Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

Great old school platformers can be tough to come by in modern gaming. While there are some retro gems out there like Celeste, Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania, and A Hat in Time, it feels like major studios have mostly abandoned the concept of a pure platformer. Sure, plenty of games have platforming aspects to them, but it is rarely the focal feature. When a game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes along, anybody who is a fan of platformers should stop what they are doing and play it as soon as possible. It’s a fantastic game consisting of imaginative and fun visuals, superb difficulty, and tightly-crafted level design.

As far as Nintendo platformers go, Donkey Kong Country games have always been the most challenging of the bunch. That being said, I was impressed with how approachable Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was. The first zone of the game was fairly straightforward, and the difficulty of the game slowly ramped up as time progressed. There are tons of powerups that you can buy if you need an extra boost, and if you are really struggling there is a Funky Kong mode available on the Switch port that serves as an easy mode. But what’s more impressive is the numerous hidden aspects that can crank up the difficulty for experienced players looking for a challenge.

In each stage there are hidden puzzle pieces for completitionists to hunt down. While I ignored those for the most part, the more visible “K-O-N-G” letters were my main focus. The letters are easy to spot, but often require a more difficult or risky jump to collect. And if you collect all four letters in every level in a zone you unlock a secret stage. The secret stages are where the meat of the game’s challenge was for me. I found most of the regular levels to be tricky enough that I needed to play well, but not perfectly. The secret stages often required such precision and timing that I felt like I really needed to master them. And if you manage to conquer all the secret stages, you unlock a challenging hidden zone with three more devastatingly difficult levels. And if you succeed in that you unlock Hard Mode.

Of course, you can entirely ignore the puzzle pieces, letters, hidden exits, secret levels, the bonus zone, and Hard Mode entirely. But the fact that all of these things were included as extra little ways to incrementally tune up the difficulty was wonderful. Letting the player pick what is important to them is a great way to introduce some optional difficulty instead of just giving the player five different difficulty modes at the start. But the most impressive thing about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was how the level design facilitated multiple styles of play.

A majority of the standard levels in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are designed such that you can mostly take your time and think about what you are doing before you make the leap. While there some frantic and exciting sequences requiring you to move quickly, it’s a game that can be taken at whatever pace the player desires. But something interesting happens when you try to go as fast as possible through a level. You realize that everything lines up perfectly. As you bop from one enemy’s head to another to maintain your momentum, the platforms and enemies seem carefully placed to facilitate this level of speed. That’s because they are. While every level seems like a standard platforming stage at first glance, there is a deeper complexity behind the speed running curtain. I was extremely impressed by the level of thought and effort put into every single level in the game.

On top of the effort put into the gameplay and flow of each level, there was also a tremendous amount of care put into the visual experience. There are so many fun settings that make it feel like you are running and jumping through an animated movie. Not only is the background a spectacle, but the visuals tie into the gameplay. You can ride a rhino and dodge fireballs as a volcano erupts in the distance, or swing between decorative floats during a Lion King like celebration in the savannah, or jump between platforms as an avalanche sweeps away the platforms below you. There are tons of memorable stages that will go down as some of my favorite platforming levels of all time.

My only complaints with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are fairly minor. It could be frustrating to get to the end of a level, notice that there is a secret exit, and realize that you have the wrong power-up to access it. This meant that you would have to restart the entire stage with a certain Kong partner and make it all the way to the end without dying or taking more than 2 hits of damage. I say this is minor because these are completely optional stages, but still, I rarely enjoy having to redo a level through no fault of my own.

Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the boss fights at the end of each world. They were often pretty long with no checkpoints. They usually had three phases, getting progressively more challenging every three times that you hit them. But I found that the first and second phases were simple, and the final phase was fairly difficult. It could take a few attempts to learn the final phase patterns, and having to go through the entire boring lead-up every time could be a bit boring.

Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an excellent platformer in a world deprived of the genre. It combines imagination, visual spectacle, and exciting gameplay to create a spectacular experience. The level of care put into the level design is astounding. Whether you are someone new to the genre or an experienced platformer player, you can definitely find what you are looking for in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Valfaris (2019)

Sometimes you just need to take a break from the massive open world RPGs and the like and dive into some old-school shooters. Valfaris is a modern indie game that was clearly inspired by the past. Its roots stem from the genre of run-and-guns that began with the classic Contra. Initially I was skeptical of Valfaris; I felt like it was nothing more than a stylized throwback without anything to make it standout. But I was wrong, even though Valfaris is from an ancient genre it manages to be unique by virtue of its carefully crafted level design.

Valfaris is an old-school run-and-gun that plays heavily with the themes of metal. The game reminds me quite a bit of DOOM stylistically, the key difference being that in Valfaris you are obliterating aliens instead of ripping demons apart. The music is appropriately metal, pumping the player’s adrenaline without becoming too hectic or distracting. I will mention that the visual sprites could sometimes be a little messy and hard to read.

I appreciate the game’s commitment to the theme, and individually all of the artwork is great. However, when the environments, backgrounds, enemies, projectiles, and animations are all together sometimes the screen would be difficult to read. This could be a little frustrating in more challenging portions of the game as you may not have even seen the attack or enemy that damaged you.

Where Valfaris shines isn’t in reinventing the genre, but instead it is the tightly designed levels that makes Valfaris enjoyable. Run-and-gun games are historically difficult, and Valfaris is no exception. However, I very rarely felt like the game was being unfair. The time between checkpoints felt perfectly designed. The tension created by weathering a horde of enemies, praying that a safe haven would be right around the corner is exhilarating. The absolute relief when hitting a checkpoint after a challenging section cannot be understated.

Moreover, the enemy design in Valfaris is superb. Most enemies are absolute cannon fodder, letting you shred your way through a level. But there are a few tougher baddies scattered about to up the challenge. Keeping on your toes, making sure none of the weaker grunts damage you while dodging the more elite aliens is a careful balancing act. But the key that makes Valfaris so engaging is that it follows the historical strategy that staying in motion is the best way to avoid damage.

Being aggressive, firing your gun constantly, swinging your sword at nearby enemies, and just moving around is the best defensive tactic. Staying in one place and shooting at enemies as they come is ineffective. They will catch you with stray shots and many enemies spawn from hives that will keep pumping out threats until you destroy their nest. That feeling of rushing in and causing havoc is superb.

Without a doubt my favorite aspect of Valfaris were the bosses. Every single one felt punishingly difficult the first time I encountered them. But fairly quickly I realized how predictable their patterns were and how consistently I could dodge them. I never felt like I got lucky, but instead that I mastered the boss and every one of their attacks. Without a dodge-roll, and your only defensive tool being a shield that saps your energy, running around and positioning yourself correctly becomes all the more important. It’s not a game of reactions, but a game of learning to stay mobile.

Valfaris gives the players an absolute arsenal of weapons to choose from for being a fairly short game. Surprisingly, each weapon is extremely unique and has different use cases. The difference in damage, range, spread-pattern, and special effects make every weapon fun to test out. I believe they are all fairly viable, although some are inevitably more powerful than others. You can equip a single sidearm, a melee weapon which deals high damage and restores energy, and a powerful main weapon that consumes energy when used.

It’s fun to test out different loadouts. But a critique that I have is that the upgrade system hampers the player’s ability to try new weapons. There are limited materials that can be used to upgrade your weapons, so once you start upgrading one it feels like you are committed to that choice. Especially once you get to the later part of the game you probably have a max-level weapon and aren’t going to want to swap it out for a fresh new one. I wish I didn’t feel so constricted when upgrading my weapons so that I could have experimented with some of the interesting choices that the game offers.

An interesting aspect of Valfaris is how it encourages and rewards risk in different ways. The most obvious is with the concept of Resurrection Idols. One of these can be found in every section between checkpoints, and extra ones can be found by diligent explorers. It costs a single Idol to activate a checkpoint. But if you choose not to activate the checkpoint and push forward, you get to keep the Idol. For every extra Idol you hold you gain bonus maximum health and maximum energy. I personally never took the risk and skipped a checkpoint, but it is an interesting risk for more experienced players to choose to gain a permanent bonus.

Moreover, at the end of every level there is a machine in which you can exchange bonus Idols for weapon upgrade materials. Effectively trading max health and energy for more power. The risks surrounding Idols and how to spend them is definitely an appreciated player choice. Another way the game handles risk is by encouraging the player to run around and slash at enemies. Melee attacks generate energy, which can be used for your heavy weapons and shield. So, if you want to play it safe and stay at range with your sidearm you can, but if you want to cause mayhem you need to slice up aliens to power your destructive rocket launchers and such.

Overall, Valfaris is an excellent modern run-and-gun. It’s hard to stand out in a sea of games that all stem from a genre that started 35 years ago. But Valfaris masterfully captures the thrilling side-scrolling action that defines the genre. The best way to describe it is 2D DOOM. Which is a pretty high compliment to give to any shooter. Despite a few minor issues like messy visuals and stunted upgrade paths, I believe Valfaris is an excellent game. It is for these reasons I give Valfaris an 8/10. While not being anything mind-blowingly new or innovative, Valfaris is the essence of run-and-gun.

Minit (2018)

An often-repeated idea in many gaming spaces is a game is only as valuable as how many hours of entertainment it provides. Games that provide dozens or hundreds of hours of content are hyped up, while games that are shorter or have a defined end are seen as a waste of money. I vehemently disagree with this mindset. Extremely long or open-ended games are usually bloated with tons of filler or subpar content. I much prefer shorter games that have a well-defined structure that isn’t beaten to death over the course of 100 hours. An extreme example of bite-sized experience is the indie game Minit.

Minit is a top-down adventure game that is clearly inspired by the original The Legend of Zelda games. Like the adventure games of old, you run around the world with sword in hand, solving puzzles and conquering foes. The twist of Minit is that every 60 seconds you die and are reborn at your home base. Every minute is a frantic rush to progress forward in some way, whether it be exploring a foreign area, solving a puzzle, or unlocking a new item.

Dying and respawning every minute causes the player to think about what they want to achieve in such a short time frame. Minit is incredibly tightly designed, I was shocked quickly I could traverse the world. I initially assumed that I would frequently run out of time having achieved nothing in a minute, but the map is so compact and dense that it was always simple to discover something of interest. The interconnected nature of the world allowed for quick navigation. Unlocking new items would allow access to previously inaccessible areas, and exploring these areas often revealed shortcuts to other parts of the map.

One of my main gripes with Minit was that it infrequently actually made use of its timer mechanic outside of just resetting the cycle. I do enjoy the concept of only having a minute in each cycle, as it forced such tight game design and pushes the player to carefully route their path through the world. However, most of the puzzles, exploration, and combat never utilize this mechanic at all.

There are a few clever uses such as interacting with a man who speaks very slowly, so if you want to hear what he says you must reach him early in the cycle. But for the most part the only impact that the minute long cycle has on the game is emoti the player to move quickly and with purpose. Interestingly, you could remove the minute long cycle and the game would still function perfectly well. I do think that it is still a worthwhile addition in how it motivates the player to maneuver through the game.

A common sentiment in many gaming spaces is the idea that games as a product should provide you with a sufficient amount of content to justify their price. I don’t wholeheartedly agree with this line of thinking as it is how we end up with 100-hour slog fests with repeated and tedious content. I much prefer if games deliver a focused experience, only including the very best that the designers had to offer. That being said, Minit is short. Incredibly short. Minit took me a little over an hour to complete. Even if I went hunting for all the hidden collectibles, I doubt it would’ve taken me more that 2 hours to 100% complete the game.

To be honest, I was refreshed with how short Minit was. It definitely did not overstay it’s welcome, which is one of the most pervasive issues that I have with games. But I think Minit is too extreme on the other end of the spectrum. There were definitely more ideas that could have been explored. Especially considering that the game barely scratched the surface when it came to time or cycle-based mechanics.

Overall, Minit is a short but sweet adventure harkening back to the games of yesteryear. I quite enjoyed the use of the minute long cycles and how they influenced the world design, but it felt underused when it came to game mechanics. If anything, Minit is a fun little adventure if you don’t feel like committing to a grandiose globetrotting RPG that spans dozens of hours. But if you are looking for a more comprehensive experience, you may have better luck elsewhere.

Subnautica (2018)

As a genre, survival games can be repetitive and uninspired. Many of them follow the same generic formula of gathering resources, building a base, and making sure you have enough food to survive. Most of these games have no end goal, they just kind of peter out after a while. Despite not being a fan of the genre, Subnautica caught my attention because it was different. The setting, story, and ultimate goal make it a survival game that stands out among its peers. With a higher emphasis on exploration and discovery as opposed to resource collection, Subnautica felt right up my alley.

As the giant spacefaring vessel Aurora plummets towards an unnamed ocean planet, life pods are jettisoned into the open waters with the few survivors of the crash. You begin your journey in one of these life pods. Equipped with some basic survival necessities like a couple days’ worth of food and water, you realize that you are going to need to take a dive into the alien waters to have any chance at survival.

As you dip your toes into the shallow waters around your life pod, you can start collecting resources. Catching fish to be turned into sustainment, and gathering minerals and other natural resources to start crafting new items. In the beginning hours of Subnautica, you cannot stray far from the water’s surface. With limited oxygen you need to frequently swim back to the surface to breathe. To travel farther and dive deeper you are going to need to craft some new equipment.

Like any survival game, Subnautica has a rather nebulous tech tree. While there is no defined path of equipment and upgrades that needs to be strictly followed, you will find it hard to progress until you craft the necessary upgrades. For example, to dive deeper you are going to want to get faster swimming fins and an oxygen tank. In the deeper waters you will find resources to craft vehicles that let you dive even deeper. And from there you can discover upgrades that can let you dive even deeper still. There is a defined gameplay loop of collecting resources to build new technology which in turn lets you go deeper to collect new resources that lets you build newer technology.

This is all pretty standard for a survival game so far, but Subnautica deviates from its peers in a few ways. The first being that the world is not procedurally generated. The world is predefined, and there is nothing to guide you but your own navigation skills. There is no map that shows you all the biomes, you have to use your compass and some landmarks to remember where you are. Beacons can be placed that make navigation simpler, and the giant crashed ship Aurora serves as an obvious visual anchor of where you are at all times. I liked the decision to leave exploration and discovery to the player’s own ingenuity instead of there being a map that you need to unveil. It cements the fact that you are on an alien planet, with nothing but your own resourcefulness to guide you.

The most important aspect that makes Subnautica stand out is its story. Most survival games are just about surviving, upgrading your gear, and building a base. You just play until you get bored. Subnautica has all those things, but you always have the ultimate goal of leaving the planet. You begin getting messages on your life pod’s radio from other life pods. This brilliantly nudges the player forwards to discover new biomes and technologies. You may be apprehensive at first to stray far from the safe shallow water near your life pod, but you will want to know what happened to the other survivors.

Eventually, your curiosity will be what drives you to delve into the deep, dark, and terrifying ocean. You need to know what happened to the Aurora, and the alien structures that you find will certainly pique your interest. I found that the story of Subnautica was a decent sci-fi tale. It does a phenomenal job at always leaving breadcrumbs for you to discover and make you want to learn more about the world and its secrets. Truthfully, I would’ve quit Subnautica fairly early on if it didn’t appeal to my sense of exploration and discovery.

Aside from the story, the other strong aspect of Subnautica is how genuinely terrifying it is. It’s not like a conventional horror game with grotesque monsters. You must contend with the flora and fauna of the world, some of which are hostile, and some of which are gargantuan. But these creatures don’t exist just to chase you down and kill you like something out of Resident Evil, they have habitats that they happily exist in regardless of your interference. There is no point in battling these beasts, you simple avoid them or use tools to inhibit them long enough for you to get away.

The brand of terror in Subnautica is one that exists almost entirely within the player’s mind. Primal fears like the fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, and fear of the unknown are constantly triggered. You cannot see 360 degrees around you, so there is a constant fear that some predator is lurking just behind you. Traversing into dark waters is always terrifying, you never know what is lurking there. There’s a magic to how unsettling and petrifying Subnautica can be despite not being a horror game at all.

Subautica has its fair share of issues, many of which are common for the survival game genre. Since the game has a tech tree and obvious upgrade paths, it can occasionally be frustrating to get stuck with absolutely no idea of how to acquire the next upgrade or what it even is. You need blueprints to build most new pieces of equipment, and finding these blueprints can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

For example, one of the most obvious objectives the player has is to board the Aurora and scavenge it. But you need a laser cutter to open many of the sealed doors. It took me ages to find the necessary blueprints to build the laser cutter. They are often found in wreckages scattered on the ocean floor, but it is all too easy to glance over the blueprint while scavenging or miss the wreckage all together. This happened to me numerous times throughout the game, and it was immensely frustrating to aimlessly scour the entire ocean for wreckages that may or may not contain the blueprint I needed.

The worst example I can think of was when I had all but completed the game, I still had not unlocked the giant submarine vehicle. I never came across the necessary blueprints. This was doubly aggravating because I needed to build the submarine to finish the final piece of my spaceship. I spent hours exploring every inch of the world for that blueprint, for no reason other than to build a submarine that I didn’t even really need. I already completed the story; I was mere moments away from blasting off the planet forever.

 Additionally, Subnautica also has the classic issue of tedious resource collection that many survival games have. Towards the end of the game in particular the escape rocket requires a ton of resources. All of which the player has likely already collected plenty of times. I guess it serves as a final victory lap as you acquire the copious amounts of titanium and copper necessary to blast off, but by that time in the game I felt like I had already proven my mastery of the ocean.

The most objective flaw of Subnautica is the overwhelming number of technical issues. Although many of the game’s flaws have been getting patched through the years, its hard to ignore how buggy it was on launch and how it still is poorly optimized. The two big issues in particular are the framerate and the draw distance. While the framerate has improved over the years, there are still hiccups. But the more frustrating issue is the draw distance. In a game where exploration is the main mechanic, I should be able to see what is 50 meters in front of me.

This is what leads to the player missing many important wreckages or other landmarks. They swim around a biome, thinking they’ve fully explored it, but some pieces just hadn’t rendered. In many areas of the game, it makes sense that visibility is low. In dark zones or dusty terrain it makes sense to have obscured vision, but in the open ocean I should be able to see more than a few dozen meters in front of me.

Overall, Subnautica is the best survival game that I’ve played. It’s unique setting, sci-fi story, and actual tangible progression makes it more appealing to me than most other survival games. The perhaps unintentional terror and fear that it strikes into the player is something that cannot be forgotten. Nothing gives you chills more than when entering a new biome and you get warned that there are multiple hostile leviathan creature lurking about. All that being said, it still has many of the tedious aspects that plague survival games. It is for these reasons I give Subnautica a 7.5/10. The ocean may seem inhospitable, but I’m sure most people will quickly grow fond of the watery planet that you call home in Subnautica.

Call of Cthulhu (2018)

Reproducing Lovecraft’s unique genre of horror in visual mediums is a challenging task. Lovecraft’s primary theme was that the unknown and unknowable were horrifying. The feeling of existential dread is more powerful when you imagine some terrifying reality, which is why many visual mediums struggle to reproduce that feeling. Call of Cthulhu is obviously inspired by Lovecraft, the question whether it can effectively replicate the cosmic horror that he was so keen on.

The premise of Call of Cthulhu is that you are a drunken investigator who has trouble getting a case. When approached by a wealthy man, you cannot deny their request to look into the death of his daughter, Sarah Hawkins. She, along with her husband and child, died in a house fire that was deemed an accident. Sarah’s father seems to believe there was more to the story, and he cites that there is a strange nature surrounding Sarah. As an artist she primarily painted deeply unsettling pieces, and her father believes that her disturbing art has a connection to her death.

You travel to an ominous island off the coast, and you quickly establish that something is terribly wrong here. The town is dilapidated, the citizens all seem delusional, and nobody seems to want you there investigating their business. Over the course of the game, the story will continue to unfold as you unravel the dark secrets of the island. It is a fairly standard Lovecraftian tale, rife with cults, sea monsters, and unspeakable horrors. 

The story and atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu is by far the games strongest appeal. The atmosphere itself is fantastic. The entire world is dark, dingy, misty, and all-around unsettling. There are a variety of environments and set pieces that fit perfectly in a Lovecraftian setting. The game also does a phenomenal job at distorting reality. A common theme in Lovecraft’s mythos is madness, and Call of Cthulhu replicates that well. There are many sequences that will have the player questioning what events are actually occurring and which ones are dreams or insanity within the main character’s thoughts. What is less successful is the implementation of the story.

While I do think the narrative had some interesting moments, I don’t think it was particularly memorable or enough to carry a game. I was interested in the mystery aspects of the game, trying to deduce what was happening on the island. But for the most part, I think the story pulled in too many different directions instead of focusing on a couple of stronger and more fleshed out ideas. It almost feels like a collection of Lovecraft’s greatest hits, there are so many different elements at play in a fairly short game. Most of the characters get pitiful screen time, and it feels like each aspect of the story was rushed and barely came together in a cohesive manner. But my larger issue with the plot is a common complaint amongst most Lovecraft inspired media.

Unexplored places like the cosmos and deep ocean were central to Lovecraft’s stories, as they are real places that are unsettling to most people. What lies within them may be so inconceivable and terrifying that it would drive men to madness. At this point, most people who are familiar with Lovecraft already know about the Cthulhu mythos, the references to the occult, and the recurring imagery of the deep ocean. It feels like the writers of these newer stories are missing the point when they directly rip these concepts. 

A successful modern Lovecraft adaptation would have to make the consumer uncomfortable. There would need to be unknown elements, things that don’t make sense and are incomprehensible. The feeling that humanity is insignificant when compared to what could possibly be lurking in the unknown reaches of the cosmos. Not just rehash the same themes and monsters that we’ve been seeing for a hundred years. Ironically, the most I’ve felt the signature cosmic horror feeling is in games that weren’t directly inspired by Lovecraft’s work. Visiting Dark Bramble in Outer Wilds, the BTs in Death Stranding, and the Mimics in Prey are all examples of this. It’s not a coincidence that I loved all of those games. 

As a game with a focus on story elements, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the actual gameplay is pretty mediocre. There is a mishmash of various elements, with some RPG investigation taking the forefront most of the time. Aside from that there is stealth, puzzle solving, exploration, and combat. These range from inoffensive at best to frustrating at worst. But none of them really take up a significant portion of time and can be gotten through fairly quickly. I appreciate that the developers at least understood that gameplay was not the core focus of the game and didn’t let it get in the way too much.

The only gameplay element that was prevalent for the entire game was the RPG investigations. You essentially search for clues and chat with NPCs to gain information about whatever you are investigating. There are some options that will essentially require a dice roll depending on your skill levels. It’s a little odd that they relied on RNG instead of just pure stat checks here, there really wasn’t any need for a randomness element to be incorporated. This isn’t a game about exploring many different options. If I make a strong character, I should be able to pry open stuck doors. And if I make a charismatic character, I should be able to pass more speech checks. Not have to rely on some dice roll that really adds nothing except for a failure state.

My other gripe is perhaps expecting a little too much for a game without a focus on gameplay. As it stands, investigations are just ways of disseminating information. You click on a clue and the game will tell you its significance, and questioning characters is just an exercise in exhausting all of the dialogue options. I wish there was some actual investigating here. Make the player use their brains to figure out a scene, not just tell them after clicking on enough clues. 

Overall, Call of Cthulhu is an at least competent Lovecraft experience. It doesn’t have riveting gameplay. It isn’t innovative in any capacity. And the story is just a rehash of the stories that we all know already. Despite this, it does have its moments of unsettling atmospheric horror. It is for these reasons I give Call of Cthulhu a 5/10. While it’s not revolutionary by any standard, it manages to craft a disconcerting world that will draw you in.

Forager (2019)

Idle games are a strange beast. Looking at them from a distance, it’s hard to see why anybody would enjoy watching numbers on a screen increase. But once you spin up an idle game, it’s like crack. It turns out that these types of games are dopamine generators, making them hard to stop playing. Forager is not solely an idle game like Cookie Clicker, but it combines the traditional waiting and production boosting loop of idle games with a top-down adventure game. It keeps you busy adventuring instead of idling and doing nothing, making the formula even more addicting.

You begin your adventure in Forager on a single island full of natural resources. As you being collecting materials such as stones, wood, and coal, you will be able to build some basic structures to unlock better gear which in turn lets you harvest resources more efficiently. This is the gameplay loop that will carry you until the end of the game. You also will collect gold, which can be used to buy more islands which contain additional resources. 

What keeps Forager interesting is how quickly you unlock new things. It always felt like I was minutes away from being able to make significant progress in some way. Whether it be crafting a new item, unlocking a skill, buying an island, or building a new structure, there was always something around the corner to keep me playing. That feeling of “what’s next?” never disappears, and the game keeps you sufficiently entertained while you are acquiring these new and shiny objects.  

As you wait for your banks and factories to produce gold and resources, Forager fills the idle void by encouraging the player to continue adventuring. Resources constantly regenerate, so you will repeatedly loop around all of your unlocked land to collect anything that has spawned. It’s not an excessively interesting form of gameplay, but it does keep your hands and mind at least somewhat busy while your machines chug away. There are monsters, puzzles, and the occasional boss, but these are minimalistic. Most of your time will be spent breaking down rocks, trees, and ores. At least until the endgame when most processes are completely automated.

A major flaw that I had with Forager was how the gameplay loop falls apart towards the end of the game. Once you unlock most of the skills, buildings, and islands, there isn’t much left to do other than wait around for the last few items to be produced. Anything that needed is automatically mined and collected. I just sit around and wait. This is exacerbated by the fact that the late game items take an absurd amount of time to produce. You can of course create more buildings to speed up the process, but each subsequent building of the same type increases in cost. Either way, it still takes a lot of time spent doing essentially nothing just to generate a few late game items.

My main issue with Forager is how empty it all feels in retrospect. After consuming a couple weekend afternoons and burning out during the late game of Forager I was left with the question: what was the point? There is no real objective of the game other than unlocking things. Combat is absurdly simplistic so there is no feeling of accomplishment. It’s not even like you can intelligently construct hyper-efficient islands that churn out resources faster. It’s just a matter of killing time and sending quick dopamine hits to your brain as you unlock new things. There’s no artistic merit, there is no challenge, there is no feeling of discovery or awe. It’s the video game equivalent of scrolling through social media for hours on end. Addicting but vapid.

I think Forager could have been improved immensely by developing its combat some more. I get it, the point of the game isn’t the combat. But there needed to be some substance to the game other than collecting resources. It could also alleviate burnout in the endgame as you have an ultimate goal to work towards. Maybe offering a gauntlet of increasingly difficult bosses would both allow the player to kill time practicing will items are being made, as well as have a constructive goal to keep them interested. As the game stands now it’s just an addicting time killer.

Overall, Forager feels like half of a game to me. If it had leaned heavier into either combat or efficient resource management (à la Factorio) it could have been a more rewarding experience. Instead, it’s just a good way to kill some time if you really have nothing better to do. When playing a game, I want my brain to be engaged in some capacity, not just idling for the sake of it. It is for these reasons that I give Forager a 5/10. Unlocking new things is fun for a moment, but the satisfaction quickly wears off when you realize those new things are purposeless. 

The Last of Us Part 2 (2020)

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that The Last of Us Part 2 is the most controversial game of all time. There was a ludicrous amount of vitriol towards the game and its writers upon release, which were quickly matched with dozens of professional reviews claiming it to be a masterpiece. What about The Last of Us Part 2 elicited such powerful reactions? Do I believe that it deserves such malice? No. But I also don’t believe that the game is the paragon of storytelling that many critics deemed it to be. 

I typically stay away from spoiler territory in my reviews, but it is impossible to meaningfully discuss The Last of Us Part 2 without delving into those dangerous waters. It is a game that heavily relies on storytelling, and nearly all of the game’s controversy stems from some shocking story moments. As such, I will hide spoilers in an expandable tag when I begin discussing them. But before I get to that point, I do want to highlight some other aspects of the game.

If there is anything that The Last of Us Part 2 should be lauded for, it is how technically impressive the game is. Naughty Dog has always been known for being the top dog when it comes to visual fidelity, and this game is no different. The environments, set pieces and character models are extraordinary. But what was more interesting to me was the animations. During combat, there are many instances of organic encounters that were so well animated that they felt scripted. Enemies getting pinned to walls or hanging over railing as you swing weapons at them looks shockingly natural.

Perhaps the most commendable feature of The Last of Us Part 2 is its vast array of accessibility options. There are many ways to modify the game that players can use to make the game or accessible to play. Players with hearing impairments, visual impairments, or motor disabilities could apply a host of changes that makes the game more accessible. Options like high-contrast visuals, holding to melee, auto-pick-up, subtitle direction, vibration cues, HUD re-scalability, and auto-target are all great examples of features that are available to make the game more accessible. 

 On a related note, there are also modular difficulty options that lets the player tailor the experience to their liking. If you are having a tough time sneaking through areas but are good at combat, you can just tone down the stealth difficulty without making the enemies easier for example. I really do appreciate the amount of effort that went into making The Last of Us Part 2 a customizable game that players can modify to match their desired experience.

The original The Last of Us was not known for its combat, and I don’t think the sequel changes that. There are some improvements and additions to modernize the formula, but neither the stealth or combat are particularly impressive. There is now high grass that you can hide in, you can now crawl, and there are some new tools and weapons. The enemy AI was also substantially improved. Enemies are now much better at tracking you down, checking over their shoulders, and sneaking up on you. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is engaging whether you are sneaking through derelict buildings or improvising during a shootout, but it’s certainly not best in class by any means.

Modern Naughty Dog games have always had a consistent length, and for a good reason. It seems like 10-15 hours is the sweet spot for these types of cinematic or story driven games. The Last of Us Part 2 breaks this mold by stretching to approximately 25 hours, which I don’t think is a justifiable decision. I enjoy the occasional narrative heavy game, but I don’t feel like The Last of Us Part 2 has enough meat to warrant opening the buffet. Truthfully, it feels like there is a ton of wasted time and filler. Even taking your time, completing all of the combat arenas back-to-back only takes maybe 4-5 hours. And even though the game is story driven and contains many cutscenes, there definitely isn’t 20 hours (equivalent to 10 full length movies) worth of dialogue and story. 

So, where did all the time go? Similar to its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 places on emphasis on certain survival elements. In particular, the player explores the environment and acquires resources that can be used to craft equipment. I praised The Last of Us for utilizing the scarcity of resources to create tension in combat. Even trivial encounters become anxiety-inducing when you only have a couple of bullets and no medical supplies. The Last of Us Part 2 is similar in this regard, but I believe too much time is devoted to scrounging for supplies.

There was a certain balance in the original game; the areas were not particularly spacious and the game was not overly long, so spending a few minutes here or there to collect supplies never felt tedious. But in The Last of Us Part 2 the environments are far more spacious and open, which makes for more dynamic combat arenas but it also equates to more time spent searching through them. A ludicrous amount of time is spent opening drawers, running around abandoned buildings, and searching bodies for rusted scissors or ragged bandages. 

Click here to see story spoilers!

This is where opinions around The Last of Us Part 2 start to get heated: the story. The premise of The Last of Us Part 2 is built around the key theme of revenge and forgiveness. It takes place a few years after the events of the first game, with Joel and Ellie living peaceful lives in Jackson, Wyoming. The serenity quickly dissipates as Joel is brutally beaten to death in front of Ellie by an unknown group of travelers. Soon after, Ellie sets out to track down the band of murderers to avenge Joel.

The real meat of the story unfolds over the course of 3 days in Seattle. In a series of more and more shocking acts of violence, Ellie gradually loses her humanity as she hunts down her targets. She tracks them down one at a time, learning more information about her ultimate goal: finding Joel’s killer, Abby. About halfway through the game, the real controversy begins as we swap to Abby’s perspective.

After experiencing Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle and being left on a cliffhanger, the player is now meant to play those 3 days again but from Abby’s point of view. There obviously is going to be backlash when being forced to play as someone who viciously brutalized a beloved character. But I do think that I would have been much more receptive to this risky storytelling decision if the writers hadn’t played their hand so blatantly.

Look, I understand that the dual narratives are meant to parallel Ellie’s and Abby’s experiences and how similar their journeys are. We learn that Joel killed Abby’s father in the first game, he was the doctor that was going to dissect Ellie to attempt to make a vaccine from her immune brain. Abby becomes and callous and hateful person as she hunts down her father’s killer, and Ellie repeats that path as she tracks Abby. The core issue that I have is with the writer’s approach once Abby’s half of the story begins. 

Once we swap perspectives, the first scene that occurs is a flashback of Abby and her father. They, no joke, rescue a mother zebra from being wrapped in barbed wire. It’s so heavy handed that it’s comical. Soon after, we see Abby play fetch with a dog while living in her community. A dog that Ellie would later go on to kill. The game is so blatantly attempting to get the player to sympathize with Abby, while at the same time resent Ellie for killing the characters that you meet as Abby. 

I understand that both Ellie and Abby are meant to be flawed characters, but when I have to spend half the game playing as Abby, I quickly lost interest in the plot. I just wanted to see what happened after the cliffhanger. Making the player spend 12 hours playing a character that you are almost definitely going to hate initially is more than just a risky decision. I found it hard to ever root for Abby, as she is an undeniably bad person. The way she killed Joel, her apathy towards the fact that she is about to kill a pregnant woman, her attitude towards her friends, she’s just not a redeemable character.

What is bizarre to me about The Last of Us Part 2 is how it’s approach to storytelling is opposite to the original game. The Last of Us was not known for its bombastic story, in fact I would argue that it was a pretty generic post-apocalyptic zombie narrative. What made the game great was how the characters were the focal point, not the events taking place. Joel and Ellie were fully fleshed out characters who felt legitimately human. They grew together, had flaws, and ultimately bonded as a father-daughter relationship. The Last of Us Part 2 seems to care far more about the events unfolding rather than the characters.

Aside from Ellie, Abby, and a new character called Lev, every character in The Last of Us Part 2 is boring. Abby’s friends in particular are hard to ever care about. Hunting them down as Ellie is your entire goal for the first half of the game, then playing as Abby the writers attempt to make you feel sympathetic and guilty about Ellie’s actions. But you already hate them, already know they are killed, and are probably aware of the obvious ploys that the writers are using.

Much of the adventure is a solo affair, which is diametrically opposed to how the original game was structured. Joel and Ellie bantering back and forth while traversing the world was key to the experience. But in The Last of Us Part 2 most of the time spent is without a companion. The only sections that felt remotely similar to the original game were some flashback sequences of Joel and Ellie, as well as Abby and Lev climbing a skyscraper. 

To be honest, I think the opposing perspectives approach could have worked. But the order of events combined with how lengthy the game is definitely will leave many players with a foul taste in their mouths. I believe if Abby’s perspectives were short sequences interspersed throughout Ellie’s adventure, the player may actually grow to care about Abby and her crew before murdering them all. We don’t need to spend 12+ hours seeing every moment of Abby’s perspective. 

The ending of the game is frankly absurd. Again, I get what the writers are going for, Abby and Ellie are both malnourished and severely beaten as a result of their revenge fueled journeys. Abby is ready to move on since she accomplished her goal of killing Joel, but Ellie is not satisfied and forces Abby to fight. Ultimately, Ellie gets the best of Abby and is about to kill her when she decides to spare her. 

We learn that she had a flashback to her last conversation with Joel which was about forgiveness. I get that this was an epiphany for Ellie, but real humans don’t act like this. She had her father figure murdered, was mutilated, had a friend killed and another permanently brain-damaged, her wife left her, and she killed dozens of people just to reach Abby. All to give up on the finish line. I get that it was supposed to be some message about revenge and forgiveness, but I don’t buy that a reasonable person would behave like this. 

The final gripe that I want to bring up is what I call the Naughty Dog problem. I could (and maybe will) write an entire article on this epidemic, but I’ll try to keep my thoughts here brief. Naughty Dog, and many studios that are inspired by Naughty Dog’s style of cinematic experiences, feel like they are trying to make films rather than games. These types of games make poor use of the medium at hand. Video games are inherently different than films, they are interactive by nature. Nowadays, many triple-A studios have drawn inspiration from Naughty Dog. Too many games don’t ever utilize the interactivity of the medium.

Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us feel split. One half of the game is a narrative experience, and the other half being relatively disconnected gameplay. It feels like an action film where the player gets control during the fight scene. I think this approach to storytelling in games is fine on occasion, but in games like The Last of Us Part 2 it almost feels dirty. The game borderline shames the player for their actions, despite their being no other choice. I think the game would have been improved if the player could choose at the end of the game whether Ellie spares Abby or not. It would have given the player some agency in the final decision, leaving them grappling with morality and deciding how the journey of revenge concludes. 

Overall, The Last of Us Part 2 didn’t deserve all the attention that it received, positive or negative. It’s definitely not an unmitigated disaster by any means, it has competent gameplay, stellar visuals, and an exciting story. But I wouldn’t herald The Last of Us Part 2 as a masterpiece either, the gameplay was nothing special, and the narrative was poorly executed. It is for these reasons that I give The Last of Us Part 2 a 6/10. It is a rollercoaster of a story that is sure to leave many of its passengers nauseous. 

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.