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: 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.

Post-Script: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

When I write impressions articles I like to have played enough of the game to feel that I can give a fair view to my readers. With Jedi: Fallen Order I, unfortunately, need to provide an update to my feelings on the game after completing it.

I have achieved the Platinum Trophy for this game and having played almost everything the game has to offer, I have some more thoughts.

As I said in my impressions article, Jedi: Fallen Order is a beautiful game, with wonderful sound design and crisp graphics. It works very well at pulling you into the Star Wars Universe. This immersion however gets increasingly broken as the game goes on, and by the end, I had a distinctly love-hate relationship with the game.

I don’t want to hate this game, and there is plenty that the game gets very right, but as a fan of the Star Wars franchise I really wanted to love this game, and I just couldn’t.

There is not one big reason for this, but simply the effect of lots of smaller factors that culminated in me having a distinct sense of dissatisfaction as I finished the game.

The first thing I want to talk about is the game’s lack of optimisation, at least when played on the PS4.

Throughout the game, there are several sections where the game will freeze. I was worried the game was breaking until I recognised they always happened in the same place – The game was loading the next area and couldn’t keep up with my character’s movement, so the whole thing froze.

These happened several times in the middle of platforming segments, which was annoying. I understand games need to load up in segments, and I know a common way to deal with this is to use lifts as a pseudo-loading screen. I don’t have a problem with this, but the game is frequently unable to load the areas connected by lifts within the time it takes to make the lift journey. And the lifts are not fast either. This means you frequently encounter a long boring lift ride, coupled with the game freezing in order to catch up with the loading.

The long loading times might be forgivable if it leads to an otherwise seamless experience, however, this is not the case. I frequently experienced texture-pop in, so much so that it was distracting, including character models popping into the middle of cutscenes, and on a small number of occasions I ended up running through a door to find myself in a low-poly, textureless world, where the collision did not register causing me to fall through the world.

These are the kind of things I would expect from beta-release steam green-light games, not a AAA EA title.

I had previously highlighted that the loading time after you die is painfully slow. Unfortunately, whilst I was initially okay with this, the compounded effect it has on the gameplay experience is distinct as the game goes on, particularly when you encounter challenging bosses.

It can take 30-60 seconds to reload your character after you die, which in a game which takes a lot of its influences from Dark Souls, is a painfully long time, particularly on harder difficulties. Souls-like games balance punishing difficulty and frequent deaths with a design which allows you to get back into the action quickly, with short loading times meaning you don’t feel like you are wasting or losing any time. Unfortunately when you play on a high difficulty and die frequently, the load times are so punishing it makes the game literally un-fun to play.

The frequency of deaths that you experience in this game ties into another distinct issue this game has – combat and combat balance.

When I first saw that Jedi: Fallen Order had different difficulty settings I was happy, surly this meant that the balance would feel perfect for whatever skill level a player was? As an experienced souls-player, who has loved Sekiro and the other Souls games, I started on the Grandmaster difficulty.

That was a mistake.

This game puts an emphasis on parry mechanics, in a similar way to Sekiro, however unlike Sekiro when you tap the block button, your parry does not engage until your character has fully raised their lightsaber. This might seem like a ‘well duh’ comment, but those milliseconds are vital in combat. When you are trying to learn when in an enemy attack animation you need to get that parry ready, having to account for your own animation time is a frustrating experience. This is paired with the fact that you will immediately be thrown into combat against multiple enemies, which means you do not have space to learn the timings against any single enemy. This frustration is compounded by the fact that if you miss a parry, the enemy will cause full damage and break your block, causing you to be vulnerable to combo attacks.

You have a posture bar for blocks, but I found that even on the lowest difficulties the enemies break your posture in 2-3 hits, and you cannot survive a single combo without your guard breaking, stunning your character, and leaving them vulnerable to further attacks.

Enemies are able to quickly stun-lock your character and I found that the most effective way to fight was constantly rolling out of the way and occasionally chip damaging an enemy. Throw a force ability get one or two hits in and run away. Any more than that and the multiple enemies that surround you will quickly stun lock and overwhelm you.

Utilising the force is one of the best features you should expect for a Jedi, but you have a very limited ‘force’ pool to draw from which means that your ability to control combat with the force is noticeably restricted.

Any one of these issues is small, and you can see past them when you start the game. I reduced the difficulty and continued with the game. Unfortunately by the time you reach the end of the game these issues have compounded into a frustrating experience. At least one of these issue crops up in every combat encounter, and it means that it becomes hard to tell when I simply made a genuine mistake, or I was fighting wonky combat mechanics.

These combat issues slip away in the best combat encounters you have in the game, however, and those are the lightsaber duels. One-on-one combat flows much better and you actually feel like a Jedi in these moments.

Unfortunately even these combat encounters have frustrating balance issues, including health pools that are so large that you spend ages slowly chipping down the enemy health in what feels more like a chore than a game; non-existent/non-differentiated attack windups which you to play rock-paper-scissors on what attack the enemy is about to perform; and pointless posture bars.

The posture issue is one that came up multiple times, but the two most egregious issues were with one regular enemy, the Nydak, who’s entire combat style was based around breaking its posture, and the final boss of the game.

For the Nydak, they are fast and heavy-hitting enemies that are fairly easy to parry, having distinct windups. They attack so quickly that you are expected to parry them to break their relatively low posture which you should be able to then punish. Unfortunately, when you posture break a Nydak your character is also caught in a stun animation, whilst the Nydak is pushed away from your character. By the time you recover from the stun and make your way over to the Nydak, 99% of the time the Nydak will have recovered from the stun and have full posture remaining. This would be okay if the game expected you to do something different with the enemy, but the literal in-game advice is to parry and break the enemy’s posture, which is infuriating advice because it does not work.

The final point on posture is the last boss in the game. The most satisfying thing about parrying and posture bars is when you perfectly time parries such that you wear out your attacker and punish them. It is one of the beautiful things that makes the combat in Sekiro so compelling. Unfortunately with the final boss in the game you can perfectly counter multiple combos to deplete that parry meter only to have the boss not be stunned, and simply refill the bar with no negative effect on them. It defeats all benefit from taking the risk of trying to parry and make the final boss of the game a frustrating grind.

My final concern about this game is the level and enemy design.

The first two planets you go to in the game, Bogano and Zeffo are the best designed and are genuinely fun to play. Unfortunately, they lulled me into a false sense of security with this game. To be completely fair the design for the other planets is not terrible. What is annoying though is the overreliance on sliding slope sections. The game is filled with one-way sliding slopes that are easy to fall off, hard to steer on, have blind jumps built-in, and truly feel like the level-filler that they are.

When trying to fully explore the map (necessary for full game completion) the number of one-way paths was incredibly frustrating as were the lack of useful shortcuts, which forced me to repeat whole sections of Kashyyyk and Dathomir several times, which resulted in a significant loss of charm.

With enemy design this is a fairly simple point, there are too many spiders. Spiders are numerous on both Kashyyyk and Dathomir, and it makes the Star Wars Universe feel smaller for their inclusion. Alien species are plethora in the Star Wars Universe, and whilst a handful of giant spiders on Kashyyyk would be a nice and creepy set-piece, they are used so much it makes the game feel like a generic ‘real-world’ game. This sentiment extends when the basic enemy on Dathomir are tiny spiders. This is a Star Wars game, and I have never seen a spider in a Star Wars film. I’m not complaining that spiders shouldn’t exist, but simply that they are overused to the point of boredom. They are the most generic of generic fantasy enemies, short of say…zombies?

Oh but there are zombies in the game too…yeah…

I know that there is precedent for zombies in the Star Wars universe, but it must be said that is not fun to fight a zombie hoard with a lightsaber. It is not fun to fight zombies and spiders together with a lightsaber. It feels generic and boring, and this lack-luster enemy design compounded many of the niggles I had with this game.

Also you massacre a native tribal population as an invasive Jedi, and it is not once really questioned whether you are a good guy or are falling to the the Dark Side of the Force with these actions…seriously.

I wanted to love this game, and at first, I thought I did. But this game wore me down. I gave it every quarter and every pass and it still slid below my expectations. I know I had fun with this game, I remember having fun with this game, but I walk away and look back on it as a disappointment. Whilst I hope that a Fallen Order 2 could be a better game, it would require putting trust in EA not rushing the job, and after this experience, I am not sure they will give it the time it needs to be perfected and that makes me sad.

There are other games that do everything that Fallen Order does, but better. If you like Star Wars, play the game on story mode. But please don’t expect perfection. This is not it. Maybe something will come off this game in a future installment. But not this day.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

God of War

Kratos has killed the entire pantheon of Olympus, and the world is torn asunder.

Everyone is dead.

The world is flooded.

But through it all, like a butterfly from Pandora’s box, there is a trace of hope.

If you are looking for an experience similar to the God of War franchise of old, this game is probably not for you. Gone are the fixed camera angles, floaty combat and quick time events. But the developers have replaced these things with something unexpected. They have given God of War a heart.

The old God of War games were well known for the way they fitted every teenager’s idea of what makes a game cool. Blood, guts, giant monsters, sexy women willing to sleep with you for no apparent reason, more blood and guts and a whole lot of extreme anger towards everything and everyone. It was a teenage angsty game, and much like those who played it in the early 2000’s, it has grown up.

The game opens with a much older-looking Kratos, cutting down a tree in the woods, with a young boy – his son. The first thing you do is finish preparing a funeral pyre for your wife, the mother to your son.

It is slow.

It is intimate.

It is heartfelt.

Your wife’s last wish?

To have her ashes scattered at the highest peak in all the realms.

This is the basis for your journey, and so you travel with your son to complete his mother’s last wish. Atreus, or ‘boy’ as Kratos tends to call him, has lived a sheltered life and is learning about the world and, importantly, about his father. It is apparent that there is not much of a relationship between Kratos and his son, and you, the player, are taken on the journey as they come to learn more about each other and about the world that they share. And they kill a lot of things on the way.

The game is not as gratuitous as in previous titles, but it does not shy away from violence. Kratos still tears enemies apart, but combat has been reworked to feel heavier, and more methodical, appropriate for an old god that has lived with all the sins of his past. You fight alongside your son, who slowly becomes a more proficient fighter as you fight alongside him, until by the end game he becomes a force of nature by himself, able to dispatch enemies before you have to. The game is at its core still an action platformer, that has been reworked for a modern audience, and the action is tight, taking influences from the evasive combat of Dark Souls, and the fluid multi-attack combat of the Batman Arkham games. The most you get for quick-time events will be occasional finishing moves against larger opponents, but the loss of these is not necessarily a bad thing, in a world where QTE’s have been done to death, following the early God of War games. The game’s story is linear but there is a large central hub for exploration if you wish to tickle that free-roaming itch, which is appropriately awards players who care to look with lore and skills and items to help you make things deader faster.

The game itself is set within the nine-realms of Norse mythology, a world that it captures beautifully. The icy environments are simply stunning, as snow blows around a grizzled and bearded Kratos, the world feels real. I thought the game was so beautiful that I bought the God of War Art Book so that I could revel in the juicy concept art that made such a visually delightful game.

But for all of the tight combat and beautiful graphics, it is the story where God of War truly sets itself apart.

The parent-child dynamic feels deeply personal. Seeing Atreus grow and who he is becoming becomes a central theme throughout this game and it is one that feels particularly hard-hitting given the knowledge that you the player and Kratos have about who Kratos is and what he has done. The story is emotive as Kratos hides who he was from his son, in the hopes that his son can be different, and not shaped by his own past, but his son is still affected by Kratos’ issues with emotional communication, which are a consequence of everything Kratos has done.

This game is a solid action platformer with beautiful graphics. I have completed the game, and have almost got a platinum trophy from completing all the side-quests, so I have squeezed about as much as I can out of the game, and I have enjoyed every second of it. The older God of War games were not particularly to my taste, but if you like a good character exploration story, with healthy doses of Norse mythology, and tight action, then the new God of War will be right up your alley.

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