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 #136 – NieR Replicant ver 1.22474487139…

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: ARPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Xbox One, Steam

Playing remakes – and not just remasters – is always interesting. How do they modernize the game without ruining what people liked about the original? Do they choose to add or remove anything to change the game at all? Playing remakes when you didn’t really play the original is even more interesting. I bounced off NieR on the PS3 pretty hard, though I don’t remember why. However, I really enjoyed Automata so I figured it was worth a revisit. As it turns out, I definitely enjoyed Replicant a lot this go around, although it has some spots where it definitely shows its age.

In hindsight, this ones feels a lot like Automata, and that’s probably what makes it work out so well for me at this point. My Automata ramblings cover the basics, but to be sure the ARPG systems still work great here. The mix of melee and ranged combat, as well as your occasional bullet hell chaos works really well still. It’s generally clear whether a boss is more susceptible to what kind of attacks, and you plan accordingly to get your big damage dumps. It just works well.

However, the thing that struck me is how overwhelmingly fair it is. There just aren’t big fuck you moments. If you execute your offense well, you won’t have problems taking out enemies. If you execute your defense well, you won’t have problems avoiding damage. If you’re paying attention to enemy tells you’ll be ready to dodge things. The game just isn’t going to punish you if you’re paying attention.

Having talked to a few people about the original release, this seems like a big change. From what I understand, the original wasn’t necessarily unfair, but leaned into difficult tuning more than it should have. To me this feels like a conscious effort to align the game with both Automata, as well as a larger mass market. You can go to a harder difficulty if you want to, but the game doesn’t feel designed around punishing the player even on that harder difficulty. It just feels tuned to be right.

However, that was something they could absolutely control when remaking the game. What they couldn’t control was the overall metagame that was there, and that part is definitely showing its age. The first thing that stood out to me was how minimal gearing was in contrast to Automata. You have weapons that can be upgraded and some basic mods that can be applied to your gear (+damage, +defense, +magic, etc) but compared to the chip system it feels pretty slim. I just didn’t derive much gameplay out of it, because I basically picked a weapon that fit my style then applied the best mods and didn’t really think about it.

The general story flow also just didn’t age well. There’s a lot of mindless back and forth between the same areas just to finish story quests (run to coast town -> go back to your village -> go back to coast town -> go back to your village) and with so few unique areas, it wears out pretty quick. The lack of quick travel for most of the game also exacerbates the issue. You just spend a lot of time mindlessly running in comparison to the original.

This is pushed way to the forefront in the design of the game’s endings. Ending B is a replay of the second half of the game with a few unique story bits added. Ending C and D are replays of the second half of the game accessible only after you collect all weapons, which then adds a unique selection to the end boss. The new ending is the sole new addition, but frankly it wasn’t worth replaying the game so many times to get to it, so I just watched it on Youtube. Automata definitely learned a lot from this one in terms of making the chase towards multiple endings more fun and more unique. Replicant, even in modern form, is a bit of a drag.

That said, this game is worth playing even if you only get to the first ending. Even with its problems the combat is just that good. This and Automata have a combat flow that I’ve rarely felt nailed so well in other games. The closest that I could really compare it to would be something like Bayonetta in terms of mixing the grand scale and tight action. It’s just consistently fun and exciting to get to and fight through bosses, and each one leaves you wanting to push through the story problems just to get to that next adrenaline rush. For that alone, this gets the approval.