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.

Game Ramblings #129 – Shantae and the Seven Sirens

More Info from WayForward

  • Genre: Metroidvania
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Switch, Steam, Xbox One, Apple Arcade

I fucking love Metroidvanias. I fucking love the Shantae series. Guess what? I fucking loved this game.

Alright, that was probably too simple of an opening. A lot of what I’d say about this game matches with exactly what I said in the ramblings for Pirate’s Curse or Half-Genie Hero, and that’s a good thing. This is another iterative release in the series, and it takes what made the past games really work and moves it forward in important ways.

The first big one is that instead of being level-based, this is 100% a true Metroidvania. The entire game takes place on a single unified map and new areas open up purely based on upgrades you receive. While I definitely liked the way previous entries encouraged re-traversing levels once you gained new abilities, there’s just something to having a pure open environment. You see and make note of those open ends of hallways that you can’t quite get to or those things in the environment that are obviously something that you can interact with, and make mental notes to return to later.

Where they end up making use of their history of level-based gameplay is in the handful of labyrinths that come up. These act as pillars to the overall story and upgrade path, but also serve as mini-tutorials to learn new powers, as well as the core spot for the big boss fights in the game. It gives a nice on and off pace to exploration where you kinda futz around finding new areas and exploring for hidden stuff, then go into a labyrinth and really focus on combat for a while in a controlled linear environment.

The second thing that really stood out to me was how well integrated the transformations were into gameplay. In a lot of ways, this felt very much like Pirate’s Curse. That game required upgrades to be fast and easy to use due to story reasons causing the loss of transformations. In this one, the transformations are automatic. There’s things like the newt form which gives you a dash and wall climbing. There’s things like the frog form which the frog which gives you the ability to swim. Thematically they make a lot of sense, and the fact that they’re automated makes the game flow pretty much a non-stop affair, which is a huge benefit to the game pace.

That’s not to say there aren’t dances, but in the case of this game they’re all there as one-off attacks that don’t have permanent transformations. These are definitely useful in their own right – for example an electric attack does AoE damage to all things on screen, as well as powering up mechanical devices – but they definitely have a much more straightforward use that isn’t tied to moving through the world.

This is just a really fun game. There’s not been that many Metroidvanias that really have high pace gameplay and almost purely melee combat, and the Shantae series continues to be at the forefront of that style. Movement is fun, combat is fun, the bosses are fun. It’s just all fun and I can’t think of many better series to recommend in this genre right now.

….and don’t worry. Everyone’s favorite Squid Baron makes his return.