Shelved It #15 – Horizon: Forbidden West

More Info from Sony

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4

I don’t typically shelve games that I enjoy, let alone sequels to games I enjoyed. There’s often enough of something there to keep me moving. For Horizon, that’s very nearly the universe they’ve created, which is still just as gorgeous and interesting of a sci-fi experience as any game out there. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just playing the first game again. Not a sequel with iterations, not something with fresh ideas. Literally the original game. I put it down for a few days to give it some fresh air while I played a bit of Gran Turismo, but I’m finding myself at a point where I don’t have a drive to pick it back up, so at that point I might as well shelve it.

I could literally post my ramblings about the original as well as my ramblings about The Frozen Wilds and you could basically figure out what my pros and cons list for this game would be, and frankly that was always in the back of my mind as I got further into Forbidden West. Obviously the core gameplay was there, but problems started slowly creeping in.

The most immediate sorta issue you run into is with climbing. I played the original game immediately after Breath of the Wild and the inability to climb on any surface was already a bit of a detriment at the time. 5 years later it’s now a glaring problem. You can basically climb almost anywhere in this game, but you hit enough small points where you inexplicably can’t climb for it to be annoying that they didn’t just implement BOTW climbing. It being glaring is not helped by the fact that the cliffs literally now glow with climbing markup.

I’m not exaggerating about that. As a developer, I get why they probably chose to keep the systems similar between the original and sequel. However, as a developer I also understand that they had 5 years and a AAA budget – something I’ve rarely had access to – to implement better climbing, and their answer is a UX nightmare. It’s weird.

However, as the game went on I came to be generally bothered by the pace of combat slowing to a crawl. This game has the same general curve as the original. You start off able to stealth kill almost everything, then a couple of bigger things need a stealth swing + maybe a bow shot. As you get a bit further, you start seeing more larger mobs that require a bit more melee to take down. You then get into higher level variants of small machines that can’t be stealth killed and require more attacks. You get into larger mobs that can’t really be stunned by melee, so it loses its effectiveness. At a certain point, you’re just fighting level 30+ groups where you have to range everything and combat falls apart.

In general, there’s still a distinct lack of feel to the power curve of melee. There’s a few general skill tree upgrades, but with melee it’s kind of WYSIWYG. You don’t get to purchase cool versions of the melee weapon like you do ranged. You don’t get to do workbench upgrades like you do ranged weapons. You don’t really get much in terms of stealth damage upgrades once you hit the couple of skill tree points early in the game. It doesn’t feel like you really have a choice to do a melee or stealth-focused track, because you just kind of a hit an effectiveness wall with them, regardless of your upgrade path.

The thing about melee is that is it also generally puts you in a hugely disadvantageous position. It’s surprisingly easy for things to blow past you and out of camera range. Sometimes it’s because you did a big melee attack and went too far. Sometimes it’s because you dodged to the side and the machine blew past you. The problem for me is that it never felt like I had the tools to then really keep track of what was going on off-screen. There’s not any sort of system to let the camera lock or quick pivot to nearby targets. There’s not really an effective way to mark targets and have them be obvious in location off screen during heavy combat. What it ended up meaning again is that for fights of multiple enemies, melee wasn’t worth the danger or hassle and I was better off going to long range and keeping the entire group in front of me in view.

Ranged at least alleviates the problems somewhat and is pretty obviously still the more focused development track. There’s still a large array of ranged weapon types from bows of different effectiveness distances to trap launches to boomerangy type things. The elemental attack system is still also a lot of fun, with different machines having different weaknesses and benefits to the player. The big problem in the end is that ranged also hits an effectiveness wall that grinds combat to a half. When you’re doing hundreds of points of damage with an arrow and seeing a health bar barely blip down despite hitting weak points perfectly, it’s kind of grating. It’s one thing in a Souls-like when you’re basically hopping from boss to boss, but in a game where that starts to happen with general overworld trash it really slows progress to an unfun level.

Ultimately what really did me in is that the game worked great for about 20 hours, then it just felt like I was slogging through it. It’s interesting to have a side quest about defending a town from raiders and machines for the first couple of times, but then it becomes uninteresting. It’s fun taking down a camp for the first half dozen times, but then it becomes uninteresting. It’s fun hitting the weakpoints on a Thunderjaw the first few times, but then it’s just the same. Since Forbidden West didn’t really separate itself from the original, this is a game that would have severely benefited from being a more condensed experience. Frozen Wilds was fun because it was a shorter experience separated by time from the original, so it was still fresh and fun when I finished it. As a sequel, this just didn’t work out the same way.

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 #118 – Ghost of Tsushima

More Info from Sucker Punch

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS4

There’s no doubt that this is the feudal Japan Assassin’s Creed that everyone has been asking for, but I’m not saying that as a bad thing. This takes a lot of what’s made the past few AC games great with some clever changes to the overall structure. It also features combat that clicked for me way more than it ever did in those titles. Overall I was left playing a game that surprised me in how much I enjoyed it, despite its familiarity.

If there’s two main things that I think separate this one from AC, it’s that there’s generally less to do, and that combat is a bit more nuanced. The first one provides a greater focus on the overall meta game, steering you to do fewer activities, but ones that generally feel like they have a great impact on your character progression. The second provides changes to the moment to moment action as you go through. Combined with a high level of polish, this gives us what feels like the next step in this type of gameplay, and hopefully a bar for Ubisoft to hit with Valhalla.

Taking a look at the map, you get that immediate feeling of familiarity. There’s fog of war in areas you haven’t been to. There’s icons for quests and towns and activities all over that pop up. However, they all serve some sort of purpose. Rather than climbing towers to lift fog of war in an area, you have to invade Mongol camps and take out their leaders. Side quest aren’t just fun little story points – they also give rare resources to upgrade existing gear, and in some cases completely new gear. In many cases, you won’t even know what the icons on the map are for until you get up close to them.

However, there’s a lot of in-world hints as well to help steer your exploration. If you want to focus on gaining some health, you’ve got to keep an eye out for steam columns where you can use hotsprings. If you need to boost your resolve to have access to more special moves, you’ll be on the look out for banners marking the location of bamboo strikes. If you want to get some accessory charms, you’ll want to keep an eye out for small yellow-leaved trees to follow foxes around.

All of these little things do a lot to make that exploration focus just work. There’s always some visual clue to pull your attention and there’s always some tangible reward at the end of it. None of the things feel like a waste or a grind. You do a thing, you get an immediate reward, and you immediately know what it does. It all just feels really natural in practice. Where AC Origins and Odyssey started to shed some of their collection-heavy past, this one feels like it took the next step that Ubisoft was perhaps hesitant to do.

Combat has a similar thing where it feels like a logical next step in the process. Stealth is still in play, and is still super useful. Parries and dodging are there like in AC and are still your main means of avoiding damage. Combat still kind of breaks down when there’s large groups, largely because there’s only so many directions you can focus on at once. However, where things really clicked for me were in the duels.

Duels are effectively your boss fights for this game. Starting one off always has a great intro cutscene to establish the fight, then your camera comes in super tight and you’re off. The actual combat is still the same, but the one-on-one focus allows for a lot tighter overall action. Where dodging without care for timing will generally work well against trash mobs, mistiming your dodges here could put you in a spot where the opponent can immediately hit you with a second attack before you can respond. On the other hand, timing your dodge perfectly puts you in slow motion with the ability to quickly attack. The same thing also stands with parries. Time it well, and instead of just a simple parry you will break your opponent’s defense and have them lined up for a critical strike. It’s also hugely beneficial that parryable and dodgeable attacks are different and have obviously different visual tells. It puts the combat into a place where there’s no guessing and it’s all about timing and skill, then solid execution of attacks when you’ve put yourself in a place to go on the offense.

There’s also something to be said of the fact that there’s very distinctly strong stances in this game, and in that regard it feels like it’s pulling a lot from the Yakuza series. As a player you have 4 main stances, each good against specific enemy types – swords, shields, spears, and brutes. While you can definitely fight any enemy with any stance, the skill of identifying and fighting with the right stance is hugely beneficial to clearing out enemies as quick as possible, while also minimizing the damage that you end up taking. This ends up being the real saving grace for group combat, as using the stance switching can allow you to quickly clear up the easier targets, leaving you to focus on one or two of the more problematic ones.

It also dawns on me that I didn’t take any screenshots of me using either of the bows. That’s kind of a shame because they’re honestly very good. You have a short bow (quick draw, lower damage) and a long bow (slow draw, large damage, can pierce metal) that are both very effective at their role, especially in stealth situations when taking out sentry units. They’ve got a pretty solid impact feel to them, they’re generally easy to fire, but with gravity effecting the arrows they aren’t trivially easy. There’s also a bit of aim assist typical of gamepad, but it’s not overbearing. It ends up falling in a place where there’s enough skill involved to make using it feel fair, but enough assists in place to make it still feel natural with gamepad aiming.

I certainly won’t sit here and claim that this is generally an original title, but it didn’t necessarily have to be. It takes the framework established by the recent Assassin’s Creed titles, and iterates enough on it to feel like its own thing. What it does do is give me hope that we see it push Ubisoft to take that next step with Valhalla or Sony with the next God of War, because as a genre these open world action games just work very well. This one added a really well developed feudal Japan setting and interesting story to the overall game framework, and it hit really well as an end-of-generation title. It also served as a really interesting change in direction for Sucker Punch after wrapping up some of their Infamous story line early on in the generation. Now, admittedly I wouldn’t mind seeing them go back to Sly Cooper after this, but they did a hell of a job pushing the open world action game in a direction of continued improvement here.