Dead Cells (2018)

I’m the first to admit that finding a rogue-lite game that suits my tastes is difficult. As someone who enjoys steady progression systems and a consistent difficulty curve, the rogue-lites and rogue-likes of the world seem antithetical to my preferences. Even Enter the Gungeon, a game which I love, almost had me quitting after a handful of hours. Unfortunately, Dead Cells never hooked me and grew stale after a dozen hours. While the combat was entertaining enough, I had felt like I had seen the whole game after a handful of successful runs.  

The core concept of the rogue-lite genre is that every time you die, you must restart the game from the first level. Rogue-lites in particular have methods of progression that unlock weapons and upgrades throughout the course of the game that will make subsequent runs easier to complete. That combined with the knowledge and skill gained after multitudes of runs allow the player to make it deeper and deeper in the game, until the eventually conquer the final boss.

One of the primary aspects of Dead Cells that is given praise is its progression system. While playing the game, exploring hidden crevices, and killing enemies you will gain cells and blueprints. Blueprints serve as unlocks for weapons and tools that once earned can be found in subsequent runs. You must spend cells to complete the blueprints as well as unlocking generalist boosts like additional health flasks. 

The premise of Dead Cells is that you control an amorphous blob that takes control over a beheaded body that it finds. You must traverse a crumbling kingdom to defeat monsters and overthrow a corrupt ruler. There is not much explicit story and explanation given to the player. Instead, you will find hidden bits and pieces of lore scattered throughout your runs. It’s clear that there is a disease known as the malaise that is the source of the kingdom’s ruin, but learning the source of the disease and how the main characters are significant is something that the player will have to figure out after many, many hours. Truthfully, the reason you play Dead Cells is not for the story. 

My favorite aspect of Dead Cells is undeniably its combat. As side-scrolling hack n’ slash, you can expect some fast-paced and chaotic action when playing Dead Cells. There is tons of skill expression in how you choose to approach each encounter. You can rely on pure instincts to dodge incoming attacks, or you can play it slow and rely on ranged attacks and traps, or perhaps you prefer to utilize shields to block and parry blows. Every weapon behaves differently, and each one you find will have different augments to its base ability that can further warp its playstyle. It is fun to experiment with numerous builds and see how different each run can be.

Slashing through hordes of enemies just feels right. When a game gets combat correct, it’s hard to explain. There is a visceral feeling of satisfaction. Dead Cells undeniably gets it right. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, to good combat. Enemies react to your hits, but given the opportunity will retaliate with massive damage. There is a ton of variation in each enemy type, leaving the player to play cautiously with each new encounter. But once you master each stage you can strike down enemies with confidence and breeze through at breakneck pace.

The meat of Dead Cells is its combat and exploration. Dead Cells labels itself as a cross between a rogue-lite and a metroidvania. I’ve discussed its strengths as a rogue-like, but as a metroidvania it’s a tough sell. The nature of being a rogue-lite is the inherit randomization of the layout of each subsequent run, which is in direct conflict with the progression loops of traditional metroidvania. Exploration is a key aspect of any metroidvania, and remembering where locked doors and out-of-reach ledges were is absolutely core to the experience of a metroidvania. The exploration of Dead Cells is more dynamic, but it does not scratch the itch that a traditional metroidvania would.

Dead Cells is composed of many differing areas, and you can change your path during each run if you so choose. You must collect and unlock a handful of relics across numerous runs to access some of the more challenging areas. While this seems like a metroidvania initially, I quickly realized that collecting relics and accessing alternative routes was entirely unnecessary. Sure, it was more content to play through, and some new enemy types dropped new blueprints, but the intrinsic reward was not justified. These areas brought me no closer to defeating the final boss. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt like due to the increased difficulty of the zones it was actually a hindrance to attempt them during a serious run.

To increase your power in a run to give yourself a chance to defeat the final boss you unlock weapons of varying power levels as well as scrolls that increase your health and damage. As far as I could tell, taking the path of least resistance was just as effective as tackling the most challenging routes. Unlocking new blueprints to craft new weapons is fine, but I found that many of the blueprint weapons were undeniably weak. Sure, some were stronger than the early game weapons but most were not worth the price of admission. It feels like much of the progression in Dead Cells justification was “just because”, which truthfully did not drive me to continue.

The biggest offender of this mindset was how difficulty levels scaled. When you initially defeat the final boss, you are given a “boss cell”, an item which you can activate in future runs to up the difficulty. When you defeat the next higher difficulty, you unlock the next boss cell, and it continues like this until the 5th boss cell. At that point you will finally be able to challenge, the “actual” final boss of the game. 

The truth is that I felt absolutely zero desire to complete further levels of difficulty past the initial one. You are rewarded with more cells to unlock more blueprints, but as previously mentioned that felt worthless. Moreover, you do not unlock any real “additional” content until the 5th boss cell, which I’ve heard rumors will take 75+ hours to realistically complete. I felt no drive to unlock higher difficulties just for the sake of it. I like challenging games, but doing the same thing over and over with just harder enemies doesn’t appeal to me.

Overall, Dead Cells is just a confusing game to me. I enjoyed my first dozen hours with the game but I felt absolutely no desire to progress after that. Hardcore fans will tell me that the point is to complete each difficulty level, but there just doesn’t feel like there is a point. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m just not the core audience of this type of game. All the unlockables and blueprints and difficulty levels just beg the question “but why?”. It is for these reasons that I give Dead Cells a 6/10. Despite having fun combat, I just don’t understand the cyclic and repetitive nature of Dead Cells.

Valheim (2021)

Multiplayer survival crafting games are not my thing. I enjoy the concept of base building and collecting resources, but these games never seem to draw me in. I want a concrete goal, something to progress towards, not just the nebulous idea of thriving in a hostile environment. Valheim is special because it actually provides a goal and a reason to engage with its survival and crafting mechanics. It discards the frustrating and tedious mechanics that are common across the genre, making it more accessible to casual players. And despite being an early access game, it is relatively complete and bug-free.

In Valheim, you play as a Viking thrown into a mystical world after death. You must prove your worth to the gods so that you can ascend to Valhalla. The trials of Valheim are as simple as surviving and defeating mythical bosses to prove your might as a warrior. But as a newcomer to this hostile world, you are equipped with absolutely nothing. The premise of Valheim is that you must gather resources, materials, train your skills, defeat monsters, build bases, and upgrade your armor and weaponry so that you can challenge the mighty beasts that rule the land.

Valheim is split into numerous biomes, each with their own resources to harvest and boss to conquer. You start in the relatively safe meadows, where you will spend time hunting deer and boar as you begin to build a base made from logs. The way you progress through the biomes is clever, as even though you can travel to any biome any time you want, you cannot gather resources in those biomes without the appropriate tools. To unlock those tools, you must first defeat the boss of the previous area. It’s a simple approach to coax the player into upgrading their equipment and fighting the powerful mythical beasts.

What I appreciate the most about Valheim is how approachable it is. The game explains all of its systems so the player does not have to constantly look things up on the internet. It also has turned punishing systems from other games into more relaxed restrictions. For example, in most survival games you must constantly be keeping track of your food intake to make sure you don’t starve. Valheim is similar in that you should be hunting and growing food, but even if you don’t eat you won’t starve to death. Food serves as a health and stamina buff, rather than a necessity. The idea of it being a buff rather than something needed to survive makes it more enjoyable to engage with.

Furthermore, things like weapon and armor durability are minor inconveniences rather than painful time-wasters. You can easily restore your equipment for free at your base, rather than having to constantly build new sets. Its decisions like these that let the player spend more time exploring and discovering what the world of Valheim has to offer rather than waste time farming resources over and over again.

Exploring the world of Valheim for the first time is a treat. Discovering the different biomes and their abundance of resources is always enjoyable. Plenty of effort has been made to prevent the biomes from feeling like static zones. You will come across forts, abandoned towns, dungeon-like crypts, enemy strongholds, stone tablets inscribed with lore, and many more distinguishing features. You are encouraged to sail across the world, setting up bases in every new biome. Because of this, you are almost always engaging with the best content that the game has to offer: exploring and building.

 While I enjoyed Valheim for the most part, the more I played it the more frustrated I grew. The first issue being how stamina is implemented in the game. Eating food gives you bonus stamina that will regenerate, but stamina regeneration does not appreciably increase even when your total stamina does. The result of this being that you have to spend long portions of time essentially standing still or walking slowly to regenerate stamina. Nearly every action in the game consumes stamina: running, jumping, attacking, swimming, mining, farming, terraforming, blocking, dodging, essentially anything that isn’t just standing still.

Stamina potions exist, but are time-consuming to craft considering they have to brew for an hour before you can use them. Not to mention they have a cooldown after use, so they aren’t a reliable source of regeneration. The most aggravating aspect of the stamina system is that if you are ever running low on stamina and a monster approaches you, there are practically no options. You can’t run, you can’t fight back, you can’t block, you can’t dodge; all you can do is stand there and take a beating while slowly waiting to regenerate your stamina.

My distaste for the stamina system was only worsened by how tired I grew of the main gameplay loop. While I appreciate the concrete goals and loop of gathering materials, upgrading gear, fighting the boss, and then unlocking a new area, it grew a little stale after the first few biomes. It didn’t feel like there was much more to see, my natural sense of discovery waned. Not to mention how much waiting and grinding is needed to progress into the final zones of the game.

I found myself spending more time than I would have liked farming the same metals over and over to upgrade my equipment. At some point, the sense of progression and challenge is gone and all that remains is a tedious grind. Waiting for crops to grow so I can craft new armor isn’t enjoyable, aimlessly patrolling a wasteland for hours on end to find the final boss isn’t enjoyable, and delving into crypts to mine your 300th chunk of iron isn’t enjoyable. I was quite ready to be done with Valheim by the end of my experience.

Overall, I think Valheim is a solid multiplayer crafting game. While this genre isn’t my cup of tea, Valheim has an interesting progression loop and encourages exploration. It’s a game that wants its players to embark on an adventure and build bases along the way. While I grew tired of the formula after many hours, that can be partially attributed to my general distaste of the genre. Since Valheim is still in Early Access, I will not be giving it a rating. However, I do recommend it to those who enjoy exploring and building with friends.

Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

My distaste for Ubisoft style open-world games isn’t a secret. They often feel derivative, repetitive, and soulless. One of the more regrettable trends in modern gaming is how many open-world games have adopted numerous pillars of design from the dreadful Ubisoft games. From Horizon Zero Dawn to even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, no game is safe from scalable towers and copy-pasted side-content. It should be a surprise then that I actually enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima, a game which adopts many of the trends that I despise. Somehow, Sucker Punch Production’s creation manages to stand out in a sea of soulless open-world games.

 Set in 1274, Ghost of Tsushima takes place when the Mongols invaded the Japanese island of Tsushima. You play as Jin Sakai, an honorable samurai who is highly respected amongst his peers and superiors. The Mongol horde ravages Jin’s homeland, leaving him as one of the few surviving samurai as the invaders pillage and murder their way across the island. While I wouldn’t consider the story itself a literary masterpiece, it does have a few interesting themes and surprising moments.

The most prominent theme of the game is how Jin slowly abandons his samurai code of honor. Fighting honorably and respectfully is critical to the samurai lifestyle, but he realizes that the best way to reclaim his home and save lives is to partake in some unsavory tactics. Jin’s uncle, the governor of the island, is staunchly against Jin’s dishonorable ways. Jin becomes “The Ghost”, using stealth, assassination, poison, and brutal displays of violence to strike terror into the hearts of his Mongol foe. I did enjoy watching Jin’s progression throughout the game. At first, he was determined to live by his code, but over time he realizes that saving lives is more important.

The most impressive aspect of Ghost of Tsushima is its visuals. It may be the prettiest game I’ve ever played. If Ghost of Tsushima was nothing but a walking simulator that lets the player explore the island and soak in the gorgeous landscapes, it would still be a worthwhile journey. The use of color and lighting makes nearly every scene look like a painting. Moreover, the world feels alive. Leaves are falling, grass and foliage sways, petals flow in the wind, and wildlife skitters throughout nature. Many open world games can feel very same-y across their worlds, but Ghost of Tsushima has a variety of visually distinct areas. I legitimately spent time just to stop and look at some of the more scenic landscapes that the game has to offer. But of course, there is an actual game that resides amongst the vibrant forests and lush meadows.

Open-world games are rarely known for their complex combat systems, and Ghost of Tsushima is not much different in that regard. Like most of its peers, Ghost of Tsushima offers two routes to many of its combat encounters: head-on assault or stealthy infiltration. While this certainly isn’t novel, it does fit contextually with the story of the game. You can be an honorable samurai, shouting at the enemies to face-off against you in a duel. Or you can be The Ghost, sneaking into outposts, stealthily assassinating Mongols and whittling down their forces.

The actual combat of Ghost of Tsushima is fairly simple, but I felt it was incredibly satisfying. You are given the classic light/heavy attacks and block/dodge/parry defensive options. Moreover, you unlock a few different stances which are more effective against certain types of enemies. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the feedback and presentation of the combat is what makes it enjoyable. Enemies have relatively low health, so hitting a parry into counterattack is usually enough to do the job. The animations and audio feedback are absolutely integral to the experience, as they really do give you the feeling that you are a badass samurai. Combat is graceful and smooth, and being a one-man-army reflecting every attack and striking back with deadly precision is just viscerally satisfying.

The feeling of progression during combat is also solid. You can unlock new techniques and attacks, but the more impressive aspect to me was how the enemies evolved. As you progress through the story, enemies also get stronger obviously, but not just by increasing their health. You face enemies who have a wider arsenal of attacks, and who can respond better to your own advances. From ill-equipped bandits, to hulking brutish Mongols, to skilled mercenary ronin, there is plenty of different fighting styles that you will have to adapt to. Furthermore, as Jin concretes himself as The Ghost, enemies often flee in terror as you slaughter their allies. I love that feeling of being a lowly threat at first to becoming a feared, almost mythological, entity that hunts Mongols. 

Aside from the base combat, you also can use some secondary weapons like a bow and “ghost” tools. The tools consist of things like kunai, smoke bombs, distracting chimes, and black powder bombs. Many of these tools are great for stealthy approaches, but they can also be woven into normal combat. I loved using all the tools at my disposal, as it let me play much more aggressively instead of waiting for the enemies to strike me first. Laying down a smoke bomb to quickly assassinate a few enemies, then chucking some black powder to knock a few enemies off their feet while dueling with a more powerful foe was always an enjoyable sight.

The most contentious facet of Ghost of Tsushima is the game’s open-world. It’s no secret that this formula has been done to death and many players are sick of the Ubisoft formula. Big open-worlds littered with formulaic points of interest and repetitive side quests. While Ghost of Tsushima does fit into that mold, I believe it does a few things to make it more bearable. First and foremost, the map is divided into three sections that are locked away depending how far along in the story you are. While this isn’t a huge deal, it does prevent players from going to crazy trying to do every single piece of side-content and burning themselves out before tackling the actual main quest.

Moreover, the game isn’t monstrously large and doesn’t contain thousands of side objectives. If you open the map of a modern Assassin’s Creed game, you may get overwhelmed by the scale of it and how much stuff there is to do. Ghost of Tsushima is a little more restrained in that regard. It doesn’t take too long to get around on horseback, and it’s entirely reasonable to do most of the side quests and points of interest. Furthermore, many of the games points of interest feel distinct from its peers. Shrines that foxes lead you to, scenic locations to compose haiku, wandering swordsmen that are aching to duel you, and bamboo slashing stands to sharpen your skills. Everything fits thematically, and they rarely feel like chores.

Ghost of Tsushima has no leveling or grinding to progress, and most of the points of interest and side quests just serve as small boosts. They are definitely not necessary and can be completely ignored if you so choose. What I loved most about the exploration aspect of the game is the novel approach to waypoints. When you mark a location on your map that you want to travel to, the game doesn’t just put a big waypoint in front of you or give you a marker on a compass. Instead, the wind acts as a guide. Whichever way the wind is blowing is the direction to your next objective. Little golden birds may appear when you get close to a point of interest or side quest that will guide you. The wind and birds are a pretty clever way of disposing of a clunky UI element that often times took the players eyes off the game world.

Additionally, every single piece of side content has some visual indicator that can be spotted from a distance. Enemy camps have pillaring towers of black smoke, haikus are swarmed by birds, steam rises from hot springs, and fox dens are under a specific kind of tree. This combined with following the wind and being guided by birds keeps the player constantly engaged with the world. There are no moments of just dully following a marker. Your eyes are drawn to the environment, which as previously mentioned is stunning. Ghost of Tsushima has a magnificent world, and I’m glad it wasn’t cluttered by unnecessary UI elements.

For everything that Ghost of Tsushima does correctly, it still manages to commit the same sins as many of its open-world brethren. While I do appreciate how exploration was handled, I wish there was even more emphasis on natural discovery. It’s far too easy to open the map, mark a waypoint, and follow the wind without much thought. Instead of question marks that appear on the map, the player could’ve relied on the visual cues that every point of interest is marked by. It’s kind of a shame they put so much effort into making everything distinct enough to be spotted from a distance, but most players will probably just follow their maps covered in waypoints anyway.

Even though Ghost of Tsushima is less overwhelming in scope than many other open-world titles, it still contains far too many random side objectives. At some point, finding a point of interest stops feeling like a cool discovery and instead becomes a moment of “here we go again”. The world is gorgeous, and sometimes I’d like to just roam around without being accosted by groups of roaming Mongols or get distracted by coming across a point of interest. Like I previously mentioned, you can entirely ignore these bits. However, I maintain that having less points of interest makes the remaining ones feel more rewarding when you happen to come across them.

Aside from points of interest, Ghost of Tsushima has a similar issue with side quests. The only side quests that I enjoyed were the ones including Jin’s “allies”. These recurring characters were not only key players in the main story, but they had continuing questlines that spanned the course of the game. These quests felt more important and more substantial since you were assisting characters and progressing their plotlines. Unfortunately, most of the other side quests are just repetitive filler content. Most of them consist of going to an area, investigating it, tracking down some mysterious enemy, and then inevitably fighting the bandits or Mongols that you stumble upon. It’s very formulaic and grows old after that first few side quests that you do.

Overall, Ghost of Tsushima is a game that thrives on presentation. The picturesque landscapes, the flashy swordplay, and unique approach to waypoints make the game worth playing. I wouldn’t say that it was innovative, but Ghost of Tsushima polished the formulaic open-world genre to an absurd degree. Still, it has the same pitfalls as many of its contemporaries. It is for these reasons that I give Ghost of Tsushima an 8.5/10. Whether you want to live out your fantasy of being a roaming samurai, or if you just want to play the good version of Assassin’s Creed, then I definitely recommend checking out this game.

Guacamelee! 2 (2018)

Have you ever played a game and felt it was a lot less enjoyable than it should’ve been? For me that game is Guacamelee 2. Many of the individual components of this game feel like they are fun, but for some reason I just did not enjoy playing the complete package. It’s difficult to put a finger on a singular reason why I did not click with Guacamelee 2, but I believe it was the cumulative shortcomings that left it feeling underwhelming. As someone who loves playing indie metroidvanias, I was disappointed by Guacamelee 2.

Guacamelee 2 obviously follows its predecessor’s story, world, and core gameplay. It is a 2D metroidvania with a world inspired by Mexican culture. You play as Juan, a luchador who has gotten a bit out of shape since saving the world in the series’ previous entry. When a new villain appears to be threatening the “Mexiverse”, Juan dons his wrestling mask and jumps into action. The story itself is pretty minimalist, which is fine. You are told about the villain and his plans at the very beginning of the game, and that will carry you through to the end.

While I do enjoy the Mexican theme of the Guacamelee series, the games do have their issues with their writing. They are meant to be light-hearted and goofy, but often the jokes and references feel forced. Guacamelee 2 is a bit better in this regard, as it doesn’t reference meme humor like the original game did. It also feels a bit more self-aware of how its jokes can make people groan, and it leans into that at times. Still, the non-stop barrage of not-so-subtle humor can get a bit grating after a while.

The core gameplay of Guacamelee 2 revolves around two aspects: platforming and combat. Both of these components seem like they should be fun, but have some flaws that hampered my enjoyment. My biggest issue with the platforming was how rapidly the game threw new abilities at the player. I’m a fan of keeping things fresh, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that at one point, I unlocked four new abilities in about 45 minutes. There isn’t enough time to really familiarize yourself with new skills and get comfortable using them. I regularly found myself hitting the wrong buttons during platforming sections in the heat of the moment. My brain didn’t have enough time to wire actions to their corresponding buttons, I had to consciously remember which button did what. If the game gave the player a little more time to breath with each new ability, I think chaining them together would feel more natural.

The combat side of things had the opposite issue: it got repetitive, fast. The combat of Guacamelee 2 has a heavy emphasis on combos and juggling opponents. Aside from the basic attacks, you also unlocked more powerful directional attacks that cost energy as well as some grab and throw techniques. At best, I could describe the combat as mindless fun between platforming sections. It was enormously easy to mash through enemies with little challenge. Some enemies had colored shields that required certain moves to break, but still I rarely felt like I was doing anything that required skill or a mastery of the combat system.

My biggest issue with Guacamelee 2 was that it is simply a bad metroidvania. The exploration aspects of the game are abysmal compared to its contemporaries. There is absolutely no feeling of exploring a labyrinth, or wondering where that secret path leads. The game is exceedingly linear. You follow hallway after hallway of platforming challenge into forced combat room. There are no branching paths, there is no backtracking, and every upgrade has an obvious and boring function. There is no wonder, no sense of discovery. The game would have been better off just being an action platformer rather than weakly trying to fit into the metroidvania mold.

Another thing to note about Guacamelee 2 is how it is just a rehash of the original game. If you enjoyed the original Guacamelee and want more of it, then definitely give its sequel a chance. But if you wanted anything more, or if you wanted to see improvements, you aren’t going to find them here. Nearly everything is just a rehash of the original. The only element that was new were the sections that you played as a chicken. There was something similar in the original game, but Guacamelee 2 does flesh out the idea more. Other than that, you wouldn’t be able to tell the games apart.

Overall, I was not a fan of Guacamelee 2. I think I would have been more receptive of the game if it had not labeled itself as a metroidvania and made weak efforts to try to fit in with the genre. Truthfully the game is alright, but I doubt it will impress anybody. It has a strong visual identity, but the actual gameplay is bland and repetitive. It doesn’t even standout compared to its predecessor, let alone the hoards of unique and inspired metroidvanias that exist today. It is for these reasons that I give Guacamelee 2 a 5/10. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but its definitely not one that I will remember fondly.   

The Last of Us (2013)

It’s ok to admit when you are wrong. One of my more controversial gaming opinions that I’ve held for years was that The Last of Us was incredibly overrated and did not deserve the fanfare that it received. When I initially played the game on release, I admittedly was not as tuned into the gaming scene as I am now. I primarily played arcade shooters like Call of Duty, and I was used to fast-paced and highly reactive gameplay. A slower paced game with a focus on storytelling and character growth like The Last of Us did not click with me. After replaying the game recently, my opinion has completely changed.

The premise of The Last of Us will be familiar to anyone who has seen anything with zombies in it. An infectious outbreak has decimated society, and most people are relegated to living in small quarantined zones. People can get infected by getting bit or scratched by an infected individual. The fungal disease quickly spreads to the victim’s brain and turns them into what is effectively a zombie. The main character, Joel, is a pessimistic old smuggler who makes a living by illegally sneaking supplies into the quarantined city. The main objective of the game is to smuggle a young girl, Ellie, across the nation to a research lab as she is immune to the infection.

Truthfully, the overarching story of the game is not incredibly memorable. It’s a fairly generic post-apocalyptic zombie scenario. But what makes The Last of Us special is its characters. Joel is a deeply cynical man, as he witnessed the outbreak in real time and lost all that was close to him. He’s learned to survive in the hostile new world by pushing people away, and as such he is incredibly self-centered and uncaring. Ellie is a rebellious and sarcastic teen, quick to crack jokes and make her opinion known. These two main characters initially clash and frequently butt heads, but as they journey across the country they begin to bond.

The growth of the characters and their developing father-daughter relationship is the highlight of The Last of Us. Their personalities are so consistently written, no bit of dialogue feels out of place. Their conversations and slow-burning friendship are remarkably human, which was pretty unprecedented for most games at the time. Video game writing is known to be cheesy and at times painful to listen to, but the dialogue and characters of The Last of Us feel genuine. People will be able to easily relate to the characters and their struggles. Anybody who plays The Last of Us will get attached to Ellie and Joel, which is something that many other games struggle to achieve.

The gameplay loop of The Last of Us is that of a third-person-shooter with some stealth and survival aspects. The majority of your time will be spent traversing the varied environments of a desolated civilization. Encounters with the infected, as well as opportunistic human scavengers, are frequent. The game was designed so that the player has a limited supply of ammo, tools, and health kits. As such, you will be searching every corner for broken pairs of scissors, scraps of fabric, or bottles of alcohol to craft more supplies. This aspect was particularly well executed, as I was always on the edge of feeling like I was running out of materials. This makes encounters more tense, as your goal is no longer just to survive, but also to retain as much of your arsenal as possible. I found myself trying to come up with creative strategies to make sure I would not waste the few bullets that I had.

When I played the game on release, I was used to the snappy responses and smooth movement of games like Call of Duty. The Last of Us gunplay is undoubtably less reactive than many other shooters, but it doesn’t have to be. It fits the theme and more grounded approach that The Last of Us takes. When getting swarmed, accurately aiming becomes extraordinarily difficult. It makes fights feel far more frantic when you can’t just instantly pop every enemy with a headshot. This opens up the game for some more interesting combat scenarios that aren’t just simple shooting galleries.

What I was most impressed by when replaying The Last of Us was the sheer variety of encounters, and how different they all felt. When sneaking through a building full of infected, there is palpable tension. Some types of infected can instantly kill the player if they grab you, so staying away from them is key. When slowly creeping past them, there is enormous anxiety that you may accidentally alert them and instantly die. If you do alert the infected of your presence, you are relentlessly swarmed by hordes of zombies. These moments are frantic, and there is little time to think about conserving ammo when there are a dozen screaming infected barreling towards you.

When encountering human hunters, combat becomes a more tactical affair. Their AI is actually competent, and will have them searching the environment when you play stealthily. They will even attempt to sneak up on you and flank you. The battles with hunters felt more like a cat-and-mouse chase. I immensely enjoyed sneaking around taking down one enemy at a time, being careful to not use any unnecessary resources. When I was detected, combat still remained more tactical compared to the more blitzkrieg approach of the infected. Instead of frantically fighting for your life, you are moving around between cover, picking up ammo and new weapons as you navigate the battlefield.

My number one complaint with The Last of Us when I initially played it was how much downtime there was. Time spent doing nothing but walking or placing planks and ladders to cross gaps. After playing the game recently, I realize the point of these sections. They are moments to decompress and reflect on your experiences. They serve as calm moments to juxtapose the tension-filled gameplay that defines The Last of Us. The moments of “blank space” also have the characters engage in conversation. Often times the topic is mundane, but that’s what human conversation is actually like. It builds the relationship between the characters as their journey continues.

One thing that I noticed about myself since I began playing more games was that I prefer games to occasionally take a break from the action. When playing games like DOOM I found myself getting overstimulated after an hour of play, which led to me taking frequent breaks. Maybe it’s just me, but games with constant high-octane action mentally exhaust me. Sometimes to the point where it becomes difficult to play them for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ve grown to appreciate the moments that let me take a breather. I want to soak in the environment, think about the adventures that I’ve been on, and enjoy idle chit-chat between the characters. The moments of downtime in The Last of Us have gone from being boring to being an integral part of the experience.

Overall, over the years I’ve grown to appreciate The Last of Us and what makes it so remarkable. It’s one of the first games to truly capture human interactions and make them feel natural. The intensity of the combat with its many facets will always be engaging. The characters feel incredibly genuine and authentic, which is something rarely seen in games. I’m glad that I gave The Last of Us another chance despite my poor first impressions. It truly is one of the best games of its generation.

Metro: Last Light (2013)

Every so often, a sequel to a janky game will make a concentrated effort to improve the mechanics, but somewhere along the way lose part of its charm. Metro: Last Light is one of those games. My biggest complaint with Metro 2033 was a number of glitches and overall clunky gameplay, but the atmosphere and survival aspects were on point. Metro: Last Light is ultimately a smoother experience, but it has lost some of the more nuanced characteristics that made the original great.

The setting and plot of Metro: Last Light obviously follows it predecessor. You play as Artyom, a young man living in the metro tunnels of Moscow after the world has been decimated by nuclear wars. Communities have formed across the metro stations, and factions have fragmented society. The Rangers, a peacekeeping force of which Artyom is apart of, control critical sections of the tunnels that more violent groups want to overtake. Tension is boiling over between the Rangers, the Nazis, and the Communists over who will ultimately control the metro.  

One of my problems with Metro 2033 was how little time was spent exploring the communities living in the metro stations. Thankfully, Metro: Last Light lets the player indulge in the post-apocalyptic society that has evolved in the Moscow underground. Throughout the game the player will visit the hubs of activity for all the major factions, as well as some other interesting stations. While there often isn’t a plethora of things to do in these visits, it was nice to spend a few minutes talking to inhabitants and just observing their way of life.

The Metro series has become synonymous with terms immersive and atmospheric. These games have the player creep through dark and dingy tunnels with nothing but a flashlight as a light source. Unknown horrors lurk in the shadows, and you can hear them skittering and stalking you. With a minimalistic HUD and a focus on scavenging to survive, these games thrive on their ability to be immersive. Metro: Last Light is no different than its predecessor in this regard. There will always be a sense of dread when exploring the ruins of Moscow and hearing eerie whispers of the dead. Or spelunking through the collapsed tunnels while mutated beasts travel in packs to hunt for their next meal.

The biggest improvement that Metro: Last Light makes over its predecessor is its focus on better designed combat scenarios. I often felt that Metro 2033 railroaded the player into forced gunfights, despite that being the weakest aspect of the game. Luckily, this game constructs its encounters more carefully and makes the gunplay more enjoyable. In forced combat there is more space to kite enemies around the arenas, rather than being cornered and mauled. In battles against humans, there is often a way to stealthily take out most of the opposition before engaging.

With its higher emphasis on combat, something seems to be lost in the design of Metro: Last Light. The original game placed importance on conversation of your tools such as bullets, health kits, and filters to survive the radioactive zones. Yet I never worried about my use of resources in Metro: Last Light. I never ran low on anything, which certainly deducts some of tension of encounters. When I’m not worried about running out of bullets, standard enemies don’t pose much of a threat. Moreover, I felt less of a need to scavenge for bullets and filters, which was a critical component of the previous game.

One of the other issues that I have with this game, along with its predecessor, is its implementation of morality. The series attempts to immerse the player as much as possible, and as such does not intrude on the game to tell the player whether what choices they are making are morally correct. The game does not even mention that it has a moral system, you are just shown one of two possible endings depending on what choices you have made. On one hand I like this implementation as it feels less “game-y”, as you aren’t being bombarded with messages telling you whether you’ve been well-behaved or not. But after completing the game and seeing online what actions were morally important, I can’t help but feel like they were overly arbitrary.

Making choices to save captured civilians should obviously be a “good” moral decision. Similarly, executing soldiers who have surrender should clearly be counted as “evil”. But Metro: Last Light contains many seemingly arbitrary actions that can ultimately determine the fate of the metro civilization at the end of the game. Choosing to strum a guitar laying around, eavesdropping on certain conversations, or walking to the back of a train are all somehow deemed as morally correct and will gain the player moral points. But tipping a dancer or killing monsters that usually attack you are considered bad behavior and you will be penalized.  

Overall, I don’t have too much to say about Metro: Last Light that I haven’t already said about Metro 2033. They are remarkably similar games, unsurprisingly. While Metro 2033 does focus more on the survival aspects of the game, Metro: Last Light improves the combat encounters. I wish that Metro: Last Light did have more resource scarcity, as that would have led to more tense encounters and encouraged scavenging. At times, the game can feel a bit derivative of some of the generic first-person-shooters that were its peers. While it certainly was a more polished game, it did partially lose what made the original game special.

Nioh (2017)

Dark Souls has had massive influence on the industry since its release. Games began to embrace the option of brutal difficulty and letting the player fend for themselves. Many of the mechanics of Dark Souls can found in all the games that it has influenced. One game that clearly took inspiration from it is Nioh. This action game set in feudal Japan was obviously motivated by the world, level design, and mechanics of Soulsborne games. And as a someone who considers Dark Souls one of their favorite games, I was eager to play Nioh. What I found was an excellent game in most regards such as combat and level design, but with some major flaws that hampered my enjoyment of Nioh.

Interestingly, Nioh bases its story and world off of actual historical events, with some significant liberties taken. It tells the tale of William Adams, an English navigator who reached Japan in 1600 and eventually would become a samurai. Nioh frames the final years of the Sengoku period in Japan in a fantasy context. Japan is a rich source of the mystical Amrita, a resource that provides power to whoever controls it. Many people also have guardian spirits that provide them with special powers.

The premise of the story is that William’s guardian spirit is stolen from him, as it has the ability to detect Amrita. He travels to Japan to track down the thief, and in the process gets caught up in the battles of feudal lords. I enjoyed the premise of the story, as I always am interested in learning more about history. While Nioh takes a more fantastical approach to Japanese history, it did prompt me to read up on the Sengoku period. The issue with the approach that Nioh takes is that it’s presentation and execution of the story is dreadful.

Not every game needs to be a riveting adventure; as long as the gameplay is good enough the story can become secondary. But when a game clearly is attempting to emphasize it’s narrative and plot then it’s more difficult to forgive a poorly told story. The structure of Nioh has the player partake in missions across Japan. At the end of each mission a cutscene plays that I assume is supposed to link the events of the completed mission and the upcoming mission. But the cutscenes are incredibly confusing. Dozens of characters are just thrown into the scene without introducing them. Like the game expects the player to just know all the major players of this period in time already. I found it incredibly difficult to follow what was going on outside of the major plot points, which is a shame because the game was clearly trying to put an interesting twist on Japanese history.

I’d argue that by far and away the best aspect of Nioh is its combat system. While the game obviously takes inspiration from Fromsoft’s Soulsborne games, it does not adopt the slower and more methodical approach to combat that those games use. Instead, Nioh emphasizes fast-paced action and giving the player a variety of tools to relentlessly combo the opposition. The game can be played in a slower style, only attacking when there are clear opportunities present. But Nioh allows more skilled players to constantly be on the offensive.

The equivalent of stamina in Nioh is called Ki. Attacking, blocking, dodging, and running all consume Ki. But unlike stamina which requires a few seconds to be restored, Ki can be recovered by timing a Ki Pulse after attacking. This by itself encourages the player to be more aggressive, and not fall into the Dark Souls pattern of dodge and hit. Moreover, enemies also have a visible Ki bar that can be depleted by employing various techniques. Once their Ki is depleted the player can grapple them and deal a massive amount of damage. Ki is a much more interesting resource than a simple stamina bar, as it allows for more dynamic combat. Taking advantage of when an opponent uses a long combo and is drained of Ki is a core aspect of the game.

Nioh places heavy emphasis on giving the player an arsenal of techniques. There are seven different types of melee weapon and three different ranged weapons, all with their own movesets and playstyles. Additionally, the player can slot two melee weapons and two ranged weapons into their equipment to easily be swapped between. The sheer variety of weaponry available to the player is phenomenal. There are also three different “stances” for each weapon: high, middle, and low. High deals tons of damage, but uses more Ki. Middle deals moderate damage and is good for blocking and parrying. Low deals lower damage but uses little Ki and allows the player to dodge with ease. These stances are easily swapped between during combat, and a skilled player will be able to utilize them in appropriate scenarios.

Moreover, Nioh also contains skill trees for every weapon type as well as magic skills and ninja skills. As you progress through the game you will unlock more techniques and abilities. Some bonuses are simple boosts to damage and Ki usage, but others are moves that can be equipped and used during combat. From a simple kick that drains the enemy’s Ki, to a flurry of sword slashes that deals massive damage in a wide area, Nioh truly offers a variety of additional attacks to be unlocked. Not to mention the ninja skills and magic skills that can further modify how you play the game. From applying poison to weapons, to using scrolls to boost your defenses temporarily, or even casting spells that slow enemies, there’s plenty of additional abilities to be unlocked.

With all of the tools available to the player, the only way the game manages to stay difficult is by making the enemies incredibly powerful. The issue is that giving the enemy AI more attacks doesn’t necessarily make them more threatening if they don’t know how and when to use those attacks. The only surefire way to have the enemies keep up with the player is to make them deal a lot of damage. One thing that I noticed with my time in Nioh was that even that basic enemies could easily deal half of my healthbar with a single hit. Many bosses had one-hit-kill abilities that were extraordinarily punishing.

Personally, I grew frustrated by how often I would be killed instantly by a single mistake. I don’t think I was particularly bad at the game either, I beat many bosses on my first attempt. Only a few bosses took me more than a handful of tries. I found Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be more challenging, yet they were less frustrating. In those games it usually took a series of mistakes to be killed. But Nioh feels full of cheap one-shots. Styling on a boss for a few minutes straight and then getting hit a single time and dying just never feels fair.

The somewhat insidious effect of the extreme damage that enemies deal is that it conditions the player to play more passively. While Nioh provides tools to be aggressive, I found myself on the defensive quite often because I was more afraid of being over-aggressive and getting killed in a single hit. One-hit-kills can be a great way of adding tension to a battle, but when they are so frequent and difficult to recognize they can easily grow irritating. I’m not really sure what the solution is either, considering that the game would be far too easy if enemies weren’t so threatening. Perhaps it’s the case that Nioh just isn’t the type of game for me.

One aspect of Nioh that sets it apart from similar games is its extensive loot system. There are tons of equipment to be found, whether it is from enemy drops, found in chests, or is a reward for completing a mission. Loot is rated based on rarity, and more rare equipment provides better bonuses. You can even put together sets of armor that give additional bonuses. I feel like the loot system shines in New Game+ playthroughs, as the player can farm powerful equipment and truly create a strong build. But in your first playthrough, the loot feels almost overwhelming.

I am not exaggerating when I say that after a single mission you will have hundreds of pieces of loot to decide what to do with. Sorting through all of it and deciding what is useful and what can be destroyed for experience or materials can almost take as much time as the mission itself. In the initial playthrough you cannot really create a build either, considering that you are leveling up quickly and subsequently will replace equipment just as quickly. Ultimately, the loot is great as a late game system, but it is incredibly tedious when you begin the game.

Any game that attempts to imitate the Soulsborne games is going to have a tough time matching their level and world design. Nioh is no exception to this. It does not even attempt to create a connected world; every level is its own mission. The levels by themselves are competently designed, there are plenty of shortcuts and hidden offshoots that are staple to Soulsborne. Unfortunately, the stages themselves are fairly boring in their visual design. Not many of the levels are truly memorable. When it comes to level and world design, Nioh pales in comparison to Soulsborne.

I’d say my largest gripe with Nioh was how much the game drags on. Without partaking in any of the side missions, the game is in the neighborhood of 30-35 hours for a single playthrough. This is reasonable, but becomes an issue when you realize how much repeated content there is. There is a pitiful amount of enemy variation. Sure, basic human enemies can have different weapons, but most of the time you fight them in a similar manner. There are only a handful of monster type enemies that frequently appear. Most of the side missions reuse the same levels and bosses, just with slightly rearranged enemy positioning.

I was mostly enjoying Nioh during the first half of the game, but as I progressed, I was just wishing to be nearing the end. Everything felt very repetitive, and that was even with me ignoring almost all of the side missions. With the repeated enemy types, the visually bland levels, the non-connected world, the disjointed story, the tedious loot system, and the occasionally frustrating bosses, I was ready for the game to be over. The game does not need to be as long as it is, especially considering it encourages multiple playthroughs.

Overall, I think Nioh is too long for its own good. The game’s biggest issues are highlighted when it feels like the game should have been over ten hours ago. I was exhausted by the end of my time with Nioh, and I probably will not be playing the sequel in the near future. The combat is the lone aspect that I truly can say was gratifying. The rest of the game felt bloated and almost excessive at times. I can safely say that Nioh is not a game for me.

Blasphemous (2019)

Religious imagery is perhaps the most popular theme in any form of media. Despite this, perhaps nothing has a more brutal take on the Christian mythos as Blasphemous. Rooted in Spanish Catholicism, Blasphemous constructs a world that takes the religious cornerstones of guilt and penance to extreme levels. The game is a classic metroidvania, and a well-designed one at that. While Blasphemous does not innovate on the genre, its masterful art, imagery, and atmosphere are plenty to make it stand out in a sea of similar games.

Blasphemous does not hesitate to make its gore apparent to the player. The opening moments of the game have the player awakening on a pile of corpses, all which are doppelgangers that resemble the player. You immediately encounter an unsightly beast; a warden who appears to be searching for survivors of the unseen massacre and slaughtering them. The main character, the Penitent One, slices the warden open to fill his helmet with blood and dons it before continuing on his quest.

After the player’s introduction to the game, you become aware of the parallels between this fictional world and historical events such as the operation of the Spanish Inquisition. The world of Blasphemous is centered on the ideas of guilt and penance. Everybody worships what is known as the Grievous Miracle, a magical force that arbitrarily doles punishments to the world’s inhabitants. People see these punishments as blessings, and happily endure extreme pain as a way to repent for their sins. Self-flagellation, bare-footed pilgrimages, carrying crosses, and whippings are all common forms of mortification of the flesh. Everyone carries the weight of guilt, and consequently seek penance through suffering to receive forgiveness.

The imagery of Blasphemous is particularly striking. Every character is suffering at the hands of the Grievous Miracle, everyone is on some journey to complete their punishment. Everything in the game mirrors the grandiose nature of religious text. The areas are named things like “The Mountains of the Endless Dusk” or “Where Olive Trees Wither”. There are sprawling cathedrals and towering statues that dwarf the Penitent One. The artwork is absolutely stunning. The immaculately designed backgrounds, the gothic architecture, the detailed character models, and the violent animations superbly represent the brutal yet magnificent vision of this religious world.

A key aspect of any metroidvania is the level design and the emphasis on natural exploration. Blasphemous has a fairly unique approach to the design staple of finding new items that unlock new areas of the map. Interestingly, Blasphemous can be completed with only the abilities and items that you begin the game with. All subsequent upgrades are found off the beaten path and are entirely optional. I find this to be remarkable as most games in the genre follow the same formula of beating a boss to acquire an upgrade that lets you progress to the next area. But Blasphemous encourages the player to make discoveries on their own.

I was engrossed in exploring the world of Blasphemous. Part of the reason was because of how the game framed its upgrade system. Many metroidvanias make the mistake of having upgrades be obvious in their functionality. For example, many games include a double-jump that allows the player to reach higher up areas. This is fine, but it takes a little mystery out of exploration and some excitement when you finally do unlock the double-jump. When you see a ledge that’s too high to reach, you know that you will eventually unlock a double-jump. And when you do gain access to that ability you already know where it can be used. But Blasphemous takes a different approach, as most of its upgrades are framed as a tool that the Penitent One uses to change their perception of the world around them.

For example, a blessed cloth allows the player to hear the last thoughts of some of the deceased scattered around the world. These spectral thoughts are often hints to puzzles that the player would have no way of solving otherwise. Another upgrade reveals floating, bloody platforms to the Penitent One. These platforms can be used to reach secret ledges that couldn’t be accessed otherwise. Whenever you do finally obtain one of these exploration upgrades, it immediately makes you wonder what effect it has on the world around you. It makes me want to actually explore, rather than being prompted to by the game. This natural desire to unearth the secrets of the world is a property that is key to any metroidvania, and Blasphemous nails this.

I’d argue that the weakest aspect of Blasphemous is its combat and movement. There’s something about this game that makes its gameplay feel a little off compared to its contemporaries like Hollow Knight and Ori and The Blind Forest. The animations and hitboxes of Blasphemous can feel a little desynced at times. It’s not offensively bad but I definitely felt like it wasn’t as clean or polished as some of the masterful metroidvanias that have been released recently. The combat itself is incredibly simplistic, which can be a great direction if utilized properly. Not every game needs to have crazy combos or require split second reaction time. Blasphemous relies more on learning enemy patterns and reacting to them appropriately.

This approach shines during the numerous boss fights scattered throughout the game. The bosses have a variety of attacks and abilities that will test the player’s ability to learn and read their movements and tells. Unfortunately, the basic enemies in the game are not as entertaining as the bosses. The issue is that the vast majority of enemies only have a single attack, and once you learn how to react to that attack, the encounter becomes trivial. You always know what they are going to do, so you barely need to even pay attention anymore. Moreover, because the combat is so simplistic, you cannot make it more entertaining for yourself by coming up with new combos or trying different techniques.

While Blasphemous does have a progression system that unlocks new attacks, you can rarely string these techniques together in any meaningful way. Most enemies will succumb to a few simple swings of the sword, so you will never get to even try more complex inputs. The lack of build customization is also an issue. Many games with simplistic combat can get away with it by offering the player diversity in how they build their character. Blasphemous does offer three different categories of items to equip, but they do a poor job at truly distinguishing different playstyles.

The first category of items that can be equipped are called prayers. Prayers are essentially magic spells that use a resource called Fervour which is gained by attacking and executing enemies. You can only equip one prayer at a time, and they are fairly weak in general. They cost a hefty amount of Fervour so you cannot cast them often, they rarely do more damage than just slashing at enemies, and they take a long time to cast which leaves the player vulnerable. They are just underwhelming and I often forgot that I had a prayer equipped because their use cases are so few and far between. The only way that I see prayers being valuable is if the player makes a hyper-specialized build using rosary beads.

Rosary beads are items found throughout the world, and a few can be equipped at any time. Individually, most of them are fairly mediocre. A few are exceptionally powerful but they are difficult to uncover. The problem is that the best rosary beads are pretty generalist bonuses. Things like doing more damage and being invincible while healing are too good to pass up. Other rosary beads provide protection against certain elements, but these are only useful against particular bosses. There’s not really a great way to make an interesting build using rosary beads outside of a prayer-focused approach. You could increase prayer damage, decrease prayer cast time, increase maximum Fervour, and increase Fervour generation to give yourself a prayer casting focus rather than a sword slashing one. But I doubt most players will even contemplate going this route considering how weak prayers are in the first place.

The last customizable option is possibly the worst: Mea Culpa hearts. The Mea Culpa is the name of the sword that the Penitent One carries, and you can equip specialized hearts into the sword to give it different effects. The interesting thing is that all bonuses are tied to some drawback. For example, you can do more damage at the cost of taking more damage. The problem is that the drawbacks often outweigh the bonuses. It almost feels like a detriment to equip many of these hearts.

While the lack of build diversity does hurt the game’s combat, it also dissuades the player from spending too much time hunting for secrets. With two fairly unimportant collectibles and three unimpactful build item categories, most things that you uncover in the world of Blasphemous are disappointing. The act of exploration was entertaining, but I can see players getting dissuaded from continuing after the majority of their rewards are useless trinkets and baubles.

As a bit of a side note, I played Blasphemous after the first expansion was released, and before the second expansion was announced. I usually don’t mention this sort of thing, but Blasphemous infamously was janky immediately following its release. It’s a shame that people who bought the game early were burnt by it not being fully-baked, but if that was the case for you than I encourage you to give it another chance with the recent patches.

Overall, Blasphemous is more than just a competent metroidvania. It has an identity of its own, with strong theming and powerful imagery. The sheer brutality of its art and world alone is enough to make it an experience worth your time. Its unique take on how exploration is framed makes Blasphemous a worthwhile metroidvania among its peers. Even thought combat was overly simplistic and repetitive, the rest of the game made up for that. It is for these reasons that I give Blasphemous an 8/10. In a genre brimming with similar games, the style and atmosphere of Blasphemous set it apart.

Super Mario Sunshine (2002)

I think we all fall in love with some piece of media that we know is massively flawed. Maybe your guilty pleasure is a reality TV show, or a cringey rom-com, or maybe you are a fan of 100 gecs. For me, Super Mario Sunshine is my broken game of choice. I’m willing to admit my intense nostalgia for this game, but having played it many times I am well aware of its flaws. Maybe it’s because of the warm island vacation theme of Super Mario Sunshine, but playing this game just makes me happy. It’s like wrapping up in a thick blanket with hot chocolate in winter, Super Mario Sunshine is cozy.

Just from a technical standpoint, Super Mario Sunshine was a pretty massive improvement from its predecessor: Super Mario 64. Visually the game is much more appealing, and in my opinion, it controls a lot smoother as well. There are some other significant differences from its predecessor: the world design, the mission structure, and the inclusion of F.L.U.D.D.. I think all of these changes have pros and cons, and they definitively make Super Mario Sunshine unique.

The world of Super Mario Sunshine is a tropical paradise, through and through. The plot of the game is that Mario and company set out for vacation on Delfino Island, but get wrapped up in helping restore the island after a mysterious villain frames Mario for covering the island in graffiti. The player will visit the various attractions of this tropical island including villages, theme parks, resorts, beaches, and other serene environments. I love the consistent atmosphere of Super Mario Sunshine. Every other Super Mario game focuses on variety of distinct areas, while this game goes all-in on the vacation theme.

I’ll admit that I am not much of a beach-goer in real life. Yet for some reason I love every single beach level in any video game. I always attribute this to growing up with Super Mario Sunshine and its lush palm trees, clear waters, bright sunlight, and tropical tunes. This all begins with the phenomenal hub area of Delfino Plaza. From there you can access all of the other areas in the game, but I spent countless hours as a kid just running and jumping through the streets, leaping on top of the buildings, and sliding on the beach. There are plenty of secrets to be found which makes it a compelling area to explore. The vibrant colors and bright sunlight make it a warm and welcoming area, allowing the player to play around with the various mechanics of Mario’s controls.

The number one thing that sets Super Mario Sunshine apart from its peers is its unique movement mechanics. Mario can do all the classic moves from Super Mario 64, with the exception of the long jump. Instead, Mario comes equipped with F.L.U.D.D., which is a device that allows the player to spray water and use water as a jetpack. You cannot float around indefinitely, but you can get an extra couple seconds of hangtime during a jump. The reason that Super Mario Sunshine is divisive is for its use of F.LU.D.D., the argument is that it deemphasizes the traditional platforming. The player no longer has to make precise jumps, and can float around for a second before landing on platforms.

While it is true that Super Mario Sunshine has less emphasis on pure platforming challenges, it still manages to capture the player’s creativity to attempt tricky maneuvers. I spent hours just trying to scale walls use a combination of side-flips, wall-jumps, and jetpacking. Not to mention that F.L.U.D.D. can be upgraded with extra nozzles that further break the player’s ability to quickly maneuver around the map. Furthermore, Super Mario Sunshine benefits from the fact that it isn’t a pure platformer. The game feels like a hybrid of an adventure game and a platformer. There are more exploration and puzzle-solving elements in Super Mario Sunshine opposed to just platforming, which it shares in common with Super Mario 64. I quite like this combination as it makes the game feel like a genuine adventure across Delfino Island, rather than just a set of arbitrary platforms to jump between.

Super Mario Sunshine is what I would classify as experimental. The use of F.L.U.D.D., the lack of emphasis on platforming, the consistent theme, and the unique level structures all make for an atypical Super Mario experience. Most levels in the game have the player preform some task before they can acquire a shine and complete the stage. While I think that this approach succeeds most of time, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. Super Mario Sunshine has an unusual number of god-awful levels. I don’t mean that they are just boring or forgettable, but instead are truly painful and are known for making people tear their hair out.

In a game where there are 120 shines to collect, not every one is going to be a winner. But Super Mario Sunshine contains over a dozen stages that I dread revisiting every time I play the game. Most of these levels fundamentally change how to move, and all of them feel like janky nightmares. The lily pad level for example has the player steer a sinking lily pad down a fast-moving stream of deadly water using only their water nozzle. You have to precisely collect 8 coins during the ride, and if you miss a single one you have to restart the stage. Not to mention that just getting to this area is a 10-to-15-minute ordeal of tediously waiting on a boat. Super Mario Sunshine benefits from its willingness to experiment, but be prepared to play some genuinely terrible levels.

As previously mentioned, there are 120 shines total in the game. There are eight areas, including the hub world of Delfino Plaza. Aside from the standard levels in each area, they all also contain 30 blue coins. You can trade in 10 blue coins for a single shine. The blue coins are a classic example of a great idea that was terribly executed. The blue coins encourage the player to explore the environments around them, uncovering secrets and trying to jump to hidden locations. Exploration is the strong suit of Super Mario Sunshine, and the blue coins are a huge aspect of this. With such a wonderfully constructed paradise, it would be a shame if the player wasn’t prompted to spend time looking around.

While the blue coins are great at encouraging exploration, they have some major flaws in their execution. First and foremost, there are 240 of them in the game. Meaning that there are 24 shines that are comprised of blue coins; that’s 20% of the total shines in the game. Honestly, that is just too many, they could achieve the same effect with only half that amount. The next issue is that they feel genuinely bad to collect. When grabbing a secret item, I should feel accomplished. Instead, the blue coins make me feel annoyed. The reason for this is that every time you collect one a text prompt appears that asks if you would like to save the game. The text box and saving process only takes a few seconds each time, but over the course of 240 blue coins it can get grating. Interrupting the player’s experience is typically not a good thing.

The biggest problem with the blue coins, however, is how they are spread out across the areas. Each area has 30 blue coins total, and there are 8 separate levels in each area. The issue is that some blue coins only appear in certain levels in the area. For example, one blue coin may be in the first and second missions, but may not be in the following missions. Furthermore, the game does not tell you which missions you are missing blue coins in. You may know that you need 5 more blue coins from an area, but you have no idea which of the eight levels that those blue coins reside in. To legitimately find them all you would have to thoroughly explore all 8 missions in an area. It would be incredibly tedious and repetitive.

Truthfully, I use a guide to find whatever blue coins I’m missing by the end of the game. I’m not sure how anybody is expected to find them all legitimately. I understand that blue coins are an entirely optional objective. But at the same time, I feel like the Super Mario games are designed such that the player is encouraged to collect all 120 stars or shines. You may only need 50 to complete the game, but honestly that feels wrong. The fix for the blue coins would be to simply inform the player how many blue coins are left in each mission to collect, that way you could visit the levels and know that there are blue coins present. It would save a lot of wasted time and frustrated exploration.

I have completed Super Mario Sunshine numerous times, but my most recent playthrough may be the last time that I 100% the game for a long time. At its best, Super Mario Sunshine is an adventure in a tropical paradise. Controlling Mario is a wonderfully smooth and fun experience. On the flipside, Super Mario Sunshine contains many infuriating levels and a healthy chunk of hard-to-find blue coins. In the future I’m just going to stick to the good, and avoid the bad, and I suggest everyone else do the same. Super Mario Sunshine is not a perfect game, but it is a favorite of mine. Something about that relaxing atmosphere keeps be coming back time and time again.

Devil May Cry 5 (2019)

I consider myself lucky in that I am able to enjoy nearly all varieties of games. From turn-based strategy to action games, from family-friendly to sadistically difficult, from low-budget indie game to massive triple-A production; I’m able to have a good time with almost anything, provided it’s well designed and crafted. But after playing through the Devil May Cry series, often regarded as pinnacle of character action games, I have feeling that I just don’t enjoy the genre all that much. I can understand how well designed they are, but for some reason they never click for me. That being said, Devil May Cry 5 was my favorite amongst the series.

Somewhere along the way of playing the series, I realized that something about these games just never clicked for me. Yet I held out hope, seeing as even the most recent game was over ten-years-old. I figured that the more modern Devil May Cry 5 would impress me. And it did. I truly did have fun while playing Devil May Cry 5, yet, I just couldn’t get absorbed like so many other people did. I would play for maybe an hour at a time before getting mentally exhausted. I had no desire to replay the game on higher difficulties, which something that the series is obviously designed for. I’m writing all of this to give some perspective on the rest of my review. I think Devil May Cry 5 is a phenomenal game, but I clearly am not a character action game fan, so some nuances of the genre may be lost on me.

Devil May Cry 5 is the triumphant return of the beloved series, which had been on hold for over a decade (not including the despised reboot). The game clearly demonstrates a willingness to appease to older fans of the series, while also marching forward to introduce plenty of new concepts. Beloved characters make returns, and new characters share the spotlight. You spend time playing as three separate characters. Dante obviously plays a role, as no Devil May Cry game would be complete without him. Nero is the focal point of the story arc, as this serves as a coming-of-age tale for the young protagonist. A new face, V, is a dark and edgy character who seems intent on assisting Nero on his journey.

The story of Devil May Cry 5 is my favorite in the series, and it stays faithful to the corny and bombastic style that Devil May Cry is known for. Demons have invaded earth, and the crew of demon hunters sets off to destroy the source of corruption. Dante quickly discovers that the source of the demonic resurgence is Urizen, a mysterious king who seems to have a connection to the famed demon hunter. I’m not going to spoil anything, but fans of the series will revel in the story of Devil May Cry 5. Its themes, presentation, and narrative are all extremely on-point for the series. Ultimately, it serves as a coming-of-age tale for the young hero Nero, who is often pushed aside for the legendary demon hunter Dante. Nero is often fraught with feelings of inadequacy, and his journey in Devil May Cry 5 is tremendous character development and launches Nero into the spotlight.

 While I mostly enjoyed the story and the moments that pleased long-time fans, there are a few gripes that I have about some of its structure. There is a specific moment in the game that is played out in all three characters’ perspectives, and the first half of the game is each character’s paths leading up to that point. What results is retreading a lot of ground, since that specific moment is shown at the very beginning of the game. Most of the interesting plot happens in the later stages of the game, and I grew pretty tired of seeing the same events over and over.

My other issue in the story was how it sidelined certain characters. Outside of the three protagonists, the only other character to get significant screen time was the new mechanic and driver Nico. While Nico fits in well with the Devil May Cry cast, series mainstays like Trish and Lady are pushed aside for the entirety of the game.

As to be expected of any Devil May Cry game, Devil May Cry 5 is all about the bombastic action. The player takes control of Nero, V, and Dante to fight through hordes of demons as stylishly as possible. Each of the three characters has their own unique playstyle to help them rack up monstrous combos. Nero makes use of a mechanical arm and can equip a variety of tools that can be expended in combat. V cannot partake in combat himself, and instead relies on controlling his three demonic pets to do his bidding for him. Dante’s style is reminiscent of all the classic titles, utilizing multiple weapons and stances to make for a deep and complex scheme that experienced players will revel in.

The combat is absolutely phenomenal, and any veteran of the series will be pleased with it. There is plenty of depth and stylish tricks that can be executed. Fighting through hordes of demons just feels right. The blasting music and flashy visuals are sure to get the blood pumping. The bosses are significantly tougher than any of the standard enemy encounters, requiring a bit more caution rather than just trying to rack up huge combos. Even though I’m not particularly good at these games, I still had a ton of fun slicing through the crowds of demonic entities and trying to accumulate as many style points as possible.

Even though I have played all the Devil May Cry games, I would consider myself extremely inexperienced. These games are meant to be played through multiple times, unlocking new techniques and higher difficulty levels as you go. The series encourages the player to master its mechanics. Truthfully, I am a poor fit for the series considering that I rarely replay games. Moreover, the combo-based action may be too much for my brain to handle. I feel more at home in more reactive action games like Furi, Bloodborne, or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice rather than the high-octane and aggressive style of Devil May Cry.

Overall, Devil May Cry 5 is by far my favorite in the series. It’s a triumphant return of the stylish series, which will please any veteran of the series. The goofy characters, over-the-top action, and stylish combat are all present. It is for these reasons that I give Devil May Cry 5 an 8.5/10. I may have realized that the genre wasn’t for me, but it is a masterful game nonetheless.