Game Ramblings #175 – Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon

More Info from Bandai Namco

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

I get that this is an incredibly early ramblings for me. At the point that I’m writing this I’m not even halfway through the game. Normally at this point I’d be shelving a game and yelling about it or continuing on. However, I think I’ve already hit on what is sticking in my mind about playing this game – I totally love the core loop here, and it often feels better than any game in the series, but it feels like they stopped halfway modernizing the moment to moment gameplay, and it feels like a missed opportunity.

The actual core mech movement feels INCREDIBLY better than it did in past titles, and a lot of that is down to modern hardware allowing them to do more graceful and faster moving combat overall. It’s incredibly easy to pick up the game and be dashing around dodging stuff. Movement is incredibly fast and the mechs feel incredibly nimble to a point that it feels kind of weird for the series. However, in terms of it trending toward a modern action focus, I don’t think it’s particularly unwelcome.

The weapon buildout is as good as it’s ever been, and I’ve been enjoying the process of building out a mech tailored toward the particular mission. It’s pretty clear after getting your face punched in whether or not a boss is more tailored towards a safer ranged approach or an aggressive melee approach, and getting used to the different types after years away from the series has been the best part of being back in it. Each type has obvious strengths and weaknesses with different approaches, and being effective at them is simply fun.

However, where I think things sort of fall apart is a little bit in the balance of what I’ve played so far combined with a camera that just feels ancient.

In saying balance, I don’t actually mean difficulty. Yes, the game is often hard but it doesn’t often feel completely unfair. Where I say balance it’s that overall it feels like the game is leaning incredibly far into combat being twitch focused – see a warning of an incoming attack and immediately dodge – with huge penalties towards missing those dodges. What this ends up doing is creating this wide range where I either have no problem at all with a mission or feel like I’m slamming my head against a luck barrier based on whether or not the incoming attack pace is fast or not, and that often comes down to whether or not I can actually see what is incoming.

In terms of the camera itself, it’s a pretty standard 1P/3P dual-stick camera. It’s got a bit of user options in terms of camera speed, but it’s pretty barebones. The weapons themselves use the core camera aim with a bit of an angle to allow for soft targeting assists and make aiming a little bit less precise. There’s a lock on R3, but this is my biggest gripe. The lock is not a traditional hard lock in so much as it doesn’t really pull your camera, and it is incredibly easy to lose the lock target if they get anywhere near the edge of your view. Frustratingly, some weapons are also just better if you don’t have a camera lock because they will aim more effectively without a fixed target. It all feels like penalties to playing on a gamepad, which is weird given the series past on the PlayStation family.

The strange thing about the game is that it feels like it wouldn’t actually be that hard playing on keyboard/mouse where I had more ability to rapidly change my viewpoint. Where I’m kind of struggling on console is in actually achieving both defense and offense in equal measure. I’m finding that I can concentrate well on audio cues and really have no problem staying alive for extended periods of time, but then I’m fighting the camera to even find my target, let alone have consistent lock ons. Even at max camera speed, I’m finding that by the time I rotate towards my target on sub-boss/boss combat, they are already dodging past me again, causing me to need to heavily rotate my camera again. This has been somewhat alleviated by the quick turn upgrade, but that ultimately feels like a bad patch to the problem.

I think there’s sort of two things in my mind that are solutions here if the current pace of the game is where they want to take the series – less reliance on aiming to achieve offense, or really leaning into the fast-paced combat and making dodging the core focus. For me, I’d like to see the second one, despite the fact that it feels like it would pull the series even further away from what it used to be.

If I look at two early bosses that I didn’t necessarily find hard but found frustrating – the Juggernaut and the Sulla portion of the Watchpoint mission – the thing I found frustrating wasn’t that they were hard, but that they dodged out of view. This more often than not resulted in me having to pan my camera, figure out where they ended up, and plod my ass over there. In the first example you’re getting back onto a camera stick, removing your ability to rapidly dodge. The Juggernaut was also pretty clearly setup as a boss that required dodging to get behind the enemy and quickly do burst damage with melee, which was made difficult by the fact that I was spending most of the boss’ vulnerable time just trying to adjust my view. Even with quick turn on the second one, the process of quick turning feels pretty clunky to pull off (hold sprint button and move in that direction). If I then compare it to what’s supposed to be a harder boss (Balteus at the end of Chapter 1), that boss didn’t feel frustrating because I had a much better ability to track the enemy through the attack patterns and spent my time simply getting better at recognizing what the boss was doing.

I think what I’d much rather see at this point is a distinct hard camera lock option where the game then leans into dodge as a core mechanic, allowing the player to remove the whole stick <-> button transition and lean into smart avoidance of incoming attacks. In the two noted examples, it would allow me to spend less time adjusting my camera and more time fundamentally attacking, which opens up opportunities for there to be more difficult attack patterns. Under the current attack setup for those bosses, I think they would be fundamentally easy with a hard lock in place, so their perceived difficulty to me feels like an artificial setup caused by a camera that does not feel in sync with the rest of the gameplay.

The problem of important things being on both the sticks and face buttons is something that I think a lot of modern games are running into, and unfortunately I don’t have a good solution at this point other than tailoring the experience around using only one of them at all times. Having camera panning being a core feature and dodging be a core need means that the player needs quick access to both simultaneously, and moving from sticks to face buttons is always going to be clunky. The unfortunate thing is that because they have four possible attacks, the other control schemes that are offered just create different problems. Type B puts dodge and jump on the shoulder triggers which is great, but puts shoulder weapons on the face buttons which is not great if you need to also aim. Type C swaps shoulder and hand weapon slots from Type B. Custom mappings on standard pads don’t solve the problem because of the same thing – you only have so many shoulder buttons. Ultimately there’s just too many things for not enough buttons and there’s bad compromises in any selection. The best solution here unfortunately is a pro style controller that moves bindable face buttons to back triggers so you never have to leave the stick.

I guess in a lot of ways what I’m getting at here is the same problem I have with the Souls games. They have extremely good fundamental core gameplay that didn’t always click to me because of one or two very specific things. In the case of Souls, it was always the large periods of time where I couldn’t readjust what the character was doing because of an existing action – for example, being able to better dodge cancel a long attack. Armored Core in general has always been a series that was closer to my heart in terms of core gameplay anyway. In the case of AC6, it feels like they’ve tried to modernize things but haven’t really settled in a place where it quite nails it, so rather than feeling like a better version of past AC games or a reimagining of the core game, it feels stuck a bit in the middle. I’m ultimately enjoying it but spending a lot of time thinking about what it could be instead.

Game Ramblings #174 – Pikmin 4

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: RTS
  • Platform: Switch

I’ve always enjoyed the Pikmin series, but something about the time restriction never really clicked with me. For the original game it made sense given the story, but after it went away in Pikmin 2, it was frustrating to see it come back for 3. This game took the day limit away again leading to a game that feels like it’s built around exploration rather than rushing against the clock, and the resulting game has clicked for me more than any game in the series to this point.

The actual core loop of the game feels perfect for what Nintendo has been experimenting with since the DS days, where there’s a really tight small loop that can just be repeated while always making some sort of forward progress. In this case, it’s the same sort of core loop that Pikmin has always had – start at sunrise, collect as much as you can before sunset, repeat – but the removal of a day limit really changes how I thought about things. Each core loop is a really tight period of time so you can have a distinct start and end point for a single session, or do multiple loops for a longer session. Both scenarios work great and give you obvious progress with obvious break points.

Rather than having the goal of each day be a mad rush to collect as much as possible, I treated trips as sort of one of two phases. In a first run through an area, my goal was simply to unlock as much stuff and remove as much danger as possible. I would clear obstacles, kill enemies, and dig things up, but I would largely ignore it and leave it around. The things you kill and remove persist to future days so there was no danger of losing progress. Once I had a large area cleared, I would then go through and have my Pikmin collect everything and start clearing out the caves that I ran across. This was also important in that it allowed me to compartmentalize the squad build out a lot better. Rather than worrying about whether or not I had the right Pikmin for the situation, I could just make mental notes of spots that I didn’t have the right squad for and come back later with a different makeup.

I totally get where the removal of the day limit mechanic would bother people looking for more challenge, but I just don’t share the sentiment. Yes this game is easy, but it’s because fundamentally the difficulty of encounters is pretty low. Its lack of difficulty is definitely something that I would consider an overall negative to the game, because there’s very few points where I was actively in any danger, let alone felt like I was having a difficult time. I think there’s an opportunity for this style of game to be made difficult in a way where the mechanics of the encounter are the difficulty factor, because there’s a lot of tuning knobs that could quickly make this game very hard. Tighter timing on getting Pikmin off enemies, quicker deaths if you throw them into areas they are prone to damage in, less leniency on taking multiple hits before the Pikmin die, etc. I think there’s an interesting potential here for a true hard/new game+ mode here but I don’t think that limiting day count is the way to do it.

This change also led to what ultimately felt like more interesting environments. The individual areas were a lot more open than I remember them being in the past. It’s not that previous games were linear, but these areas felt truly open to me. Generally speaking environmental interactions were less about opening new areas, and more about opening shortcuts through the full level to make traversal back quicker or simpler. Some interactions did truly modify the environment – one particular example being a low/high tide transition in a beach theme level – but for the most part the changes you make are to make your life simpler in coming back to an area.

The return of caves from Pikmin 2 is also welcomed, though they are in a far more complete form here. Pikmin 2‘s were mostly randomized generic caves, but in the case of 4 they are generally fully formed and more centered around specific mechanics. In some cases it might be Pikmin restrictions to test your ability to effectively use some types. In a lot of cases, it’s actually the use of unique bosses. What this ended up doing for me as a player was to give the game something of a Breath of the Wild vibe where the overworld segments were for testing my overall knowledge and the caves were for hammering on specific segments. The caves are certainly more involved than a Zelda shrine, but it had a similar feel of always having something slightly different to play through.

I think overall this game feels like the sequel to Pikmin 2 that I’ve wanted for a long time. I didn’t necessarily have issues with 3, but it felt like a step back towards the original. Rather than being an exploration-focused game, that one felt like more of the restricted stress game of the original. 4 feels like where the series should be going to me. It’s built from puzzles and collecting and exploration of a large alien environment, encouraging the player to check every corner carefully, rather than rushing through to maximize things as quick as possible. The series has had its time as a series about rescuing, so going in the direction of exploration as a focus is something I’d like to see them continue to grow.

Game Ramblings #173 – Final Fantasy XVI

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5

I was thinking about Final Fantasy XV a lot while playing this game. Not because they’re at all similar in gameplay – because they completely aren’t – but because they shared one thing in common in my head. They’re both glorious clusterfucks that I simply could not stop playing and ended up one of my favorite games of late. I can’t necessarily explain well why that is, but the game kept its hooks in me despite what are some fundamental problems with the overarching game.

It’s obvious at a glance that this isn’t your normal Final Fantasy. It’s distinctly not a JRPG. I would argue that despite it having leveling and gearing and stats, it’s not even an action RPG. None of that stuff actually ended up mattering to combat. What it is to me is a pure action game. It’s a weird blend of Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, which makes a lot of sense given members of both teams were involved, where neither side of that equation really wins out. That’s where the problems come in.

The DMC side is evident in the way that overall combat flow works. It’s heavily combo based with a strong emphasis on defensive parry and dodge mechanics to minimize damage. Overall this works very well. Enemy tells generally pretty obvious without being too easy, though overall there isn’t enough of a penalty for failing to avoid damage. There’s mechanics in place to stun enemies that really encourage smart use of your entire toolset. There’s a good mix of secondary abilities that allow you to modify your combat style to your preference, ranging from gap closing teleports to shields to elemental abilities that further help stunning. However, the combo system overall doesn’t have much depth, so it fails to live up to the full potential of DMC.

The Bayonetta side comes in during the very obvious set piece boss fights. Parts of most boss fights are traditional combat, but more often than not at least half the fight is a basically impossible to lose set piece where you’re fighting things of ridiculous scale. Those are the kaiju-style fights that were seen in a lot of preview footage. While they are ridiculously easy, they’re so exciting and visually spectacular and completely over the top that it really doesn’t matter that you can’t lose. It’s worth it for the experience of the fight, and in my brain was easy to rationalize away as the reward of getting to that point. However, because the game is fighting against the needs of the other systems, there simply aren’t enough of them. Their timing is predictable, but the time distance between them means you don’t get the pace of excitement of Bayonetta.

The traditional Final Fantasy side comes in leveling and gearing and side quests. Side quests (both NPC-granted and in the form of special hunts) is the way that you get materials to create the best gear. However, the NPC-granted quests at least are generally just in the form of boring fetch quests, so unless you’re a completionist there’s very little reason to want to finish them all. Leveling and gearing is gears at the inclusion of stats, but none of it ever felt impactful. Obviously by end game I had gained a large amount of stats in both to have an impact on my power curve, but the progression of it through each upgrade was so small that it was only the totality of it that felt important. Trash and bosses at the beginning of the game took about the same amount of time to kill as at the end of the game. If they’d have had a flat power curve and completely depended on player skill to get through the end of the game, I don’t think the experience would have been diminished.

I know reading that it probably seems that I shouldn’t have liked the game that much, but I really can’t explain why I ended up absolutely loving my time with the game. There’s an inexplicable pull to moving forward in the game that I can’t explain beyond it being one of those magic “good game” things. Trash was just fun to fight, despite having done it 1000 times before. Bosses were so spectacular that I wanted to see the next one. Exploring the way I could integrate new elements into the way I fought was interesting enough despite not having a ton of depth. If there’s really one criticism I would point at, it’s that I think the game wouldn’t have suffered from slimming down the side cruft and making it more linear of an experience. The core that is there is fun enough that it didn’t need the hamfisted smashing in of traditional Final Fantasy, because it just didn’t need it.

If there was one part that really missed for me though, it was the story. It’s not that it was bad, but it just felt underdeveloped. The whole bearers hatred in the game was an obvious attempt to hit on racism without actually tackling racism as a subject. It wasn’t even handled poorly, but felt kind of pandering to be doing a racism-focused story in 2023 where the focus of the racism could easily hide in their society. It probably didn’t help that a lot of the acting was pretty stiff, which may be an English problem but was kind of noticeable. The game also just ended at the end. This is unfortunately common in a lot of games, but wish that more games gave me a solid playable epilogue so I could at least see some of the results of what I did, rather than just leaving it to the imagination. I want to see the effect my actions had, and it feels hand wavey to the max to just end. The story just ended up being fine, which wasn’t really up to the spectacle of the rest of the game.

It’s likely to go down as one of the most controversial games in the Final Fantasy series, simply due to its departure from the style of the past, but I think Square has made a good decision here in reestablishing that Final Fantasy are at their core extraordinarily well produced games of any style at their core, and not just RPGs that have stick to a set of conventions to get by.

Game Ramblings #27 – Final Fantasy XV – DWGames

I said that at the end of my ramblings about Final Fantasy XV, and boy could I not have imagined how much further they would have gone with the next game in the series. This is an even more spectacularly far departure from the past, but I think it still holds true. Final Fantasy is where they show what happens when they put their whole studio effort behind a title. It may not be what everyone wants but the result of the effort is evident. The game is obviously the combined effort of Square pulling together members of a white variety of games and the result is something completely wild. This is a game that is a glorious clusterfuck, but it’s a game that I could not put down and it’s a game that I easily recommend.