Game Ramblings #157 – Kirby and the Forgotten Land

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

This isn’t quite the open world revelation that we all hoped it would be after the first trailer. It also isn’t at all a challenging game like Elden Ring. It doesn’t really do anything all that ambitious, even for the Kirby series. However, what it is is fun. It’s fun in that weird unexplainable way that so many Nintendo games just are and so many developers wish they could capture. It’s that fun that makes this worth playing.

Within the opening sequence of the game you become the car above and that really just sets the stage for the game. Kirby is taking his hoovering mechanic to a new level here and more often than not it serves as an outlandish way for the game to get you through a specific mechanic. Need to cover long distances fast? There’s a convenient car. Need to shoot at enemies or break through a wall from range? Why not becoming a soda shooting vending machine. Need to pierce through a weak point in the ground? Well, a traffic cone is the right shape.

The thing about all these instances isn’t necessarily that they are new mechanics. What they are wrapped in is a layer of magic. There’s something entirely unknown to me about why the simple mechanics are so memorable here, but a lot of it ultimately comes down to the attention to detail in the buildup of the world itself. It’s little things, like the way Kirby’s animations show squish and stretch when there’s changes in velocity. It’s things like the subtle freeze frames that occur when you smash through something as car Kirby. It’s things like seeing the same damn tree boss that every Kirby games has, but now with a tropical flair and a change to the camera angle to hit both nostalgia and mechanical interest. That attention to detail is so utterly hard to grasp as a developer, but is something that Nintendo has routinely done so well that allows its otherwise simple games to nearly universally be regarded as great.

Luckily, the game doesn’t just skate by on polish. Despite being easy, it’s got a surprising amount to do, which gives a lot of interesting content for players of all skill levels. Each level has your normal end point, but within that there’s also a bunch of hidden objectives. Each level has a collection of hidden waddle dees, but the rest of the objectives run the gamut from beating enemies with specific powers to finishing encounters without taking damage to beating bosses quickly to simply just finding cool hidden shit. It provides enough of a distraction for completionists to be chasing a bit of a carrot that’s beyond just simply finishing the levels. That’s not to say that it doesn’t start to wear a bit thin by the end, but it was nice to have something to strive for and even replay levels for

However, my favorite thing were the treasure road levels. These are effectively single-power time trials, and they’re a speed runner’s dream. Each one drops you into a level with a specific power and a handful of encounters to finish between you and the goal. Everything between that point is entirely up to your skill level. In doing these, you very quickly learn how to efficiently use your powers, allowing you quicker and quicker times through the specific level. That then leads to more efficient and more clever use of the powers in regular levels and boss fights, giving a positive reinforcement loop to the player’s skill in the game.

That kind of a loop is also a classic Nintendo thing. If you think about something like level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros – you run the right, see a Goomba, maybe you die, but if you jump and land on it you now know a core mechanic. As you keep running to the right, you see a few more as well as some pipes. You know how to jump, so now you’re learning how to jump well. Each little step along that way reinforces what you learned in previous things to become better at the game. Kirby treats the treasure road levels the same way. They’re run on their own, but the skill improvements you get in them just serve to improve how you play through the rest of the game.

All that said, if you want something ambitious or innovative, this isn’t it. This game should be played because it’s purely fun. It’s not fun in a new way, and it’s not often fun in an explainable way, but it just is. If you’re wanting something more forgiving after Elden Ring, give this a try. If you want something fun to just fill a gap, give this a try. End of the day it’s just a mindless title, but it didn’t stop being fun for me the entire time.

Game Ramblings #156 – Pokemon Legends: Arceus

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Adventure / JRPG
  • Platform: Switch

Look, this is a rough game. It’s hideously ugly. It still for some reason has Pokemon boxes without auto sorting. Balance is often entirely vague even with Pokemon 10+ levels apart. However, I can’t stop playing it. The core gameplay loop is so fundamentally changed but it works far better than I expected it to and in doing so represents a path forward for the series that I couldn’t have expected when Diamond/Pearl came out 3 months ago.

This game got ruthlessly shit on from the trailers, and frankly it isn’t entirely undeserved. This game is ugly more often than not. The Pokemon models are fine, and at least generally consistent. However, their art style doesn’t really match the world’s art style, and the world is atrocious. However, it doesn’t feel like laziness to me – it feels like a failing of technology. This is pretty clearly using some variant of the Sword/Shield engine stretched beyond its limits. The unfortunate thing as a developer, especially on an experimental title like this, is sometimes you just shoot yourself in the ass and this is one of those times. You get to a point where you can either delay a game by years and restart the core tech or just ship it with what you’ve got and move onto the next thing instead of cancelling a title. It’s time for this series to either move onto Nintendo’s own in-house engines or move to something stock, because it’s clear that Game Freak would be better served focusing on the games, rather than the engine.

However, once you get past that the game is a lot of fun, and it comes down to the core loop just really working. Rather than being gym-focused, the entire focus of the core game loop is research. You’re basically going out into the field, catching as much stuff as you can, and returning. That is the core of building the Pokedex here. The relatively non-linear nature of it means you can kind of wander off wherever you want, whether to focus on new areas or completing the entry of a specific Pokemon. The ability to fast travel back and forth to town means your play sessions are basically as long as you want them to be. The ability to craft (!!!!!!) Pokeballs, potions, etc means that as long as you’re collecting resources, you aren’t having to go shopping. If you run out, you just bring up the crafting menu and seamlessly keep your stock together.

It’s the type of loop that just works on the Switch in the same way that Breath of the Wild did. Your play sessions are as long as you want them to be and it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a 30 minute or 3 hour block. In both cases you’re making appreciable progress that you can drop back into at any time. It’s a loop that just keeps you engaged and playing in an unexpected way.

Even within that loop, the changes work well though. The simple act of being able to catch a Pokemon without starting a battle while still earning XP for it is tremendous. It so completely speeds up the act of traversal that it allows the new gameplay push to just catch EVERYTHING to work. In the old style, the game would otherwise be a slog.

Even if it’s ugly, the environment being so open is also a huge change. Its openness isn’t quite BotW, but it’s also more than Sw/Sh wild areas were. From a gameplay perspective it’s a huge success. Different areas are visually distinct in a way that’s interesting on its own, but also allows for obvious placement of different types of Pokemon in a natural way. Bugs like Combee or Weedle live in the forest, which makes sense. Things like Spheal or Octillery can be found hanging out on the beach. Your Abomasnows are up in the mountain tops and your Magmars are by the volcano. It’s both obvious AND enjoyable. It’s not that they didn’t try to do this before, but it feels even further down the line of making the Pokemon world more natural than it even previously has been.

It’s also a nice change that the player is FINALLY ACTUALLY IN DANGER. You get attacked by Pokemon in the wild. You have boss fights where you as the player are physically attacking Pokemon and they’re spectacularly fun. It’s one of those things that for the past 25 years everyone has been going “well, why is the player immune?” and it finally happened.

That said, despite the big change to the core gameplay there’s a lot of rough edges here. I complained about it during Sword/Shield but the existence of boxes, let alone no way to auto sort them is still baffling. Even more so when your Pokemon are literally being sent back to an open pasture to live their best lives. A lot of the side content is fine in its existence and kind of attempts to drive completion of the Pokedex, but there’s very little variety or necessity to it. The combat that is there is fine, but I’d like to see the new core loop adapted to a game with a more traditional level of trainer battles.

Frankly, balance is also incredibly vague. One of the core changes is that all battles are now speed-based. Speed can mean that Pokemon go first, but also that they can go multiple times in a row. That alone can easily result in your Pokemon often getting one-shot before taking a turn, even when they aren’t at a type disadvantage. Pokemon 15+ levels below your active one can still do significant damage as well, so I spent a lot of time outside of battle healing or going back to camp to rest against things that really shouldn’t have been a danger. It feels like it was tuned to be difficult, but it instead comes across as odd, because type advantage is still the king and the changes made just make the exploration slower, rather than making the individual trainer battles more difficult.

If this represents a new path forward for the series then all the rough edges don’t really matter. It has its problems, but this pushes a new gameplay archetype for the series that just works. It’s familiar enough, but far more active and far more fun than the JRPG slog that the series has really become known for. If it’s instead just a sidetrack between entries, then hopefully it’s at least a lesson to them that it’s time to take a serious look at their tech stack moving forward. However, after how much I’ve been enjoying this one, I think it’d be a huge loss if this doesn’t represent the direction the series will be sticking to going forward.

Shelved It #12 – Bravely Default II

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows

I hate when games waste the player’s time. JRPGs are notorious for it, but there’s ways to make the grind typical of the genre rewarding – either through good side content or fun combat. Bravely Default 2 never got to that point and was so actively trying to make the game not fun that I gave up at about the 8 hour mark. Even for a series known for grinding, this one was pretty egregious.

The core of BD2‘s combat is around saving and using turns in the future to defend through incoming damage then pop a bunch of attacks or heals at one time when things open up for you. In general, this works pretty great. During general trash fights, you find the weaknesses for the various enemies then do what you can to try and hammer through it in one turn. It’s a fun way to give some strategy to trash fights beyond just running in and hammering attack to win. Where this falls apart is in the way they structured boss fights.

One of the core defensive measures that the AI have is counters. For example, they may counter physical attacks giving them a chance to counterattack if you hit them with a weapon. The boss fights take this to a level that felt actively punishing. For example, the boss that had me shelving this game did the following:

  • Weakness to ground-based attacks, which are physical on the Vanguard class, but with a counter on physical attacks that deals AOE damage
  • Single-target physical counter on singing abilities, despite the fact that I had literally just earned the Bard class so from a natural player standpoint would therefore be exploring its use in my party
  • Counter on healing, despite the fact that the previous two counters basically required me to be doing AOE healing
  • AOE silence, which becomes super obnoxious when the counters have you tending towards just using magic

The strategy that ended up being the most practical was to just use stacked poison magic and get the boss to die to DOT damage. It’s slow and boring and your party is for the most part idle and tossing items, but you aren’t taking a ton of unnecessary damage.

It’s this kind of setup that just feels unnecessarily punishing to the player. The game spends the entire time encouraging exploration and use of weaknesses to kill enemies quick and effectively, then spends its time on bosses countering the weaknesses so you have to find some random bullshit mechanic to actually take out the boss. Your other choice when you hit these bosses if you simply have the wrong party setup is to instead backup and grind new classes to find the right combination. It’s a bit of a typical problem of wide-ranging class-focused JRPGs, but the design choices of BD2 exacerbate this. It’s especially negative when they are directly countering the things you just earned so you’re forever discouraged from really trying new toys. The entire process feels like it’s wasting your time leading up to these fights, because you could very well have just been focusing on the wrong thing without knowing that you’re screwing yourself over.

It feels like it should be a small thing to just get through the boss fights and move on, but it’s one of those things that will endlessly frustrate me in games like this. I want my JRPG boss fights to be challenging me to the limit of my abilities, but I want that to be because the fight is legitimately hard with however I choose to play. I don’t want to play guess the mechanic and then have to grind to come around to the fight. Once I hit that point where I’m annoyed by the big moments, I’m out. There’s plenty of other games for me to play that will respect the time I put in to them in a better fashion.

The original Bravely games had similarly punishing grind issues, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Those had both a ton of grinding, as well as unnecessarily long plots where they liked to tell you to redo the entire game half way through. What they generally didn’t have were such punishing mechanics attached to the core boss fights. Sure their bosses were hard, but stragies around exploiting the fight’s weakness mechanics weren’t generally just hard countered, and hard countered for multiple things. Bravely Default II just goes so overboard with the counters that the bosses stopped being fun, and extremely quickly. It left my in a place where I just didn’t want to continue playing the game. It’s one thing in a JRPG if the trash is on the boring side, but once the centerpiece fights become something that I don’t want to do, it’s time to shelve a game – even moreso when I’m only 8 hours in.