Game Ramblings #180 – Assassin’s Creed Mirage

More Info from Ubisoft

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

Is it weird to say that the thirteenth entry in a series feels like a breath of fresh air? This one absolutely does. If I look at the recent super open world AC entries I loved Origins, I liked Odyssey, and then Valhalla totally lost me. As the series got bigger it became less about stealth and more about RPG systems. The environments were impressive as hell, but they grew increasingly empty. The games just lost what made AC fun for me. In going smaller for Mirage, it feels like a return to form combined with iteration learned in the larger entries, leading to something that feels like a better version of where the series was going for the AC2 trilogy of titles.

To me, one-hit assassinations were essential to Assassin’s Creed. The open world titles starting with Origins did away with that. You could improve your gear and get skill upgrades to eventually get to that point in those games, but by the time Valhalla came around it was clear that they wanted to steer you into combat. My issue there is that the combat was ultimately not that great. One-on-one it worked pretty well, but as the target count increased it became increasingly annoying to deal with the timing of parries and dodges. Oddly enough, Mirage manages to kind of solve both problems.

In the few situations where I did get into combat it was much improved, and to me it was simple – parries were hugely powerful. My target count problem in AC was ultimately that clearing out the crowd was a huge chore. You could parry and dodge, but it would take what felt like forever to clear a crowd. In Mirage, it’s one or two parries max to stun an enemy and the stun state is a guaranteed kill. That puts it in the territory of assassinations in terms of speed and efficiency. It removes so much of the drag of combat and makes combat fun again. However, they also improved some of the enemy attack order, so it feels more like watching for one attack at a time, and less like randomly being spammed by a group. It’s a small change with huge ramifications.

However, the big thing is that literally EVERYTHING can be assassinated fully. Normal NPCs, armored NPCs, all but a handful of bosses. If you choose to, this game has returned to the point where you can run the experience full stealth and treat it as more of a puzzle game instead of action. To me that is the perfect experience. I love the process of finding paths through enemy bases; the process of pulling enemies to stealth areas to get rid of them safely; the process of finding ways to get through locked doors into safe areas. Being able to solely focus on that is the best way for me to enjoy this type of gameplay, so it being a sole focus is such a huge improvement back to what I wanted from this series.

The other important thing I suppose is that this game is short. It takes place specifically within Baghdad and a very limited surrounding desert area and focuses on a single quick 5 target story. However, that isn’t saying that it feels like a skimpy amount of content. What it feels like is a practical and good amount of content. Each core target takes place within a series of smaller subquests, often involving the search for clues to their location and name. There’s a nice pattern that evolves here where you get some story and interactions with NPCs, then a bit of stealth for investigating, then a big final segment to assassinate the target. It’s got a rhythm that works perfectly in terms of pacing. All told it ends up being about 20 hours if you do most of the content in place, which was long enough to feel meaty but short enough to not drag out.

In my Valhalla ramblings I said:

This series is ready for that next step forward, and it’s got some great examples to look at if they’re ready to make that push.

I can’t tell if Mirage is necessarily that step forward, but it at least feels like recognition that the formula was stale. This is obviously a DLC that got turned into a standalone title, but whether or not that was an accident it ended up to the series’ benefit. This is such a focused and fun experience that it makes me hope that they push for these tighter experiences. It gets rid of so much unnecessary bulk to just make a fun game and ended up being my favorite AC since at least Origins, and likely since Black Flag. If you’ve been on the fence for the series for the past few years that’s probably for good reason, but this is a pretty good spot to jump back in if you’ve got the itch for sneaking around.

How’d It Age #7 – Super Mario RPG

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: SNES, Virtual Console, SNES Classic

It’s a bit surprising that I’m doing back to back remakes of old games that came out in the late 90s, but here we are. Where Pharaoh felt like it strayed too close to the original and could have benefited from more modernization, Super Mario RPG feels like it does a good job of maintaining what worked in the original and smoothing out some things for a modern audience while also adding a couple new features here and there that maybe don’t work as well.

I guess we’ll start out with combat, since it’s where most of the changes occurred that stood out in my head. In this case, I’ll start with the two things that didn’t necessarily work out well for me.

The first is the little meter in the bottom left corner of that screenshot. This is one of the new mechanics tied to action buttons, where you can get bonus offensive or defensive boosts if you time an A button press based on the action occurring. In this case, the meter builds up when you get good action buttons until you hit 100%. At that point you can activate a move based on the composition of your team, with each team combo having some different move. The problem I have with these is that situationally they can be very useful in a niche, but aren’t generally that useful in most cases.

For example, one of the moves heals all party members both on and off the field. It’s useful if you got nuked by a big boss move, but you’d have to have the right party combo (Mario/Peach/Mallow) be alive to activate it anyway. The big offensive combo of Mario/Bowser/Geno does a series of random attacks and buffs which can be useful in the start of a boss battle to buff your party, but it requires your healers to then skip out on the buffs. It then takes a fair number of turns to recharge the meter so often I’d be sitting there holding onto it considering whether it’s worth using only to then finish the fights anyway. It’s one of those ideas that on paper sounds good, but in practice falls to a lot of the classic JRPG problem of holding onto something for so long that you lose the chance to use it.

Another thing that didn’t work out as well for me was the inclusion of randomized special enemies. These are nice in one respect in that they drop frog coins, which makes collecting them much easier than in the original game. However, the special enemies have weird mechanics (ex: nearly immune to physical damage, faster move speed, etc) and very little other over the top reward, so it again feels like a case where the idea is good on paper but not really baked enough to be a fun feature.

However, new things are much more positive for me from there. There are three small changes tied to the action button mechanic that all end up summing up to a much greater whole for the feature.

The first is the inclusion of a little (!) symbol to teach you the timing. This will show up the first handful of times you have to hit the action on a new move, both offensively and defensively. It allows you to learn the timing on the fly without the guess work of the original game. The nice thing is that once you get the timing right a few times, it goes away. However, if you later start to then miss the timing consistently it will come back until you learn the timing again. This is a fantastic way to teach players quickly about new moves, while allowing timing to be wildly different for different types of attacks. It also removes the feeling of being hand holdy by going away and letting the player succeed through repetition or fail for a while before it comes back.

The second is that successful action button attacks now change the damage to be AoE, doing about 25% damage to all non-targeted NPCs in the attack. My initial instinct was that this was going to make the game much easier, and it certainly does. However, where that ease comes in is just making trash fights much quicker. Now if I’m not quite one-shotting enemies, I can still just move on and attack other NPCs. More often than not, I would be able to clear a normal 3-person trash fight in 3 attacks by simply focusing each target once and letting the AoE take over. It’s ultimately a huge time saving reward for getting your action timing right, and not something that necessarily is negatively impacting difficulty.

The third is the chain mechanic. Getting action button timing right will build up the chain, providing stacking buffs to the entire party. Each party member then has stats tied to them that apply to this. For example, Mallow increases magic attack while Geno increases physical attack and speed. What this allows you to do as the player is to mix and match your party for the situation beyond just what moves the member does. It’s again something that has the effect of making the game easier on paper, but also providing a strong incentive towards hitting your timing just right. This becomes incredibly important in the post-game when the player is fighting boss rematches on the way to fighting the ultimate form of Culex.

The final thing that I want to point out is how much better inventory management is. Rather than being a fixed list of 20 or so items that you can carry, you can now carry infinite items but with a limit per item type. For example, you can carry 10 mushrooms total or 6 pick me ups total. Anything over that amount is sent back to storage at Mario’s house. This just gets rid of so much hassle from the original game. You’re no longer keeping an empty slot just to pick up flower tabs. You’re no longer fighting with whether a revive is more important than a syrup. You’re no longer scrolling through the long unwieldy list for one specific thing. It’s such a small change but it modernizes the game incredibly well.

This is very clearly a lovingly crafted remake. It maintains the wonderful gameplay of the original game, completely revamps the visuals (because hoooooo boy the 2D didn’t age well on non-CRTs), reorchestrates the wonderful soundtrack, and does just enough to play the balance between nostalgia and modernization. It shows why the original game was so well received 25+ years ago and manages to still feel like a great experience now.

How’d It Age #6 – Pharaoh / Pharaoh: A New Era

More Info from DotEmu

  • Genre: City Builder
  • Platform: PC

So I suppose this is a bit of a look at how an old game aged, and a bit of a look at how a remake both did and didn’t change a game. Pharaoh is a game that I played when it first came out, and is something that I’ve continued to come back to on and off throughout the years since. This is really the first city builder that hooked me. I’d played some SimCity on SNES, SimCity 2000 on PC, and dabbled a bit in Caesar 3, but none of them really got their hooks in me like this one. However, it had some distinct issues that have never really gone away for me as I play through it, and for better or worse a lot of that is maintained in the remake, though it does come with a few nice tweaks.

I think this screenshot is a good place to start, because it really shows the main thing that drew me to playing the remake over the original. They added a global worker pool mechanic that later games like Zeus started playing with. In the original game, your places of work had to be close enough to housing to allow recruiters to find people for the jobs. What this meant at least for me was that instead of designing cities I was haphazardly putting together pods of industries where they needed to be with pods of housing connected to them, but not too close so their desirability wouldn’t be affected. It always felt like a weird restriction to me in terms of how I wanted to go about designing my layouts. The global worker pool fixes that.

Now, I simply need to have enough people in the city to fill the jobs. What this means for me is that I can design my cities with distinct regions. I can have industrial regions, where resources and production buildings are grouped in ways that make sense for efficient creation, storage, and ultimately trade purposes. I can then have housing in areas where it will best allow it to both have access to everything it needs, as well as room for the buildings to expand in later levels to high-level 3×3+ housing. It makes the entire city creation process about designing rather than fitting to specific mechanical needs.

There’s also an additional sub-option that changes the underlying worker availability from being age-based to just being a flat percentage, and this is unfortunately a good option covering up a mechanic that I feel still doesn’t work right. The underlying default worker pool is anyone in your town from age 20-49. This works great as your city grows and workers move in. However, once your housing capacity is reached it becomes a long term problem. There seems to be an underlying mechanical issue where people just do not have children at a replacement rate so your city ends up ultimately aging out. To keep the worker pool up, you end up just constantly chasing a growing population or doing mechanical cheesing, such as deleting an entire neighborhood and rebuilding it to get new immigrants.

At the time of the game’s release it felt like potentially a systemic limitation that was just annoying. However, it feels like something that should just be fixed. The flat percentage worker pool is an alright solution, and honestly gets me my goal of having a city that I can grow to a predictable size. However, I’d have liked a more elegant solution where roughly stable populations also have roughly stable birth rates, and I can plan around that. Yes, I expect that cities with full health care coverage would have more older citizens that age out of the worker pool, but it’s so aggressive in both the original and remake that it feels broken.

That isn’t the only thing that I kind of wished had more elegant solutions. In the original release as well as the remake I end up hitting a point in the middle kingdom period where mechanically the game just becomes something I don’t want out of a city builder. You reach a point where you’ve kind of seen everything so the game becomes less about city building and more about speed running. You start getting into levels that expect you to have a lot of industry up and running extremely early, and if you don’t do things just right you start suffering consequences such as the pharaoh invading your city. It ultimately is not how I want to play a city builder. I find it more interesting to be chasing layouts and efficiency within that rather than hitting mechanical bullet points, and the later levels just feel like you should build in precise locations at precise times and learn that via being defeated. It’s at that point where I tend to fall into just doing mission editor free play on cool spots.

The game also really did nothing to alleviate boredom around the god mechanic. The tl;dr is you need to keep gods happy or suffer negative consequences. If you keep them happy you have positive consequences. Unfortunately, the practical way to do this is to just routinely hold festivals in their honor. It’s so robotic of a mechanic that I’d almost rather neither positive or negative consequences existed, and the whole thing just went away. Long wait periods while monuments are being built just turn into clicking the festival button every couple months and doing that in repetition for long periods of time. It felt unnecessary 25 years ago and feels unnecessary now.

All that being said, I’m glad this remake is out and is still seemingly being worked on. This offers me a hugely easier way to do my semi-regular hop into the game. It gives me modern perks like ultrawide support and cloud saves. It modernizes a few mechanics and gives me hope that they’re going to be willing to do more to create an ultimately better experience. And I suppose what it really gives me is hope that city builders are still a popular enough thing to exist within some niche on Steam. I would say that since this game came out I’ve leaned more heavily into open-ended builders like Timberborn, but I think there’s still a place to explore more history-focused task-oriented builders like Pharaoh, though I do want to see more of a push to fix what wasn’t liked about the originals if the studio behind this does end up going into later titles.