Video Game Playthroughs

Trading Exploration for Checkpoints: Open World Strategies in Horizon Zero Dawn

I find it a bit strange that we classify a significant amount of games as “Open World Games.” This has come to mean that there is a large map which the player is free to roam and complete main and side quests in whatever order they choose. Many of these open world games have competing designs in how they approach their open worlds. Some choose to immerse the player in the in-game world through a clutter free UI and minimal direction while also making the towns you visit feel lived-in. Others choose a more guided approach, with more consistent direction toward quests and an open world built for quest completion efficiency. Horizon Zero Dawn is the epitome of the latter approach, a world that is beautiful to look at but feels much more like a series of obstacle courses for the player to complete.

Horizon Zero Dawn Overide Tallneck

That last statement may sound derisive but let me be clear about my time with Horizon; I am having a tremendous time with the game. After the opening few hours introduce you to the world and gameplay, you are let loose out of the opening zone to the wide-open world map. The gameplay feels great, incorporating hunting and trapping tactics against mechanized animals and dinosaurs provides a fun challenge. The story is engaging as well; Horizon provides many answers players have starting the game, but still leaves breadcrumbs along the way to keep it propulsive. There are dozens of beautiful locations to explore from more forested areas, Arizona-like deserts, to snowy mountain passes.

Horizon Zero Dawn Open World Forest
The world is really beautiful though, just avoid that map

The quest structure and player map is where the aforementioned guided open world design comes in. Active quests are constantly highlighted at the top of screen providing a google maps like guidance system. The ticker updates with how many meters away the player is from the quest and constantly shifts to guide players down the most optimum route. The map can also become extremely cluttered, very quickly at the start of the game. The first merchant you meet (and every other thereafter) offers map that reveal where all collectibles and important objects are on map. Every wooden deer, old world technology and mug are available to the player for a very low price. Both of these options can be avoided though; the guiding indicator can be turned off and the player does not have to buy the maps.

Horizon Zero Dawn Shadow Carja Cultists
Some real menacing foes

Even without the options turned on, the world never becomes engrossing. Areas of the map are largely devoted to enemy camps. The bigger cities on the map are mainly just hubs to pick up quests and trade items. The AI in those cities never offer anything new, just the same dialog from before. That’s not to say the lore behind the world isn’t engaging, but the world itself never fully justifies itself as something worth exploring. It’s mainly just trying to ferry you on to the next quest location; finish that quickly and move on the next. This design reminds me of Metal Gear Solid V, a game that chose a similarly vacant open world. The battlefields were places to encounter enemy camps and soldiers, but never something to truly reside in. Once you finish your quests there is no reason for you to stick around. This is very different than the design of something like Skyrim or the other Elder Scrolls games, where the towns and AI are ripe with varying stories and unique experiences.

Horizon’s open world design choices aren’t necessarily a negative though. The experience of constantly checking of quests sets off a tremendous amount dopamine receptors. The design demonstrates how open world game design is delineated. Both choices turn off different types of players, but that’s ok. In the end it’s still their choice, to either derive meaning from the world on their own and hop right in to the joy of the jungle gym.

Video Game Playthroughs

Feeling Good with Good Games: Nuclear Throne

A Good Bundle was a package of indie created games that donated the proceeds to two great advocacy groups: Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. With content from 128 creators, I want to go through each game and write a few words about them.

Nuclear Throne Cave Area A Good Bundle

Nuclear Throne doesn’t want you to overthink things. From the first time you spawn, the game never gives you a chance to catch your breath. With even the slightest hesitation you risk getting stuck in a volley of enemy bullets. Once you’re dead, it’s all the way back to square one.

Nuclear Throne Frog CharacterThe game’s premise is simple: kill all the enemies and advance to the next stage. This proves to be much more challenging than it initially seems: enemy bullets often take a huge chunk of your limited health. Nuclear Throne contains a colorful cast of character options to choose from, each with different powers and starting stats. The character designs are great and match the crazy atheistic well from the starting frog with a banjo to a particularly vicious looking flower.

Nuclear Throne most closely resembles bullet hell shooters but also contains roguelike elements. Each game run the player starts with the weak but effective starting pistol with random weapon drops located around the levels. The weapons in Nuclear Throne provide the game variety with multiple weapon types including explosives, machine guns, energy pistols, and melee weapons. The game also has some light leveling mechanics. Leveling requires you to acquire bright green Rad that comes from killing enemies or random item chests on levels. Rad only stays dropped for a limited time though: let them lie on the ground too long and they will disappear. Leveling comes at the end of each level and range from increased health to weaker/slower enemies. Upgrades only provide incremental benefits to help the player survive as the challenge increases. Both upgrades and the weapons are randomized for each run and disappear once the player dies. While it’s exciting to randomly get some new powerful weapon on the first level of a run, players can also get stuck with subpar drops for multiple levels. These run tradeoffs are part and parcel with roguelike games though.

The game is made up of individual levels which are nestled inside larger areas. The larger areas inform what enemies you’ll be fighting against. Areas are usually made up of around 3 levels with a larger boss character located at the end. The enemies and boss characters’ designs provide a large amount of personality to the game. From the main desert bad guys to the cave crystalline spiders, the design of the characters provides a great indication of their abilities and how the player should approach them. Bosses are also creatively designed, with my personal favorite being a dog/machine/ship hybrid that unleashes a barrage of missiles.

Nuclear Throne Dog Boss A Good Bundle
I mean right?!!!

Nuclear Throne would be nothing without great gameplay. The action is fast and frenetic constantly keeping the players on their toes as they swerve to avoid incoming enemy fire. Levels range from larger arenas to tight corridors so strategy is key in how you tackle your opposition. There are also environmental hazards to consider (classic exploding barrels) that cause not only harm to enemies, but can instant kill players as well.

The best part of each run is its brevity. Nuclear Throne is a great way to waste a half hour (and another, and the another). The speed of the game usually means runs are over in the blink of an eye. Add in weapon and character variety and you have a game that encourages players to continue coming back for more.

Final Fantasy Video Game Playthroughs

Final Fantasy XV: or How I Learned to Ignore the Flaws and Love the Mess

I decided to set up camp at the uppermost corner of the map as night had set and there wasn’t enough time for me to finish my quest. Before I could finish the day, Gladiolus stopped me to ask if I wanted to go fishing in the early morning and try to catch a rare fish. These one on one character opportunities (called “Tours”) don’t come up very often and offer good in-game bonuses, so I decided I would join him even though I’m not particularly fond of the fishing mini game. We ran down to the river in the early morning and the game announced that if I did not catch the fish in question that I would fail the tour and be sent back to camp. I spent almost an hour of game time fishing attempting to catch this mystical fish. I literally drained the entire lake of fish (something that wildlife conservationist would not be too pleased with) without catching the goal of this mission. After slowly realizing that the game had set me with a mission with no way to successfully complete it, I quit fishing and was given a failed screen.

This bug with the fishing tour is a good summation of my time so far with Final Fantasy XV: I have encountered a number of things that feel unfinished or unpolished that can be downright infuriating but yet I continue to find immense enjoyment in it. I seem to swivel on my position on the game every other day from being enamored to attempting to write it completely off. I decided on Thursday that it would be ok if I didn’t finish the game and give up, on Friday I sunk three hours in it and left hungry for more. As I pass the 20-hour mark of time played, I find the game hard to recommend but a joy to play.

Final Fntasy XV Cindy Feminism Sexist
Taken from

My problems with the game started at the very beginning of the game with the first female character, Cid’s (in case you were wondering if this is a Final Fantasy game) Cindy. This plucky female repairwoman has a positive attitude and is more than capable of earning her keep in the garage. She also wears very little (read: tiny scraps of) clothing. She wears a tiny button up (for maximum cleavage) and Daisy Duke style jean shorts that look like they shrunk in the wash. Apart from her character design, the game seems intent on making her an object. Every time you fill up your car at her gas station, she gives your car a full strip tease car wash (for every other gas station, Noctus is just shown leaning against the car). The characters in game all talk about her looks further cementing her role. This is made all the more irksome by the surprisingly large role she plays in the game, so her questionable character design is thrown at the player often.

Cindy also is one of only five female characters that I have met so far on my journey.  Gender diversity is lacking with only one really strong female character having been introduced. I am also not completely convinced that one of the main four characters couldn’t have been a woman. The game has made no case for why the main cast had to be all be male. They don’t all even begin the story as really close friends, with only Prompto being Noctus’ buddy before their trip (Ignis serves as council and Gladiolus as guardian). Final Fantasy has a tradition of strong female characters so this aspect seems especially overlooked.

Final Fantasy XV Characters Nerdist
Taken from

Final Fantasy XV also struggles with larger scale game design issues. After the introductory chapter, the player is set loose in an open world that is full of optional side quests to complete. A lot of this side content ends up being incredibly dull. Most quests have you running to fetch certain items for NPCs only for you to return these to them and be given another identical mission with a different location on the map. Very few end up with tangible rewards that make your time spent feel worth it. Hunts, side missions where you are tasked with defeating tougher monsters, are much more exciting in comparison and lets you delve into the surprisingly engaging active battle system. The game here too creates another irksome issue by only allowing you to take on one hunt. So you’ll have to keep going back to restaurant owners once you have completed one hunt to receive your next one.

The main quest’s in comparison vary wildly. While they are usually the most engaging missions (and the most traditional in terms of Final Fantasy design), they also serve to show Final Fantasy’s general lack of polish and cohesive game design. Main quests have you doing everything from completing dungeons to infiltrating bases. The variations in gameplay can be refreshing, but they don’t always work out. Dungeon crawling is much more in Final Fantasy’s wheelhouse and the sneak mechanics feel janky and cumbersome in comparison. Especially in a year where games have played with gameplay variations to great effect (Titanfall 2’s campaign), these tweaks fall especially flat. The main story is equally flawed as well. Your campaign to free your home from invading forces changes greatly over the course of the game’s chapters. Story’s points that were the main mission of chapter 2 are moved to the side quests by chapter 7 as new goals are set often with little in game explanation. Usually the loading screen in between chapters is used to explain the new goals rather than having the characters organically move the plot along. Major points in the plot often feel irrelevant by the next chapter. One point in particular has the empire cutting down on the open world only to have the next chapter lift this completely with little explanation. Cut scenes, where previous modern Final Fantasies showed impressively rendered story points, are used as flavor text and are usually kept to small snippets. They are also jarring as they seem much more like cuts removed from the Kingsglaive movie rather than actual scenes designed for the game.

Final Fantasy XV Combat Screen
Taken from

I could continue on for several more paragraphs documenting continued faults (some quick hits: the camera enjoys shooting bushes in combat rather the characters, the main quartet of characters are not incredibly interesting, and a special shout out to Dino for his atrocious Boston accent) but yet I am still incredibly drawn to the game. Riding around the open world on chocobos makes for a great compliment to traversing and questing in the game to the more static (but faster) travel in the car. The day/night cycle keeps things fast paced as you race to finish your quests before camping by nightfall. The combat is fast paced and is a genuine joy to play especially when you’re facing tougher and larger enemies. It is a testament to how incredibly positive these aspects of Final Fantasy are that they can outweigh the many weak points of this product.

Having waited 10 years (!) for this game to finish production, I could still be running on my long awaited anticipation to play the game. It seems mind boggling that this game feels very rough and unfinished for such a long production time. These rough edges lend it a certain charm however, as you often don’t see this level of design variation and lack of polish on big AAA releases. I couldn’t give this game a complete recommendation (especially as I approach what I hear is the more linear part of the game) but I am nonetheless having an incredibly good time playing Final Fantasy XV.