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
  • 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.

Game Ramblings #149 – Metroid Dread

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action/Platformer, Metroidvania
  • Platform: Switch

This is very much an iteration on the work that was started with Metroid: Samus Returns, and that’s a great thing. Quite frankly, you could read my notes on that one and it would be a 1:1 retread of what worked for Metroid Dread. However, this feels like a clear iteration on the formula and even more importantly a clear end point to the series’ story – whether or not that’s ultimately what will happen. This is just a fantastically good game that took far too long for someone to convince Nintendo to spend money on, and I’m glad it finally happened.

The thing that really stood out to me in this one was its difficulty, and that seems to be a common theme across the feedback I’ve seen about the game. A lot of people are calling it simply hard, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. What it really feels like to me is that it’s precise, and that’s really the difference to me in why I had the patience to enter death loops. I’ve shelved a lot of games in the last decade or so within the sort of rise of the indie games. A lot of games feel like they do hard for the sake of hard. Something precise and mechanically tight will come out like Celeste and be incredibly difficult but fair, then a bunch of games will follow that are simply…..difficult. It’s not fun. Dread very much feels like it falls within the difficult but fair.

Bosses in this game are no joke. A missed mechanic will take a full health tank or more. If you aren’t being precise with your movement, you will die. However, once you learn the mechanics and once you get your movement down, you’re just as likely to take no damage in these fights. In that respect it’s incredibly fair. You take damage, you learn mechanics, you avoid damage, you win. Sure you may die a couple times, but you aren’t getting screwed by RNG and you aren’t getting screwed by the fight.

You’re given a lot of tools to avoid damage that aren’t typical of the Metroid series – things like a slide that can transition into the morph ball or an instant dodge that gives some amount of i-frames – that really lean into damage avoidance as a key mechanic. You’re also given some really good new offensive tools to make damage a little more passive and a little less precise in those big moments – things like the return of the melee counter from Samus Returns or a lock-on multi-hit charge missile – that allow you to build up damage without having to be right up in the enemy’s face or having to pause and engage in the slower free aim. The end result of all of this is that while the game is still distinctly Metroid in style and mechanical knowledge, it feels substantially like a modern game where you have full control of damage mitigation and aren’t just being slammed with unavoidable nonsense.

There’s also just a ton of little things that the game does very right that make it feel both Metroid and modern. You’ve still got pickups that drop when you kill things, but they get sucked in at any range. Combined with melee counters dropping more items, this both increases the general pace of the game AND allows the game to have higher difficulty, since you’re always pulling in resources. One of the early upgrades is the return of the pulse radar that reveals hidden breakable blocks. This is again probably controversial, but this feeds into increased exploration and increased pace since you aren’t just playing a game of shoot every block to find the hidden trinket. Free aim is back to give much more freedom of hitting things from any angle, making a lot of the trash encounters much quicker to deal with. The new slide move both replaces a lot of the slower morph ball stuff, but also acts as a fast transition into morph ball tunnels when unlocked AND a way to actively dodge attacks in a lot of the boss fights.

However, the real important change compared to Fusion or the Prime games is that the game really doesn’t give you any direction. You’re chucked into the world and told to get to the surface. You’re given some lore as things go, but more often than not it’s up to you to find your way. This is very much an old Metroid thing that started to go away over the years, so it’s interesting to see it return to very little direction. For me, this is precisely what I’m looking for in a Metroidvania. I love to scan the map to find doors that I haven’t entered or mysterious holes in the map that I haven’t explored, then going back to find new things. Where things really work for the better is that the map itself is far more readable than past 2D entries, although that is entirely down to just having more modern hardware and higher resolution to display the map. It’s just far easier to find things when you can pump more obvious information on the screen and it really benefits the loose structure of the classic Metroid formula. It’s even better with a bunch of fast travel teleportation spots that open up as you find more upgrades, allowing you to quickly scoot around the world at will.

This just ended up being such a good game. It’s been so long since a 2D entry came out in this series that there was probably some amount of valid concern about whether or not this could be done and still be fun. Samus Returns proved that the formula still worked and Dread proved that the series can move forward. This hits just the right mix of classic Metroid and modern gaming, and in a couple key ways goes backwards compared to Fusion and Prime, but it comes out as such a great mix. The difficulty of the game will probably turn some people away, but for me it again hits the perfect mix – it’s perhaps unforgiving, but it’s precise and fair and not based in RNG. You’ll learn where things go wrong, then make it right. It may take a few tries, but you’ll learn and get through it.

It’s also funny looking back at my notes about Samus Returns. That one ended with a new little cutscene showing the rise of the X parasites on SR388. I mentioned in passing that maybe they were hinting at something else. Boy was it ever. I don’t know if they were still hoping to do a Fusion remake or Dread at that point, but seeing the end of the post-Prime Metroid and X saga finally arrive is both great to see and something that I never really expected to happen.

Seriously, go play this.

Game Ramblings #144 – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Released On: Wii

Playing remakes is usually a bit weird. They’re typically a mix of nostalgia with enough of a new platform benefit to make replaying worthwhile. Skyward Sword isn’t necessarily different in that regard, although I think a lot of people’s opinion of the original was not great. This one on the other hand benefits from some core things being reimagined – because the Pro Controller is a thing, there’s now a control scheme for this game that isn’t simply motion waggling. While that was a big change that benefited the game a lot, it was interesting seeing where other parts of the game have aged better than others.

The input changes are the obvious focus of this remake, so it’s also the obvious place to start. Waggle sword has been replaced with right analog sword, and in isolation its an interesting and powerful change. The game was able to keep some of the direction based mechanics in an easy to use form factor (ex: scorpion boss requiring specific direction claw strikes). It still has spots where it felt like the responsiveness wasn’t quite there if I didn’t flick at the right speed, but it was a marked improvement over the Wii Remote input system. Nunchuck thrust shield bash has been replaced by a simple click of the left stick. Not having to lift off the movement controls or swing my arms around was a huge boon to shield bashing, and led to me using it to a far greater effect than the original game, despite the fact that my timing still sucks.

On the other hand, having two sticks dedicated to movement and combat means that the camera system is the odd man out. On the one hand, having to hold a button to use the right stick as a camera is still a significant improvement over the original game and other single-analog Zelda experiences. On the other hand, I’m not really entirely sure why they didn’t have an option for a simple L/R camera rotation system. With ZL target locking, having vertical camera movement isn’t super important. Not being able to move the camera at the same time as swinging was definitely a hazard during boss fights to the point where the camera button was frustrating in those situations. It felt like a weird way of trying to blend modern camera systems with a game clearly not built for them when there was likely better intermediate solutions.

On the general gameplay front, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the overall meta game. In my original playthrough, I remember being frustrated that there was so much re-traversal of areas that you’d already been to. Compared to previous Zelda games, it felt like a cop out to minimize content production. I don’t know if it’s because Breath of the Wild was so fundamentally different, or that I’ve been playing a whole hell of a lot more Metroidvanias in the last decade, but this go around I really enjoyed it.

Part of this playthrough for me was that I was a lot more intentionally completionist than I typically would be. I was making mental notes of areas that I couldn’t get to, treasures I didn’t have the right tool for, paths I couldn’t make my way through, etc. Because of this, I also had a checklist of new things to do when revisiting an area. Sure there was always a cool new section of the regions to visit, but I also had other things to do – grab heart pieces, grab rupies, grab bugs, get those item upgrades – so revisiting an area never felt like a chore. I think ultimately it comes down to me just playing games differently now than I did at the first release of this game, and the overall meta game setup just hit better for me this go around.

What didn’t hit so well with me was The Imprisoned trilogy of boss fights. The amount of times this thing fell just right to completely block the path, or fell just right to knock me off a cliff DURING ITS OWN CUTSCENE to my doom was obnoxious. I actually died in the second fight because I flippantly started it at low health already, got knocked off the cliff all three times when it collapsed, and died. These fights just didn’t age well, and it was entirely down to bugs.

The other bosses generally worked much better. Some of my frustration with them stemmed from odd camera difficulties that existed in the original game, so in a lot of cases it was expected frustration. I ended up dying my first go around in the final fight against Demise because my shield bash timing was quite frankly that bad. Some of the Ghirahim stuff was mechanically weird in ways I didn’t remember (ex: hold sword to the left as a distraction then QUICKLY do a swipe from the right to damage him?????). By and large though the fights are generally as good as other 3D Zelda games, even if they have the same typically three phase pattern in all of them.

The thing I think I’ve got out of this is that I can recommend Skyward Sword a lot easier than I could before. I always really adored the original game, but I was cognizant of the fact that it was a hard recommendation. The controls were just too inconsistent. However, that’s mostly gone away and the rest of the game has aged well enough that I think it’s worth playing. It’s an interesting transition point between Twilight and Breath where it’s still got the linear dungeon path, but starting to move into some open worldish stuff and upgrade systems, and despite the odd controls it’s a lot of fun to run through. It being readily available on a very popular system also isn’t going to hurt its case. If you’re looking for that classic 3D Zelda itch, you probably won’t do better any time soon.

Also, the cat dog bird thing is a jerk.