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 #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.