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    Dredge (PS4)    by   dkirschner       (Jun 24th, 2024 at 07:28:58)

    Dredge immediately reminded me of Sunless Sea, but it's simpler and friendlier. You are a fisherman who finds himself in a Lovecraftian sea, taking up the job of an angler at a local village. Not all is what it seems: at night, the fog rolls in an strange, terrifying creatures roam the water. Soon, an enigmatic figure calling himself The Collector sets you on your main quest, to find five sunken artifacts. There are, conveniently, five island areas on the map, so off you go from one to the other, fishing, upgrading your boat, and finding sunken things.

    What I liked the most about Dredge was how it sucked me in to its simple gameplay loop. You go out, fish, return to town, sell fish. Use money to upgrade your ship, go out farther, fish, return to town, sell fish. Repeat. To fish successfully, you need specific rods for specific types of biomes (shallow, volcanic, abyssal, etc.), and faster engines to go farther. So, you can't explore unless you upgrade things. There are also messages in bottles, which you need to find to understand the story, special mutated fish (worth more money!), ship parts, treasure, and other things to find. You've always got a couple things you're looking for, always discovering new fish (I discovered about 50% of the total number, so there is WAY more out there!), or dredging up something useful.

    There is also the underlying dread that keeps you moving. You generally only want to be out during the day; at night, things get dangerous. The dread made me cautious, but caution worked, in that I may not have experienced some of the more unnerving things in the game. That is, apparently if you don't sleep at night, you'll start seeing things and more weird phenomena will happen. But I almost always slept, and definitely never went two nights with no sleep, no nothing got too nightmarish. I wonder how nightmarish it gets?

    The game itself is easy, with just the right amount of aforementioned dread, which helped lull me into its gameplay loop. You'll run into some rocks, see and hear other ghostly ships at night, and at the last island be harassed by swarming fish, but you probably won't die. I died one time from taking too much hull damage, and it just reloaded my last autosave from a couple minutes earlier.

    The story is compelling and, along with the constant upgrading, kept me interested in moving forward from quest to quest, island to island. Each island has one main character on it, whose issue you have to resolve, whether it's finding their dead crewmates or reconciling a conflict between two brothers, before you can get to the main quest's artifact. I actually explored every single island on the map, sailed around looking for new characters, docks, shipwrecks, and other points of interest. There are some secrets scattered around, some shrines wherein you must place specific types of fish (I solved one and got an awesome crab trap), and some mysterious black rocks that never did anything for me and I have no idea what they were for.

    Finally, I would also add that this is (weirdly?) an inventory management game. Since you're out fishing and collecting things, you will run out of storage space. All the objects are like Tetris pieces: you can rotate them and pack your hull just so. This was more satisfying than I thought, as in a typical game where I have to manage inventory space--say an open-world RPG--, I get frustrated. Making the inventory basically like a Tetris mini-game was a good call! It also helps that you're never far from somewhere to sell things. Your trips out to sea are always quick, so if you fill up, no problem. There's no penalty for going back and unloading, and it just takes a minute (plus, you'll get to sleep, and I was usually able to time my trips during the day).

    Definitely enjoyed this one! There is plenty more to do if you want to collect all the fish, fully upgrade your ship, complete all the side quests. It's engrossing and tells a good story.

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    Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)    by   dkirschner       (Jun 24th, 2024 at 06:43:10)

    I went into this with almost zero knowledge of what it was. Within 10 minutes, after opening the map for the first time, I was thinking, “Oh no, I do not want to play another Assassin’s Creed game right now.” I played Odyssey a year-and-a-half ago and am haunted by question marks on a map and a ridiculously long (nearly 100 hours!) main-plus playtime. Ghost of Tsushima absolutely has Assassin’s Creed / Witcher 3 DNA, but it also innovates in some interesting areas. After finishing Odyssey, I wished for a “mere” 40-hour Assassin’s Creed game. Well, Ghost of Tsushima was basically that, but I realize that it’s not just the length of Odyssey that I disliked, but that the open-world formula is stale, even when it’s set in as beautiful a place as Tsushima.

    So, I’ll talk first about the game’s biggest success. Sucker Punch created a cohesive feel to this game. Everything about it flows like the wind. When you are standing on a hill, looking out over a field of trees and brightly colored flowers, and the wind whips at your back, and you feel calm and peaceful and meditative, that feeling permeates the entire experience. The wind, the wind! How many games have tried to do something different in place of a traditional minimap with quest markers? I can think of none better than Ghost of Tsushima. The wind guides you to your destination, whatever you have set as a waypoint on your map. Flick the touchpad up and the breeze blows, indicating the direction toward your goal. I only looked at the map to set waypoints and to fast travel; otherwise, the wind immersed me in the journey.

    Speaking of fast travel, it’s somewhat counterintuitive that they immediately let you fast travel through one of the most beautiful open worlds I’ve ever seen. Most games, for progression reasons, but also (I always imagine) to force you to look at the environment they’ve created, restrict your movement and fast travel until you earn it. Ghost of Tsushima says nope, everything about this game is going to flow, so players are immediately going to get a horse, be able to move as fast as they ever will be, and will be able to fast travel to any location they have previously visited. I appreciated this so, so much.

    Another way the game flows is in your ability to go in and out of active quests, or “tales.” It reminded me of something I loved about MMORPGs, when you could run around collecting quests, then do a giant loop completing them all, then return to the questgiver area and turn them all in at once. You don’t “collect” quests like that here, but you can always just walk away and pursue something else of interest if you are in the middle of one, even a main story tale, and then return to it. This encourages exploring the environment. Often, I would be doing a tale, and I’d hear the bark of a fox, stop, find it, follow it to its shrine and pray; or hear the chirp of a golden bird, follow it to a new area of interest; pass by a torii gate to a mountain temple and detour to scale the cliffs, earn a charm, and take in the view from the top; then return to what I was doing. The game doesn’t punish you for exploring when you want to.

    It’s neat how integrated the map question marks are in your exploration. There are multiple ways to be alerted to, and to find, those areas of interest. You can walk around and explore; you can complete an action that removes fog of war and discover new question marks from the map; villagers will alert you to tales and places of interest; the golden birds will randomly swoop down and chirp and guide you to somewhere you’ve never been; the fireflies will guide you to collectibles in town; the sound of crickets chirping in graveyards leads you to them; etc. And there are visual symbols for many such places, too: yellow glowing trees for fox dens; steam rising from hot springs for baths; tall banner flags for duels; torii gates for mountain shrines, etc. This bundle of modalities for finding areas of interest sometimes results in silly moments, though. You’ll obviously be going to a specific place, have it tracked on the map, and a golden bird will swoop down and “guide” you to it. For example, one time I was swimming out to an island—the only thing I could have possibly been headed toward—and the bird swooped down from over the ocean and started flying toward the island. Did it think I didn’t see it?! Obviously, I was going to the island! There were also times when the golden birds would lead me somewhere where I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to show me. Or when the golden birds would lead me somewhere, and I didn’t want to do whatever was there, so I’d leave, and then the golden birds would keep trying to bring me back there. Minor annoyance in an outstanding navigation system!

    Many of the places you find on Tsushima yield peaceful, meditative moments. You can sit on a rock and compose a haiku, for example, and meditate on “perspective” or “loss” or whatever. Instead of forcing you to walk everywhere, inviting you to sit and meditate is how the game encourages you to appreciate the beauty of Tsushima. They worked it into the story, into the setting; it flows.

    Finally, the combat flows. It is exquisite, of the “easy to learn; hard to master” variety. It took a while to get comfortable with because it helps if you are observant and calm, not easy for an action game. In many games, you can button mash, but Ghost of Tsushima rewards precision. For example, if an enemy is doing an unblockable attack (indicated by a red flash), you need to press circle just once to sidestep (then counter-attack!). If you press it twice, you’ll roll too far away to counter. There are a lot of combat toys to play with, from various types of bombs, arrows, knives, darts, things that distract enemies, stances that counter different enemy types, and so on. I will say that the stances seemed unnecessary, unless I was fighting a boss-type character. Enemies come in four flavors: sword guy, shield guy, spear guy, arrow guy…I feel like there was a fifth. And there are some easier and harder versions of each. The stances give you some special attack power against whichever enemy type, but once you learn to parry and dodge, you can kill enemies of all types just as quickly.

    I must mention two fantastic elements of combat: duels and standoffs. It’s a samurai game, so of course you can duel. These are cinematic! They are always boss (or mini-boss) fights. They were difficult at first, but became much easier by the end, so much so that I killed the last two bosses without dying. There is one annoying thing about the duels though: your health doesn’t refill beforehand. You don’t always know when you’re going to duel, so it’s not like you can just heal up in preparation. And once you start a duel, as far as I could figure, there is no way to quit (unless you saved it beforehand?); you just have to keep trying. A few duels began with me at almost zero health and with no resolve (resource used to heal and use special attacks). Those ones resulted in me having to perfect the fight, at least until I could generate enough resolve to heal myself. On the plus side, I got really good at the combat. I imagine this was done on purpose to increase the player’s resilience or perseverance or something related to samurai values. The other awesome combat mechanic is the standoff. When you approach a group of enemies, instead of charging in or going stealth mode, you can challenge them. You hold triangle and release it when the enemy attacks for an instant kill. Later, enemies start feinting, and I lost my fair share of standoffs from being too trigger-happy. You can upgrade an ability such that once you win the initial standoff, you can one-shot the next two or three more enemies who come charging at you. I really enjoyed entering combat with a standoff instead of sneaking around. The stealth in this game is passable, and there’s really nothing else to say about it!

    The main downside of Ghost of Tushima for me is that the pacing is weird. I mean, it’s not a downside per se, but made me single-mindedly pursue completion by early in the second act. In the first act, I pretty much completed all the side quests and explored every “?” that I saw (though by no means did I explore the whole map). At the end of the first act, therefore, I had unlocked most of the sword techniques, all but one stance, and upgraded all my weapons most of the way. One thing that really helped with that latter achievement was the charm that doubles the amount of resources that you find. Once I found that charm, I was in Upgrade City. So, by the second act, I didn’t have much more to upgrade. The side quests aren’t all that compelling. The larger arcs follow your main companions’ personal stories, and the smaller quests are just “go here, kill Mongols.” They are often set up like they might be in the Witcher 3, like people are being dragged to their deaths in a murky lake. Whereas in the Witcher, you’d discover some cool monsters with compelling intrigue, here it is always bandits or Mongols. Always. You might think there will be something supernatural going on (the villagers are all superstitious), but there isn’t. It’s always bandits or Mongols! The main story tales are the main attraction, so by the beginning of the second (of three) act, I just plowed through those and finished the game. In the second act, I was still doing incidental question marks, but by the third, I ignored everything else. The “blue” tales yield special weapons and armor, but they generally took a while, and I realized that whatever armor I got from the main story was better than all the special quest armor anyway.

    So, that’s the Ghost. It’s got everything you expect in an open-world game, with a tight theme and nice flourishes, like the wind guide. The main story is interesting, and you effectively are put in the shoes of a 13th-century samurai who struggles with tradition, honor, and family. If the story’s presentation were as great as the presentation of the open world itself, it would be even better. But, even though I enjoyed the story, I found the characters forgettable, probably because the voice acting and animations are pretty stilted. I said the story was interesting, not exciting (save for the massive act-ending battles). Some levity (besides the one sake trader) would be nice. If you are into open-world games, I’d recommend this one as a gem that goes at a slower pace than you might be used to; it’s often meditative. People who are into samurai stuff will no doubt enjoy it. For me though, I think I appreciated it thematically and in terms of a lot of design stuff more so than I loved the experience. Like, it was cool, but I don’t want to play more of it (and, indeed, I opted out of the DLC island).

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    Stray (PS5)    by   jp       (Jun 23rd, 2024 at 14:09:57)

    Ok finished the game!

    The "down a corridor" linearity definitely let up once I got to the first "city" area...and while there are other sections that are tightly restricted, I would say that while the game is linear (it's a narratively-led adventure game where you collect clues and complete tasks for NPCs in order to progress), the experience of playing it does not feel quite as constrained as I had initially thought it was.

    It's weird to me how I had a strong idea that this was a "cyberpunk" game set in a city - but it's just robots instead of people, and the game doesn't feel like that at all to me now. Yes, there's neon and such - but the major cyberpunk (as genre) themes aren't there. It does tell its own story, and it's really quite sad. It's post-apocalyptic in the sense that humans are extinct (or other wise gone as far as we know), but there's also the idea that this is a world that has recovered (in the nature regrowing sense) from whatever it was the apocalypse was about - it's not clear to me why humans holed up in the underground cities in the first place (and they then all died in a plague, oh, and then they unleashed something intended to solve problems but it mutated and has since run amuck - thus trapping all the robots inside the city). And through all this - you - a cat - have not only survived but made it through.

    Overall, yes - I did enjoy it, and I appreciated the brevity. But also, in terms of it's game design, it's pretty "light" (by this I mean it doesn't stray far from expectations and it does everything right). So, no special highlights in my mind here - but the navigation and UI work as they should. I guess I could say that I thought I'd get lost a lot easier (there's lots of vertical navigation in addition to horizontal) but it helped that the game's spaces are small even if they are well "dressed" with objects and details.

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    Tetris Effect (PS4)    by   jp       (Jun 17th, 2024 at 12:49:38)

    I think it's now super fair to say that I'm not very good at playing Tetris. Mostly because I make lots of mistakes pressing the "drop now" button instead of rotating a piece or something like that. I've also never been particularly drawn to playing Tetris, even if I've dabbled for years now...almost since it came out.

    But, I was curious to play Tetris Effect - in VR - because it was described as such a different experience. And it is. I'd describe it as the Rez version of Tetris. So, it's still Tetris, but it's Rez-like in how the music is a much more integrated part of the experience, in a good way. So, I enjoyed playing the campaign - with different areas with art, sound effects and so on...and the experience really is much more immersive - in a good way - than "vanilla tetris". For me at least!

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    Detroit: Become Human (PS4)    by   dkirschner       (Jun 14th, 2024 at 09:24:44)

    Detroit: Become Human was a really interesting game. I’m not sure how I overlooked it when it came out, since I’ve played every other Quantic Dream game and even worked on a research project with someone using Beyond: Two Souls. Anyway, thanks to this summer’s Playstation Plus subscription, I have access to it and other PS4 games I never bought! It’s set in near-future Detroit, where the city has repurposed its manufacturing infrastructure to produce androids. The androids are designed to look identical to humans, minus some clothing markers and the only external physical thing that differentiates them, a little processor indicator on their temple, which was a brilliant touch. As the player, the processor conveyed information about an android’s cognition and emotional state: blue (normal), yellow (moderate stress), and red (extreme stress), as well as “spinning” animations to indicate thinking about something (their eye movements aligned with this to indicate thinking; incredible animation work all around!). So, by making androids basically indistinguishable from humans (and they pass the Turing Test), Detroit doesn’t dip into the uncanny valley. This makes sense in terms of the story, where the androids (and the game beats you over the head with this) become human and fight for their rights. It touches on all sorts of philosophical questions: What is consciousness, and can non-humans attain it? What does it mean to be human (in terms of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, morality, agency, etc.; i.e., where’s the line between human and machine)? Are struggles necessary for self-determination?

    The most ridiculously impressive thing about Detroit is that you get to shape the lives of three androids, determine their fates, the fate of all androids (and therefore of humanity too), and in doing so, offer your perspective on the game’s philosophical questions. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with such an intricately branching storyline…or three storylines that intersect, one for each android. To say it’s complex is an understatement. I read that there are technically 85 endings. I got…one; replayability is a feature! Another cool thing about Detroit is that it’s transparent about the branching storyline. After each scene, you can see the narrative flowchart, as well as the percentage of players who made the decisions you made. This is something like what Telltale games did, where you’d see what % of players aligned with you, except here you see how different choices lead to subsequent events. For most of the game, after any given scene, I saw I’d unlocked most of the storyline. Towards the end of the game though, as major events happen (and your characters can die!), I was unlocking single-digit percentages of scenes. And who knows how many scenes I never saw at all. It felt exponential how complex the story became. The more decisions you make that have different outcomes, the more considerations the writers had to make for how following scenes could begin and progress. Often, I would see that there were like 10 potential beginning states for a scene.

    The three androids are Kara, Markus, and Connor. Each has numerous paths they can follow, but general character arcs where they “become human.” Kara is a domestic android, meant to cook, clean, and take care of children. She has a sad life with an abusive man, and after a really scary interactive domestic violence scene, runs away with his daughter. She (is programed to have? develops?) a maternal bond with the child (I have some seriously unresolved questions about their relationship though). Markus, on the other hand, has a happy life, android and son-figure to an old, ill, wheelchair-bound artist. The artist encourages Markus to express himself through art, and in another violent scene with the artist’s actual son, Markus realizes he isn’t actually free. These two become what the game calls “deviant” (they deviate from their programming). In the game world, more and more androids are becoming deviant, inflicting violence on humans (often in self-defense, but the Detroit news agencies are biased!), and it becomes quite the problem for law and order and the general functioning of a society that has incorporated androids into its basic functions. The third android, Connor, is an advanced police android created for the purpose of hunting deviants. It was thrilling the first time I realized that the androids’ storylines intersect. The other two are deviants, and Connor is meant to hunt deviants, so of course they would, right?

    As I learned about the characters, I started trying to shape their trajectories. For Kara, I wanted her to protect the little girl—I liked their bond—, and by the end of the game, regardless and perhaps in spite of what happened, I was fully invested in having Kara stop and nothing to get her and the girl to safety, even if this meant doing unethical things. Markus’s storyline was my least favorite because it was so over-the-top. Detroit attempts to fit a full-scale android revolution into the game, with Markus at the helm. It seemed really implausible. Markus also goes from servant android to revolutionary leader in the span of like five minutes, and leads all these complex “operations” with a handful of random other deviants. I would buy it if they were military androids or something, but a servant to an old man and a sex robot creating an elaborate scheme to hack the city’s news network from the top floor of a corporate tower, including rappelling up a skyscraper, delivering a televised “we have a dream” speech (the game loves to draw parallels between the androids’ fight for self-determination and the Civil Rights Movement), dramatically escaping with parachutes, etc., was eye-rolling. Anyway, my Markus was shot while peacefully protesting, and I didn’t really mind.

    I was more upset the first time my Connor died (he comes back), destroyed by some sort of industrial rototiller while chasing a deviant. Connor is tasked to partner up with a grizzled, alcoholic cop named Hank who hates androids. I tried and tried to build a relationship with Hank. It was easy to say something to make Hank fly off the handle. Eventually, though, I decided that I wanted Connor to counter the other two characters and stay true to his programming, never becoming deviant, insisting to the end that androids are just machines. This was partly because I found Markus and his revolutionary android story annoying, and also because Hank does a 180 on his feelings toward androids. He said he changed his mind because Connor took a bullet for him, which proved that Connor had empathy. That’s not why I jumped in front of him though; I did it because (a) I knew that Connor would come back if he died and (b) I figure, given that, a police android would be programmed to save its human partner, not out of empathy but out of directive. So to me, Hank’s premise was wrong. Why didn’t he consider this? Why would someone who hated androids with such passion make the leap to “he saved me because he has empathy; ergo, he is human” instead of “he saved me because he is a machine and programmed to do so; ergo, I resent him even more.” The latter is what racists do, reducing behavior to biology and then framing the characteristic negatively. So, I ended up playing a cold, machine Connor who (like how I did with Kara) stopped at nothing to achieve his objective. According to the flowcharts, a tiny minority of players did this!

    Admittedly, I enjoyed the earlier game and the final segments more than the mid- and late-game. The longer it goes on, the more holes there are. Some holes were relatively nonsensical storylines (a lot of what Markus’s ended up becoming), questionable plot twists (e.g., Kara and the little girl), and disconnected events. I am sure that some disconnected events can be chalked up to making this or that decision and therefore missing this or that piece of information. But there were a handful of times where a scene would start and it would be like, “We have arrived at this place to see this person!”, and I’m like, “Who?!”, as if I should have known who this person was already. These disconnects were filled in easily enough though, but it was weird.

    Anyway, the overall experience of playing the game was excellent. I found it thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking, even if its weaker plot lines could have been better written. It doesn’t ask all the questions you might think about and it hits you over the head with Civil Rights comparisons. But there’s plenty here to prompt you to think, like 85 endings’ worth of impressive, interconnected, branching storylines. And I didn’t even touch on the utility of the game for developing moral reasoning or social-emotional learning. As you play, you’ll unlock extras. The videos are totally worth watching. There are teasers, features of the characters (including Chloe, the “menu screen android,” who brings novel elements to the game), and mini-documentaries about the “making of,” the soundtrack, and more. Probably 30-45 minutes of video content all told that provide great insight. Definitely recommend this.

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    Banjo-Kazooie (N64)    by   eriph

    No comment, yet.
    most recent entry:   Wednesday 7 February, 2007
    Mad Monster Mansion ho! I actually remembered this level being more...I don't know, annoying or complicated or something. But it was quite enjoyable this time.

    Pumpkin transformation? Yes yes yes. So cute. Bouncing along. Only annoying thing about all the transformations is that you can't attack, except for the crocodile. ...And the washing machine. I think. I should turn into the washing machine.

    The triumphant "YOU FOUND AN EGG!" fanfare music still plays every time I enter the area where an SNS item once was. It's kind of sad, because I get all excited and there's nothing there. Looks like Rare never bothered to program in that the music should turn off if there's nothing there.

    My roommate has been watching me play every now and then over the past week. She says, "I like your game. It has funny sound effects and good music." She was imiating Kazooie's noises while I played.

    I also set up everything I need to make it to Rusty Bucket Bay. (And that level I know I don't like.) Which was annoying in of itself. I couldn't remember what I had to do or where to go, so I ran around Grunty's Lair for a stupid amount of time.

    Of course, I can't help compare B-K to Mario 64, since both were really amazing and somewhat similar N64 platformers. I hated in Mario 64 that you could only go after one star at a time, because after you got one, you were expelled from the level. At least in Banjo-Kazooie you can go after everything in the level in one shot.

    But I really dislike the fact that the notes you get in a level only count for that life or that run through the level. I don't like having to re-collect them all if I die or decide to stop playing. I played Rusty Bucket Bay for about five minutes and I accidentally fell into a bottomless abyss. When Banjo and Kazooie respawned at the exit pad, Bottles announced, "Wow! Your high score for this level is 5 notes!" Bottles, don't be a smartass.

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