Out of all the Kingdom Hearts games, this is the one that I’m most interested in playing. I’ve never touched it before, same with Re:Coded and Dream Drop Distance, and the fact that it’s a card game has always piqued my curiosity. You don’t get much gameplay variation across this series so it’s exciting not knowing what to expect. But also maybe there’s a reason they don’t mess with the gameplay too much after this one.
Having started it there’s a lot going on here. Running around a 3d space, deck management, playing higher value cards and keeping an eye on your health has proved difficult for my brain. My brain wants to hit attack and block but the game’s telling me to play the cards! I feel like a fool. I’m hoping I can adjust a little and get more into the swing of things since I’ve only played an hour. The story is the part I’m really interested in here with the introduction of Organization XIII and the weirdness around losing memories. It’s an intriguing idea but so far has only been to kind of revisit what happened in 1. Also hoping that the dialogue changes from some variation of “what happened again?” and “what are we doing?” That said I most definitely popped for Axel, love that dude.
Anyways, here’s hoping my pessimism subsides over the next series. You can watch episode 1 now:
This year has been busy, just a constant stream of things to work on. One thing after another has meant that downtime and creativity have been sparse, used up meeting deadlines and keeping all of life’s plates spinning. The lack of free time and energy for this blog and other video projects (would love to do more let’s plays and streaming). I also realize we’re only 6 weeks into 2022 but it’s always annoying when you don’t have time to do the things you enjoy.
But I was roused from my stupor when the Nintendo Direct today contained a wild announcement; Live A Live is being released in the US for the first time! At least as a Remake, moving the older game to the new 2D-HD aesthetic. Live A Live has lived on in its original form through the dedicated work of fan translators and for people who want to experience that can access it online now. An official release is still a big deal and it seems like Square Enix is putting a lot behind the remake. Some background for this cult hit: Live A Live is a unique Super Famicom RPG from 1994 that was never released outside of Japan (I wrote a small bit about it in my 2021 wrap up). This game was directed by the legendary Takashi Tokita, who had directed Final Fantasy IV previous to Live A Live and would go on to create Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve. Artists were brought in to create the seven scenarios and characters that would make up the game which included people like Gosho Aoyama (Detective Conan). It also has an amazing soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura who wrote songs for Street Fighter II and would compose Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana, Xenoblade Chronicles, and a small game named Kingdom Hearts. Just take a listen to this, the song that Toby Fox took the name for his famous track from (and is forever buried in my brain):
But what is the game? Instead of one long RPG story, you’ll play seven different scenarios that cover a variety of different fiction. There’s Western, Horror Science Fiction, and Kung Fu stories that all reference movies that rub alongside more gaming referential ones like a street fighter inspired scenario. Each scenario only runs about a few hours meaning they never overstay their welcome. They all share a similar, active time and grid based battle system. You’ll still select moves like other turn based RPGs, but each move has a different attack pattern and distance in which it can be executed. Some you’ll have to be directly next to the enemy while others you can attack along a diagonal path. Moves will also range in their execution time meaning you may have to wait a few seconds for your character to unleash an attack or a healing spell. What this means in battle is that you’re having to adjust characters’ positions so they can avoid enemy attacks, use their attack moves or have a buffer zone to charge up. Battles are also unique in that damage doesn’t carry over meaning that health resets once it’s finished. In practicality that means battles are a bit harder than other RPGs. Enemies can also hit really hard (even the low level ones) so you usually have to find a way to move into attack range and move out before taking damage.
Even though they all share the battle system, each scenario’s gameplay is distinct and utilizes RPG mechanics to evoke their individual settings. The science fiction and western scenarios barely have battles and instead use the top down perspective to have you navigate and interact with the environment. The ninja scenario allows you to tackle the fortress you’re invading through lethal or nonlethal means and has branching paths for you to either sneak past or fight all the enemies. These scenarios twist RPG mechanics by deprioritizing stat growth (ie increased health and attack) and instead making navigating and interacting the environment the main part. You’ll still get traditional RPG missions (the other future science fiction story falls in this category) but the variety between the seven scenarios makes revisiting the classic structure refreshing. It’s like you’re playing AAA RPG maker games all together in one package. The game then wraps it all together with an 8th scenario that ties together all the other ones in a fantasy overworld filled with micro dungeons. Those dungeons also reference the genres from each section and experiments with them in a more traditional RPG/dungeon crawling way. There’s even a really cool final battle choice that I shouldn’t have spoiled in my 2021 wrap up but that I’m going to avoid spoiling here.
It’s a really special game and there’s a reason that people familiar with Live A Live were immediately activated by the announcement. I didn’t realize how much of an activation phrase it was for me and yet here we are. My only hesitation comes from the new remake portions. I’m not a huge fan of the 2D-HD aesthetic and I’m concerned how big story moments will be rendered. I’m also curious how they’ll change the gameplay as I’m assuming they’ll try and smooth out some of the rough edges in moving around the battlefield, which in my opinion added to the tougher pacing of the battles. The inclusion of voice acting is a neat wrinkle and hopefully they can stick the landing. That’s probably the purist in me talking and they’re not big enough red flags to make me avoid it. To be clear I will be buying this. I would even buy the legendary edition that’s only in Japan (I want that bag and physical game!). People just need to play this game and releasing it to a worldwide audience makes it even more accessible. The new price point is high but worth every goddam penny.
It’s wild how much of a template a PS2 game from 2002 set. A weird experiment of mashing two very distinct franchises together hit big and spawned a long lasting video game franchise and a dedicated fan base. Playing the game it’s not hard to see why; it’s a Shonen anime that balances on a fine tightrope of suspense and mystery. The Disney worlds bring you in but the focus on the series’ metaphysics and mythology is Kingdom Hearts true staying power. The story in the first game, revolving around forces attempting to control people by accessing the power that creates souls, completely caught me off guard when I was young. It was fascinating replaying it and finding where my memory had filled in gaps or placed higher importance on things in the 15 years since I first played (the unreliable nature of memory is a very apropos way to start the series). Kingdom Hearts is very story light leaving the back ¼ to do all the heavy lifting. The majority of it is traipsing through Disney movies and barely seeds some of the big back half reveals. This exact storytelling method continues to run through all the rest of the series. It’s amazing too that the gameplay loop is almost identical with each new iteration getting mostly nips and tucks on the battle system (save for Chain of Memories). It’s a strange and imperfect game but one that’s effective at establishing characters and reasons for investment.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts predates some of what would follow the megahit Lost. The audience’s fervor over the next reveal and mystery drove the popularity of that show and that idea of storytelling disseminated out into other media. Kingdom Hearts does something similar; it gives you just enough breadcrumbs to gather an idea of what some of the wider ideas might mean. The significance of Hearts for example are pretty clearly explained as an analogue for souls and the Heartless the monster result of what happens when someone loses their soul. You also get a good idea of how the universe is set up, with individual worlds living blissfully unaware of each other. The Gummi Ship does a good idea of conveying these worlds as individual planets existing in a solar system. Moving from one to the next is akin to interstellar travel and the party of protagonists are visiting aliens. These ideas are established relatively early in the runtime and are clearly laid out. It’s the acceleration of the back half and the way it dishes out complicated subjects that fuels the audience’s imagination.
I didn’t realize how late in the game Hollow Bastion is given how important it is to the story in this game and the series going forward. We learn that the Princesses of Heart have been captured to open a door to darkness, thus granting Maleficent unimaginable power. Riku becomes possessed by a being named Ansem, the cloaked figure we see at the beginning of the game, and someone who has been casually referenced as an important figure. Ansem, as we know him through the collected reports and mentions by the transposed people of Traverse Town, is responsible for a lot of the knowledge surrounding the Heartless. In the end he takes over Riku completely, fights Sora at the End of the World and opens what is assumed to be Kingdom Hearts, a doorway to the darkness where all Hearts originate from. It’s all delivered so fast that it can’t help but get your brain going asking how it all works. How are these individuals marked as the Princesses of Heart and how does Kairi play into that? How did her Heart become part of Sora and why was he able to regain his true form? How did Ansem become a dispossessed figure and find Riku? Was he the one who triggered the collapsing and destruction of Worlds? Just what is Kingdom Hearts and why did it hold light? And just how the hell did Mickey appear in the Darkness?
All of this is told to us over a relatively compressed amount of time. Kingdom Hearts lulls you into a false idea of what the game actually becomes in its ending moments. Emily and I playing through were relatively relaxed replaying through old Disney movies until the gas pedal was pushed all the way to the floor. The fact that the ideas are left relatively mysterious is a canny move and one the series will continue to return to. The full Ansem reports don’t offer much meaningful conclusions other than defining how Heartless and Nobodies (more to come on that one) are made. They’re also full of hints at what transpired in the past and things we may see in the future. References to mass experiments on people and a specific “girl” (maybe Kairi?) add to a puzzle that begs to be solved. Here you are fans, get guessing! The addition of the “Secret Movie” is a great move as well. It’s a fun short that takes the ideas of the Kingdom Hearts universe deadly serious, providing action and mysterious characters. The Secret Movie is designed to be pulled apart, slowed down and each individual shot studied meticulously. This type of fan behavior is commonplace now. The easiest example is the fervor around Marvel movies and their trailers, with fan created videos running down all the Easter Eggs hinting at what’s to come. It also has this in common with the big web comic hit Homestuck (you should listen to the incredible Homestuck Made This World Podcast for more on that) and I would assume shares a big overlap with that comics fan community. It becomes a perpetual machine of forecasting the next big reveal of the next big mystery and the individual works themselves become backgrounded. They’re encouraging the fan behavior to dissect and parse out the vague mystery they placed before them. The events in the games that precede those plot relevant story bits are secondary.
I will note that this is only one part of the fandom and there’s an entire piece dedicated to high level play. The action game elements are rewarding for people to play and challenge themselves on the highest difficulty. Tough as nails bosses like Sepiroth are also important to engaging fans. Kingdom Hearts provides a rewarding experience to players looking for that intense action gameplay. There is a reason there’s a vibrant community built around speedrunning Kingdom Hearts 2 (you should definitely watch this co-op race through the randomized game). Kingdom Hearts offers the opportunity for players to challenge themselves against bosses with high damage, fast and erratic attack patterns and even new wrinkles to the mechanics. The fact that this is part of a Disney mashup game is truly astounding.
The longer the series goes on, the mystery seeding becomes more pronounced and along with the more tangled the explanatory pieces of lore. I’m eager to see how the series hits now that I have a relatively good idea of where everything goes. The present lore of Kingdom Hearts is by no means resolved but it’ll be interesting to see how things land when I know certain bits will get backtracked or re-explained. It’s also interesting seeing how much of Kingdom Hearts mysterious storytelling arrives before this becomes more commonplace and how it’ll inform other media. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts helps establish the template for the widespread fandom interaction we see today. For now though, you can watch our full playthrough of Kingdom Hearts with more Let’s Plays to come in the future.
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
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.
Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru (The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls)
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
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.
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).
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
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…
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Metroid Series: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion & 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.
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…
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.
I’m going to say something very subjective and hyperbolic: Metroid is one of the strongest series of all time and is also criminally overlooked. I had no idea how much I would love this series after somehow deciding it wasn’t for me. I have held onto this weird aversion to games from the SNES and NES era, as if games from before my childhood were too difficult to try and pick up? This has slowly eroded in my adulthood as I’ve played modern homages to those games and found that I was extremely wrongheaded with my assumption (which was based on 0 play experience mind you). 2021 has been a year for remedying this and I’ll write a bit more about that in my year end wrap up. Suffice it to say that I felt much more confident in firing up Super Metroid for the first time in preparation for Metroid Dread’s release. I’m so glad I finally crossed it off my to do list and I played through Super and Fusion in quick succession. It was a great way to tackle a new entry in the series, being able to understand how the design has evolved to its modern iteration. The remarkable thing is that each game has completely different approaches to the Metroid template and shows how new designers attempt different techniques in balancing exploration and storytelling, in both cutscenes and the environments.
Super Metroid is representative of how the priorities in game storytelling have shifted since its release in 1994. Aside from the opening text, the game communicates its story nonverbally. One of the great things that has been lost with the advent of more expressive technology and the move toward “cinematic” narratives is expressing emotion through 2d character sprites. The menace of Ridley and the tragedy of the baby Metroid are communicated only with movement, lighting and sound but somehow relay the emotion more effectively than most modern games. It’s something intrinsic to the medium that’s been lost on a triple A level but luckily is being reclaimed in the indie space. The story though is sparse and segmented story scenes are relegated to the front and back of the game. That same technique is used to communicate the Super Metroid’s progression as well. Before playing I had assumed the game was very open and that I would get lost trying to progress through the game. Super Metroid though is a masterclass in level design, it guides you to each new ability and boss fight through its environmental cues. The Metroid series established a widely used template; rooms with sealed gates that are only opened with certain types of abilities. Green doors can only be opened with Super Missiles so you are stuck only moving through blue or purple doors until you find the ability. The gates make the game surprisingly linear as you are fed through available doors until you seemingly stumble upon the ability or boss fight required to move forward. It’s more rewarding though because once you acquire the ability you as the player are then required to follow the breadcrumb trail back to the formerly inaccessible door. It feels almost like an ah ha moment, a feeling of finding a specific puzzle piece on your own even though it’s the game handing you the piece and subtly telling you where to put it. You’re rewarded for breaking with the game’s flow to hunt for secret power ups using your abilities. It makes Super Metroid feel less linear superficially even when you’re being funneled down a set path. It puts the agency of finding that path in the players’ hands rather than putting big arrows showing them where to go.
Super Metroid is the ultimate form of a vibe game, using an excellent score and environments to really give the unfamiliar planet a sense of place. The planet Zebes is hostile, filled with terrestrial creatures and inhabiting space pirates trying to kill you. Super Metroid isn’t scary, Samus is too powerful and health pickups are too common for you to feel a sense of complete danger, but it’s certainly eerie. There’s no safe place to go as you descend through lava, sand, and abandoned spaceships trying to retrieve the stolen Metroid. You get the sense that this planet is largely uninhabited as the majority of the environments are undisturbed natural areas. As such you’re an invading force and the creatures don’t take too kindly to your traipsing through their home. The extra terrestrial places are even spookier, unnatural metallic bases furnished by the invading Space Pirates. The ghost ship is a highlight and is the only environment to actively play tricks on you. It’s pulled directly from Sci-Fi horror as projections of Metroids appear randomly as you explore. The rundown technology also attacks you as you probe for its secrets. How did this ship end up here? What cargo was it carrying and what experiments were they performing here? The ominous music adds to the eerie environment, echoey drumming and synths soundtracking the ghostly apparitions. Really the whole soundtrack is filled with dark and ominous tones and it absolutely bangs:
The next game, Metroid Fusion, continues to incorporate that eeriness but with adding new body horror. The environment moves to an expansive and abandoned space station named BSL, always a good move for Sci-Fi horror in my opinion. Samus had a bad interaction with a new creature, the X, that fused with her body. Her power suit is removed and infected leaving her with a mutated (and very cool) new body suit. It’s got razor edges and seems living, transforming Samus into an otherworldly being. Her Power Suit on the other hand becomes a living creature, SA-X, with its own mysterious goals. This new creature is an almost invincible enemy which must be avoided at all cost. It’s an incredibly cool twist even if it doesn’t amount to much other than a few segments where you have to hide or run away from the SA-X. Those sections are fun but since the locations are set there’s not too much horror attached to them. You know the SA-X will only appear when the game telegraphs it so you’re not worried about exploring the station. BSL Station was the ground for all sorts of bad experiments. The environments are filled with the remnants of this, whether it’s caged animals, broken machines or even a frozen Ridley. The backgrounds communicate a history of BSL and leave the story of what went down here vague enough for the player to fill in.
It’s a series highlight even though the actual plot of the game is lackluster. You’re constantly checking in with your computer to receive updates on the station and location of the SA-X. The whole time Samus is wistfully reminded of her old commanding officer and recounts “pleasant” memories of him consistently talking down to her. It’s really bad and the inevitable twist is that the computer is both a program of that commanding officer, Adam, and looking to preserve the SA-X lands with a thud. Good thing this game is still a solid Metroid so you can go on and ignore the story. Fusion has the same progression as Super with plenty of new ways to interact with the environment. The boss fights are all a step above and proved to be much more challenging than in the previous game (goddam that Spider boss). The only catch here is that the path is much more explicitly laid out. Checking in with your computer literally highlights where to go next so the feeling of open exploration, even if it’s not really open, is missed. I didn’t get those same moments of joy finding my path when the game was telling me exactly where to go.
And now 19 years later, a once cancelled Metroid Dread released and brought more modern gaming storytelling alongside its updated gameplay mechanics. It’s remarkable how the core loop of exploring and upgrading remains intact as MercurySteam adds more actiony elements to Samus. There’s the ability to free aim and with it more of a necessity to aim your shots. Movement speed is increased and comes with a new slide to duck and move through the map. It feels amazing to play and it’s by far my favorite playing game of the series. It felt so good to jump, dash, slide and spin across the environments as I poked for clues. Exploration is much less focused than Fusion even with a similar emphasis on communicating with Adam. Waypoints aren’t set whenever you receive a new objective and I welcomed getting lost and finding my way across the areas. Dread is also the toughest game of the bunch and throws in difficult boss battles. They were all extremely rewarding, riding that knife’s edge between difficult and punishing. Each boss has a rhythm and your first couple of times fighting them are all about learning patterns. Every time I messed up I could see how to improve and fitting all the patterns felt like a big accomplishment.
Other updates though tend to drag the game down. Instead of the invincible SA-X, you’ll fight androids known as EMMIs. These robots are confined to specific sections and are invulnerable meaning you’ll have to run away and find the nearest exit. Only trouble is exits are closed off while the EMMI is on your tail so you have to try and sneak or hide from them until the coast is clear. Eventually you’ll find a one time upgrade to your beam so you can take down an individual EMMI. Unfortunately this requires you to use your beam like a Gatling gun and slowly wear down the shielding on its face and then charge up to take down the exposed core. You have to put a good distance between Samus and the EMMI in order to take down the shielding so you’ll once again have to run until you find a long enough corridor. These sections are a lot of trial and error and the spots where I died the most (probably at least a half dozen times on average). The respawn was forgiving though so I didn’t end up minding them too much. The EMMI felt more like speed bumps on the game’s flow more than anything.
Worse though is Dread’s new emphasis on cutscenes. The game makes its story much more explicit pausing gameplay to show you a brief clip of the plot. I missed the environmental storytelling piecing together Samus’ relationship to the creatures she stumbles across in her adventure. It doesn’t help that the environments don’t especially jump out and the backgrounds feel more like templates of alien planets. You’ll find a lava level, water, and abandoned tech places but they don’t have any details that make them feel lived in. They’re pretty to move through but that’s about it. The story itself is completely ridiculous and has wild third act revelations that feel so unearned. The twists feel like they’re tying up loose ends to a mystery plot that didn’t exist and I can’t imagine anyone was asking for this sort of backstory. It does lead to an incredible escape sequence and I love the big power fantasy of those two minutes. If you liked the overpowered gravity gun in Half Life 2 then you’re in for a treat.
Even with my quibbles about each game they’re all amazingly good. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and I enjoyed playing through all of them. Also the best part, they’re all relatively short! I took the longest with Dread and the final tally put me at 9 hours. They’re all the perfect length of time and also what makes them endlessly replayable. There’s an emphasis from the gaming community on having longer games and that it somehow equates to getting your money’s worth. I’d argue that Dread is worth the full $60 and equating dollar value to length is an inane argument. Not every game has to be forever and it’s easier to make a more treasured experience with brevity. Here’s to Samus’ memorable and brief experiences and hopefully many more to come.
Taking a break in an RPG is usually a death sentence. Prolonged periods away from a systems heavy game means completely forgetting battle strategies and how to proceed with ongoing quest lines. It’s a testament to how good the game is that I readily jumped back into Fantasian when the 2.0 patch released on August 12, 4 months after I had completed the first 20 hours that were released at launch. Mistwalker was hard at work during that period building out what turned into an additional 40 hours of gameplay for me (I haven’t even played the end game dungeon yet). I was expecting the new content update to be a “chapter 2” for the game, released with a recap or something to catch me back up. That turned out to be wrong; the game unceremoniously picks up right where I left off like I had just put in the second disc in a PS1 Final Fantasy. This won’t affect new players at all as they’ll just continue on seamlessly but it was a big adjustment for me. The first five hours of my 2.0 playthrough was re-learning the systems, map and story (most of which I had to review outside of the game). The Apple Arcade staggered release strategy always was fishy to me in ways that only benefit their subscription model rather than the game itself. After all, how do you build on the hype of the initial release? It’s much harder to get people excited about a patch even if it does mean the game is finished. I find it frustrating because it seems to have helped bury what is a really great JRPG and one of my favorite games of the year.
Once I got my feet back under me, I was once again enamored with the game. 2.0 changes the structure up with a more open world quest system. Instead of going from one storyline mission to the next, you’ll receive a handful of quests to complete around the world map. You’ll recollect your party members, find new ones and help out random townspeople with tasks like literally herding cats. It’s very reminiscent of FFVI’s World of Ruin but with way more story and quests to pick up (this world isn’t bombed out like that was). Each party member also has a unique quest line that fleshes out their backstory. There are also new side quests that are placed throughout the map and run the gamut from fighting bosses to scavenger hunts across the cities (these were especially hard after a long time away from the game; it’s hard to decipher clues when you don’t know the map in detail). The World Map makes picking up and finding quests as easy as possible. You can fast travel to any zone you’ve been to before and each area will list if you have any quests to pick up. The map will also show where a quest is with an icon making questing a breeze. There’s not alot of organic discovery happening and feels on rails with all the icons and fast travel mechanics, but I enjoyed the easy checklist pace of picking them up. That doesn’t mean that these quests aren’t hard, the difficulty increases exponentially with this patch. There are still a few undiscovered areas that you’ll have to traverse and for those you get to pilot the luxury airship cruise liner! The Urza is absolutely a top JRPG airship and there are side quests to slowly fill out the ship with crew members and animals.
The quest design, while seemingly open in which you have the option to tackle them at any pace, has a more linear progression than I expected. Each quest comes with a minimum level recommendation and due to the difficult nature of the quests must absolutely be adhered to. Enemy levels are not dynamic like FF8 instead set at specific ranges based on the area or associated quest. If you don’t meet the minimum level, you may be without a necessary ability or the boss will almost immediately wipe your party. This meant I mostly completed each quest in level order except for one where I accidentally navigated the Urza into a void in the middle of the map. That triggered a quest that I was underleveled for and I couldn’t leave, which became something of a pain when I had to sit and slowly grind levels. I felt punished for breaking the path that the game set out for me. Otherwise quests are nicely doled out so that you’re adequately leveled to flow into the next quest line. These new quests can be absolutely brutal, most of them stacked with a final tough boss fight. Be prepared to spend lots of time taking multiple runs to beat a boss, regardless of whether it’s a story mission or a small side quest. Some bosses required me to spend multiple hours retrying battles until I was finally able to win. It felt great and required me to use my strategy brain in a way that a lot of other JRPGS don’t. It was really exciting to have to really push to beat these enemies after the relatively breezy time I had with the earlier quests.
The bosses require you to really engage with the games mechanics and understand how to use your party. I had to memorize boss timing, moves and weaknesses and even then I barely scraped by most of them. The fights themselves are varied, requiring you to change your strategy to adapt each time. The boss to retrieve Zinikir is on a hidden time limit as he’ll be slowly surrounded with debris the longer the fight goes on. The debris field becomes so thick that you can’t hit him and he does more damage for each additional piece. Other bosses like Yim will have you trying to clear mobs as fast as possible before they can absorb them and deal damage for each one left alive. The fights can all be taxing in a way that makes them really exciting. Each new one I came across was a challenge and it felt so good when I put all the pieces together to win. A great addition to 2.0 is the FFX swap mechanic, allowing you to swap in and out party members during battle. This is key as each character has a unique move set and element. Some fights required you to use elemental weaknesses to win like Geo Nova were weak to dark forcing me to use Valrika (dark magic user). Other bosses require exploiting weaknesses to specific character actions, like the Infernal Mechteria Blob who was weak to Cheryl’s attack. She is the only character with a vertical striking attack which is where she drops a magic knight down from the sky. Other characters’ attacks move on a horizontal line (sometimes can be curved or straight) so they only do minuscule damage against that boss. The different attack patterns were neat and utilized the Apple touchscreen well. Magic and certain character attacks can be curved meaning you can hit numerous characters in a curved line. Those always felt good to line up.
Even once you understand the strategy behind each boss fight, you’ll still have a tough time getting through them. These bosses hit hard and take a lot of damage so you won’t be wiping any very fast. I’m very thankful for the active Reddit community who has helped coach me and others through some of the more difficult ones. The only downside for certain bosses is that they sometimes require specific abilities to beat them. Characters unlock abilities through their talent tree and you earn more points to spend on it each time they level. There were a few times where I hadn’t specced a character to have a specific ability and therefore couldn’t proceed until I had. Ez for example has a story quest line with a boss that requires you to use his vacuum ability to collect groups of bombs. The bombs surround the boss and by using vacuum you’re able to avoid hitting them, which almost instantly kill your party, and allow you to attack the boss. It’s a fun fight with the ability but hitting the wall without it led to me finding an area to grind until I unlocked it. The unfortunate side effect of the quest level gating also meant I couldn’t go pick up a new questline to follow. I would’ve loved FF8’s dynamic leveling so I could bounce around between quests whenever I got stuck.
Perhaps the most exciting challenge are Fantasian’s first-person mini dungeons. There are a set of 6 around the world map that are each based around a different element. You’ll navigate around a maze collecting treasure and fighting enemies and eventually face a boss to complete it. They’re a great way to break up the normal quest structure and require you to build your party and load out around the dungeon specific element. Each dungeon also contains enemies that have you try to build an item within a time limit rather than battling it. It makes the dungeons perfectly tuned so by the time you face the boss you’ll have built items that help you resist their attacks. The bosses themselves are also incredibly varied. One has you facing a tough Minotaur where another has you facing a hard hitting spell caster. The best part of each dungeon is that they only take maybe an hour to complete (depending on how many runs a boss takes) and feel like distinct stand-alone RPG experiences. They’re my favorite part of the game and I loved the new challenges and boss variety that each one brought.
The dioramas continue to be absolutely gorgeous. The new locales are all beautiful to trek through, ranging from snowy mountains to hidden islands to dimension connecting pathways. I have a camera roll full of screenshots of all the different areas. The snowy environments sparkle in the sunlight and frozen waterfalls glisten as your characters cross bridges past them. There are old stone ruins covered in moss that evoke ancient South American temple architecture. Hopping between dimensions looks like you’re working your way across neural pathways. The final area is a grotesque cathedral, with stone hands and people lining the paths that look like they’re trying to escape hell. The scale is tuned perfectly as your small character slowly moves across the vast landscapes (also worth noting, you can have any party member be your world map avatar). Accompanying your movements are Uematsu’s beautiful arrangements. There’s a few new songs to soundtrack your continued journey and they are just as lush and whimsical as the other tracks. The tones for different dimensions match the tone well like the choral singing found in the God Realm and synth wave found in the Communication Network. Notably the new tracks have a lot more distortion and we get blaring metal guitars soundtracking later boss fights. “At Wrath’s End” is repeated across three boss battles and it hits every time:
The story is a serviceable JRPG plot, turns out you kill God! Or at least A God. The characters though are engaging and the character specific questlines make their presences more impactful. Fantasian is about found family, dealing with loss and how you grow in a way that mostly hits. Everyone in the party has had to deal with loss, usually a family member or close friend. Their stories are affecting and the best stories explore that grief. Zinikir is specifically hurt by the loss of his sister and his close friend’s inability to move on from the trauma (his animated story pages are beautiful too). Other characters are left more unexplored; I would have loved to understand what Valrika’s life was like before her world was destroyed so that her grief over being spared would’ve been more impactful. Fantasian falls into bad stock plots though and the majority of the trauma is related to dead women. Tan’s may be the most egregious as his story consists of him being saved from a violent path by a beautiful woman, who sacrifices her life to protect him. Leo, Kina, and Cheryl all have dead moms and I also mentioned Zinikir’s loss of his sister. The story’s all work in a silo but it was an unfortunate pattern across all of them. I enjoyed all the fantasy trappings though and jumping across multiple dimensions proved to be very fun. The metaphysical nature of the “gods” was also a fun wrinkle; more of the Marvel type of powerful but fallible aliens.
Fantasian is a fantastic RPG from start to finish. The gameplay is perfectly tuned with the right amount of challenge to test you and quality of life enhancements to make embarking on quests easy. I cannot believe I spent as much time as I did as the hours spent tinkering with bosses and making numbers go up seemed to just melt away. The Apple only release seems to have unfortunately stymied some of the buzz around this game. Hopefully this will get a wider release so that more people can play it in the future.
Spoilers for the Echoes of the Eye DLC and main game of Outer Wilds
It’s clear from the outset that the Stranger is haunted. Small crops of slowly decaying wooden buildings are fitted with paintings and signs pointing to the culture that once lived there. Pictures of groups of beings photographed like early 20th century people hang in the empty structures. The problem is there are no signs of life, no expired food, burial grounds or corpses that would signify what happened to the population there. It’s immediately eerie, a space version of an old pioneer ghost town. The farther you probe into the mysteries of the game the more you realize how literally haunted the Stranger is. The Stranger’s inhabitants wander around a dream world, isolated in a prison of their own making. And much like a traditional ghost story you are trespassing are their domain. They don’t know who you are but they know that you are unwelcome. The DLC has been likened to horror games or at least a more horror-oriented approach than the base game. In a lot of ways it is, tasking you with completing puzzles while trying to avoid enemies in the dark. The enemies themselves aren’t trying to kill you however and your mission is ultimately one of connection with the ghostly figures of the Stranger.
Both Emily and I are not horror fans (I at least am much too chicken) so we were very cautious about playing Echoes of the Eye. We couldn’t not play it, we had such an amazing time doing our original Let’s Play! But at the same time we found the Stranger to be very spooky. I was also going into this Let’s Play completely blind (I had played the base game before we recorded the corresponding Let’s Play) so I had no idea what potential horror moments lay ahead. The new “Reduced Frights” option also gave us some pause, what would we possibly need that for? I think the option is a good addition though, any accessibility improvements to help players through the story is great to include. The DLC is perfectly calibrated to build dread. The music is eerie and the usual orchestral swell that accompanied new and strange information is switched out for dreary and downbeat folk music. The new lantern mechanic played on a big fear; moving around in the dark. Entering the Dream and having it be the dark of night made navigating it creepy. Who knows what lay around the corner! Where could I find the next candle to help me see ahead? The woodsy aesthetic of the Dream evokes dread similarly to the way Twin Peaks depicts being lost in the trees. What horrors lurk behind the trees? It plays on your imagination to build an anticipation that something could happen to you.
The DLC however isn’t as scary as it initially appears. The jump scare moments when trying to navigate past the Strangers inhabitants to get to an important vault of secrets aren’t quite the horror fueled moments that we had originally imagined. They are undead beings in a sense but inside the Dream they appear as just living beings. There were no monsters or terrifying creatures on the Stranger, only the digital consciousness of misguided people. The way the base game approaches meeting new species helps punctuate some of the fear. When you meet Solanum the Nomai on the Quantum Moon, it’s an exciting moment. You get to exchange information and learn more about this ancient civilization that you’ve been learning about. It was a moment of joy and excitement! So hilariously we approached meeting the new aliens with the same level of excitement. Running across the Shrouded Woodlands Dream area to meet the Stranger Inhabitant was a cool moment for us until they picked us up and blew out our light. Our naivety with how our interaction would go really helped punctuate any fear we had around them. We never had any to begin with because we wanted to meet them! Understandably they wanted nothing to do with us and took actions to remove us from the Dream. We interact with them as different beings and there’s no body horror or supremely scary features to make that unpleasant. We are trespassers, always have been, and we are working to uncover their deep and regretful secrets. Of course they want to protect it and remove us. It’s very in line with traditional ghost stories; hauntings are used to scare what ghosts see as trespassers out of their domain. Haunted houses contain the stories of how the ghosts met their end and the unfinished business that keeps them around. The Stranger’s inhabitants are no different, haunting the dream and preventing anyone from seeing their failure in following the Eye of the Universe. This understanding and their lack of demonic appearance prevents them from ever being seen as horrifying. It only adds to the tragedy that we can interact with them as individuals. That’s not to say we didn’t react to the jump scares, it’s surprising when you accidentally bump into them in the dark! The violin strings that accompany the sneaking in the dark moments also heighten the tension. Those moments though felt more like playing hide and go seek or the feeling when you accidentally round a corner and almost hit someone. You’re scared for a moment but quickly level out.
That’s not a bad thing though! It made me understand better how traditional horror is laid out in a way that was safe for a horror scaredy cat like me to engage with. Once the fear had dropped away I could see the mechanics of how they produced the anxiety in me and the thematic reasons that the horror existed. Realizing what the haunting actually meant retroactively helped me understand ghost stories. That new framing for the DLC, the more haunted house approach, is a bit of why I’m not as enamored with it as I was with the base game. That’s probably an impossible task; Outer Wilds as a full experience is absolutely incredible. The awe of experiencing the planets’ natural rhythms (Giant’s Deeps’ tornadoes, the corroding surface of Brittle Hollow) matched with the fear of landing and exploring an unfamiliar locale can probably never be bested. It makes sense then that Echoes of the Eye tries a different tact with a smaller condensed location nestled into the wider map of Outer Wilds. It preys on more everyday fears; fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of a creature attack. It’s effective at provoking horror but it’s not as impactful as the fear of being a miniscule object in a large universe. The more traditional horror isn’t as unique as having the ground drop out under you unexpectedly and falling into a black hole or entering a giant cavern for the first time. Echoes of the Eye is more in line with the anglerfish on Dark Bramble; definitely scary but in the more horror movie oriented approach. It’s not quite the vibe I come to Outer Wilds for; I wasn’t awed or humbled by the vastness of the natural world.
I’m more than happy to report that the story and mysteries are really engaging. Exploring and following clues around the Stranger was very engaging even though the details are spread out more sparsely than before. The DLC relies more on you self navigating around the spaceship rather than laying out a more set path like the written messages did in the base game. We spent the majority of our playthrough having no idea what to expect but the sudden rush of figuring out one minor solution always hit. Echoes of the Eye doesn’t spell things out for you instead leaving you to interpret images. That meant that we could see a puzzle solution but not entirely understand what it meant. We see going through the door, but how do we turn off the lights? Figuring that last part out was always satisfying and usually netted us some exciting new information. There are some truly exciting puzzle reveals. I was blown away when we found out that we could navigate around the Dream and see the code like we were in the Matrix (I really wanted to title that episode “I know Kung Fu” but decided it might give too much away). The final puzzle solution of dying was genius and plays with the game’s usual idea of failure. Instead of trying to avoid death which would restart the loop, you have to die to finish the game.
The story of the Stranger and its inhabitants is a piece with the rest of the game telling the story of a different alien civilization who also chased the Eye. They too were blinded by their ambitions but with much larger clarity than the Nomai had. The Nomai essentially turned lemons into lemonade establishing a home within this new solar system they were stuck in. They attempted to live in relative harmony with its ecosystem and used nature to their advantage. Their biggest and selfish reach luckily didn’t come to fruition; they were never able to cause a supernova. Instead they were unceremoniously wiped out when a stray comet exploded with ghost matter. The Stranger’s inhabitants by contrast were the architects of their own destruction and by proxy the Nomai’s. They destroyed their home planet in their zealous pursuit of the Eye. That piece adds to the uncanny environs on the Stranger, a replication of nature produced by the destruction of it. While the Nomai also chased and studied the Eye with near religious ferocity, the Stranger’s inhabitants worshipped the Eye. The churches and Eye symbols show their devotion to a godlike natural phenomenon. When they find that the Eye foretells their destruction, they can’t accept their failure and the consequences of their pilgrimage. Their covering of the Eye betrays their refusal to face their actions and they choose instead to live out their existence as ghosts within the Dream. It’s what makes your eventual meeting with the Prisoner so tragic. They were the one being who pushed for reckoning with their mistake and were summarily locked up for hundreds of years. They are left alone for an unending existence at the bottom of the cage. Their cry when you reveal the physical state of the Stranger shows their anguish over how far things have degraded. The final vision of you and them in a boat is a peaceful and tragic resolution to their long sentence.
I’m really glad we played through this and even revisited the original ending. It’s a really special addition that tries telling a different story but still fits right along with the world of Outer Wilds. You can find our full playthrough on YouTube now along with our full thoughts on the game in our final episode:
We’re already back in the world of Outer Wilds! We’ve started a new series playing through the brand new spooky DLC “Echoes of the Eye.” This time we’re both going in blind, both having to learn the intricacies of the new environment. So far it’s been scratching that same Outer Wilds itch; plenty of mystery and awe as we scrape together the story of what the game dubs “The Stranger.” It’s also seems more spooky and haunted so we’re a bit more hesitant rounding corners…
You can catch episodes 1 & 2 on YouTube, now with spoiler-free chapters (if you have any feedback regarding these please leave a comment!). We’ll continue posting these at least once a week going forward, maybe more depending on our recording schedule. We hope you join us and don’t forget to bring your lantern:
Full game spoilers for The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures
Having finished “The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures” I can safely conclude that it’s all of the best parts of the Ace Attorney series but in an early 20th century setting. The new protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo is great, a hapless and inexperienced student who’s suddenly thrust into a legal career path. Susato is a fun sidekick too, a much smarter and less naive version of women characters in the series past. She’s so much more put together than Ryunosuke and the only reason she’s an assistant and not a lawyer is because of her gender. Herlock Sholmes, whose name is only switched because of copyright law in the US and is in fact very much the famous character, walks a fine line between savant and buffoon as his close reading of evidence often leads him down incorrect paths. The entire cast is stacked top to bottom with interesting characters and it’s exciting to see the rotating cast grow. The move to 3D models works wonders in courtroom scenes too; the characters are much more expressive with their movements and faces than they were capable of in 2D. The comedy is top notch and is matched across line reads, facial expressions, and movements. I loved everytime Baron von Zieks dramatically threw a glass or when the Skulkin brothers did their synchronized dance. The whole game seems like a major refresh for the series and like a new chance to try new modes of play and stories. In a big departure for the series chapter 2 doesn’t even include a trial and the new “Great Deduction” challenges are a fun way to piece together clues. The story even tries its hand at some pointed political topics, looking at how wealth and inequality affect the legal system. Chapter 3 especially embroils Ryunosuke in a compromised legal battle that stands against the usual “good” vs “bad” sides the courtroom drama usually takes. The ending of the game pulls some of its punches (it isn’t truly radical in its final message) but the game as a whole takes a more pointed approach than Ace Attorney games in the past.
Chapter 3 sees Ryunosuke and Susato finally arrive in London after a treacherous boat journey. Ryunosuke has committed to becoming a lawyer and fulfilling the purpose of his friend Kazuma (RIP, big time surprise that’s close in impact to Mia’s demise). He meets with the cold Lord Stronghart, the leader of the court system in London. He’s an intense man who runs on a schedule that’s planned down to the minute. Despite his sharpness he somehow acquiesces to Ryunosuke replacing Kazuma and gives him his first case. This is immediately suspicious but Lord Stronghart’s intentions remain ambiguous throughout the game. We see law enforcement implicated during the game but Lord Stronghart is untouched. He’s untrustworthy and I’m curious if this open thread is followed up in the sequel. Nevertheless Ryunosuke just received his first client and the case begins in 15 minutes. He and Susato rush to the court and briefly meet the defendant; Mr. McGilded a well to do man in London. He’s on trial for the murder of a brick maker and was found in the carriage with the body. The story behind this isn’t entirely clear from the outset as the trial almost immediately begins upon the protagonist’s arrival. McGilded leaves relaxed and claims that they can’t lose the case.
Fast forward the trial a little and Ryunosuke’s back is against the wall. This is keeping with the Ace Attorney games. Trials typically start with your client’s guilt already presumed and late reveals eventually lead to the truth and a not guilty verdict. McGilded’s trial is no different with the new exception of the jury system. Trials in this game are decided by a group of a half dozen London citizens from various walks of life (the characters are all really great). The case almost immediately goes to a guilty verdict as von Zieks presents decisive evidence. Susato reveals that the defense has the opportunity to try and persuade the jury to overturn their verdict before the trial ends. This new system is great as you expand your analysis for finding contradictions to 6 people. Once you find it you then have to play the jury off each other. You’re able to sow doubt amongst the jury and get the decision reversed. The case continues to wind until McGilded takes the stand. He explains there was another witness when suddenly a smoke bomb goes off and everyone is forced outside.
This is where things start getting strange. The person who fired the smoke bomb was an orphan girl named Gina Lestrade. She’s a pickpocket who also happened to be the major witness. Her testimony matches McGilded’s and seemingly proves his innocence. Even stranger, when you go back to look at the murder scene (the carriage) there’s a new blood stain on the floor. Everything falls into place as you intuitively pounce on the new evidence. Van Zieks is shocked and angry, claiming the evidence is forged. It’s too late though, the momentum is firmly favoring McGilded. Ryunosuke tries to support van Zieks as he clearly sees that something is wrong. McGilded becomes enraged at Ryunosuke and changes character but he calms down once it’s revealed that there is no evidence that the carriage was tampered with. McGilded receives his not guilty verdict and you helped him get it. He cackles as the trial draws to a close.
It’s a dark turn for a game and series that has players trust that they are representing innocent people. The Ace Attorney games are never about having player choice and you’re funneled down a set path in your trials and investigations. Chapter 3 flips the usual script and forces players into a rigged trial. You are in fact representing the guilty party and you will help him avoid any ramifications. Mr. McGilded is a rich man who has power and influence and also positive goodwill with London citizens for his charitable donations. You also slowly learn that he’s a corrupt man who has manufactured the proceedings you’re participating in. The game then is reinforcing the hollowness of this trial by requiring your actions to be motivated by proving his innocence. The player is in a compromised position from the jump but you aren’t aware until it’s too late. You were never in charge of the trial and all the victories you accumulate (finding contradictions in evidence) were in service of evil ends. You’re in the same view as Ryunosuke, thrust into a bad situation without knowing it.
The twisting of the usual Ace Attorney formula is reinforcing the game’s message on how the rich avoid repercussions and the people and systems that enable it. Ryunosuke is literally doing his job and defending his client. The game is able to keep him respectable by placing him there blindly as his first case in London and he realizes too late what is actually occurring in the courtroom. His job as a lawyer is not to find justice but rather believe and defend his client. Ace Attorney games usually make defending and justice one in the same; your client is usually innocent. You jump on every contradiction trying to slowly illuminate what actually happened that night. This is all from the perspective that your client is truthful and your job is to make everyone else believe that point of view. The McGilded trial twists this as you twist the narrative to suit him even though by the end he’s clearly guilty. Your actions, and the actions the game lays in front of you, make you complicit in his legal maneuvering. Every accomplishment or “a ha” moment the game feeds you is actually wrong. This is employed not to reflect on you the player but to have you question who benefits from the supposed “most advanced” legal system in the world. What is your role as a lawyer if the guilty can go free as long as they have the money to pay for it? It’s an interesting question that the Ace Attorney series has never really reckoned with before.
While chapter 3 takes some swings, the chapter ending and the rest of the game sidesteps some of those questions in favor of the more traditional approach (representing the more wacky and lower class members of society). McGilded is killed in a mysterious cutscene removing him and all the evil he represents to mostly wash away. It’s a bit of a let down, even if the final case is really fun and funny to play through. The game also guesstures at some of those questions around justice but merely drip feeds them as potential mysteries in the next game. The final case does implicate members of the legal system in crooked dealings, but the game is content to not really follow through on what those actions mean. They are there to add flavor to the case and it largely leaves it as that. The final moments with McGilded in the courtroom though are still very effective. The way he allows his mask to slip in his moment of victory works in making you feel gross and powerless. Both Ryunosuke and the player’s conception on how to interact in the courtroom are completely reversed to great effect.