Game Ramblings #171 – The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: ARPG
  • Platform: Switch

It would be extremely easy to point at this game and just go “it’s a sequel, whatever”. It shares the characters from Breath of the Wild. It largely shares the overworld, which at a glance simply features the changes that come from progression of time. At a glance it looks to be largely the same mechanically. However, it’s just a bafflingly better game than BOTW, which was already a bafflingly good game.

One of the things that struck me was that it felt weird that they threw out the runes from the original game. That felt like such a core part of the gameplay of the original that removing them just felt wrong. When you get the new ultra hand and fuse abilities early on, they kind of feel like a weird replacement. But then you fuse a bomb flower to an arrow and you suddenly don’t miss the bomb rune so much. You start to realize that the utility of ultra hand replaces the use of the magnesis rune. You start attaching rockets to your shields and suddenly using stasis launches just feels like a slow part of the past. Then you’re busy building something stupid like the vehicle I made up there and by that point you’ve completely missed that the system has so well clicked in your head that you don’t miss the systems of the original game.

The thing that is so wild as a developer about the set of abilities in the game is how often I would try something and be surprised that it just worked. There’s obvious things like attaching an arrow and bomb together would do something cool because Zelda games have had that in the past. But attaching an eyeball to an arrow? Well of course it’s now a homing arrow because it can see. Attaching meat to an arrow? Now you’ve got something to lure enemies. Attach a rocket to your shield? Now you can fly. Attach a wheel to a rope? Now you can open gates. Attach a control stick to some fans? You’ve got a flying motorcycle. Those are nothing next to some of the crazy things the community has been up to.

It’s one of those things that I can understand conceptually how they pulled it off. Ultimately it’s more of an issue of scale of problem solving than anything else. However, I’ve never been in the position where I could simply make anything work simply because that’s the core idea of the game. Everything within these systems is so well polished because they’ve spent the last six years just perfecting every interaction that you can have. These interactions are also completely not accidental either, because most of them are covered in some place in some shrine in some corner of the world where it was clear that something was made simply because some developer along the way said “I want to make a puzzle, I want this mechanic, let’s get it working” and it became another potential tool in the chest for the team and ultimately for players.

All this is to say nothing about the fact that the game isn’t just a slightly modified overworld. Yes that’s there, and yes there’s a lot of differences that players of BOTW will appreciate. However, there’s an entire set of new sky islands to explore and puzzle through that offer unique challenges in terms of trying not to fall off of them. The introduction of the ascend ability that allows you to pass through things above you greatly enhances traversal in all situations. You then start going into the depths and quickly realize that there’s an entire second overworld as big as Hyrule to explore and find cool stuff in. The depths’ core change is that it’s completely dark until you light it up, and that change alone transforms the game into the strangest combination of survival horror and ARPG that drastically changed the pace of how I was playing the game. That alone is enough of a reason to warrant this being considered a full new experience instead of simply a retread.

All that said I do have some gripes about combat, which felt like the weakest part of the game to me. There was something about the timing of dodges/parries that just felt off to me and I could never really quite place my finger on what it was. So much of the combat once you get past the intro red enemies is about dodging or parrying to lay in maximum damage and it always felt like I was just a bit early or just a bit late. I would make adjustments and end up on the other side of that, never really getting to the point where I was really ever comfortable engaging in combat in the overworld where multiple enemies were around. I felt like I was often just taking a ton of what should have been avoidable damage, but just never could quite make it work.

The frustrating part is I never had this problem against bosses. I beat all the temple bosses first try and had similar results against Ganon, despite the fight feeling like a callback to Wind Waker in being so heavily based around specifically dodging to lay in damage. The fact that bosses tended to be fine while overworld combat was problematic for me made me think that I was battling some sort of input latency or frame pacing issue since overworld framerate tends to be less consistent than the tailored boss areas. In those situations combat just felt nice. Timing things felt fair and appropriate without being too easy. It was rewarding to nail your dodges and get a flurry rush while laying in huge damage. I guess ultimately my problem with combat was that things like late-game Bokoblins felt like more of a threat than Ganondorf which is something I can’t really reconcile in my head.

My combat issues didn’t really negatively impact my feelings on the game though. This is absolutely a game worth playing and if for some reason you still don’t own a Switch, this is game worth getting a Switch to play. It’s so fundamentally good across nearly the entire experience and just constantly throws things at you that will surprise you. It takes what was originally a top game of all time framework and enhances it in ways that sets a new standard for what open world ARPGs should be striving for.

Game Ramblings #170 – Islets

More Info from Armor Games Studios

  • Genre: Metroidvania
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

There’s a lot of solid Metroidvanias out there, but there’s very few that I think get into the same neighborhood as a 2D Metroid title. The difference between ones that are simply alright and ones that really make that reach are never in the core mechanics, but in the little details. Islets is one that gets the little things right, and because of that it’s a fantastic title.

The core of a Metroidvania isn’t really that difficult to envision. You’ve basically got a game that encourages you to re-explore areas as you gain new abilities, have some fun combat segments, and really push some fun boss fights. Where games in the genre typically stumble for me is that they’ll focus on one of those sections and ignore the rest. Maybe their boss fights are fun, but it’s a slog traversing the environment. Maybe there’s too many enemies in the overworld, so it feels like you’re constantly slowed down. Islets is a game that manages to strike a balance that worked for me in how it handles all its details. There’s a few key points I wanted to focus on and they all tie into how well the game really gets some small things right that end up benefiting the whole.

The first one is that upgrades almost universally enhance traversal as a priority rather than combat. That may sound like the game is focusing on traversal over combat, but it’s not. A double jump opens up a bunch of opportunities for traversal, allowing you to clear larger gaps or taller walls. It also allows you to simply avoid easier enemies. However, what it also does is opens up a new dodge opportunity that is heavily used for boss fights. The same could be said for things like wall run or a ground pound. It obviously opens up opportunities that make traversal faster and more fun while opening up new paths. However, it also opens up new avoidance and offensive capabilities, which enhance the combat. Rather than focusing purely on weapon upgrades, they’re adding capabilities for your total toolset, which enhances the entire game, making the entire experience better for it.

That’s not to say that all upgrades are purely tied to traversal. In fact, there’s a lot of upgrades that are purely combat focused but are more power curve enhancements instead of toolset enhancements. They may be increased HP, more arrows to fire, passive reflect damage when the player takes damage, etc. What they all generally have in common though is that they are enhancing rather than changing your move set. This leads to a situation where reinforcement of new mechanics happens all the time through traversal-focused ones, rather than getting a combat upgrade that you don’t use for a while and forget about. It’s a nice way to maintain a power curve without it being overcomplicated.

They also aren’t shy about giving you temporary mechanics purely themed around the environment. One rainy section of the game gives you an umbrella that opens up gliding mechanic, paving the way for a temporary set of puzzles only in that section. One area has a bunch of moving platforms that have you dodging through spiky obstacles that only exist in that one area, which gives the traversal in the section a deliberately slower and more strategic pace. A section around the midpoint of the game has teleportation volumes, seemingly just for the sake of making a cool section of the game. These types of small-section one off mechanics really break up the monotony of traversal by making the player change how they’re going about things just enough without breaking the core of what’s there.

It also helps that there are entire sections of the game that take place in a twin-stick style shoot em up. These come up as you travel between the game’s core island sections and effectively end up acting as a nice breather. Mechanically each one has a bit of typical 2D projectile avoidance and usually some core mechanic you have to deal with (ex: a boss focused on boomerangs, or a boss focused on grappling themselves across the arena). They aren’t necessarily difficult and they aren’t overly common, but they’re there just enough to be a change of pace battle before you get going back into platforming.

Difficulty is another one of those areas where I think they really played a nice balance. This game wasn’t one where I was immune from death, and I think for the most part I died to most of the bosses at least a couple times while I was learning mechanics. However, there were a couple things that really worked out well for me in that regard.

One of the keys was that death never felt like progress loss. It was simply a return back to the last save point. This is completely opposite of a game like Hollow Knight, where I felt like death runs were such a negative deterrence that I never wanted to take risks. Here, I didn’t mind it. Save points felt like they were spread out enough to encourage the challenge, but not too far as to be a slog. It was helped by the fact that any sub-boss fights never came back once completed, so if you got through a couple of them then died, you didn’t have to redo them. The frequency of combat along traversal was also low enough that it didn’t feel like I was constantly in combat, but instead being in combat in a way that made sense based on the particular room I happened to be in.

It was also incredibly helpful that every major boss fight had a save point immediately before the boss. This let the boss be challenging on its own, rather than being a challenge because of what you had to do to approach it. Each boss definitely had its set of mechanics that had to be learned, so being in a place where I could learn the mechanics and immediately be back in a fight if I died was an incredibly good way to quickly positively reinforce the learning, rather than having to spend a bunch of time between attempts doing a run back after death.

Ultimately this is just a very well made Metroidvania. It seems to understand what the genre should be for a lot of people. It plays a good balance between encouraging exploration and traversal, while still having a core combat base. It has enough difficulty to be challenging, but isn’t overbearing in negatively impacting the player. And frankly, it’s just fun to look at. This is an entry in the genre that is simply worth playing.

Game Ramblings #169 – Haven

More Info from The Game Bakers

  • Genre: RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows

This is a game that for me stretched how far one mechanic could work for me to carry the game. Sure, this game has some JRPG-ish combat. It has a bunch of crafting in place to handle items and upgrades. However, it was the overworld gliding that kept my attention, and oddly that was enough.

Looking at some reviews after the fact, it feels to me like I had the opposite experience of a lot of reviewers. I’ve seen a lot of places praising the combat and saying the overworld collecting was a drag. However, it felt like the opposite to me. I dreaded being in combat instead of just flying around the world – not because it was necessarily challenging, but because it just felt slow.

Combat in Haven is sort of a FF-lite. It’s effectively an ATB-style JRPG turn-based system. You have a couple attacks to choose from, you can combo them with your partner, or you can activate a shield to reduce damage. It works well enough, but you get all of it immediately and it never really feels….different. Every enemy type is basically a system of figuring out which attack they are weak to, recognize when attacks are coming up to shield, and then getting through it. The only real differences between early and late game are that a couple enemies require waiting until they attack to hit them while they’re dazed and most late-game enemies basically require you to always have one of your party members shielding.

As a core combat system it’s fine, but it left me wanting more. I wanted to have to use better strategy to defeat enemies. I wanted to be able to more rapidly mix attack types instead of waiting for the relatively slow attack gauge charge ups. Frankly, I wanted it to be easier to heal my party instead of having to always be crafting bandages and healing capsules at my base.

I suppose that’s another part of the game feeling slow to me. Even with shielding, you end up taking so much incidental damage over time that you have to find a camp or return to base to heal. The game requires you to eat to have the fastest combat pace which requires you to find a camp or return to base to cook. You often find items required for upgrades or plot reasons that require you to return to base to activate. You basically spend a bunch of time just having to return to base, and it all feels like padding for the sake of extending time played.

However, I kept pushing because it was fun just to glide around. The gliding is fast, but weighty. There’s a strong sense of momentum when leaning into turns, rather than just turning on a dime. There’s little flow lines all over that have you flying in the air following them that somehow bring on a sense of nostalgia of something like a Tony Hawk game, despite being clearly sci-fi. Some reviewers pointed out that all the collecting was a chore, but I often found it fun gliding around new zones simply to find all the flow lines and figure out where they went. I was having fun for the sake of gliding around, and forward progress in the game was often just incidental to that.

For me, that was enough. Gliding around was fun for the sake of being fun, and the rest of the game was there to happen when it happened. I expect most people will enjoy the combat more than I did and I also suspect that most people will be a little more streamlined with the overworld stuff than I was. So long as you can deal with the fact that story is often outwardly horny, I think there’s a surprising little gem to play here.