Shelved It #11 – Scarlet Nexus

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platfrom: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

This game sits firmly within the good but not great quality band. It does some things well; overall world building, base combat. It does some things poorly; longevity and balance curve, storytelling choices. Where it ends up fitting is that while I was having fun when I was playing the game, it ended up missing that thing that really grabbed me to keep playing the game, or even choose it over others. With Skyward Sword coming in yesterday and Diablo III on Switch back to filling a lot of smaller time gaps, it lost the battle.

Combat is where the game really continued to draw me in, but it’s also where the game ultimately caused me to back away, so we’ll start there.

The game is an action RPG that combines pretty basic controls (a couple of attacks and dodge) with a more complex backing system of powers. The powers are where the real interest lies. This runs the range from gravity manipulation to time manipulation to electric attack buffs. The gravity manipulation is also the player’s core ability, and it’s tied to a meter charged via attacks. What this ends up doing is causing a satisfying rhythm to form in combat. Do a few attacks up close, dodge out to range, then lay in with the telekenesis attacks.

Where this really gets fun is that you’re effectively borrowing and combining powers from your party members to activate and use to your advantage. Enemy goes into hiding when you get close? Combine time manipulation to slow them down with electric to stun them. Need to knock a flying monster out of the air? Use the duplication power combined with the player’s own gravity manipulation to huck some projectiles their way. The combinations are a lot of fun to learn.

However, that learning stopped far too early. By about the 10 hour mark, I was no longer seeing new enemies. Sure, their levels would be higher, and sure they may have some new wrinkles in terms of debuffs or actions, but the approach was the same. This was also met with an unfortunately common tactic of just adding more. More enemies, more debuffs, more ranged attacks being thrown your way. Rather than being rhythmic, the combat became chaotic. It was no longer challenging because of learning and using the right things, but challenging because the window to attack became so small. I’d run around dodging things until my powers came up (particularly the time manipulation and invisibility), get in a few attacks, then go back to dodging. It was slow and trudging, which is the opposite of the first 10 hours, which are fast and exciting.

Typically speaking that wouldn’t have been enough to run me away from the game, but the story side of things was similarly unbalanced in terms of how I liked it.

The world building side of all of this was something I really liked. The tl;dr is that this is a future Earth where some apocalypse event caused by an atmospheric belt has caused demonic monsters to invade and attack humanity. Humanity has managed to get to a point where people are basically part of two classes – those with powers and those without, and those with powers are effectively conscripted into the military to defend the remains of humanity, while those without are shunned. At its core, this is a fun potential setting, and in a lot of ways the first arc of the game is really enjoyable. I was able to sink into the setting while enjoying the way that the events around was presented.

However, again around the 10 hour mark things started to sour. At this point, the split character choice at the beginning of the game reared its ugly side. This point of the game put me in a place where the two main character’s stories diverged heavily. What this ended up resulting in as far as the first play through goes is that I was seeing one side of the game, then when the two stories intersected there was a big knowledge gap and a lot of “how the hell did you guys get here?”. Since seeing the other side of the story involves starting from scratch, it left a lot of confusion. It’s not that I inherently like games that hop you between two characters a lot, but it solves this issue particularly well, and it becomes pretty obvious why hopping characters in a split story is a better option. Ultimately I think the anime that’s currently running will do a much better job of keeping my attention since it will avoid this issue.

I guess the unfortunate thing is I’m left wanting to like this game more than I did. It has enough going positively for it that it doesn’t feel that far away from being a truly good game. The things that I find wrong with it aren’t egregious problems, but are polish issues that never happened. What it ended up being was a game that couldn’t keep my attention in long enough stints to allow me to finish it before something higher priority came out, and with so much coming out every month it’s hard for me to give it a boost above so many other things.

What I will say is that I would probably recommend catching the anime. It may not be the most original, but there’s an interesting core world here, and presented in a fashion that does a better job of making a coherent story path, I think there’s a lot to enjoy – just not quite in a game form.

Shelved It #10 – Infinite Undiscovery

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Xbox 360 via Series X compatibility

This is one that was sort of floating around in the ether for me for a long time. It’s a JRPG from a company (tri-Ace) that I’ve tended to like, but historically has had a lot of ups and downs. Critically, this one was definitely one of their down moments. It has decent combat, but the mechanics around it are often pretty questionable leading to a vague, if not frustrating experience that ends up feeling less like skill and more like trial and error grinding.

The core combat of this one typically would be fine for me to keep wanting to play. It’s action-based, but distinctly a JRPG in terms of stats, buffs, debuffs, etc. Where there’s simplicity in controls, there’s a lot of depth in their use. For example, different combos (A-B, A-A-B, etc) can have different results. Some are knockups, allowing you to juggle your enemy in the air. Some are knockdowns. Some are AoE attacks. Learning which to use at the right time is core to effective combat and has really good overall combat rhythm. You can also link with your active party members and use skills related to them. It can be a bit awkward in the 15+ year old game sense, but more often than not it works well.

Where the game really falls apart is in the specific mechanics often tied to a dungeon.

For example, the first dungeon in the game requires you to mind control two specific enemies to a door as sacrifices to unlock it. In isolation, that’s a really cool idea. However, it requires a few things – the knowledge that one of your party members has an ability that can mind control enemies, the knowledge that it can be used to do more than talk to NPC animals, and then the luck to have them actually hit the ability. There’s a bunch of things in that list of things that you just kind of have to accidentally stumble upon, because they don’t teach you.

However, the fight that ultimately did me in was one that I thought was obvious, but just downright frustrating – and as it turned out, was not obvious. I was fighting a boss that could go in and out of visibility on a timer that could lead to my failure. Of note, this was only the second time I was fighting one of these types of battles. The main character has a flute that could bring the boss out of the invis state, allowing the party to attack….except the main character could not attack him. I figured this was intended, and was just frustrated at my AI characters inconsistently attacking. Due to AI issues, I ran out of time and hit a game over, losing me a bunch of time of backtracking in the process. Looking online afterwards, it turns out that my main character had gained a skill that allowed him to attack these shifting enemies, and I had gained it almost 20 levels earlier. Didn’t know it had that secret power, sure as hell never saw it in the description or had any reason to care about it when I earned it 5+ hours ago. Now that I knew about the mechanic? Trivial fight.

It’s that level of inconsistency that follows with other tri-Ace releases. Games like the previous Star Ocean, which had really fun combat but was mechanically inconsistent surrounding it. Games like Resonance of Fate, that had interesting weapon mechanics, but pretty rough story and visuals. This one shows its bad side in those forced mechanics. They don’t make the game more fun or interesting or better. They don’t bring a level of inherent skill to the fights. They simply provide a guessing game of which thing you have in your possession that you never quite read the description of, or never quite saw the meaning of, or got hours ago and forgot existed. Once you figure out the mechanic, it’s easy, but until then it’s a wild guess, and honestly just not worth playing.

Shelved It #9 – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

More Info From Ubisoft

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Stadia, Luna

Kotaku has an article called Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Is Too Damn Long. That really is the crux of the problem, but it’s not that simple. Yes it’s too long, but for me a lot of it being too long is that this game didn’t do anything new. It’s the same as Assassin’s Creedy Origins and Odyssey. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all I really enjoyed OdysseyValhalla falls in a place where there’s been better in the intervening years, and that’s the biggest thing that caused me to give up. I put about 30 hours into this one and kind of didn’t feel like I needed to move on from there.

The first problem I ran into is that combat wasn’t that fun and stealth was systematically nerfed, so I didn’t feel like I had a gameplay path that really fit anything. My past tendency in AC games was always to go full stealth – sneak into places, pick guys off one by one, finish my objective, and sneak on out. However, a lot of the main storyline in Valhalla requires straight combat. There’s viking raids that force the entire area into active combat. There’s story missions that have AI buddies that cause active combat. Basically, I spent a lot of time in places that forced me to fight or do some extraordinarily annoying things to get to a point where I could try to stealth while chaos was going on around me. It actively fought how I wanted to play the game, which is not really something I want to be doing in an Assassin’s Creed title.

This would be all well and good if combat was fun, but frankly it just wasn’t. Ghost of Tsushima had its combat problems, but it felt like a logical progression in combat in this type of subgenre. Valhalla has a lot of the same core elements, but a couple main things really felt like a step backwards. For one, the lack of stances made combat feel like it lacked variety. Beyond some light defensive aspects of some shielded units, the difference between enemy weapon types or trash vs. brutes felt minimal to the point of irrelevance.

However, the AI in groups felt like the biggest oddity to me. Group combat in the AC genre has never been that great, and frankly it was the biggest downfall of Ghost of Tsushima as well. However, group AI really feels like it doesn’t do anything to divvy out who is actively going to attack. It results in a situation where the group AI feels less opportunistic and planned, and more random happenstance. Sure it’s probably more realistic, but it’s also boring. Attack avoidance becomes dodge spam as the practical option instead of better parry timing or intelligent target selection. It’s effective, but it’s boring. The lack of unique duels from Tsushima really then pulls away one of my favorite combat setups in that game, so there’s no real payoff moments, even in big story moments.

It doesn’t help that Immortals: Fenyx Rising by Ubisoft was one of my recent played titles, and despite similar combat, was simply more fun due to much better grouping tactics for AI, doing one at a time attacks with good tells, instead of seemingly random spam.

The exploration metagame was also a big disappointment here, and felt like a step back even within the series. Origin and Odyssey both had camps and towns with distinct goals – take out a leader, kill all enemies, eliminate a legendary animal. Valhalla just…..doesn’t. All of the location stuff is there, but without goals it all feels irrelevant. You’ll go to your Assassin’s Creed viewpoints and it will find a bunch of stuff, but it’s scattered everywhere. Your three main collectibles – wealth, mysteries (side quests), and artifacts – are scattered randomly around, so there never feels like a real focus to going to a location and clearing it out. You can just kind of set your sights in a direction and you’ll inevitably run into things. Going into a camp is more of a run to a dot on the map where you can ignore the enemies in the camp. Mysteries exist as one-off events instead of more interesting side quest chains. And ya, there’s longer side quest chains but they feel less present than in the last two titles, which was a big disappointment.

The collectibles themselves also just have a distinct lack of importance. Gear isn’t inherently level-based anymore, so going out and finding new armor isn’t necessarily helpful. Once you find your preferred gear and upgrade past a point, going out and finding new materials isn’t necessarily helpful anymore. It just puts a drag on the game when you get to the point where you inherently outgear an area, because it doesn’t scale as smoothly as the past couple of games – much to Valhalla’s detriment.

All of this is also not helped by the existence of Immortals. That one did such a good job of integrating cool traversal into exploration that it was simply more fun just to run around. Happening upon legendary units and animals in that one meant a really fun one on one fight. Happening upon a shrine meant a really fun puzzle segment or arena segment. All of the things you ran into in that game felt like a nice change of pace that provided a really good rhythmic flow to running between quest locations. Valhalla on the other hand feels like a huge step back where traversing for the sake of exploration feels like a hassle, and going to places for the hell of it feels like a chore.

Valhalla feels like an inflection point for the series overall. AC3 felt like a stale experience after the Ezio games, and that led to Black Flag. Unity and Syndicate felt like games that ran out of ideas, which led to the series reinvention in Origins. This feels similar. While Valhalla is a far better game than either of the last two problem areas, it feels similarly stale. This is a game that feels like a retread, instead of a game that feels like a step forward. Other games in the interim have done it far better. Immortals did a much better job of making exploration fun. Ghost of Tsushima did a far better job integrating stealth and combat in a way that both paths were interesting and worth playing. This series is ready for that next step forward, and it’s got some great examples to look at if they’re ready to make that push.