Bayonetta (2009)

I feel the need to preface any review of character action games with the fact that I am not particularly good at these games, and I rarely gain any level of mastery of their systems. I think it’s important to state this because character action games often thrive when you put in the time to really master their systems, so I frequently miss out on deep mechanics. That being said, I believe that Bayonetta is the most approachable character action game that I have played. I enjoyed the Devil May Cry series, but I often felt that I was just scratching the surface of what was possible in those games. But in Bayonetta, I felt much more comfortable executing combos and performing advanced techniques.

Before diving into the complex combat mechanics of Bayonetta, it should be no surprise that I need to mention the character design. There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the gratuitously sexualized main character. The game’s director, Hideki Kamiya has made it clear that he wanted Bayonetta to be a sexy character. She has the build of a supermodel, regularly gets into sexy poses, makes plenty of innuendos, and even goes almost fully nude when utilizing her witch powers.

While I’m typically grossed out by hypersexualized characters in video games or television, Bayonetta is not the typical character that serves as eye candy. She’s an undeniable badass who toys with her opponents. She is totally in control of her own sexuality. She has a cheeky personality that pokes fun of her angelic opponents and their puritan values. I think this is fine and even a subversion of a common misogynistic character type. However, I think Bayonetta takes the sexual aspects too far in many places. While she is meant to be a sexual character, there are many sequences and scenes that are clearly meant just to be eye candy for the player. Zooming in on her assets while she sensually dances objectified her rather than empowering her.

While there’s no doubt that Bayonetta is a badass and sexy character, the game’s actual story absurd. Story has never been a central aspect of character actions games, and I can’t fault Bayonetta too hard for its nonsensical story when it is clearly not the focus of the game. But there are a ton of cutscenes, cinematics, and exposition dumps that get in the way of actually interacting with the fun parts of the game. I suppose a nonsensical and over the top story is better than a boring, monotonous one. But I wish Bayonetta was paced more evenly instead of leaving all of the story to the very end of the game.

The real appeal to character action games like Bayonetta is obviously the action. Weaving together complex combos, juggling enemies like they are ragdolls, unleashing powerful attacks, and looking stylish while doing it. While I like to say I’m not good at these kinds of games, Bayonetta felt extremely approachable for players who are inexperienced in the genre. There are a few key traits to Bayonetta that I believe makes it so easy to get into. Those being simplistic combos and the emphasis on dodging.

I’ve always had a really time hard in Devil May Cry games trying to learn all the different combos. You had a single attack button and had to combine directional inputs and correct timings in order to execute combos. Not to mention style switching and changing weapons. Bayonetta has two attack buttons, punch and kick. Hitting these buttons in different orders will result in different combos. Between load screens, you can play around in practice mode and look at the long list of all the possible combinations. Learning a few simple combinations can take the player a long way.

It was much simpler for me to just memorize “punch, kick, punch” then having to learn a bunch of directional inputs and timings. Bayonetta does a fantastic job emphasizing the use of the combos because the final attack of each combo is an extra powerful hit called a Wicked Weave. The player is taught that finishing combos is vital because so much of the power is in the final attack.

Another interesting thing about the combos in Bayonetta is that each individual attack is meant to be held. Bayonetta has guns attached to her hands and feet, and when you execute a punch or kick you can hold down the button to shoot. This does not break combos, and it does a surprising amount of damage. I quite like this feature because it discourages simple button mashing, and instead gives the player some brief moments to think about what they’re doing. I don’t have to frantically hit buttons to pull off combos, and I can take my time and am rewarded for it.

The biggest separator between Bayonetta and Devil May Cry is the emphasis on dodging. Bayonetta has a dedicated dodge button, and it is obvious that it is vitally important. If you dodge right when an enemy attack is about to hit you, you’ll activate Witch Time. This temporarily pauses time, allowing you to unleash some big combos on powerless foes. I love this feature as an inexperienced player as it really allows me to try out some cool attacks. Also, it just feels badass to dodge a hit and the last second and get rewarded with a few seconds of Witch Time.

Dodging in Bayonetta has a slightly more advanced mechanic tied to it called dodge offset. If you execute it properly, you can continue your combo right where you left off. Dodge offset is definitely something that takes some getting used to, but it is a vital trick to learn if you really want to master Bayonetta. Considering that much of your damage is part of the Wicked Weave at the end of a combo, maintaining that combo is important. This is a brilliant addition as it allows players to achieve higher mastery while utilizing and combining the core mechanics of Bayonetta: combos and dodging.

While I did not master Bayonetta myself, I can say there is plenty of complexity for those who do really want to dive deep. A long list of combos and unlockable attacks, dodge offset, a few different weapons to try out, and unlockable accessories. The accessories and magic meter are things that you are unlikely to even tinker with in your first playthrough. Similar to Devil May Cry, you will be graded at the end of each chapter if you want to challenge yourself. There is plenty of content to try, and it will take plenty of times to really master Bayonetta if that is what you are looking for.

While I do think Bayonetta herself and the other characters in the game look superb, unfortunately much of the environment design is pretty drab. Bayonetta is from the era in gaming where everything was dull brown and grey. The set pieces themselves were spectacular, but the environment was just boring. It’s odd because the character and enemy design is fantastic. The enemies all adhere to the angelic theme quite well. Bayonetta is a really well thought out character, and all her animations are fluid and graceful. The game looks really good outside of the dull environments.

Hideki Kamiya is known for his love of old school arcade games, for better or worse. Both Bayonetta and Devil May Cry were inspired by sitting in an arcade and trying to reach a high score on a game you’ve played many times before. But Bayonetta has some strange arcade gimmick levels that just abysmal. There’s one where you ride a motorcycle down a highway and another where you ride atop a rocket. Both of these levels are obviously throwbacks to old arcade games, and both are awkward, break the flow of the game, and just go on for way too long. It’s only two levels but the game really doesn’t have many levels in total, so these levels are particularly painful.

Another frustrating relic is the reliance on Quick Time Events (QTEs). During cutscenes, a button prompt could flash for a half a second and if you miss it, you instantly die. During certain fights, you have to mash a button extremely quickly or you will take significant damage. And when finishing off a boss or using a special Torture Attack you have to mash a specific button. QTEs are rarely a fun feature in games, especially in the case of Bayonetta because they have tight timers. If you don’t know the QTE is coming or what button to press, you can’t possibly react quick enough. It’s not a big deal for veteran players who are seeking high grades as they known when one is coming up, but it often feels like a cheap and unavoidable death for first timers.

Overall, I think Bayonetta is my favorite character action game. While it has its flaws like the annoying gimmicks, poor story, and drab environments, the combat is just too good to be brought down. Beginners can make use of simplistic combos and Witch Time. Advanced players have plenty to master like dodge offset, various weapons, and special accessories. While she is a controversial character who I think is overly sexualized, it’s undeniable that Bayonetta is one of the best designed and memorable characters in gaming. If you like action games, do yourself and favor and give Bayonetta a try.

Hades (2020)

I always try to be wary about external hype when going into a new game. It can alter your expectations, making you overly critical. Alternatively, hype potentially blinds you from issues if you buy into the narrative too hard. That being said, it was extremely difficult to avoid the talk around Hades. Being the indie darling of 2020, winning a plethora of awards, including multiple Game of the Year awards and even a Hugo Award, made it hard to ignore Hades. I had high expectations going into Hades, and while I believe it is an excellent game, I don’t quite get a lot of the unanimous and unquestioned praise that it has received.

As a roguelite, Hades is all about battling your way through the layers of the underworld to escape to the surface. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who has recently discovered the true identity of his birth mother and that she lives outside of underworld. Every time you die, you are sent right back to the beginning. Don’t fret though, Hades is all about progression, whether or not you succeed in any individual escape attempt.

A large factor in the appeal of Hades is that it is always moving forward. Even when you fail, it’s not painful. Not only do you bring back valuable materials to power up for future runs, but you also get the pleasure of conversing with the gods who reside in the hub. They always have new dialogue, often revealing new story tidbits. They have complex relationships with Zagreus and the other gods, which you get to hear in bite-sized chunks after every run.

During your escape, you are also offered assistance by the gods of Mt Olympus. As you play the game you will talk to them, furthering your relationships and learning more about them. The quality and sheer quantity of writing here is absurd. In dozens of hours playing the game, I don’t think there was a single repeated line. And the writers did a phenomenal job giving each of the gods a distinct personality. All of the dialogue felt believable, not like the cheesy or over-dramatic dialogue that is more common in video games.

The writing was only further brought to life by the artistry of the game. The voice actors gave tremendous presence and fitting personality to the characters. Hermes is a fast talker, Athena is stoic, Zeus is confident but quick to anger, Demeter is cold, and so on. Every line is excellently delivered. Furthermore, the art style that Supergiant Games is known for is absolutely phenomenal. It brings the mythical gods to life. The aesthetic is downright gorgeous, both in combat and when conversing with the gods.

Your first attempt to escape the underworld will be nigh impossible. With little knowledge of the enemies and obstacles in your way, and a complete lack of any permanent power-ups, you stand nearly no chance. But it won’t be too long before you are on the doorstep of Greece, Hades does a phenomenal job marrying your skill progression with your character progression to create an engaging gameplay loop. As you clear rooms and make it deeper in each run, you earn different currencies to purchase permanent upgrades.

While each upgrade may seem individually weak, they quickly add up to drastically increase your power. The further you make it in each run, the more currency you earn. This creates an engaging loop in which every run you get better at playing the game while also increasing Zagreus’ strength, guaranteeing that you will steadily make more and more progress. If you are skilled at the game you will power up faster, while if you are doing poorly, you may not earn a ton of currency at first. This is genius as it allows the player’s skill to progress in parallel with their upgrades.

I had a blast with Hades while building up to successfully complete my first run. I felt myself getting closer and closer with each attempt. Gaining power and hearing more of the story as I talked to the gods. But after reaching the end for the first time, I felt that the successive runs quickly grew repetitive. There is plenty of variety to be found in Hades, choosing a weapon, the aspect of the weapon, and the randomized boons between runs does greatly increase variety. But still that variety felt stunted in comparison to other games in its genre. Furthermore, the goals after escaping the underworld felt more centered on grinding instead of an ultimate achievement.

I understand that the roguelite genre is all about replayablity. Repetition is baked into the genre, and it is totally understandable that Hades follows suit. But Hades lacks variety between runs to keep things interesting. You always fight through the same four areas with the same four bosses. Thematically it makes sense, but it can get stale without interesting boon combinations. On each run you acquire boons from the gods that act as power-ups for that run. Zeus boons electric enemies, Poseidon knocks enemies around with waves, Artemis gives critical strike, Dionysus poisons enemies with wine, so on and so forth. But ultimately many of the boons just feel like different flavors of the same thing: more damage.

You can get some really interesting combinations of boons that synergize well together, but it felt like most of the time boons are just colorful ways to up your damage. The real variety between runs feels like it comes in the weapon selection. There are six weapons to start the run with, each with multiple unlockable aspects that modify how the weapon behaves. Additionally, on each run you can find two hammers which further transform the weapon. For example, you can find a rapid-fire modifier for the bow, or make the spear bounce between enemies when you throw it. Its these huge modifications in playstyle that opens up interesting variety between runs. But the boons and level designs often do very little to make each run feel distinct.

My other major issue with the grind of Hades is that the ultimate goal is focused on grinding rather than accomplishing something. To truly “beat” the game and see the end credits you need to achieve ten successful escape attempts. To further relationships in the epilogue, you need many more. I prefer a format like Enter the Gungeon in which there are concrete goals like beating a final boss or unlocking a new character. Hades just feels like you are supposed to play it a lot. It gets frustrating when I’ve beaten the game 7 times in a row on progressively higher difficulties but need to do it 3 more times just to see the end credits.

While I do think Hades can be repetitive, I do appreciate its in-depth difficulty system. After your first successful clear, you can choose to increase the “heat” of any subsequent runs. There are dozens of different options to toggle, many of which can drastically change a run. You can add timers to force yourself to move quickly, add more powerful enemies, make traps more dangerous, give bosses more potent move sets, so on and so forth. Every time you play on a new heat level with a given weapon, you will be able to attain rare resources, which encourages the player to keep upping the challenge.

The aspect that I think defines Hades as a roguelite is how it handles the randomization aspect. Games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon can be extremely volatile. In one run you may get extremely powerful combinations of weapons and buffs, and in the next you get absolute garbage that makes it nigh impossible to succeed. Randomization is the lifeblood of roguelites and roguelikes, as few people would want to play the same game over and over with little variety. But conversely, if the game is too random, it can be immensely frustrating to be stuck in a run where you have gotten nothing of value. Hades handles this in an interesting way by allowing to player to choose what bonuses they will be acquiring.

You are almost always given an option between multiple rooms, with the reward of the room being visible before you even enter. That way you can decide which god’s boons will fit your build and choose accordingly. You won’t get stuck getting a mishmash of useless bonuses. Moreover, when choosing a boon from a god you will get a choice between three different boons. There is still some randomization on which gods will be available and which boons they will offer, but the combination of choosing which reward you want and getting a choice of three boon different options minimizes the odds that you get undesirable bonuses.

I am torn on how randomization is handled in Hades. Minimizing the frustration of getting unlucky runs is fantastic, but perhaps Hades leans too far in letting the player choose their benefits. The game can never really have any incredibly powerful unrestricted boons, as the player would choose it every single time. As a result, it’s exceedingly rare to get truly crazy combinations of bonuses that feel game-breakingly powerful. Much of the appeal from playing roguelites comes from wanting to see what overpowered build you can cook up next. In Hades I always felt like I had a powerful build, but nothing overpowered.

An underrated aspect of Hades is how much information it provides on what different things actually do. It clearly and concisely describes which attacks are being enhanced, and exactly what the bonus is. This sounds obvious, but I constantly had to play Enter the Gungeon with a wiki tab open because the game simply does not tell you what the different weapons or their synergies are. I greatly appreciate how Hades gives the player all the information they need to make informed decisions.

The gameplay as a whole is extremely fun as a simple beat-‘em-up. Hades feels like a modern arcade game, smashing through waves of weak enemies with a limited moveset. There aren’t any crazy combos, and the many of the enemy types are glorified punching bags. It’s fun to unleash hell on mobs, and Hades has great visual and audio feedback. The bosses are where I felt the meat of the challenge was, as you had to be fairly familiar with their movesets in order to avoid damage.

The combat is nothing revolutionary, but it is addictive. I did feel like at times it could be a bit button-mashy. Because of how snappy your controls are, it can be a pretty effective strategy to dash around a bunch and mash the attack button. Enemies that don’t have armor and are not bosses can easily be stun-locked if you just keep hitting them, making spamming attacks very potent. My only other issue is with the visual clarity, as the battlefield can quickly become cluttered with hyper-stylized visual effects. It can often be tricky to read what enemies are doing when there are a dozen different flashy visual effects firing off as you attack. But I ultimately don’t think it’s a huge issue considering that Hades is not a game that demands perfection or precise timing.

Overall, I believe Hades is a different breed of roguelite. With a heavy focus on meta-progression and character development, there is always something to work towards. It abandons some of the genre’s traditional frustrations like the influence of luck and lack of information. Hades was a ton of fun to play until I had a few clears under my belt, which is when I began to miss the truly random builds and combinations that I could acquire in other roguelites. It is for these reasons I give Hades an 8.5/10. It is a spectacularly well-crafted game, but it doesn’t boast the infinite replayabilty of the other games in its genre.

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.

Astral Chain (2019)

I have never been particularly good at action games which rely on combo-heavy gameplay. While I may enjoy them to an extent, I usually fall back on bread and butter combos, never utilizing the full potential of the games. When I first learned of Astral Chain, I was excited at the prospect of an action game that deemphasized combos, and instead was geared towards positioning and strategic use of combat options. Astral Chain is unique in that you are essentially controlling two characters at once: the main character and their metallic companion. This concept had a lot of promise, and I was excited for an action game that I could really master. Unfortunately, my time with the Astral Chain did not pan out so well, and I was ultimately disappointed by the game’s shortcomings.

The idea behind Astral Chain is that you play as a futuristic police officer in a decaying world. The world is being corrupted by some extradimensional being, and you are assigned to a special task force to defend the last city on Earth from the spreading corruption. You are equipped with a captured entity from the other dimension, chained and tamed so that you can utilize its abilities against its own brethren. You control both the main character and this being, called a legion. By holding down on one of the gamepad triggers, you can move the legion and use any abilities related to it. If you are not holding the trigger, you are controlling the main character, and the legion will attack the nearest enemy automatically. Most of the time you can simply let the legion do its own thing while only you focus on piloting the main character.

1

What drew me into Astral Chain was how strategic the combat seemed at a glance. There are five separate legions that you will acquire throughout the course of the game. Each has a panoply of special abilities, and as such some are better suited for certain enemy archetypes. On top of this the actual chain connecting the player and the legion is a physical entity that has consequences on the battlefield. You can use it as a trip wire to stop charging foes, or you can use it tie up and immobilize enemies, or you can use it to have the human dash to the legion or vice versa. All of this is great, there are tons of ways to mix up combat and come up with your own style. Utilizing all of the legion’s abilities, using the chain itself, and positioning the legion and main character simultaneously makes for a hectic but fun combat system. There’s no need to memorize long strings of button inputs to pull off a combo, instead you improvise your own methods of operating the legion.

While I love that the combat is unique and lets players develop their own styles, it also has quite a few issues. The most glaring and common issue in the combat is the camera. It can often be difficult to tell what is going on due to the fact that it can be finicky to position the camera well. This is exacerbated by the fact that for some reason many of the arenas are extremely cramped. Moreover, there are big, flashy animations that obscure what is happening.

4

One of the more bizarre problems with the combat was how the dodge functioned. In most games, dodging provides the player with invincibility frames, so you could dodge through attacks if timed properly. Astral Chain functions similarly, except there is a noticeable lack of invincibility frames. This is fine for the quicker attacks, since the player still can properly avoid them with well-timed dodges. But for longer, lingering attacks such as spinning slashes or shockwaves, the dodge is not sufficient. You could dodge the attack, but get hit by a lingering hitbox and take damage regardless of how well you timed your dodge. I think the idea behind this was to force the player to focus on properly spacing and moving far away from enemies when they use these kinds of attacks, but many times combat is so chaotic you cannot possibly tell if they are going to do a spinning attack or regular slash.

6

Astral Chain isn’t a particularly long game, there are around a dozen “chapters” to complete. This is fine, except for the fact that the first couple chapters of the game are essentially elongated tutorials. One of the most crucial mechanics in the game, sync attacking, is not even unlocked until the third chapter. Spending such a significant portion of a game in tutorial-town is something that I always abhor in games. I somewhat understand it, since Astral Chain has a ton of buttons and intricacies. However, the first chapters are extremely boring and a poor introduction to the game. The combat in these beginning sections is just mashing the attack button and dodging when appropriate. The legion gets very little use. Considering the legion is such a crucial aspect of the game, I would have like for these chapters to have introduced the core mechanics of the legion earlier on.

The action portion of Astral Chain is certainly unique and it can be a blast, but it is held back by some of the nagging issues I mentioned. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is far less redeemable. The setting itself is interesting, and the art style is sharp and vibrant. Other than that, I found the non-action parts of Astral Chain to be painful. The voice acting was somewhat stiff, but perhaps that was because the script was so poor. The main character doesn’t talk at all, and their twin is an unlikeable jerk throughout the course of the game. The dialogue just doesn’t feel natural in the slightest. This isn’t helped by the fact that the story itself was a big anime trope. That would be ok if the elaborate and crazy narrative ideas actually made sense. The villains are so poorly explained that their motives and ultimate goals remain a mystery even after beating the game.

5

The strongest part of Astral Chain is undeniably its combat. It’s strange then that the game puts so many roadblocks between combat encounters. A ludicrous amount of time is spent wandering around environments doing random tasks before you can actually get to the fun parts. The game often transports the player to the “astral plane” which is a different dimension in which most of the combat takes place. Unfortunately, between encounters the player is often left to explore, do light puzzle solving, or do the dreaded platforming sections. It feels like the developers had an idea in mind to put downtime between action sequences, but put zero effort into actually making the downtime anything but a chore.

The astral plane is so dull to look at, so exploring it grows tiresome quickly. The “puzzles” in the game generally consist of moving a block from point A to a highlighted point B. There are no obstructions are anything that could constitute an actual puzzle. And the platforming is downright frustrating. Your character cannot jump, and you must rely on dashing to the legion to make it across gaps. But where exactly your character will land is not obvious, so sometimes you just don’t dash far enough despite your legion being on a platform. Moreover, you can get stuck on the tiniest pieces of environment geometry and will instantly fall.

2

Outside of the astral plane, there are plenty of other time-wasting tasks to get in the way of fun. The stealth sections are absolutely unnecessary and unrefined for instance. Most of the game’s side quests are poorly tuned mini-games. Moving stacks of boxes using motion controls, chasing down petty criminals, and shooting balloons are ultimately not engaging tasks. The biggest culprit of being an underdeveloped time-sink are the investigations. At the beginning of each chapter, you generally must run around a crime scene to gather clues about some mysterious occurrence. Of course, there is no actual logic or deduction here. It’s just talking to various characters who give you highlighted clues, and then at the end you take a quiz by matching the clues to some questions. Maybe I was disappointed because I had just played the masterful deduction game Return of the Obra Dinn, but the investigations felt like they were slapped on during the end of development rather than being a fully fleshed out feature.

3

Overall, I did not enjoy my time with Astral Chain. It’s a game that I think spread itself too thin with many different ideas rather than focus on refining one or two. If the platforming, puzzling, stealth, exploration, and side quests were dropped entirely I think the game would be better off for it. Moreover, if time hadn’t been spent making these underdeveloped features, maybe more time could have been spent to refine the core aspects of the game. The combat was fun, but it definitely could’ve been fine tuned. The investigations needed a lot of work to be turned into a decent feature. If the game had been centered around combat and investigations, I think it could’ve been a more succinct experience rather than the mess that it is. It is for these reasons that I am giving Astral Chain a 4/10. There are much better action games out there, as this game is a muddled and unfocused collection of ideas.

 

Devil May Cry 4 (2008)

The core of the Devil May Cry series is its action and the main character, Dante. Devil May Cry 4 makes a dangerous design choice by introducing a different main character. It is unbelievably risky to switch protagonists in a series which the current one is undoubtedly loved by fans. Ultimately, I think that this decision paid off, but Devil May Cry 4 has other substantial issues. The combat is crisp and satisfying, but the game is unfinished and undeniably repetitive.

1

The departure from Dante as the singular main character is the aspect of Devil May Cry 4 that makes it stand out. Instead of playing as the cocky and laid-back Dante, the player controls the younger and more serious Nero. More importantly, Nero’s playstyle is vastly different than Dante’s. Nero has a focus on his unique “devil arm”, which boasts a few tricks and changes the playstyle of the game. Nero can grab and throw enemies, which is an ability that allows Nero to string combos together in creative fashions. While Nero does not have the variety of combat styles that Dante does, his ability to grab enemies makes him just as enjoyable to play as.

2

Other than the change of protagonist, Devil May Cry 4 plays very similarly to Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening. High-octane action with a stylish flair is the key to the series success. My favorite aspect of the series are the frequent challenging boss fights. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the bosses in Devil May Cry 4. Other than a single exception, none of the bosses were particularly memorable or exciting. They were not offensively bad, but they were solidly mediocre. These fights felt less like duels between capable fighters and more like the player and the boss taking turns wailing on each other.

3

The largest criticism of Devil May Cry 4 stems from the second half of the game. Halfway through the game, the protagonist switches from Nero to Dante. This in and of itself would have been fine, but all of Dante’s levels are simply backtracking through previous areas. A lack of time caused the developers to just reuse areas instead of creating new ones, and the entire game drags because of it. Furthermore, by the end of the campaign you will encounter many bosses up to 3 times each. While rematches with bosses are a staple of the series, they usually entail new attacks or a changed arena. That is not the case in Devil May Cry 4. While you do fight some of the bosses as Dante, that is not a significant enough change to warrant 3 battles with each boss.

4

Dante plays as expected and has all of his abilities from previous games. The big addition is that he can now change styles on the fly rather than in the pre-mission menu. I love this change as it encourages the player to really test out the different styles rather than feeling restricted to one. It also allows the player to make some adjustments during combat or even extend their combos with a quick change of style.

Story is not something that I find important to the Devil May Cry series, and this game follows suit. While I like Nero’s characterization, I wish his backstory was explained in more depth. Other than that, the story is not a far cry from the previous installments. Somebody is trying to open the gate to Hell and unleash demons upon the world. That about summarizes every Devil May Cry game.

6

Devil May Cry 4 is basically everything I have come to expect from the Devil May Cry series. Fast-paced demon slaying with some goofy humor and cheesy dialogue. Playing as Nero is a breath of fresh air, even if he lacks the plethora of weapons and combat styles that Dante has. Unfortunately, Devil May Cry 4 is an unfinished product and that is abundantly clear in its latter half. As a whole, I enjoyed Devil May Cry 4, but it did not impress me like the original Devil May Cry or like Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening did. Those games defined and revolutionized the action genre, while Devil May Cry 4 is just a solid entry. If you enjoyed the previous games in the series or adore action games in general, I am sure you will like Devil May Cry 4. Just don’t expect anything mind-blowing or revolutionary.

Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (2005)

While Devil May Cry was a major success and defined the action genre, Devil May Cry 2 was a disappointing flop. Hideaki Itsuno was brought on as director for the last few months of the development of Devil May Cry 2 to try to salvage the disaster. Fortunately, Itsuno felt so bad about Devil May Cry 2 that he took on the role of director for Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening to make up for it. Itsuno and his team went on to make one of the greatest action games of all time as Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening lives up to the legacy of the original game. Fast-paced action, stylish combos, an engaging story, and a variety of playstyles culminate into the experience that is Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening.

1

Ultimately, the most crucial element to the Devil May Cry series, and all action games, is its combat. The genre lives off of the high-octane, adrenaline pumping, gripping battles. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening surpasses all expectations in this regard, and blows both of its predecessors out of the water. Dante’s moveset is similar to the original Devil May Cry, but with a few extra elements. Most notably, there are 4 different “styles” the player can choose from that greatly alter how the game is played. Trickster, Swordmaster, Gunslinger, and Royalguard are the 4 main styles that the player can delve into, as well as the Quicksilver and Doppelganger specialty styles that become available later in the game. Trickster focuses on evasiveness and dip, duck, and dodging out of danger. Swordmaster goes all in on offense, allowing the player to extend their combos. Gunslinger is all about amplifying your firearms. And Royalguard is primarily about parrying enemy attacks and striking back. As you play as a certain style, you will level it up and unlock more abilities in that category. The interesting thing to me is that styles are tied to a single button, meaning that switching styles only minimally changes the controls, but that one button drastically changes the pace and style of gameplay.

6

Other than the addition of styles, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening has a few other improvements to combat. A wide array of weapons is added to Dante’s arsenal as the game progresses. New melee weapons and firearms add even more variety to how the game can be played. Furthermore, you can equip 2 melee weapons and 2 firearms at the start of each mission and switch between them at will. This allows for some incredibly intricate combos as you switch between your weapons of choice. There are also a few mechanically complex techniques that can be executed such as jump cancelling to further increase a player’s mastery over the game. Another seemingly minor improvement is the clarification of the style gauge. Devil May Cry is all about racking up big combos and watching your style meter increase, and with this game there is a style bar that you can watch increase and decrease depending on your actions. In previous games, you would only see the overall grade and not the meter filling up. This addition provides much needed clarity and lets the player understand how the combo system works.

2

It is obvious that Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening is a marked improvement over its predecessors in the realm of combat, but what about the other aspects? Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening makes a huge leap forward in the storytelling and narrative in the series. While it remains to be lovably cheesy, its use of only 4 key characters and their encounters is worth looking forward to. Dante, Vergil, Lady, and Arkham all have vastly different motivations and ideas of what should be done with a sealed demonic power. As these characters progress through the demonic tower, their clashing motivations make their meetings all the more memorable. The level design is infinitely better than Devil May Cry 2, but I consider it weaker than the original Devil May Cry. Most of the game is spent climbing and exploring a tower. You repeatedly revisit areas and loop through the entirety of the tower two or three times. The major issue that I had was that it was occasionally confusing to find my way around this gargantuan structure. The tower constantly shifts and changes from level to level, so you never really get familiar with its layout. Also, there were a few platforming sections that did not really fit with the rest of the game.

A staple to the Devil May Cry series is the challenging boss fights. Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening maintains this tradition, and many of the game’s best moments are contained in boss battles. First and foremost, there are 20 missions total in the game and 14 boss fights. The developers went out of their way to include as many fights as possible. Even better, the vast majority of these clashes are well-designed, challenging, and memorable. Only two or three of these fights can be considered weak by comparison. Unfortunately, the penultimate boss is an unmitigated mess with a host of issues. Its an ugly, amorphous blob with hard to read attacks. Worse still, the control scheme changes in the second half of the fight, so you have to relearn how to play the game on the fly. Luckily, other than this disastrous globule, most of the other boss fights are enormously enjoyable and the pinnacle of the series.

3

While Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening redefined the action genre, it is not without its own faults. One of the biggest downfalls of this game was its enemy design. Enemies fall into 2 categories in this game: combo fodder, or annoying. Combo fodder are enemies that pose very little threat to the player and exist primarily for the player to unleash their fury with little retaliation. Annoying enemies are enemies that give the player small windows for attack or just kind of get in the way. Ideally, enemies in action games should be a healthy mix between these subsets. They should be strong enough to fight against the player a pose a very real threat, but they player also gets opportunities to unleash devastating combos against the enemy. The original Devil May Cry struck this balance superbly, every enemy had a few tricks up their sleeve that the player needed to be aware of. You could absolutely demolish hordes of enemies if you knew how to, but a misstep would lead to taking some punishing damage. It’s a good thing that combat in Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening is so inherently fun, or fighting the massive amount of combo fodder enemies would grow tiresome quite quickly.

4

The other issue I have with Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening is something that has been embodied throughout the whole series, and I would consider it a double-edged sword. I am talking about the replayabilty of Devil May Cry games. These games are made to be replayed a multitude of times, and are generally considered better on subsequent playthroughs. This is because you keep all moves, styles, items, and upgrades as you progress to higher difficulty levels. On the first playthrough of the game, you will most likely only master 1 of the 4 styles and not be fully upgraded. But as you keep playing, you master the games systems and test out all of the tools in Dante’s arsenal. Furthermore, you get the option to play as Vergil after beating the game once. On one hand, this replayability is fantastic as it allows players to keep playing after they beat the game. However, I think many people generally do not replay games so soon after completing them. Maybe a few years later, but by that time you will have mostly forgotten how to play the game and would have to start fresh anyway. Moreover, the first time you play the game you are missing a lot of features since you are not fully equipped. It is an obviously intentional design choice that has some merit, but also some hefty drawbacks.

5

Its difficult for me to decide which I like better: the original Devil May Cry or Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening. The original had better level and enemy design, and it was an innovative game at the time. Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening builds off of the success of the original, but its addictive and gratifying combat make it a contender for best in the series. Either way, it is evident that Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening redefined what action games could be. Even with some notable flaws, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening remains one of the greatest action games ever developed.

Devil May Cry (2001)

It is well known that Devil May Cry is the grandfather of action games. This game defined the genre and many series today owe their existence to Devil May Cry. While it is a slightly dated game at this point, it still holds up in many aspects. I was genuinely surprised how satisfying and thrilling the gameplay from a 17-year-old game is even compared to modern games. At the very least, all action game players should play through Devil May Cry just to pay homage.

The history of Devil May Cry is fairly interesting, it was originally supposed to be a Resident Evil game, but the developers shifted focus part way through development. They wanted to highlight combat and action rather than horror and suspense, and thus Devil May Cry was born. The roots of Resident Evil are evident, as many aspects of that series is present. Collecting items that essentially function as keys to unlock the next area is an obvious holdover from Resident Evil. It is a solid system that makes the player feel clever when they figure out where to use the item, even if it is obvious. Luckily, it is rarely confusing to figure out where to go next. Devil May Cry guides the player through hints so the player is not left frustrated trying to progress onward.

4

At the heart of Devil May Cry is its stylish combat. Satisfying sword slashes stringed together with rapid fire gunshots defines the series. The satisfaction when hitting an enemy through visual and audio feedback is phenomenal. Juggling enemies in the air and slaying hordes of hellish creatures fulfills the fantasy of being a badass demon hunter. Devil May Cry is flashy in all the best ways. Even the corny story adds to the enjoyment. Devil May Cry feels like an action flick, complete with cheesy one liners and over dramatic dialogue.

For a 17-year-old game, Devil May Cry has surprisingly deep combat. This is mostly because there are just so many options how to play the game. A variety of weapons and guns to mix and match allows the player to develop their own style. At the center of the combat is “devil trigger”. Devil trigger is built up by dealing or taking damage, and when the gauge is filled enough it allows the player to briefly enter an empowered state. Devil trigger makes the player do more damage, regenerate health, and use special attacks. Furthermore, Devil May Cry has a new game+ option to replay the game on higher difficulties to refine your skills. The base difficulty is already fairly challenging, especially towards the end, but the higher difficulties are very well designed. Instead of only simply increasing enemy health and damage, they revamped enemy layouts in many of the areas. Devil May Cry is a game that is meant to be replayed.

3

The aspect that surprised me the most about Devil May Cry was its intricate enemy design. While there were limitations that prevented the developers from putting more than one type of enemy on the screen at any given time, this was hardly noticeable due to the quality of the creatures. Visually, contextually, and mechanically, the enemies in Devil May Cry shine. Each archetype boasts a variety of attacks and maneuvers that the player needs to become accustomed to. Enemies can block, dodge, and interrupt your combos, which makes even the simplest encounters nontrivial in execution. The hellish abominations that infest the narrow hallways of Devil May Cry are a cornerstone in the game’s success.

Devil May Cry takes a lot of inspiration from arcade games, mainly in its ranking system. After each mission the player receives a grade based on their combos, damage taken, and speed. This encourages the player to improve their technique, as you are rewarded with “red orbs” for receiving high grades. You can use these orbs the purchase new attacks, upgrades, and items. It was clever to lock some combat techniques behind in-game currency, because it alleviates the barrier of entry that many action games have. Starting a new action game can be daunting because you have to learn a plethora of combos, but Devil May Cry starts simple and lets the player unlock new attacks at their own leisure.

2

While Devil May Cry has some great aspects carried over from Resident Evil, a fatal flaw was brought along as well. The camera is an issue that has plagued game developers since the dawn of 3D technology in the late 90s, and it is especially bad in Devil May Cry. The stationary camera is a holdover from Resident Evil and it clashes with the fast-paced action. The camera is at its worst when you change from one angle to another, leaving you disoriented and moving in the wrong direction often times. The other issue with Devil May Cry is that it does a poor job at introducing the bread-and-butter mechanics that the player will need. Things like juggling, standard combos, and even shooting are not explained anywhere. I would recommend looking up a quick guide to explain controls if you want to play Devil May Cry. Lastly, Devil May Cry is a product of its time, it is a little clunky to control at times. You cannot change direction in air, and Dante (the main character) is rather rigid. It is far smoother than most games of its age, but is a lot less fluid than more modern games.

1

To be honest, games from the late 90’s and early 2000’s are usually too dated for me to enjoy fully. The advent of 3D technology was a rough transition for the gaming industry, yet somehow a few games from that time period manage to overcome those issues. Devil May Cry is one of those games. While it definitely is a product of its time with problems such as its camera or lack in fluidity, Devil May Cry is so polished and tightly designed in every other facet that it is easy to look past its age. When I started Devil May Cry, I expected just to play it to become familiar with the series and to understand the roots of the action genre. Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed Devil May Cry and was incredibly impressed by the attention to detail and thoughtful design that was implemented. Once I played Devil May Cry, it was apparent why it spawned an entire genre.

The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings (2011)

It is always interesting to see how a developer progresses across games. Without a doubt the largest improvement I’ve seen is CD Projekt Red and The Witcher series. The first entry in the series certainly had a lot of heart and inspiration behind it, but it was an ultimately clunky and it underwhelmed me. That being said, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has made great strides to improve nearly every aspect of the game. The visuals, story and most importantly, gameplay, were significantly upgraded. There were still a few bizarre design decisions that baffle me, but regardless I consider The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to be a stellar RPG and a must play game if you are remotely interested in fantasy.

1

The most obvious improvement is in the gameplay department. The original game’s combat was point and click, most of the gameplay was pure preparation and understanding your enemy’s weaknesses. Thankfully, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings built on the preparation-based concepts from its predecessor. Gathering ingredients and performing alchemy to create potions is invaluable. Instead of just choosing a predetermined “fighting style” like in the original, in this game you proactively choose between heavy and light attacks depending on the enemy and circumstance. Furthermore, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, you dodge, block, and parry by actually pressing buttons and responding to enemies’ actions, rather than being a static chance like in the original game. Item usage also got a massive overhaul, allowing the player to seamlessly integrate traps, bombs, and other related items into their combat repertoire. Still, I would not consider the combat in this game to be stellar, but it is beyond serviceable and was not a source of frustration like the original game. There is absolutely no doubt that the gameplay took gigantic leaps forward from its predecessor, and that is what is so remarkable about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

2

While the gameplay was undoubtably a massive improvement, The Witcher series is first and foremost an RPG, so story and roleplaying aspects should be the focus of the series. It is fortunate then that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has such an engaging and gripping narrative. The Witcher is often described as a gritty, realistic, and mature fantasy series, it is not a fairytale story, and this title certainly follows that standard. The player regularly has to choose between the lesser of two evils, and you will often regret and rethink your decisions after the fact. It is obvious that these games are grounded in reality, even with their fictional magic, creatures, and world. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells the story of the monster hunter Geralt, who was framed for the murder of a king. As you hunt down the king’s assassin, you experience a wartorn land, humans fight nonhumans, and foreign invaders seek to seize the opportunity to claim power now that the king is dead. Geralt’s amnesia also begins to clear up throughout the story, which challenges previous knowledge and expectations that you have. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells a riveting story and I cannot wait to play the next game to see what happens next.

3

Obviously, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings made notable improvements over the first game, but there are still a few strange design choices that cause nothing but frustration. The first is that potions are unusable during combat. At first glance this makes sense as it prevents player from stocking up on potions and just chugging one whenever you take some damage. However, this is already prevented because potions heal you gradually rather than all at once, so you cannot just chug for instant regeneration in combat. This is annoying because it is not always obvious when the game is going to throw you into a big battle or boss fight, as there is usually a long cutscene or dialogue segment beforehand. What usually ends up happening is that the player talks to another character, gets tossed into a boss battle immediately afterwards, and then has to reload a save from 10 minutes prior just to drink a potion and sit through all the dialogue again. Another odd choice was to separate the world into 3 different acts. This was possibly because of engine limitations rather than an intentional choice, but it is a flaw nonetheless. Once you complete an act, you cannot visit that area again or do its quests, which makes the whole world feel smaller and more confined. There are also a few usability issues I had with the game. The user interface was messy and difficult to navigate and I frequently encountered glitches and bugs which forced me to restart my client numerous times. These issues were common enough that they significantly hampered the experience, they are not just small nitpicks.

4

As a whole, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings managed to make great strides to improve upon its predecessor. More developed combat and a gripping story make the game worth experiencing. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a quintessential action RPG, and it is no where near as clunky as the original. It is evident that CD Projekt Red put forth a lot of effort to improve on their flagship series, and it shows. If the next game improves as much as this one did, it may very well be a masterpiece.

Furi (2016)

Many games try to do too many different things and end up being a hodgepodge of unsatisfying and unfinished elements. Furi is the opposite of that. Furi is an action game with only difficult boss fights, no exploration, no puzzles, no platforming, only straight up duels between you and a boss. As such, these fights must be spectacular because it is the only element of the game, and it stands out for all to see. Luckily, Furi lives up to that expectation and its combat system is possibly my favorite in any game ever.

1

While Furi does not have many individual components, its combat itself has a ton of different elements tied to it. First is the bullet-hell aspect, in which bosses shoot waves of projectiles at the player and you must dodge and shoot back. Of course, these projectiles come in many different varieties, standard bullets, tracking bullets, lasers, bullets that cannot be destroyed, shockwaves, etc. The next element in melee combat, in which the boss strikes in a variety of patterns in which the player must either dodge or parry the attacks. Each boss has a set number of “phases”, and in each phase the bosses have two forms. The first form is “zoomed-out” mostly comprised of bullet hell patterns with the occasional melee strikes, and once you complete that you move onto the next form. The second form zooms in and becomes a melee duel between you and the boss. The real brilliance of the combat lies in the lives system.

2

You get 3 lives when starting a boss. If you lose a life at any point in a phase, the phase entirely resets. If you lose all 3 lives, you start the boss all over again. It would be pretty daunting to go through five or six phases per boss with only three lives, but the developers had a great solution to this. Every time you defeat a phase, you get a life back. This gives the player an ample amount of opportunities to attempt each phase. This is great because Furi can be a little trial-and-error as you attempt a new phase. You have to learn each attack pattern and how to respond to it. The combat is a mix between pattern recognition and performing the actions necessary to dodge and deal damage. As you learn these patterns and the correct response, it is inevitable that you are going to take some damage. The fact that the player has a decently sized health-bar to take a lot of hits combined with the lives system makes sure that you get plenty of time to learn all the patterns. The feeling of absolute pride and accomplishment when I finally conquered a tough boss was immeasurable, and I love games that can evoke that feeling.

3

Although I said Furi is solely based around its combat, there are a few other underlying elements to elevate the experience. The visuals and music are absolutely stunning. The electronic tracks produced by a few different artists is reminiscent of the Hotline Miami soundtrack, pure intensity and gravitas. Each track was composed specifically for this game, so they match stunningly well with each boss encounter. I still listen to a few of the tracks from this game (I really enjoy the songs made by Toxic Avenger and Carpenter Brut). The bright visuals and neon-soaked and cell-shaded atmosphere of Furi are immensely visually appealing, and they make it easy to tell exactly what is going on in combat. The characters themselves are anime-esque, which makes sense considering they were designed by Takashi Okazaki, the creator of the acclaimed manga and anime Afro Samurai. Every boss is extremely memorable not only through gameplay, by visually as well. Finally, the story of Furi is actually pretty solid. You are imprisoned and your only goal is to escape by defeating the nine guardians. The reason why you were imprisoned is not clear until the end, and then everything starts to click. The game is pretty light on plot until the very end.

4

No game is perfect, and Furi is no exception. The first of its issues is that it is short. Your first playthrough will probably take around four hours, and subsequent playthroughs will be shorter because you know how to handle the different bosses. That being said I consider Furi a game that is meant to played at least a few times. I say this because Furi is unique when it comes to its hard difficulty, “Furier”. This difficulty does not just increase the health and damage of the bosses, but it gives them entirely new attack patterns. Each boss in hard mode is essentially a new boss from a gameplay perspective. Their attacks are similar, but they are changes enough that you have to learn them all over again, and they are tougher this time around. I don’t usually play through games multiple times, but Furi was an exception to that because hard mode was so enjoyable. Furthermore, because Furi is just action and nothing else, I can easily see myself revisiting it just for a quick boss rush in the near future. If I ever want some tense and fast-paced battles, Furi is my new go-to game.

5

All that being said, there is an issue with Furi being meant to be replayable. It’s the short sections in between the bosses. These sections are basically cutscenes, your character walks along while another character spews narrative at you. This serves three purposes: First as a cool-down period between the high-octane fights, second as a means to get some narrative and storytelling, and third it is meant to build up the next boss. This was fine my first time around, but on subsequent playthroughs this becomes unnecessary. You should be able to skip these sections because players who already beat the game don’t need to hear the story or about the bosses again, they just want some action. Of course, you could watch them if you want to again, but they should be skippable. Especially because there is about an hour of these sections in the game, and the game is only a few hours long. A large chunk of play time is devoted to these walking sections.

6

Furi is a very niche game. It is intense, it is challenging, and it is not meant for everybody. This is not strictly a bad thing as I would prefer a tightly-knit game like Furi to a messy and unfocused game. But Furi is strictly action, and that action is very fast-paced. So, if that doesn’t sound appealing to you then stay away from Furi. If what I’ve said sounds fun to you, then you absolutely have to play Furi. For these reasons I give Furi an 9/10. It is an absolutely phenomenal action game with an innovative combat system. However, if you don’t like rapid combat and challenging bosses, then don’t bother.

 

Dark Souls (2011)

In a time in which numerous video games hold the players hand and are generally easy, one game challenged the idea that difficult games were too frustrating and that mainstream games should stray away from challenging the player. That game was Dark Souls. This action-RPG was an industry-changing title, other developers realized that there was a market for games that did not coddle the player. The difficulty is far from the only factor that makes Dark Souls what it is, although its reputation of being hard is what everyone knows about Dark Souls, even if they have never played it. Dark Souls is also a bastion of success in level design, atmosphere, and world building, and I have yet to come across a game as impressive as Dark Souls in those departments. I consider Dark Souls to be one of the greatest and most important games of all time, rivaling titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario 64. It has had a profound effect on the industry and will shape video games for years to come. That being said, I consider Dark Souls to be a flawed masterpiece. It is no secret that the second half of the game was rushed to reach a deadline. It also dangerously teeters on the line of “difficult but fair” and “frustrating”. While I consider the game to be “difficult but fair” a majority of the time, there are still a few moments that cross the line and enter “frustrating” territory. Despite these shortcomings, Dark Souls has quickly become one of my favorite games and its importance cannot be denied.

What makes the difficulty of Dark Souls so compelling? Part of its success is that Dark Souls is tough, but it rarely ever feels cheap or gives you an unwarranted death. Every time you die, it’s your fault. Every time I died, I learned something valuable and I could avoid dying the same way in the future. It is evident that nothing is too difficult to execute because on my second play-through I died extremely infrequently due to my prior knowledge on how to defeat all the enemies. There is a certain beauty to the challenge of Dark Souls.  Many challenges seem insurmountable at first, but you keep trying and trying until eventually you figure it out. When you do finally overcome a tough area or boss, there is an overwhelming feeling of elation and pride at what you have just accomplished. There is something to be said in that Dark Souls mimics life in this regard. Dark Souls is not difficult for the sake of being difficult, rather it uses difficulty as a tool to make the player feel different emotions. The sense of accomplishment when you defeat a boss, the anxiety of not knowing what is on the other side of a fog door, the fear and tension of fighting a tough enemy, or the immense relief when you discover a new bonfire; these emotions are possible only because of the challenge provided by Dark Souls. Furthermore, I really appreciate when games are actually challenging, it is far more engaging and addicting.  That feeling of wanting to conquer a genuine challenge makes me want to keep playing, and when I did finally defeat whatever was in my way I really felt like I had made significant progress.

1

While the difficulty is probably the most well-known feature of Dark Souls, there are many other categories which make Dark Souls master class. The most impressive feature to me was the brilliant level design. Each area in Dark Souls often loops in on itself and reveals a shortcut from the nearest checkpoint. This is genius for a couple of reasons. First, it lets areas evolve in a sense, and as you progress through the game an area is going to have more paths and shortcuts available to access. Since many paths are closed to the player initially, it allows the player to become familiarized with the level’s layout before further complicating it. This sort of circular level design also surprises the player, and makes you stop and think how you ended up back where you started. From a player progression standpoint, the looping level design is massively important. As you return to areas you have been previously, you can test how strong you have become. As gear, level, and player skill increase you feel much more powerful visiting areas that you were in just a short time ago. Lastly, this type of design also reduces tedium by a massive amount. The player will only have to get through a particular chunk once and can skip that chunk once a shortcut has been opened. So, there is very little tedium when running from a checkpoint to where you died.

2

The atmosphere, setting, and world of Dark Souls is also hauntingly beautiful. Every area is completely unique and memorable. Often, I just stopped adventuring and had to take in my surroundings. The world of Dark Souls mirrors the level design in the sense that it utilizes vertical layers to have areas loop in on themselves to create a compact and believable world. There are many instances of Déjà vu as you open a door or descend an elevator as you realize that you have been here before. Atmospherically, Dark Souls is in a tier of its own. The world is littered with viewing points from high places where you can gaze upon the areas that you have just conquered, or even look ahead to see your next trial. I often felt insignificant when gazing upon the wondrous land or Lordran, and fighting enemies that were magnitudes larger than me reinforced that feeling. Despite this, as I traversed the world and surmounted these creatures, I felt powerful. The world of Dark Souls is vast but compact, it is interconnected, and it is breathtaking.

3

Another aspect of world-building is the lore and the story. While the story of Dark Souls is fairly simple, it becomes incredible as you learn the backstory to the world. I don’t want to delve too deep into the lore, as I feel like people should attempt to discover it on their own. There is a real feeling of living in a dying world, and you are putting this worlds creators and gods to rest in order to preserve life for a little while longer. Fighting many of the bosses of Dark Souls becomes far more emotional once you learn their backstory, and often times it is profoundly sad as you put these old gods to rest. Speaking to all of the characters in the game gives you a sense that they are on their own journeys through this world, and don’t solely exist for the benefit of the player. The other interesting thing about the lore is that it is never explicitly laid out for the player. You must discover it for yourself through contextual clues, item descriptions, and character dialogue. This gave me the feeling of piecing together a puzzle, and even if some of the pieces were missing, I could still make out the overall picture. I really felt like an adventurer in a fantasy setting, discovering the world for myself.

4

One of the most important features of an action-RPG is obviously the combat. At first glance, the combat of Dark Souls seems pretty rudimentary and slow, but looking deeper into the game one can see that this is not the case. Every action that the player takes has a significant wind-up at the beginning and some down-time at the end, this is to encourage the player to only make an action when it is safe to do so, otherwise you will get hit. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, even the weaker enemies in most areas can kill the player in a few hits, so you better be sure that you have a big enough window to attack, or you will pay heavily for it. The combat is actually surprisingly deep in a sense, as the player learns the ins and outs of all the combat systems. Learning how to use stamina, poise, staggering, shields, rolling, light attacks, heavy attacks, shield breaks, back stabs, parries, and efficient use of the estus flask are all essential as you get further into the game. The combat is heavily focused around risk and reward, for example: you can shield an incoming attack to guarantee your safety, but you’ll lose stamina, or you can parry the attack and riposte for massive damage, but if you mess it up you will get hit hard. That is just one example, and the player is encouraged to test out all of the combat options available to them. The other interesting thing is that all the enemies abide by the same rules that the player follows. Enemies also have stamina, poise, wind-up animations, and down-time after their attacks, and they also die from a few swings of your weapons. You can always expect the enemies to behave in a similar way to the player, which is immensely important. If enemies did not have to follow these rules, they would feel cheap and unfair. There is a feeling of weight and permanence in the combat of Dark Souls, every decision must be carefully calculated because the stakes of getting hit are so high.

6

Do you remember being a kid and huddling around the playground with you friends and telling each other about all the cool secrets you found in a game? Most of what was said in these discussions ended up being wrong, but it was still neat to imagine all of the hidden features in a game. Dark Souls does a great job of recreating this feeling. Players can leave messages for each other, telling of illusory walls or how a great item is waiting for you if you jump off this cliff! This harkens back to the playground discussions, as these messages are mostly jokes. But occasionally you will find a tip about a hidden item, or a how a trap is waiting for you up ahead. These messages can also be likened to adventurers swapping tips and stories around a bonfire. There are also bloodstains scattered across the world and you can view exactly how other players died in that spot, which can be pretty humorous. Not only can you communicate with other players, but you can also summon players to play alongside you and engage in jolly cooperation. Be careful though, some of the crueler players can invade your world and fight you one on one. I don’t consider the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls to be one of the main features of the game, but I definitely did get a few chuckles out of the goofy messages and bloodstains.

It is clear that I adore Dark Souls, so why did I call it a “flawed masterpiece”, what is wrong with the game? One of the issues is that there are definitely some moments that are more frustrating than they are difficult. Luckily, these moments are not too common, but they still sour the experience a little. This was a risk the developers took when creating a challenging game, every encounter must be extensively tested to make sure that it is tough, but not so hard that it makes you want to smash your controller. While it is a shame that some of these types of moments made it into the full game, I think it is remarkable that these frustrating moments are so few and far between and it shows how much care what put into this game. Also, the game can often be a little too cryptic for its own good. While the DLC areas and bosses are some of the best in the game, accessing the DLC is so confusing that I doubt most people figured it out without looking it up. Unfortunately, these are not the sole issues of Dark Souls, the most important issue is that the game is just not finished. In order to meet a deadline, the final areas in the game were rushed and are nowhere near the quality previously demonstrated. The level design falls apart as it no longer loops in on itself, and the same can be said for the world design. There are a few separate paths that lead to dead ends, there are no grand revelations of “I know exactly where I am”. Furthermore, many of the enemies, bosses, and the areas themselves are clearly rushed. I think the other big issues with the final 4 areas in the game is that the developers attempted to let the player tackle them in any order they wanted.

5

While some fans claim that one of the biggest strengths of Dark Souls it its open format, I have to disagree. Sure, you can go to a variety of different areas at the start of the game, but you are clearly pushed into one path. To me, that is the beauty of the pseudo-open world of Dark Souls. The developers trust that the player is intelligent enough to avoid tougher areas early on and instead come back when they are better prepared. At the end of the game, there are 4 paths all laid out for the player to go in any order they want. The issue with this is that as the player progresses through these paths, they will become more powerful, so it is immensely difficult to balance these 4 paths. They all must be about roughly equal in difficulty so that the player can choose to go to whichever one they want first. What ends up happening is that the first area you go to is going to be the hardest, and then each area you visit gets progressively easier as you level up and get better equipment. I think the developers realized this issue, and since difficulty is such an important factor in the game they attempted to combat the problem that subsequent areas get easier and easier. In order to fix this, the developers made each area difficult by adding a gimmick. These gimmicks remain relevant regardless of the players level. The pitch blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the lava of Lost Izalith, the invisible platforms of the Crystal Caves, and the ghost enemies in New Londo are all gimmicks. They are cheap tricks meant to make the game more difficult and I feel like they damage what could otherwise be decent areas. These gimmicks could actually be pretty interesting twists to these levels if they were implemented better, but as they stand now they are just annoying to deal with. Despite this, I still think that most of these areas are decent, they just don’t adhere to the brilliance that was the first half of Dark Souls.

Even though it is undeniable that Dark Souls is flawed, it is still an immensely important game. It has redefined level design, world building, and atmosphere in games. I have struggled for a while to write this piece. It is not easy for me to put into words my opinion about Dark Souls, and as such I believe that it is a game that everyone needs to at least try. Do not be intimidated by others boasting about how hard the game is, as I think it is entirely accessible to anybody decently experienced at video games. Dark Souls is a truly wonderous and unforgettable experience, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend that everyone should at least give it a chance.