Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

For the uninitiated, the Dragon Quest series can seem like a daunting prospect. As venerable and well respected as that other giant of the JRPG genre, the Final Fantasy series, the Dragon Quest games quite literally laid the template that developers still follow to this day. But where Final Fantasy titles reinvent the wheel with each iteration, Dragon Quest refines it’s core conceit, evoking a nostalgia in long time fans in a way other games rarely do. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age has a simple design mantra… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Traditional, perhaps to a fault, DQXI recalls a bygone era. An era where heroes were silent and destined to save the world. It is a tale that you have probably heard before, but it’s not in the telling that it succeeds, but in the execution of its seemingly simplistic mechanics, unbelievably charming characters and beautifully realized landscapes. Everyone, from the companions that aid you in your journey, to the foes that oppose you, down to the descriptions of the items you find, are crafted with love, care and a fiendish attention to detail

You play the role of The Luminary, a legendary figure in the world of Erdrea, who is destined to defeat the Dark One. Born to the king and queen of Dundrasil, our hero still only an infant at the time, is one of only several to survive the complete devastation of the kingdom as an army of monsters raze it to the ground. Taken in by some kindly villagers that raise him as their own, a big part of the Luminary’s journey is discovering who his family were and what his role will be in a world beset on all sides.

You are joined on this journey by what just might be one of the most colorful and likable cast of characters ever seen in a JRPG. Of course each character is given time in the spotlight, and considerable time is spent explaining each’s motivations for aiding the Luminary, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, that with the protagonist being of the silent persuasion, your companions do the bulk of the narrative lifting, and its through their eyes that we really see the world.

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Each is much more than just an archetype, Erik for example seems at first to be a standard rogue type character, from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint. But while certainly roguish, he is plagued by doubt and indecision. He can be built to deal insane damage and apply all kinds of nasty status effects to foes, or more of an AOE damage dealer by specializing in boomerangs.

The twins Veronica and Serena fill the traditional mage and healer roles respectively. While initially a little bit tropey, Veronica quickly came to be one of my favorite characters due to her spunky nature and explosive damage dealing potential. Serena is perhaps a little underdeveloped, maybe the most of the core cast, but her role as a dedicated healer is virtually essential, at least in the mid to late game. The sisters have a very endearing dynamic to them, and their familial bond is a strong part of their story line throughout.

We must, of course, spend sign some with the incredible, the fabulous, Sylvando. A famous troubadour, Sylvando is initially portrayed as quite mysterious, always evasive about his own past. But he wears his heart on his sleeve, his only goal in life to bring smiles to the people of the world in his own spectacularly flamboyant style. Mechanically he functions as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, able to deal damage and dual wield with swords and knives or deal group damage with whips. He can heal, buff allies and debuff his foes. Truly the star of the show, Sylvando is a standout character and a wonder to behold.

Rounding out the core cast is Rab and Jade, wandering martial artists initially portrayed as antagonists. They are a little harder to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say they play an important part in the games narrative. Rab is an elderly gentleman, whose role lies somewhere in between Veronica’s and Serena’s – that of a magical damage dealer and healer. He can also dish out some decent damage by dual wielding claws. Jade, meanwhile, is pure physical damage. Playing something of a femme fatale, she is murderous with polearms and brings some much needed physical punch to the group.

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The turn-based combat is simple but incredibly satisfying, honed to a razor edge. Your party learn various abilities at certain levels, and can specialize into branching skill trees that are reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, if a little more streamlined. There is an incredible amount of synergy between the different party members, and you really can find success with any combination. Further complicating things is the Pep system – each turn, there is a certain chance one of your party will become “pepped up”, a state in which they can do increased damage, or have a higher healing ability or dodge chance, depending on the character. This lasts for a few turns, or can be spent by unleashing cinematic pep powers. The cool thing about this is that, like Chrono Trigger before it, if multiple characters are pepped up, you can unleash very specific full party combos that can have a variety of uses, and are glorious to behold.

But what’s a good role playing game without some great loot? DQXI features an interactive forging system that I found myself addicted to, in which you need to use very specific strikes to forge items in a mini game that is surprisingly in depth. While min-maxer’s will obsess over forging the perfect equipment, its nice that even if you fail, you still receive the item at a base level, and your carefully horded ingredients don’t go to waste.

These ingredients are found out in the wild and dropped by the games horde of delightful foes, each more ridiculous than the last.  I fell in love with Akira Toriyama’s monster design, I’ve long been a fan of his work and this is some of his best. It’s incredible to me that a turn-based game can be so comedic on a mechanical level. Bad guys might fall asleep, get distracted or fall in love with your party, all animated with loving detail. The boss fights too are fantastic, and there are a lot of them. This is a big game, with hundreds of enemies and dozens of areas and hours upon hours of dialogue. Each townsperson has something to say, and often something new to say after each story beat.

While not an open world game per se, there are parts of Dragon Quest that feel quite open. Generally you will enter an area, get some story beats, and then be let loose to accomplish some grand endeavor. The areas, while somewhat empty, are large and have multiple layers to them. They are filled with secrets and enemies to do battle with, but can be quite a task to walk across, and thankfully you are given several different modes of transport as you progress through the game. All are colorful and varied, and really add to the sense of a large, inhabited world.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a triumph of classic game design in the modern era. Few series today can boast of such a successful lineage and still put out games of such high quality. Even if you didn’t grow up playing these kinds of games, DQXI succeeds in its accessibility, and if anything will make you a fan of the genre, it is this game. Likewise, it appeals to hardcore fans of the series with its wealth of content and homages to prior titles, and is a high water mark in gaming worthy of your time. Plus, it has given us the magnificent Sylvando, and for that alone I’m grateful.

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NieR: Automata Review

For the Glory of Mankind.

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Reviewed for: PS4 Pro

Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.

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NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.

Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.

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The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.

One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.

And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.

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Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.

Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.

Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.

And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.

Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.

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In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.

One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.

Hollow Knight Review

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Reviewed for : Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 30 hours, visiting each area and received ”The Hollow Knight” ending.

Hollow Knight is a haunting journey through a dark, treacherous and beautiful world full of surprise, and both hope and horror. Playing as The Knight, Hollow Knight’s enigmatic silent protagonist, you will explore the depths, which alternate between darkness and the light, of the cursed subterranean kingdom known as Hallownest.

All of this is done quite expertly in a way that other games of its genre will ape going forward, if they are wise. I promised myself I would avoid the following terms in this review, there really is no better way to describe games of this ilk… Taking some of the best elements of both Metroidvania and Soulslike titles, Hollow Knight marries the trappings and tropes of these genre’s and makes them it’s own, with its smart, satisfying take on 2D combat, intense platforming and addictive upgrade system.

The basic gameplay loop looks something like this. After a brief tutorial, you are set loose on the semi open world from the starting town of Dirtmouth. From here, you explore the sometimes-scary and always-tense world, encountering the games 100+ enemy types and occasionally a boss encounter (of which there are more than 30). After defeating foes, you will be rewarded with Geo, the games currency, which can be used to buy upgrades and charms back in Dirtmouth and from various other vendors around the labyrinthine world. If you die, you lose a third of your Soul meter and all of your currency will be guarded by a familiar looking shade, who must be defeated to return it and your Soul gauge to their rightful places. Sound familiar?

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All of this is set to what is one of the most evocative and memorable sound tracks to a game I have played in recent memory, whether it be moody strings to set the tone, or one of the orchestral epics that accompany any serious encounter. The art style, while simplistic, is wildly original and constantly surprising… because, and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this in four paragraphs, every character encountered, both friend and foe, are bugs. Tiny, little, lovingly hand drawn insects, from grubs to Rhinoceros beetles, spiders and praying mantises.

Now, there are a bunch of meta-narrative threads that can be drawn upon from this insect conceit, and Hollow Knight does, to some extent. Insects are a great metaphor to draw from, when your story revolves around the nature of freedom and independent thought. Of course this is explored in a lot of games media, albeit usually more so in sci-fi and Android fiction (insects are automaton’s, after all). But I found Hollow Knight’s take on all of this to be charming and refreshing, thanks to its characters, even if it is largely derivative of That-Game-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named plot line, told in a similarly sparse and indirect fashion.

But we don’t play these games for their stories, that’s just a happy addition, at least for me. Hollow Knight is all play, and it plays like a dream. Surprisingly twitchy for a 2D platformer, combat is lightning fast and is so intense I would often forget to breathe during tough encounters. The Knight wields a nail like it was a longsword, and the majority of combat occurs at nail-length. This involves a horizontal slash, a rising vertical slash and a downward slash reminiscent of earlier Zelda and Ducktales titles. That is to say, that this downward strike has the added bonus of pogoing the player upwards, which can used both tactically during in encounters and also in exploration.

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To complement this, The Knight also has several Soul spells at his command, although they are unlocked over the course of the game. Soul is a resource gained by striking enemies, and it can be expended to power the aforementioned abilities, which are really the players only ranged option. To further complicate this, you can expend a third of the Soul gauge to heal one mask (Hollow Knights term for hitpoints). This healing is further FURTHER complicated by a brief charge up period, during which, if any damage is taken, then a mask is lost, along with whatever Soul was used to begin the process.

Which brings us to the charms and notches system, which I think is how Hollow Knight has kept me playing nearly 10 hours after rolling credits. Each charm has a unique effect, whether that be something mundane like increasing the nail’s reach, or increasing attack speed… to something dramatic, like exuding a dung beetles toxic odor, or spawning miniature versions of The Knight that will launch kamikaze attacks on any nearby enemies. These charms take up a certain number of notches, with you having a very limited capacity at the start of the game, this number increasing as you progress through the game and allowing for more complex setups. And this really is my favorite part of the game – build construction. You can build The Knight in a, quite frankly, absurd number of ways. Want to pump out melee damage, or increase your magic output? Easy. But how about something a little more exotic?

The example I used earlier was a build I played around with. My Knight had a toxic cloud following him at all times, that would damage any enemies that  where caught in it. And he would constantly spawn little Knights that would seek out enemies and destroy those out of reach. I had this coupled with the ability to heal quicker, and upon successfully healing my little guy would dispense a large cloud of toxic spores due to a mushroom charm I had picked up… I threw in a couple of nail buffs and I had something that worked form.  All of that on it own is well and good, but the true genius of this system are the secret synergies that underpin the whole thing. At no point in the game are you told this, and it entourages experimentation and its super fun to discover different combos. Those mini Knights, once coupled with the toxic cloud, explode on impact and leave miniature noxious cloud behind, and the effect of the mushroom too is similarly enhanced.

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It’s that sense of exploration that truly makes Hollow Knight so spectacular, both from a narrative standpoint, and from a technical one. There is a mastery here, that is truly special, and I can wait to see what Team Cherry come up with next. With Hollow Knight, they have set the bar incredibly high, and I think I will be comparing games with far larger budgets and teams to it for a very long time. I could leave you with a metaphor about an ant lifting its own weight many times over, but instead, just go out and pickup Hollow Knight. It’s incredible.

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine Review

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Publisher: CD Projekt Red

Reviewed for : PS4 Pro

Played: Around 20 hours, completing the main story and most optional sidequests.

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I think the highest praise I can heap upon Blood and Wine, the second and final expansion pack (I miss that term) for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, is that after everything was said and done and the credits had rolled… All I wanted to do was play the entire game over again. And I don’t just mean Blood and Wine, I mean all of it, goddammit

So a little back story. I had played through all of The Wild Hunt back when it came out in 2015. I loved it, the game is and was fantastic. I sort of rushed things at the end, but in all I played the hell out of it, and it was amazing. And then I just kind of moved onto other games. Later, Hearts of Stone was released, and eventually Blood and Wine, and I always told myself I would return to Velen, but life got in the way. The stars aligned this week, and that fateful day arrived… It was Blood and Wine time. But of course MY Geralt was lost forever, in the great PS4 bricking of 2016. Luckily the folks over at CD Projekt Red had prepared for just this situation, and thus armed with my pre-generated character conveniently starting at an appropriate level, I set off for Toussaint.

Blood and Wine kicks off with a bang, and like most everything in Wild Hunt, is superbly written. Toussaint, a vassal kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire-esque Nilfgard, is famous for its heavenly wine, beautiful countryside and chivalric knights. Based on real-world medieval France and Italy, Toussaint is an incredibly lush setting of rolling green hills and vineyards that contrasts wonderfully with the bogs and marsh’s of Velen and the wind swept shores and icy peaks of Skellige. Set after the events of both Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone, Geralt is offered a contract by Anna Henrietta, the beautiful and hard-hearted Duchess of Toussaint. A Beast is on the loose and has killed several knights already, in spectacularly bloody fashion, prompting Annarietta (as the Duchess is known) to enlist the aid of a professional monster hunter, a Witcher.

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And I think what Blood and Wine does best is play upon established tropes to fantastic effect. We have all seen knights in various forms of media, and their depiction here is just that but dialed up to eleven. Noble lords, gallantly battling monsters in the hopes of winning a fair lady’s attention, and demanding satisfaction for any slight, real or imagined. Which is why I found myself laughing out loud at so many of Geralt’s interactions with these foppish types. Geralt, of course, is very no-nonsense and professional, but also has a wry sense of humour that comes out occasionally. So hearing him tell an effete knight to “fuck off” really didn’t get old for me.

Mechanically this is just more of the same great Witcher 3 gameplay loop: take on a quest or contract, use your Witcher senses to solve light puzzles and deduce the order of events at a crime scene, and engage either men or monsters in combat. Blood and Wine doesn’t really mess with this formula too much, and if you where a fan of the Wild Hunt than that’s a good thing, but if that doesn’t do it for you, then you won’t be converted by this new content. But content there is, as the main storyline is fairly lengthy (so long as you don’t mainline it) and there are a bunch of new side quests and contracts to take on as well. I spent around 20 hours with Blood and Wine, but I probably could have doubled that play time if I really tried to engage with everything here.

New mechanics are introduced by way of of mutations, which really shake things up, and the addition of a new home for Geralt: the vineyard of Corvo Bianco. Mutations are a kind of endgame addition to Geralt’s skill tree which can affect combat in a really surprising (and possibly game breaking) way. Examples include having the Aard sign take on ice properties and potentially insta-kill frozen enemies, or making your crossbow viable as a real damage dealer, or even having the chance for random decoctions to activate upon potion consumption. These are all quite powerful, but that is appropriate as Blood and Wine is essentially end game content, and features some of the most difficult encounters in the game.

The vineyard, conversely, isn’t so much a game changer as it is a place to store all your cool Witcher gear and display it proudly. Full disclosure, I didn’t have the gold to fully upgrade it, but I did tidy up the house and actually only visited it several times. As this was not my full play through character, I didn’t have so much gear that I really needed anywhere to store my things, but I imagine that this must be a godsend for players that have invested hundreds of hours into the main game. An aspect I really enjoyed was that you can acquire paintings from quests and stores and hang them in your home: there is a suitably fabulous portrait of Dandelion hanging in my foyer and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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What Blood and Wine does best though, is provide a a fitting end to the adventures of Geralt. After countless years on The Path, Geralt, the White Wolf, the Butcher of Blaviken, slayer of countless monsters and hero of a thousand tales, deserves a happy ending. And he might even get one, depending on the choices made throughout the base game and compounded by the events of Blood and Wine. The world of the Witcher is a dark and harrowing place, and Geralt’s tale has been a long one, and even though he wasn’t my Geralt, seeing him settle down and live his version of happily ever after was one of the more satisfying conclusions to a video game I have ever seen. Of course, things didnt have to turn out that way, there are multiple ways this story can end, but I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine might just be the finest piece of additional content ever created. It understands that its base game is rock solid, and doesn’t seek to change any of its core mechanics. Instead, it gives us a new adventure in a new land, but the way in which we experience it is wonderfully familiar: in fact, it feels just like coming home.

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Celeste Review

Keep Climbing

Developer: Matt Makes Games

Publisher: Matt Makes Games

Reviewed for: Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 15 Hours

 

 

Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain, both figuratively and literally. It’s also a tough as nails hardcore platformer, the likes of which I have never encountered before. And while it can be tough, it`s mostly fair. I had more than a couple of deaths due to the precise timing required by the game, but I suppose that could be a failing of the hardware I was using (attached Joycons).

Developed and published by Matt Makes Games, based out of Canada and consisting mostly of the titular Matt Thorson and a small team of his friends, Matt Makes Games have delivered an impressive title in Celeste, and won widespread acclaim for its charming mix of retro visuals, hardcore platforming mechanics and heartfelt story.

At it`s core, Celeste nails its central conceit, which is trial and error. You as the player will die over and over again searching for the solution to the complex jumping puzzles that are presented in each of the games eight or so levels. Every level has its own set of rules or obstacles, be it a strong wind that constantly forces you backwards, or platforms that will collapse underneath you.

That may not sound revolutionary, but its the precision and timing that is required to progress that I found to be the most rewarding. Celeste doesn’t pull any punches, and while there is an assist mode that can help players that are struggling with some of the games more diabolical challenges, the adrenaline felt after completing a complex sequence is the games true reward.

And you will die. Constantly. Literally hundreds of times. My final death counter (helpfully, or maybe sadistically displayed after each level) was just shy of a thousand after my first run through the game. I don’t even know if that is a lot, as I felt like I played pretty well, and didn’t feel like I got bogged down too often. Thankfully you re-spawn instantly, which really helps with experimentation, as you rarely lose more than a few seconds progress.

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The world of Celeste is told through it’s charming art style and snappy dialogue. There aren’t a lot of cut scenes, per se, but I looked forward to dialogue between the central characters. But while the witty exchanges characters engage in was great, the story itselfactually fell a little flat for me, honestly. It beats you over the head with its central theme, over and over again and with little subtlety: Depression is like climbing a mountain, and you just have to keep climbing to get out!

Which is a shame, because Madeline is a likeable enough character, but you learn very little about her. Every cliche metaphor for learning to love the parts of yourself that you don’t like is relayed through her and thrown at you the player with very little unique commentary on mental illness. Supporting characters like the loveable hiker Theo were interesting if also a little underdeveloped. I haven’t unlocked the games true ending, which requires quite a bit of grinding, but I wouldn’t expect even the ending to make up for the games sloppy handling of what is admittedly a hard concept to nail down, let alone in a platformer.

In summation, Celeste is a spectacular platformer that is well worth any Switch owners time. Hell it’s worth any gamer’s time, as its available on a bunch of platforms. I wish it was a bit more in depth in regards to the narrative, but it’s mechanics are rock solid and addictive, and it’s art style and soundtrack really set the bar incredibly high for whatever Matt Makes Games decide to do next. I cant wait to see what they do next.

 

Side Quests, Wandering and The Wild Hunt

Its that fantastic time of year, when there aren’t a whole lot of new game releases and real life hasn’t really kicked back in. The last few months have been kind of a whirlwind in the realm of video games, so its nice to be able to catch a breath, relax, and contemplate ones backlog.

My own isn’t actually all that bad, all things considered. Sure, I never quite got around to finishing up Persona 5, which was probably my biggest gaming surprise of 2017. Not the game itself, of course. We all knew it would be incredible, no, the fact that I never finished it was what was so surprising. I was super pumped for P5, but it just kind of came at a strange time for me, and I never got there. But I’ve recently picked it up, and have been making some good progress.

There is Xenoblade 2, but honestly, I think I’m just not feeling it. Maybe I’m getting old, but that game is kind of embarrassing to play. My girlfriend is understanding of my little hobby/obsession, but Pyra and Co are kind of hard to explain. And the combat is kind of wonky. And those rabbit people are really annoying. Actually I think I just broke up with Xenoblade.

But really, whats captured me over the past week or so is 2015’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It really just came out of left field, hidden in a game folder on my PS4. I played a whole bunch of The Witcher back when it came out, all the way through. But I did that thing that I often do with games that are just incredibly dense, about halfway through I just mainlined the story until we rolled credits. And in doing so I missed a lot of the incredible side quests that are so often what people praise about The Wild Hunt. Plus this was at launch, when the game was in a much buggier state, and long before the release of Hearts of Stone or Blood and Wine.

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So with that in mind, I booted up a new game on Death March difficulty, with the idea to just slowly dip my toes back in to this wonderfully dark world. I did everything possible in White Orchard before moving onto Velen, and here was where the enormity of this game truly hit me. There is just so much to do, and it is all so lovingly crafted. The team over at CD Project Red really captured lighting in a bottle with this game, that so perfectly brings the world of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books to life, and its just works for me on so many levels. The grim-dark fantasy, the incredibly well written characters, and the surprising historical authenticity of its medieval world comes together in a very effective way, and I realised that the Witcher has completely pulled me back in.

That was around 30 hours ago. In Velen alone, I’ve come across dozens of quests I missed, whether they were involved adventures or mere roadside encounters. I reunited the Bloody Baron, and this time I slew the abomination that his cursed child had become. I knew not to release the evil hidden under the hill, and I did the bidding of the Crones of Crookback Bag, even if it goes against everything my Geralt stands for. A second playthrough has given me a lot of perspective, taking the time to encounter Letho, the antagonist from The Witcher 2, was really cool and something I had totally missed the first time around.

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And I don’t know if I will see everything that The Wild Hunt has to offer, my original goal was to just tool around until something else caught my eye. I’m already far deeper into the game than I thought I would get. Just the change in direction for me has revitalised this game entirely: I’m not here to see how Geralt’s story ends, I’ve seen at least one version of how that can go down. What I am here for is the window dressing, the fluff that I missed out on last time. And I wont pressure myself to do more than is fun for me in this strange post-holiday bubble… But Blood and Wine is meant to be incredible, and that content is only around 10 levels higher than I am now. Who knows, maybe I will actually see this whole thing through, I might even write a proper review. I hear Toussaint is meant to be lovely this time of year.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

All Rise

Developer: Spike Chunsoft

Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, NIS America

Reviewed for : Vita

Played: 40+ Hours

 

With Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Spike Chunsoft delivers an explosive and somewhat divisive third entry in the Danganronpa series. Without spoilers, its kind of hard to describe just exactly why this game is so controversial amongst longtime fans. I wont spoil anything here, but V3 stands out as one of the best visual novels on the market due to its impeccable writing, despite ultimately falling short of true greatness due to its clunky gameplay mechanics and some pacing issues around the middle.

For newcomers, the basic concept of Danganronpa goes something like this: Sixteen Ultimate students are imprisoned together and forced into a killing game. To escape, a student needs to kill one of their fellows and get away with it. The flip side of this is that if the “blackened” (the murderer) does succeed, everyone else will be executed instead.  Once a body has been discovered, a class trial will ensue after an  investigation period. During this trial, the player engages in a bunch of mini games and shoot “truth bullets” at key phrases to progress the plot. All of this is overseen by the maniacal series mascot Monokuma, a monochromatic bear that presides over this crazy kangaroo court, dolling out his own dark brand of justice. In V3, he is joined by his evil offspring, the Monocubs.

If all of that sounds like a lot to take on, its because it is. Danganronpa has always been insane, but that’s part of the charm. Take for instance the Ultimate’s themselves. These students have hyper advanced skills in their chosen fields, whether it makes sense or not. From the Ultimate Anthropologist to the Ultimate Tennis Pro to the Ultimate Supreme Leader, each character is wildly colourful and has a lot of personality, even if their Ultimate abilities don’t actually come up thematically or in gameplay a whole lot.

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But where V3 really sells itself and its twisted world is in its aforementioned writing, which is really top notch. From the characters themselves, to the twists and turns of each of the murders and the ultimate reveals of the overarching plot itself, Danganronpa is rarely predictable, V3 in particular. Unfortunately, at least for me personally, the big twist of this entry falls a little flat, which was kind of disappointing. The narrative had me completely enthralled for around 35 hours, but sadly lost me with a reveal that I didn’t quite feel was earned, either through the narrative buildup or by the groundwork laid by past entries in the series. Now, that last point is totally subjective, I respect what the devs where going for, it just didn’t entirely work for me. I think they should be applauded for the risks they took though, as it may be one of the most ambitious endings  to a piece of media I’ve yet seen, and very unique to the medium of video games.

Well done, too, is the dialogue of characters during the free time events that occurs several times in a chapter. These give the player a chance to learn more about the other Ultimates, and if you spend enough time with a certain character you will unlock a Friendship Fragment, which can be used to buy skills for the various mini games used in class trials. I appreciated getting to know more about the other characters in the game, not only because they are all interesting, but because in hindsight some of them foreshadow future events. Remember, some of these people will commit murder, while others are potential victims. These relationships are on a timer, without explicit time limits!

I wish I could heap praise on the aforementioned mini games as well, but sadly these have always been the series weak point. I really wish that the Danganronpa games of the future would just get rid of them all entirely, they really bring nothing to the table and actually take away from the product as a whole. It would be fine if these were a once off thing, but you end up doing each one several times per trial. Spread out over the games six trials, and you’re looking at hours of awful mini games just to advance the narrative. I think, of all of them, the Non-Stop Debate is probably the best, because it has a sort of narrative focus. Characters will chime in and throw dialogue at you, and you need to “shoot” a certain phrase to either agree or disagree with that character. This is actually where the series gets its name, Dangan (bullet) Ronpa (refutation). I’ve seen it translated literally as ”winning an argument with a bullet”, which I think is pretty cool. New to the series is the ability to lie during these encounters, which ends up being thematically quite resonant with the overall story, but only occurs a handful of times.

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The games best character. Sadistic, psychotic, and incredibly entertaining!

Less cool, segway, are the other mini games. Hangman’s Gambit is literally just the word game Hangman that we all played in primary school, but you pick out moving letters with the help of a sonar. There is a minesweeper-esque mini game that is forgettable at best. Another new section is the Debate Scrum, in which two sides will face off over a point of contention by way of a word association game. Again, if that sounds interesting, it might be the first time you do it, but quickly wears out its welcome, like an unwanted house guest that moves in to your spare bedroom when you weren’t looking. But the most egregious of all is Psyche Taxi. I would audibly groan whenever this one popped up, as it meant I would be spending the next several minutes of my life driving a taxi that controls poorly down a neon stretch of highway gathering orbs that represented part of a phrase the game was trying to spell out. Its not that this segment is bad per se, it is just so aggressively bland that it might as well have not existed. Oh, and when you spell out the word you run over women who then climb into the taxi with you. Again, just unnecessary.

And despite spending so much of your playtime slogging through the boring mini games, Danganronpa V3 is, as a whole, better than the sum of its parts. While it would invariably be a better title without the dead weight of the series baggage, would it still be Danganronpa? That’s not for me to say. What I will say is that V3’s strength’s far outweigh its weaknesses, its narrative is compelling and somewhat controversial. It rewards its players with a well crafted story, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.