Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5 – REVISITED

This article contains spoilers relating to Persona 5’s Fourth Dungeon and the gameplay that immediately follows.

My last post on mental health in video games looked at how Persona 5 addressed mental health in the form of the isolated, agorophobic character Futaba. This article highly praised the game for its approach, however as the game progressed I realised that this good work is quickly undone by the subsequent approach to helping Futaba aclimatise to life outside her bedroom.

When she first spends time outside of her room it is apparent to everyone in the Phantom Thieves that Futaba struggles to engage with people in conversation, particularly around topics she is not interested in. The way the Thieves address this is to talk about Futaba as is she is not present and to discuss how to socialise her, without her input. Futaba is treated like a broken object that needs fixing rather than a severely emotionally traumatised person who is working out how to live a more normal life.

After the beautiful way that Atlus explore Futaba’s mental state in her entombed pyramid palace, with the Phantom Thieves having to allow Futabato open up the palace herself, it feels jarring to have this undercut by the first things the Phantom Theives do once Futaba joins the team.

One bit that caught me particularly off-guard and emphasised how inappropriate this was, was a scene where Futaba is encouraged to work at the coffee shop both Joker, the lead character, and her guardian Sojiro, work at. Sojiro, aware that she is a social shut in, asks her why she is now coming out and putting herself in these situations she finds uncomfortable. Being given a dialogue choice at this point I said that it was her idea, believing that she had, despite the poor way the party spoke about her in her presence, agreed to this process. Futaba then calls me a liar. She is not happy to be here and is only here because of peer pressure exerted by her new friends. That felt super uncomfortable.

This discomfort is increased as the gang are determined to turn this hikikomori from a social shut-in into a bikini wearing beach-goer within a week. They set out an invasive, demanding and non-consensual timetable which ends up being successful despite this being very far from the real result you would be likely to get from imposing so much pressure on someone who suffers from severe social anxiety.

As many of you will be aware, social anxiety takes time to overcome. For individuals that suffer from social anxiety having friends who are willing to help them push their comfort levels is a good thing, but there is a huge amount of responsiblity on those friends to respect their friend’s boundaries, and ensure that they do not end up in over their heads. Some people when they are overwhelmed are unable to express themselves and so will appear to be quietly compliant, as harmful experiences and emotions build up, increasing that persons ongoing aversion to social situations. Learning to overcome anxiety takes time and there are set backs in real life that make the process take longer.

For a game that gets so many other things right, particularly when addressing the issues of mental health, it feels particularly jarring that this situation, which is a central plot point, is dealt with so indelicately.

I really love Persona 5 and it is easily one of my favourite all time games, which is why I hold it to such a high standard when I look at it’s story and content critically. I can only hope that future Persona installments can avoid having these uncomfortable moments, leaving us with nothing but 24 carat JRPG gold.

Impressions: Bloodborne

A Hunter must hunt…

Bloodborne is a game I tried to play several years ago, but it didn’t fully click with me, other games came up that I wanted to play and it ended up falling by the wayside.

Not the best first impression clearly, but that is not the end of the story for this beautifully gothic game…

After not playing Bloodborne for a long time I played Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice and I loved it. The game taught me to play aggressively, focusing on parrying and riposting; a stark contrast to the defensive, conservative combat encouraged by the Dark Souls games. It turns out that this game retroactively trained me into the correct mindset for playing Bloodborne.

But there would still be one more insight I would have to gain before I was drawn back to Bloodborne; the discovery of the cosmic horror that was lurking beneath the surface.

Over the past four years I have become very interested in horror, watching many a video-essay on horror in both film and video game media, and I realised there was much more to Bloodborne than the visceral bloody gothic horror that Bloodborne appears to be. Great Ones, the cosmos, nightmare realms, all lurk behind the opening stages of Bloodborne, and are the very essence of Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Like many other From Software games, Bloodborne is filled with lore that is found in item descriptions and locations, with a wide space left open for personal interpretation and analysis. It was by watching lore analysis videos, by youtubers such as VaatiVidya, Lance McDonald and TheLastProtagonist, that I discovered a deep passion for the story that Bloodborne has to tell. A story of humans striving to attain a greater level of understanding about the universe and their place within it, but discovering an eldritch truth that drives them to madness. A story where mankind’s battle against their own inner beastial nature take on a far more literal and visceral dimension.

The story is intriguing, and is considered by some to be the best realisation of Lovecraftian horror that has been achieved in video games.

The gameplay is similar to other FromSoftware games, with a focus on evasion and parrying enemy attacks. When you take damage you have a small window of opportunity to recover your health by attacking the enemy, which encourages an aggressive playstyle, and you will quickly learn in game that backpedaling is not the way to succeed in this game, its all about sidestepping or dashing through enemy attacks to try to flank them, and punishing every opening that the enemy presents you with.

It is fun, fast paced and exciting.

The aggressive gameplay is complimented by beautiful sound design and an a wonderfully detailed gothic artstyle. It feels like you are truly stalking beasts through the small streets of a gothic era european city, and it lends itself wonderfully to the thematic horror stylings the game has. Frantic fights give way to atmospheric tension, which builds as you expect an ambush around each corner, knowing that it takes just one hit to wipe out your health, but if you retaliate quick enough you can regain your health and get the upper hand.

The game is difficult. and this will undoubtedly cause issues for some players, which make the game somewhat impenetrable. The same can be said of the indirect storytelling; if you like a clearly defined story, then I would recommend starting by checking out the lore videos that various youtubers have made on Bloodborne as a prelude to playing, as it will give some structure to the game that would otherwise be somewhat obsure.

Bloodborne is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a brillant game if you are looking for a game which is difficult, and has an obscure story that takes some searching and interpretation to tease out. It is very much my kind of game, and I hope that you can enjoy it as well!

Impressions: Remnant from the Ashes

Remnant from the Ashes is a game I discovered completely by accident when watching YouTube. I had heard nothing about this game before watching this random video, but I was intrigued by what I saw.

A post-apocalyptic third-person shooter, which involved online co-op and dodging attacks thrown at the players by Dark Souls-esque enemies.

I had to give it a go.

Fresh off playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, I was feeling hesitant to try a game I had heard so little about. I needed some tried and tested quality in the games I was playing, but I took a chance on picking up Remnant from the Ashes in the PlayStation Summer Sale.

This was a satisfying purchase.

You play a human fighting across a post-apocalyptic Earth, taken over by the plant-based horde of the Root, bringing guns to what would typically be a sword and shield affair in any other entry to the Souls-like Action RPG genre.

The world you explore is pseudo-randomised, with different dungeon layouts being generated each play-through, and randomised bosses and events filling these worlds, leaving the player with a unique feeling campaign, add giving players to ability explore uniquely rolled layouts that other players have discovered in co-op play. It is a neat feature, and also leads to a replayable game experience.

But all of these features are mere gimmicks without a solid core gameplay to build these features into.

Thankfully Remnant from the Ashes delivers on this gameplay, with some crazy gun-shooting, quick-rolling, fast-moving gunplay which keeps you on your toes in a fun and high pressure way.

The game feels fluid and weighty, the random generation is nice, although the random boss generation can lead to some difficult fights. My first boss was an enemy that spawned explosions on you every 3 seconds. It was overwhelming and I had to go online to find out how to beat him because I was struggling significantly with the encounter.

Once I saw that you had to just keep running the battle thankfully opened up and I beat him on my second attempt after watching the video.

You dodge-roll out of the way of enemy projectiles, you can melee enemies that get too close, you have to control your space, and you face more horde-type enemies than you get in Dark-souls, but it feels perfectly balanced for the gun-play focus of the game.

The game world is well realised, if not a little bland. I am currently exploring a ruined city and it is…a ruined city. Not particularly exciting, but I am aware that you explore different locales as the game progresses I am not able to comment on how well these other locations are realised at this time.

In cut scenes the game looks pretty ugly; character models have clearly been designed for being looked at from a distance, and they look plastic and awkward up close.

Thankfully in general gameplay everything looks fine. It is not pushing any bounds in graphic fidelity or beauty, but that hardly matters when the core gameplay is so solid and fun to play.

This game feels like the anti-thesis to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; not the prettiest game, but it has a solid, tightly tuned combat system creates a fun, fluid experience that is a fun twist on the action RPG genre.

I am excited to play more of this game which at this stage I would categorise as a diamond in the rough.

Impressions: Dead by Daylight

Death is not an Escape

Published in 2016, Dead by Daylight is a game I never really thought I would be playing, never mind 4 years after it’s intial release, but here we are!

Yes that is the demogorgon!

Dead by Daylight is an asymetric multiplayer horror game, which pits four survivors against a singular killer, in a race to escape the map before the killer can sacrifice all the survivors to the mysterious Entity.

When I first saw footage of Dead by Daylight, I was not entirely impressed with it, it looked slow and unpolished, and was an easy game to not play. But several years later I discovered it all over again, and I am glad that I rediscovered this gem.

The game is set in a paralel dimension that belongs to a malicious force known only as the Entity. It survives by feeding off exreme emotions, which are evoked by the Trials, where survivors are trapped in an enclosed arena and must activate five generators to power an exit gate and escape before the Killer catches them and sacrifices them by hanging them on meat hooks found throughout the map.

As of writing there are 23 survivors and 21 killers that can be played as, with each survivor and killer having unique traits and abilities that make them unique. As you progress in the game you can teach traits to other characters, allowing you to fully customise both survivors and killers to suit your preferred playstyle. Each killer has a unique playstyle that cannot be transferred to other killers,

The survivors play in third person, and sneak around the map, avoiding the killer and repairing generators which power the exit gates through which the survivors must attempt to escape. The killer plays in first person, hunting survivors by following trails left by them, listening to the survivors breath and following bloodpools that are left when you manage to hit a survivor with your weapon.

Killers have to hit survivors to knock them down, then they pick the survivor up and place them on a meathook, which sacrifices them to the Entity. Survivors have no way to directly attack the killer, but instead can try to trip the killer up to save their fellow survivors, or distract the killer long enough for another survivor to rescure their teammate off the hook before the sacrifice is complate.

The game is tense, regardless of which team you choose to play for. Things are expectedly nervewrecking as a survivor, but the tension does not drop as a killer. Trying to keep track of all four survivors, particularly if they are communicating properly with each other, is difficult, and mind-games become a key part of succeeding as a killer.

Developers, Behaviour Interactive, have managed to keep the game fresh by frequent balance fixes and the release of new content, in the form of killers, survivors and maps, with the most recent updating bringing a new killer, The Blight, this year. The game compliments its own unique killers by licencing some of horror’s best known killers including Freddie Kruger, Michael Myers and Leatherface. There is something special about being stalked by Michael Myers, or desperately trying to wake up as you hear the ominous Freddie Kruger lullaby surround you, and it is thrilling to experience.

This game is not perfect, and glitches can be fairly common, despite the frequent bug fixes Behaviour Interactive release. There are also noticable issues with matchmaking speeds, with the game sometimes taking up to 10-15 mintues to place you in a match. These times have been lowered by the recent introduction of cross-play, which allows you to play with friends and other players regardless of what platform the game is played on, but it can still be annoying if you just want to play a quick round.

Dead by Daylight is a great horror themed multiplayer game, and I have found it to be a great game to unwind to. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, given the horror styling and issues with bugs, but if you are not put off by these things, Dead by Daylight is a game worth playing, and one I have found very enjoyable, despite my initial misgivings.

Impressions: Code Vein

There have been a lot games that have tried to walk in the footsteps of From Software’s Dark Souls, with varying degrees of success.

Those that succeed do so by putting their own unique twist on the dark, nihilistic formula, and Bandai Namco Studios bring a massive dose of anime goodness to the genre in a Dark Souls-meets-Tokyo Ghoul action RPG.

Set in the ruins of a fallen civilisation you awaken with no memory of who you are, alongside a mysterious girl who leads you forward into a broken world filled with monsters that used to be human, but are now husks of their former selves.

Sound familiar?

The story is not nothing particularly special, and is filled with very tropy anime characters and story beats (did I mention the girl that finds you when you awaken has disproportionatly large breasts, barely covered by an incredibly ripped up mini-dress?) but there is a real gem of a game hiding behind the tropey awkwardness.

Press Any Button to Start

The first thing you will notice with this game is the in-depth character creation. You get to craft your very own waifu/guyfu, and it is one of the more detailed character creators you will experience in any game. I could spend hours making lots of different characters that are completely unique and is a fun experience in and of itself.

Once you get through the character creation you jump into the game and get to see the beautiful world the Bandai Namco Studios have created; a ruined modern city, where gangs of bio-weapons (read vampires) search for rare fruits called a bloodbeads, which provide sustainence in the absence of a human to feed off.

You will make allies as you progress through this world and explore several environments that will not feel unfamiliar to Dark Souls players.

So what does this game do differently?

What you will discover when you enter the first ‘dungeon’ of the game is the existence of an AI controlled ally that will come with you througout your wanderings. This ally will be able to fight alongside you in combat and heal you if you go down.

This ally mechanic is a welcome variation to the traditional lone explorer, and you will find different allies have difference strengths that will be better suited to some enemies than others. For example I have one ally I use for general exploring who can quickly dispatch surprise enemies and a different ally who can tank in boss fights for me to be a more hit and run attacker.

With the addition of an extra ally, it means that you will be frequently facing larger groups of enemies, that will try to swarm and surround you. Maneuvering becomes a key part of staying alive, and the traditional stamina management mechanics you have in Dark Souls are a key part of combat here.

In addition to the AI ally, Code Vein also provides an incredibly flexible skill/class system. There are 39 base blood codes, which are the classes available. Each blood code has a number of abilites associated with it. As you progress in the game you will unlock more abilities for each bloodcode, and if you master a code, you can transfer particular abilities from one code to another. One code for example will specialise in quick hits with a one-handed sword, whilst another specialises in resisting status effects, and another specialises in draining your opponants lifeforce. By synegising these abilities you can really craft a class that feels unique to you, as well being able to be changed on the fly, as your situation requires.

In keeping with the anime styling of the game, combat is fast paced and fluid. You really feel like an anime protagonist fighting against the odds, dodging, diving, and following up with an awesome feeling attack from an oversized weapon. You can handle more enemies in Code Vein than you would be able to in Dark Souls, and have access to more crowd control abilities, but you still need to dodge and parry and backstab your way to victory.

In terms of difficulty Code Vein is balanced to feel alot easier than other souls-like games. It feels like a familair, casual game to experienced souls-like players, and I think it would make a great entry-level game for players new to the genre.

Conclusions

Code Vein is a fun romp of an action RPG. It has a clunky and awkward story, with too much exposition for exposition sake, which drags on the gameplay experience. If you can see past this failing, you will find a game which has fast paced, fun combat tin a beautifully realised game world, and is worth playing for people who are interested in the souls-like genre. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it adds some nice gameplay elements which lead the game to feel unique in its own way, and the style is a nice vibrant splash of colour in a traditionally bleak and dark genre.

Impressions: Horizon Zero Dawn

“My whole life I lived as an outcast…”

Aloy

Set in the 31st century, 1000 years after our civilization has ended. Horizon Zero Dawn has a strong reputation as one of the best games on PS4. To my shame, it has taken me this long to finally play it, and I can confirm that its reputation is well deserved.

In this world, humanity has returned to tribal societies, and animalistic machines are found across the continents, hostile to humans, and hunted for their parts. You play as Aloy, a tribal outcast and expert huntress, who sets out into the world to find her place in it. The game is a third-person action game, with a wonderfully realised world to explore, that is large enough to feel fun to explore, without being so big that it becomes intimidating or boring.

The gameplay revolves around traversing this beautiful world and avoiding/hunting the dangerous machines that can be found throughout it, with story missions playing out on variations of machine hunts, which have a passing similarity to the hunts of Monster Hunter World, and human raider camp attacks, which have a similar feel to the predator sections of the aforementioned Batman Arkham series of games.

Despite the familiarity of these gameplay elements, Horizon Zero Dawn ties these sections together creatively and cohesively, creating a game that is polished and fun to play, without getting monotonous. With such a well realised world and gameplay structure, it is only fitting to have an excellent story and set of characters to compliment the finely tuned framework that has been built in Zero Dawn. And boy does this game deliver.

Storytelling

Starting with the protagonist, Aloy, she is one of my favorite protagonists of all time in video games. Throughout the game, she is an outsider and looked down upon by others. But for all of the cultural opposition she faces, her competence always challenges the pre-conceptions that others have about her. She works hard to be an elite huntress, and her confidence in her abilities shines through in her dialogue. She is not overly cocky, but has a dry and witty sense of humour that carries Aloy through the social situations that she has not learned the ‘appropriate’ etiquette for, by virtue of her outcast upbringing. We need more female protagonists like Aloy in video games.

This well-written protagonist and dialogue carry the story comfortably, as you will naturally care for the issues that Aloy cares about, but it is hard to tell exactly what outcome she will root for when the chips are down. She wants to protect people but is intrinsically drawn to oppose certain cultural power structures that those people support. It is an interesting story to follow.

Gameplay

Aloy is equipped with a range of weapons that carry a variety of ammunition types that are suited to different kinds of encounters, from humans to the wide variety of machines you can encounter. Each machine has its weaknesses and strengths, and as the game progresses you will learn how to defeat each machine, as well as turn machines against each other and even ride them. The combat in these scenarios is crisp and you feel powerful and accomplished with every machine you kill. Even the lowest level machines leave you feeling a sense of satisfaction when you fell them in the middle of a hectic fight, as you thin the herd to deal with the more challenging machines.

Each fight is an exciting, edge of your seat experience, and I have frequently found myself spamming dodge-rolls to get enough space to evaluate a combat encounter that has gone sidewise because I have not properly assessed what machines are in play in the field. I always just about manage to find the space needed and clutch those victories from the jaws of defeat. It feels awesome.

The raider-camp segments are not particularly challenging, particularly if you have played the Batman Arkham games, but they are well constructed, and add a welcome level of variety to the gameplay you experience in Zero Dawn.

The game also contains a handful of collectibles, which are manageable in number, and you get access to their location maps immediately, so you will not be stuck trying to find 200 feathers in every nook and cranny of the environment. This is nice, and these are tied to data points that give you insight into the world 1000 years prior that led to the current post-apocalyptia. It is not exposition that is necessary for the plot to be understood, but rather a nice cherry of details on top of a well made and well-iced cake, avoiding some of the pitfalls of the overly lengthy encyclopedia that needs to be read in games like Mass Effect to understand why certain things are happening.

Conclusion

This is a beautiful, fun, and exciting game. There is a reason why Horizon Zero Dawn is so well regarded, and I couldn’t recommend a game more. If you, like me until recently, have not played this game, I would recommend finding a copy and playing it before you consider leaving this generation of consoles behind.

Impressions: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I have not played a Star Wars game since Disney took over the franchise. Not for any particular malice, but rather because the only Star Wars offerings, remakes of Battlefront and Battlefront II, appeared to be pale imitations of the original PS2 games they were based on.

Lots of promises were made by EA following the lukewarm reception to the Battlefront remakes, and the outright hostility that was shown towards the lootbox system.

No more lootboxes

A 100% Singleplayer experience

It seemed to be everything fans were asking for.

Finally.

It was clear to those of us watching EA’s handling of video games and the Star Wars Franchise that these choices were not where EA wanted to go with gaming, particularly after their quite definitive claims about the future of singleplayer gaming.

Thankfully for us fans of Star Wars video games EA decided to eat their hat and produce a singleplayer game, which was in no way connected to the critical acclaim Sony’s singleplayer God of War remake recieved, and how much criticism their own offering, Battlefront II, recieved the year before Fallen Order’s release.

So what are my first impressions of this game?

It is beautiful, so very beautiful. It is also painfully unpolished, but despite this issue it is also very fun.

Beauty

When I first loaded up the game the first thing that stood out was just how visually stunning it all was. The game opens on a spaceship junkyard, and the main character, Cal, is part of a salvage team dismantling Clone Wars-era technology. I had real moments of fan-boy awe as I saw the Clone Dropships up close and personal or lasers tearing apart an outdated Star Destroyer.

The graphic detail and dynamic lighting effects are beautiful, and great emphasis is drawn to the lighting throughout the game when you use your lightsaber, which you are given access to not long at all into the game’s introduction. You will use your lightsaber as a light source in-game, in place of a torch. It is a simple but elegant touch to the gameplay that really shows off the dynamic lighting wonderfully.

The graphics are complemented with sonorous music that is unmistakably Star Wars in feel and tone. The combination of visuals and sound design make for an immersive and exciting step into a new Star Wars story.

Polish

My first encounter with a lack of polish came with the game’s combat. This game is frequently compared to the Souls-Borne games, and this is an unfortunate comparison as I entered the game expecting it to play like Sekrio with a lightsaber.

This game is not Sekrio with a lightsaber.

You are encouraged to use the parry in Fallen Order, but the timing is not as instinctive as it is in Sekrio. You have to take account of the animation window that it takes Cal to move his lightsaber into parry position to catch the enemy weapon as it lands. It is a difference in timing that I have not been able to master. I found myself dying several times in the intoductory sequence. I would not have begrudged this so much if it was not for the painfully long load times.

On a PS4 it takes 30-60 seconds to reload from a death. This elongates the downtime between deaths, which happens frequently if you are playing on the higher difficulties. That mixed with a slightly heavy feeling combat, meant that I had to turn down the difficulty for me to have a good time.

Low posture, stun locks and heavy enemy attack tracking made me feel more that I was fighting unpolished combat mechanics rather than challenging gameplay. One example of this would be the force stasis abilty. You can stun an enemy in game, and the most instinctive use of this ability would be to stun an enemy and run behind them to get a backstab kill. Unfortnately this is not something you can do in game as the enemies, even whilst in stasis, can track your movement as fast as you can move.

There is a lot more I could say about the balance of combat in this game, but I feel it would be better suited to a deep dive on video game combat.

Other niggles I have with the game include texture pop-ins, lag, and stuttering. I have not experienced this issues in another PS4 game before, and certainly not to such an extent that I notice it and it impacts my enjoyment of the game.

Fun

Regardless the issues I have highlighted above, this game is a really fun experience.

I have put the game down several times due to frustration, and boss-related rage, but I have always wanted to pick up the game again. This is a game that am thinking about in-between gaming sessions in a positive way. I always forget the niggles and frustrations I have an am left with a desire to dive deeper into it.

When the game works, it works wonderfully, with fluid action making you truly feel like a jedi in combat. The platforming and exploration is fun and satifying, with the game containing several well thought-out environmental puzzles. When I have struggled to solve a puzzle, it is down to my own failure to apply what the game has shown me, rather than issues with the puzzle mechanics themselves.

Exploration is rewarded with customisation options, which are great for the lightsaber, Mantis (your spaceship) and BD-1 (your personal droid), but rather lackluster for Cal himself.

Conclusion

I really love this game despite its flaws. If you have never played a souls-like game before this is an excellent entry level into the genre, particularly given the use of difficulty choices, which make combat significantly easier than will ever be found in the souls games, whilst retaining the checkpoint and enemy respawn mechanics of the infamous set of games.

The game has solid mechanics, and I would be excited to see EA really polish these mechanics to perfection in a Jedi: Fallen Order 2. The story is sufficiently engaging for an Action-Adventure game, and is a must-try for fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Flashback Friday: No Man’s Sky – A Zen Exploration

This Flashback Friday I look back at the first video game article I ever wrote on this blog. It is crazy to think this happened over a year ago! I hope you enjoy this early exploration into video game blogging.


No Man’s Sky – A Zen Exploration

I have a full-time job.

I have a young child who I have to put to bed as soon as I get home after a long work day.

I have very little mental capacity to focus on anything when I finally sit down and rest.

No Man’s Sky has been my game of choice for these days.

I have Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, and even Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain in my catalogue of games I need to finish, but these are all games that require more thought and mental activity than I can muster at the end of a long day, as I am sure more than a fair number of ‘grown-up’ video game fans can attest to. It is in this exhausted mental void that I discovered the beauty that is No Man’s Sky.

At its launch No Man’s Sky was a monumental flop with everyone who had been interested in the game. I was not one of those people, having heard of No Man’s Sky in video game media, but nothing about it seemed to spark my curiosity. This is something I am incredibly grateful for, as it means I have not approached the game from a place of previously being burned by it. In the years since initial release No Man’s Sky has had several large updates, including Atlas Rises and NEXT. After these updates I found it selling for £10 on the PlayStation Store, and noted that it had started to get some positive reviews. I figured I would give it a shot, if the game was rubbish I wouldn’t need to cry over it. With this in mind I took to the stars.

This is not so much a review, as there are plenty of those elsewhere, as it is a record of my experience with this controversial game. I really love this game. I have recorded about 32 hours gameplay, and it has been a relaxing exploration through the vast emptiness of space. I have a handful of personal ships and one large Freighter, which I treat mostly as storage for the various items I collect. I have the beginnings of a base, which I initially built simply to further one of the in-game quest lines, but have slowly started to add to as my desire to do so has grown. There are lots of ‘bits’ to do, lots of quests, which are generally not my cup of tea and I simply activate so they can be fulfilled in the background to reward my own exploration, but they mostly follow the same formula and get repetitive easily. However the exploration truly is the name of this game.

My favourite thing to do in No Man’s Sky is land on a planet I like to look of, so no scorched or barren ones thank you very much, and just explore. Scanning all the animals I can find, looking for strange new plants on the surface, then hopping in my ship, flying a bit further around the planet, and hopping out again to see if there is anything I have missed. Ensuring I stop by any outposts on the surface, and have a good old-fashioned loot, is simple and repetitive, but the infinite variation of kinds of animals and plants makes this experience a tranquil one. With headphones on you become your traveller, listening for the squeaks or creaks of animals, exploring caves, or just stopping to get a beautiful view of the procedurally generated universe. The photo above I took on a toxic planet, which I just thoroughly enjoyed exploring. I can’t put my finger on what it was about this planet that kept me exploring for several evenings in a row, but it was an immersive and compelling experience, that truly helped me to relax at the end of a long day.

no-mans-sky_20180819191735-e1538941701463.jpg
Giant antlered care-bears are the perfect way to relax at the end of the day.

With the approach I take to exploration the piecemeal storyline and drips of information as and when you find specific monoliths or computers works perfectly. I am not playing this game desiring a story, and so the little bits I pick up on different planets make me feel like an archaeologist picking through the pieces of an ancient civilisation. I can see how this game is not everyone’s cup of tea, and in a different life I think I would be among those people, but when you are exhausted, sometimes it is nice to just take to the stars and see what you can find.

There is a kind of multiplayer in this game, but I don’t enjoy other people entering my game-space. I like multiplayer in other games, but when it comes to No Man’s Sky, having another player on your isolated planet is like having someone trampling on your freshly planted flowerbed, it interrupts the very thing you are there to enjoy. Whenever someone starts to connect to my currently habited galaxy I always get that feeling of ‘out of all the galaxies in the universe you had to warp into mine’. Which is quite funny given the name of the game. The feeling of isolation is one that I crave in-game, and this is probably due to the strain of being an introvert working in a very extrovert-centric job.

This game is a real joy. Is it perfect? No. is it grindy? Kinda. Is fun? Absolutely. This limitless, isolated exploration is something that will keep me coming back to No Man’s Sky for years to come, when I get tired of the story driven games I tend to be drawn to, and with its recent update, that I will soon be playing, I am looking forward to many new and interesting things to discover.

If you like this article check out more video game impressions here.

Dark Souls: Video Game Literary Classics 101

‘If only I could be so grossly incandescent…’

Dark Souls

You sit in a cell in the Undead Asylum.

You cannot die, but you can be left to rot.

And so you wait.

You cannot remember who you are or how long you have waited, losing your humanity…

…until someone drops your key to freedom through a hole in the ceiling.

And with that key hope is kindled.

It is hard to be part of the modern video game and media world without being at least familiar with the name of the game Dark Souls. It became particularly popularised in internet circles for its punishing difficulty and the associated catchphrase ‘Git Gud’ which is often the only advice offered to individuals who struggle to progress with the game.

But if a high difficulty were all that made this game notable it would be quickly forgotten. After all a real challenge is presented by many video games out there, and other options can often be more accessible than Dark Souls, offering players difficulty sliders to fit their challenge preferences.

So what sets Dark Souls apart?

There is no simple answer to this question, which I think is part of the game’s beauty, but in this article we can explore some of the threads of this answer that I am more drawn to.

1) Your character is not special

When you start there is nothing spectacular about your player character. You are a husk of a human. You cannot die, but that is true of many in the world you inhabit. It is not a glorious immortality you experience, but a debilitating curse.

You spend the game trying to break this curse, but you are just as well equipped as any other undying human to do this. There are plenty of humans more skilled at fighting than you, better equipped, and you live in a world filled with fantastical beasts and lovecraftian horrors.

At no point in the game does your character become anything close to invincible or overpowered.

You could be strong enough to fight the final boss, and still be quickly killed by enemies in the starting area if you are careless. A fact that many people showcase when they perform runs of the game without levelling up at all.

So what impact does this have on the player experience?

When someone experiences a story they need a character that is their proxy to provide the experiences the reader needs to feel.

This is why you start the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton with Frodo; you have a character that lives a simple ‘country life’ where events and happenings are a close analogue to our real world. Frodo has little knowledge of the world outside those borders, any of the more fantastical elements of the world. But then Frodo moves out of Hobbiton into the unknown, and as he learns about the complex world he lives in, so do we. Frodo is our proxy.

In Dark Souls we are given that character; unskilled in combat, unknowing about the world, and unprepared for the task that is ahead.

But you get better.

The more you fight the more you learn how to respond to the enemy and how to beat them. Your character does not gain any special abilities to shortcut combat, but you personally get better at the combat that is functionally the same at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of it.

Your characters ability is directly proportional to your personal ability, and if you are not winning in a fight, you can only, generally, win if you personally learn how to be better at fighting in game. This dynamic is what gets commonly reduced to ‘Git Gud’ on forums. There is not a shortcut to success and death is part of the experience.

With that in mind.

2) Failure is part of the journey

You will die in Dark Souls.

If someone says that they have played Dark Souls without dying I would be confident in calling that person a liar.

Why?

Because you are meant to die in Dark Souls.

This was a fact I personally struggled with when I first started playing the game, often switching off the console before the death properly registered and autosaved.

It was rage and frustration that led me to do this.

In most games death is a fail state, a sign that you were not good enough to succeed. It is something I have been trained over the years to avoid as much as possible. And the impact of this attitude was obvious when I first played Dark Souls.

I was afraid to progress.

I was afraid of moving away from safe-zones, and areas where I knew the layout of enemies.

Because I was afraid of dying in game.

But the game is more fun when you take the plunge and accept you will die. You still need to be cautious and careful to progress, but if you fear the consequences of failure you will not progress at all.

Death in Dark Souls is part of the story. The game continues after you die. You return to life at the last bonfire you rested at. Items you used before your death are gone, but your experience remains. This is because your death is canon within the game. The thing that sets your character apart from the hollow undead you see scattered around the world is that you keep striving to reach your goal, whilst the hollows stopped trying.

You as the player keep playing, keep trying and keep learning from mistakes of the past.

In doing so you work out how to overcome the challenges you face and if you persevere you will eventually succeed.

You succeed in the same way as your character succeeds. Dying constantly and learning from that experience.

In this the game does something clever. On one level it helps you the player to learn that it is okay to not succeed. Failure is not a permanent state, nor is it a final state. It is just a step that you, and everyone else, must experience in the continued story that is life. Learning that failure is not the end is an important lesson in life, and Dark Souls incorporates this lesson into the heart and soul of the game.

On another level your character reaches their goal by learning that lesson as well. They are a human that is only remarkable in one respect. They persevere. That is the story that Dark Souls tells. An unremarkable individual with no particular talents or abilities will defeat the strongest creatures in the world, because they persevere and do not give up despite the setbacks they face.

3) Your character does not achieve the goal they set out to complete.

This part of the article contains major story spoilers, so if you do not want the ending to this game spoiled before you can play it, I would stop reading now and return once you have played it.

When you first start the game you have no particular goal. You are given a goal by way of a prophesy from the man to rescues you from your cell; to end the curse of undying.

To do this you must ring the bells of awakening.

And so your character sets out, fighting through enemies and monsters. But you never actually manage to end this curse.

It is something beyond you.

You are informed by Kingseeker Frampt, the primordial serpent that is awoken by the bells of awakening, that it is your job to succeed Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.

You must succeed Gwyn and preserve the Age of Fire by linking the first flame.

Which involves burning yourself in the first flame that will feed off the eternal strength of your undying soul.

You are destined to sacrifice yourself to keep the first flame alive and stop the growing darkness. You are told this will cure the curse of undying.

Unless you meet Darkstalker Kaathe before Kingseeker Frampt.

Darkstalker Kaathe is hard to find accidentally in game, but he lets you know the truth, or a kind of truth.

Kingseeker Frampt is not your friend.

He seeks only to keep the fires lit, a failing and ultimately fruitless task.

If you meet the Darkstalker you can instead choose to let the fires die, and you walk off into an uncertain future.

You do not learn what becomes of your character in this ending. All you know is that the light has died and darkness will grow.

So what is important about this choice? Surely the Darkstalker’s plan is evil? Shouldn’t light live on?

Maybe not.

Your character is told a story where light is good and dark is evil, and so preservation of the light prevents evil from growing.

But your character is lied to.

At the Kiln of the First Flame you meet Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. A husk of what he once was. A hollow shell, like so many of the undying that you have met before him.

The light is slowly failing and the world is stuck in a strange limbo. People don’t die, much like the fires of the first flame, and the world looks tired.

Maybe, just like how it is natural for people to die, the flames should be allowed to go out.

Maybe there is potential for something new, in a world of ashes than the world of the dying flame.

After all the Age of Fire came after the Age of Ancients, in which nothing changed and everything was stagnant. Gwyn felt this was not good but now fights to preserve his own unchanging age, fighting against the most fundamental of processes in life: change.

Dark Souls plays off of our traditional pre-loaded notions of good and evil.

Humans are naturally phototropic beings, being drawn towards the light.

But the world of Dark Souls is not our own.

And that instinct is being used to manipulate us.

Ultimately your character does not manage, as far as they know, to break the curse of the undying.

They will either let the flame die and usher in the age of darkness, or they will spend the rest of their lives burning, until the Kingseeker finds a new undying to take your place, and an endless cycle continues.

The ‘good’ ending is unknowable.

They are both debatable.

Both have dire consequences. You and your character have no unique insight into the situation.

You lack the full understanding of as to what the consequences of your actions are.

But you must choose to do one or the other, or consign yourself to slowly hollowing, losing what humanity you have left.

Conclusion

These are just 3 aspects of Dark Souls that make it the classic game it is. Much more can be said about the game, which I may touch on at a later article, but for now I will conclude with this.

Dark Souls tells a human story.

An unremarkable human without perfect knowledge sets out to try and help the world.

They face challenges and setbacks, but they grow, and develop as they learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges.

They reach points in their life where decisions need to be made, but they are uncertain as to what is the best course of action.

They have the power to shape or change the world by their perseverance, but do not know how they actions can affect everything.

And you the player join them through this experience.

You make the choices in imperfect knowledge, build up the skills, test your perseverance, and are left unsure as to whether or not you made the world a better place or a worse one.

You can convince yourself either way.

But you will never know.

This game is a classic because is speaks to those fundamental human drives of overcoming adversity, and finding purpose.

But you do not know what impact your life will have.

And that is all part of the human story.

This article is part of Backlog Crusader’s Video Game Literary Classics 101. If you are interested in more of these articles follow this link to read more!
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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

A defeated shinobi sits in a well. No companions. No sword. No hope. An unknown figure drops an item down to them, an item that gives them hope as they pick themselves up to fight another day.

Sekiro_03

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice opens on a familiar note for a From Software game, and one that harkens back to the first Dark Souls game, which truly brought From Software into the mainstream gaming consciousness.

Since its release Sekiro has garnered a reputation for being punishingly difficult even for, or maybe particularly for seasoned From Software fans. This issue in essence revolves around the difference in combat that From Software introduces in this game; the emphasis on parrying. In Demon Souls and Dark Souls you can block and roll your way to victory, in Bloodborne you dodge and parry when you can to go in for the kill, but in Sekiro you stand your ground and parry until your opponent’s posture breaks, leaving you with an opening. That is the basic design and combat flows, with variation, around this core combat component.

I have played Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. I have only completed Demon Souls, and as such I view myself as an experienced player, but not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I have the strong tendency to play these games offline for fear that an invading player will decimate me. My enjoyment tends to come more from the exploration of these immersive worlds rather than the PvP elements, a view I am aware is akin to sacrilege in certain circles. Out of all of these games Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the game that I have found most accessible.

The first thing to be said about this game is that it is beautiful. It is set in a fictional 15th century Japan and brings all of the known From Software artistic style to From Software’s home country, stepping away from the pseudo-european settings of previous games. Your character runs and glides through the air, climbing pagodas and cliffs, with a range and freedom of movement that has not been seen in the games the company has produced so far. Your character can run and jump and climb, and this is augmented with a grappling hook that allows you to take to the rooftops and approach the game from a different angle. This freedom of movement makes the game all the more fun to explore than the previous glued to the ground games that From Software has made.

This freedom of movement also results in a new way to approach enemies that again was never a formally implemented system in other games; stealth. I love a good stealth game, and Sekiro has an effective stealth system that works fluidly with the combat mechanics. You can get through most combat situations by stealthily killing targets before they see you, and most bosses can have their first health bar wiped out by a stealth attack. Sometimes stealth can feel a bit like cheesing the game, but combat is challenging enough that occasionally running away and hiding becomes a vital part of surviving the game. You are, after all, a shinobi; a ninja. You attack quickly and quietly and slip back into the shadows before you can be caught.

The game is a challenge and is filled with mini-bosses that are designed as skill checks to keep your abilities honed, but it is not the impossible game that it has been portrayed as by many individuals who have played it. The checkpoints are far more frequent In Sekiro when compared to previous From Software games, so lost progress is rarely significant, and losing money and experience rarely feels like the anxiety inducing panic it can be in other From Software games. This worry over death is further reduced by the fact that you cannot recover lost money and experience. When it is gone it is gone. The feeling of finality removes the stress of the second run to recover lost items that is present in all previous From Software games. The Dragonrot mechanic counterbalances the reduction of these death penalties. The more times you die in Sekiro the more the NPC’s you interact with suffer with an affliction called Dragonrot. This affliction prevents NPC stories from progressing further, so if you want to follow those stories you need to keep those deaths down. If however you are less interested in the world building then it means you can focus on the gameplay with minimal death consequences, which allows you to bounce back into combat quickly after death.

This reduction in death penalties means that I can sit down with the game for a about an hour and beat a boss with minimal backtracking from the 1-5 deaths it takes to find the best technique to beat them. This game structure is perfect for gaming in your spare time when you have a busy life, whilst still feeling like you are making significant game progress.

The combat is fast, and unforgiving, but deceptively simple. You time your blocks with the enemy attacks and strike back in the openings you make. There are several kinds of unblockable attack you must dodge or counter to avoid, and you can then punish the enemy with the opening you have created. Every fight fits this pattern, with different emphasis put on different aspects of the combat system, without fully breaking away. Coming from Dark Souls, where a visibly heavy attack must be dodged and not blocked for fear of having your block broken, it takes some getting used to. You are able to block and parry the moveset of creatures twice your size, and once you adapt to this you feel incredibly powerful in combat, despite the vulnerability of your flimsy life gauge.

If you enjoy a From Software games it is likely you will enjoy this game, but you will have to adapt how you fight (Remember parry, don’t roll). If you find From Software paced too slowly, then this game may be what you are looking for. I love this game and it fits my gameplay style perfectly. I will always recommend this game, but with the following caveat. The game does require a base level of skill in relation to timing. As many reviews have highlighted, if you don’t adapt to the combat you will not have a good time. If you are familiar with modern gaming you probably have all the skills you need to enjoy this game, but it does not go easy on you if you if you do not meet that base requirement. However if you do, then there is not a From Software game I can recommend more to someone who has not played one before, or someone who is looking for something fresh from the makers of the Soulsborne games.

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