Game Ramblings #184 – Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name

More Info from Sega

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows

I was pretty thrilled with the series’ change to JRPG in Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon but I wouldn’t like if I’m still a bit of a sucker for the series’ action gameplay in 1-6. I thought that the series had kind of reached its peak and didn’t need to explore more in the genre. Gaiden doesn’t necessarily change that feeling, but as a much smaller and quicker experience than core games in the series, it feels like a nice place to fall back into for a little while.

From a story perspective, this is an interesting one as it fills in a lot of the time gap between Yakuza 6 and roughly the mid point of 7, but as seen from the perspective of the series’ previous protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. In doing so, the change back to action gameplay makes a lot of sense. It’s a Kazuma story. It’s only focused on his actions, and not the actions of the Yakuza 7 party. From that perspective, you get thrown into a nice tight game. From a core perspective, I finished this one with a very heavy emphasis on completion and getting distracted in about 20 hours, which was about 30 hours less than my playthrough of Yakuza 0 and about 50 hours less than my playthrough of Yakuza 7.

The slimmer nature also extends to combat. The stance switching is still there, but it’s now only two styles. There’s the yakuza style which is more brawling-focused, and is a bit of a combination of some past styles with an emphasis on bigger damage at a slower pace. Agent style on the other hand is a speed and gadget-focused style new to this game. Of real note to me was the inclusion of a spider gadget that works surprisingly similar to the Marvel Spiderman web slinging, allowing you to do things like pull weapons to you, wrap enemies as a stun lock, or throw enemies across the map. It’s a surprising addition to the series that just works extremely well at giving a stance that has potential at range, while still being melee-focused from a core combo perspective.

That said, where the story was pretty compact the game did not skimp on side content. These are again largely retreads of past games, which makes sense for a smaller side story, but there’s a lot of them. Billiards, darts, a number of board games, and gambling are all available as quick hitting distractions. The thing that’s surprising here is the amount of content available. Billiards has multiple types (9-ball, 8-ball, etc) AND a set of trick shot challenges. Darts has multiple game types as well as a range of collectable dart types that ultimately improve your throws. Gambling has multiple game types as well as different betting tiers to allow you to go against more difficult situations. There’s no reason for these side things to have any depth, but here we are. It’s a staple of the series and it’s been implemented to the standard depth even in a little side game.

Of particular note for me was the inclusion of pocket circuit from Yakuza 0/Kiwami. This is based on the mini 4WD RC car hobby where you can build out custom cars using a variety of different part types, and leave the car to drive through a set course as fast as possible. This as a side game was surprisingly deep, with track types built for different specialties like hill climbing, turning control, high speed, and more. Winning races was always a matter of figuring out what gimmick the track had, then testing a car configuration built around that, then going for victory. While it’s inherently a racing mode, the fact that you don’t have direct control of the cars made this feel like more of a puzzle game than anything else, which was hugely surprising.

However, the biggest distraction in the game for me was the Coliseum. While this is a huge part of the core story of the game, it later unlocks as a wide-ranging arena mode for both solo and team play. While it definitely has some aspect of climbing the ranks through harder and harder fighters (and frankly, being the best money-gaining option in the game), the team mode was the thing that really caught my attention. This allows you to recruit people in the world and add them to your combat team, which you can then train through the ranks. Each person has some core specialty (damage, defense, healing) and some activatable skills, allowing you to play a little bit of party building to create a team whose capabilities best match your own style of play. This is again one of those systems that looks simple on the surface but has a surprising amount of depth.

I’m not surprised that I enjoyed this game given the past entries of the series that I’ve played. However, I am surprised at the level of content that Sega put into this. This was supposed to be a little side entry, so there was no reason for it to be something that I ultimately spent upwards of 30 hours in. It’s absolutely a core Yakuza game to me. It has a great golden path through the story. It’s got fun little side missions to complete. It’s got a ton of non-combat side content with a huge variety. It just is Yakuza, and it’s got me even more hyped to play Infinite Wealth in the near future.

Game Ramblings #183 – Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

More Info from Ubisoft

  • Genre: Metroidvania
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Switch, PC, Luna

I wanted to say that this game was a huge surprise but given the fact that this was made by the studio behind the fantastic Rayman games of the last decade, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This is a game that just nails so much of what make Metroidvanias something that I go after. It combines a great sense of that side of the platformer genre and mixes in some really gratifying melee combat to make an experience absolutely worth playing.

For me it was the little things that it did right that make this such a memorable thing as a Metroidvania.

On the traversal front it doesn’t simply have retraversal like most games in the genre. What it often instead does is have a little puzzle/platforming loop that ends with a door opening a shortcut for later use. It’s a level beyond the usual changes brought about by gaining new powers that I really found interesting. It made core paths and side paths really obvious and allowed me to focus on filling out the map in areas along the core path, with the knowledge that I very likely had completed an entire section of the map when it ended in a loop. These areas were also very well marked on the map, where the end of these loops were generally marked by a one-way door. It gets rid of the sort of missile door typical of Metroid games and makes it obvious that you will just unlock this area when you’re done and be good to go.

Speaking of the map, the game is both a little less automatic but also incredibly more flexible than recent Metroid titles that I’ve played. This game doesn’t really automatically place much in the way of iconography when traversing new areas. Yes, it will unveil the areas you walk through but beyond one-way doors you’re kind of on your own for placing icons. What it does have is a particularly good tool for doing so. Beyond manual placement of various icon types – which is greatly appreciated – it has a very specific thing you unlock early that lets you add screenshots to the map. These are hugely important to retraversal. See some weird looking area you can’t get into? Add a screenshot. Chest out of reach with your current set of tools? Add a screenshot. Suspicious door? Add a screenshot. What you end up doing is scattering the map with these things and as you come back later for various reasons, you can get a very obvious visual representation of your own past with the areas and be reminded of the specific thing you wanted to check later. It’s such a nice built-in note taking aspect that feels very natural in the genre.

The other thing I found really good was how well the traversal moves actually integrated into combat, keeping flow between the two really natural. For example, one of the early moves you get is a horizontal teleport. This has obvious uses to clear large gaps in traversal. However, they also start having you face enemies and bosses that encourage using the teleport as a dodge mechanic to get behind and break protections. A later upgrade is effectively a grapple hook, which is useful for grabbing onto spots in the world but is also useful for pulling enemies to you/pulling yourself to enemies at range. This is pretty universal for all mechanics. If it can be used for combat it likely has a traversal use and in practice it means you are constantly reinforcing mechanics at all times, allowing for the player to naturally fall in and out of combat in an engaging way.

However, the thing about combat that surprised me is that the game got significantly easier as the game went on. To some obvious extent this is the natural state of the power curve. You get more powers and more tools in your tool box, and things will get easier. However, to me it felt like the mechanics of enemies didn’t get more complex at the same rate as I was upgrading. Sure, I was gaining things like heals on parry that helped me out, but the bosses weren’t throwing out crazy amounts of new stuff causing me damage. Yes, I was gaining more effective dodging mechanics, but the bosses weren’t necessarily causing me to dodge more often. What it meant was that as the game was getting marginally harder I was getting significantly more powerful, and the most difficult bosses were really the ones near the start of the game when I didn’t have the tools to compete as well against the mechanics. By the end of the game I was having little difficulty, even accounting for the fact that I was getting naturally better as time went on.

I do want to also shout out the flexibility of options here, which admittedly does lead to the game potentially being easier. Early on I noticed that I was missing a lot of what I thought were parries that I was timing correctly. It didn’t really feel like I was missing them, so much as the game was eating my parry inputs – kind of a weird battle against inherent input and screen latency. I dug into the difficulty options and noticed that I could adjust the parry window independent of all other difficulty options. A little bit of extra flexibility here completely solved the problem for me. I didn’t necessarily want an “easier” experience, but one that matched my expectation of timing with what was happening on screen and I was able to fix the specific thing that was causing me issues. That level of granularity is something I really love to see in place because it lets the user tailor the experience to the specifics of both their play style and their play setup without needing to just globally make the game easy.

I’m pretty happy that this is the game that brought the Prince of Persia series back, rather than the seemingly doomed Sands of Time remake. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the 3D entries in the series, but this feels so much more like the natural extension of the original games. It expands upon the open platforming of the original and goes with a very good modern combat layer on top of it to end up in a place where the series now feels pulled into the modern day, without really sacrificing the original vision.

How’d It Age #9 – Banjo-Tooie

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Originally Released On: N64
  • Platform: Xbox 360

When I pulled this one off my random list I realized that I don’t think I’d ever played it. I played the original for sure, and I definitely played Donkey Kong 64, but this one missed me for some reason. Going back and playing these kinds of games given the progression of the platformer genre is always interesting, and this one is definitely not an exception. However, I do think it’s showing its age at this point for a few specific reasons.

Within the context of 3D platformer games, it’s important to remember when this one came out. With it coming out at the tail end of 2000, it came out a little bit after some big hitters in the Crash Bandicoot triology and the first two Spyro games on PlayStation and the first Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. However, it was also closely followed only a year later by the first Jak and Daxter and Sonic Adventure 2, and two years ahead of Super Mario Sunshine, Ratchet & Clank, and the first Sly Cooper title. Sitting where it is you can see it as a bit of a transition title where it showed off possibly the peak of what its hardware set was capable of. However, the 2001-2002 titles definitely show where Banjo was limited.

The first thing that really stands out is the act of traversing hrough the world. It feels absolutely glacial compared to modern games. It’s not even that it feels bad because it has plenty of weight and appropriate momentum. It just feels like there’s so much downtime going from important spot to spot. The games that came out immediately after it just had such better pace to their movement that really showed a generational leap in the act of traversal.

Jak leaned into a traditional collectathon platformer setup, but was just faster. You could rip through environments in a hurry collecting things at a high pace. Part of it was that the environments in Jak were just more visually crowded thanks to the hardware jump. However, they were also more vertical and more compact, so going to collect things had less down time. Sly Cooper on the other hand had larger levels, but encouraged the player to rapidly move in the shadows so more often than not the player wasn’t slowed down by interactions with NPCs. Ratchet and Clank had the slower movement but fed the gameplay with weapons to make moment to moment gameplay more impactful. Those three all took advantage of the better hardware to make different kinds of platformer gameplay that to me all have aged better than Banjo by simply having the player always be engaged in something.

The second thing that stood out to me was how much the game causes the player to spend time retraversing for small rewards. Obviously retraversing due to upgrades isn’t something I inherently dislike since I love Metroidvania titles. However, retraversal in those games often unlocks large swaths of new territory to run through. Retraversal here is because of small reasons that don’t necessarily feel rewarding. Talking to a mole to learn how to ground pound in a different way than your base ground pound just so you can break rocks to get jiggys feels like it’s just slowing your progress to make the game longer. Finding a magic spot that requires you to find and wander around as Mumbo Jumbo that simply causes a door to open feels like it’s significantly longer than necessary just to make the game longer. It’s all just low-reward ways to push progression that take longer than feels necessary.

Ultimately, newer games have really smoothed out things like this to increase game pace. The Mario games have always had individual stars be impactful. However, Mario Odyssey went inherently collectathon and smoothed things out by making sure the required powers were always incredibly nearby, reducing the need to run around. Ratchet & Clank literally just let you carry and swap everything at any time. Games like A Hat in Time kept some of the open nature of Banjo while reducing clutter to make the experience more streamlined. Even at the time, series like Spyro were compartmentalizing collecting into smaller more varied worlds that were less focused on powers and more focused on fun environmental interactions. These games have all resulted in better aging gameplay than the slow pace of Banjo.

All that said, it’s not like this game has aged to a place where it’s unplayable. It’s still a game that’s pretty easy to fall into. You can easily pop this in, play for an hour or two, and make meaningful progress. Playing at that pace – where you kind of come back to the game periodically – fits this game much better than treating it as a front to back experience. I think that’s the big distinction between Banjo and more modern experiences. This feels like a Sunday afternoon title, where modern games feel like they’re built as better continuous play experiences. I don’t think that’s all that accidental, and I think that’s ultimately a symptom of the industry’s growth out of the arcade. I think you can generally follow games from the NES to roughly the start of the PS2 era and see each generation moving further away from standalone or quick play experiences to something that can be played over longer continuous sessions. Games simply got better at being interesting for a continuous time, rather than being interesting in short bursts.

If this one does interest you, absolutely play the Xbox version. It’s on game pass, on the 360, on the Xbox One, on the Series consoles and it has a bunch of important improvements. Get it as part of Rare Replay and you’re going to have even more fun games to play alongside it. Framerate and resolution are the obvious boosts, but playing on something other than the N64 controller is a huge improvement on its own. Make this one your non-serious gap filler and you’re going to be in good shape.