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 #141 – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

More Info from Insomniac Games

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: PS5

I’m not going to sit here and claim that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is anything new and innovative. I’m also not going to claim that it’s the best game ever. That said, I will sit here and claim that it’s the best Ratchet & Clank.

This series has always felt pretty special to me. Its mix of platforming elements and gun-based gameplay has always really hit just the right notes. For this one, it’s the return to the saga after a long time. It’s been 8 years since Into the Nexus and 12 years since the last proper full original title – A Crack in Time. What this game sees is a studio that’s spent the last bunch of years learning a whole lot of new tricks. There’s clear elements of platforming that they pulled from Sunset Overdrive. There’s the story telling that they learned in pushing forward with Spider-Man. There’s the technology that they grew for the PS5 release of Miles Morales. All tied together, it turns out a damn fine game.

A lot of people will probably focus on the rifts as the big technological trick to this game, and while that stuff can be some fucking black magic, it’s not what really grabbed my attention. To me, it’s the totality of the experience that is really the big trick. This is the first game that’s really felt next-gen to me. PS5 or Series X upgraded games I’ve played like Miles Morales or Immortals or Gears 5 just haven’t felt next-gen. They’re clearly experiences that are being held back by their ties to the previous generation of consoles. This one truly feels like a next generation spectacle. Your first time walking into Nefarious City is incredible. Switching between dimensions instantaneously while riding a grind rail feels like magic. Doing the usual R&C bullet fucking bonanza shooting at a boss feels elevated to a level that the series has never seen.

However, that’s not why I played R&C titles. Luckily, the gameplay still delivers. The thing that always worked well for me is the gunplay, and that pushes in two directions for me.

The first is that I always could find some weapons that I really preferred that I knew would return for the sequels. For me that was things like the Buzz/Doom Blades with their bouncing star blades, or the Agents of Doom which spawns AI that run at ground-based characters. I could build my style around that general set of weapons and kind of know what my pattern would be. In this case, I would throw Agents down to mop up small stuff while I then focus on larger or flying targets. These have made their return in the general case, but they’ve also returned with the weapon upgrade trees in tow. Besides adding an additional upgrade path to the overall metagame, these add nice little upgrades to your power curve, giving you a more granular path than simply leveling up your weapons.

However, the second thing was always finding which of the new weapons really supplemented my play style, and there were a few standouts for me in Rift Apart. The first is the Topiary Sprinkler. Given its name, it shouldn’t be surprising that this turns enemies into plants. This one worked into my rotation as a really powerful crowd control mechanism, since the plant conversion acts as a built-in stun. The second was the Void Repulser. This one is a general shield, but it can also be used as a sort of radial shotgun blast. When fully upgraded it can also be used to catch and throw back enemy projectiles. As a defensive maneuver that could also damage enemies, this was extremely useful in fights with a lot of smaller enemies. The final standout was the Pixelizer. This one is a pretty normal shotgun, but it voxelizes enemies. As a visual spectacle, it’s as good as any of the conversion weapons that the R&C series has had in the past.

All of this then is supplemented by an additional layer of complexity thanks to the dynamic triggers on the DualSense. The weapons all have some form of this integration, but there’s definitely some that are more useful than others. With the basic shotgun, pulling the trigger half way does a single barrel shot. Pulling it all the way fires all barrels (2 by default, 4 when leveled up). The Shatterbomb will throw out an aiming line for a half pull, with the toss happening on the full pull. The Drillhound works similarly, with a half pull doing a lock on and a full pull throwing the drill. Each weapon has its own little quirk with this half/full pull that really expands out the repertoire in ways that the series has never seen.

There’s other little details that are really well integrated with this controller. If you can’t fire at all, the trigger goes into a heavy resistance mode, which is a nice way of indicating with feel that it’s time to switch to something else. In general the haptic feedback on weapon firing and impacts is fantastic. Ratchet’s footsteps come through the left and right side rumble motors in the controller, which is a nice little way to pull you into the game in a subtle feel-based way. The controller also throws a lot of small sounds – bolts being picked up, weapons being equipped, item activations, etc – that really just work to immerse you further into the game. None of these are groundbreaking features, but it’s small immersion boosts like this that really push the next-gen feel of the game as you’re playing it.

I know I’ve gotten this far and haven’t talked about the story, but honestly I don’t think there’s much to say there. The addition of Rivet to the story feels both appropriate to this specific title, as well as appropriate to the Ratchet metaverse in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling like they shoehorned in a Lombax, which was definitely a problem I had with Going Commando and A Crack in Time. It ended up continuing the general R&C universe in a way that felt right. If there’s anything that really is a standout to me, it’s that they’ve so vastly improved the actual way they present the story since the previous games that it finally feels like a proper story, rather than a roughly narrated cartoon. I think this all comes down to experience gained in the Spider-Man games, but it’s nice to see. This ends up being a well told self contained adventure, but still advances the meta story about Ratchet and whether or not he wants to find the rest of the Lombax race, and I was left satisfied with the conclusion, while also being left in a place where there’s more to explore in future titles. It’s a nice balance of progress and cliffhangers.

Ultimately it’s not a surprise I enjoyed this game. I’ve been playing this series for 20 years and loved every title, so it was kind of inevitable. What is nice is that this feels like a proper return. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a mainline Ratchet title, and it doesn’t feel like they’ve lost what made the series special in the intervening years. There’s a good mix here of new tech, better storytelling, and cleaner general action that make this feel like a fresh next-gen experience, but they’ve also not lost what made the series special to begin with. The over the top gunplay is still as fun as it’s ever been, and that will keep me coming back to whatever they decide to do with the next adventure – potentially with a new fun Lombax and robot friend in tow.

Game Ramblings #137 – Spinch

More Info from Queen Bee Games

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows (Steam, Humble, GOG)

This is kind of a ramblings about Spinch, but also kind of not. On the one hand, this is the type of platformer I really enjoy. Mechanically it’s simple, but it’s extremely tight. It’s difficult because of design, but easy in execution so it all comes down to skill. On the other hand, it’s also the type of game that I increasingly can’t play. Rapid changes in direction on the analog stick and button presses cause flare ups with carpal tunnel problems that limit my ability to execute those mechanics. It puts me in a weird spot where I can basically enjoy the game up until the point where I can’t, but mostly because my hands refuse to let me.

At its core, Spinch is a simple game. You can run, you can jump, you can wall jump, you can dash. That’s it. It puts a simple rule set in place, then provides you with ways to puzzle out trying to not die. Sometimes the puzzle is simply to time out your movement to fit into a gap of hazards. Sometimes the puzzle is hitting buttons to change the path to get through to the finish. Sometimes the puzzle is simply being good at jumping from platform to platform without falling to your death.

It’s all your standard platformer fare, but it’s done so well. Jumping is the right amount of floaty so it doesn’t feel stiff but is extremely predictable in height and distance. Wall jumps are extremely sticky so you can reliably hit them on small edges but still move up a wall extremely fast. Dashes provide an instant speed boost so there’s not a weird sense of lag when you execute it. Starting and stopping has a bit of acceleration in general movement so you have a bit of a weighty feel to the character, despite its small size. It all just feels very good and rewards the player by putting their skill at the forefront, rather than making the difficulty based on complicating things.

However, the downfall of all that is that the tight mechanics often lead to quick and rapid executions. As an example, the water world above has a pretty constant rapid tap of the jump button to work your way through small areas. An ice world had me doing rapid micro adjustments on the analog stick to throttle my movement to avoid falling spikes on slippery floors. A plant-style world had me doing large wall jump sections, involving both micro adjustments on analog to stick to the wall AND rapid jumping to scale it. In a vacuum, these are all really well executed mechanics. However, as someone with carpal tunnel issues, it leads to an inability to play the game beyond a certain point.

These kind of mechanics cause weird problems for me over time. It starts as general fatigue, which is annoying but fine. My general APM starts slowing down as my ability to quickly move my hands goes down. If I keep ignoring it it starts branching into outright pain – generally pretty localized but obvious. If I’ve gotten to this point without stopping, then I already know I screwed up. If I keep ignoring it past that, I start outright losing feeling in my fingers and then I know the next day will not be fun. At that point it’s not just gaming that becomes problematic – simply spending the next day programming becomes a hassle.

Avoiding these kinds of repetitive motion mechanics is something that I’ve put a lot of thought in because I ultimately want to make games that the widest range of people can play with the best integration of skill. However, some games just can’t do that on their own. Skill-based platformers are one of those. Mario type platformers avoid these problems because they’re often more about the experience or player flow over tight execution. They have some flexibility in safe timing or stretches of minimal changes in inputs. However, games like Spinch? Super Meat Boy? Celeste? They don’t exist if you move them closer to Mario. They simply are as good as they are because they mechanically exist as they do. At this point I don’t know that I have a good path towards a solution here besides the obvious ones – get surgery and solve the problem, use something like an Xbox accessibility controller to get the motion away from my thumbs, or accept it as reality and play these games in small doses to get through that sort of videogame craving that comes up.

So far, I’ve leaned into the last option.

In any case, Spinch is another really tight skill-based platformer that I think is worth checking out, despite my carpal tunnel problems. This one hits that same need for me as Super Meat Boy does. I can jump into these games without thinking, quickly get back into playing shape, and hammer out a few levels before popping it back on the shelf. They exist in that place where they’re good because of simplicity and work because those simple mechanics were polished until they were perfect, leaving a game without fluff.

I just wish my hands were a bit more cooperative…