2021 EOY Competitive Games Final Fantasy Pokemon Video Game Playthroughs

2021 Video Games: RPGs, Classic Series & New Favorites

Video games! The hobby I spent the most time doing this year. I also played way more games than I usually do as well? 2021 was my first time tracking my games played and boy did I play a lot. Add in starting to do more dedicated Let’s Plays with Emily and that number really jumped. It’s funny to notice how my tastes have changed in adulthood and how I seem to be going in the opposite direction of most people. Now that I govern my own schedule I’m able to jump into long RPGs. I finally have the time to cross some off the backlog and keep up with new releases. I really did myself a disservice early in the year by juggling 3 at once but I had such a great time balancing them. My desire to play more RPGs hasn’t slowed down either and my list of games to play mostly consist of them. It’s always good to have balance though and god bless the games that are here to offer tight and shorter experiences. People that complain about dollar value and time played miss the point; not all games need to last forever. Games like Ratchet & Clank are so incredible partly because of their shorter experiences. That’s why they can pack so many incredible variations one after the other. The single biggest change in my taste though is the move away from multiplayer games. The pandemic kind of broke that for me and I instead wanted to play lots of other games rather than getting good at one singular game. That’s why Pokémon Unite was a gift, an easy to pick up and play multiplayer experience. That’s not to say it doesn’t require skill and I made my peace with not being placed amongst the top tier of players. It’s a nice game to pick up and play every now and again.

Games culture this year though is still as rotten as ever. Workers in the games industry are still being assaulted by long hours, mismanagement, and gross misconduct especially towards minorities and women. Watching the Activision case slowly unfold to reveal a completely rotten culture from top to bottom has been, if not surprising, at least solid evidence to point to how the entire system is broken. No AAA developer, or even smaller developers, are immune to poor employee treatment and fundamentally bad working environments. There’s a reason the tweet about wanting “shorter games with worse graphics” went viral. Here’s hoping for more unionization in the space even if that won’t completely fix the issues inherent with modern game development.

Without further ado, here’s a list of games I’ve probably already written about:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE Encore

Tokyo Mirage Sessions

This game sounds very convoluted but it’s actually really straightforward. Take the dungeon crawling and socialization systems of persona, add in Fire Emblem characters and make the whole about the idol system in Japan and you have Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s a strange idea to crossover but it feels right at home in the Atlus lineup. This game is like Persona light with the same sort of turn based combat systems built right in. The addition of special moves that layer on top of each other that are activated when you hit an enemy’s weak point means battles are over in a flash. This can also mean the combat gets a bit tedious as by the end you’re looking at a stack of 17 cutscenes all triggering one after the other. The socialization layer is light as well as the game builds in enough time to visit every single one of your friends before taking on the next challenge (no more making tough choices on how to spend your days). The Fire Emblem additions are really more nods to the other games and show up as your party’s Persona’s. The story is similarly breezy, monsters are stealing the talent from people in the real world, but the premise around the different arts in Japan is fascinating. You’ll run through singers, television and film backdrops as the protagonists work through their anxieties about their craft and growing up. It’s all really fun and the concert cutscenes are tremendous. It might be too breezy for people looking for a tougher RPG, but if you’re ok with it, it’s great fun. Too bad the main takeaway from it was the infamous “vagina bones” post.

Read my blog on Tokyo Mirage Sessions and concerts here.

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru (The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls)

Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru

Did you know that one of the best Zelda’s, Link’s Awakening, had a predecessor on the Game Boy? I certainly didn’t before Abnormal Mapping played through it, since it was never officially released in the US. The game, which I’ll now shorten to “Frog Game,” takes that same 2d platforming and exploration and completely rips out the combat. Instead the exploration of the world and levels are a giant puzzle. Each piece of the castles and locales are calibrated to have you move through it section by section. Combat, such as it is, is settled automatically. You’ll run into an enemy and an automatic fight will ensue and the winner is decided based on your strength and remaining health. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to hit each enemy with the correct amount of strength and health to proceed in an area. That means your movement has to be paced to pick up strength and health power ups so that you can then proceed forward. You’re also cursed to transform into a frog, and later a snake, that has its own unique spin on the puzzle. I’ve never encountered another system like it and it was very fun figuring out the precise order to move through the dungeons. It’s also a really funny game that keeps the scenarios varied like assisting miners, calming snow monsters or helping out Nintendo developers.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Super Mario 3D World Bowser Car

3D World is such a joy. It’s a fun blend of 2D Mario Platforming with 3D depth of field. Having levels slowly transition from traditional Mario platforming to moving characters on the z-axis plane adds a great new element of surprise. Emily and I had such a blast playing through the levels and we really appreciated the way it helped us along (we’re both not platforming game experts). We’ve found ourselves dipping back into it every so often as we slowly work on grabbing every single star in the game. We’re not completionists so that’s a true sign of a good video game.

Bowser’s Fury meanwhile is a cool experiment on 3D Mario. It takes the smaller platforming segments of modern 3D Mario games and places them in outposts in an open world map. It was fun picking and choosing where I wanted to spend my time and riding Pleasey to the next exploration spot. Using the 3D World power ups and toolset made the levels all the more richer like ice skating down a track and using the cat suit to climb buildings. The big cat Toku battles became a bit grating since they were so frequent. Every other part of this game though was a home run and I hope it informs Nintendo’s future plans.

Read about Emily and I’s co-op adventures.

Live A Live

Live A Live Cover

The biggest complaint about JRPGs is the length. To be fair, most of them are an investment of about 40 hours. What if I told you there was one that had multiple distinct stories from a variety of genres? The fantastic Live A Live is exactly that, 7 JRPG campaigns that cover everything from Science Fiction to Cavemen. One you’re a ninja infiltrating a fortress the next you’re a cowboy protecting a frontier town. They all use the same battle system, an active time battle set on a grid. You have to position your characters in specific locations to launch attacks; some will attack diagonally while others have to be right next to the enemy. Each campaign is only a few hours long so you get a lot of variety before they overstay their welcome. The stories are all fun variations on classic genre touchstones like Alien, classic westerns and even Street Fighter. The game then wraps up with a traditional RPG map where you’ll collect your heroes to finish the fight (there’s even a secret boss rush mode where you play as the final bosses).


Fantasian Boss Fight

I’ve written twice about Fantasian, Mistwalker’s fantastic throwback JRPG. It’s probably my favorite game of the year, a perfectly tuned campaign that I devoured over 60 hours of. The craziest part is that it was all on my phone and has set an unreasonable standard for mobile games. Fantasian has flown relatively under the radar minus a very active and helpful Reddit community (thank you for all the help and advice). I hope that this gets a release outside of Apple Arcade so more people have a chance to play. Suffice to say here’s some great things:

  • Beautiful and detailed dioramas with lots of variation
  • The FFX battle system, a personal high watermark of RPG combat
  • Tough and challenging boss fights
  • First person side dungeons!

Please play this game. Also read my write up of the first release and the final release.

Dark Souls Remastered

Dark Souls Bonfire

Dark Souls is definitely hard and requires a fair amount of repetition to fully understand the combat and how to approach/defeat bosses. The series reputation is earned but it obfuscates the most interesting parts of the game. Learning and exploring the environments was so rewarding and piqued a part of my brain that I rarely used in games. Through repetition I understood where all the enemies were and how to effectively navigate through them. The variety of secrets nestled throughout the maps were a great bonus and added to the rich texture of the world. Lodran has a sense of place and doesn’t require you to understand every little piece of lore to make an impact. Every location from Blighttown to Anor Londo feels lived in or used to be lived in. The fact that I even remember all these locations says something (my mind is bad at retaining specific details months later). I meant to get through other games in the series before Elden Ring but my list of games went too long. I really need to boot up Dark Souls II soon though…

I wrote a bit about my surprise fun with Dark Souls earlier this year.

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered

Final Fantasy VIII Rinoa and Squall

Final Fantasy VIII is about overcoming your trauma by opening up to other people which means a lot of people on the internet deride it as being too saccharine. It’s also a game about generational trauma, cycles of violence and abuses of power and the effects that has on our protagonist’s generation. Put it another way; this game rips. The odd child of the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasys has a mixed reputation with detractors calling it over complicated and derisively too anime (have you played any of the other games?). It’s a fantastic game though, a hybrid of fantasy and future settings where children are trained as soldiers in large military academies. Squall is an angsty teen, another part of the game’s reputation, who’s closed off nature is undercut by his running guilty inner monolog. He wants to open up to people but he’s running away from himself and he uses his negative self image to stop from processing his trauma. Over the course of the game Squall and his friends learn to reckon with their pasts and others pasts as well, understanding how they’ve failed and how that’s threatening the world around them. There’s also the tender romance of Squall and Renoa but also missed connections across generations. It’s really affecting and the various courtships across the game reflect the personal growth that the characters go through.

The active time battle system from FFVII is given a twist with the draw and junction system. Instead of learning magic you’ll receive spells by drawing them from enemies in battle or found in spouts throughout the world. It’s a lot like a card system where you collect spells like Firaga and Haste. You receive a limited supply per draw so you’ll balance using your turns to redraw spells and attacking enemies. These spells are also used in the Junction system, where you equip your characters with spells to buff their stats (ie slot blizzard in attack). You’ll also equip summons, “Guardian Forces or GFs” in game, to also affect stats and abilities. It can seem pretty complicated but there’s optimization options to help automatically slot magic (or you can also manually tool each party member). It wouldn’t be a modern Final Fantasy game without big set pieces and this has incredible moments from the opening invasion, secret cities, escaping a prison that buries itself in the sand and much more. Final Fantasy VIII wraps up with a wild dungeon, a gothic castle where you have to solve puzzles to unlock your abilities. Don’t believe the haters; VIII is a top tier RPG. 

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart

The reigning action platforming king has returned. These games are perfectly tuned with fantastic gunplay and huge set pieces and Rift Apart is no exception. Rift Apart has you running across galaxies and playing with dimensions as Ratchet & Clank find themselves separated in an unfamiliar dimension. This allows the developers to play with their established franchise, throwing tons of winks and nods through the inverse copies of favorite characters (glad Mr. Zirkon opened a bar). The best part is the addition of Rivet and Kit, the alternate versions of Ratchet & Clank. Both characters anchor a surprisingly emotional story of Rivet overcoming past trauma and Kit’s reckoning with her robotic design. It’s still light hearted fun but emotionally resonant in the ways the best children’s blockbusters are. You’ll still be blasting tons of enemies and unlocking strange and wild weapons. Some of the giant set pieces are staggering like grinding and fighting a large robot on a mining planet. This is one of the best games to come from an already fantastic series.

Read a deeper discussion on the story from my time with the game over the summer.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Episode INTERmission

Final Fantasy VII Remake Yuffie

A new slice of the VII Remake focusing on Yuffie! Music to my ears. The DLC shifts the combat from bouncing between characters to controlling just Yuffie and she’s a one woman army. She’s unbalanced in a fun way, able to control all the elements with her abilities through melee and ranged combat. She gets a companion, a new character named Sonon, that is AI controlled and can be called on to activate synchronized abilities. The two chapters that make up the DLC take place alongside the main game where Yuffie and Sonon move from the Slums into Shinra Headquarters to retrieve Materia. Along the way Yuffie excitedly bounced from fight to fight like a plucky Shonen protagonist without the more grating side of the braggadocio. She’s a great character and refreshing from the more self serious party of the mainline game. That doesn’t mean the dense lore of VII isn’t there with the addition of characters that were previously in the side sequel Dirge of Cerberus. It’s a small taste of what’s to come, but that shortened experience really highlights what makes the Remake special.

I also wrote more about my side adventures playing Fort Condor.

Pokémon Unite

Pokemon Unite Goal

A MOBA with shorter games? Easy to pick up mechanics? Enough skill ceiling to keep you coming back? O I see those have existed for some time, but they didn’t have Pokémon. I’m so glad Unite was good mainly because it kept from picking back up my DOTA 2 habit. Whenever I have a free moment, it’s easy for me to pick right back up and jump into the fray with Blastoise. It’s so approachable that I don’t feel discouraged spending time away from it. The matches are also quick enough that losing doesn’t immediately kill my mood. And who doesn’t love playing as Pokémon? The continued support and new additions make this game all the richer. Big downside though; still rotten with microtransactions and pay to win incentives. A Free to Play game this very much is.

Take a trip back in time to when it launched.

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Outer Wilds Echoes of the Eye

Two very big horror chickens, Emily and I, we’re so enthralled by this spooky addition to one of the greatest games ever made. It’s the fastest we ever recorded a Let’s Play and each day we were chomping at the bit to unravel more. The new haunted setting with its wood architecture and dilapidated structures brought us in just as hard as the planets of the main game. It also made us incredibly on edge for the majority of it as the dark tone permeated throughout the station. The story and a-ha moments were just as impactful even as it told a relatively smaller story (hard to match the main game’s story of a galaxy). The clues were spread a little too thin though and we found ourselves bashing our heads a lot. Overall though it was well worth the trip back into Outer Wilds. My favorite part? Us accidentally running head long to embrace the very things that cause the jump scares. We learned our lesson about approaching strangers. 

Read my write up and find a link to our let’s play.

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Lord Stronghart

Who knew that the best Ace Attorney games would be set in the past. The western release of the Japan only 3DS games are an absolute delight. The story of Ryunosuke Naruhodo suddenly finding himself on a path to becoming a lawyer is a lot of fun and the most ambitious Ace Attorney story to date. Each case subtlety builds intrigue in ways that aren’t readily apparent when you’re playing them. Past Ace Attorney games have had interconnected cases but these games build off each other. These games are also the most overtly political, questioning the actual “justice” of a budding legal system. I was caught off guard with how overt the politics were in the game and some of my misgivings from the first game were even addressed in the second. I don’t want to make these sound super serious; the series’s comedic charms are still very much here and even more refined. The characters are really what sells these games, from the ridiculous criminals (shout out to the Skulkin Brothers) to the Sherlock Holmes analogue (hilariously localized to Herlock Sholmes to avoid litigation). The new jury system also adds a hilarious flavor with a rotating crew of local people. Not to mention these games look great as well and seeing the characters react and move in 3D added excitement to the proceedings. My only worry after sinking 80 hours into these; that aren’t more of them to play.

Read about my misgivings with the politics of the first game. Boy did that second game make me eat crow.

The Metroid Series: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion & Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread

I had never played a 2D Metroid before this year and I am so glad I fell down the rabbit hole. I was initially skeptical about playing Super Metroid since I’m really bad at platformers and don’t have a ton of experience with ones from the SNES era. It sunk its hooks in me quickly and I found myself voraciously playing through it over a weekend. That’s one of the nice things about these games; they’re short. These Metroid games keep the pace up and never overstay their welcome. They don’t feel slight either, allowing you to investigate and explore the areas for secrets and power ups if you’d like to. Finding items requires you understanding Samus’ skill set and implementing your knowledge, making it super rewarding. All three games are absolute classics and some of the most fun I had playing games all year.

I wrote more in depth about each game in my Metroid Year retrospective.



A game in the time honored tradition of “this game is so good and you should play it blind.” I don’t want to spoil anything too deeply here, I’d rather save that for it’s own dedicated blog. I will however rundown the high level details; this is a deck building roguite where you are playing as a person who’s playing a card game with a mysterious stranger. Their face is shrouded in darkness as is much of the cabin that you’re in. As you continue to play the game and get farther and farther, the game starts bringing in puzzles and lots of new twists to the gameplay. Those twists are exciting but the act of just playing the card game is a blast. The game will subtly point you towards different strategies and mastering the rules of the game is rewarding. Inscryption also lets you break the game in fun and novel ways. This game had me laughing at all the weird ways I accidentally backed into a game breaking strategy. Of course every time you get your feet under you something strange happens…

Inscryption is also packed with wild lore, so much that it’s spilled out into an ARG. The video game itself is exciting enough all throughout its surprisingly long run time. Even if you’re not a fan of card games, Inscryption has enough gameplay twists to keep you satisfied.

Nier Replicant Version 1.2247…

Nier Replicant

I was among the large influx of people who discovered Nier and Yoko Taro through Nier Automata. It exceeded my expectations, an action RPG that played with gaming conventions with weird explorations of humanity through sentient machines. I’m not sure why I didn’t jump immediately on the Nier rerelease when it came out earlier this year but I’m glad I ended the year on it. It was strange seeing characters that would repeat in Automata show up in this game and made me have a larger appreciation for the lore of this series. I found the story just as moving and was surprised how distinct it was from its sequels. Replicant is all about found family and what it means to practice forgiveness for others and ourselves. The main trio of Nier, Kaine and Emil all come together through their shared trauma. The kindness they show one another allows them to show kindness to themselves even when they’ve committed heinous and violent acts. Nier is about how the world shaped these people into weapons, either directly or indirectly, and their own culpability. It’s about moving forward and processing your grief in an unjust world. Nier also explores themes like man’s inhumanity to man, man pushing nature beyond its breaking point, what constitutes personhood, the human desire for more life, the beauty of life and shared humanity. Even when the story itself is relatively straightforward there’s ample thematic material to mull over. And all of this takes place in a Zelda-ish action adventure.

Part of the appeal of Nier Automata was the way it played with video games as a medium which is something that was incorporated from the original game. Playing through Replicant I found the same sort of playfulness if slightly less polished. The side quests are fun variations on traditional RPG quests, whether that’s unreliable quest givers sending you on wild goose chases to avoid you or having someone’s toxic relationship unfold each time you exit and revisit a village. These are nestled in among the more standardized versions of fetch quests so when the changes arrive they call attention to themselves. They’re commenting on the way you interact with NPCs in a RPG, the same way Weiss (your magic book) chastises you for going out of your way to grab every side quest. When you think a simple gathering of fruit is going to be simple, the quest giver lays an unexpected tragedy at your feet. The farther along the game goes, the more the townspeople refer to you as “that guy who will do any errand.” 

The main quest has wider genre variations. Rescuing villagers from the Forest of Myth requires you to enter a text adventure where you are solving riddles to free them from a magical virus. Your first visit to Emil’s mansion is straight out of Resident Evil. It locks the camera in fixed angles and the entire setting is monotone. Paintings change, sinks fill with blood, and random stone people litter the landscape. There’s also a dungeon with a Diablo style camera view as you slice and dice your way through it. The enemies even rely mainly on shooting “bullet-hell” like blobs that you have to avoid and attack. Nier is a game and series that loves games deeply and enjoys using different pieces and building them into it like Legos.

A lot of people will have heard of this series because of the games multiple play through structure. Nier Replicant has you playing through it at least 3 times with very little variation in those last playthroughs. It’s a rough draft for what Automata refined as Automata created new scenarios for you to run through each time. Replicant can require a guide at times to help sand off some of the rough edges (definitely necessary to complete all the quests). The story content gained from your first repeated playthrough is devastating, laying out a different viewpoint from the main character’s. Nier Replicant can often feel like a gut punch and is written in a way that you can extend pathos to all the characters you come across. Nier Replicant is a rewarding experience because of its unique themes and novel way of exploring them in a video game.

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.

Competitive Games Uncategorized

Pokemon Unite Isn’t Worth the Hate

Pokémon Unite, the new mobile/Switch MOBA, was announced recently and with it the usual fire hydrant of hate that greets most Pokemon news. It seems fairly innocuous; a free to play, 5v5 multiplayer game where each player controls a Pokemon. This game however elicited hostility from two different camps. Pokemon fans were frustrated by a new side game rather than the new “Let’s Go” sequel that was rumored. Hardcore MOBA fans found that it looked too simplistic compared to the intensity of genre mainstays Dota and League. There’s nothing wrong with a little variety or a more sleight version of Dota. I don’t disagree that it’s not at least partially a cynical cash grab; MOBAs with dedicated player bases print money and couple that with Pokemon it’s practically destined for success. Even so I can only imagine that the game will be at worst a pleasant and easier way to jump in and out of a MOBA without eating up my schedule. This could also attract a much more diverse audience which will hopefully help skew away from the more toxic nature’s inherent to the two fandoms.

I certainly sympathize with the hardcore Pokemon fan base. Being plugged into dedicated online communities means sorting through your own personal excitement for a franchise and half truth rumors. A sequel to “Let’s Go” is certainly exciting; the original was a great surprise and I’d love to revisit the Johto region from Silver and Gold in 3D. That doesn’t excuse the petulant online behavior though, a trend amongst the Pokemon fandom that reached a peak with the regional Pokédex. Anything that doesn’t meet the exact expectations is derided. The reception of a new Pokemon Snap is a great example; a new sequel to a beloved spinoff game was met with high praise. The Unite trailer however received lots of dislikes on YouTube. A new genre spinoff of Pokemon doesn’t have to be crushed by fan expectations. The series has enjoyed plenty of spinoffs that were retroactively embraced by the fandom. This game isn’t going to replace the mainline games after all; the Pokemon company would actually charge for that. This game isn’t diverting resources either as a developer familiar with mobile MOBAs is creating it. In other words, Unite is not taking anything away.

Pokemon Unite Battle

MOBA fans on the other hand are much different but no less dedicated beast. Especially in North America, MOBAs are only for the hardcore as the current most popular games require extreme dedication. The rules themselves can be a bit intimidating, but learning heroes and then team roles are even bigger learning curves. Dota 2 and League of Legends require studying and aren’t designed for easy accessibility. That’s not even mentioning match times which are usually at the minimum 40 minutes. This has bred a toxic player environment, a badge of honor that you were dedicated enough to understand the game. The intense cooperation necessary leaves players open for harassment too. 

This is a bit of a narrow view for the genre. Since the initial MOBA explosion at the beginning of the decade, there have been lots of mobile versions that have sprung up in Asia. These are much friendlier games allowing for a wider variety of players to pick up. These haven’t really picked up in North America though. The dedication for hardcore MOBAs hasn’t inspired those same players to pick up other alternative takes on the genre. The style of game also isn’t as ubiquitous; people may know what League of Legends is but isn’t hasn’t penetrated to wider cultural phenomenon. Without that existing buy in these smaller games don’t have a chance at the same success.

Pokemon Unite Hero Pick

Enter Pokemon Unite. Pokemon, with its friendly aesthetics and gigantic cultural reach, is the perfect property to graft on to the mobile MOBA formula. The brand is aimed at younger audiences so having an easily accessible game, both in price point and difficulty, will ensure a hit. The cynical side of this is that it’s an extremely savvy business move. There is an almost 0% chance that this game fails; at the very least it’ll have an explosive opening. A free to play price point (or “Free to Start” in the game’s parlance) ensures lots of microtransactions. Whether that’s gameplay inhibitive or strictly around cosmetics remains to be seen. The upside though is an easily playable game for a much wider audience than a traditional MOBA. Pokemon has the chance to bring in people who don’t usually engage with multiplayer games, especially since it’s available on mobile. An easy pick up and play multiplayer game is a great way to connect with friends who usually don’t engage in games. The fact that it’s all Pokemon is the icing on the cake.

That doesn’t mean Pokemon Unite is going to be for everyone or even great for that matter. It’s really a fairly innocuous announcement. The amount of ire it stirred up doesn’t match the scope of the game. Pokemon Unite has the capacity to be a multiplayer phenomenon but will probably skew closer to fun momentary diversion. That’s really all it’s aiming to be, a fun genre spinoff using the existing property. It’s staying power is completely besides the point. I’m excited to play as a Squirtle alongside 4 other friends, even if it’s only for a game or two.

Competitive Games Video Game Playthroughs

Valorant Offers a Less Intimidating Entry Point to Counter Strike

Teams of 5 face each other on a map. One team is attacking, trying to plant a bomb at specific map sites, and one is defending. The match is broken up into rounds; if you get shot you’re out. It’s all about sight lines too and time to kill is short. If an enemy sees you, each of you only have a few seconds to aim and fire before one of you is dropped. People have been playing this game for almost two decades; it’s called Counter Strike. Yet Riot is currently launching a new take on it called Valorant. I have been loving it and I am not alone. It really hasn’t updated the formula that much so why am I so taken with it? I think it mostly has to do with the giant baggage associated with Counter Strike.

Counter Strike is the definition of an old school game. It’s an easy game to understand and a difficult game to play. Aiming is difficult; you can’t hold down the trigger and expect to hit anyone. Small hit boxes and a priority on headshots means that controlled bursts are the way to win. As mentioned above, life is precious so shootouts only last a few seconds. It is unforgiving and definitely skill based meaning that gamers have used it as an excuse to be insufferable for years. This is why I’ve loved this game, but this difficulty also makes for a lot of gamer gate keeping.

Counter Strike has always been a haven for the “get good” type of gamer. It is one of the original e sports and that’s carried a lot of old baggage with it. This means rampant toxic behavior, people yelling in matches about how much you sucked sprinkled in with ethnic slurs. The game is team based so it only bolsters their sense of entitlement if you mess up. Each iteration, from “1.6” to now “Go,” have only slightly updated the game meaning that the strategies, guns, and maps have been carried through over time. This only bolsters the impenetrability of it. You’re expected to know the best strategies for De Dust going in so there is little to no on ramp without giant amounts of trash talk.

Valorant Gameplay

Valorant isn’t necessarily a fresh start in terms of all this (it is on the internet after all), but it’s early enough in the nascent stages that the most toxic parts haven’t been cemented. What I really mean by that is that strategies or “correct” ways of play haven’t been codified. The closed beta and initial launch has allowed for a somewhat smoother onboarding period than I ever had with Counter Strike. I’ve been able to troubleshoot my way across the maps, testing sight lines with similarly skilled players. The character players, Valorant’s major differentiator, allows for just enough variation as well. There’s no changes in movement speed or hitboxes (this isn’t Overwatch), but their different abilities allow you to tap into different modes of enemy engagement. If you like being highly mobile, pick a character like Jett or Omen with movement abilities. Rather play defensively and rely on map control? Someone like Cypher, who has traps and tripwire abilities, would do the trick. These abilities aren’t complete game changers and won’t completely overthrow a match, but when used correctly add a higher strategic layer to matches that Counter Strike doesn’t have. It’s important to stress that knowing how to properly utilize abilities in matches hasn’t completely surfaced. You won’t be caught completely flat footed in matches for not knowing the ins and outs of character classes.

Valorant Agents

While I’m enjoying Valorant now, I’m worried for the future. Launches are always the best time to hop into competitive games rather than fighting the uphill battle of accumulated knowledge. The nacency of Valorant has meant a renewed enjoyment in a type of FPS that has become mostly inaccessible. I’m not naive enough to know that it won’t stay this way; it’s only just officially launched. Only time will tell if I stick with it, but I’ve had a blast with it so far.

Competitive Games Dota Gaming Culture

My Commitment to Dota is Eating up my Schedule

My favorite thing about Dota is the investment. Dota’s large time commitment allows the stakes of each match to be huge. Your character, your team, your opponents, and even your role evolves as the match progresses. Match length allows for deep strategy to happen on a micro level that affects macro gameplay objectives; the largest one being how your character’s farm (how much experience and gold you bring in) effects battles and map control over your opponents. This investment is also easily the thing I hate most about Dota.

When I go to play a match, I have to make sure that nothing else can interfere. I have to strategically plan when I can play. Have to make an appointment in an hour? No way I can fit a match in. Meeting up with friends soon? Dota’s a no go. Get home from work and have to make dinner, go to gym, and get other chores done? Where the hell can I fit an hour match in? Dota requires you to make it priority number 1. It eats up entire evenings, afternoons, and mornings if you let it.

Dota 2 Sand King

Even if you do set aside just enough time to squeeze in a match or two (I rarely have time for more than one in a sitting) the physical investment is no joke. Matches require your full attention and leaves no opportunity for you to step away from your computer to do anything else. I usually run through a quick checklist before I start a match:

  • Am I hungry at all? Do I need to bring snacks over or make dinner before I start?
  • Do I have water nearby? Getting up to grab a drink could only maybe be an option 20-30 minutes from now.
  • Do I need to go to the bathroom? Will I need to go to the bathroom? Maybe I should just do a quick run to double, triple check

Besides the insane details listed above, the emotional investment is where Dota really becomes an exercise in masochism. The team nature of Dota requires all 5 players to actively play their roles well (or at least have one extremely good carry depending on MMR). You have to pay attention and have an understanding of the game that is frankly intimidating for new players. Knowing when and where to assist or take things for yourself is important for game objectives and team wellness. If even one player slips up, there goes an entire 45-60 minutes wasted. Defeats are agonizing (I’ve written about my experiences losing in Dota before) and are only offset by the extreme highs of victory. Having a run of defeats is demoralizing; I often have to stop playing Dota for months if I end up with a string of them. I also have to be energetic to play Dota; if I’m tired it shows. Lazy play on my end means a defeat for my team and a chat full of expletives aimed straight at me.

Dota 2 Earthshaker

So why play Dota? More importantly, why make time for Dota? That’s something every Dota and MOBA player is still figuring out. It’s those extreme highs really, the shot of adrenaline that comes with every strategy that succeeds, every play that comes out right. Now I just need to free up that schedule of mine to play it…

Competitive Games Dota Gaming Culture

Missing Stuns and Feeding: Losing in Dota 2

There is no feeling worse than losing a match in Dota. Correction: there is no feeling worse than knowing you’re the reason your team lost in Dota. You’ve been missing stuns all game, your gold count is always too low for your next item, and you just can’t help but be caught by enemy players. Everything just feels OFF. Obviously, I would know from experience.

Dota first of all is a giant time sink. You won’t complete a match in less than 30 minutes. The game is also extremely dependent on all 5 members of your team playing properly, not mention coordinating together. Dota also requires you to know the character you’re playing. Not only what their abilities do, but their strengths and weaknesses versus other heroes, what items to buy, and what role they play on a team.  No one character or player can truly dominate an entire match (depending on your MMR or player rank) so when you have a weak link on your team, you really know. One person not filling a role can spell doom on an entire match. All these factors provide you with immediate feedback on how well you’re playing. You can sense when other players in your lane are starting to out match you. When these players take over a lane, it makes it even harder to bounce back.

Dota 2 Hero Chart

I’ve never played another game where I feel so horrible for playing badly. I can just feel it in my body like a sore muscle; it hurts and there’s nothing I can do to change it. Even without the notorious (read: toxic) player community to provide feedback, I can tell how far behind I am in a game. Bad games resemble a slow-motion train wreck as the time slow inches forward until the other team is capable of pushing on your ancient. There are ways to try and gain back ground; sometimes big team fights where you kill other high level players can help swing the match in your favor. But for the most part if you aren’t playing a support character and you have a bad start, you have doomed your team. The rest is just waiting 45 minutes while the other team gains power.

Dota 2 Lane Fight

The negative feelings that come from playing a bad game of Dota ranks at the top of worst reactions from a game. It can eat away at your demeanor (why do you think the community is so toxic?). It’s the type of feeling that really makes you question your involvement with the game. But somehow it manages to pull you back in for now, making you eager to prove yourself in the next match.