Game Ramblings #150 – Monster Hunter Rise

More Info from Capcom

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows in 2022

This is the one that finally cracked the code for me in this series. It’s not that I haven’t tried the Monster Hunter games in the past, but they never really clicked for me. This one did. In past games I could never really grok the combat in a way in which I could remain effective. Ranged never felt that good to me in those past games and melee had a pace that I just didn’t enjoy, so I would play them for a few hours and put them down once the challenge ramped up. As a point of reference, I largely only played this series previously on the PSP and poked a bit at 4, but didn’t get far enough to really get anything useful out of it. Rise instead felt like a total package made for me.

The core loop of the Monster Hunter series was always what drew me to it, even with my reservations about the combat. I loved the loop of going out, getting some materials, then seeing what you could make out of them. That pull is still there. I was making armor simply because I could. I was trying to get complete collections simply because I could. I was rekilling past hunts simply because I wanted more. That pull is something that is very rare in games. Combined with a 15-20 minute loop, it’s also easy to fit in a hunt in small chunks of time, rather than having to devote large blocks to make notable progress.

Going out for a hunt never feels like a waste, because it’s either something new that you’ve never fought before or it’s something old that you’re fighting for a specific material purpose. In my last post about Bravely Default 2, I talked about the game not respecting the player’s time. Monster Hunter Rise feels like the opposite. They respect the player’s time greatly. Sure things are challenging, but they never make you do things simply for the sake of doing things and they never throw things at you that aren’t very clear. You’re doing x hunt for y reward. You make x weapon with y materials. You spend x money to upgrade y armor. You know what your goal is and you can go out and handle it, and you’ll always be rewarded for doing so.

Combat though was always where I fell off of past entries. I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to gravitate towards ranged classes in games when I can. I play hunter in WoW. I beat recent Tomb Raider games almost entirely with the bow and arrow. One of my big blocks in past Monster Hunter titles was that ranged was there, but never felt effective to me. The shooting mechanics weren’t great. Damage avoidance wasn’t that effective. Playing solo basically meant that you’d be spending most of your time trying to get at range to even fire, instead of being on offense. This one in particular does a few things that really build out the gameplay systems to allow those things to just work better.

The first big feature is the Wirebug. This is ostensibly a traversal feature in that it’s used to zip around the world quickly, as well as get up cliffs quickly. However, its best use is as an oh shit button. If you do end up getting knocked back by attacks, you can use this to quickly dodge at a long distance from the enemy. In past games, getting hit as a ranged character was typically a huge problem. You’d end up spending a bunch of time then trying to get away to a distance at which you could effectively fire while also having to deal with the fact that you had a pissed off monster on your heels. By being able to just one-button get out of the way you end up gaining a lot of time to simply shoot at things.

The second real big thing is simply that you have help. You get both a cat and dog helper with their own gearing and own capabilities. This alone changed everything for me in solo play. To some extent these work great just as aggro sponges. They won’t necessarily always be pulling the monsters, but they pull them enough to give you time to move and re-assess the situation. They also have their own skills that end up being useful in general. I had my dog geared more towards damage with a focus on being able to break the monster’s core areas. Breaking serves a dual purpose of generally slowing or stunning the enemy for a bit, as well as generally removing some attack capabilities. I had my cat instead geared towards defensive purposes. It had a skill to lay a pot that healed status effects (poisons, slows, etc) and a second skill to lay down an AOE health heal. By going that route, I could often focus directly on attacking rather than running through the complicated UI to find my specific healing items.

Those things all just made soloing easier. It’s not that the pals necessarily replaced humans, but it allowed me to play ranged much more effectively. I spent less time running or healing and more time attacking. I had more time to line up shots to critical areas. I had more time to lay down traps or explosives in spots that I wanted to pull the enemy into. It just made the entire experience more fun without necessarily making the game more complex.

This moved the series in an interesting direction. I guess ultimately it’s a little more friendly to casual players, but it doesn’t feel like it moved the needle enough to make it lose the existing fan base. It does just enough to allow me to play the game in a way that I’ve always wanted to without it feeling like it lost the core resource acquisition loop that I always wanted to love. Now that I’ve gotten through this one, I’m thinking it may be time to go back a couple years and check out Iceborne to see if that one can keep my attention as well as Rise did.

Game Ramblings #147 – Tales of Arise

More Info from Bandai Namco

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

The Tales of series has always been one where the combat has always trumped any other problem I’ve had with the individual titles, and this one really isn’t that different. The stories of the various titles have always been fine to good but generally fall into pretty typical anime cliches, and this one isn’t really different. The presentation aspects have always been a bit behind the AAA curve and as much as this one is a huge step forward for the series, it’s still distinctly AA. Where this one again greatly succeeds is that combat is a lot of fun – and for probably the first time in the series for me, I’ve found a defensive style to actually be extremely fun while still being practical to play.

Games like Berseria started really pushing the game away from the mana-heavy skill usage of prior Tales games, and this one definitely kept that going. Where it kind of differentiates from that title is that basic attacks are split into their own chain separate from Artes. Functionally though, it’s very similar to Berseria. You attack, you try to break the enemy’s defense, and if you can break them you get a big attack and go AOE ham on the field. From an attack perspective, it still has a great flow in terms of chaining attacks with your team to keep the enemy in a hit chain and increase the chance of stunning them. In general I was able to quickly fall into a nice rhythm to where I could get in my attacks while keeping an eye out for the enemy’s incoming volley, then get out of the way as it came through.

Where this game really separates itself from the past is that it finally feels like 3D navigation is here to stay. General in-combat movement is more typical of recent action RPGs, with left stick being independent movement and right stick being the camera. It’s a small change, but it makes the game flow less like the generally fixed in/out movement of even 3D Tales games. This one also felt like it really had the biggest mindset towards defensive maneuverability in the series to me. Past titles had side stepping and that sort of thing, but the feel of it is much more natural to me. A heavy focus on dodging became part of my default toolset, rather than being an oh shit button that I used on big fights. Avoiding incoming damage and not relying on healing was a big difference for me, and it really encouraged active participation in the fights, rather than simply being a button spam with little damage mitigation.

Healing in general also went through some big changes here. Where Berseria encouraged character swapping to let characters heal out-of-combat, this one is kind of a more typical experience. You’ve got characters that are fairly traditional healer mage types. However, healing is tied to a single resource pool for the entire party. Having two healers has choice benefits, but it doesn’t have resource benefits. What it ended up doing was allowing me to bring in a dual-healer approach on bosses while using a more damage-focused party for regular combat, without really being able to cheese the game with a double mana pool for healing.

It’s an interesting change that had some ramifications on overall item and resource balance. Your typical orange+ potions that refilled MP in past games are now tied to that new resource, and given the stack limits (still 15 like past Tales titles…), double healers can burn through the resources incredibly fast. This ties all back into the damage mitigation, where reducing the need for your healers to actually use the resource becomes incredibly important.

Unfortunately, some of the negative parts of combat have been carried over as well. Put simply, the AI are incredibly stupid. They will not reliably dodge incoming attacks, even if there’s a giant obvious laser line tell going right at them. The healers will not first get away from the enemies to start the healing, even if it’s clear that they are in danger range. They do not have good target prioritization, and the tools to manage AI decision making don’t really do a good job of exposing this functionality to the player. It ends up in a situation where combat works great against single targets, then falls into chaos as more targets enter the fray. Luckily, bosses are largely party vs 1 affairs, so it’s generally not a big issue.

Some of the power curve decisions are also interesting, but I’m not sure I particularly liked them. There’s typical weapon/armor/accessory slotting, but there’s also now skill points tied into title trees. As you earn titles for doing things (ex: finishing specific character-focused side quests, doing specific activities, etc) you’ll earn the series typical titles. However, they’re now tied to four additional skills that can be purchased with SP. Earning all skills for a title will then unlock a larger passive stat boost that sums to the character.

Compared to the mastery stats on gear that Berseria used, this felt oddly boring to me. It’s an effective system, but it didn’t really encourage me to do anything. I kind of found the most useful next stat, then bought the skills for it as I could. The titles are kind of naturally gained by just playing the game normally, and you really don’t have to go that out of the way to get them all. The mastery stats in Berseria, despite being similar in practice, felt a lot more influenced by player completion than this. In that system I was still effectively building SP to get a skill but I was only getting one per piece of gear, so I was spending more time focused on making sure that I had backup gear ready when I left towns, and spent more time trying to make sure I wasn’t missing any chests that might have more gear. It’s a subtle change, but the title skills just got rid of a small stress factor that I feel really let the system down in Arise.

Overall though, this was a fantastically fun game to play. I could sit here and nitpick the story and make notes about how it was pretty cliche, but frankly I don’t play these games expecting a great story. I jump into them because I want JRPG math combined with an action-focused combat system and I got a heavy dose of that. 50 hours later, I was still enjoying jumping into battles, and if that’s the only thing I have to say coming out of a game, that’s a pretty good indication that they did it right.

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.