Call of Cthulhu (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forager (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last of Us Part 2 (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see story spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Cells (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valheim (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.