Guacamelee! 2 (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last of Us (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro: Last Light (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nioh (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blasphemous (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Mario Sunshine (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil May Cry 5 (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snakebird (2015)

Snakebird is the perfect example of the old saying “never judge a book by its cover”. It’s bright, colorful, has cute creatures, it just looks so warm and inviting. Don’t be fooled, underneath that cute exterior is a brutally difficult puzzle game. Despite the game being extraordinarily simple, Snakebird poses challenges that will stump anybody. The level design makes clever use of the movement mechanics to create over fifty unique and tough levels.

The premise of Snakebird is that you control snakes on a grid, and the goal is to reach the ending portal on each level. As you move the head of the snake, the body follows. As long as one segment of the snake is supported by a platform, you can maintain all sorts of strange shapes. The goal is to manipulate the snake in each level such that you can overcome obstacles and the reach the portal. Conceptually, the game is simple. Outside of manipulating the snake, there are only a few other ideas to add to the puzzles. Things like pushing boxes, controlling multiple snakes, and collecting fruit to grow are all additional mechanics, but they are easy to grasp.

The beauty of Snakebird is its simplicity. A common point of frustration in puzzle games is when you don’t fully understand a mechanic, so you waste time trying to solve the puzzle without having the knowledge to actually solve it. Nothing is more aggravating then bashing your head against a puzzle then realizing you were missing something all along. Snakebird circumvents this conundrum by basing all of its puzzles around the core movement mechanics. Despite this, there are a plethora of challenging levels that really test the player’s mastery of how to control the snake.

While the simplicity of Snakebird is in fact it’s greatest asset, it is also the game’s greatest weakness. While I was occasionally frustrated by more complex puzzle games like Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Baba is You, and The Witness, those games felt much more memorable because of their willingness to push the boundaries. There were frequent “aha!” moments in those titles, which I didn’t encounter nearly as much in Snakebird. There were a few levels that had a unique use of the movement mechanics, but even after only a couple weeks after beating the game there are only a handful of levels that I remember.

Overall, I don’t have much to say about Snakebird. It is a cute puzzle game that will be plenty difficult for anybody looking for a challenge. It won’t blow anybody away with a unique premise or innovative puzzles, but it does make great use of the few mechanics that it does showcase. While I don’t think it falls into the “must play” category I do believe it is a worthwhile game for experienced puzzle game players. Snakebird is not a game that is going to revolutionize the genre, and that’s ok. It is a phenomenal demonstration of a title that accomplishes a lot with just a simple core idea.

The Outer Worlds (2019)

We deserve better than The Outer Worlds. I know that sounds harsh, but as a fan of Western RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect, I think The Outer Worlds is frankly dull. It received plenty of fanfare and hype upon release, but I genuinely believe that is due to the Fallout series fall from grace and people being hopeful for a new series to challenge Bethesda. Truthfully, I don’t think The Outer Worlds is a bad game, just that it is exceedingly mediocre and fails to take any interesting risks.

The Outer Worlds is a Western RPG that takes place in a far-off solar system that has been colonized by humanity. The colony has become a corporate dystopia as companies control every facet of human life. The player is a colonist who is awoken from being cryogenically frozen, tasked with assisting in reawakening the rest of the frozen colonists. You will travel across the system, encountering many communities and people along the way. Each individual area is somewhat small, at least compared to most other open world RPGs. I think this is fine considering that it lets each community feel more self-contained and focused.

At first glance, The Outer Worlds is a great Western RPG. It seemingly has well-written dialogue, tons of stat checks, an interesting world, an abundance of decisions to make, and consequences for your actions. I genuinely enjoyed this game during my time in the first major area of the game: Edgewater. The town and its citizens are owned by a corporation, who don’t care for human life unless it is productive. I enjoyed making decisions both on the micro and the macro levels during my first few hours with the game. It felt like there were numerous ways to handle situations. Minor things like how to acquire a key from somebody had plenty of methods to proceed: talk them into handing it over, pickpocket it, lockpick the door, find another way around, or kill them outright. At a macro level there were seemingly plenty of important moral decisions that would shape the story of the game.

The reality that I learned as the game progressed was that none of the decisions matter. At all. It was an illusion that was shattered after progressing past Edgewater. Let’s start with the stat aspect of the game. Like any RPG, you create a character and assign them stats. These stats will affect your character’s mastery of certain things like using melee weapons, guns, hacking, sneaking, lying, etc. They also unlock abilities at certain thresholds. The problem arises in how the stats are distributed upon level up. The stats are grouped into categories of two or three, and when you level up you can put points into the overarching categories. Meaning if you want to level up your hacking skills, you also are leveling up sneaking and lockpicking at the same time. Every stat functions this way up until a certain threshold.

This system is problematic because it is incredibly difficult to create a specialized character. You can’t just focus on a couple stats. You want to create a sneaky sniper? Well, your character will also be good with machine guns, pistols, hacking, and lockpicking. Any micro decision loses its weight because your character is going to be well-rounded by default. It doesn’t matter that the game gives you the option to lockpick, hack, or pickpocket your way to opening a door because you are going to be good at all three of those things. It doesn’t ever feel rewarding to use a stat to overcome an obstacle.

The problem is further exacerbated by the lack of important decisions in dialogue. In a more interesting RPG, every choice that you make during speech sends you down a different branch in the dialogue tree. In The Outer Worlds, the tree’s branches loop back on themselves. Many decisions lead to the same outcome, most of the time being a positive one. I don’t think I ever managed to seriously upset a character during dialogue. Aside from engaging in combat, dialogue is the main gameplay mechanic in most RPGs. But in The Outer Worlds there is no way to mess up during dialogue, you choose any option and get a good outcome. Once I realized this, dialogue became far less engaging as I knew that I didn’t need to determine what the best options were based on the character’s temperament and responses.

A major aspect of any Western RPG is decision making. The player’s choices usually shape the landscape of the world, and there are vastly differing outcomes depending on what factions you decide to support. Unfortunately, in The Outer Worlds, the major decisions either do no matter or there is a blatantly obvious correct answer. Most decisions in the game just don’t matter. There are a handful of factions, I was able to easily be friendly with every single one of them until the very end of the game. In one instance I was hired to collect information on one faction’s competitor. But instead of helping the original quest giver I betrayed them and helped their opposition. Instead of ruining my reputation with them, the original quest giver did not care one bit and actually increased my reputation. It is comically difficult to actually upset any faction unless you outright start killing them.

Moreover, most major decisions have a “correct” answer. Most of the time its obvious. This is because the corporate dystopia setting is overplayed. The system and its inhabitants are suffering under the rule of a collection of corporations called the Board. The problem is that the Board not only disregards human freedom, but also is laughably stupid. They are an antagonist with absolutely no redeeming qualities.

I think there could’ve been more interesting decisions to make if the Board was portrayed as being ruthlessly pragmatic. The solar system is a hostile and difficult place to live, and if the Board were actually successful at running the colony at the expense of human freedom then there could actually be some interesting moral questions. Do you sacrifice lives and stability to bring freedom to the colonists? But instead, the theme that corporations are bad is shoved down the player’s throat, making every single decision have a correct answer. It’s just not all that interesting.

 Outside of dialogue and decision making, the core gameplay of The Outer Worlds is combat and exploration. You traverse between major areas, fighting enemies along the way. Combat itself is… functional. It’s to be expected considering that this is an RPG and not a dedicated FPS like DOOM. You shoot guns (or use melee weapons) at enemies until their health is depleted. You have companions who can use special abilities every once in a while, and enemies have weak spots that can debilitate them if hit. All in all, combat is fine, there is nothing painful about it but it certainly isn’t a highlight of the game.

I think the most frustrating thing about the combat is the lack of variety. I think this falls more into the RPG aspects of the game as there is very little you can do to make encounters more interesting. There is a pitiful collection of weaponry, and many guns are just upgrades to what you were already using. Acquiring “Assault Rifle v2” isn’t that exciting when you are already using “Assault Rifle”. There are only two armor slots and none of the equipment I found gave an interesting advantage outside of passively giving a few skill points.

Despite all of that, combat could have been more fun if the context for the combat was more exciting. Instead, most of the time you fight nameless marauders or the same few monster types. It’s hard to really get engaged in the combat when none of the enemies you fight have any connection to the world or story other than just wanting to kill you. Moreover, resources are plentiful so it’s not like much strategy has to go into combat either. I never came close to running out of bullets or health packs, and I acquired an abundance junk that I sold off and made tons of money to upgrade my equipment.

Lastly, the setting of The Outer Worlds is poorly utilized. This is partially due to the fact that every narrative thread eventually cycles back to the theme that “corporations are bad”. I love exploring the wasteland of the Fallout series. Discovering areas and learning about what had happened there was genuinely appealing. But in The Outer Worlds, most backstory and lore boils down to “corporations are bad”. It’s rarely more interesting than that. Realistically, outside of the few major hubs most of the map is barren. The setting pales in comparison to the Fallout series.

Despite my review being mostly negative, I don’t genuinely hate The Outer Worlds. It is a perfectly functional Western RPG. It runs well, looks good, has RPG elements, has dialogue decisions, and it has not-terrible combat. The reason I am coming off as mostly negative is that the general consensus on this game on release was overwhelmingly positive. I think this is due to two primary reasons.

First and foremost, people are looking for a new Western RPG series. Since Bethesda and BioWare have absolutely annihilated any trust that they once had with their recent releases, people are looking for a new developer to compete with those behemoths. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, The Outer Worlds seems fantastic during the first few hours with the game. But as you continue playing you realize its flaws. Reviewers nowadays are focused on getting out their thoughts before anyone else so they can generate more clicks and subsequently more ad revenue. This leads to a lot of reviews being little more than a “first impressions” style, which would play well into The Outer Worlds strengths.

Overall, The Outer Worlds is adequate. There is very little that is special about the game. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, but it doesn’t do anything particularly poorly either. It feels like the designers were incredibly risk averse when creating this game. It ultimately culminates in a bland and forgettable RPG. It is for these reasons that I am giving The Outer Worlds a 5.5/10. I hope The Outer Worlds serves as a solid base for a more ambitious sequel, because by itself it is the definition of mediocrity.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (2018)

Gwent is one of the best “game within a game” examples ever. In The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, the player can take a break from monster slaying to sit down and play the card game known as Gwent. I probably spent more time in taverns playing this addicting minigame than I spent actually adventuring. I was elated to hear that there was a fully-fledged roleplaying game that utilized Gwent as its main mechanic. Yet my actual experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was more of a rollercoaster than the fun revisit to Gwent that I was expecting.

My first moment of confusion was during the tutorial, when I realized that this version of Gwent was monumentally different than what I played in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. In the original version of Gwent, each game would have three rounds, and the player to win two rounds won the match. The interesting facet was that you only had ten cards for the entirety of the match. You may win a round, but if you played too many cards doing it, you were in a poor position to win the match. It was interesting as the players had to come up with powerful combos that only required a few cards, or use cards that allowed them to gain tempo on their opponent. You had to know which round to intentionally lose and how to bait your opponent to playing their good cards too early. It was a game of strategy and momentum.

The Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales version of Gwent is substantially different for the most part. Most battles do not even retain the standard 3-round format. The majority of matches in this game are single round affairs, which to me is missing such a crucial aspect of the original game. When the game is only a single round, it just becomes an arms race of who can play the most powerful cards and combos. Previously, you had to play your powerful cards at optimal times such that you wouldn’t waste them on an already won round, now it doesn’t matter.

Truthfully, the original version of Gwent had its own fair share of balance problems, but I would’ve liked to see the design team work on fixing those problems rather than just changing the entire format. The three round battles do still exist, but they aren’t plentiful. Eventually, the new version of Gwent did grow on me, but it was incredibly off-putting the first time I played Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. The original version needed changes to rebalance it and keep it fresh, but it didn’t need an entire overhaul.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales follows the story of Queen Meve and her campaign against Nilfgaardian invaders. This war precedes the events in the mainline trilogy of The Witcher. You play as Queen Meve, the ruler of Lyria and Rivia, during an invasion of her homeland. The warrior queen is conspired against and forced from her throne, and the game follows her adventure to rebuild her army and retake her kingdoms. In typical fashion of the series, there is an abundance of decisions to make, often with no obvious answer. The game plays as a top-down point-and-click adventure game, and the battles are represented by the card game Gwent. As you travel across the various areas you will have to make many moral and strategic decisions regarding your army and subjects.

The presentation of the game is top notch. The artwork, voice acting, story, and interactions with the various characters in the game was the absolute highpoint of the experience. The story itself was fairly intriguing, but the characters and decision making carried the game. You meet various important figures throughout the game who you can recruit to advise Queen Meve and join her army. But every decision has potential for backfiring completely. You may want to recruit an elf who was being attacked by humans, but maybe that elf is a spy and will betray you and sabotage your army.

Each decision not only has ramifications not only in the story, but in regards to your army as well. Recruiting new characters lets you use their special card during battles. But be careful, as a bad decision may lead to you losing resources like gold or soldiers. The universe of The Witcher is a tumultuous one, there are many factions vying for power. Subterfuge is a common tactic to weaken opposing forces. Be aware that whoever you decide to recruit and rely on may at some point betray you.

As previously mentioned, the core “action” in the game is represented through the card game Gwent. You can modify your army by swapping out cards and building a deck that fits your needs. To craft or upgrade cards, you gather three resources as you explore: gold, recruits, and wood. You use these resources to supply the war machine, which of course is represented by your deck of cards. The deck building aspect of the game is pretty fun, as cards have various effects that you can find synergy between. There are many different strategies that can be played around with. You can make a deck that spams the board with tons of cards, or focus on just powering up a few specific cards, or you can use cards that deal damage to your opponent’s cards. There are a lot of different options to try out, and the game is not shy about introducing new sets of cards to experiment with.

Despite feeling a bit frustrated at the differences between the original Gwent and this new version, the card game variation of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales eventually did grow on me. The cards in this game are much more complex than its predecessor. Each card has a unique effect, which you can often chain together for some synergistic combos. Finding out which cards worked well together was a lot of fun. Perhaps the most interesting encounters were the frequent “puzzle battles”. In these battles the player is given a preset hand and a special objective. Usually there would be a specific order of operations in how to play the hand to complete the battle. These were nice detours from all of the standard Gwent encounters, as those could grow repetitive very quickly.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a fairly long game; it takes about 30-35 hours to complete. For the amount of content in the game, that is too long. Gwent can be a lot of fun, and I was invested in the story and characters, yet I was burnt out entirely by the time I reached the end of the game. I think the problem stems from the fact that once you build a sufficiently powerful deck, you can just steamroll every single encounter the same exact way. By the second or third chapter in the game I had created a deck that easily dealt with nearly every battle, and I didn’t really have to think much outside of the more unique puzzle battles. This led to many of the encounters feeling very same-y and repetitive. This was exacerbated by the fact that the 4th and 5th chapters of the game are filled to the brim with repetitive battles that have absolutely no impact or relationship to the story.

The repetitive nature of the game could have been at least somewhat avoided if the game encouraged the player to craft multiple decks or to at least switch it up from time to time. While you do unlock plenty of cards during a playthrough, you still need to use resources to craft them. This disincentivizes the player from trying out new decks unless they absolutely need to. If you have a deck that works well, there’s no need to waste resources that you may need later. The odd thing is that the game forces the player to switch up their deck in the transition from chapter one to chapter 2, then never does this again. I understand not wanting to force players to stop using decks that they may enjoy using, but they could have at least encouraged rebuilding your deck from time to time.

My last complaint with the game may be a petty one, but I absolutely despise the design of the final boss. I played on the highest difficulty available, and for the most part the game was never too challenging. But the final boss was an absolutely insane difficulty spike that felt blatantly unfair. He has multiple abilities that are individually so overpowered that just having one would be plenty challenging.

His first ability makes it so any card that you destroy will automatically be replaced by a card in his deck, so it becomes detrimental to destroy any of his cards. His next ability allows one of his cards to get a 10-point strength boost every turn, which is a fairly large amount. For reference, one of Queen Meve’s possible abilities boosts a card by only 4 points, and it has a 4-turn cooldown. Finally, he has numerous cards that are so absurd they feel like a joke. One in particular allows him to draw 3 extra cards and also boosts every one of his cards by 2 points. In a game where you can’t draw cards outside of special circumstance, having a card that allows you to draw just one extra card would be valuable, let alone three extras and a power boost to go along with in.

I pretty much steamrolled the entirety of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales up until this final encounter. In fact, this was initially an unwinnable encounter for me. My deck was tailored to do damage and destroy enemy cards. Yet this tactic is literally unusable against the final boss, since destroying his cards just causes another to spawn in its place. I had to scrap my entire deck and rebuild it from scratch specifically designed to beat this one encounter. Even then it took me numerous tries to finally be successful. It just is not a fair fight under any circumstance.

Overall, my experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was all over the place. I initially was not happy with the changes to the key formula of Gwent. It eventually grew on me and I had a lot of fun for a few chapters. The worldbuilding, art, story, decision making, and characters were all top-notch. Then the prolonged ending and absolutely aggravating final boss left a poor taste in my mouth. It is for these reasons that I give Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales a 6.5/10. This is a game that could have benefitted from cutting out a bunch of superfluous content and focused on just the key battles instead.