Bayonetta 2 (2014)

In my review of Bayonetta, I praised the game for being a more approachable character action game while maintaining a high level of potential complexity. Bayonetta 2 polishes this concept to an absurd degree, improving on many of the faults of the original game. Despite Bayonetta being an excellent action game, it had some glaring faults such as its dull color palette, overabundance of frustrating gimmicks, and punishing QTE sequences. Bayonetta 2 alleviates all of these issues, making it an even better experience for general audiences.

The most immediately obvious improvement that Bayonetta 2 makes is the art direction and use of vibrant colors. I lamented about the dull browns and grays that dominated the landscape of the original Bayonetta. In the prologue alone Bayonetta 2 obviously puts emphasis on livening up the color scheme. The environments are far more memorable and pleasant to look at because of this. It makes the spectacular animations and set pieces pop even more. It may seem like I am being overly nitpicky when complaining about the original game’s dull colors, but I’m adamant that for a game all about being stylish and sexy that it should have been more appealing to the eyes. I have to applaud Bayonetta 2 for overhauling this aspect.

Thankfully, Quick Time Events (QTEs) have been greatly diminished in Bayonetta 2. Dying because you didn’t press the X button in half of a second feels cheap and unearned. Even worse, it stops you from being able to just watch and enjoy spectacle cutscenes because you are always on edge waiting for a QTE if you know that it is a possibility. I’m glad that these have been removed. There is still the occasional button mashing QTE, but you know when it’s about to happen and you can’t die as a result of it, so it’s far less egregious than the QTEs in cutscenes.

Another feature that I’m happy was renovated was the gimmick sections. Bayonetta had a couple of levels that were outright frustrating to play because they relied heavily on arcade gimmicks. Bayonetta 2 remedies this by reducing the amount of non-combat sections there are in the game and also polishing them further. Riding the demonic horse or jet fighter in Bayonetta 2 is far better than riding the motorcycle or rocket in its predecessor. They’ve added additional attacks to make these sections more engaging. Additionally, these sections are far shorter so they feel less intrusive this time around. I still prefer the actual combat to these sections, but now they serve as welcome switch-ups rather than frustrating interruptions.

The combat of Bayonetta is lauded for its approachability and deep complexity. Bayonetta 2 implements the combat in a near identical way, with a few changes. The most noticeable change is that the “Normal” difficulty of Bayonetta 2 is easier than its predecessor. While I did enjoy overcoming some of the more challenging encounters that the original Bayonetta offered, I felt more inclined to try new combos and techniques when the damage was turned down a bit.

The other major addition to combat is a new ability called Umbran Climax. When you have a full magic gauge you can activate it, letting Bayonetta channel her demonic powers. It essentially turns all of your attacks into Wicked Weaves, making them do more damage, have wider area of effects, and staggers enemies. While I do think that Umbran Climax is a fun spectacle, it does feel too powerful. There rarely feels like there’s a purpose to using the magic gauge for Torture Attacks or using accessories when Umbran Climax is just so potent.

Ultimately, the combat of Bayonetta 2 is strikingly similar to its predecessor, and that is for the best because it truly is some of the greatest combat you will find in an action game. I will mention that at the very highest levels of gameplay Bayonetta 2 may not be as satisfying. Larger enemies do not stagger easily, making it challenging to keep up combos. Additionally, many enemies can block or dodge in the middle of your combo. Personally, these things did not bother me, and I doubt they will bother most players. But if you are the type who likes to go for Pure Platinum medals on the highest difficulty, then these small irritants may be a far greater problem.

The story of Bayonetta was complete nonsense, and while I do think that Bayonetta 2 is better in this regard, it still spends too much time on its narrative aspects. I actually quite like the conclusion of Bayonetta 2, as it retroactively makes Bayonetta make more sense. But I wish PlatinumGames would realize that people play these games for the action, spectacle, and characters. These games aren’t meant to be masterpieces of storytelling, and that’s fine. But the writing and dialogue is just hard to sit through sometimes. It wouldn’t be such a problem if the game didn’t have two and a half hours of cutscenes in a relatively short game. Spending a quarter or a third of the game length in cutscenes for a game that should be all about the action feels excessive and unnecessary.

 The only major fault of Bayonetta 2 is that is very much derivative of the original. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way or that Bayonetta 2 is not enjoyable. In all honesty, I vastly prefer Bayonetta 2 to Bayonetta. It polishes the formula in many ways, removing the undesirable aspects and making technological improvements. However, Bayonetta 2 is relatively risk free, and while it’s not a bad thing to give the players more of what they want, it’s hard to hold it in the same regard as Bayonetta which made all the critical innovations. Bayonetta 2 may be a more enjoyable game, but it’s a far less important one when compared to Bayonetta.

In nearly every way, Bayonetta 2 is an improvement over Bayonetta. It cleans up many of the frustrating aspects that made me scratch my head while playing Bayonetta. It maintains the high level of combat that the series has become known for, and it is accessible to newcomers due to the emphasis on dodging and Witch Time. Despite this, Bayonetta 2 will have a hard time taking the spotlight from Bayonetta; it’s a great follow-up but it owes everything to its predecessor.

Spiritfarer (2020)

After the brutal and challenging adventure known as Elden Ring, I felt like I needed a more relaxed game. I was extremely excited to start Spiritfarer, a cozy journey where you escort spirit passengers on their path to the afterlife. At first, I was enthralled with Spiritfarer, I think it was a novel idea. A game that tackles the themes of death and mental health in a healthy manner surely can be impactful for many people. But I found that Spiritfarer is frankly just too long for the limited amount of actual gameplay that it contains.

The premise of Spiritfarer is that you play as Stella, a young woman who has entered the spirit realm and is given the important role of escorting spirits to the afterlife. You sail the seas in your little boat, stopping at islands along the way and talking to local spirits. Some of whom will become passengers on Stella’s vessel. As occupants on the ship, you will have to fulfill their desires and requests until they feel they are ready to move onto the afterlife.

Spiritfarer engages with the idea of death and moving on in an elegant fashion. Spirits become familiar friends on the vessel. Talking to you, sharing their memories, and hanging around as you carry out your quests. Then suddenly they decide their time has come to an end, and you must bring them to their final destination. These tearjerking moments are equal parts depressing and gratifying. As you share your last moments with the characters you’ve come to know and love, you realize that it wasn’t meant to last forever and sometimes people are just ready to move on. It’s sad, but death is real, and Spiritfarer harbors lessons for everyone.

There is overarching plot in Spiritfarer. Astute players may be able to predict what is happening early on in the journey. Mysteriously, Stella seems to know all of the spirits that join her on the ship from their previous lives. Unfortunately, I felt that the interconnected story elements fell a little flat. Stella’s story is very sparsely spread out across the entire 30+ hour game, with much of it needing to be inferred. The game focuses more on the individual spirits backgrounds and their stories.

Truthfully, I also felt that the self-contained stories about each character also were underwhelming. Somehow, Spiritfarer is simultaneously underwritten and overwritten. Characters have a ton of dialogue, sometimes it seems to never end. But at the same time much of that dialogue is entirely fluff, not revealing anything meaningful about the spirit, their background, or their personality. A lot is left to the player to be inferred, which is fine, but it did feel like there was big chunks of the story cut out. Which makes sense when you learn that there is an entirely separate artbook which does contain more details about Stella and the characters.

When I began playing Spiritfarer, I was enthralled with its relaxing gameplay. I have never been a huge fan of life-simulation games akin to Animal Crossing, but I initially thought that Spiritfarer would be different. There’s plenty of resource management to upgrade your ship, some platforming elements, minigames to refine resources, and an actual narrative. But disappointingly, all of these elements lose their luster after a few hours and the game just does not evolve in any significant manner in its long runtime.

Take for instance the resource management. You need resources like wood, cloth, glass, etc., to construct new buildings. Generally, you collect raw resources while visiting islands and then refine them into materials to build things. To refine resources, you use specific buildings that each have their own mini-game to complete, rewarding bonus materials if you do well in the mini-game. The mini-games are fine at first, but become a complete time-sink as the game progresses. Some of them feel like they are specifically designed to waste your time. Mashing a button to hammer steel or waiting for metal to melt is just not interesting. Not to mention having to tend to crops and feed the chickens and direct the ship to its destination.

A huge opportunity was missed in Spiritfarer, which when I began the game, I thought for sure would be implemented. While spirits inhabit your ship, they have a mood level. You can keep them happy by feeding them food they enjoy, hugging them, or doing certain activities. The spirits are supposed to reward you with things when they are in a good mood. But the rewards are completely meaningless garbage. I’m not going to go out of my way to keep a spirit happy if all I get for it is a single wooden plank every two hours.

It really feels like there was an intention here to have spirits actually do the jobs they enjoy doing. The woodworker should chop logs in the lumber mill, the seamstress should sew fabric, the chef should make food in the kitchen. It’s so bizarre that as the game progresses, you unlock dozens of stations to create materials, but the spirits who obviously enjoy the activities don’t ever interact with them. Instead, the player has to juggle a bunch of time consuming mini-games that get tiresome after the third time you’ve played them.

I thought my ship would eventually transform into a self-sustaining colony. I could direct the ship and explore the islands and take care of whatever tasks I need to while the spirits partake in their hobbies and craft resources so long as they were in a good mood. Instead, they just kind of hang around on your ship, asking to be fed and occasionally giving you some lengthy dialogue about nothing in particular. I would have been far more attached to the characters if they actually felt like they were dynamic parts of the journey that assisted me instead of just being annoying chatty statues.

Unfortunately, most of the quests in Spiritfarer are also uninspiring. While I love the idea of helping the lost souls on your ship and fulfilling their final requests, the mechanical execution of quests is just lazy. Sailing back and forth between islands just to collect a single item or talk to another character for one minute is the epitome of fetch quests. Quests that incorporated some platforming or exploration felt far better than the repetitive fetch quests.

Spiritfarer is an undeniably gorgeous game. The art direction, character designs, and detailed animations are really the star of the game. I loved watching the characters just go about their business, or watching Stella’s cat chase her little ball. Moreover, the concept of sailing and building a community on this supernatural ferry is supremely cozy. This is admittedly what drew me into Spiritfarer, I just wish the gameplay or story did its part to keep my interest.

One of the most common issues that I’ve seen after playing and reflecting upon hundreds of games is that many of them are just too long for their own good. For some reason gamers love to spew nonsense about the amount of “hours per dollar” they get out of a game, leading to bloated experiences. If a movie or an album was eight hours long, it better have an extremely good reason, and even then, it would get lambasted by reviewers and the public. Why do we treat games differently? Honestly, if Spiritfarer was half or even a third of its current length of nearly 30 hours, it would be far more enjoyable. The mini-games and sailing back and forth doesn’t get nearly as repetitive or grating if you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. Spiritfarer simply wears out its welcome far prior to completing the game.

I really wanted to enjoy Spiritfarer. It’s central theme of memento mori and mental health are conveyed in a comforting environment. The game is visually stunning. But the overarching gameplay and story just aren’t enough to keep a fairly lengthy game entertaining for the full duration. It is for these reasons that I give Spiritfarer a 5/10. I seem to be in the minority as most people loved Spiritfarer, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I just have a strong aversion to games like Spiritfarer and Animal Crossing. Clearly a lot of love and care went into the making of Spiritfarer and I wish I could praise and recommend the game. But sadly, Spiritfarer misses some opportunities and is ultimately tedious.

Metroid Dread (2021)

Metroid was a historic series that had been inexplicably abandoned. The last new 2D Metroid game was Metroid Fusion back in 2002. Nearly 20 years later we get Metroid Dread, a game that was firsts announced in 2005. 3rd party developer MercurySteam was handed the reigns to the series after delivering the successful remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, and man did they deliver with the first original Metroid game in a long time. Metroid Dread is a glorious modernization of the series. While it does have its flaws, Metroid Dread is exactly what was needed to reignite the series.

It’s clear that MercurySteam put a ton of resources into the movement and combat of Metroid Dread. Running and jumping around an alien planet never felt so smooth. Maybe it’s because all the previous Metroid games were from 20 years ago, but Metroid Dread goes a long way to make controlling Samus extremely crisp. Not only are the controls precise, but there a few extra movement options that open up your movement through the world: sliding, ledge grabbing, and countering. Some of these were added in Metroid: Samus Returns, but Metroid Dread incorporates them to the main series.

Combat in Metroid Dread is absolutely glorious. As much as I enjoy the OG Metroid games, they had a tendency of being a little clunky to pilot. A lot of the boss fights ended up being a stat check where you would just standstill and fire at the bosses, hoping that you would kill them before they would kill you. Metroid Dread repeatedly tells you that no attack is unavoidable, and it isn’t lying. Between the more precise controls, expanded movement options, and the telegraphed enemy attacks, avoiding damage is an important skill to master. And Metroid Dread is better for it.

Figuring out how to defeat bosses is one of my favorite aspects of Metroid Dread. Learning their movesets, how to dodge seemingly unavoidable attacks, and discovering openings to deal huge damage is just so satisfying. Many bosses seemed ridiculous and intimidating at first, but after experimenting I learned that many of them could be taken down fairly quickly. And it doesn’t feel like you have to rely on a trial-and-error approach either. Being slow and cautious and dealing incremental damage is a totally valid strategy as well. 

My one gripe with the combat is that while the bosses were engaging affairs, most of the basic enemies were far too easy. The main reason for this is the all-powerful counter attack that the player has access to. Most enemies in the game have attacks which flash before hitting you, indicating that it is counterable. When an attack is countered, the enemy is left vulnerable and will almost always be killed by your very next attack. And if you successfully kill a basic enemy with a counter, they drop bonus resources.

Players will quickly realize that countering is the dominant strategy for dealing with standard enemies. It’s much easier to execute than trying to evade fast moving enemies, it kills enemies faster than just shooting them outright, and it gives extra health and missiles for performing it. Honestly, it’s just too powerful. It’s also not as engaging to dip, duck, dodge, and shoot at aliens. It’s simply a reaction time mini-game where you press the button when the enemy’s attack flashes. Countering should not make enemies so vulnerable, and not let you kill them in a single attack. That way it remains a viable defensive option that lets the player get some free hits in, but doesn’t become the dominant offensive tactic as well.

The unique feature of Metroid Dread that makes it stand out amongst its predecessors is the inclusion of the EMMI robots. In each major area there is an EMMI Zone, a cluster of rooms that are being patrolled by the dread inspiring robot. The EMMIs are invincible robots that lurk in hallways, listening and scanning for you. If one sees you, it will hunt you down. If it catches you, it will instantly kill you with only a miniscule chance to counter it. Ultimately, you are meant to avoid the EMMIs until you can kill them.

The inclusion of the EMMIs has been met with mixed reactions. Some people think they are frustrating to constantly avoid, but I personally enjoyed the switch-up from traditional gameplay. The EMMI Zones invoke a feeling of horror, you have to quickly find your way to the nearest exit or else risk being prey to the indomitable machines. These sections are pretty forgiving, if you die you aren’t brought all the way back to the previous save, but instead you respawn where you entered the EMMI Zone. I enjoyed the frantic chases as I tried to dodge around the EMMIs, and the developers were restrained in making sure these sections were never overly long or frustrating.

 There’s a reason that the Metroid series has spawned an entire genre of games focused on exploration. Metroid has become synonymous with backtracking in the gaming world. Metroid Dread is an odd case because while I do think it has some clever level design, it also has some shortcomings. In the sprawling maze of tunnels that make up most metroidvanias, it can quickly become daunting to find where to go next. Getting lost in these games is almost a given. But the developers of Metroid Dread utilized some intelligent tricks to avoid the player getting too lost.

The core loop of many metroidvanias is acquiring a new power and then finding somewhere to use that newly obtained ability to access a new area. It can often be tricky to find the critical path forward, but Metroid Dread cleverly places opportunities to use your recently acquired upgrade very close to where you acquire it. For example, when you acquire a wall climbing ability, there is sure to be a climbable wall in your vicinity. This subtly guides the player to where to go without blatantly leading them by the nose. There is also some sequence breaking that the developers deliberately created for more advanced players to find. If you do stumble upon a way to deviate from the critical path you are rewarded with unique cutscenes.

Despite there being some subtle guidance when exploring, at times there is some obvious railroading. I found that there was a surprising amount of points-of-no-return, spots at which once you pass them you won’t be able to return to your previous location until much later in the game. This essentially cuts the player off from backtracking, making sure they don’t go too far backwards and get lost in the process. I’m not a fan of this as it felt like the developers were holding my hand and telling me not to explore too much without their permission.

Games like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are known for their atmosphere if nothing else. The feeling of being isolated on an alien planet is conveyed so well. The visuals and music work in harmony to transport the player to a hostile world. Metroid Dread is just not as successful in this department. The music is entirely forgettable, and the visual backgrounds aren’t much better. Metallic hallway after metallic hallway is not pleasant to look at, and it certainly doesn’t convey that you are on an alien planet. There are a few interesting spots that utilize the 2.5D style of graphics extremely well. I loved seeing little alien creatures scurry about in the background of caves, or watching rain pour down and waves crash on the exterior of an alien base.

An unfortunate side effect of having poor visual design is how it affects player exploration. There are eight different areas in Metroid Dread, and while each one has their own flair, they often blend together. It can be hard to remember where you saw a secret or alternative path when every single room looks exactly the same. It’s especially unfortunate because graphically the game looks solid, it’s just that the art direction is bland.

I’m glad that the Metroid series is making a strong return, and Metroid Dread inspires confidence in the series. While I do think that it is weaker in certain aspects like exploration and atmosphere, it is an undeniably fantastic entry in the historic series. The modernized movement and combat are brilliant, this is the smoothest Metroid game by a long shot. Moreover, MercurySteam didn’t play it too safe by just regurgitating an older Metroid game as the addition of EMMIs was great. It is for these reasons that I give Metroid Dread an 8/10. Metroid Dread is more action focused than its ancestors, and even if it isn’t as atmospheric as Super Metroid or Metroid Prime, it is an entry to the series that nobody should miss.