Game Ramblings #146 – Spiritfarer

More Info from Thunder Lotus Games

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Windows, macOS, Linux, Switch, Xbox One, Stadia

I put platformer there, but this game is really a lot more than that. It’s sort of a platformer. It’s sort of a management sim. It’s sort of an adventure game. It’s sort of a visual novel. It takes a lot of pieces to scratch a lot of itches all at once. But beyond that it’s just a spectacularly beautiful game, both visually and narratively. It’s one of the few games in recent memory I’d recommend just for experiencing the story itself.

Everyone will probably be initially caught by the visuals of this game, and that’s a pretty obvious positive. This is the same team that did Jotun and Sundered, and it shows. Visually speaking, the game is astoundingly beautiful. However, it’s not the only thing that really hits well on the presentation side. The game’s soundtrack and overall audio are all really good as well. It’s nothing in your face loud, but it really fits the game well. There’s a lot of subtle sort of ambient music in the background – enough to fit the theme of the areas you’re in or the events that are being started, and it all leads you to pretty easily know what’s going on at all times.

The gameplay side is probably the weaker section, but it’s still solid. Ultimately I think the weakness comes from it trying to blend too many genres at once. You’ve got a bit of a management sim at play here. You’ll be constantly growing vegetables and tending your fields and manufacturing linens and ore and metal plates and etc etc etc. You’re also putting all these resources into building the boat and upgrading buildings on it, both for you and the spirits on the boat. There’s a bit of an adventure RPG here. You’ll be going through lists of collection quests to help move your spirits to the afterlife. There’s a bit of a platformer here. Each individual island you sale to has its own platforming challenges, and you’ll pick up some powerups along the way (ex: double jump, ziplines, etc) to help you through those.

In being so many genres, none of them can truly stand out. The collection aspect is a bit of a grind, and you’re constantly spending time while you’re sailing growing or manufacturing or fishing to get resources and money. The quests are repetitive and mostly involve sailing back and forth to new locations. The platforming is fine, but the individual islands are so small that it never truly becomes a large scale platformer. Ultimately it’s a bunch of systems that are in place to support the narrative, and not necessarily systems that feel like they were fully fleshed out into a good set of gameplay mechanics.

I’m putting this next section in spoilers because I specifically want to talk about the story and don’t want to ruin it for those that still want to play the game for themselves.

Spoiler

However, the story made this worth the effort for me. The game is ostensibly the story of a person ferrying the souls of the dead on their final trip to the afterlife, however it becomes much more than that. As you meat and transport individual souls, you start to recognize the signs that the souls you’re transporting know the main character Stella. You start to recognize that who you’re transporting are souls of people that you know that are already dead. It then dawns on you that the reason you are transporting them is because Stella herself is dying, and you’re revisiting her life. The details surrounding Stella being a nurse for terminally ill patients slowly trickles to the front in a wonderful way.

Turning the idea of a life flashing before one’s eyes at their end of their life into something like this was an absolute triumph. You live Stella’s life through the eyes of those she helped at the end of their own life. The impact of helping these spirits and then bringing them to their final trip to the afterlife is emotionally affecting in a way that very few games manage. For some characters you end up incredibly sad that their life potentially ended on a bad note. For some, you’re glad to be rid of an asshole that did nothing but bring negativity to those around them. For some, you’re given the pain of seeing a good friend leave. Each spirit’s end is unique to a point where I was constantly fighting the pain of seeing them leave from the wish to help them get there. The culmination of all of this – seeing the story of Stella herself and how the various spirits intersected with her in life – was a great way to bring everything full circle, and ended the game’s narrative in a perfect fashion for me. All the questions were answered and I was left in a place where, despite knowing that Stella’s life was ending, I was happy for her having lived such a life of great purpose, and one that she clearly believed in.

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It’s pretty rare that I recommend playing a game just because of story, but this is definitely one of those. The gameplay itself is fine, the presentation aspects are wonderful, but the story itself is why I kept playing. It’s definitely not a feel-good narrative, but the emotional impact of it is at a level that is rarely seen in videogames, and within recent memory can’t be duplicated for me. It ends up being an incredibly unique look at death and how it affects those around it that I cannot recommend it enough. If the gameplay doesn’t really feel like your thing, at least do yourself a favor and watch a narrative pass on Youtube, but I think it’d be a disservice to not experience it yourself.

Game Ramblings #145 – NEO: The World Ends With You

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: PC, Switch

I really liked the first game, both the original DS version and the Switch remake. For the sequel, it moved to full 3D. This did mean that combat had to change, but interestingly enough it still had a lot of the same rhythm of combat, so it still felt entirely familiar. This is definitely not a game without its faults, which I’ll get into a bit, but it surprised me how well they converted a uniquely touch experience into something decidedly gamepad-focused.

Combat had a unique rhythm in the original, particularly in the remake. In that one, you’d be trying to switch between using different pins to build up the sync meter, allowing you to throw down a large group attack and heal back up to full health. NEO follows a lot of the same pattern. The terminology has changed a bit, but the core system is the same. What has changed is the inputs to do so.

Rather than screen holds and swipes and taps, you have button hold auras and butt hold charges and taps. In practice it has the same feel and build out – find pins that allow you to get in a rhythm to both maximize opportunities to build up your groove meter, as well as minimizing the times when you have all pins on cooldown – but it’s all on the gamepad, and it’s surprising how easily I fell back into the rhythm of the game.

In a lot of ways, this does open up the first weakness of this game though, it takes a long time to not be incredibly easy. This one follows the same three week structure as the first game, and I’d say it took until about the mid to end of week two before the game, even on hard, didn’t feel like a pushover. The game definitely felt like it was expecting players to have a hard time grokking the combo system, and most of the enemies end up being somewhat pushovers as a result. There are ways for the player to sort of steer their personal difficulty – doing long fight chains without healing, reducing their party level, not buying gear, etc – but ultimately there isn’t a ton of combat challenge in the game until it introduces a few specific enemies types, the shark, the chameleon, and the rhinos. However, the game can generally be beaten via button spam once the player has become comfortable with the combo system and starts taking advantage of filling out the groove meter.

Even then the fights feel less like higher difficulty and more just lower bar for error. Missing the attacks that those types do just pushes a lot of damage on the party, so I had a tendency to slow down a bit more and actively avoid damage. The enemies themselves that are “harder” are more just annoying in mechanics, rather than being traditionally hard. The shark swims through the ground and can’t be attacked, the chameleon goes invisible and can’t be attacked, the rhino has front armor and has to be attacked from behind. It’s less hard and more slower, again causing be to slow down and avoid damage instead. Ya, my rewards weren’t as good, but it generally didn’t matter enough. Because you can sort of guess the enemy type from their overworld icons, you can also actively avoid those fights in order to more efficiently grind. To some extent it is nice that the player can kind of build their difficulty curve in these ways, but I’d have preferred seeing harder mechanics that were still fast paced.

In good news, the bosses don’t really fall into these problems. On hard they feel appropriately hard, and they tend to have more interesting mechanics in terms of the player having to avoid damage. The biggest thing that the bosses felt they did correctly is that there was simply parts where the player simply had to avoid damage, which was a bit change from trash fights where damage is generally shrugged off. This was sometimes achieved through world effects, sometimes through big enemy tells, sometimes through the enemy just being damage immune. However, it always came about as a way to force the player to not attack, which gave a bit of a seesaw feel between big damage pushes and big defense pushes. By the end of the game I was finding myself blazing through the game on normal just to speed things up, then pushing the difficulty up for boss segments and enjoying the difficulty there. That pattern was really rewarding and actually fit a pattern I enjoyed a lot more once I had my late game pin set kind of set for the party.

Narratively it’s also a bit of hit and miss. From an overall perspective, I really did enjoy the game. It plays a pretty good balance of nostalgia for the original and pushing new story content. You have a bunch of new characters and a bunch of returning characters, and the fact that they interact doesn’t feel forced. The gameplay being teams instead of pairs feels well explained. The new Reapers in charge of the current game feels well explained.

On the other hand, there’s a general turn back time mechanic that while important to the end of the story, feels poorly implemented. Going back in time restricts you to single zones and is pretty clearly a bunch of linear paths, so it feels like a forced restriction of exploration. Rather than letting the game continue as normal in these areas, I generally went into a no combat situation so I could see the story unfold as quickly as possible and get back to the more loose structure of general exploration that main segments had.

I think a lot of people will have problems getting into this one, but the original had similar problems. It takes a long time to get into full mechanics and full difficulty. It’s really easy to get into so much combat that you drastically out-level the game. The story assumes you know too much about the previous game and doesn’t really explain some really complicated shit to new users. However, despite all that I really enjoyed the game. Combat – once fully dolled out to the player – has a great rhythm that very few games today have, and when it all comes together in late game boss fights it’s super satisfying. It’s just unfortunate that the game trips a lot to get there, though again I would say the exact same thing about the original.

Game Ramblings #144 – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Released On: Wii

Playing remakes is usually a bit weird. They’re typically a mix of nostalgia with enough of a new platform benefit to make replaying worthwhile. Skyward Sword isn’t necessarily different in that regard, although I think a lot of people’s opinion of the original was not great. This one on the other hand benefits from some core things being reimagined – because the Pro Controller is a thing, there’s now a control scheme for this game that isn’t simply motion waggling. While that was a big change that benefited the game a lot, it was interesting seeing where other parts of the game have aged better than others.

The input changes are the obvious focus of this remake, so it’s also the obvious place to start. Waggle sword has been replaced with right analog sword, and in isolation its an interesting and powerful change. The game was able to keep some of the direction based mechanics in an easy to use form factor (ex: scorpion boss requiring specific direction claw strikes). It still has spots where it felt like the responsiveness wasn’t quite there if I didn’t flick at the right speed, but it was a marked improvement over the Wii Remote input system. Nunchuck thrust shield bash has been replaced by a simple click of the left stick. Not having to lift off the movement controls or swing my arms around was a huge boon to shield bashing, and led to me using it to a far greater effect than the original game, despite the fact that my timing still sucks.

On the other hand, having two sticks dedicated to movement and combat means that the camera system is the odd man out. On the one hand, having to hold a button to use the right stick as a camera is still a significant improvement over the original game and other single-analog Zelda experiences. On the other hand, I’m not really entirely sure why they didn’t have an option for a simple L/R camera rotation system. With ZL target locking, having vertical camera movement isn’t super important. Not being able to move the camera at the same time as swinging was definitely a hazard during boss fights to the point where the camera button was frustrating in those situations. It felt like a weird way of trying to blend modern camera systems with a game clearly not built for them when there was likely better intermediate solutions.

On the general gameplay front, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the overall meta game. In my original playthrough, I remember being frustrated that there was so much re-traversal of areas that you’d already been to. Compared to previous Zelda games, it felt like a cop out to minimize content production. I don’t know if it’s because Breath of the Wild was so fundamentally different, or that I’ve been playing a whole hell of a lot more Metroidvanias in the last decade, but this go around I really enjoyed it.

Part of this playthrough for me was that I was a lot more intentionally completionist than I typically would be. I was making mental notes of areas that I couldn’t get to, treasures I didn’t have the right tool for, paths I couldn’t make my way through, etc. Because of this, I also had a checklist of new things to do when revisiting an area. Sure there was always a cool new section of the regions to visit, but I also had other things to do – grab heart pieces, grab rupies, grab bugs, get those item upgrades – so revisiting an area never felt like a chore. I think ultimately it comes down to me just playing games differently now than I did at the first release of this game, and the overall meta game setup just hit better for me this go around.

What didn’t hit so well with me was The Imprisoned trilogy of boss fights. The amount of times this thing fell just right to completely block the path, or fell just right to knock me off a cliff DURING ITS OWN CUTSCENE to my doom was obnoxious. I actually died in the second fight because I flippantly started it at low health already, got knocked off the cliff all three times when it collapsed, and died. These fights just didn’t age well, and it was entirely down to bugs.

The other bosses generally worked much better. Some of my frustration with them stemmed from odd camera difficulties that existed in the original game, so in a lot of cases it was expected frustration. I ended up dying my first go around in the final fight against Demise because my shield bash timing was quite frankly that bad. Some of the Ghirahim stuff was mechanically weird in ways I didn’t remember (ex: hold sword to the left as a distraction then QUICKLY do a swipe from the right to damage him?????). By and large though the fights are generally as good as other 3D Zelda games, even if they have the same typically three phase pattern in all of them.

The thing I think I’ve got out of this is that I can recommend Skyward Sword a lot easier than I could before. I always really adored the original game, but I was cognizant of the fact that it was a hard recommendation. The controls were just too inconsistent. However, that’s mostly gone away and the rest of the game has aged well enough that I think it’s worth playing. It’s an interesting transition point between Twilight and Breath where it’s still got the linear dungeon path, but starting to move into some open worldish stuff and upgrade systems, and despite the odd controls it’s a lot of fun to run through. It being readily available on a very popular system also isn’t going to hurt its case. If you’re looking for that classic 3D Zelda itch, you probably won’t do better any time soon.

Also, the cat dog bird thing is a jerk.