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    Outer Wilds (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Jan 16th, 2022 at 11:53:48)

    I appreciate what Outer Wilds is doing, but overall did not enjoy the experience. This is a time loop game. I have played/am playing two of these recently (12 Minutes and now The Forgotten City) and therefore have few data points to compare. However, I disliked 12 Minutes considerably, whereas The Forgotten City I find extremely engaging. Outer Wilds is somewhere in between.

    Outer Wilds is, perhaps more than a time loop game, an exploration game. Yes, the sun goes supernova every 22 minutes and forces you back to your home planet, but the fun lies in exploring the unique planets and other bodies in the solar system and unraveling the mystery behind an a group of space travelers long gone. Where did they come from? What were they doing? Where did they go?

    The game is open-ended. You can travel nearly anywhere from the very beginning. It doesn't matter where you go first. You complete the introduction, then hop in your space rocket and fly somewhere, land, and explore. I went first to my planet's moon, and then to the next-closest planet, and outward from there. You will slowly discover strange writing, ruins, and the ever mysterious quantum objects, and begin seeing threads to follow.

    I said that the planets are very creative and unique. For example, the two closest to the sun are the Hourglass Twins. The Ash Twin and the Ember Twin are next to one another, connected by a constant stream of sand Ash Twin sheds onto Ember Twin. Over the 22-minute loop, Ember Twin's caverns fill up, closing or opening some areas, and Ash Twin's surface becomes visible as sand flows away. It was a cool moment when I realized that the planets actually change over the course of the loop, and that I could actually investigate Ash Twin, which I had previously assumed was always covered in sand. If you pay attention, you will see that a lot in the solar system changes over the course of the loop. Another planet has a giant black hole in the center, and as you explore the ruins beneath, you're constantly in danger of getting sucked into it. That is theoretically neat and all, but boy is it annoying when you accidentally fall and get sent through the black hole to the edge of the solar system, where you must wait for a space station to come near (the "white hole"), which will let you warp back to the planet once its orbit aligns with the station. It wastes at least 5 minutes every time.

    And that is the main issue I have with Outer Wilds. I understand that the 22-minute supernova is explained through the story. I appreciate that. But everything is intriguing enough without you being forced back to your home planet every 22 minutes! The time loop feels punishing and like it arbitrarily extends the game's length. The worst part was when I learned how the Hourglass Twins work, then solved a ton of puzzles on Ash Twin, and was ALMOST DONE, like literally running toward the end that would give me a final piece of knowledge, and the sun went supernova and back to the start I went. I had to go back to Ash Twin, wait for the sand to flow out again, and re-do all the puzzles. That kind of thing happens constantly. You're in the middle of doing something, the sun goes supernova, and you have to go back to the beginning, fly yourself back to where you were, get out of your rocket, walk back to wherever it was on the planet, if you even remember how to get there, then pick back up where you left off. I played about 6 hours and I bet at least a quarter of that time was re-treading my steps.

    How to solve this problem? Well, as stated, I understand the supernova is part of the story. So perhaps some fast travel? Better controls to make flying and jetpacking around more precise? Something to make movement more fun? Artificially extended supernova time so you can always finish if you're in the middle of something. I mean, is anyone sitting there with a 22-minute timer? (Probably...). I wouldn't know if the supernova happened at 20 or 25 or 30 minutes. I'm busy exploring, reading, thinking. I know also that the two time loop games I've recently played reset the loop when you die or when you choose some action. Having that control over when to reset taken away was frustrating. As I said, I am playing The Forgotten City now (probably getting close to done), and I enjoy it so much more for a lot of reasons that I'll reflect on when I'm done. But I know that time loop games are hot right now, I expect I'll play more of them, and I'm excited to see how else this mechanic is implemented.

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    Forza Horizon 5 (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Jan 15th, 2022 at 12:15:31)

    Never played a Forza game before, but this popped up on Game Pass and I do enjoy a good racing game. This is the best one I've played since whatever the last Burnout game was (because really I like crashing more than racing). I tried Wreckfest over the summer, but it wore thin quickly. Forza 5 is absolutely packed with stuff to do. I was never bored and there are still probably 100 new races and other events that I didn't do. I considered the game "beat" after completing all of the Horizon events and stories, which took me roughly a day of play time. My time also included doing a good amount of additional races early on (because I thought I needed the points to unlock new Horizon events, but really, you'll earn enough points to unlock everything just by doing the Horizon events themselves), as well as other exploration-based activities like searching for barn finds (which reward you with classic cars) and smashable boards (which reward you with XP and eventually fast travel, although I ended up unlocking fast travel by purchasing a specific villa later in the game instead of by smashing all the fast travel boards).

    Forza is also the most realistic racing game I've played (recalling Gran Turismo games on Playstation). Not only did they license hundreds and hundreds of real cars, but you can tune them to minute detail (it's not a sim, but for an arcade racer, it's realistic). Of course, I know nothing about tuning cars and never touched that part of the customization, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

    The game takes place in a slice of Mexico (real? fake? composite of real places?). Apparently in each game there is a Horizon Festival somewhere in the world. The Mexican setting was really cool because they included a lot of culture. A lot of the characters are Mexican and will use Spanish mixed in throughout their accented English. I had subtitles on so I could read the Spanish and love that the game is bold enough to make it so that English-speaking players get a dose of not having a game revolve around US locations and the English language. I always enjoyed driving around through the ruins (again, not sure if these are real places or not, but it seemed like the developers did their homework) and the rolling farmland. Two other progressive things the game did was let you choose pronouns and let you customize your character with prosthetic limbs. I chose they/them and had a fake leg.

    Forza 5 features different race types. There is road racing, city street racing, stunt driving, off-road racing...and one more I can't remember. Head-to-head? Each of the festival events features a race type and has several stories associated. For example, in the big stunt driving story, you are a stunt driver for a movie and have to do all these different scenes. The director doesn't know that you aren't the actual actor (who is supposed to be doing his own stunts), and the story is you and the actor working together to "fake" him doing all the work, which becomes increasingly difficult as your stunts become so impressive and draw the director's increasing admiration and attention. In the head-to-head racing, which I did last, there is a rich kids' racing club that has some beef with a Horizon street racer. You race members of the rich kids' club one by one, unraveling the history of the beef between a couple characters, and it wound up being a very feel-good story. In another memorable one, a character is restoring her uncle's VW Beetle, following all his old plans for modifications, and you have to test out everything she's doing to it. This is all in the memory of her uncle, and there are nice themes of family and tradition in it. The stories are all kind of simple and sweet and fun, a nice change of pace from so many games that always have to tell some dark story with a lot of conflict (of course, I don't know why I would expect a racing game to have a dark story; Twisted Metal though...).

    Another thing I enjoyed is the difficulty. There are a lot of difficulty levels, and the game will suggest if you should change. I started on "Average" and quickly began winning everything, so it suggested I move to "Above Average." I did that and eventually was winning everything again. I moved to "Hard." That was a bit much, as I was constantly finishing behind a string of cars that were racing just so perfectly. I think if I'd stuck with it, like by the end of the game, I could have been winning some on Hard, but you usually get bonus rewards for finishing first, so I stuck with Above Average to keep my rewards. I was winning probably 80% of races.

    I think, though, that the AI is set up well to give you the illusion of more of a challenge than you are actually facing. This is often how a race will go: You begin and a small pack of cars takes off and controls a big lead. As the race goes on, you slowly catch them. Everyone behind you stays pretty close to you, too. You're never obliterating anyone; they catch up to the lead pack just like you do. Then toward the end of the race, you'll notice (especially if you're messing up, you notice) that they slow enough for you to catch them. Often, especially on more set piece races with straightaways on the end (a couple action-packed ones where you race monster trucks and jet skis and a train come to mind), you'll zip past them JUST at the finish line. This has to be staged! I mean, if you're racing on Hard and aren't very good, it's not going to let you win like that, but if your skill approximates the difficulty level, then that difficulty level often seems perfect. I kind of want to play more just to figure out exactly how it works.

    I would definitely pick this back up and play for fun, but the semester is starting, my free time is quickly evaporating, and I've still got too many Game Pass games to play before my trial expires. It'll be here forever, so maybe next time I'll check out what's new!

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    Desperados III (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Jan 11th, 2022 at 15:05:56)

    Either Desperados III is a little easier than Shadow Tactics or I’m just becoming cleverer after playing these two back-to-back. I couldn’t complete Shadow Tactics’ last level, but I’m almost done with Desperados—on the last set piece of the last level. It’s certainly one of the most daunting, but I’ve just about cleared peripheral enemies and am zeroing in on the boss and his goons. (I had to pause for a meeting.). Desperados’ levels are wonderfully large and complex, but they are taking less time than Shadow Tactics’ later levels, which I take as evidence that I’m getting better. (Go me!).

    In this last level (which I have now beaten because my meeting is over; it was epic [the level, not the meeting], especially the final showdown), you control all five characters. Three begin on one side of a canyon and two begin on the other. You can bring them together at a couple points, and I chose to do it at the first opportunity and take the left side of the level to the church at the end. There were some seriously difficult pieces of the level. At the very end, before the church, were like five Long Coats and some other enemies at one end of a narrow bridge. I managed to slip a couple characters behind them and pick off a few enemies before I was able to (or figured out how to) take out the Long Coats. At another spot in the level were like five snipers on rooftops, all watching each other. I have learned that in those kinds of situations, sometimes the best thing to do is just cause chaos (use Isabelle’s mind control, for example) and sort of scatter the enemies for a minute. Ideally, you can pick off a couple while they are away from their regular positions on alert. Then, when they reset, they are easier.

    I can’t describe the final showdown too much because that will give away story bits, but suffice it to say that it’s a unique set piece. Cooper is surrounded and has one bullet in Showdown Mode. You have to use the other four characters to kill enemies, without being detected, and end the level by using their actions in conjunction with Cooper’s in Showdown Mode to kill every last enemy at the same time. I feel like a genius after beating Desperados III.

    I said most everything else that I had to say in my previous entry. One thing I didn’t mention though is the post-level recap, which is fun to watch. After each level, you get to watch an abstracted version of your playthrough. All your characters are represented by different colored shapes on a 2D level map. Enemies are represented by red squares (and Long Coats by sheriff’s stars). When you click “play,” all the little shapes start moving around, with lines tracing where your characters move and little skulls popping up when you killed someone. It’s a neat reminder of the previous 90 minutes’ successes and failures and always triggered memories of this or that time I got lucky or came up with a good solution to get past a tricky part.

    Oh yeah, one other thing I learned with like two levels to go is that there is a "speed up time" button. I wish I would have known that sooner! Was there no tutorial for it? Or did I miss it or forget it? It's obvious enough on the UI. That's what I get for not paying close attention, I guess!

    I would start a third Mimimi tactics game right now if there was one. These have been fantastic, especially Desperados.

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    DARQ (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Jan 2nd, 2022 at 15:16:36)

    This was free on Epic around Halloween. It had good reviews and was short, so why not? DARQ hails from the Limbo school of game design. It begins with zero explanation. You're a kid in a nightmare. You must solve puzzles to complete a series of dream levels, crawl into bed, and get whisked away to the next nightmare.

    The cool thing about DARQ is definitely the way that puzzles incorporate shifts in perspective. If you walk to a ledge or to a wall, you can just...keep going! The room rotates 90 degrees and now you're on the wall. If there's a ceiling, you can walk on that, the room rotates 90 degrees, and etc. This allows for some puzzling where you have to be on a specific plane to view a room differently to pick up objects, hit buttons, and so on. Later in the game, these "boxes" (that's what I'm calling rooms) stack, in a way. That is, there will be multiple boxes next to one another, not in a left-right direction, but in a front-back direction, like a 2.5d perspective. One of the DLC levels involves you using two "tracks" in parallel. This is kind of hard to describe, but you've played something like it. In this DLC level, for example, you are in the background and your head (yeah, it's weird!) is rolling along in the foreground.

    The puzzles aren't that difficult and are pretty linear. Still, they're challenging enough to make you feel smart for having completed them. It's a good difficulty. Levels are also short and tend to introduce some new mechanic or way you have to think. The whole game (7 levels with two longer DLC levels) took about 4 hours. And it that time, there are a few creepy enemies that look like some Silent Hill/Little Nightmares hybrids. Definitely glad I picked this up!

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    The Artful Escape (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Jan 2nd, 2022 at 15:04:54)

    I was excited to play this because it looked visually stunning and had an interesting premise. You play as a teenager whose uncle was a famous folk musician (like a Bob Dylan figure). You are a budding folk musician yourself, except...you don't care for folk. What you really want to be is a guitar phenom playing sci-fi inspired epic rock music. So on the night before your first show at the annual festival in honor of your uncle, some far-out aliens come in need of a supporting act for their intergalactic, jammin' concert tour. Queue a series of incredible looking levels where you ostensibly get to play the guitar with the universe's greats for an intergalactic audience.

    Did I mention how great this game looks? Holy crap. The art is phenomenal. I recommend it on that alone. You can make the visuals look even better by holding down X to solo on your guitar as you move left/right through the levels, which makes environments and creatures respond in mesmerizing, gorgeous ways. This interplay between your input, the music, and the environment is pretty cool.

    The visuals never get old, but unfortunately the music does! Each level has chill, ambient music by default, and when you hold X, you wail on your guitar. I think that most people can only handle so much spacey guitar soloing, even with the slight variations in each level. But the ambient noise is quite nice, and I wound up just listening to it and admiring the scenery in many areas, especially those in which pressing X didn't trigger any environmental changes.

    I've mentioned that you press X to wail on guitar while you move left and right. Okay, so that is >90% of the gameplay. The other <10% is dialogue choices and the concerts. The concerts (or battles, or tests, or whatever you want to call them) are really simple Simon Says mini-games. In a game about a kid finding his musical identity and expressing his creativity, it is odd that the player is prevented from doing either. At one point, you are told that you can press X to be creative and create rhythm or something; this is extremely shallow. You can technically create rhythm by pressing X and by holding buttons during Simon Says (and technically can choose notes during Simon Says), but your range of freedom is minimal. It also doesn't matter whether you get it right or not. The pattern will just repeat if you mess up, and you try again, and the alien is always impressed and you win in the end. There's no perfecting sequences, no encouragement for flair or improvisation. So once you've heard enough guitar solos, learn there is no failure, learn you can't really DO anything, and realize this game is mostly a lot of eye candy, it's kind of like, let's hurry up and get to the end. Luckily it's not that long and I finished it before I fell asleep, though I did nod off toward the end.





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    Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)    by   Vayle

    No comment, yet.
    most recent entry:   Saturday 9 February, 2008
    Entry#2

    GAMEPLAY

    I began to rush my gameplay I bit because I wanted to be able to review more than just the beginning tutorial. While trying to pick up the pace I bit, I discovered a minor difference between the first game and the sequel: I am able to skip cut scenes now. While I did not skip any this time around - I still found I wanted to know what exactly was going on with this Roxas kid - I am very happy they added this feature. In the old game, if there was a huge cut scene right before a boss fight and you died, you had to sit through that cut scene all over again, perhaps more than once, depending on how many times you died. This was very annoying and I was glad they added a nice, easy "Skip Scene" button.

    I'm still not absolutely fond of the Reaction Command. I used it in a couple of boss fights, and my earlier feelings were confirmed: it made the fights far too easy. I still really like watching the special attacks that the Reaction Command produces, which are even nice mini-cinematics during boss fights. However, it does not really feel like I am accomplishing anything and it does not feel like it really flows with the rest of the battle system. Usually you are rapidly hitting attack and trying to get combos in, giving a somewhat intense feeling to the battle. However, with the Reaction Command, it just one simple push of the button and then sit back and watch your character on autopilot. It almost feels like a cheat, in a way.

    I do have to say that I like the addition of Drive Forms into this game. A Drive Form is when Sora fuses with an ally to become more powerful in some way. I got the first one right at the end of my second session, the Valor Form. This one, Sora fuses with Goofy - the mainly defensive/melee ally - and is able to duel wield keyblades and fight faster and hit harder. While I found Reaction Commands made things a bit too easy, I feel this fits in perfectly with the flow of fights. You are still in control of the character and it's limited by your Drive Bar and time, so you should use it wisely. I cannot wait to see the other Drive Forms that will become available.

    DESIGN

    I like the interface the game provides while running around in the world. It has this menu system that took a little bit to get used to it again (since the first game had the same thing), but once I did, I found it quite easy to use. While the analog stick is used for moving around, the d-pad is used to navigate the player's menu in the bottom corner. This menu contains many actions, such as attack, talk, lift, items, magic, and so on, changing sometimes depending on what you're close to. I will admit that this might seem a bit bogged down during fast-paced events like fights, they easily handle this with a macro-menu that appears when you hold down a shoulder button. You can put spells and items into this menu and then during fights, just push the shoulder button and tap whichever button your spell was assigned to and it'll instantly take care of it. I think this menu interface was an interesting thing to implement in Kingdom Hearts and is definitely unique to the series.

    The level-up/ability system in this game is also nicely handled. It might be a bit simple for any hardcore gamer, but then I'm not sure if any hardcore player would be playing KHII anyway. Whenever a player levels up, either a stat of theirs - like attack power or defense - increases or they learn a new ability. Also as you level up, the max amount of abilities you can hold increase, but usually at a far slower rate than your arsenal of abilities you can equip. An ability is just some nice little extra thing you can attach to your character - an extra swing to your combo attack, a special dodging maneuver, you can gain money faster, stuff like that. But since, like I said before, you have more abilities to chose from than you can equip at one time. Thus, you are forced to pick and chose, and this adds a certain customization to the game. I like this aspect, almost making me feel like I creating my own, somewhat unique hero. And if I find something does not work in a boss battle, I can move abilities around to try something different.

    The designers seemed to have decided to lower the difficulty of gameplay going from the first to the second. Even if the Reaction Command were not there, I still would feel like this game is a little to easy, not enough challenge. It may be because I'm still in the early stages, or it may be because I set the difficulty to Standard Mode at the beginning - medium. But I still feel like it should be a little more challenging. I'll just have to wait and see how my opinion on that changes - or not - as I progress through the game. Still, overall, I find this to be a fun game.

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