Competitive Games Pokemon

Pokémon Unite: An Unbalanced Good Time

Who would have thought that Pokémon Unite would hit this hard? When I heard the announcement I was optimistic but skeptical, thinking that a MOBA with a lower barrier to entry with Pokemon would prevent it from being a total failure. That Pokémon Unite would actually be good? Definitely surprising. It’s received positive looks from game outlets and players alike finding that a more accessible MOBA is actually really fun to play. As a long time but lapsed Dota player, Unite seems like the perfect gateway to actually get friends to play a MOBA. Goodbye the hundreds of hours required to understand the game instead replaced by a simpler but still rewarding gameplay loop. 10 minute matches? A godsend compared to 45-60 minutes. Add in the Pokémon wrapping and that’s icing on the cake.

Pokemon Unite Dunk
Frogadier really slams it in emphatically

Pokémon Unite is structured very similarly to other MOBAs, namely teams of 5 players compete to push toward the other’s home base. The map is broken up into 3 lanes (top, bottom and middle) with creeps (underpowered npc units that you gain exp from killing) and shielded points (often turrets). Unite changes it up a bit by making the middle lane a jungle (i.e. an open area where creeps spawn) and changing the turrets to hoops. Players gather Poke balls by killing creeps and then they can deposit them in the opposing team’s hoops. Essentially the Pokémon are dunking, which is especially true for Pikachu who jumps up into the air and slams it down (the closest we’ll probably get to Pokemon/NBA Jam). Each hoop has a counter of how many poke balls it takes before it’s destroyed, usually 100. The goal then is to try and destroy all of the opposing team’s hoops and block them from scoring on yours (attacks interrupt the dunking animation). You can also steal Poke balls by killing enemies; they’ll drop half of what they were holding. Unite helps add some guard rails to the lanes too. The hoops themselves will heal players from the associated team and the areas behind the hoops drastically slow movement speed for all enemies. Once it’s destroyed though those benefits disappear.

Pokemon Unite Jigglypuff

Teams are also made up of distinct Pokémon. Each member of the team has to pick a unique Pokémon, although the enemy team could pick the same as yours. Each Pokémon has unique abilities and stats that affect movement speed, scoring speed, attack damage and health. These stats also dictate what type of role they play. Are they a big damage dealer? Support buffer and healer? A big hp tank? Unite takes these MOBA concepts and breaks them down into 5 classes; Defense, Attacker, All Arounder, Support, and Speedster. Defense are big tanks who are good for starting fights (ex: Snorlax), Attackers are damage dealers (Greninja), Supports (Wigglytuff) provide buffs (healing, speed boosts), Speedsters are glass cannons (Gengar), and All Arounders (Charizard) are exactly what they sound like. The game will prompt players during the drafting phase to pick different types that are best for what the game determines is the ideal team composition. It’s nice in theory, but in practice it seemingly excludes character types. Unite will always want your team to have one attacker, defender and all arounder and never suggests including a Speedster or Support. It’s a minor frustration when the game is warning that a varied team composition of Speedster – Support – Attacker isn’t ideal and suggests adding an Attacker or Defender. Everytime I choose one of my mains (either Gengar or Wigglytuff), Unite suggests that I maybe switch to something else. The other weird part about this is that players may not have enough different types of Pokémon to fill those slots. Essentially you are given 5 Pokemon free and you must purchase the rest through in-game currency, which is either bought or earned (more on this later). I’ve been in many games where it wants an All Arounder which is a type I don’t have. 

What’s amazing about Unite is that all of that MOBA complexity is sanded down to a generally easy to understand game. I spent probably a hundred hours in DOTA before I felt like I “understood” the game. Unite was then immediately recognizable. I could see all of the concepts easily laid out for me and picked up the game flow super quickly. For new players, this will obviously take a bit more time but so far the consensus seems that even non MOBA die-hards are able to play competitively. The game has an auto target feature, essential for playing on console, which helps you attack creeps and line up your abilities. Unite’s guard rails around lane buffs and healing centers helps alleviate the punishment of making mistakes. Dying also doesn’t result in a huge penalty either; respawn timers are relatively quick. It also helps that Unite’s time to kill is relatively long so players have the chance of escaping from enemies. Leveling your Pokémon, a huge part of MOBAs, is also relatively quick. Unite is gracious with spreading around exp from killing creeps and taking hoops. Killing players will grant some exp, but it’s actually less efficient to focus on that over killing creeps or completing objectives (DOTA is exactly the inverse). By deprioritizing player’s kills, Unite is allowing for players to catch back up and for teammates to focus on working together to complete objectives.

Pokemon Unite Post Battle Screen

All of those features amount to a rewarding experience. As a long time DOTA fan I’ve found that I’m preferring to play Unite. The easy to pick up nature and ten minute matches slide super well into my schedule. Imagine completing 4-6 games in the time it’d take to play one DOTA match! I’m curious about the long term “competitive scene” for Unite for a few reasons; gameplay balance and free to play items. Right now the game skews heavily toward attackers and speedsters. Usually in other MOBAs you can counter people playing as “hard carries” (meaning characters that are weak to start but extremely powerful towards the end of a long match) by trying to finish a game early. You can set up a team to counter hard carries during the picking phase where you can see what heroes the enemy team selects. The problem with this is Pokémon Unite doesn’t have an option to view the enemy team’s picks so you’re stuck going in blind. Pokémon Unite’s matches are also locked in at ten minutes, no more and no less. You always have to go the full time meaning you always get to the part of the game where “hard carries,” speedsters and attackers, are strong. Sometimes it doesn’t always matter, the other team has been completing objectives faster and controlling the map, but other times it all comes down to how good your Gengar is. Character balance is also a little wonky, as Pokémon like Gengar, Zeraoro, and Cinderace can absolutely dominate. Both of these aren’t deal breakers and patches are already coming through to adjust hero stats. It remains to be seen though if the game timer especially throws off high level play or if it’s just an adjustment for this specific MOBA.

Pokemon Unite Zapados

The other more notorious pieces of gameplay balance are late game incentives and the almighty Zapados. scoring becomes 2x the value in the last two minutes of a match. Depending on how well your team performs during this time players can completely erase leads and it sometimes feels like early game is irrelevant. Zapados also spawns during the last two minutes. Zapados is a high level creep that is at the very center of the map and requires multiple team members to take down. The team that kills Zapados gets 20 points and the enemy goals are completely vulnerable, meaning there’s no timer needed to score a goal. If your team takes down Zapados, that means instantaneous double scoring is a complete game changer. Some players have found that Zapados completely disincentivizes the early game and drags down Unute. I, on the other hand, love the sense of chaos that Zapados brings. The delicate balance of trying to attack it, steal it, or stop the enemy team from taking it is some of my favorite parts of a match. The strategy around Zapados turns matches into a dance around the middle area in the best way possible. 

Pokemon Unite Homescreen

Gameplay positives aside, Unite is a free to play game through and through. There are five separate currency types (including two paid) that are used to purchase everything from Pokémon, player outfits and item boosting. I haven’t even touched on items yet, the most contentious part of Unite. There are two types of items, battle and held items. Battle items are cooldown based tools and they let you do everything from heal, increase your attack, teleport away and other gameplay boosts. The held items are where things get tricky. These items are used to boost your Pokémon stats. You unlock up to 3 equitable slots that allow you to carry items that increase health, attack, sp. attack and other stats. Held items also have item levels and are powered up through a currency you earn called item enhancers. Players will earn item enhancers through playing the game and completing daily objectives like playing matches, winning games and assisting players. Problem is that you can buy these enhancers through an obfuscated way. The paid currency “gems” can be used to purchase “aeos tickets” which can then be used to buy item enhancers. This has led to a lot of people calling the game “pay to win.” This even used to be worse at launch when you could just buy item enhancers without the weird work around. Luckily this doesn’t seem to be a “play to win” case, but having enhanced items will definitely help in 1v1 situations. 

Pokemon Unite Energy Rewards
Unite’s version of a “Gacha” pull

The game is still predatory though as the UI is massively cluttered with ways to purchase all kinds of new items. Pokémon also have to be purchased through the earned “aeos coins” currency or through paid gems. Unite was generous with dolling out coins to start and I was able to purchase a Gengar quickly. It then took me two weeks to have enough coins to buy a Wigglytuff (8000 coins vs 10000 for Gengar). The pace is absolutely glacial to accumulate those even at the hour time I spent playing each day. It essentially means that you’ll have less options to play with, unless of course you want to put up that money. Unite is not the first to do this (looking at you League), but it’s certainly a trend designed to get people to spend. It also includes a Gacha mechanic, essentially a roulette wheel that will earn you random rewards which can also be purchased through paid currency. The game is designed to bilk players out of their money and is extremely obvious.

I’m still loving my time with the game even with those big predatory hang ups. It’s found its way into my daily routine and seems like it’ll be supported with new content fairly well. In two short weeks there’s even been a new Pokémon addition. Hopefully nothing tips the game balance into too awful of a direction. And while I gush about the game I do want people to be aware going in how much Unite is set up to steal your money. Uncompromised this is not.

Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Fort Condor Almost Steals Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission

The new DLC “Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission” absolutely whips (but god what an awful name when it’s also attached to the new “Intergrade” subtitle for the PS5 version). Yuffie is a blast to play almost to the point of being overpowered; her toolset allows her to adapt to every single enemy’s elemental weakness. She’s a swiss army knife allowing you to adapt to whatever situation arises. I was reluctant about Sonon not being a playable character (unlike your party in the main version) but you actually have a good amount of flexibility being able to issue him commands. Having him be the AI controlled bullet sponge allows Yuffie to really punish enemies and gives you that really accomplished feeling. Both characters are great too. Yuffie is overeager and confident but has the skill set to back it up which makes her effortlessly charming. The bit of people underestimating her because she’s young, small and female never wears out its welcome because it never phases her. She stumbles and jumps into things in a comedic way and always bounces back up. Sonon acts like her older brother; slightly embarrassed but supportive in a real way. He follows her lead and calls her boss and it’s never condescending. He really trusts her which is reinforced through the bit of backstory we learn about him throughout the episode. My only complaint, it’s too short! I don’t mean that in the “gamer” way of minimizing the DLC but I’m just sad I don’t have more time to sync into this. Maybe this is a plus for people who found the 35-40 hour runtime of the main game too much (I thought it was jusssssst right). It’s got me excited all over again and I’m now working my way through the VR battle missions to take on the new secret boss. O ya, did I forget that there’s Dirge of Cerberus enemies in here? This Remake sure is wild. My goal is to turn recorded footage into a video wrap up, now I just have to hold myself accountable.

Yuffie Yelling at Shinra Soldiers
Yuffie is pretty damn great

What I really want to talk about with this blog is what for me was an early highpoint; the Fort Condor minigame. It’s so much fun and easy to pick up with some challenging matches as you progress up the ranks. It’s just like Clash Royale! Wait where are you going… Really I mean that as a compliment, as Clash Royale is a very addicting mobile game that unfortunately comes saddled with all the insidious free to play stuff that the Clash series is known for. Fort Condor is another win in the line of mini games that occur across the Final Fantasy series. The original FFVII had a similar mini game that takes place at the Fort Condor location. Fort Condor houses a Mako Reactor that Shinra is interested in taking and has been attempting to seize it. Your party helps out and you defend it through what’s essentially a Tower Defense mini game where you have to outlast waves of enemies. The one weird thing about the translation to the Remake; it’s represented as a board game that people love which has potentially weird lore implications. Since INTERmission takes place in Midgar, maybe the struggle has been translated to a board game where two equal sides fight against one another. That way the struggle is downplayed even though Fort Condor is in a much less advantageous position (that’s my read anyway). 

Fort Condor Final Fantasy VII
Original Fort Condor Mini Game

Anyways, Square made it a point to include mini games in the mainline series and have them interwoven through the game. Triple Triad in VIII was a big expansion as you played cards throughout whatever regions you were in and even informed what ruleset you abided by. There was another card game in IX but was deemphasized and merely a side activity (meaning you couldn’t turn cards into items). X decided to up the ante and created a new sports game/management sim Blitzball, where you could play in tournaments and recruit new players across the game. Square decided to take some time off until FFXV who thankfully littered the open world with new side activities and mini games. I have traditionally completely misunderstood how these activities mesh into the game. I wrote about my early circumstances with Triple Triad and I continued a streak of unfortunate losses after that. I eventually started getting my footing but I missed important people to play cards against and still have a shaky understanding of the rules. Blitzball I especially fumbled even on my playthrough last year; somehow I progressed too fast and was never able to recruit anyone. The Besaid Aurochs deserved a better coach than me. I even missed playing darts in FFVII Remake. I assumed I’d have another chance to go back and win but pushed forward too far. The unclaimed trophy still haunts me, maybe I’ll have to restart and get it…

Fort Condor Battle

Unlike those other times, I was determined to finish and play through Fort Condor. Even though I still managed to complete it, I still messed up. Fort Condor is a strategy game where you deploy units to attempt to take your opponent’s towers before they take yours. You have an ability meter “ATB” that allows you to deploy units that continually fills over time. Units consist of different costs (more ATB = more powerful units) and correspond to one of 3 different types: Defense, Vanguard, and Ranged. The unit types govern strengths and weaknesses which is similar to rock-paper-scissors (see also Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle). Defense beats Vanguard, Vanguard beats Ranged, and Ranged beats Defense. Once deployed, the units will move and attack on their own so the main balancing act becomes when and what to deploy. Battles also take place on a 3 minute timer so you’ll have to keep active if you want to take more towers than your opponent. Before the game you’ll have a chance to pick what units to take in and what boards to use. Boards govern how many units you can take in, how fast your ATB meter fills and what materia you can use (abilities like Blizzard, Cure or Haste that you can use once in battle). You’ll also see your enemies’ board and unit choices so you can pick and choose based on balance matchups. This can make or break a match and later opponents required me to completely reconfigure my lineup until I could find a strategy forward. Sometimes the strategy was as simple as choosing more Vanguard units to defeat their Ranged types, other times I had to try and use more lower cost units to balance their more costly ones. It’s really rewarding to find that fit and running a battle. There were more than a few times that I had a nail biting victory and was hoping my units could hold out long enough.

Fort Condor Board Setup

Now this probably would’ve been easier or at least had a bit more variety if I knew the full breadth of how to acquire new units and boards. You’ll find all of your opponents in the Slum area of the DLC. You’ll start as Rank 1 and have a variety of people to battle against. Once you’ve beat them all, you rise a rank and have new enemies. You’ll receive new boards and units as you win and rank up, but that’s not the only way to acquire them. I didn’t know this however and started finding considerable difficulty against higher rank opponents. That pushed me to get really clever with my available items, but I would also see units that others had and be extremely jealous. Why don’t I have a helicopter? Where did they get that type of robot? Turns out, vendors throughout the slums sold these and for relatively low cost. I had a singular focus on completing Fort Condor before I progressed so I pushed through to beat the Grandmaster (Chadley!) with the items I had. Imagine my surprise as I was going to purchase battle items and see all types of units and boards. There’s the helicopter! This board seems cool! But by then I was ready to move on and play the main thrust of the DLC. I can still go back and replay battles but without having new opponents to play against it didn’t seem exciting.

Even with the unintentional handicap, I still had an absolute blast playing Fort Condor. It’s an amazing surprise to an already excellent piece of DLC with its own separate rewarding gameplay curve. I must have spent at least half my time engaging NPCs in mini games as I did playing through the main experience. Cannot recommend the DLC and Fort Condor enough, if you can get your hands on a PS5 that is. Here’s hoping there’s more of this when Remake Part 2 eventually rolls around.

Video Game Playthroughs

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart Tells a Blockbuster Caliber Story

I remember the huge talking point around “Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction” for the PS3 was that it looked like a “Pixar movie.” Animated blockbuster seemed to be the relevant watermark to judge graphical fidelity against. “Look at what games can do now!” was a huge talking point around the first HD consoles and Ratchet & Clank was one of the first to arrive that people could really point to. Insomniac had nailed how to properly utilize the hardware with Ratchet and seems to have made a point of it both with the PS4 and now PS5. The Pixar example was an easy way to communicate just how pretty the game looked. The example seems to have stuck around and I’ve seen the same thing being said about the new game “Rift Apart.” It’s an apt description in more ways than one. The Ratchet & Clank series are pure animated blockbusters from the story, humor, world, and bombastic set pieces. They’re games that tell straightforward stories with surprisingly heartfelt lessons wrapped up in a goofy sensibility that is never above a fart joke (see all of the mainline titles). Insomniac is great at this and it wouldn’t be ridiculous to argue that they have a better batting average than the film studio they’re often compared against. Rift Apart is no exception and is possibly the best mainline game they’ve created.

The Ratchet & Clank series has always been kid centered entertainment, wrapping punny humor around bombastic, cartoony action. There’s a lot of buffoonish characters like Captain Quark, the “hero” who likes to take credit for Ratchet & Clanks victories while also being an absolute coward. Dr. Nefarious, the recurring villain, has aims to conquer the universe and the ineptitude of Wiley Coyote. The games also contain themes usually found in kid centered movies like trusting yourself, learning about chosen family, and overcoming difficult odds to be a hero. They’re simple but affecting and seeing Ratchet & Clank discover themselves even though they feel like weird outsiders is heartwarming. Add in a healthy dose of cartoonish violence and you have yourself a blockbuster movie (although when they tried to turn it into one of those, the results were lackluster).

Clank Multiverse

19 years and 9 mainline games later (not including spin offs), Insomniac has found a great way to breathe new life into the story: the multiverse. With the success of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” Marvel seems to be ramping up its own version of multiple dimensions, so I’m very happy this came out before we were all sick of the concept. Rift Apart uses this to smuggle in all kinds of great winks and nods for long time fans without being overly dense for newcomers. They keep most of the longtime lore stuff to the fringes; you don’t have to understand why it’s funny that this universe’s Mr. Zurkon is a spiritual practitioner tending bar. New players will understand the basics (Nefarious = longtime nemesis, Ratchet’s misgivings about meeting his ancestors who he was orphaned from) and are given a new perspective with the introduction of Rivet.

Rivet is one of the best parts of the game because she’s so much more than just a Ratchet palette swap. Her universe was unfortunately saddled with a competent and more evil Dr. Nefarious so she had to work under hostile occupation. As a result she’s more decisive and planning than Ratchet, who flies more by the seat of his pants. She knows when to adjust and how to move forward and she doesn’t doubt herself when she’s taking on a new plan. The world has hardened her a bit though; she’s distrustful of robots precisely because she lives in a world where they’re the oppressors. Rivet doesn’t trust Clank when she first meets him because he’s a robot. She’s very self aware though and immediately comments on how that’s hypocritical of her because she had a metal prosthetic which says so much about her inner conflicts. In a world of organics versus machines she doesn’t feel like a full person because of her missing limb. It’s a touching character beat that never gets too saccharine; instead Insomniac relies on small moments like this to communicate River’s insecurities.

Ratchet & Clank Pirates Ride

Ratchet’s story instead moves the focus off him and onto a new robot that he meets that adopts the nickname Kit. Kit is hiding out on a remote planet and working alongside the dimensional monks you meet. Turns out Kit was created to be a destructive robot and has decided to reject her programming after a dark run in with a rebel. She blames herself for the incident and sees herself as broken. Kit is the opposite coin to Rivet; she’s dealing with imposter syndrome because of how she was made. Kit views herself as irredeemable for her actions and this negativity clouds her every move with self doubt. She constantly belittles herself and reminds Ratchet that she isn’t a “good friend.” Their relationship is very sweet as Ratchet gently reminds her of all of her good qualities and things they’ve accomplished. Kit’s arc is similar to Rivet’s in that they both have to overcome their feelings of self doubt that the world thrust upon them. And when their paths eventually unite in ways that you can guess pretty early on, they both have to reckon with forgiveness. It’s a touching arc for both of them that deals with adult themes in a very serious way.

Ratchet & Clank Pirates
Love a good Pirates reference

The story really went above my expectations and that it’s paired with the usual strong, platforming gameplay is a treat. Rift Apart’s action is the same bread and butter gun play that the series excels at paired with even larger action moments. There are some truly spectacular and awe inspiring moments that strike a great balance between gameplay and cinematic moments (one fight against a giant robot is particularly impressive). Also did I mention the game looks gorgeous? It’s worth taking your time and utilizing the robust photo mode to snap some pictures along the way.

Really it’s the story that seals this impressive game. The Ratchet & Clank series has always been a good source for reliably good fun, but Rift Apart is their best yet. It hits some new themes for kids blockbusters and tells it in a surprisingly touching way. The new cast of characters is just fantastic and I loved spending time in their new dimension.

Video Game Playthroughs

Let’s Play: RollerCoaster Tycoon 3

And now for something completely different: we’re transitioning from ancient space culture exploration to theme park management! Our terrestrial bodies have undergone the transition back to Terra and we’ve already started learning the ins and outs of managing a wildlife park. Both of us grew up playing some sort of management sim (early RollerCoaster Tycoons and Zoo Tycoon to be specific) so we were excited about reliving some of that nostalgia. Turns out, harder than we remember! 2004 was truly a different time.

Our first couple of episodes are already out as we learn the basics and cut our teeth on our first park “Tony’s World.” We’re juggling placement of rides, snacks, and animal enclosures and also learned just how important it is to staff up (still working on that employee happiness though). I also took us on a massive detour when I tried to play god and change the level of the ground. It’s…a lot. We’ll be posting these weekly so join us for a chill time!


The Original Spider-Man Movies Still Got It

My girlfriend’s Spider-Man is Tom Holland. Even though she’s part of the younger millennial/cusp of gen z generation, she never engaged with the pre-MCU movies more than once. The Sam Raimi trilogy established superhero blockbusters and even the Marc Summer movies were hits but they don’t hold a candle to the force that is the current Marvel universe. She has now seen Tom Holland’s iteration across 5 movies and the Marvel press train now canvases social media as well. My Spider-Man remains Tobey Maguire as those original superhero movies were foundational to my interest in comics and movies. I hadn’t seen them in over a decade so my partner and I decided to watch both Spider-Man 1 & 2. It’s amazing how well they both hold up and also just how different they are from the current movies. It cemented why these movies still seem more essential than the Jon Watts’ versions and the shortcomings that the MCU has as a whole. (Note: I won’t be discussing Spider-Man 3 or the Amazing Spider-Man movies. One there are only two Tom Holland movies and two I just don’t have anything interesting to pull from Marc Summer’s movies. Sorry Andrew Garfield). 

The MCU movies are just straight up comedies. Their aims are much simpler, telling more straightforward stories about Peter’s struggles with high school life while dealing with superhero business. The focus is on Peter growing up but more around establishing his independence and being more open emotionally with people he cares about. Also there are a litany of gags and comedic quips that make the movies much more breezy. There’s not a lot of darkness around Peter’s journey and you know for the most part he’s going to come out ok. He doesn’t really have that many hard decisions to make.

Spider-man Pizza Time
Pizza Time!

Tobey Maguire’s version is fantastical but with more grounded problems. The movies themselves play more like classic cinema (Peter is a nice guy/pushover pining for the girl) with a hero’s arc as he finds the strength to overcome his enemy and solve his personal crisis. Peter also struggles with balancing school/work with being a superhero plus his working class background. The loss of Uncle Ben is meaningful across both movies as his Aunt May struggles to pay bills in what was formerly a two income household. Peter doesn’t have the ability to help out as being Spider-Man means he can’t lock down a typical work gig. Spider-Man 2 opens with a fun sequence where Peter loses his job delivering pizzas and his paltry wage from J Jonah Jameson barely covers his rent. The most fantastical thing about the Raimi movies may be that we never see Peter having to deal with his injuries without having insurance (presumably he’s racking up lifelong health injuries by avoiding the doctor). The Tom Holland movies just aren’t interested in telling this story; he’s working class but has Tony Stark as a father figure. He’s never going to have to worry about money ever again (unlike Sam, perks of being a child superhero).

Spider-man Far From Home

The MCU movies also removed a major point of contention right from the jump; dealing with a secret identity. Spider-Man: Homecoming does have Peter dealing with juggling a secret identity but it’s played more for laughs than actual emotional stakes. Again Tony Stark is there who can more than pave over any inconsistencies that pop up. Peter’s secret identity is a core conflict at the heart of the Sam Raimi movies. He’s all alone trying to pull everything off without the help of his loved ones. He knows that revealing who he is could lead to danger not only from his enemies but anger and worry from his family. Peter justifies his double life as a necessary sacrifice and ends the original Spider-Man on a downer note because of it. It makes Spider-Man 2 so impactful, as he learns to let people in and trust others. The scene where he reveals his involvement with Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May hits because we see Peter grow. Peter makes the difficult choice to be vulnerable even though he knows it’ll crush Aunt May. It’s so rewarding too to see that their relationship growing stronger directly ties to his relationship with being Spider-Man. Peter understands how he was hiding and using self pity to avoid the struggle that comes with being a superhero. This internal conflict is just something the modern MCU really isn’t interested in. Superheroics isn’t tied to personal identity but rather larger abstract ideas around being a hero. Doing what’s right is usually sufficient enough to dive into action. It’s much more binary; villains are evil because they hurt people and they need to be stopped.

That last point is the real differentiator between the two; engaging villains. The Spider-Man comics are a treasure trove of exciting nemeses. His rogues gallery is probably the best in the business (I’m not an expert though and am happy to be corrected). The MCU has always had a villain problem. They consistently get good actors to deliver negligible monologues and have hazy motivations. Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Mysterio is fun as a pseudo mentor but his turn to villain is less engaging (he just wants to be famous!) it’s even worse when the villains are right. Homecoming has Michael Keaton just absolutely killing it as the Vulture but gives him motivations that in a different movie would make him the hero. He wants to get back at Stark Industries, the giant mega Corp that stole away his business. This is objectively right; Tony Stark is essentially the MCUs villain in plain sight but it’s mostly hand waved away after he stops selling weapons. That Homecoming tips its hand to acknowledge this while also making the working class the bad guys is a poison pill. The MCU has a big problem with politics and usually tries to make villains more empathetic by giving them righteous motivations. If only they didn’t go too far and hurt civilians (see: Falcon and the Winter Soldier). 

Raimi’s movies on the other hand enlists top tier actors, makes the villains empathetic but also gives them clear evil motivations. The director takes his previous horror bonafides and creates monsters out of prideful scientists. The Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus both have no one to blame but themselves and their self righteous missions are what hurt people. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn is a capitalist but they actually make him evil! He literally just wants more money and not to lose his business. There’s no real threat to him being destitute but rather that he won’t be that movie universe’s Stark analogue. Doctor Octavious meanwhile has well intentioned motivations, to create a sustainable energy source, but he refuses to listen to other people and dabbles in dangerous research. His hubris gets his wife killed and his arms permanently attached to him. He doubles down and decides that he couldn’t be wrong and the test must be run again. If people get hurt in the meantime, that’s just the cost of doing business. Both are clear cut villains and your empathy for them comes from them turning themselves into monsters. They both realize too late just what their actions have wrought. Sam Raimi shoots them both as horror villains and both movies include great grisly scenes.

There’s more to latch onto in those original movies. I don’t want to overstate how deep and complex they both are; all of these details are right on the surface. It’s just that in comparison the MCU counterparts are much more dispensable. Don’t get me wrong I do like them, but I wouldn’t reach to put them on over the originals. They’re more light entertainment, meant to give you just enough rollercoaster entertainment and leave you having had fun. The Raimi movies are much more interested in crafting engaging myths, stories of epic rises and falls and the strength to overcome personal and heroic obstacles.

Video Game Playthroughs

Dark Souls Has So Much More Going for it Than its Reputation Lets On

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the gatekeeping around difficult games is fucking stupid. This vestige of bro-gamer culture tries to dictate not only what games are important but what makes players deserve validation. The badge of honor that a difficult game rewards with you is taken externally and projected onto others who haven’t gone through the same experience. The “Get Good” mantra even moves to cover how difficult games should be played, what games options can be accessed for a “true” video game experience. Games are meant to be played utilizing any of the utilities they include, whether that’s “cheap” abilities or lower difficulty settings. People are valid regardless of the games they play and should be rightfully encouraged when they attempt something outside of their wheelhouse. Even if they don’t like the game it doesn’t matter! It all doesn’t matter in the end. This culture kept me from playing Dark Souls. The image this community projects is that it’s a meat grinder, a hellish experience matching it’s dark fantasy aesthetic. That the game is so arcane and punishing that only “hardcore” players can get through it. I’m here to say that that descriptor is really off the mark and kept me from enjoying an extraordinary game. Dark Souls’ reputation doesn’t come from nowhere, but it is taken to a larger extreme that obfuscates some of the best parts of the game.

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t require you to really understand it to progress. It’s an action game through and through meaning that you have to attune yourself to its movement and combat mechanics to beat enemies and bosses. Bosses deal big damage but even regular enemies can catch you off guard and kill you. The movement and attacks are also very deliberate; your character is not speedy as hell and takes time to wind up and attack (about the opposite of the previous “Get Good” franchise, Ninja Gaiden). You also have to manage a stamina meter, which governs dodges and attacks and depletes with each move. The moveset is a big part of the difficult reputation, but I would argue it just takes a bit longer to understand. Gita Jackson from Motherboard put it really succinctly on twitter:

Perseverance is a great adjective for Dark Souls. It requires perseverance to understand how to navigate an area, how to engage in combat and how to overcome a boss. You will die repeatedly and there’s some minor penalties for dying, mainly the currency of the game “Souls” which you can use to level up and purchase items. But you keep any other items you found and earning Souls back is surprisingly easy. There’s plenty of enemies for you to engage with and items that earn you Souls for consuming them. Plan B can always be to grind enemies in a given area, repeatedly killing them over and over to earn your count back. You also have a chance when you die to earn your Souls back by revisiting the location where you died before. If you die again before you reach that spot you lose them for good, but as I mentioned it’s not the complete end of the world. When I first started the game I panicked when I lost those Souls but found that that anxiety was exaggerated.

Undead Parish Bonfire

The die and repeat loop ends up being a lot more forgiving than I was expecting. Dying isn’t fun but you learn something every time you do. The forgiving nature of it allows you to experiment with weapons and see what combat approach works best for you. I was able to try massive two handers, one hand and shield and ranged options against enemies. I fine tuned, I died alot, and eventually found that curved swords are pretty fucking great. Letting go of being perfect and just throwing spaghetti at the wall rarely locks you out from progressing. I came in really trepidatious about misspending points, exploring wrong, and performing badly in combat. If you don’t mind doing a bit of work to set yourself up this will rarely impact you in the long run. 

The best part though; perseverance pays off. It feels great when everything finally clicks into place and when you have a good handle on how you want to experience combat. Combat is a muscle that requires you to work to understand how you move and how your enemies move. Understanding spacing between an enemy’s swing and yours, knowing when to dodge and block and when to get in and attack makes the combat sing. Dark Souls makes you feel so accomplished when squaring up in an encounter and coming out on top. Regardless of the dark setting, deaths become really really silly. There’s something hilarious about accidentally triggering a trap or wandering in a room and being bombarded by a horde of enemies. The levels themselves can offer plenty of hilarious deaths. This morning I had a skeleton charge at me only to be absorbed into the wall; I only knew they died when I received the souls as a reward. Plenty of high paths mean that you and the enemies can plummet to your death. One particularly memorable one had me stuck behind a large enemy only to be flung off the ledge when it turned. Dark Souls is pretty generous where it places your soul’s retrieval point so it’s easy to laugh it off and get back to traversing.

Tomb of the Giants
Tomb of the Giants took an extra large helping of perseverance

The best part of Dark Souls is the exploration. I didn’t realize before playing that the entire map is connected so you’re essentially playing in an open world. You’ll travel up into castles and walled cities and go down to dank pits and forgotten villages. You rarely load between sections and unlock shortcuts (and eventually limited fast travel) as you traverse. Exploration, just like combat, also requires some understanding in order to progress. Between deaths you’ll come to understand how each of the areas connect and what points you’re trying to reach. The loop thus becomes even better when you realize what path you need to take to reach the next safe point or boss battle. Repeated runs, slicing through enemies and learning what path to take is just as rewarding as combat. Overcoming the given challenges in an area and reaching a Bonfire, designated safe point where you’ll heal and respawn, feels so gratifying. The perseverance of the combat meets the knowledge of a given area in a way that few games demand. I feel accomplished completing an area and gaining an in-depth understanding of its winding pathways.

Really Dark Souls is all about working with other players, whether it’s asynchronous or online multiplayer. Dark Souls’ environment can be pretty tricky to navigate so the game allows players to drop text at specific locations to help other players. This can be a hidden secret (“Fake Wall”), a warning of an upcoming trap or a direction that lets others know a bonfire is coming up. It’s a clever twist that takes some of the sting of figuring out all the nooks and crannies of the environment. Dark Souls also has a cooperative function allowing players to call others into their game to help them out. This comes especially handy when facing off against a tough boss and having another player there opens up boss fights significantly. This is where some of the “hardcore” gamer ethos tends to focus their conversation around. You’ll find that a lot of these diehards swear that summoning players isn’t the “true” experience, that you should only play this singleplayer. Not only are they trying to pretend a core gameplay function doesn’t exist, they’re also ignoring that the series is literally marketed with multiplayer. It’s an easy way for them to gatekeep and prevent people from being seen as equal to them. Optional gameplay functionality is an easy target for them to harass and discredit people. How else are they supposed to feel they “got good” if so many other people accomplish the same feats as them?

Regardless, I hate that the series’ reputation kept me away from it. It’s so so fun and I’m having a great time making my way through it. I plan on playing as many of them before Elden Ring launches in January, but I’ll probably want to jump straight into that! Don’t let Dark Souls’ gatekeeping community keep you from playing.

Video Game Playthroughs

Outer Wilds: Insurmountable Obstacles on an Impossible Scale

Spoilers for the entire game of Outer Wilds

We did it; we have finished Outer Wilds. What an amazing finish it is even the second time through. It’s hard to think of another game that even attempts something so elliptical in its final moments and the fact that it’s so emotionally satisfying is incredibly unique. The game doesn’t compromise to make things more tidy and instead focuses on the heart of your journey through it. Outer Wilds excels at showing you just how small you are in the vastness of the universe and the wider history of it. 

Ash Twin Projection

During my first playthrough (not so much during this Let’s Play since I had a partner/knew what to expect) I was surprised at how scary everything was. Not in the usual horror sense of confronting fears in monster form but in the disparity of scale between me and the planets I was exploring. Entering an unfamiliar dark cave was intimidating because of the sheer vastness of its interior. I didn’t know what to expect or what might happen as I moved through it. The final venture into the Eye of the Universe is engulfing and terrifying. Lightning striking all around you as you head toward a giant whirlpool makes the event feel scary as much as it is momentous. And then there’s Dark Bramble (god those anglerfish). Stumbling upon Nomai technology was also terrifying; walking into a scrying pool for the first time and having your vision be consumed by blackness and strange faces is eerie. I even met unfamiliar objects with a lot of skepticism and trepidation. There were many times during this LP that Emily and I both jumped when a random Quantum Object would suddenly appear. It’s hilarious when it happens but makes me squirm every time.

The sound design and the soundtrack play a huge part in that (the entire composition from Andrew Prahlow is just amazing). I mentioned in the first episode that hearing the music made me tear up and that’s no exaggeration. The music is tied into everything the game does well and matches every moment perfectly. All of the songs during exploration (“Space” & “Outer Wilds” are two great examples) are emotionally upbeat with strain a yearning, the perfect companions for setting out on an uncertain adventure. To match the terror, the soundtrack will swap out instruments for drones (looking at you “Dark Bramble”) giving everything that supremely eerie vibe. It might be even scarier when the soundtrack completely drops out as you take your first uncertain steps into a new area. And nothing is as epic as when you finish your campfire song as your existence melts away to “Into the Wilds.”

Outer Wilds’ loop is also satisfying because it eschews video game tradition by removing the addition of new abilities and instead gates content through in-game knowledge. If you know what you’re doing, you can immediately finish the game. There’s no hidden items or upgrades just a rumor map that helps you piece the wider puzzle together. That puzzle is so interesting to piece together too, as you investigate old ruins like an anthropologist. Retracing the steps of the Nomai and their doomed search for the Eye of the Universe is equally fascinating and heartbreaking. Finding their bickering dialogues is funny but learning of their necessity to inhabit this unfamiliar and often hostile solar system is sad. The Nomai show the tragedy and ultimate fate of sentient beings; trying to accomplish an impossible goal before being snuffed out by an unstoppable calamity that was created by a seemingly random event. You get to take their learnings and run with it though and the fact that you’re doing this some two hundred thousand years later shows how small you are in the vastness of history. 

Outer Wilds Final Campfire Song

And that’s what makes the final moments in the Eye so impactful. Your character surrounded by the friends they’ve met on their travels experiencing one last moment together is beautiful. Everyone joins in on the song whether that’s playing the drums or whistling. This game was the perfect companion to accompany the uncharted waters of 2021 and was the one project that felt accomplishable when my energy ran out (hello I’m finally returning to blogging). The LP reaffirmed why I love this game so much and why it’s supremely special.

Final Fantasy MMO

You Want to Talk About it Thancred?

Saving Eorzia is no picnic. The land, split between 3 city states and various indigenous tribes, is host to all sorts of magically destructive and politically manipulative beings. Whether it’s fighting gods that indoctrinate its worshippers, trying to stay ahead of ancient order of eternal beings, or just attempting to get out of a city alive, you are kept constantly on your toes saving the world from the brink of destruction. It can be helpful when dealing with horrific situations to sit down and talk things through with a trusted confidant. Otherwise you could end up bottling emotions and acting out in ways you couldn’t have predicted. All that’s to say is that my fellow Scion Thancred is really going through some shit and I’m here to talk if he wants to.

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn & Heavensward

Things break bad at the end of A Realm Reborn (ARR); like really really bad. After fighting godlike beings for countless hours, you find yourself on the receiving end of a political scheme. Teledji Adeledji goes full mask off (and dies for it), Raubahn loses an arm, and the Scions all appear to die trying to escape the city. All of this was caused because Alphinaud’s personal Blackwater turned on him (how could accruing a private military possibly go bad!). You spend the main game of Heavensward with a new group of friends from Ishgard and it isn’t until the patches that some of the Scions start to reappear. Turns out many of the Scions were able to escape thanks to Y’shtola’s magic which dissolved them all into the Lifestream (living current of matter that moves throughout all living things). Thancred found himself miles away, naked and without the use of magic (something he doesn’t divulge). He finds himself stuck without being able to use teleportation magic so he instead works closely with the Vath (native creatures) to trade for food and shelter. Eventually you find him and his style is much different than before:

His choice of clothing is very evident of expressing his inner turmoil. He along with the rest of the group was betrayed and he’s feeling helpless without being able to use magic. Also he spent the end of ARR being possessed by Ascians. Thancred being the proud individual he is, tries to play these off as if it’s nothing. While he may think he’s being clever, it’s painfully clear that he’s not alright. Nobody wears a blindfold if they’re feeling great. It reminds me of another conflicted individual (although he actually has an amazing backstory as to why he wears a blindfold):

Riku Blindfolded
Look at this boy, seen too much shit he has to cover his eyes

I want to make it clear; I get it. We all adapt to tragedy in different ways; Thancred happens to cope by making outward changes (new clothes) so he doesn’t have to express his inner turmoil. You know what’s hard? Expressing all your fears and hurt. You know what feels good? Dressing well and kicking ass! It may not be healthy in the long run, but so far this hasn’t really slowed him down. By the end of Heavensward, he’s made important discoveries on his own and even pushed comrades to make tough decisions of their own (we’ll never forget you Papalymo). Everything still remains unresolved around Minfilia’s new role as the crystal soothsayer, and that has to come back around, but for now we’re in an ok place.

I say all this as someone who similarly has trouble with expressing themselves. I’ve had to work to be able to recognize when I’m bottling and need to let out my emotions. Last year was a lot (even with my relative stability compared to the rest of the world) and I had to work on dealing with my anxiety in a healthy, sustainable way. Of course I had my coping mechanisms, escaping into all sorts of video games, books, movies, anime and others when my brain needed a rest. I did all that but I did it in sweatpants. I’m not regretting my choice of clothing per say but when compared to Thancred styling up it seems like a missed opportunity. I had the chance completely removed from the usual day-to-day to remodel a look suitable to the times. My hair is even the longest it’s ever been! And now I’m staring down the barrel of a country that’s potentially reopening worrying that my sweatpants won’t carry outside the house. So what I’m really trying to say is thank you Thancred for showing me there’s another way. Also if you need to talk, I’m here.

Thancred WOL Final Fantasy XIV
Me, checking in on Thancred as he gets huffy
Video Game Playthroughs

Fantasian: Refined RPG with Gorgeous Dioramas

It’s difficult for modern JRPGs, especially games that are directly riffing on classic genre staples, to evoke the same sense of wonder as earlier entries. Fantasian has managed to nail just that bringing me into a new fantasy world and giving a suitably exciting story. The fact that it comes from Hironobu Sakaguchi (classic Final Fantasy creator) and with music by Nobuo Uematsu (classic Final Fantasy composer) essentially means you’re shooting fish in a barrel. Sakaguchi’s studio Mistwalker has also been creating and refining these throwback RPGs for 15 years and landed cult classics like Lost Odyssey. Fantasian brings their expertise to mobile, a favorite platform of theirs in recent years, and represents a huge step forward with their visual design. The dioramas that serve as the background for every area are absolutely gorgeous, filled with impeccable attention to detail. They’ve been the major selling point but the game is a finely tuned RPG that harkens back to the best in the genre.

Urza Infirmary

I’ve mentioned classic a lot so far and those familiar with SNES JRPGs should be intimately familiar with many of the beats in Fantasian. Story wise it fits firmly into the template. You play as Leo, an amnesiac that wakes up in the middle of a futuristic technology facility. It seems your amnesia set in right as the game starts and that the technology around you might be to blame. Leo battles his way out, hops into a portal, and ends up in the desert town of En. Here is where you learn that the world is being infected with something called “Mechteria” which as you might guess is represented by white mechanical/bacteria looking objects that emit a purple noxious looking gas. The general population believes this comes from a being called Vam the Malevolent God. Since it seems to be a threat, how does dethroning and killing god sound? Cue meeting magical allies, traversing across landscapes, and discovering new wrinkles in the mechteria story as Leo reclaims his lost memories. The story sits firmly within the genre conventions, but there’s enough mystery to keep things interesting. The humor adds a lot of levity and helps keep things from getting too serious.

Butler Fight

Even if the story is relatively stock, the team’s experience crafting JRPGs really makes playing the game shine. The pacing is slick, intended to move you along as smoothly as possible. Fantasian doesn’t waste any time making you grind. Battles are tuned to make sure you’re the perfect level to match any boss encounters. Exploration is tight enough to move you across different locations. Across 6 hours, I’ve already crossed two large towns with enough downtime for me to explore every nook and cranny. Fantasian moves fast enough that the tropier aspects of the story don’t bog it down. There’s enough mystery and characters drip fed across the playing time to keep it from ever feeling like a slog. The game calls to mind the pacing of Final Fantasy VI who’s first half kept you moving through set pieces.

Urza Boss Fight

The battle system similarly adds a few wrinkles to update the classic turn based combat. Abilities and magic can sometimes hit multiple enemies and even be curved using the touch screen. The character Kina’s holy ability can shoot in an arc meaning you can curve it to hit front line and back line enemies. The multi hit abilities are especially handy in the games “Dimengeon” battles. Early on you get a device that allows you to store enemies that would normally attack you in random battles. This means that while exploring you can collect all the battles that would randomly pop up and save them for later. At any time, you can go in and battle all of the enemies at once. These battles are a lot of fun and it’s great lining up abilities to hit a half dozen enemies. Fantasian also drops random power ups into the field that you can hit with your abilities. The power ups range from increased attack to stealing a turn. Dimengeon makes random battles more interesting and also frees up exploration and backtracking. I felt way less rushed looking for hidden items and chests when all the random encounters are being safely stored away to visit at my convenience.

Cheryl Backstory

The icing on top of the cake is just how beautiful Fantasian is. The dioramas are just gorgeous and I love trying to find all of the details layered into the environments. There’s a variety of unique settings too including the aforementioned desert town, Vence (a Venice look alike), and a large airship. Each environment has plenty of areas to explore all with unique and intricate touches. What’s doubly impressive is how smooth Fantasian runs. There’s no slowdown or hitching when the camera transitions around an area. I was expecting some constraints running an iPhone but it runs so smoothly. I’ve heard that certain backgrounds look blurry on iPad, but I haven’t run into that on my iPhone XR. The story is also parsed out via beautifully drawn 2D story book sections (I’ve heard this was similarly employed in Lost Odyssey). The drawings look like something out of a children’s fantasy novel. I’m going to try and keep myself from posting too many screenshots because I just can’t stop taking them.

Vence Harbor

Ok I lied, there’s an extra layer of icing on this cake. Uematsu’s score is fantastic and full of symphonic arrangements. Their sounds range between gentle tones during the storybook sections and big guitar riffs during battles. There’s a concert that occurs in the background on the airship that I just had to stop and get absorbed in. I wish I could link music but I can’t find any links online. Overall Fantasian is hitting all my RPG buttons. It’s a really special game that I hope more people play. I’m worried about the Apple Arcade exclusivity limiting its player base. For those curious, I was able to get a 30-day free trial so you should definitely seek it out! (my last and only time I will shill for Apple).

Cinderella Tri-Stars
I can’t wait to see more of this trio