Game Ramblings #155 – Guardians of the Galaxy

More Info from Square-Enix

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

This is a AAA B-Movie in the best way possible. It’s doesn’t necessarily have the best combat or the best story or the best pacing but as a sum of parts it’s fantastic. It was hard to go through most of this game without a stupid grin on your face. It’s a lot like the movies in that respect.

This one as a whole turned out much better than The Avengers did. A lot of that came down to its focus as a purely single player narrative experience. It wasn’t hobbled by the needs of being a live-service title – the need to XP grind to keep players in the game, the need to patch in new content to keep players returning, etc – so it ended up being relatively focused. You’ve got a 15-20 hour long narrative mostly consisting of set-piece combat with relatively predictable outcomes but a ton of spectacle. What it does gain from its length over the movies is better pacing. There’s a kind of on/off rhythm to the chapters. You’ll go through a long stretch of just combat, then a long stretch of general exploration / puzzle solving. It keeps the game from becoming too stuck in a single rhythm, which helps to break up the game into much more enjoyable chunks When the combat does kick in though, it’s a lot of fun.

This game really threads a good line where you feel powerful because of indirect things happening, but still feel like you aren’t just being led by an AI that can’t lose. There’s a few systems to that. One is that you’ve got absolute control over the timing of special abilities for the other team members. They kind of passively attack and are effective at clearing lesser enemies, but if you want big damage it’s up to you. You can definitely win without using these specials, but it becomes quickly obvious that all you’re doing is making your own life slower and more difficult.

Another is that you’re the only party member that can quickly break shields. Having shields tuned to specific elements that Peter can fire allows for the player to do non-damaging stuff that is vitally important while letting the rest of the team to take out unshielded, less dangerous enemies. This has the important side effect of reducing the time just needlessly fighting easy trash. The element system also has some nice crowd control effects. Ice can freeze enemies in place. Electric can hop between enemies and stun. Wind pulls enemies to Peter. Fire can add DoT damage. All of them allow for increased damage if the enemy is under the effects. They’re not necessarily large changes to just general weapon fire, but they serve well to give better situational handling to the arenas if you’re getting overran by too many enemies.

The final one that really stood out is combo attacks. For the most part, melee is generally the more dangerous route. However, because your AI teammates are mostly melee, there’s often opportunities to go in and help them out. Comboing with your teammates can get a bunch of big damage out quick, as well as increasing the likelihood of stunning an enemy, giving a better opportunity for some easy gun-based damage.

The pacing is also actively broken up in other ways. There’s sections like above that take place in actual space combat. It’s a very Star Fox type setup, with both on-rails and free fly sections but keeps the elevated combat pacing in another fun context. There’s sliding sections where the player is going downhill avoiding obstacles and jumping over gaps, giving a fun third-person auto runner type feel. There’s a handful of sections that do camera chases with a feel more reminiscent of the chase sections of the PS1 Crash Bandicoot games. These fall into the sort of on/off action pacing of the overall game, but because they aren’t just more combat for the sake of more they serve well to keep the entire game fresh as you go through it.

The rest of the game that surrounds the combat is just really well realized. The worlds are large and filled with bright colors. Everything has that kind of technically plausible but incredibly alien feel to it. Places like Knowhere feel like large space ports where you can run around buying all sorts of cool outer space shit, even if it mostly serves as a way to shuttle you to important story beats. The enemy designs again are close, but slightly twisted. Things like walking squids or cube-shaped jelly creatures bring the sea to land. Things like giant space dragons pull in a bit of fantasy elements. There’s the little callbacks to the story out of the comics with mentions of people like Thanos or Yondu, even if they aren’t directly in the game. It’s all just a love letter to the ridiculousness of this series, and it works well.

This game really just falls into a place where it should be played simply because it’s fun. Games like Hot Wheels Unleashed or Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart or Cadence of Hyrule come to mind in recent times that kind of fall into that area. They aren’t necessarily the best written or the best gameplay or the best visuals, but put together you just can’t help but enjoy your time with it. Guardians is definitely that. It’s got good enough combat, good enough visuals, good enough of a story. Put together you just smile the entire time, and you can’t ask for more than that out of a game.

Game Ramblings #154 – Kena: Bridge of Spirits

More Info from Ember Lab

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

In general I don’t really like Souls-like games, but I keep dipping my toes into ones that try a little something different. Jedi: Fallen Order managed to keep the combat approachable enough through the use of hand waivey dodge mechanics made possible by Force powers existing. Games like Ghost of Tsushima were generally more fast action-oriented, leaving the Souls style one-on-one mechanics for well tuned individual fights with an engaging open world. Kena definitely ends up leaning more towards straight Souls combat, but with a few tweaks, some that work well and some that really don’t. By the end it was a bit grating to me, but it definitely was another that pushed me further into the subgenre.

This is very much a Souls game in general combat. It’s heavily tuned into proper timing of dodges or parries. However, it also has a very effective shield, and that was the thing that really felt the best to me in terms of Kena feeling tuned to be less dramatically unforgiving. It’s sitting on the same button as parry, so rather than parry being a direct action it feels more like a well-timed shield deflection in practice. Being able to avoid damage because you are too early and going right into a shield is a huge benefit to difficulty. It lets you deflect a few hits while you get your timing down, then letting you parry your way through the rest of the fight. That reduction in learning through dying is such a better experience than a lot of Souls-likes, and it’s due to a relatively small change.

The game also fed me a useful bow and arrow, which is always going to be a positive in my book. A lot of the later fights started really being mechanically dense in a way that I didn’t want to be in melee range, so I’d stick back, get damage with arrows until a parry opportunity came up. At that point I could lay in some big damage and get the hell out of the way.

However, the game’s boss fights really ran out of steam in a hugely negative way. By about the end of the second act, it was clear that the game was mechanically done growing. At that point the boss fights just started throwing arbitrary things at you to distract you. Endless adds, off-screen projectiles, radial explosions. The fights just kind of become annoying, rather than challenging. I liked the fights when they were challenging because I had to properly time things. Once I was getting hit by attacks I didn’t see because my view was constantly being pulled all over the place I no longer wanted to deal with the bosses. At that point I lowered the difficulty to easy and powered through the rest of the game.

By that point, the studio’s lack of experience started to show in some of the overall combat polish as well. A lot of the arenas were just dark. Dark bosses against dark backgrounds with very little in the way of highlighting. It made fights unnecessarily difficult just because of lack of vision. Some of the tells were also just kind of odd to me. A lot of them would start with some big tell then have a large unnecessary pause followed by a wildly fast dash. It didn’t feel smooth and it didn’t feel consistent. The difference between tells for weapon throws vs tells for dash/melee was also pretty arbitrary, which reduced the ability to effectively pick parry or dodge as your defensive attempt. On individual fights you would eventually learn the specifics, but I started just getting to the point where I would see some of the tells starting and immediately just hold shield to learn. It felt kind of sloppy.

Ultimately though, a decent difficulty slider allowed me to push through the rest of the game. I was enjoying the overall story and exploration a lot, so I wanted to keep playing, even with my frustration around the boss fights. It was always interesting to go see little hints in the environment and go off to find new things. It might be a hat for your little helper creatures, it might just be some currency, it might be a little side quest type of thing, but in all cases it was a good change of pace and something that felt worthwhile to pursue. That ability to dump the difficulty down to get through the parts I wasn’t enjoying to let me get through the parts that I was enjoying was hugely welcomed. It may just be numbers in the backend, and a lot of people may not want to see it in a Souls-like, but I will always support studios that get that type of stuff in there.

I’m probably not a good person to go in recommending Souls-like games, but in this case I’m pretty comfortable recommending this one. It’s got some rough edges, but combat is fun enough, the exploration was super enjoyable, and it’s a downright gorgeous game. It’s backed by a story that I wanted to see through to the end. Ya, I cranked it down to easy to power through for the things I wanted, but I got through it nonetheless, and for a Souls-like, that’s pretty rare.

Year End Ramblings – Things You Should Play From 2021

2020 was a weird year. 2021 wasn’t any better. Luckily, just like last year I played a bunch of cool shit this year. By my count we got through 28 ramblings, 5 shelvings (4 of which were JRPGs….grindy ones really missed hard for me this year), and a big ol ramblings on some early thoughts about UE5. Feel free to dig through the past year’s stuff, but let’s get to the things I think you should really focus in on.

Game Ramblings #126 – Ori and the Will of the Wisps

I shelved this in 2020. In 2021 it was one of my favorite games. Having a game that is completely based in accurate platforming and fast movement be hobbled by poor performance was gutting. Replaying it again on an Xbox Series X was such a wildly different experience that it might as well have been a different game. Play this – as long as it’s on appropriate hardware.

Game Ramblings #131 – Bowser’s Fury

I mean, play this for what it represents – a path to an open world future for Mario, but also play it because it’s just a lot of fun. It’s not that everything hits, because frankly the Bowser fights are boring, but the open world nature of this one just clicked for me. Seeing a general area to go to, being able to walk over to it, then finding a bunch of shines all seamlessly is a great experience. It ends up being a streamlined version of what the Galaxy games did years ago, and if we can get a full 3D Mario in this style I think it may reinvigorate the series in the same way that Odyssey did a few years ago.

Game Ramblings #134 – Yoku’s Island Express

I know this came out in 2018, but I was just getting around to it, so I’m hoping that a few more people have that same accidental path to it. It’s a completely fucking baffling mix of genres – pinball and Metroidvania – but it somehow works. And it works incredibly well. There’s great platforming, great puzzles, and great boss fights. There’s no reason why this should have worked, and I frankly couldn’t tell you why it does work, but it’s a rare PS4 platinum for me, and that’s usually a sign that a game has really caught on something interesting.

Game Ramblings #135 – Fantasian

I don’t play mobile games much anymore, but Mistwalker releasing a high-end JRPG caught my attention. This one feels like a console game in practice while still bringing some unique board-manipulation features to the combat system that work well on a phone screen. In a year where traditional JRPGs burned me on grind, this one really hit. It fought against grind in unique ways while still making large scale fights incredibly fun, so the game had a relatively short play time for a JRPG. It worked well before running out its welcome, and given the games I shelved this year, that was welcome.

Game Ramblings #141 – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Look, I fucking love this series. If you have a PS5, get this. If you don’t have a PS5, put this on the short list of games to get when you do. It’s got great weapons, great visuals, a neat portaling mechanic, and great use of the PS5 controller features. This is entirely a system seller.

Game Ramblings #149 – Metroid Dread

This is probably my game of the year. That’s definitely partly just love for the series, but it really is that good. In terms of core 2D Metroid gameplay, this is the best of the best. It’s got the completely directionless exploration of the old games. It’s got the much better combat of Samus Returns. It’s got some small iterations (ex: pickup suction, hidden item radar) that clean up rough points of older entries. It’s got fun high difficulty in boss fights while also making trash tremendously quick to just run through. It’s basically the peak of what the 2D Metroid games have been in the past, and given how many Metroidvania games I play, that bumped it immediately to the top of my list.

Anyhow, that’s my year. If there was a common thread it’s that JRPGs really disappointed me this year. I don’t know if I’m just getting tired of grinding or if they really aren’t moving the genre forward, but I found myself playing fewer and shelving more of them. Fantasian and Atelier Ryza were bright spots for turn-based ones, and Tales of Arise certainly hit a lot of good places for action-based ones, but by and large I found myself turning away from the experiences this year. Where things really picked up for me were action games in established series – the games above, but also things like Forza Horizon 5 and Monster Hunter Rise) – or indie experiences picking up the slack – things like Manifold Garden or Spiritfarer. There’s definitely a lot out there to play, so even if I’ve left JRPGs behind I’m at least constantly entertained.