behaved like the triad maniac Wei is posing himself as. While these actions will lower the cop experience and increase triad experience, what’s interesting is that the missions have no bearing whatsoever on face experience. The time between missions when I’m engaged in races or just helping random strangers, that increases notoriety and causes people around town to recognize Wei, as well as leading to greater rewards from the clothing and vehicle vendors. Just like we’re stuck between being a cop and rising through the triad, there are two Hong Kongs. One inside the missions, and one outside, and never the two shall meet.

There are also two Weis. Does Wei ever reconcile the two versions of himself? At the end of the game, speaking to Officer Teng, she questions which Hong Kong feels like home to Wei, the side of law and order or the side of chaos and violence. To me this suggests that Wei’s heart was never really on the side of the police. The police are just a way for Wei to get his revenge on the Sun on Yee. It makes the drama with Raymond make sense. Wei excuses his own methods and behavior because it’s all in service of the greater good, taking down the triad. The problem is he feels most at home in the triad. The player certainly does. It’s much more enjoyable to race cars, beat up thugs, and get into shootouts rather than follow the law. Especially when the player doesn’t have to. Sure there’s a penalty during missions for such reckless behaviour, but the cop missions then reward similar mayhem. Since it’s an open world game, there is no long standing consequence for going on a rampage or changing Wei’s behavior. That after the credits, the game loads Wei back in his swanky apartment with a golden gun and gives you free reign to do whatever you like in this virtual space tells me that Officer Teng’s concerns are justified. It would be one thing to say that the chaotic side of Wei is all the fault of the player. We’re the influence pulling this character in the direction of the dark side, but we have no control over Wei’s attitude in the cutscenes. Wei relishes his freedom in the triad, and resents the police when they try and correct his behaviour. Even though Wei is a police officer, in the end, he might not be that different from any of the Grand Theft Auto protagonists. He just has a better excuse.

Thanks for watching. What are your thoughts on Wei’s internal conflict. Do you think that there was actually a war going on inside him for his loyalty to the police or to the triad, or do you think he was firmly on one side or the other the whole time? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like to help the channel and show me some love, please like the video, share it on your favourite social media sites, and subscribe if you haven’t already. Until next time, I hope you’re all having, a wonderful day.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Killing the Past: Personal & Ideological Conflict in Killer7 | Dave Critiques #40



Hey hey folks, and welcome to my critique of Killer7. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there will be spoilers in this video. If you wish to avoid them, please pause, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

I thought that playing Killer7 on the PC with a mouse and keyboard would make the Heaven Smile less terrifying. That the fear they instilled in me the first time I played through the game was because of how fiddly I found aiming in first person with a controller. I was wrong. The Heaven smile are scary because of what they represent. The slow inescapable approach of death. Their laughter is inhuman, and entering a new room and hearing that low chuckle always unnerved me. The cackle they emit when you kill them does not represent a moment of triumph, but is the Smile having the last laugh. You have not escaped death, only delayed it. It doesn’t matter how many you kill, because if you exit the area and return, they will be back. They always keep respawning.

In the first mission, Angel, we are informed that there are only 14 Heaven Smile in the building. Then the duplicator is introduced. They’re breeding. I have a theory that the Heaven Smile might be a contagion, a virus that humans can catch, but we only encounter 3 types of Heaven Smile. Those created by Kun Lan, the new varieties created by the US government, and the weaker offspring of the duplicator smiles. My theory was based on Andrei Ulmeyda turning into a Heaven Smile, but that suggests the government experimenting on citizens to create a weaponized version of the Smiles under their control, and not a contagion. I honestly don’t know what’s worse. I also have a theory that the Smiles may be increasing in number as a countermeasure to stop the player from uncovering the past of Emir Parkreiner, but we’ll return to this theory a little later.

Then there’s Iwazaru. We chase him through the basement of Garcian’s trailer, after transporting there from Battleship Island. Unmasked, we see that our trusted servant and guide throughout the game has been none other than Kun Lan. Matsuoka tells us before entering that final room that this is the original and final Heaven Smile. Kun has been keeping tabs on the Smith Syndicate this whole time. Perhaps that’s another reason the smiles appear in greater numbers as the game progresses. Not only is Emir remembering who he is, but he’s under the control of Harman Smith, Kun Lan’s rival. We’ll discuss the chess game between Harman and Kun throughout the video, but what if all this time we thought that Emir was one of Harman’s pieces, when he was actually one of Kun’s?

In the second mission, Sunset, missiles have been fired at Japan from an unknown source, and the US government is deciding whether or not it wants to intervene and save the island nation. There are factions within the US government that think Japan has outlived its usefulness as an ally. They feel the Japanese government is too corrupt and not worth the effort of the US to save. What makes this ironic is that we find out later that the Japanese have been controlling the US government for some time through the US elementary school system, and thus the election process. The Japanese have decided the result of the US presidency for decades.

It is suggested that the party responsible for the attack on Japan is the UN Party (not to be confused with the United Nations). They are responsible for the creation of the Yakumo, a policy that is at the core of Killer7’s political conflict. In Sunset when Christopher Mills relays the orders for Garcian and the Killer7 to kill Fukushima (a restaurant owner that is in possession of the Yakumo), they run into an assassin trying to retrieve the document for the Liberal Party (another Japanese political faction), as well as a third assassin working for the International Ethics Committee. The Killer7 dispatch of both assassins and the Yakumo falls back into the hands of the UN Party under its new leadership of Kenjiro Matsuoka, who is backed by Kun Lan.

The Yakumo is the UN Party’s foreign policy for a world under Japanese leadership. As politics can be defined as any idea successful in gaining and maintaining governmental power, the desire for all these factions to gain the Yakumo conveys the absolute power of an idea itself. While it is unclear whether or not the Yakumo has any supernatural significance, it does bestow power on those who possess it. Andrei Ulmeyda got his hands on a piece of the Yakumo, and was able to grow from a post office clerk into the owner of a mega corporation. True the corporation is a fraud, a wooden placard that topples when the Killer7 make their way inside it, but perhaps all political ideas are the same. They contain the ability to gain and maintain large amounts of money and power, but are built on a precarious foundation. They only continue to exist and flourish because people believe in them.

If the UN party are behind the missile attack launched at Japan, the question then is why? Was it all a ruse to have the US government move on Fukushima through the Killer7 so they can retrieve the Yakumo? It’s suggested that similar to how the Yakumo was born out of the ashes of World War II, by destroying Japan with an even greater attack, a new era, and the fulfillment of the Yakumo policy can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the devastated country. Perhaps this is also a modern form of the Bushido Code, the idea of death before dishonour. This idea holds weight thanks to the Heaven Smile. If the UN Party were not being controlled by Kun Lan, they are after Matsuoka takes his leadership position during Sunset. Kun Lan is responsible for the creation of the Heaven Smile, and their main method of attack is that of blowing themselves up by coming into contact with their enemy. Suicide bombing, reminiscent of the Kamikaze attacks from the Japanese during World War II, another embodiment of Bushido.

The second half of Sunset takes place in the KAKU Building, where over a game of Mahjong, representatives of Japan and the US are discussing whether or not Japan will be saved. The talk breaks down when one of the representatives is accused of cheating. The KAKU Building is flush with the motifs of gambling. There are puzzles with dice, poker hands, and horseracing. The 4-way Mexican standoff and the resulting executions have an inevitability to them that they too were part of the game being played, and this game could not have played out any other way. A strong theme running through Killer7 is that of politics as a game. Of countries and key figures as pieces on a chess board. This turns literal when Garcian finally enters the forbidden room of his trailer and sees that Harman Smith and Kun Lan are engaged in a game of chess. One that has been played before, and whose stakes are much larger than the pieces on the board. Garcian and the Killer7 are pieces in that game. This is the core experience of playing Killer7. Killer7 is an action game on rails. The player can only move these characters on predetermined paths, and only certain members of the group can access certain areas. The pieces cannot move freely.

One of the reasons Killer7 blew my mind when I first played it is that Harman Smith and Kun Lan are representational characters. They’re more than just a single person in a single place at a single time. A young Harman Smith killing his older counterpart with a tommy gun is an example of this. The chess game alongside the showdown in the Heaven Smile headquarters, and the epilogue in Shanghai show that Harman and Kun are rivals, but it is a friendly rivalry. It’s not as simple as good vs evil. They couldn’t be friends if that were the case. It’s more Yin and Yang. Two sides of the same coin. I thought perhaps they represented order and chaos but it would be screwed up if Harman represented order as the leader of the Killer7, a group of assassins.

There’s an east vs west dichotomy to their rivalry as well. If the Yakumo is supernatural in origin, then it is likely that Kun Lan had a hand in creating it. He created the Heaven Smile which I think are a weapon for the Japanese in the same way the Yakumo is. Perhaps the Yakumo is a wildcard and the pieces that Harman and Kun are playing with are as simple as the Killer7 vs the Heaven Smile. The epilogue in Shanghai shows that no matter the state of the world, this idea of competing ideologies between nations has to play out. It’s simply a different landscape. Their meeting in Shanghai is 100 years after the only narrative choice the player gets to make, whether or not to kill Matsuoka. This decision results in either the US or Japan winning the current game of politics. A decision that ultimately doesn’t seem to matter 100 years later.

If the game between Harman and Kun is as simple as the Killer7 vs the Heaven Smile, what about the mission titled Alter Ego? The Killer7 have a showdown against the Handsome Men, a sentai task force created by the US government for the purposes of combating the Heaven Smile threat, which at this point has become global. The showdown between the Handsome Men and the Killer7 ends with credits for a 16-bit video game before we see Kun Lan. Were the Handsome Men yet another of Kun’s chess pieces? An obstacle put in the way of the Killer7 to thwart Harman winning their game? As long as we’re talking about obstacles that are not Heaven Smiles, are Andrei Ulmeyda and Curtis Blackburn similar pieces?

Garcian Smith’s real name is Emir Parkreiner. A trained assassin who as a teenager murdered the Killer7 in a hotel, murdered his school principal Harman Smith, and stuffed him in a safe. The school that Emir was trained at is controlled by the Japanese UN Party, and the missions the Killer7 have been undertaking are for the US government. Emir carries the weapons of the Killer7 in his giant briefcase, meaning that changing into members of the Killer7, Harman Smith being the leader of the Killer7, and Garcian’s subservience to Harman are all in Emir’s head. We discover this in the final moments of the Smile mission.

Opening the safe at Coburn Elementary creates a cut on Emir’s forehead, revealing his third eye. He’s starting to see again. These memories have been repressed. As we make our way back to the Union Hotel, Emir recalls the assassination of each member of the Killer7 before he meets a young Harman Smith who assassinates the Harman and Kun playing the game of chess. The Forbidden Room might have only been accessible through Emir. Finally on the top of the building, Emir confronts what he’s done. He shoots his younger self in the third eye. He’s come to terms with that part of himself. In the final mission, Lion, Emir is Garcian no longer, and one of the consequences of that is that he can no longer see the Heaven Smile.

Let’s discuss my theory about whether or not the game is taking place inside Emir’s head. The Smith syndicate is the only group that can see and take down the Heaven Smile. This is thanks to Emir’s powers, and it’s not until the US government develops The Handsome Men that they have any alternative to relying on the Smith Syndicate. The Syndicate who might ultimately be under control by the Japanese because of Emir’s repressed education. The world of Killer7 has a theme of death and rebirth, or at least death not being the end. Most of the characters the Smith Syndicate kill appear in later levels as remnant psyches. Dan Smith had already been killed by Curtis Blackburn when Emir took his life in the Union Hotel, and it is suggested that Emir has lived more than once. He certainly looks well for a man born in 1942.

Returning to the game of chess, and a question I asked earlier, whose piece in the game is Emir? It might sound obvious to say Emir is Harman’s piece as Harman is the leader of the Killer7, but this is only because Emir wills it. When Emir interrupts their game, Harman is terrified of him while Kun is maniacally laughing. This is a different Harman from the one leading the Killer7. A Harman that remembers Emir murdering him. So is Emir Kun Lan’s piece? Emir was trained by the Japanese, but he has also been warring with the Heaven Smile as he is the only person capable of seeing them. I think that Kun wants to stop Emir from realising who he is, and that is why more Heaven Smile appear the closer we get to the end of the game. The Union Hotel is infested with them. Of course by this point, the Heaven Smile created by Kun have gotten away from him. The US government’s creations and the offspring of the Duplicators are the majority of what is fought. Was this part of Kun’s gameplan? In the end, Emir (as the player) makes the choice which nation wins the game, and by this point, Harman and Kun are no longer alive to witness its conclusion. Not that it matters. As Kun says in Shanghai, “The world doesn’t change, all it does is turn”.

Thanks for watching. In the end Killer7 presents a nihilistic view of human nature and the conflict between nations. How those that kill desire death themselves, or at least the death of their past in order for them to move on with their lives. In the Union Hotel, the soul shells, the collectibles needed to pass through the Vinculum Gate, are located where Emir executed the Killer7. This leads me to believe that the soul shells in the other missions represent previous assassinations of Emir (as himself, or through the Smith Syndicate). That he has to revisit the past and come to terms with his actions before being allowed to move forward. What do you think? So much of the game is open to interpretation, and that’s why I think it’s such a worthwhile work of art. I’d love to hear your interpretations in the comments, or your queries as to how certain characters or elements fit into the grand scheme of things. As always, if you’d like to help the channel and show me some love, please like the video, share it on your favourite social media sites, and subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already. Until next time, in the name of Harman, I hope you’re all having, a wonderful day.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Best Games I Played in 2018


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Well, another year has come and gone, and boy were there a lot of excellent videogames to play. 2018 was the year when my laptop finally let me know that it wouldn’t always be able to run the latest AAA games, but there were plenty of other more playable experiences to be had. As usual, I went back in time to play games I’ve always wanted to, and the majority of my impressions videos on the channel in 2018 were indie titles. I know my PC can run those.

I’ve picked 8 games out of the impressions and critique videos from the last year. 3 of the games were released in 2018, one was ported to PC this year, and the rest are from years passed. Since the majority of these games are from my impressions videos, it’s not the complete game that caused me to put it on this list, but the joy I experienced in the short time I spent with it. Its potential to delight me in the future when I return to complete it. You might see some of these games in one of my future best of year videos. As always, the games are in alphabetical order, so let’s get to it!


Demon’s Souls

This is the only game on the list that I played through for a critique. It’s the only Souls game I have completed, and I am happy that I put in the time and effort to do so. What makes Demon’s Souls special is what I imagine makes all of the souls games special. That they instill a sense of perseverance and learning from one’s mistakes in the player. That no challenge is insurmountable, and given enough time and effort, anything can be accomplished. Playing a magic user, I learned to love the benefits of ranged and melee combat on top of the overpowered nature of spells, endearing me to the game more strongly than it might have if I just played a pure melee class. I look forward to returning to Demon’s Souls in the future, as well as playing the other Souls games for this channel in the coming years.


Dustforce

Dustforce was my first impressions video of 2018. It started off the year in the best possible way. What makes Dustforce special is that aside from the novel concept of a platformer based around cleaning, the game is a purely mechanics driven platforming marvel, and the player improves and adapts to its quirks as more time is spent with it. As I progressed through Dustforce, I definitely became more confident, learning new tricks and techniques that aided me in returning to earlier levels to achieve those coveted SS ranks. Even though the game has time based leaderboards, speed can be your enemy. Most of my failures were caused by panic. Executing every move with deliberation and precision steered me right. Speed resulted as a consequence.


Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

I only got to play the first level of Metal Gear Rising for impressions, but what a memorable first level that was. There’s a fluidity to Raiden’s movement and animation that makes controlling his actions feel amazing. You know the feeling that even though the character on the screen is doing ridiculous things that should break immersion, they feel like an extension of the controller you’re holding? That’s how it struck me. Throw in the ability to chop enemies or anything else into confetti, combined with the standard ridiculous but compelling Metal Gear plot, and you have an action game that I can’t wait to return to. I hear the themes of the game are quite prescient to the times we find ourselves in as well.


Planescape: Torment

Planescape: Torment is regarded as one of the best videogames ever written. One of the things I love most about videogames is the stories they can tell, so I definitely want to see this one through to the end to find out if I can see where such praise is coming from. I think what I liked the best about my time with Planescape is how inventive it can be because it relies so much on text. The planes are a place where anything seems possible, and while I’m sure the majority of my time with The Nameless One will be disturbing and more than a little heartbreaking, if my time with it has been any indication, I look forward to experiencing this tale of immortality in its entirety.


Return of the Obra Dinn

Speaking of disturbing. Return of the Obra Dinn is a game where you use a magic pocket watch to transport yourself to the instant where the crew of the Obra Dinn met their often grisly demise. Rendered in a green monochrome reminiscent of the original Apple computers, the level of intricate narrative weaving that creator Lucas Pope would have had to gone through to make all these stories and their clues link together is remarkable. I have no plans to continue my playthrough, but I applaud the game’s originality and the excellence of its execution.


The Missing: J J Macfield and the Island of Memories

I love the games of Swery. They’re not always the most polished or technically sound, but they have a lot of charm, and I always find myself attached to the characters that inhabit these strange worlds. The Missing is no different. I spent my impressions video talking around the games’ main mechanic because I didn’t want to spoil the scene that kick starts JJ's journey. I’ve been playing this one through with a friend, and we’ve been mostly enjoying ourselves. It’s not exactly a lighthearted adventure, but it does have its moments. I’m looking forward to being able to share my thoughts on the game with you fine folks in the future.


Wandersong

I had the biggest smile on my face while playing Wandersong. Its cute cardboard cutout art combined with musical mechanics makes for a delightful time. Despite the whimsical tone, what I played is not all sunshine and rainbows, and I think the game is foreshadowing some rougher emotional moments. I look forward to seeing how these tones balance themselves out, and if the joy of the game ends up feeling all the stronger because you can’t have highs without equal lows. Wandersong is what I’m looking forward to playing the most out of everything on this list.


Yakuza 0

Speaking of balancing tone, we come to the final game, Yakuza 0. Every story beat is full of dramatic conflict and tension. I always wanted to see what happened next as the stakes for Kiryu kept rising. I wanted to keep punching my way to the next cutscene. The violence and loyalty of Kiryu shifts once Kamurocho opens up, the player engaging in side stories where Kiryu helps the citizens of this small slice of Japanese nightlife. I want to see this crime drama through to its conclusion. Even though my laptop is not up to the task of running the game smoothly, I can’t wait to start pummelling hooligans, and singing karaoke again.


And that’s another list for another year. Links to all the videos I made on these games in 2018 are below in the description. Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear what games you enjoyed playing the most in 2018. They don’t have to be from 2018, and you don’t have to have finished them. I just want to know the gaming experiences that were the most memorable for you. I might find some new games to add to my ever growing list of doom. Let me know in the comments. I hope you all had a great 2018, and that you have plans to make 2019 your best year yet. Let’s be all we can be. I look forward to all the wonderful new experiences on the horizon for this year, inside and outside of videogames. Happy new year everybody, and I hope you’ve all been having a wonderful day, and aren’t too hungover to enjoy the rest of it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What makes Dawn of War a memorable real time strategy experience?



Hey hey folks, and welcome to my critique of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Just a friendly reminder that if you haven’t completed the game, there will 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.

Earlier in the year I made an impressions video on Dawn of War 3. In it I lamented the shift away from cover and how the focus of combat now revolved around hero units instead of squads. This was based on my memories of Dawn of War, which I hadn’t played for years. I thought that it might be a good idea to return to the 2004 real time strategy game to see whether my memories were tinted by nostalgia, and if not, what about Dawn of War’s design makes it such a memorable and fun to play real time strategy experience? That’s what this video is here to find out.

I’m going to start with some of my early thoughts while playing and how they may have changed by the final mission. In the first couple of missions I questioned whether or not I should build to the player cap. Dawn of War has a limit on how many units and vehicles you can create at one time, resulting in choices that have to be made as stronger units will take up more unit slots. In the final mission, I was cursing my unit cap as I could only afford one terminator squad. I thought about sending my scouts into the enemy base to sacrifice themselves and free up some slots, but without them hidden on the outskirts of the base, how was I going to use the Orbital Relay to launch them in? I’ll bring this up later, but it’s funny how I thought my solution to many levels was to just brute force my way through with unit numbers, while the unit and vehicle cap actually makes Dawn of War different than many of its contemporaries. In those games, as long as you have the resources, you can create as many units as you like.

There’s a lot of waiting in most real time strategy games. In the early levels I thought that perhaps waiting was tied to the core of the genre, and maybe that’s one reason it’s fallen out of favour. While you can’t fully remove the waiting around for things to happen (such as crafting units and buildings), in the last few missions, I made the choice to be more proactive. If I have to wait around, I might as well be doing something, right? I used my scouts to scope out the map, including all the strategic points, which I would send marine squads to capture. Hey, I might as well gain more resources and establish a presence over as much of the map as I possibly can. There’s a quote attributed to one of the designers of Civilization 4. “Fun is meaningful choices divided by time”. I wondered if an RTS is truly meant to be about consistent meaningful choices. Is any game? Without downtime, a consistent barrage of meaningful decisions would become exhausting. It would be like playing a Michael Bay movie. Plus the concept seems to go against how an RTS is played, or perhaps at least how I play one.

I think there are two main RTS playstyles, and it’s not a case of one or the other. Both are needed. It’s just that some players lean more heavily towards one in particular. I call them “Prepare & Execute”, and “Keep Pushing Forward”. Prepare & Execute is building up a base, building up an army, and then sending the army towards the enemy. Maybe you’ll scout ahead and find the best entry point. Maybe you’ll break up your army into separate pieces and attack different areas all at the same time. However you approach it, it’s essentially playing defensively until you’re ready to go on the offensive. Keep Pushing Forward is the opposite. Don’t just scout ahead, send the squads you would be defending with out into the world. Capture every strategic point you come across, keep testing the enemy’s defenses when you find their base, and build as many new bases as you need to, so your new units don’t have far to travel. I am definitely in the Prepare & Execute camp. So much so, that to me, the joy of the game has always been to craft the right combination of units, vehicles, and weapon upgrades before clicking attack-move on the enemy and seeing what happens. A “set it and forget it” mentality. As I became more confident, playing mission after mission, I found myself edging towards Keep Pushing Forward. It’s at least something to do while waiting.

With this talk of squads and weapon loadouts, let’s examine some of what I feel are the core attributes of Dawn of War. Squads, reinforcements, and cover. I’ve mentioned the right combination of weapon loadout. Each space marine squad can enhance itself with up to 4 advanced weapons. A flamer, a heavy bolter, a plasma gun, and a missile launcher. Do you create different squads with different loadouts, placing them where you think they’ll have the greatest effect? Will you make one of everything, or will you find the right balance for all situations. About halfway through the game I found that a heavy bolter, a plasma gun, and two missile launchers worked wonders. The missile launchers are a must for dealing with buildings and vehicles, the heavy bolter is great for suppressive fire and long range attack, and the plasma gun packs a greater punch and can be used on the move. Terminator squads, Scout units and most vehicles have advanced weapon choices as well. These choices along with the selection of units can favour the personality of an individual playstyle, but we’ll discuss that later.

Another element of the squad is that of morale. If a squad is on the front lines getting wailed on, it’s not going to take long for their morale to break. If there’s a sergeant in the squad, or one of the leader units is attached, the squad will gain morale boosts and if they’re near their breaking point, the rally ability can be used to raise morale and keep them fighting. This runs alongside reinforcement. If a squad is in a situation where their morale is being tested, chances are that squad is losing units. By clicking the reinforcement button, new units can be added back to the squad so they can keep fighting until they win, until their morale breaks and they scatter, or until they’re decimated. This plays into the honour of the Space Marines, and how retreat is a dirty word. Although to tell a secret, I would sometimes pull a squad back and let others take punishment while the original squad bolstered its numbers again. Shh.

We now come to the importance of cover. This is an area where my memory deceived me. Cover is important. A defending squad in heavy cover can hold out against great odds, but my memories of advancing troops hopping from crater to crater and ruin to ruin couldn’t be further from the truth. The majority of my fights were out in the open. If cover aided me on my way, great, but once again, army composition and weapon loadout were the deciding factors. Perhaps it’s best to say it’s not that cover didn’t play a great part in my victories and defeats, but that I didn’t notice it as I was playing. I think I understand why in Dawn of War 3, cover is a zone you capture and hold. It’s trying to treat the mechanic as something more important instead of incidental, but even though cover didn’t play as great a role in Dawn of War as I remember it, I prefer the idea of the map itself providing benefit and detriment to the player depending on where they are and where they choose to fight.

Each mission in Dawn of War follows the same formula. I always started on the back foot. Whether it was a lack of resources, the base not being in a great location, or an Eldar farseer harassing my growth, the most exciting and turbulent part of the game was always in these opening moments before the base had been completed. Since I played in a prepare and execute manner, once the base was up, and I was well fortified, I would start building the army that would crush the opposition. Then I would crush the opposition, ending the level in a place of gleeful power. The campaign only had me playing as the Space Marines, while in skirmish and multiplayer there are 3 other races to pick from. There are definitely pros and cons to this. The con is that I would have loved to have played as one of the other races, specifically the Eldar, as their use of warp gates to hop around the level intrigued me. The pro is that you become very familiar with the Space Marines build order, and which upgrades are necessary. Learning what is crucial and what can wait until you’re solvent is very important in those early stages when resources are low.

When discussing weapon loadout, I talked about the ability for a player to express their individual personality. How perhaps based on the player, weapon loadouts and army composition can be radically different. I don’t think this will effect build order too much, as certain buildings do need to be built to upgrade and access the next tier, but it could have an effect on what upgrades a player prioritises. For example, aside from the missions that they were necessary in, I never built an Assault Marine Squad, a Whirlwind, or a Land Raider. Perhaps if I had played longer, I might have found uses for these units, but while I grew to love late game units like Terminators and Predators, working them into my army composition, I saw no need to understand how those other units would benefit me. How different might the approach of another player be? Would these units feature prominently in their army? Is this only a campaign question? My thoughts are that the best players have found optimal army composition and weapon loadout strategies for situations they might face, so this aspect of player personality doesn’t matter at all for multiplayer. Instead I think multiplayer might rely on the best plan, with the match going to the player who can most easily adapt and counter their opponents’ plan. This is why I was wondering if I was brute forcing single player, despite the unit and vehicle caps.

I set out to discover what made Dawn of War fun and memorable to play. We covered caps that limit the ability to swarm the field with units, different playstyles revolving around defense and offense, and what I felt are the core attributes of the game: squads, reinforcements, and cover. While cover didn’t play as great a role as I remember, the squad, its weapon loadout and managing morale while reinforcing lost units made me think about using squads to express oneself while playing. While outside of class choice in skirmish or multiplayer I don’t think that’s entirely true (but am happy to be proven wrong). Only the single class approach of the campaign seems to allow for experimentation. Dawn of War distinguishes itself in the RTS genre with the creation of strategic resource nodes, and squad based gameplay, and while Relic would refine a lot of these ideas to greater effect in Company of Heroes, it’s fitting that these concepts should begin in a universe based on perpetual warfare.

Thanks for watching. What are some of your thoughts and experiences with Dawn of War? Do you have any response to anything I said in the video? I’d love to hear from you all in the comments. If you’d like to help the channel and show me some love, please like the video, share with your friends, and subscribe if you haven’t already. Until next time, I hope you’re all having a wonderful day.