Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)

While Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was a huge leap forward in all aspects, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception did not make any noticeable improvements to the formula. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception plays remarkably similar to its predecessor, so much so that it barely feels like its own game. Since they are so similar, you should read my review on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to understand my thoughts on that game. My thoughts on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are nearly identical barring a few minor changes.

One place of improvement that could be attributed to Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is its overall story. While the story follows the same basic format of seeking treasure in a lost city, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception does focus a bit more on the relationship between characters. This entry into the series finally recounts how Nathan and Sully met, and how Sully became a father figure to the young vagabond. During these flashbacks, a young Nathan is attempting to steal a ring from a museum when he encounters Sully. Many years later, the game takes place when Nathan and Sully utilize the ring to unearth a path to Iram of the Pillars. From there, the story follows the same general plot points as its predecessors as Nathan and company follow a clue laden trail.

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Despite Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception being a nearly identical experience to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it still deserves credit for being an impressive adventure in its own right. The game mostly takes place in France, Syria, and Yemen, as well as a few chapters on the ocean. There are plenty of bombastic set pieces and action sequences which Uncharted is known for. From crashing a plane to escaping the clutches of modern-day pirates by sinking their ships, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is certainly not lacking on action.

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There seems to be a new emphasis on melee combat in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. There are frequent scenarios in which Drake must punch his way through dozens of enemies. Unfortunately, this importance on melee combat is misguided due its mechanics. Melee combat is nothing but a quick-time event (QTE). Simply press the button that pops up on the screen. Not only does this take the player out of the moment, but it also removes any sort of decision making. I still feel like the gunfights in Uncharted are overly simple, but the fistfights are far worse in that regard. When the player is in a shootout, at least they are given the agency to choose what cover to get behind, what enemies they want to shoot at, what weapons to use, so on and so forth. Strategy and skill come into play during firefights. In hand-to-hand combat, you simply press a button when the game tells you to.

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One other difference that I noticed was a change in how the combat arenas were designed. In most of the shootouts in the previous games, enemies would only appear in front of the player. The arenas in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are noticeably more open and enemies are prone to flanking the player. On one hand, I like that Naughty Dog is trying to encourage the player to move around a bit more. You cannot really sit behind one piece of cover when enemies are coming at you from multiple angles. On the other hand, there is no reasonable way to deal with these new flanking threats except targeting them before they reach you. Moving around from cover to cover is dangerous considering that getting hit a few times equates to death. And once an enemy is on top of you, they engage in melee combat, meaning that you are stuck in a QTE while getting shot at.

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It is incredibly frustrating to die while being caught in an animation which you didn’t want to do anyway. I don’t want Drake to stand up and start punching at a guy when he’s getting shot at by a dozen others. Once an enemy has successfully flanked you, you are doomed. I appreciate that the developers realize that posting up behind a wall and taking shots at enemies when it is safe grows boring after a while. However, these new rushing and flanking enemies don’t have meaningful ways to counter them other than just prioritizing killing them before other enemies.

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My biggest gripe about Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception was just how derivative it was. The climbing, puzzles, and shooting mechanics are all exactly the same as its predecessor. Even the story itself follows the same outline. I would’ve liked to see something to make the either the climbing or the shootouts more engaging. As it stands, the climbing sections are still incredibly mundane and not even remotely interactive. The combat is serviceable, but it does not match the explosive action to match the game’s bombastic set pieces. Uncharted is all about capturing the feeling of being an action movie, cowering behind cover for minutes at a time just doesn’t cut it.

Overall, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is in no way a bad game. It is just unfortunate that no strides have been made to improve any of the game’s core gameplay pillars. Instead, we got a game that seems afraid to deviate from the successful formula of its ancestors. Regardless, I think that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a fine game, just not one that is ever going to be regarded as influential or important.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

My biggest complaint about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was that the game aged relatively poorly. It was certainly playable, but it was obviously outdated. What’s astonishing to me is just how large of a leap was made between Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on nearly every conceivable level. For the games only being released 2 years apart, the second game in this legendary adventure series blows its predecessor out of the water. The visuals, gameplay, level design, and overall scope of the game were so dramatically improved that I do not hesitate to recommend Uncharted 2: Among Thieves despite me not falling in love with the original Uncharted.

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The basis of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is that Nathan Drake and his companions are retracing path of Marco Polo, attempting to find the lost city of Shangri-La. This leads the player through a plethora of gorgeous locations. From dense jungles in Borneo, to a crowded city in Nepal, to a remote village overlooking the Himalayas. These striking locales are memorable not only for their views, but also for the action sequences that occur in them. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves makes phenomenal use of set pieces to make for unforgettable experiences. The game opens with Drake precariously hanging onto a train which is dangling from a cliff. Whether you are jumping from rooftop to rooftop avoiding a gunship, or employing guerilla warfare to take down a tank on a mountainside, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has some unforgettable action.

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The components of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are identical to its predecessor, except they were vastly improved upon. The 3 pillars of gameplay remain: combat, climbing, and puzzles. Combat in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves feels far smoother to play than its predecessor. Hit registration is better and guns feel more impactful. Enemies actually react when hit, so you know when you’ve hit them. Headshots feel far more consistent. Movement in general is smoother in every regard. While the game is still a third-person shooter with no obvious additions, the gameplay was polished so that it is actually fun.

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One of the issues that I attribute to the gameplay is that even through the newfound shine of modernization, it is still a relatively rudimentary third-person shooter. The vast majority of gunfights revolve around the player posting up behind a piece of cover, popping their head out for a second or two to kill an enemy, and then hiding back behind the cover to recover health. Occasionally enemies will flank or throw grenades, but this just equates to swapping to a different piece of cover. While it can be engaging for short bursts, it is not innovative or creative in any way. Moreover, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves occasionally has pacing issues.

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The pacing of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of the games greatest triumphs as well as one of the games biggest flaws. For the majority of the game, Naughty Dog masterfully divides all of the different components that define Uncharted. Cutscenes, action sequences, combat, climbing, and puzzles are all represented frequently. They are split into small, digestible chunks so that the player does not get bored. When each component is only 10-15 minutes at a time before switching gears and doing something else, then their individual basicness can often be overlooked. For the vast majority of the game, that is the case. Even though the climbing, puzzles, and combat are all individually simple, they worked well together in small chunks. Unfortunately, for some sections, the beginning and end of the game in particular, the same cannot be said. When I have to spend hours in gunfights with no reprieve, I start to get exhausted.

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The combat of the Uncharted series can be thoroughly enjoyed in brief sections. When punctuated by cutscenes, set pieces, and action sequences the shootouts can be rather fun. And after a few minutes of relaxing climbing or puzzles, there is an allure of getting into a firefight. Still, the combat is absolutely rudimentary. Sitting behind a wall and popping out to take a couple shots at a time is not exhilarating. Especially when a gunfight goes on for too long and you are stuck behind the same piece of cover for what feels like an eternity. It can get stressful and frustrating as you just want this particular fight to be over, but sticking your head out for a second too long results in death. Again, this basic third-person shooter gameplay is not offensive, but there are a couple of combat sections in the game that drag on for way too long.

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I would be remiss to not comment on the increased frequency of climbing in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The first game in the series certainly had climbing, but was not nearly utilized as much as it is in this entry. I think this is a bit worrying, as the climbing in these games is completely brainless. You simply hit a button and hold the stick in the general direction of a ledge and Nathan will magically snap to it. There is no fail state. There is no way to lose. It is completely devoid of player input. The developers try to make it seem exciting by creating spectacle around the player, but it doesn’t sufficiently mask how boring climbing is. The climbing is necessary downtime between intense gunfights. It serves as a breather and an opportunity to take in the environment around you. I just hope that future games in the series do not continue this trend of adding more and more climbing sections. It was mostly tolerable in this game, but there was definitely more of it than there was in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, like its predecessor, does not have a particularly memorable or hard-hitting story. Instead, the story is the vehicle to deliver the player to all sorts of interesting locations, as well as giving the characters plenty of interaction. I do think this game had a better overall narrative than the original game, but it remains of the realm of an action B movie. Still, the series shines because of its characters. Nathan, Sully, Elena, and the newly introduced Chloe all feel like living, breathing, characters. Their interactions, dialogue, and motivations are incredibly well written. This is complimented by the performances of the actors that voice these characters.

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Overall, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves significantly polished the base left by its predecessor. There was a large graphical leap, controls were tighter, gameplay more crisp, better use of set pieces, and a more intriguing story. I wrote most of the flaws of the original game off due to its age, but I feel like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is modern enough that I cannot dismiss the shortcomings of the series thus far. The combat can get dull after a while, and climbing is entirely unengaging. Despite this, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a solid action-adventure game. Especially if you like tons of spectacle and well-written characters.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)

The trend of cinematic games can be traced back to Naughty Dog’s adventurous series: Uncharted. These third-person shooters have a heavy emphasis on writing, storytelling, and cinematic aspects. If you were to transform Indiana Jones into a video game, Uncharted would be the result. The series follows Nathan Drake, a charismatic treasure hunter who is addicted to the thrill of unraveling century-old mysteries and claiming their bounties. The first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, sets the tone and formula for its successors.

Uncharted bases its adventures in myths from reality, which provides an interesting alternate history spin on most of Drake’s travels. For example, in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Drake and company are hunting for El Dorado. Drake deciphers a series of clues to lead him to the lost city of gold. There is an air of mystery of why the city has never been found and why its treasures have been undiscovered for so long. The trail of clues leads the player across the globe, from remote jungles to abandoned citadels to dilapidated cities. While the overarching story is nothing spectacular or groundbreaking, it serves as a backdrop to the characters themselves.

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The quality of writing in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is shockingly good, especially for a game that came out in 2007. Video games have always had an issue with campy writing, but are usually excused as writing is not nearly as important in games as it is in film. Luckily, games in the past few years have done a much better job at hiring professional writers to create natural and flowing dialogue. The Uncharted series may have been the start of this trend, as the emphasis on quality dialogue is apparent. The characters banter and rib each other like friends would in real life. They have obvious motivations and flaws which shape their personalities. Drake’s drive to discover lost treasure is one of his greatest strengths as it makes him remarkably persistent. Yet his single-mindedness in this regard often thrusts himself and his companions into danger. All of the characters of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune feel like real humans, with tangible desires and personalities, and this is all due to the natural dialogue and writing.

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The gameplay of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune revolves around three pillars: gunfights, puzzles, and climbing. The game attempts to strike a balance between these vastly different styles of interaction. These components have strikingly variation in player interactivity. Gunfights require the player’s full attention, you need to constantly search for cover, aim and shoot, keep track of where enemies are, rotate through different weapons, and so on and so forth. Puzzles in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune do not necessitate much thought or input from the player. The vast majority of them have the player open up Drake’s notebook and decipher a clue on how to progress. Most of the time, this means hitting switches or levers in a certain order. Not exactly cerebral or engaging. Climbing is the least interesting element of all. Simply hitting a button to jump from ledge to ledge is a far cry from strategically making your way through a gunfight.

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What I consider to be the core gameplay of the Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune series are its gunfights. These games are third-person shooters which utilize a cover system. Hitting a button will duck the player behind nearby cover, and clicking your aim button will pop your head out to take a few shots at open enemies. Generally, this iteration of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune feels a bit like a shooting gallery. You pop up for a couple of seconds to blast at an enemy or two, and then duck back down to avoid taking too much damage. Rinse and repeat until all enemies are eliminated. Occasionally, enemies will try to run up to you or use grenades to flush you out of cover, but for the most part you can just sit behind a single wall to dispatch of most foes. Its not nearly as exciting as it could be.

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Moreover, the gunplay just feels off to me. Bullets don’t feel like they have significant impact. Enemies don’t really recoil when they are hit, so its hard to gauge if you are even landing your shots. This is not helped by the fact that some enemies have massive health pools and take loads of shots to take down. Furthermore, hit registration feels very off. Headshots in particular seem to miss way more often than they should. All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune definitely feels a bit dated in its gunplay mechanics, which is not surprising for a game that I am playing 12 years after its initial release.

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What Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune does best is cultivate the feeling of adventure and discovery. The prospect of playing as a globetrotting treasure hunter is one of the most appealing aspects of the series. Drake travels the world, picking up breadcrumbs left by historic adventurers. This idea lands the player in a variety of locales, exploring tight caverns and catacombs as well as climbing to peaks of mountains to view scenic vistas. Every game needs an intriguing concept, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune nails that.

Overall, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune felt dated in a lot of its design. The stiff gunplay and occasionally cumbersome controls cannot be ignored. Additionally, a huge draw of the series is just soaking in the scenic horizons of the game’s various locales. This is far less attractive when the game is 12 years old and is far removed from being graphically impressive. Its hard to fault the game for me playing it so late, but its undeniable that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune suffers from its age. Regardless, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune did a great job in many aspects such as capturing the sense of adventure and having well written characters. That is why I am excited to play the later entries in the series, as I hope that some modernization is all that Uncharted needs.

Borderlands 2 (2012)

Admittedly, I don’t have a fresh mindset going into Borderlands 2. I wish I did, but I’ve played this game numerous times since its release. It is hard for me to give my straightforward impressions since I am already so familiar with everything in Borderlands 2. This should be a testament to how much I enjoyed the game. I rarely replay games, but I’ve played Borderlands 2 about five times. Even after a couple of single-player campaigns as well as a few co-op playthroughs I still never grew tired of Borderlands 2. With Borderlands 3 finally being released, I think it is time for me to finally let one of my most played games rest.

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Playing the first Borderlands has made me appreciate the sequel with at least a little of a fresh perspective. The original game invented the looter-shooter genre, but Borderlands 2 perfected it. The general formula is the same as the original game: you play as an intergalactic treasure hunter, blasting your way through desolate wastelands to reach a mystical vault. There are 4 different vault hunters to choose from, each with their own abilities and skills to upgrade as they level up. Of course, to reach the vault the player must shoot their way through hordes of bandits, alien creatures, and deadly machines.

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Unsurprisingly, Borderlands 2 is tangibly more modern than its predecessor. Visually, Borderlands 2 holds up superbly. The classic comic book style is striking and remarkably distinguishable. When you see a screenshot of Borderlands, you know its Borderlands. While I felt like the environments of the original game were an amalgamation of shades of brown, the world of Borderlands 2 pops with vibrant colors and varied areas. Most importantly, Borderlands 2 just feels better to play than its predecessor. Movement is less sluggish, the weapons are more responsive, and there are far less technical issues. It cannot be understated how important it is for an FPS to have guns that simply feel powerful. The sounds, animations, enemy reactions, and immediate feedback all contribute to having weaponry feel impactful. Additionally, my Borderlands playthrough was plagued by technical issues like bugs and crashes. Thankfully, Borderlands 2 performs consistently and cleanly compared to its ancestor.

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Looter shooters live or die on their loot system. When loot is weak or infrequent, the player can feel like no progression is being made. Conversely, overly powerful or abundant loot can lessen the impact of those moments where you get something really special. Borderlands 2 strikes a nice balance which the original game did not. The original game’s loot was heavily randomized: fodder enemies could drop top-tier loot, but most of the time you just got garbage. While Borderlands 2 cut down on the player’s odds of getting great loot from random enemies, instead the game doles out more consistent loot at obvious intervals. Doing side quests and defeating bosses is the single most reliable method of getting new and exciting guns. I much prefer this system over farming numerous weak enemies for a tiny chance at a new piece of equipment.

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Borderlands 2 is legendary partly due its characters and story. As you traverse the planet of Pandora you encounter various factions vying for control. At the head of the conflict is Handsome Jack, a cruel and vindictive business man. His ultimate goal is to open the vault and harness the power that is held within. As the vault hunter, the player is obviously at odds with Handsome Jack. As you ally with the locals at the town of Sanctuary, Handsome Jack is prepared to do anything to take you and your associates down. It cannot be understated how iconic of a villain Handsome Jack is. His genuine belief that he is the “good guy” makes him a compelling nemesis, willing to do anything to succeed.  There are many returning characters from the first game, including the playable vault hunters from that expedition. I absolutely loved seeing how the protagonists from the first game played a key role in the narrative of Borderlands 2.

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While known for its bombastic sense of humor, Borderlands 2 is hit or miss in the writing department. Every character is an over the top caricature, equipped with heaps of jokes. Unfortunately, many of the jokes fall completely flat. Now, this is partially due to when the game was released. In 2011, the internet was full of outrageous “random” humor which Borderlands 2 heavily leans into. It may be unfair to judge the ridiculousness of Borderlands 2, as it was a product of its time. Still, it feels like the writer’s were trying to hard to pack in a million gags, and I wish it had been dialed back a bit. Despite it being a defining feature of the game, much of its humor has not aged particularly well.

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Ultimately, I think Borderlands 2 was a revolutionary game which blew open an entire genre. Looter shooters have become increasingly popular over the years, but Borderlands 2 holds supreme. The bombastic action, variety of characters, plethora of guns, graphic art style, and wacky dialogue certainly makes this game unique. I’ve played this game numerous times since its release, and it will always remain as a classic in my heart.

 

Persona 5 (2016)

I struggle to explain Persona 5 in a way that gives the game justice. While being incredibly stylish, engaging, and addictive, Persona 5 can easily be perceived as boring through simple explanations. The core of the game is that you are a high-schooler in Tokyo, doing normal teenager things, while also secretly reforming society. By magically entering people’s consciences, you and your band of misfits change the hearts of criminals. But ultimately, that is just one aspect of the game, the real genius of Persona 5 is how every component is woven together.

Persona 5 is part life-simulator and part turn-based RPG. The structure of the game is simple, you attend school, hangout with friends, explore the city, interspersed with moments of taking down a ring of dangerous criminals. The game is split into individual days, each with an afternoon and evening period to devote to different activities. You are given deadlines to take down any target, but any extra time is free time to explore Tokyo. The incredible breadth of the player’s options is staggering. You can study, visit cafes, go fishing, do batting practice, go to a sauna, work a job, go shopping, watch a movie, work out, hangout with friends, and much more. All of these options provide some sort of benefit to the player. Some of these activities involve a mini-game, but many of them are just a resource to spend your free time on.

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The life-sim aspect Persona 5 is incredibly addicting. Since every activity provides some sort of benefit, I was inclined to constantly check new locations to see what they would do for me. Things like working a job gives you money, which you can use to buy items for combat purposes. Spending time to work out increases your health for battles. Most activities increased one of your social stats: knowledge, guts, charm, proficiency, and kindness. These stats are crucial to meeting new people and deepening your relationship with them.

Most of my free time in Persona 5 was spent with the different characters, which the game calls confidants. As you spend time with confidants, you will learn more about their personality and backstory, while simultaneous improving your relationship with them. As you spend more time with them, they reward you with unique bonuses. Some of these boons are combat related, for example: giving you a chance to brush off any status ailment, survive a lethal blow, or instantly kill an enemy. Many of the confidant bonuses are helpful in the life-sim aspect of the game. Each one is tailored toward its character, the teacher lets you skip class, the doctor provides a discount on healing items, and the politician gives a bonus during negotiations.

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The confidant conversations can be quite entertaining and are a reward in and of themselves. As you get closer to each character, you learn more about their life and personality. You are given a few dialogue options during the conversations, and deducing the correct responses is critical to maximizing the confidant relationships. You also can go to special locations or give gifts to boost your relationships, so paying attention to what the characters enjoy is of great importance. Many of the characters require high social stats to even interact with, for example: the black-market gun dealer requires a high guts stat.

The life-sim aspect of Persona 5 may sound fairly dull and mundane, but trust me, it is addicting. It scratches that itch of strategically maximizing your resources. Free time is limited, so you must pick and choose what you want to do on any given day. Balancing your social stats and various confidant relationships is a fun time management problem. Additionally, the sheer variety of things kept me from getting bored. I always wanted to learn more about the characters and find out what bonuses they would provide. Free time is sprinkled throughout the different sections of the game. Between story-heavy sections and the dungeon-crawling RPG aspect, I always was excited to get some time to explore Tokyo.

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The core structure of Persona 5 is that you infiltrate the hearts of wrongdoers and reform their behavior. You lead a band of miscreants known as the Phantom Thieves into the cognitive worlds of criminals. The mind of each target forms a “palace” which is essentially a themed dungeon. Each felon has been corrupted by some cardinal sin, and the Phantom Thieves must search each palace for the source of the deadly desire to steal away their distorted hearts. As thieves, you stealthily navigate through corridors and hallways, taking cover to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. Sneaking up behind enemies and ambushing them gives the player the opportunity to unleash a flurry of attacks before the enemy can even respond, so stealth is always in your best interest. Every palace is a fairly long endeavor and will require multiple treks to make it to the treasure. Making it as far as possible in each attempt will prove crucial to opening up more free time to be used elsewhere.

The actual combat of the game is a straightforward turn-based RPG, but with some interesting twists. Unsurprisingly, the main character recruits a few allies battle alongside him in a 4v4 format, which is similar to every other RPG in existence. What is interesting is the use of “personas”. Each character has a persona within them that can unleash magical abilities. The main character can capture and store personas, switching between them at will. This gave me the vibe of a grown-up version of Pokémon. As you journey through palaces, you will encounter demonic enemies which you can either stealthily avoid or engage head-on. When confronting the demons, some circumstances will lead you to be able to negotiate with them, and if you choose the correct dialogue options, recruit them to your pool of personas.

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Every persona has strengths and weaknesses, and with a plethora of elemental abilities, choosing the right persona for the right circumstances is critical. This is mostly because utilizing super-effective elements are extremely powerful. Hitting an enemy with an attack that they are weak to will do bonus damage, give you an additional move, and knockdown the foe. If all enemies are knocked down, you can either preform an all-out-attack, which does massive damage, or you can enter negotiation. Collecting new and powerful personas is a core aspect of the game, which I quite like. In Pokémon, once you decide on your core party, you stick with them until the end of the game. In persona, you are forced to constantly test new and powerful personas. There is an additional layer of experimentation since you can fuse personas together to create new ones. I absolutely loved the variety and experimentation aspect of Persona 5, and it is the highlight of the combat.

On the more negative side, I felt like the combat lacked tactical depth in the vast majority of encounters. Most battles played something like this: ambush enemy, hit them with a super-effective ability to knock them down, perform an all-out-attack to finish the fight. The only deviation to this formula was in boss fights or when fighting opponents that I did not know the weakness of. In the latter case, I was essentially required to just guess what would be effective until I guessed correctly. Bosses were by far the most interesting implementation of combat in the game. With giant health pools, no weaknesses, and special status effects, each boss required a different approach that wasn’t all out aggression. Utilizing party buffs and healing skills is more interesting than just picking the correct elemental attack.

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While I felt like most battles were straightforward, there is something to be said for the resource management aspect. Since I wanted to make it through the palaces in as few attempts as possible to conserve free time, I wanted to minimize the resources used in each battle. Magic abilities use SP, a resource which is not easily regenerated. As such, getting through each battle without wasting unnecessary SP became an interesting challenge.

Stylistically, Persona 5 is unbelievably crisp. Sleek menu design, fluid animations, vibrant character design, phenomenal music, and distinguishable aesthetics make Persona 5 and absolute masterclass in presentation. The graphic-novel style makes visuals pop, especially since each placard is detailed and distinct. Many of the personas and monsters are amalgamations of mythological beasts, but plenty seem to be new creations entirely. The jazzy soundtrack is simultaneously great background music as well as tunes that you could listen to outside of the game. As you continue through the game, some of the prevailing tracks will “evolve”, adding more lyrics as you progress. Seriously, every developer should take notes on the style and presentation of Persona 5.

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Outside of game mechanics and style, Persona 5 does falter a bit. The overall narrative of Persona 5 is decent, but is paced poorly. There were parts of the story where I was completely engrossed, but there were instances where I just wanted to move onto the next bit. In essence, the beginning and end of the game I found to be excellent as the villains had a direct impact on the main character. The middle chunk of the game however was filled with villains who just didn’t have the requisite gravitas to make me care about them. The story is essentially carried by its memorable cast of characters. Outside of a few interesting twists in the main story, I was far more engaged with the episodic stories of each confidant.

One of the biggest issues I had with the story was its over dependence on its central theme. Look, central ideas and motifs are great, but they don’t need to be bashed over the player’s head. God of War for instance leaned on the core theme of familial strife, nearly every character, quest, and storyline tied back to that issue. But the game was bit more subtle with its presentation of these ideas. Persona 5 on the other hand will relentlessly remind the player of its motif. The central theme of Persona 5 is that people in positions of power will take advantage of those below them. Every single side-quest, main story beat, confidant, and conversation will allude to this theme. It gets obnoxious after the 100th time that the protagonists tell the villains “Stop abusing people who can’t fight back”.

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By far the biggest problem with Persona 5 is its length. While I enjoyed the game, it is a nearly 100-hour experience. This is a massive undertaking, especially since so much of the game feels superfluous. Conversations in particular are constantly repeated, and it feels like the game does not trust the player to remember any information. If an event happens in game you can count on the fact that you are going to have that event recapped to you in 10 different conversations: through cutscenes, dialogue with confidants, and through text messages. Additionally, palaces could probably be shortened a bit without losing anything. Side-quests are particularly egregious, as they force you to delve into Mementos, a randomly generated dungeon which holds monsters that you have previously fought. This is a ridiculous waste of time and provides nothing new. Mementos needs to exist for story reasons and to let players capture personas that they have otherwise missed, but it could have been significantly shortened.

Most of the game’s issues stem from its length. The overused theme wouldn’t be so obnoxious if the game was shorter. The story would be more interesting if it was sped up. The repetitive battles wouldn’t grow annoying if there weren’t so many of them. Even some of the games strong points started to wane after 80 hours. I love the animations, but after watching them thousands of times I just wanted to move on. The music is great, but there are so few tracks in general. Truthfully, a game has to do something very special to reach 100 hours without growing stale. While Persona 5 is great, I think it could’ve easily been cut down to 60-70 hours without losing anything of value.

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Overall, Persona 5 is a masterful display of aesthetics, style, and presentation. There is an addictive life-sim component that I could just chill and let time fly by as I explored Tokyo. It’s the perfect game for just relaxing for a few hours and to take your time to take in everything the game has to offer. The dungeon crawling and battle system was serviceable, and its encouragement to experiment made it incredibly enjoyable. It’s unfortunate that the game drags on for too long, as even the best components lost their luster after dozens of hours. It is for these reasons I give Persona 5 a 9/10. Even if you aren’t a fan of traditional JRPGs, give Persona 5 a shot. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy these kinds of games, it made me into convert.

Enter the Gungeon (2016)

I very rarely contemplate quitting a game before beating it. But occasionally some games just do not click for me, and Enter the Gungeon was one of those games. After a few hours I grew frustrated with my lack of progress and how relentlessly punishing this game was. Luckily, I gave it a couple more hours before retiring completely. Over time I grew to enjoy the charming challenge of Enter the Gungeon. I am glad that I kept playing despite my early struggles.

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Admittedly, Enter the Gungeon falls firmly out of my typical preferences as a bullet hell roguelike. I’m not particularly fond of bullet hell games or roguelikes, but I was drawn in by the insane variety that Enter the Gungeon boasts. Typically, a “run” will consist of the player descending through five floors. Each floor is randomly generated and contains enemies, shops, treasures, and a boss to cap it off. What is unique about Enter the Gungeon is how everything is cleverly tied to the central theme of guns. The floors are called chambers, the enemies are bullets, the bosses have witty names such as “Ammoconda” or “Dragun”, and the weapons themselves are often references to famous guns in pop culture. Enter the Gungeon isn’t too obnoxious with its references, but it very clearly is in love with referential humor.

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Despite its cutesy appearance, Enter the Gungeon is brutally difficult for newcomers. The sprites and goofy humor can be a much-needed reprieve from the unrelenting challenge that is conquering the Gungeon. Dodging and weaving through waves of bullets requires proper knowledge, foresight, and reflexes. Furthermore, consumable items such as health, armor, keys, and ammo are fairly uncommon. As such, wasting resources such as health is heavily punished. Beating the main five floors is a fairly daunting challenge at first, but it does get substantially easier once the player learns the enemies and bosses. There are many optional challenges past the main floors such as secret floors, story-driven boss fights, additional characters, special game modes, and unlockable items. These extra challenges provide for tons of replayability for veterans.

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As the player progresses through the run, they will collect a variety of guns, active items, and passive items to be used during that run. The unparalleled insanity of some of the guns and combinations is what makes Enter the Gungeon so much fun. Every run is a question of what sort of crazy combo you will get to play with. Every item has built in synergies with other items, these synergies modify how the items behave. By the end of a run, the player will usually have amassed 10-15 different guns and items. The sheer number of combinations and synergies kept me coming back to see what I would get next. Starting a run with a mere pistol and then 30 minutes later wielding a rapid-fire rocket launcher that homes onto enemies and also shoots lasers is quite the satisfying progression.

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Since there is overwhelming variance in items and guns, you will never know what to expect when starting up a new run. This comes with a price, however. With such a staggering number of weapons and items, a new player can and will be completely overwhelmed. It can be incredibly hard to get into a rhythm of playing the game, since you will constantly have to readjust to fit what loadout you have. New players are going to be dying constantly, trying to learn how the game works, how to play, the enemies, the bosses, the floors, and constantly readjusting to new weapons which can off-putting. Ultimately, you will get better at it. Once Enter the Gungeon clicked for me, I couldn’t put it down.

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Despite me eventually learning to love the game, I do think that more could’ve been done to prevent the brick wall for newcomers. I’m not suggesting to strip away the challenge or make the game substantially easier, but I think some brief item descriptions would go a long way for Enter the Gungeon. Simple descriptors like damage, fire rate, and accuracy would have severely limited my early game woes. Early on, it’s an absolute nightmare to pick up a new weapon and try to test it out against enemies and feel out if its any good or not. When I’m struggling to clear a room, the least of my worries is if the gun I just picked up is worthwhile. I almost never use outside resources to help me with games, but eventually I started looking up unfamiliar items on the wiki.

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It says a lot that after 40 hours and a dozen completed runs, I still frequently had to check the wiki. Sure, it can be fun to experiment with a completely unknown item, but doing that ten times per run is just unnecessarily exhausting. I just want to know how much damage my gun does. The worst offender of this is synergies, which are a core component of the game. When certain guns and items are in your inventory, they will have special bonuses. The player is given no idea what the bonus is, and testing to figure out what it can be is a struggle.  I don’t think adding just a brief idea of the guns stats and synergies would take away any of the fun of experimenting. Players still would test out if they like weapons and items, but it would at least give you a general idea of the strength of a weapon.

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It should be noted that Enter the Gungeon is a very random game. Sometimes, you will collect an arsenal of insane weaponry. Other times, the pathetic pistol that you start with is your most viable option. This is just an inherent aspect of the games design; it is essentially unavoidable. In order for those moments of feeling like the terminator to exist, there must be times where you are weak and vulnerable. Ultimately, you are going to have lucky and unlucky runs in Enter the Gungeon, and it’s just something that you have to deal with.

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Overall, I’m glad I stuck with this game. The first few hours were rough, but once I was rolling, I had a blast. That satisfying feeling of making it a little bit farther in each run is indescribable. There is so much that kept me coming back to play more. Different modes that drastically change how the game plays, secret floors and bosses, or just the pure excitement of getting a new combo of weapons that puts Rambo to shame. It is for these reasons that I give Enter the Gungeon an 8/10. If you want an adrenaline pumping bullet hell with incredible variety, then you should definitely try Enter the Gungeon.

XCOM 2 (2016)

“That’s XCOM baby” has become the moniker for the dreaded moment where your soldier whiffs a point-blank shot and your whole strategy comes tumbling down. Everybody playing will have these moments as XCOM 2 is an unpredictable and immensely punishing beast. As a sequel, XCOM 2 obviously acknowledges many of the shortcomings of its predecessor, but its solutions for these issues seem to only exacerbate the problems. The game has plenty of merit as a tactical experience, but its absurdly punishing, forces the player into awkward positions, and lacks proper informative tools.

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The basis for XCOM 2 is that aliens have invaded Earth and defeated the conventional forces of the world. You are the leader of an elite squad of soldiers, managing Earth’s last group of resistance. As such, XCOM 2 has 2 primary forms of gameplay: battles and base management. During battles, you command a group of 4-6 soldiers to complete some overarching objective. The base management aspect has you recruiting soldiers, doling out promotions, building facilities, researching new technologies, and choosing what battles to participate in. The base management can be fairly overwhelming at first, as the game constantly bombards the player with notifications.

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My biggest issue with XCOM: Enemy Unknown was how slowly the battles were played. The fog of war obscured enemy units, so the player would slowly creep along the map a few tiles at a time so they wouldn’t have to engage with a ton of enemies. This exceedingly careful strategy was easy to pull off and effective, but it was extremely boring as most turns you would just move forward a few spaces. To fix this issue, XCOM 2 has implemented a strict time-limit on the vast majority of missions. This is nothing but a band-aid to the original issue, as it does not address the reason that players preferred to play carefully, but instead it just forces the players to speed up.

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The core reason for why players do a slow crawl through the map is because of fog of war and how enemy “pod” activation works. Enemies are in a pod a 3-4 aliens, and once you reveal them, they immediately move to cover and the battle begins. So, if you reveal an enemy pod at the end of your turn, the aliens get to move to cover and then their turn begins before you can act. Optimally, you reveal the enemy pod with your first move of the turn, that way every soldier can get perform their actions to wipe out the enemy before they can retaliate. This is why players had to slowly creep forward as to not reveal an enemy pod prematurely. The introduction of a turn limit just forces the player to move forward quickly, sometimes putting the player in a position where they have to make poor decisions or risk not finishing the mission in time.

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Admittedly, the randomness of the XCOM series is a core feature. Missing high-percentage shots is just an expected outcome when delving into the war to save humanity. I completely understand that the player is supposed to occasionally feel helpless and frustrated, a few dozen soldiers should obviously struggle against world-conquering aliens. Despite this, I strongly believe that using 2 random numbers instead of 1 creates a far better experience for the player. Without going to into depth, humans are really bad at estimating odds, and using 2 random numbers feels substantially better. In essence, using 2 random numbers creates a sigmoid effect: high-percentages become even higher, low-percentages get lower, and middle-ground chances stay more or less the same. The reason that I love this system is that it rewards the high-percentage plays by increasing their odds, but the low-percentage plays get punished. Taking a 95% chance is the correct move the vast majority of the time, so it really feels awful when you whiff. With 2 random numbers, high-percentage plays are more reliable, making the game a better tactical experience. Fire Emblem adopted using 2 random numbers for years, and I wish XCOM would follow suit.

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While I could ramble about the benefits of 2 random numbers for a while, the bigger issue the unpredictability of XCOM 2 is related to how punishing the game is. A single shot from an enemy can have rippling repercussions that hinder your campaign. Getting hit once: does damage, has a chance to be a critical hit and kill your soldier, can send your soldiers into a panicked state, apply various debilitating debuffs, and can injure your soldier so they will not be available for a few weeks. This all stems from 1 attack from an enemy. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a soldier’s armor would make it so low-damage attacks wouldn’t injure them. This is no longer the case in XCOM 2. As such, having one of your elite soldiers get scratched and knocking them out of commission for weeks is a common outcome. Hopefully it’s apparent why this mixture of extreme randomness and overwhelming punishment can get frustrating.

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Another gripe with XCOM 2 is how awful it is at conveying critical information, especially for new players. XCOM is all about getting proper angles on enemies, effectively negating their cover. The player can never rely on hitting an enemy who is behind cover, so the proper tactic often revolves around flanking or destroying the cover. The huge issue I have is how it is not always obvious what positions will yield good hit-percentages. The absolute worst feeling is when I would move a soldier into what I thought would be a prime position to hit an enemy, but instead I am surprised by a pitiful 40% chance to hit. Additionally, many times you could move into a position which may just be slightly out of range, or you lose the angle to hit the shot altogether. I wish the game had an interface that would display hit-percentages when you hover over where you want to place your soldiers. This would alleviate the issue entirely.

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My other complaint about the lack of information mostly has to tie in with how punishing the game is. Every time you encounter a new enemy, there is an exceedingly high chance that you will just get screwed by whatever new mechanic they will use. I had a few instances where I was cruising through a mission, then a new enemy would appear that would absolutely destroy me since I didn’t have the proper equipment to beat it. My prime example of this are Sectopods. These giant robotic enemies have a ludicrous amount of health, can attack multiple times in a turn, basically ignore cover, and can easily one-shot-kill your soldiers. The only reasonable way to deal with these enemies is to use anti-robot rounds, EMP grenades, or to hack them. The thing is that there isn’t a good reason to equip these items until you encounter a Sectopod in the first place, so you are forced to just kind of lose the first time you meet one. Of course, Sectopods aren’t the only instance that this happens, plenty of enemies are introduced and proceed to do something completely unexpected to annihilate the player.

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This issue creates a sort of reverse difficulty curve. The game is much, much harder at the beginning of the game than it is at the end. Using weak soldiers who die in a single shot, frequently facing new opposition, not having any useful equipment, not having any perks, not having any facilities, and long-lasting injuries make the first few hours of XCOM 2 absolutely brutal. In comparison, the end of the game can be a breeze since you have trained a group of super-soldiers sporting powerful equipment. Usually, games should steadily get more challenging as the player improves, but XCOM 2 overloads its difficulty at the very beginning of the game.

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As a miscellaneous complaint, there a few strange mechanics in the game that really had me scratching my had as to why they exist. Dodge for example is one of the most bizarre inclusions that I have seen in a turn-based strategy game. Apparently, a few enemies have a set chance to dodge any shot, and the bullet will consequently deal reduced damage. This mechanic is not even explained anywhere in the game, the game doesn’t tell you what enemies have dodge, and it doesn’t convey what the odds of it happening are. You could have a 100% chance to hit a shot, but then you just get screwed because of dodge. The other strange mechanic is teleportation. Some enemies randomly teleport when you hit them. Both dodge and teleport seem to exist just to add more random chance to the game, and neither are negatable. You just have to deal with the chance that the enemy will occasionally dodge bullets or teleport to a position where you can no longer hit them.

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Despite all of my ranting, XCOM 2 is still an alright game. Training up a few dozen super-soldiers to perform covert operations and destroy the alien threat can be immensely satisfying. Most of my missions went smoothly, and when that happened, I felt like a genius commander. Intelligently positioning soldiers to execute strings of actions which wipe out the enemy before they can retaliate is just viscerally entertaining. Blowing up a wall with your grenadier, following up with a few sniper shots, then rushing in with your assault unit is a standard example of the ebb and flow of battle. Effectively utilizing the various classes, perks, and equipment to build a deadly squad really is an enjoyable aspect of the game.

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There is an abundance of customization options to build your perfect squad. There are four different classes, and each class has two branches of perks. As your soldiers get promoted, choosing what path of perks to choose can be a crucial choice depending on your playstyle. Furthermore, choosing what equipment to bring on missions can drastically shift how you tackle a mission. Choosing what types of grenades to bring, how many medical kits, what type of ammo, what weapon upgrades, and what classes will be useful is a central part to planning any mission.

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Truthfully, XCOM just may not be the strategy series for me. I have a strong aversion to getting wrecked by random chance. When I take very high-percentage shots, I want them to hit. I want to make decisions based off of information available to me, not get completely run over by a new enemy type that does something that I could not possibly have anticipated. Undoubtably, these factors are central to the XCOM experience. Veterans of the series will say these factors are what makes the series so unique and enjoyable. The player is intended to feel helpless, and unexpected obstacles add tension. Still, XCOM 2 has significant flaws even if you accept its unpredictability. The way that fog of war and pods work force the player to slowly creep through the map, yet turn-timers are prevalent. Dodge, teleportation, and lack of a good tactical user-interface often make me question whether my carefully planned strategy will even work.

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I wish I liked XCOM 2 more than I did. The tactical components, the team building, and the various choices in combat could make for a phenomenal strategy game. Unfortunately, I felt that the game was severely hampered by the non-stop unpredictability and punishment. You could build a great squad, position correctly, and then get absolutely dismantled by a couple of missed shots. Overall, I don’t feel like XCOM 2 improved upon its predecessors. In fact, XCOM 2 has regressed in a number of ways. Mainly, enforcing strict turn-timers instead of alleviating the reason why players choose to play slowly has caused more issues than it has solved. It is for these reasons that I give XCOM 2 a 5.5/10. Your mileage may vary with this game. Do you like being hopeless against enormous unpredictability? Then XCOM 2 just may be for you. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can understand the appeal.

 

Gravity Rush 2 (2017)

With its evolution from PS Vita to PS4, I had high hopes for the Gravity Rush series. Unfortunately, Gravity Rush 2 missed the mark of my expectations and left me disappointed. The original Gravity Rush had vibrant characters, an exciting world, and unique gameplay, but it was hindered by its lack of scope and general repetition. Gravity Rush 2 inherited all of the great things from the original game, but the menial gameplay was also brought along. It’s a shame because Gravity Rush has tremendous potential as a series, but it is squandered by painfully boring missions.

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It is undeniable that the characters of Gravity Rush 2 are incredibly likable. Kat remains as a bubbly and exuberant as ever, but Gravity Rush 2 introduces some equally lovable heroes. Also, a stronger focus on returning characters such as Raven and Sid is a welcome addition. Undoubtedly, the largest improvement was to the world itself. The original Gravity Rush took place within the confines of the flying city of Hekseville. Gravity Rush 2 progresses through multiple settlements and cities, taking a deeper look at life in this fantasy world. Moreover, the vibrant artstyle brings plenty of life and character to the setting of Gravity Rush 2.

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Initially, the player starts in Banga, a mining settlement which is no more than a loose collection of shanties and huts. The people of Banga fly through the skies, stopping at pits of ore that they collect that is used to power the flying machines. The nomadic miners sell the ore to the flourishing city of Jirga Para Lhao. This metropolis is a collection of floating islands, separated into economic sections. The verticality and scope of Jirga Para Lhao is truly astonishing, and it serves a phenomenal example of a memorable game world. At the very bottom of the city is a rundown slum, overcast by clouds and the islands above it. The central level is a bright and lively marketplace, while the top level consists of mansions and private islands.

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Unsurprisingly, the theme for much of Gravity Rush 2 is class inequality. While Kat tries to recount her past, her helpful personality leads to her uncovering exploitation and abuse of power. Kat motivates the downtrodden people of Banga and Jirga Para Lhao to rebel against their corrupt government. It’s not a revolutionary plot-line, but it was heartwarming. After that story-line, Gravity Rush 2 enters complete insanity mode. Once the truth of Kat’s past begins to unfold, the interconnected nature of all the plot-lines becomes clear. It’s hard to accurately describe the ending of Gravity Rush 2 without spoiling too much. It suffices to say that time-distortion and higher-power beings play an integral role in the final chapter. Throughout the series I was worried that all of the seemingly disjointed threads would never be connected, but I was thoroughly satisfied by the over-the-top conclusion.

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While the presentation of Gravity Rush 2 is stunning, I was incredibly disappointed by just how banal the gameplay actually was. Most missions fell into a few different archetypes, the vast majority of which were just flat out uninteresting. The most common thing the player is tasked with is flying to various waypoints. While this makes use of the fairly fun flying system, most of the time you are just repeatedly flying in a straight line from island to island. Many of the missions consist of flying around searching for a needle in a haystack. The game will give you a general location of your objective, but you have to painstakingly comb the area for what you are searching for. The absolute worst is when you have to talk to every nondescript NPC you can find and hope that is the right person. These sections are nothing but a frustrating waste of time. To make matters worse, many side-missions strip away your gravity powers entirely. This is odd considering that the premise of the game is to shift gravity.

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For some bizarre reason, Gravity Rush 2 implemented a significant number of stealth missions. The core prospect of the game is being free to manipulate gravity and zip around the city, so being forced to slowly walk around in a stealth mission is an obnoxious interruption. The mission structure of the game sucks out any modicum of fun that could’ve been drawn from the game’s unique concept. The optional side-missions could’ve been a great asset to the game, as they let the player interact more with the beautiful world and characters. It’s a shame that they are so mundane and offer pitiful rewards. Gestures and objects to be used in the game’s photography-mode is not a suitable reward for a 45-minute long side-mission. While I gave up on doing many of the side-missions, the main-missions of the game are not any better.

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I heavily criticized the original Gravity Rush for its combat system. Luckily, Gravity Rush 2 has made significant improvements to the diversity of the player’s tool set. I no longer had to spam the gravity kick repeatedly, as the standard kick and gravity throw have been upgraded to actually serve a purpose. The standard kick, while still weak, is used to charge up the player’s special gauge which is used to unleash more powerful attacks. The gravity throw was substantially improved as it’s radius for grabbing nearby objects was greatly increased. Also, it can be used to grab some of the game’s weaker enemies. I will always get a kick out of flinging some poor guy at his friends like some sort of human bowling ball.

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The other way that the game improves upon some of the combat repetition is by adding some additional styles. The new Lunar style decreases the effects of gravity and makes Kat much lighter. This is critical for fighting airborne enemies who can otherwise be a nuisance. Conversely is the Jupiter style, which greatly increase gravity and makes Kat much slower and clunkier. She deals much more damage, but is far more unwieldy. I didn’t make much use of these additional styles because they both made Kat much harder to precisely control, but they both have merit in specific situations.

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Even with the addition of the new styles and improved combat, I still felt like the combat of Gravity Rush 2 was lacking in a few regards. Most fights still just consisted of spamming either the gravity kick or gravity throw. Also, I felt like I was fighting the camera just as much as I was fighting the enemies. If you miss your gravity kick by a little bit, be prepared to massively disoriented. Additionally, a few areas existed in such tight confines that it was incredibly difficult to make accurate use of any gravity shifting powers. As a result, the combat was mediocre and not nearly enough to carry the rest of the game’s shortcomings.

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I really wanted to like Gravity Rush 2. I was enthralled by its world and excited by its premise. The original game showed plenty of promise but needed to reduce repetition, but it seems the sequel has just doubled down on these flaws. I rarely found myself having fun with the game, and every mission felt like a chore. I don’t know how you take the concept of being a gravity shifting superhero and turn it into a game where you mostly do menial chores like handing out flyers and bringing people from one place to another like some sort of glorified taxi service. Still, the game’s presentation is absolutely stunning. It is for these reasons I give Gravity Rush 2 a 5.5/10. I was incredibly disappointed that the missions were so fumbled so badly that it dragged down the more promising aspects of the game.

God of War (2018)

Rebooting a classic series can be a monumental undertaking. Developers must make critical decisions on what aspects are worth keeping and what should be discarded. Modernizing revered games is about keeping the soul of the series, but revitalizing and updating dated design choices. The series which received the largest overhaul of all time is God of War. The original games were character action games with a focus on revenge, spectacle, and brutality. The player would hunt down creatures and gods from Greek mythology and unleash fury upon them. The new God of War has a much larger emphasis on storytelling, exploration, world-building, while simultaneously maintaining the large set pieces and glorious action the series was known for.

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The most dramatic shift that the series makes is to its narrative structure. The original games followed Kratos, a god who seeks revenge on his peers for their trickery and deceit. The new God of War follows Kratos after the events of the original series. After decimating the realms of Greek mythology, Kratos somehow arrives into the Norse mythos where he builds a family. The game takes place immediately following the death of Kratos’ wife, Faye, whose last wish was to spread her ashes on the tallest peak in the realms. Kratos and his son Atreus set off on an adventure to fulfill Faye’s final request.

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Atreus and Kratos have an incredibly strained relationship; as a father Kratos tries to push his son to better than he is. Kratos comes off as an uncaring, callous, and quick to anger while Atreus is a far more empathetic, kind, curious, and thoughtful. Throughout their journey, the pair slowly grow closer. God of War is a culmination of numerous narrative archetypes. It is a coming of age story for Atreus, a father and son bonding story, a dive into Norse mythology, tale of regret and growth for Kratos, but ultimately the overarching motif is familial strife.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story told in God of War. What I expected to be primarily an action game managed to contain one of the most compelling stories told in a game. This was accomplished due to the phenomenal quality of the writing and voice acting. Every interaction between characters feels natural and organic. As you explore the world, Kratos and Atreus will converse and comment on their surroundings and journey. The characters are wonderfully portrayed and their slow bonding experiences are punctuated by intense moments in the story. God of War is an incredibly immersive game, not only because of the realistic characterizations, but also because of the way the game was structured. The entire game is a single camera shot, following Kratos closely and occasionally panning out during cutscenes. There are no loading screens or sharp transitions, God of War goes through great lengths to maintain the illusion that you are Kratos.

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It is undeniably hard to go wrong with mythologic settings. There is a reason that these fables have persisted for millennia. The vivid imagery, imaginative settings, and larger-than-life characters are key to the longevity of folklore. God of War capitalizes on these assets and creates a truly awe-inspiring world. Conversing with a plethora of Norse mythologic figures creates interesting scenarios as Kratos still distrusts all gods. Moreover, the backdrop to the adventure is gorgeous. Visiting the nine Norse realms is a diverse and magnificent journey. Each locale has its own unique environments, people, backstory, and quests. The lush foliage of Alfheim, the blazing inferno of Muspelheim, the icy winds of Hel, and of course the calming waters of Midgard all contribute to the splendor of God of War.

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As an action game, God of War never reaches the complexity of games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Stylish combos may exist, but God of War thrives on its simplicity and visceral combat. The brutal animations and weighty feel of swinging Kratos’ ax create a satisfying experience. The visual and auditory feedback are a humungous reason for why God of War just feels so fun to play. The power fantasy of being an all-powerful god-slayer is a feeling that God of War uses to its advantage. While Kratos is an indomitable tank, Atreus is a nimble archer who sleekly assists during battles. You can command Atreus to fire arrows at desirable targets, and he can choke enemies which allows the player to get in some free hits. More than anything, God of War is a supremely gratifying game to play.

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The combat of God of War is reminiscent of Dark Souls, but with a few additional tactics. Blocking with shield, side-stepping, and rolling provide for defensive options. The offensive options include throwing the ax, light attacks, and heavy attacks. Both offensively and defensively, the combat is a game of risk and reward. Throwing the ax is a safe choice, but it does very little damage. Conversely, heavy attacks can stagger enemies and do massive damage, but they require a long wind-up. Additionally, God of War utilizes runic attacks, talisman abilities, spartan rage, and summons. All of these options have hefty cooldowns so they should be withheld to use in appropriate scenarios. Properly managing cooldowns and assessing the risk and reward of Kratos’ available options don’t make for a complex or combo-heavy game; instead, God of War is a much slower and deliberate action game.

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Despite the combat feeling great, there are undeniable flaws that are hard to ignore. The camera follows Kratos so closely that you cannot see enemies that are behind you. There is a built-in indicator system that lets the player know when an off-screen enemy is going to attack, but this feature is finicky and unreliable. Additionally, there is a slew of enemies that absolutely break the flow of combat. Dark elves, tatzelwurms, revenants, and wulvers are archetypes which all have some way of breaking out of the player’s combos. These enemies either completely ignore stagger or can just dodge your attacks at will. This interrupts combos and left me grumbling as it is immensely unsatisfying to have enemies ignore the brutality that God of War is known for. Unfortunately, the largest issue with the combat is a byproduct of the tacked-on RPG system rather than with the combat itself.

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The RPG elements of God of War are entirely unnecessary and inhibit the action that the game tries to promote. Throughout the game, you can accrue resources to craft new sets of armor which seemingly boost your stats. Realistically, the stats matter very little, what actually matters is how your gear effects your level. Equipping higher level gear will increase your level, which is poorly explained in the game. At first, I thought the level was just a relative portrayal of your stats, but in reality, your level drastically changes how you interact with adversaries. Higher level enemies will deal significantly increased damage, use far more unblockable attacks, become immune to stagger, and take reduced damage. Similarly, low-level enemies are nothing but fodder as they deal very little damage and are easily combo’d until they die. Ultimately, this creates inconsistencies on how the player deals with the enemies in the game. Even the most basic of enemies becomes unconquerable when they are a couple of levels above you.

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The most noticeable issue in God of War is its occasionally glacial pacing. The story and combat are regularly divided by large stretches of walking, climbing, or sailing. Blank space is important in games to not overwhelm the player with relentless action, and for the most part God of War succeeds in this aspect. The slower sections are filled with dialogue that develops the characters and their relationships. Alternatively, plenty of Norse myths are told while traveling from place to place. Regardless, there are a few sections that dragged on far too long. Things like fast travel, carrying objects, repetitive animations, using elevators, and extended climbing segments are just blatantly wasting the player’s time. To be fair, sometimes the game uses these tactics to hide loading screens to remain immersive, but much of the time it feels like Kratos moves way too slow and you just want to get onto the actual game.

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The worst offender for the sluggish pace of God of War is the optional exploration. For the majority of the game, I didn’t mind some downtime between battles or story progression. This is because the slower moments were filled with some sort of dialogue. Even the side quests appropriately incorporate chatter between Kratos and Atreus. Unfortunately, when venturing off the beaten path the game’s protagonists become eerily silent. Suddenly, I began to notice just how much time was getting wasted climbing, walking, sailing, and watching animations. To make matters worse, the reward for engaging in exploration was often crafting materials to use in the unnecessary RPG system. But the absolute most frustrating aspect of exploration was how poorly gated it is. I could fully explore an area, go through the tedious and slow traversal, just to reach the end which was arbitrarily blocked. High-level enemies or puzzles which I didn’t have the requisite items to solve could block me from claiming the reward. All that time exploring was wasted as I would have to return at a later point in the game.

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Ultimately, the combination of the RPG aspects and exploration in God of War is nothing more than a waste of time. The game could have been streamlined by removing these elements and nothing of value would have been lost. These two features feed off of each other, you need the crafting materials to be a reward for exploration and you need new gear to explore further. Furthermore, it breaks the immersion that the developers worked so hard to maintain. Constantly opening menus and playing with the stats absolutely breaks the illusion of immersion. It’s a shame since the world of God of War is extremely interesting, but it is just so slow to get from place to place. The one exception to my distaste of the RPG system is that the way the player acquires new techniques is a fine. Accruing experience to unlock advanced techniques is a classic implementation of progression, and it works well in God of War.

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My final gripe with God of War is its lack of unique boss fights. There is no shortage of interesting creatures or gods to clash with in Norse mythology. Unfortunately, there are only a few true boss fights throughout the game. There are many mini-bosses that seem to take the place of traditional bosses. Trolls and ancients are the two mini-boss archetypes that are constantly reused throughout the course of the game. They aren’t bad fights by any stretch of the imagination, but legitimate bosses from the mythos would’ve made for a much more memorable experience. It’s unfortunate because the boss fights that are in the game are generally excellent, I want more of them. The opening boss fight in particular is one of the greatest sequences in any game I’ve ever played. Hopefully the sequel can effectively utilize the Norse legends to make for some engaging boss battles.

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The evolution of the God of War series is astonishing. From being crude character action games to becoming an emotional story-driven adventure is an immense shift. I genuinely loved the new direction of God of War, and its sequel is now one of my most anticipated games. I’m extremely excited to see where the story goes, as this game seems to set up a much larger tale. Hopefully the developers learn from the mistakes in this game to make for a more refined experience. Exploration and the RPG system should either be vastly improved or removed so that the resources could be used elsewhere. One of the places that could use the extra resources would be boss fights. Even with its flaws, God of War boasts a touching story, an engaging world, and satisfying combat. It is for these reasons that I give God of War a 9/10. This is a series that has received a remarkable reboot, and I am enthusiastic for its future.

Gravity Rush (2012)

Despite never owning a PS Vita, I’ve always been interested in playing Gravity Rush. The game was recently remastered for the PS4 and as a result I finally got the chance to play it. While I did end up enjoying the game a fair bit, its handheld origins are glaringly obvious. Gravity Rush is carried by its characters, unique setting, and thrilling concept. Unfortunately, much of the game is repetitive and becomes tedious near the end of a playthrough.

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The primary word I would use to describe Gravity Rush is endearing. The main character, Kat, is a bubbly girl with a penchant for helping people. She wakes up in a park with amnesia and a mysterious feline companion. She gains the power to shift gravity in any direction that she wants for a short period of time. The general plot to the game is that Kat uses her newfound powers to assist people around town and to learn about her mysterious past. What I find so charming about the game is Kat herself. While her naivete often lands her into trouble, Kat’s peppy personality makes her a lovable hero.

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The bulk of the game’s story and dialogue is given in comic book style. This was a brilliant decision since handheld consoles have inferior hardware, so cutscenes and animations often look flat. The comic book presentation instills tons of personality and soul into the characters. The world itself is a flying steampunk city with a focus on urban French architecture. Using Kat’s gravity powers to fly through the streets is a blast. Changing the direction of gravity is an interesting gimmick that stands out from standard superhero tropes. Initially, I thought constantly shifting gravity was going to be disorienting, but Gravity Rush manages to mostly maintain playability. Occasionally it can be slightly confusing when you lose track of which way is up, but for the most part playing with gravity is a fun and engaging prospect.

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The core gameplay loop in Gravity Rush is exploring the city and completing story quests and optional challenges. Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to get a bit repetitive. The only things that the player will be doing is flying from place to place and engaging in combat. The flying is fun, but it’s not enough to carry an entire game. Conversely, the combat is extremely limited and is a majority of the gameplay. Kat has 4 categories of attacks: standard kick, gravity kick, throwing items using gravity, and special attacks. The standard kick is nearly entirely useless as it does low damage and only works on grounded enemies. Launching projectiles can be fun, but it relies on projectiles being readily available which is not always the case. The special attacks have long cooldowns so they don’t see much use in general. That leaves the only reliable tool in combat to be the gravity kick, in which Kat launches herself at enemies using gravity.

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Not all games need ridiculously complex combat systems, but if a bulk of the gameplay revolves around combat, there needs to be more than 1 attack. The gravity kick can be fun at first; hurdling across the screen to slam into an enemy is fairly satisfying. But it grows quite stale when it is all you will be doing for dozens of enemy encounters. Moreover, the gravity kick can actually be a little frustrating in some circumstances. Occasionally, the enemy will move at the last second and the gravity kick will completely whiff. This leaves the player barreling past the intended target and requires you to reorient yourself to even attempt the attack again. Furthermore, the gravity kick is interrupted anytime Kat takes damage. This is troublesome when flying at enemies who shoot projectiles. Since the kick only travels in a straight line, walls of projectiles can be impossible to navigate.

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The challenge missions can give a decent break from the repetitive nature of the story missions, but they also lack much needed variety. Every challenge is a time trial of some sort. Mostly these consist of using your gravity powers to complete a race in a certain amount of time. There are also combat trials that require to defeat the enemies in an allotted time. There isn’t much variety here, and the gameplay in these trials suffers from the same repetitiveness as the rest of the game. The reward for completing these challenges are gems which can be used to upgrade your health, damage, speed, or time that gravity can stay shifted.

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Lastly, despite having a great main character, the rest of the story is all over the place. There isn’t an overarching plot other than Kat’s desire to learn about her past. The rest of the story is split into a bunch of subplots which are barely connected. Everything is cryptic and vague, and no questions are answered. It feels like the game is obviously setting up for a sequel. I’m completely fine with bizarre and ambiguous stories, and Gravity Rush constantly teases some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, none of these plots are carried to a satisfying conclusion and the entirety of the story felt unfinished.

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It is undeniable that Gravity Rush oozes charm. Despite being a game originally made for handheld consoles, its ingenuity and characters make it a joyful experience. I wholeheartedly wish that Gravity Rush included far more variety. In all facets, Gravity Rush is a fairly shallow game. The overreliance on combat when there are ridiculously few options to attack is what causes the game to grow stale. Alternatively, some collectathon aspects could have been implemented to make the world more interesting to explore. To be entirely fair, I am judging Gravity Rush as a home console game when it was originally a handheld title. I want more of the world and characters of Gravity Rush, and I hope the concept of shifting gravity is greatly expanded upon in the sequel. Overall, it’s an endearing game, but the repetition and tedium drag the experience down.