Video Game Playthroughs

Fantasian 2.0: Expanding on an Already Exceptional Template

Spoiler Warning for all of Fantasian. You can read my write up on the first release here.

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.

Fantasian Bubble Worlds

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. 

Fantasian Metal Ribbidon

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. 

Fantasian Entrapped Zinikir

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.

Fantasian Lagrange Wind

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.

Love the lights here too

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.

Fantasian Jas Castle

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.

Fantasian Falcion Bypath
Video Game Playthroughs

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye: Hauntings and the Artificial Nature of the Stranger

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.

Submerged Structure

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.

Slide Reel

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:

Video Game Playthroughs

Sekiro is like Riding a Bike

I turn a corner and immediately fog appears behind me. An apparition with a bladed polearm walks out to greet me. It dawns on me that I left this save right before a boss battle. I try to run through a mental checklist of strategies right as the corrupted monk swings at me. I hit L1 and the satisfying deflection sound rings out. That familiar sense of adrenaline starts to rise. The red circle indicator appears above her head as she swings her weapon along the ground. I hit x and jump on her head. I remember all I need to know now, just like riding a bike.

I’m not going to say I won that initial fight (I took her down a dozen tries later) but the familiarity of how to win came back to me with startling quickness. I had previously set aside Sekiro for over 4 months as I played through two major Nintendo releases (Fire Emblem and Pokémon respectively) and was worried about the uphill battle I was in for. Even though the difficulty remained, the muscle memory was surprisingly still there. I knew intuitively how to move, parry, and attack enemies immediately and I felt little to no restrictions to getting back in. I can’t think of a single other game that would make returning to it feel this good and I think that lies in its reliance on reflex based combat rather than accumulating powers like in other action games. 

Sekiro Corrupted Monk Apparition

Sekiro came out one year ago. I purchased it within a week after hearing lavish praise from gaming publications (especially Waypoint Vice Games). I still have not finished Sekiro. The game is absolutely exhausting; as much as I can’t bring to my mind other games that are easy to get into, I can’t think of any other games that are as hard to get involved in and stay involved in. Every enemy can take you down if you mess up and there are no abilities to level up (besides a longer health bar) to make fighting them easier. The game absolutely requires your full attention to react to each enemy’s unique attacks. This means the game absolutely requires you to learn how to play, to build up an actual skill in controlling Sekiro and muscle memory to executing moves with the controller.

I can only really focus on it for shorter play sessions and on days where I have energy to spare. This game came out in a year where I couldn’t rely on that energy being there, meaning that I couldn’t devote multiple weeks devoted to Sekiro. I had to make conscious decisions to step away; I could never make any progress with my personal tank on empty. That’s what has made this game so special to me; the ability to come back and pick it up on days that I do feel full. Those skills I had built up immediately come back to me. Enemy attack patterns and parry timings are ingrained in my brain from repeated failures and victories. There were lots of conversations last year about when the systems finally “click;” mine was overcoming Seven Ashina Spears. When I performed the perfect mikiri counter and performed the death blow, I finally felt like I had it.

Sekiro Seven Ashina Spears

12 months later, this same feeling came back as I reloaded and squared up against the corrupted monk spirit. When I mikiri countered her attack, the exact same feeling of outperforming Seven Spears came back. I began to memorize her patterns for the openings and cracks for my counter attack. I’ve made it as far as Fountainhead Palace now and I’m looking forward to finishing it in the future, whenever that might be.

Competitive Games Dota Gaming Culture

My Commitment to Dota is Eating up my Schedule

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

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

Dota 2 Sand King

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

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

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

Dota 2 Earthshaker

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

Video Game Playthroughs

Ni No Kuni II: Variety is the Spice of Life

I was a little hesitant to pick up Ni No Kuni II. I was feeling burnt out on RPGs as I had dedicated a lot of time to them in 2017. I finished Persona 5 and Final Fantasy 6 (for the very first time!) and had sunk over 30 hours into Divinity Original Sin II. The thought of dedicating time to another long RPG seemed daunting at best. The mixed reviews from the first game didn’t help, especially since it supposedly turned into a late game grind. Good word of mouth of the sequel prevailed though and I ended up purchasing it based off those recommendations. And boy am I glad I took that advice.

I am currently about 10 hours in and loving it. I’ll save any discussion of story for another post as currently, as I am still early in the game and (in true RPG fashion) it has yet to really develop in a meaningful way. I’ll would much rather focus instead on the variety of mechanics the game has to offer. This variety has made the initial hours fly by as the game slowly introduces its surprisingly diverse systems (with still more coming my way).

Ni No Kuni II Thogg

The core of the game revolves around active time RPG battles. Rather than having a traditional turn based battle system, instead battles are more similar to a combination of Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry. You control one of 3 characters (you have the option to choose which character to control) that can participate in battles while the other 2 are controlled by AI. Each character has a light, heavy, and ranged attack and can also be equipped with 3 close-combat weapons. Each character also has a total of 4 magic abilities, which can range from casting fireballs to spinning sword attacks. You can cast your special skills at any time, but it is to your advantage to build up your different weapon meters. Weapons individually build percentages as you attack and when they reach 100% your special skills do extra damage. Ni No Kuni thus requires you to constantly cycle between your close range weapons to build percentages up to augment your special attacks. The game also has you recruiting (and eventually making) little spirit helpers called higgledies. These pint sized spirits assist in battle as well, providing damage or buffs to your party. They can also activate special abilities during battle, which include projecting a healing barrier or dropping a large dark orb on enemies.

Ni No Kuni II higgeldy

If this sounds a bit complicated, so far it really isn’t. The early parts of the game can feel a bit like training wheels as battles require little more than jamming on your light and heavy attacks. But the game has slowly increased the difficulty, requiring strategy in implementing dodging, blocking, and activating special abilities. Ni No Kuni also has what they call the “Tactics Tweaker” that allows you to invest points earned from battles that adjust your parties’ strengths and weaknesses. There are quite a few settings to tweak to advantages against certain enemy types, elemental affinities, and even higher drop rates for items. These settings are all tied to each other though. For example, if you choose to do more damage against blob-like enemies then you won’t do as much damage against fairy types. This system keeps your party from completely running over enemies as different areas will necessitate different affinities based on enemy and elemental types.

Ni No Kuni II Skirmish

Breaking up the RPG action battles are optional, more unit focused battles called skirmishes. Skirmishes take place on a wider map than the confined RPG battles do. They are much similar to Dynasty Warriors, where you maneuver across an open map. These battles have up to 4 squads of minions orbit around your main character and engage in fights with groups of enemies. These battles aren’t the same type of active as the regular battles; you won’t be pressing buttons to have your characters attack. Instead it’s all about placing your orbiting minions in line with enemies. Your minions then automatically attack the enemy troop until either you move them or one of the squads fall.

Skirmishes have a rock-paper-scissor style of troop combat. Troops are either one of 3 types: light (swords), heavy (shields or spears), and range (archers). Put a sword group against the ranged troops and they’ll easily win, but put them against a heavy troop and you’ll face casualties. Skirmishes are decided by reducing the opponents’ military might to 0. Taking down enemy troops results reduces the enemy’s military might so defeating all the troops is the only way to win. Player’s also has special abilities to activate during the match as well, but these cost military might so they have to be used sparingly.

Ni No Kuni II Kingdom Builder

The final piece of the gameplay puzzle is the Kingdom Builder. The main focus of the game’s story revolves around you creating a brand new kingdom, so Ni No Kuni II puts you in charge of it. You aren’t completely creating a city from scratch a la Sim City, but instead choosing what buildings, upgrades, and research to perform first. Your kingdom has specific areas where specific shops must be built so it is up to you to prioritize what shops to build and upgrade first. Shops all offer unique advantages; for example you can prioritize researching higgledies by upgrading the Higglery or bolster your military might in skirmishes through the Barracks.

These individual shops are also manned by NPCs that you place in each building. Each character has specific skills that allow for more complex projects and faster research. You’ll start out with a small number of NPCs to choose from, but you can collect more by completing side quests. This places a great incentive to complete side quests, something I have a hard time reconciling in other RPGs. The idea of not only receiving specific items as rewards but also having a new person join my kingdom makes me more motivated to put the main story on hold. Ni No Kuni II gives player’s like me who tend to stick to the main story quest path a reason to pick up side diversions.

Ni No Kuni II Sky Pirates

I was not expecting to write this much about Ni No Kuni II’s gameplay before purchasing. The cute fairy tale setting and Studio Ghibli animation houses a surprisingly complex RPG. The variety of systems at play keep things fresh and I can’t wait to see how all of these mechanics evolve throughout my time.

Video Game Playthroughs

Dragon Ball Fighterz Makes me feel Like a Kid Again

I haven’t been taken with a game quite the way I am with Dragonball Fighterz in a very long time. That doesn’t mean I haven’t liked or even loved quite a few games over the recent years, but this new obsession marks something deeper. I’m not playing the game everyday, only playing from time to time. I’m not even that great at it and am currently in a losing slump.  I can’t help but think about it constantly; I have been consistently coming back to it something I haven’t done since I picked up Dota over 7 years ago. I pick it back up in between all the other games I’ve been playing, hopping back in the lab to brush up on my technique. I’m even watching pro fighting tournaments again after I had become a fair weather Evo fan. Arc Systems has simply created something that is unabashedly up my alley.

It reminds me of the way I used to obsess over things when I was a kid. If something caught my attention, I was much more drawn into all the minutia about it. I would be dig deep into the details of the world, remembering places, times, or scenes where important events took place. I would latch onto characters not just because of personality, but their style and demeanor as well. I would run back scenes or events through my head remembering how cool or sad I thought something was. Dragon Ball Z was one of those obsessions. It’s the first show I remember having to watch as soon as it came on. I would draw the characters in a sketchbook. I wanted to be part of the world so badly that I would draw myself as one of the characters. I knew every storyline and every character and was very protective of my feelings over it.

Goku Black

Obviously my nostalgia for DBZ plays a key part in my obsession with Fighterz. The art perfectly meshes Arc Systems’ 2.5D animation with the original series stylings. Character’s voices (and screams and trash talk) are all perfectly matched. Everything about Fighterz is lovingly recreated from original DBZ right down to the stunning dramatic finishes. I even feel a pang of guilt every time I fire up my team (Kid Buu, Goku Black, Gotenks) since canonically these characters would never fight together. DLC characters even have me excited to see what new team members will be pulled in from the shows’ deep bench of villains and heroes (hell I’m even excited about the new Bardock and Broly!)

I’m obviously not alone; the game leads this year’s EVO sign ups and with specific show lingo and canon from the tv show are an important part of the professional scene now. There’s something more to this game though something that years of Budoki and Zenoverse games never captured; an actual, honest to goodness, professional grade fighting game.

I have never felt so empowered playing a fight game like this since I first played Street Fighter IV (almost 10 years ago?!) which was the first fighting game that inspired me to buy a fighting stick. I watched tutorials online determined to get better at the game. I wanted to be the best dammit! (or at least very very good). Fighterz has filled that void that I almost forgot I had. Even when I lose a match, I don’t feel especially discouraged. The game’s mechanics even make onboarding a breeze; in hindsight I have no idea why I had misgivings about the auto combo system, which allows players to pull off long strings of hits by only pressing one button. That specific piece is an incredibly ingenious idea allowing players to perform cool moves without handing them a match. Everything command wise is a breeze to pull off (especially pulling off familial Kamehameha waves).

Dragonball Fighterz Gohan Super

I honestly just want to continue playing and obsessing over this game. The fighting game community’s embrace of it makes my interest seem rewarded. I want to keep fighting, training and getting better, and isn’t that what Dragonball Z is all about?

DBZ Goku Training

Video Game Playthroughs

Dunking makes me feel good – my time with Pyre

Dunking is one of only few perfect things in this world. The art of the dunk, long sought after by many basketball players, is elusive yet o so rewarding. A perfect dunk has the rare accomplishment of being both artful and powerful. Players like Vince Carter epitomized the beauty of the dunk, how the balance of both jump height and rotation complexity can form a perfect union (the 2000 dunk contest is a thing of beauty). Vince Carter might not have been the first person on SuperGiant game’s minds, but the essence of dunking is flowing through their action/adventure game Pyre.

Pyre NightwingsLet’s take a quick step back; while Pyre has a lot of dunking that’s not really what the game is about. Pyre takes place in a fantasy setting where outcasts from the main society (known as the “Commonwealth”) compete in sports-like contests to achieve access back into society. These contests are known as “Rites” and are a spiritual ceremony and each team represents a different one of the eight mythical characters (“Scribes”) that saved their land from chaos. Your job as the player is to embody “the Reader,” one who has the ability to read what is known as “The Book of Rites” that provides you with strategy and background on how to win these rites.

If this all sounds a bit dense, it kind of is. Pyre is a game very heavy on story. The Book of Rites acts as a lore book for the universe. To the game’s credit, it slowly deals out these pieces as you progress throughout the various rites. The Book slowly fills up with passages on the locations in the world, opposing teams, backstory on the rites themselves, and much much more. There is a lot of information given in these passages but the games slow pace at which it doles the out makes it easier to digest.

Pyre Party

The gameplay in between the rites, which takes up the majority of the game, is similar to something like an adventure game. You will interact with characters in your party, choose what paths your party takes on the way to compete in rites, and eventually pick which rites to compete in. Luckily these passages are engaging as the story and writing are superb. All the characters, both friends and adversaries, have complex backstories about how they ended up outcast (or in the “Downside”) and motivations for gaining access back to the Commonwealth. Most enemies could not be classified as pure evil and even the most hardened competitors have sympathetic reasons for winning.

Pyre Dunk Gif

The rites themselves are really the best part though; this is where the dunking comes in. Each rite is a 3v3 match where your characters must take a ball (“Celestial Orb”) and move it into the opposing team’s “Pyre.” The player can only control one character at a time though, so positioning other characters is crucial. The characters each have auras, outlined fields around them that if an enemy comes in contact with will put them out of play for a duration of time (“Banishment”). These auras can also be shot at opposing players to banish them as well. Each character has different stats which effect speed, aura size, and point values for scoring. This means getting the orb into the pyre requires banishing opposing players or outmaneuvering them. Characters can also throw the orb from a distance, but it takes a charge up time, rewards you with less points, and can be intercepted. This leaves players to mostly rely on literally dunking characters into the pyre. I cannot stress enough how GREAT this feels. Outmaneuvering an opponent with a speedy character or wiping out an entire team with well-placed aura shots, leaves you with a great adrenaline rush. When you are able to dunk your character into the pyre, that’s icing on the cake. Matches (especially as the game progresses) become tense stalemates and one wrong move can leave you wide open. I cannot stress enough how good the rites feel and I never truly felt too powerful over other opponents. If you do though, you can always turn on extra modifiers that increase match difficulty and also give characters more experience.

Pyre Nightwing Score

Winning enough of these rites is the ultimate goal and eventually allows you to pick which characters to send back to the Commonwealth. This happy ending is only for that one character though, and once they are gone they are no longer available for your team. To make matters worse, only characters that have a certain amount of experience are allowed to ascend. This combined with Pyre’s strong writing make it an incredibly difficult choice. The reward is seeing these characters that you have grown close with achieve their freedom. It’s hard not to feel a bit twisted up sending a character back to their life on the other side of the world. After they ascend, other characters in your party also react to their absence making it sting even more.

It should come as no surprise that SuperGiant Games has knocked it out of the park again. Their writing is as strong as ever, as they showed in Bastion and Transistor, but this time they’ve been able to pair it with even better gameplay. And nothing (I mean nothing) feels and looks better than a dunk. Keep on dunking outcasts!

Gaming Culture Star Fox

It’s Time to Rethink Star Fox

Star Fox has had a rough go of it. The series hasn’t had a true hit since Star Fox 64, which is celebrating its 20th (!) anniversary. Currently, Star Fox stands as Nintendo’s sole blind spot as all its other flagship series continue to find success. Adhering to older game styles have proven to be successful with new games this year (see: Sonic Mania). Star Fox’s place as a top Nintendo series seemingly prevents a success like that; $60 is just too steep. With the series currently on hold with the most recent failing on the Wii U and Star Fox 2 finally being released as a pack in with the SNES classic, Star Fox’s path to success is by rethinking the series’ place as a AAA title.

Star Fox 2

Star Fox’s best games are enjoyable because of their single-minded gameplay approach.  The third person aerial combat provides Nintendo’s trademark accessibility through its simplicity; one button to shoot and one button for bombs. The game also had Fox and team never leave the cockpit of their respective arwings, landmaster, and blue-marine in both the Super Nintendo and N64 games. Further iterations attempted to have the animal heroes fight on foot with negative results.

This places the series in a tricky position. Fans want new games to adhere to the N64 formula while also expanding on it. This formula has not aged especially well though; while the gameplay is still engaging, the game is thin on content. One run through the star map (~7 levels) takes under an hour. Anyone familiar with how to navigate the star map can take the multiple run throughs necessary to see all the levels within a few short hours. This makes charging $60 for a new game a tough proposition. But this is where that change in mindset could benefit both Nintendo and fans; by moving Star Fox from console headliner to a more budget friendly downloadable game fans can get the Star Fox gameplay they want without having to tack on unnecessary modes or gameplay tweaks.

Star Fox Adventures
Remember this???

It would help to think of Star Fox as another modern-day game type; rogue-like. Indie games like Galax Z, Spelunky, and Dead Cells are a perfect way to reinvigorate the Star Fox series. While their gameplay is very different, these games offer tight focused single player campaigns that satisfies players much in the same way the original Star Fox games do. Their campaigns are segmented into discrete levels with each subsequent mission increasing the gameplay difficulty with a final challenge building on everything that came before it. These games are also meant to be repeated. Also like Star Fox, when you run out of lives you restart at the beginning. Rogue-like game feel complete with just this campaign as players receive a full experience by the time the credits roll. There is no need for a multiplayer component or larger variations on the core gameplay.

Star Fox Train Fight

Players also don’t feel cheated out at their smaller price point. This is the perfect area for Star Fox and a way for Nintendo to focus on a smaller number of levels to fill the campaign star map. No need for weird platforming sequences or on foot combat, keep the players and the animals in vehicles at all times. Include a multiplayer component if you must, but just don’t make it the focus of the game. There is also no reason for any shifts in control schemes either, just keep it to the two buttons and the joysticks. Star Fox fans would agree, we’re all happier when we’re fighting giant robotic ships in arwings. By moving away from thinking of Star Fox as a headlining act, Nintendo can effectively please everyone who wants a taste of that old nostalgia.

Competitive Games Dota Gaming Culture

Missing Stuns and Feeding: Losing in Dota 2

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

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

Dota 2 Hero Chart

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

Dota 2 Lane Fight

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