Game Ramblings #149 – Metroid Dread

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action/Platformer, Metroidvania
  • Platform: Switch

This is very much an iteration on the work that was started with Metroid: Samus Returns, and that’s a great thing. Quite frankly, you could read my notes on that one and it would be a 1:1 retread of what worked for Metroid Dread. However, this feels like a clear iteration on the formula and even more importantly a clear end point to the series’ story – whether or not that’s ultimately what will happen. This is just a fantastically good game that took far too long for someone to convince Nintendo to spend money on, and I’m glad it finally happened.

The thing that really stood out to me in this one was its difficulty, and that seems to be a common theme across the feedback I’ve seen about the game. A lot of people are calling it simply hard, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. What it really feels like to me is that it’s precise, and that’s really the difference to me in why I had the patience to enter death loops. I’ve shelved a lot of games in the last decade or so within the sort of rise of the indie games. A lot of games feel like they do hard for the sake of hard. Something precise and mechanically tight will come out like Celeste and be incredibly difficult but fair, then a bunch of games will follow that are simply…..difficult. It’s not fun. Dread very much feels like it falls within the difficult but fair.

Bosses in this game are no joke. A missed mechanic will take a full health tank or more. If you aren’t being precise with your movement, you will die. However, once you learn the mechanics and once you get your movement down, you’re just as likely to take no damage in these fights. In that respect it’s incredibly fair. You take damage, you learn mechanics, you avoid damage, you win. Sure you may die a couple times, but you aren’t getting screwed by RNG and you aren’t getting screwed by the fight.

You’re given a lot of tools to avoid damage that aren’t typical of the Metroid series – things like a slide that can transition into the morph ball or an instant dodge that gives some amount of i-frames – that really lean into damage avoidance as a key mechanic. You’re also given some really good new offensive tools to make damage a little more passive and a little less precise in those big moments – things like the return of the melee counter from Samus Returns or a lock-on multi-hit charge missile – that allow you to build up damage without having to be right up in the enemy’s face or having to pause and engage in the slower free aim. The end result of all of this is that while the game is still distinctly Metroid in style and mechanical knowledge, it feels substantially like a modern game where you have full control of damage mitigation and aren’t just being slammed with unavoidable nonsense.

There’s also just a ton of little things that the game does very right that make it feel both Metroid and modern. You’ve still got pickups that drop when you kill things, but they get sucked in at any range. Combined with melee counters dropping more items, this both increases the general pace of the game AND allows the game to have higher difficulty, since you’re always pulling in resources. One of the early upgrades is the return of the pulse radar that reveals hidden breakable blocks. This is again probably controversial, but this feeds into increased exploration and increased pace since you aren’t just playing a game of shoot every block to find the hidden trinket. Free aim is back to give much more freedom of hitting things from any angle, making a lot of the trash encounters much quicker to deal with. The new slide move both replaces a lot of the slower morph ball stuff, but also acts as a fast transition into morph ball tunnels when unlocked AND a way to actively dodge attacks in a lot of the boss fights.

However, the real important change compared to Fusion or the Prime games is that the game really doesn’t give you any direction. You’re chucked into the world and told to get to the surface. You’re given some lore as things go, but more often than not it’s up to you to find your way. This is very much an old Metroid thing that started to go away over the years, so it’s interesting to see it return to very little direction. For me, this is precisely what I’m looking for in a Metroidvania. I love to scan the map to find doors that I haven’t entered or mysterious holes in the map that I haven’t explored, then going back to find new things. Where things really work for the better is that the map itself is far more readable than past 2D entries, although that is entirely down to just having more modern hardware and higher resolution to display the map. It’s just far easier to find things when you can pump more obvious information on the screen and it really benefits the loose structure of the classic Metroid formula. It’s even better with a bunch of fast travel teleportation spots that open up as you find more upgrades, allowing you to quickly scoot around the world at will.

This just ended up being such a good game. It’s been so long since a 2D entry came out in this series that there was probably some amount of valid concern about whether or not this could be done and still be fun. Samus Returns proved that the formula still worked and Dread proved that the series can move forward. This hits just the right mix of classic Metroid and modern gaming, and in a couple key ways goes backwards compared to Fusion and Prime, but it comes out as such a great mix. The difficulty of the game will probably turn some people away, but for me it again hits the perfect mix – it’s perhaps unforgiving, but it’s precise and fair and not based in RNG. You’ll learn where things go wrong, then make it right. It may take a few tries, but you’ll learn and get through it.

It’s also funny looking back at my notes about Samus Returns. That one ended with a new little cutscene showing the rise of the X parasites on SR388. I mentioned in passing that maybe they were hinting at something else. Boy was it ever. I don’t know if they were still hoping to do a Fusion remake or Dread at that point, but seeing the end of the post-Prime Metroid and X saga finally arrive is both great to see and something that I never really expected to happen.

Seriously, go play this.

Game Ramblings #143 – Watch Dogs: Legion

More Info from Ubisoft

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

I really enjoyed Watch Dogs 2. Ya, it’s clearly an Ubisoft open world game with all the things that come with that. Ya, it’s clearly got some elements of Grand Theft Auto. However, where it stood out was in its use of stealth and hacking to make direct combat largely a choice, and not a necessity. Legion continues that path, and improves in it in a number of ways. While some of their story and metagame choices didn’t hit as well as me, the stealth aspects alone ended up being enough for me to recommend this one.

We’re starting here because the stealth spider is where I spent probably 75% of my game time. I’m not kidding. As a gadget, it does damn near everything the player can do in terms of the core loop in Watch Dogs. It can take out guards, it can hack things, it can open doors, it can pick up items. What it also does is give a much smaller visual footprint, allowing for an even better ability to hide. It transforms the series from something where a stealth focus feels like a fun but lucky situation into a place where stealth is absolutely a primary way to play the game.

However, this thing isn’t just useful for stealth on its own. Outside of combat and need to get in tight spaces? Use the spider. Stuck in cover trying not to get shot? Toss the spider thing out to flank your enemies and start taking them out one by one to open things up a bit for you. Need some sight lines but don’t have a camera to hack? Toss the spider out to a spot with a better vantage point. It’s such a versatile tool that in a lot of cases it would feel incredibly overpowered. However, in game like Watch Dogs? It just makes sense thematically with all the hacking and hi-tech involved, and makes sense within the gameplay where stealth as a full-time option is already encouraged.

If there’s anything I really had a big issue with, it’s around the story. It’s not that I found it bad – generally speaking I found the overall story to be fairly interesting – it just felt unfocused.

One of the big marketing features around the game was that you can recruit anyone and play as anyone. That’s pretty close to true. If you see someone that you find interesting in the world, you can start a recruitment mission for them. Finish up the mission, and they’re added to your team roster. You can hot swap to them at any time and go right away. If you die in a mission, the person that died can either be perma-dead or on a bit of a timeout, depending on the difficulty you choose. This part is all pretty interesting. You can build out your roster focusing on the skill set you want – whether it’s hacking, weapons, stealth, team buffs, etc. In that regard, I think the system succeeded.

However, on the story front it felt less successful. Since anyone can be thrown into the story at any time, it felt like the story happened around the team members. If they die, it’s not generally a big deal. They’re replaceable. They each have some voice acting, but most of the story is presented by fixed members, whether it be your AI assistant, the DedSec London leader, or the antagonists. From a story perspective, it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing as so in that regard the stakes for individual team members feel pretty low. Within the overall narrative, you have an interesting tech-focused story, but it feels like something that happens regardless of who you’re playing as. It was kind of a weird thing that I never really could reconcile in my head, and it resulted in the gameplay being the thing that drove me forward, and not so much caring about where the story was going to end up.

Luckily, this is a game I would recommend on the basis of its gameplay alone. The core game is fun enough. Combat works pretty well, driving works pretty well, the upgrade systems work pretty well, there’s enough fun side content to do between story missions. However, the star of the show is the stealth aspects for me. Those alone make this game one that will bring me back when the DLC expansion comes out, and it’s enough to have me looking forward to the future of this series.

Game Ramblings #134 – Yoku’s Island Express

More Info from Team 17

  • Genre: Pinball/Metroidvania
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Steam, Xbox One, Switch

Talk about a pleasant surprise. That genre listing up there isn’t wrong. This is a pinball game that’s also a Metroidvania. It’s a completely batshit blend of genres…..and it works. It’s a bit of a baffling game to start, but once you fall into how the game functions it feels far more natural than it should.

It’s a bit strange to play a Metroidvania that only has three main controls – joystick to move when you’re on the ground and two buttons for flippers. That’s it. This game gets away with it by really compartmentalizing the experience into rooms that fit the pinball side of the game. Each pinball table is less about being a pinball score running marathon, and more about solving a pinball oriented puzzle. How can you get an explosive over to the rock that keeps getting in your way? Can you light up a row of lights by repeatedly hitting a bumper element to unlock a door? Can you reliably keep hitting a spinner to push you forward? Can you really hit a tough angle to run up a chute and on your way? It’s all obvious stuff in a pinball game, but it works well as a puzzle experience within a larger game.

This all comes together in the handful of surprising boss fights. Consistency is the key here where hitting targets randomly doesn’t do you any good. You’ve got to hit specific targets quickly and repeatedly in order to push the bosses through their phases. That’s not to say you do that for any danger purpose, but just to get through the fight as efficiently as possible.

The surprising mechanic in all of this is that there’s no damage and no death in the game. Sure, you can fall out of the bottom of the pinball tables, but you get shot right back up and at most you might lose a couple pieces of the fruit-based currency. You won’t lose progress, you won’t hit game overs, and you just kind of move on with your life. The challenge therefore is entirely in execution of the mechanics in an efficient way, and never about playing it safe in order to preserve your lives. It feels appropriate for the game to be this way, and it lets the game really focus on being challenging on its own one room at a time, rather than artificially through progression loss. It’s honestly a way to handle games that I’d prefer to see more often.

So then you might ask, how does the Metroidvania part of all this fit in? Beyond just travelling for the sake of travelling, there’s some good use of genre expectations to allow you to re-traverse areas. Finishing pinball rooms leave them in a completed state, allowing for faster general movement the second time through. Pushing through the story unlocks some options that open up new ways to get through previous areas, such as the ability to dive into water or grab onto grapple points for climbing purposes. It’s generally obvious targets, but in a game that revolves around rolling a ball through the world, I was constantly surprised by how smooth the whole re-traversal aspect integrated itself into how I was playing.

This is a pretty unique one. It’s a strange mix of genres that works out well as a combined experience. It’s relatively short (I platinumed it in about 10 hours), but hits that nice place where it doesn’t wear out its welcome and you’re still having fun at the end. I’ll readily admit that I picked it up on a whim when I saw it was under $10 for a disc and had a good Metacritic rating, but given how much I love Metroidvanias, I’ll consider it a happy accident and go on recommending that people check this one out.