Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS) Review

The first thing that stood out to me about The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is its jubilant, catchy theme song. The second thing that stood out to me is how bland the game felt…at least at first. A charming introductory slideshow (that is par for the course with Zelda games these days) tells of Princess Styla and the fashion-savvy, glamorous kingdom of Hytopia before plopping us right in the middle of it. There’s this odd feeling of absence when starting Tri Force Heroes; there’s no build-up or set-up besides that opening slideshow, and it just feels kind of cheap. In addition, all we see of Hytopia itself is its castle and town square and right away this place just felt off to me, and not in a good way. There’s a feeling of emptiness that pervades Hytopia and the designers really made no attempt to hide the fact that this place is purely a hub and the only buildings one can enter all serve a very specific function. There are a few people scattered about, many just reused models from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (which normally I wouldn’t mind except unlike other Zelda titles, there is no narrative justification for these clones to be here). These recycled characters are just one of several factors that just make Tri Force Heroes feel “unreal” somehow.

Little effort was put into working the fashion theme into the game’s atmosphere as well. Only a few characters actually fit the “stylish” description of Hytopia, and outside of Madame Couture’s shop, Hytopia just doesn’t come across as the glamorous place it’s made out to be.  Like everything else in the game, the fashion motif is purely functional: it’s a mechanic, with the slimmest effort put into using it to facilitate world-building. It’s worth noting that the game contains quite a number of easter eggs and there are a decent number of little secrets to find in Hytopia if one takes the time to look, but by and large this is the blandest setting a game under the Zelda name has ever seen (except for maybe the original Four Swords). One might defend this lack of effort and Hytopia’s bare-bones nature by pointing out that Tri Force Heroes is a non-conventional, multiplayer-focused Zelda spinoff, but I would point this person in the direction of the multiplayer-centric Splatoon and the fantastic work those developers did with the lively, detailed hub of Inkopolis. Tri Force Heroes’ status as a stop-gap, filler Zelda title is just painfully obvious, and it’s disheartening to see Nintendo cut corners in a way that I have, quite frankly, never seen before.

Princess Styla and her subjects
Things get more exciting, ironically, when Link heads into the Drablands, where all the action of the game takes place. But not too exciting, because most of the locales in the Drablands are fairly generic and stock: there’s the woodlands, a volcano, a snowy mountain, etc. These places don’t even have names; the volcano isn’t called “Turtleneck Mountain” (or something), it’s literally just called “Volcano”. So actually the name “Drablands” is pretty appropriate after all. The atmosphere and look of many of these areas is very uninspired as well. The volcano is just…a bunch of lava and rocks and the desert area is just Egypt. There’s no real personality to most of it and it comes off feeling like the New Super Mario Bros. of Zelda games (it doesn’t help that there are the standard eight worlds in the game).

I tackled Tri Force Heroes first by playing online with strangers, followed by replaying all of the levels in the single-player mode. I’ll mainly be talking about my experiences online in this review, but I’ll say a few words about the solo quest at the end as well. After I ventured into the Drablands and began my journey to free Styla from a dreadful outfit she was cursed to wear, the first couple of areas went by and I found myself struggling to even remember the levels I had recently completed. Each area in the game is comprised of four “dungeons” but that word is only used on the back of the box because this game has “Zelda” in the title. These aren’t “dungeons” in any sense of the word; they are “levels” in the purest form: built, geometrically-even, linear spaces. You solve some puzzles, beat some monsters, get to the end of the straight line, and win a prize.

A basic example of cooperation in Tri Force Heroes
But here’s the thing about Tri Force Heroes: it’s not much to look at, it’s first four worlds are pretty drab, and the very bare minimum of effort was put into its world-building and narrative…but the more I played it, the more I found myself enjoying it. Tri Force Heroes ended up being a worthwhile experience for me due to its level, puzzle, and boss design being consistently strong and occasionally downright inspired, especially the bosses, and its cooperative design being very rewarding.

The more I played and struggled with countless unknown heroes, as we learned how to communicate using the basic tools the game gave us, as we failed over and over again yet persevered in spite of this and overcame a particularly trying puzzle or ferocious boss, I came to really appreciate Tri Force Heroes and what it was trying to accomplish. Even though the game’s levels are linear and basic-feeling, their design is solid throughout, and becomes a lot more interesting and creative in the later levels, featuring some clever and actually challenging puzzles that make superb use of the cooperation and teamwork elements of the game. The atmosphere and visual design of many of the later levels is also much stronger than the earlier ones. The game’s bosses across the entire experience, however, are easily the highlight of the whole game for me. I would go as far as to say that overcoming these bosses with my allies made the game worth playing all on their own. Up until A Link Between Worlds, bosses in the Zelda series had become very formulaic and by the numbers, but that 3DS gem and now Tri Force Heroes have found me actually having to think and strategize when taking on one of these giant beasts. Tri Force Heroes especially breathes new life into the tired Zelda boss structure, where three individual players, three items, and other unique mechanics like toteming (where all the Links stack up) all have to be taken into account when figuring out how to approach one of these creative boss encounters. The bosses are both puzzling and relentlessly aggressive, requiring a rigorous level of cooperation and attention; every member of the team has to be on board and has to know exactly what their role is if they’re going to stand a chance here. When, after many attempts, this level of being in sync happens and everyone works together smartly, besting a boss with my teammates in Tri Force Heroes was one of the most triumphant and exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had playing a video game.

The bosses are an exhilarating, creative, and challenging highlight
I’ve heard some decry the lack of online voice chat, but using the limited palette of emoticons in the game and finding other creative ways to communicate is one of the best parts of the game for me. In addition to the emoticons bringing a lot of personality and just being a lot of fun to play around with, trying to learn how to work together without words is a novel and ultimately gratifying challenge. That said, the limited communication can indeed lead to frustration and there were many times I found myself wishing I could just tell someone: “GO OVER THERE!”. This game is consistently challenging and can often be mercifully unforgiving. It demands that everyone cooperate and the tiny heart meter that is shared between all three Links will rapidly deplete if even one player slacks off. But even though this led to countless moments of agony and defeat, and countless replays of entire levels, like I said with the bosses, finally figuring out how to work together and ultimately triumphing is extremely gratifying and makes any prior frustration worth it. Celebrating with my comrades in a wild, hysteric maelstrom of pom pom waving and thumbing up never failed to put a huge smile on my face. This game had me moaning, cussing, smiling like a maniac, pumping my fist into the air and cheering, and finally feeling a bit melancholic when I had to say goodbye to a team that I’d made it through hell with, knowing I’d probably never encounter them again.

This is all, of course, when the damn game works properly. If you don’t care about doing the extra “Drablands Challenges” like me, Tri Force Heroes is actually a pretty short game, but the experience was extremely drawn out both by the challenging nature of coordinating with anonymous strangers (and occasionally people being uncooperative or leaving two thirds into a level) and unfortunately an abundant amount of technical issues. Awful lag, error messages, and random disconnects plagued my experience. Sometimes the lag would start as soon as I met up with other players, but occasionally it just randomly started happening after a long period of smooth play. The online is a complete wildcard: sometimes I would get two levels done in half an hour, other times it would take that long just to finally get a stable game going. My worst experience in the game came when I had made it through the entire final world with an awesome team and just as the final boss was starting the game decided to inexplicably start lagging after over an hour of stable play before crashing and scattering two allies I had built up a level of camaraderie and affection for to the ether. If I was a less patient person (and hadn’t spent $35 on it), I would have given up on the game probably before I reached the halfway point. I should note that my experience playing online was done before Nintendo released an update for the game in early December, which in addition to adding a new area and some new outfits also tweaks some other aspects of the experience, including possibly a better online performance, but I’m not sure.

A look at toteming and the emoticons
Something else that annoyed me about the online experience in Tri Force Heroes is the way that levels are selected while in the Drablands. After deciding which area to visit, a player is matched up with other players in a lobby and then all three players vote for which of the four stages in an area they want to play. The winner is selected via a random roulette. I can understand why such a system was implemented, but I hate it. As someone who just wanted to push through the main story and had no intention of wasting time grinding for materials to make costumes, I found myself constantly having to leave a session and reconnect due to a level I’d already finished getting picked. I felt bad ending the game for everyone as soon as it started, but I simply had no choice, lest I waste fifteen minutes or more of my time. The other reason I don’t like this system is because it throws the game’s pacing off. I hated when I was forced to play the fourth level and fight the end boss of each world before completing most of the other levels in that world; it just felt so backwards. Because the levels can be played out of order, it makes everything feel very disconnected, and along with the linearity and boxed-in levels, Tri Force Heroes just doesn’t feel very much like an adventure.

After completing all the levels online, I tried out the Coliseum mode as well as tackled the single-player adventure. In single-player, two lifeless, disturbing dolls known as “Doppels” take the place of human players and all three characters must be manipulated by a single player (Link literally switches his soul between three vessels). This turns Tri Force Heroes into quite a different game that at times I found to be much easier because I could take things at my own pace and only had one Link to worry about, and at other times to be simply infuriating because of certain parts that all but demand there to be three separate Links running around. I don’t think the single-player is terrible; it’s just fairly boring and feels like a chore. This game’s personality, for me, mainly came from the countless people I met online, the silly emoticons, the failures and triumphs shared with complete strangers, and like the Doppels themselves, single-player feels very notably lifeless by comparison. In addition, aspects that are absolutely brilliant in multiplayer like the bosses are far less exciting and noteworthy in single-player. It’s worth trying but can also just be safely avoided; definitely play the multiplayer first and foremost in any case. There’s also the Coliseum, a multiplayer battle arena mode where two or three players can simply duel to the death on eight different maps based on the game’s eight different worlds. I didn’t expect much going into it, but I played it for about an hour online and actually ended up having a surprising amount of fun with it. It’s simple and nothing special, but it’s nice that it’s there and could be a fun way to have a few laughs with some friends.

Link and Doppels
There are plenty of other aspects I haven’t really touched on with Tri Force Heroes. I didn’t really mention the soundtrack, which while not exceptional still has a few standout tracks and goes a long way in giving the game an identity where many other aspects of it lack one. Also, even though the game’s world-building is overall pretty poor and its narrative bare-bones, the game does have shades of untapped potential and a few characters and moments I really enjoyed that could have been something truly great if the game was given more time to blossom (for example, I really like the villain, but she’s criminally underutilized). Lastly, I didn’t really talk about the outfit mechanic, which is a large part of the game that mostly works well and also adds a good amount of charm to the experience. The bottom line is that when the game works, Tri Force Heroes works very well, and cooperating and triumphing with anonymous teammates is a wonderful feeling. Conquering challenges together only to part ways at the end of it all led to a very memorable experience and I found myself feeling sentimental as the credits rolled. Tri Force Heroes as a game and concept has a ton of potential that it doesn’t fully live up to, but I still overall enjoyed the experience quite a bit despite all its problems, more than I expected to anyway.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gone Home (Spoilers)

Gone Home is a strangely personal experience. Maybe it’s the nostalgic sense of place: an American family’s home in the mid-90s, which was the golden age of my childhood. A palace full of VHS tapes, music tapes, Nintendo tapes, and gaudy colorful school folders and highlighters. There are references to Harrison Ford, Street Fighter, and those little black label message thingies. Or maybe it’s the way the main character, Sam (not to be confused with the player character, Katie) reminds me of myself. No, I’m not a teenage girl, but I was once a shy kid in high school, who frequently imagined my own characters and stories and who still has old doodles and school assignments scattered around. I also had a high school teacher who encouraged my creative writing and I ended up going to college for it. Maybe it’s other small details: the reference to one of my favorite films, Pulp Fiction, or spotting a host of books I studied in school and have fond memories of in Sam’s bedroom (Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Jane Austen’s Emma…), or that Janice Greenbriar has the same birthdate as my own mother…or perhaps Gone Home would have just felt personal anyway, even without all this, because it’s just an intimate experience by nature. When I first walked into the empty foyer of the Greenbriar home, it was just another location in a video game, but by the time I approached Sam’s journal in the attic, after opening drawers, reading letters, listening to music, picking up crumpled manuscripts, finding secret notes under the bed, looking at newspaper clippings, looking at photos, and otherwise immersing myself in a lived-in, inhabited space, I felt like I knew the Greenbriars intimately and they felt like a family as real as my own. Like Sam could have been someone I went to high school with and I just never knew about everything she was going through.

It’s this sense of discovering a family, of discovering people, via the traces of themselves and their experiences that adorn their home that makes Gone Home special. Not just learning about Sam’s experiences and her relationship with Lonnie, which is the crux of the narrative, but learning about the marital problems of her parents, the affair her mother almost had, and her father’s struggles as an author of a series of bizarre JFK time travel novels. These people feel real, and I feel like I know them personally even though I never actually met any of them face to face in the game. Especially Sam, whose characterization felt so tangible (and the music that accompanies her diary is so perfectly matched) that I couldn’t help but tear up every time she sighed or expressed her frustrations and dreams.

Ironically, the only member of the Greenbriar family I learned next to nothing about is Katie, the one who I literally stepped into the shoes of. I learn she traveled around Europe and she occasionally has some reaction text to certain objects in the house (“Gosh, Sam” she says when discovering her sister’s issue of “Gentleman” magazine, the magazine for men, and “Oh, barf” when finding a condom in her parent’s bedroom dresser), but the only personality trait I really glean from her is that she is the “straightedge” Greenbriar child: the athlete, the scholar, the “responsible” one. In other words, pretty boring. One of the funniest moments in the game comes from discovering a Sex Ed assignment in one of Sam’s school folders in which she took a hilarious amount of creative liberty with a rather simple assignment (“See Me!” was the grade she got from her teacher in bright red letters). Then later on I discovered Katie’s own take on the same assignment, which of course was done perfectly and properly and got a bright red “check plus”. But I suppose it’s unfair to call Katie boring, because I’m sure that if I had the opportunity to rummage through her own stuff (still packed away in boxes in the guest room of the Greenbriar’s new home, which was to be her room when got back from Europe), I would find a three-dimensional person with her own struggles and experiences. Gone Home makes it clear that it’s not about Katie though, but rather her family and principally her younger sister, Sam.

Sam is one of the most richly drawn people I’ve seen in a video game (or, sorry, I guess I should say in an “interactive exploration finding and reading stuff emotion story simulation experience”). I hesitate to call her a “character” because she seems so real and authentic. Her voice actress does an excellent job but Sam’s personality also shines through in the pieces of herself she’s left lying around her house: in the scattered chapters in the ongoing tale of Captain Allegra and her First Mate, in her Street Fighter cheat codes lying on her bedroom floor (repeatedly crossed-out and revised), in her angry note to her parents chastising them for not letting her go out with Lonnie in the city, in her aforementioned unique take on schoolwork and the various scraps and doodles and letters that all in all paint a very vivid portrait of a human being. Gone Home does a wonderful job of setting up a series of mini-narratives that get told through pieces of the Greenbriar’s life around their home (would Danny ever get his Nintendo tape back??) and I enjoyed following all of these, but of course the narrative I was most invested in was that of Sam and Lonnie. This is where Gone Home is also just a sweet story of young romance, one that treats Sam’s homosexuality not like a twist or a discovery, but rather a given, natural fact of her life, while still managing to address the very real issues of what it means to be a gay teenager in high school (especially in the mid-90s). This is a story that moves, but also aims to inspire empathy for a life experience that some might regard as foreign and strange. A story that might make some people realize that a gay relationship is in fact not these things, but just as relatable and human as any other romance.

That is the key word: Gone Home struck me in how human it felt. It shines a lens on one family’s, and one girl’s, personal struggles, it promotes empathy for our neighbors, for our friends, for complete strangers, for those we might regard as pariahs; it reminds us that we are all human and that we all go through shit. Speaking more personally, it allowed me, a straight man, to empathize with a gay young woman and the pain of dealing with disrespectful parents and peers; the fact that I have so much in common with Sam made it all the more easy to relate to her. I can relate to being shy around people I like (seeing that “gold star” around someone but not knowing how to talk to them), and so much of what Sam experiences and says and writes and does reminds me of myself and my own experiences, I can’t help but easily put myself in her shoes. Perhaps it is because of all this that I really did not want to enter the attic at the end of game. I felt a connection with Sam and I wanted her story to have a happy ending, but the more the game went on, the more I got the idea that the diary that I’d been hearing throughout the experience was Sam’s last words, and I was afraid of what I’d find up there. When all I found was an empty sleeping bag accompanied by a final, joyful diary entry from Sam about how Lonnie decided she couldn’t live without her and the two ran off together, I was ecstatic. A surprise happy ending, a joyful outcome when I expected a grim one, is one of my favorite discoveries in fiction, and Gone Home’s conclusion left me in happy tears.

Gone Home is the kind of experience I’ve been wanting to play for a long time. It’s simple and really nothing extraordinary, but that’s exactly what makes it special for a video game in a medium where interactive experiences so often feel the need to couple extraordinary circumstances with their pathos. In Gone Home, there are no monsters (or more specifically, no ghosts), no combat, no big dire mystery or circumstance. Why is the Greenbriar home mysteriously empty and seemingly abandoned and what happened to Sam? The big, dark, earth-shattering answer: Mrs. and Mr. Greenbriar are off at couples counseling and Sam ran off with the love of her life. I’ve played a lot of games before where much of what I do is walk around and read stuff that fleshes out a world or a narrative, but I respect Gone Home’s restraint in not shoehorning unnecessary violence or fantasy elements into its plot, and still managing to keep me interested in its characters and story through compelling writing, voice acting, and world building. This is just a patient, grounded, human experience and I appreciate it for that. There is still much room for growth when it comes to interactive narrative, and Gone Home is only one of many unique ways in which the interactive medium can deliver an interesting experience, but for now I wouldn’t mind seeing more games like Gone Home. Relaxed experiences where a character simply walks around, talks to people, look at objects, perhaps finds clues and solves a mystery…or maybe just talks to a friend, buys a hot dog, watches a sunset…stuff besides slaying monsters, going on adventures, and saving the world, stuff that doesn’t need violence or combat or even esoteric puzzle solving (as compelling, and often emotional in their own right, as those experiences can be). Of course, this kind of experience can still involve an intriguing mystery or something fantastical, but the point is that a video game can still be something compelling without shoving ten hours of gunplay in-between low-key narrative exploration sections (leers slowly in the direction of BioShock Infinite). I don’t blame someone for criticizing Gone Home’s narrative as being too small, but I think that the game is quite revolutionary for being a video game that is just about exploring a family’s home and learning about their lives. I also think it’s just wonderful that something like Gone Home and something like Shovel Knight can both exist in the same medium, or at least under the hazy umbrella term of “interactive experiences”, and I think this is a testament to the power, potential, and overall amazingness of this medium.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Yoshi’s Woolly World (Wii U) Review

I have a nostalgic attachment to yarn and knitted woolen blankets. My Nana loved to knit. I have fond childhood memories of giant bundles of colorful yarn that she used to knit me blankets; handcrafted tapestries of dark blue and light blue and green. There’s a level in Yoshi’s Woolly World called “Up Shuttlethread Pass” which features a backdrop of knitted blankets woven together to form of a patchwork of pale blue and green intermixed with snowflake and sequin decorations. A light fluffy snow falls and the whole scene is accompanied by a profoundly emotional piece of music. I was immediately struck by this level upon starting it, but it wasn’t until I was about halfway through it that a certain chord in the music stopped me in my tracks and I simply stopped and stared at the screen: the knitted surroundings, the colors, the snow, the music…I was immediately struck with images of my Nana (who passed away just a few years ago) and all the Christmases we shared together. I suddenly felt the need to rub my eyes and a pervasive sense of tranquility embraced me throughout the rest of the level.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is a warm knitted blanket on a cool autumn day. It’s a very comforting game, and that’s not just because it’s made out of blankets. When one boots it up from the Wii U’s main menu, they are greeted with an image of Yoshi and his lovable canine pal Poochy embracing each other while a lovely and inviting acoustic guitar melody plays. To me, this start-up screen is saying “It’s gonna be all right” and “See? Not everything in the world is so bad”. Between its endlessly charming handcrafted aesthetic, pleasing control scheme, and inventive challenges, Woolly World is a heart-warming, endearing experience that is as relaxing or as taxing as you want it to be. And it reminds me of my Nana. And it makes me a little teary.

I can’t call Woolly World’s aesthetic entirely unique because it is a spiritual successor to the delightful Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii after all (which was also developed by Good-Feel, the most appropriately-named video game developer in the world), but Woolly World’s visual design still stands apart from that game, presenting a more three-dimensional and all in all different take on the whole “handcraft” look than Epic Yarn presented. I love this game’s art direction and it is clear a huge amount of effort went into it; in fact I suspect it’s the main reason for the game’s rather lengthy development time. Besides nailing the look and feel of yarn and fabric throughout, so much so that I feel like I can reach out and touch this game and my TV screen would feel soft to my hand, I love how much creativity went into representing a world made out of handcraft. Windmills appear as giant wool socks adorned with buttons, lava flowing down a volcano is represented by a scarf slowly unraveling from a giant spool, and my favorite: distant hills in the snow world are representing by giant smiling winter hats. That the game subtly simulates flowing water with simply a few strands of yarn, some sequins, and some shadows is nothing short of genius artistic design. Sure, Woolly World may contain many of the clich├ęd environmental themes that Nintendo loves to overuse like grass land, desert land, and snow land, but I’m not even mad because the wonderful visual design breathes new life into these tired tropes. If the endearing art design doesn’t draw you in, perhaps the pleasing and varied (if at times a bit understated) soundtrack, another area of the game that clearly had a lot of effort put into it, will.

Even though some of the environmental themes are familiar, the original and inspired level designs that appear throughout the entire game all the way up to the final level were a consistent surprise. Some of my favorites include a level where the player “walks” a wireframe Chain Chomp, knitting it up into a roll-able ball that can pounce baddies and be used to solve puzzles and unraveling it so it can follow Yoshi to new places; a rollercoaster ride of sorts involving giant curtains sliding down curtain rods (just try to imagine it); and a festive nighttime snowscape where Yoshi must knock piles of cottony snow out of knitted trees to progress. The yarn motif is more than just aesthetic; the artistic choice is woven into the game design at every step, from the way enemies and obstacles behave to the way Yoshi unravels and knits the world around him, to a parade of clever level gimmicks that make great use of the theming.

Despite so many fresh elements that have been newly acquired, the main framework of Woolly World is mostly a hand-me-down from the original Yoshi’s Island for Super Nintendo. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as that original game is a brilliant, inspired platformer and Woolly World inherits its springy, responsive control and engaging, exploratory level design. That said, perhaps the influence is a bit too transparent at times and this does lend of sense of banality to certain aspects like the very familiar progression structure of the game. This can’t hurt an experience as otherwise creative and endearing as Woolly World too much, but I do wish the Yoshi platformer series wouldn’t be so afraid to tear the traditional fabric of the original SNES classic every once in a while.

I will say that going for 100% completion in Woolly World is a lot more tolerable than in the original Yoshi’s Island, which is important considering the game is chiefly designed with exploration and collection in mind. Some tedium occurs when missing “that one thing” in a level and some of the bonus levels are pretty annoying, but there’s nothing here that I found to be as screamingly frustrating as attempting 100% in the original. Woolly World is ultimately whatever you want it to be though: want to float through the game care-free? Turn on “Mellow Mode”. Want to simply see all the levels? Just go for collecting all of the flowers. Or you can go for everything like me, which was a fair and satisfying challenge. Woolly World’s design is smart. There’s no intrusive timer rushing me along, there are no useless “lives” here, the “Mellow Mode” option is probably the least intrusive “Super Guide” option I’ve seen Nintendo implement yet, and there’s just all in all freedom here to do what one wants.

Put plainly, Yoshi’s Woolly World is a warm and inviting experience you are almost guaranteed to enjoy no matter how you play it. Play it with a friend. Play it with a lover. Play it by yourself with a blanket and a warm cup of tea. It will make you smile. It will make you feel cozy. It will remind you of your Nana.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Beautiful Bliss That is Mario Kart 8

I am not a Mario Kart fan. I had a lot of fun playing Mario Kart: Double Dash!! with friends back in the day and Mario Kart DS was a welcome companion when I was sick one time, but otherwise my experience with the series is limited and I’ve never harbored the fond attachment to it that many seem to have. I wasn’t even going to get Mario Kart 8 and was more than ready to write it off as just another installment in one of Nintendo’s redundant “cash cow franchises”, but I was lured in by its glossy exterior and the hype surrounding it. I do not regret my weakness for a microsecond. I love Mario Kart 8. Like, I really love it. I was playing it recently and in the middle of a race, I just started thinking about how I couldn’t believe how good this game is. The impeccable visual polish and sheer joy my eyes and brain receive from looking at this game and seeing it in motion, the ultra-refined mechanics and control, the energetic orchestrated soundtrack…this is an unbelievably delightful experience.

Mario Kart 8 is not only my favorite Mario Kart game but very likely my favorite racing game of all time. Granted, I’ve never been huge into racing games but I’ve still played and enjoyed a decent handful over the years. I think what I really love about Mario Kart 8 is that the focus is on mastering its slick racing mechanics; nailing drifts, ebbing and flowing through each winding turn, and coming out on top if you play each gorgeous track with skill. The other “Mario Kart-ish” elements of the game, chiefly items, mix things up a bit and throw an interesting curveball into the racing action, but they don’t seem to be the focus in MK8. Mario Kart 8 is a slick and speedy racing experience first and foremost. Turtle shells and banana peels are merely complementary factors here. Some people might hate this. I love it.

I love MK8 for its tight, no, perfect mechanics and sublime sense of control, not only over my kart racer but over the race itself. I don’t think I’ve ever played another game with a more fluid, exhilarating, and joyous sense of movement. I lean with each turn in particularly intense races, and I can almost feel each drift and boost. While it can be stressful at times, and this is all part of the fun, it also becomes a Zen-like trance of an experience when I get into the zone, zipping and zooming along as my heart thumps and my fingers pivot as I flow through each track. It’s pure wonder.

I often harp on about how mechanics and gameplay are not the one most important element of a video game experience and how I’ve gotten more and more frustrated over the years as Nintendo increasingly sacrifices other creative elements in the name of placing “gameplay” on a holy pedestal. While I absolutely still stand by these sentiments, I’ve also never said that mechanics, gameplay, “game feel”…or whatever you want to call it isn’t important in many experiences, and damn when Nintendo nail it they really nail it. An expertly-crafted gameplay system like the one in Mario Kart 8 can be a moving experience to behold all on its own, but this perfect feel ties in with a game that is stunning to look at, one of the most richly vibrant and beautiful I’ve ever played. Its environments are as imaginative as they are detailed as they explode with color and personality.  It is candy for the eyes in every way. No, that’s not good enough. It’s a dessert at a high-class restaurant for your retinas. And the music. It’s jazzy and jubilant and magical. Just listen to this. And this. And this! All of this ties together in a splendid ribbon that is simply euphoric.

Call this a late review for Mario Kart 8 (though if you’re looking for critique, look elsewhere), call it whatever. I’ve recently gone back to the game after not playing it for a while to finish up some Grand Prix stuff I hadn’t done yet (mainly 200cc, which is a surprisingly excellent addition that is wildly wacky and exhilarating) and as I once again raced across the slick rainbow roads of the Mushroom World as Rosalina on her speedy Jet Bike, I reflected on how much I love this experience. I never expected this title to become one of my favorite Nintendo games of all time, and just games in general. It is genuine, delightful surprise. I love this video game and I’m telling you, if you haven’t experienced it yet, find some way to nestle your hands into a Wii U GamePad and feel the beautiful bliss that is Mario Kart 8.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Changes I’d Like to See in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD

Another Ze-make announced, another leak confirmed. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD is on its way to Wii U next spring, and I’m personally hoping that a Wolf Link and Midna amiibo isn’t the only novelty this new version will be boasting. At first glance, the visual makeover TP is getting seems to pale in comparison to the transformation that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker underwent with its HD counterpart, but upon closer inspection, the visuals have certainly been cleaned up to a large degree and it looks like the game will be boasting at least much sharper textures if not entirely redone ones. TWWHD looks so notably beautiful in this modern day and age simply because its art is much better suited to the HD remaster treatment and has aged so gracefully, and Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma alluded to that very notion around the time of the HD remaster’s release. The lighting changes and added bloom also had a purpose when implemented in TWWHD, which was to capture the mood of the bright, sunny ocean setting, whereas TPHD may not have any use for similar drastic alterations. Similar to TWWHD, TPHD will not be a full remake like the 3DS Zelda remakes, but rather an HD remaster with hopefully a few tweaks here and there. Whereas my love and respect for the original experiences that The Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask provide made me wary of the changes being made to those games for their reintroductions, I don’t have the same kind of fondness for Twilight Princess and I’ll happily welcome some changes to TP that might differentiate it from the original and smooth out the experience.

I’ve thought up some alterations that I think have a realistic chance of being applied to TPHD. Again, this isn’t a full remake, so I don’t expect anything to the extent of the changes in Majora’s Mask 3D, for example. With this in mind, thinking up this list was a bit tricky because even though it sits at the lower end of my personal Zelda totem pole, Twilight Princess is actually a very polished game and there aren’t actually that many basic changes I can think to make. Most of my major quantifiable issues with Twilight Princess (and trust me, there are a lot) are baked into the DNA of the game and not the kind of thing you can just twist with a wrench a few times like Nintendo did with some aspects of The Wind Waker. That said, here are some of the tweaks I’d happily welcome when I experience this new version of Twilight Princess next spring.

GamePad Functionality

I’ll get the obvious one out of the way first, and going by the currently available screenshots and footage of the game, this stuff is all but totally confirmed anyway. It seems the game’s primary control scheme will be the GamePad, and so I fully expect the same kind of wonderfully-implemented functionality that TWWHD saw to be on display here: things like inventory and map management being on the second screen and gyroscopic aiming, which is honestly perfect because the motion-controlled aiming of the Wii version of Twilight Princess is the only aspect of that version I prefer to the otherwise superior GameCube release, so the HD version is poised to be the definitive version for me control-wise (although nothing quite beats the feel of the GameCube controller for me). As a side note, I’m very pleased to see that the HD version is being modeled after the GameCube version’s world map, so no mirror-world here like in the Wii version. Since I am far, far more familiar with the GameCube version (and also other factors like the world’s layout being more consistent with past Zelda games and also containing Hylian text that is based on the English alphabet and that is very readable if it’s not mirrored), I’m perfectly fine with this just being the way the game is, but an ability to swap between the mirror map and the standard one would be fine as well.

Camera and Miiverse Functionality

Taking another nod from The Wind Waker HD (there’s going to be a lot of that here), it’d be great if the Picto Box was introduced to Twilight Princess for this HD version (it was absent in the original game) and some kind of similar Miiverse functionality was also implemented. There’s no figurine quest or anything of the like in TP, but I’d still love to be able to photograph characters and scenery in TP’s world and share them on Miiverse (of course, I can also just do that by taking screenshots with the Home Button). Twilight Princess is actually fairly steeped in lore if you’re a hardcore fan of the series like me, and there’s a fair amount of food for theorizing in the game, so being able to share discoveries and discuss them online would be neat. Of course, if something akin to the figurine quest or maybe just the ability to photograph people and monsters in the world and get a short bio on them could be implemented, that would be most welcome. Twilight Princess is really lacking in any kind of feature like that compared to the other 3D Zelda games, so this remaster would be the perfect opportunity to remedy that and flesh out the game’s world. Even if nothing this ambitious is added, TP still has some of the most interesting architecture and lore in the series and the sharper textures will make studying features like the designs on the walls of the Temple of Time and the aforementioned readable Hylian text throughout the game a new pleasure, and being able to snap, save, and share some pictographs would make this even more enjoyable.

Refine Wolf Link

This is perhaps a more ambitious hope. Link’s wolf form may be the most underdeveloped “unique mechanic” in the entire Zelda series and it seems like an afterthought added to the game in order to give Twilight Princess a big unique feature to make it stand-out from other Zelda titles, something that it otherwise lacks. While overhauling Wolf Link entirely would call for a redesign of the whole game and is obviously not what I would expect, I think some minor tweaks here and there could at least make dashing around and fighting as the clunky lug a smoother experience. Instead of having to constantly hammer a button to make the otherwise sluggish beast dash in short bursts, just having the option to press or hold down a button once to run would be grand. Perhaps an even better choice might be to handle wolf-running the way it works in the far superior wolf simulator, Okami, where Wolf Link would start out at a measured gait and then gradually burst into a full sprint if the analog stick contained to be held forward. Also, please for the love of Din smooth out wolf combat, so enemies don’t fall down after one strike and invulnerably lie there for half a day before getting up and letting Link chew on them again. Whenever I play the original game, I have to resort to using Midna’s charge-up one hit kill attack in every single combat encounter in wolf form because fighting the normal way is just so bloody tedious.

Besides just overall touching up the way Wolf Link feels to play, maybe the bug-hunting sections where the beast gets the most action could be streamlined somehow as well. While I don’t hate these sections, mainly because of the atmosphere present in them, I find them far more tiresome personally than the Triforce shard hunt in The Wind Waker (which I never actually found tiresome at all, but I can see why people don’t like it), so if they tweaked that for TWWHD, maybe they can find a way to make some changes here. I’m not saying that the two sections are really all that equitable, just that they are both oft-maligned aspects of their respective games. I’m not exactly sure how they could alter the bug-hunting parts to make them feel less like a chore, and to be fair it would probably be harder to do than the rather simple and clever way they tweaked the Triforce hunt, but perhaps just something as simple as shortening them somehow to make the whole affair less drawn out so I can get back to dungeon-crawling and sword-slashing as human Link would be acceptable.

Rupees are so Annoying in this Game

You can never fit them in your tiny wallet. Link puts them back into a chest when he can’t hold them (which, again, is always), so a closed chest remains, forever mocking you and possibly even confusing you on a dungeon map. And of course, the game just loves to tell you how much each of these suckers is worth. Again. And again. And again. Every time you turn on the game. How to fix this? First off, just have a huge wallet from the start like in A Link Between Worlds (and swap out the wallet upgrade prizes from Agitha with some heart pieces or something; they did this kind of “reward-swapping” in TWWHD in some areas so there’s no reason it can’t be done here). At the very least increase the max number of rupees Link can hold; I’ve never understood why the largest wallet in TP can still only hold one-thousand rupees (not to mention you’re likely to get the largest wallet late in the game if at all) when Majora’s Mask had a freakin’ bank and The Wind Waker’s rupee max was five-thousand, especially considering just how many rupees Link finds in Twilight Princess. Next, ditch the “rupee saving” mechanic, or at least mark an already-opened rupee chest on the map with a rupee symbol. Finally, and obviously, for the love of Farore just get rid of the rupee reminders. I KNOW HOW MUCH A BLUE RUPEE IS WORTH DAMMIT. 

Selective Redone/Orchestrated Music

Taking yet more inspiration from The Wind Waker’s HD remaster, it would be great if selected tracks from Twilight Princess’s score were remastered and in some cases orchestrated. I’m not asking for the entire soundtrack to be redone, but merely given a similar treatment as in TWWHD, with selected songs being redone and in TPHD’s case, hopefully orchestrated. I’m not someone who believes all music in the Zelda series should be orchestrated and I firmly believe digital music (and other forms of music) still has a place, but Twilight Princess perhaps more than any other Zelda game begs to have a large portion of its soundtrack orchestrated, especially the (and I use this word properly) epic Hyrule Field theme (which already has an official orchestral version out there, so there’s really no excuse not to include at least that version or if not, do a new version).

Better Difficulty Balance

Twilight Princess has a great variety of fierce-looking beasties. Unfortunately, rarely do they ever pose an actual threat to the incredibly overpowered Link. Now, personally I don’t play Zelda games for difficulty, but some level of challenge and real opposition in the hero’s quest is appreciated, especially in regards to bosses. Twilight Princess has some wonderful dungeons and along with these tantalizing labyrinths are some very memorable boss encounters. But they’re all piss easy. Mainly this has to do with the strategy involved in taking them down often being pathetically obvious and extremely formulaic. It’s sometimes tough to really feel like a hero when these massive creatures’ menacing appearance is so betrayed by how easily Link stomps on them. With this in mind, I don’t expect completely redesigned encounters like in Majora’s Mask 3D (hopefully if that were the case, they’d be more well thought-out than in that game though), but I think monsters, bosses, and obstacles dealing a bit more damage to Link would go a long way. Of course, this probably won’t happen and the developers will likely just slap a “hero mode” on TPHD and call it a day, which is fine, but it’d be nice if there was something in-between “barely any challenge at all” and “hero mode”. For all its pretense of being “edgy” and “dark”, TP is one of the easiest and least threatening games in the series, so a little more difficulty might at least be in keeping with what the game is going for. And for Nayru’s sake, please take out the hearts and fairies in the final battle’s arena; Skyward Sword got it right in this regard.

Other Assorted Changes

Some other assorted changes I wouldn’t mind seeing: acquire the Horse Call item earlier or make Horse Grass way more common; perhaps too much to ask, but some smoother animations on characters, especially facial animations and especially Link’s facial animations; make the Magic Armor worth a damn or replace it with a better secret item as a reward for what is essentially TP’s only substantial side-quest (that’s not a collectathon at least); and lastly don’t restrict Link’s movement and actions indoors. This last one is something that started in Twilight Princess and continued in Skyward Sword and it is one of my biggest pet peeves about “modern Zelda”. Please get rid of it; it is so awkward and jarring and hurts the sense of freedom that is part of what makes Zelda games special.

I’ll end with just one more hope I have for Twilight Princess HD, which is, largely unlike its original release, I hope it surprises me. Whether it’s a brand new feature or area added, or just some unexpected and clever changes or additions that I hadn’t thought of, I hope there’s something in here that catches me off guard, in a good way. I’ve played through the original Twilight Princess a lot (the GameCube version, particularly), and speaking as someone who doesn’t care too much about the integrity of the original experience, something to mix things up would definitely be appreciated on my part.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Thoughts on Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Amnesia: Justine

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game in which you explore a shadowy Gothic castle full of forbidden secrets with a lantern, so naturally I like it quite a bit. But while it succeeds at creating a constantly foreboding atmosphere through an excellent mix of unsettling sound design and a great use of light and darkness, I’d be lying if I said Amnesia fully lived up to its reputation for me. Chiefly, the experience just didn’t spook me as much as I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong though, Amnesia has some great spooks and is certainly an extremely tense experience. For one thing, it does jump scares well, often staying its hand the first three times I expected to shit my pants and then turning me into a jittery, jumpy mess unable to properly function on the fourth, unexpected time. I also like the way the game’s mechanics play off of each other. For example, if the player stays in dark areas for too long, they begin to lose “sanity” which leads to vision and control problems. Staying in the light keeps one sane but also exposes them to roving monsters. In order to stay out of sight of a creeping horror, you often need to hunker down in the darkness as you slowly, unnervingly lose sanity. Neat trade-offs like this add to the overall tenseness of the experience. Speaking of creeping horrors, perhaps my favorite part of Amnesia is how it handles its monsters. You can’t fight back in Amnesia, so your only option is to run or hide. Monsters almost always appear when you least want them to and when they spot you, they shamble towards you at a deceptively quick pace. But what I really love about them isn’t actually the creatures themselves but everything that accompanies their presence. You are penalized for looking directly at them by a blurry, disorientating screen and a loss of sanity (which you’re going to want to keep in order to effectively run away and hide), which I think is just brilliant. In fact, if it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t even really know what the creatures looked like besides being vaguely humanoid monstrosities. My favorite aspect of monster encounters, however, is the brilliant, intensifying dissonance that blares into your ears as they lurch closer and closer towards you, which never failed to unravel my nerves and make me clench my teeth as I accidently hit the ‘crouch’ key instead of the ‘sprint’ one for the seventeenth time.

There’s a lot done very well in Amnesia but when going into it, I guess I expected a deeply unnerving psychological horror experience; I expected to be wandering scared and delirious and alone in the dark while being hunted by barely glimpsed horrors, never really sure what was going on. And while the game comes close to this type of experience at times, Amnesia is ultimately a lot more formulaic and “gamey” than I anticipated, especially after its introduction message sets it up as, and I paraphrase, an “immersive experience that shouldn’t be played to win”. The experience is divided up into several hub areas, or large safe zones, with several sub-areas branching off of them, and the game soon falls into a formula of getting to a new hub and going around its areas, collecting notes and items, solving puzzles, and occasionally having a monster thrown at you. There are also “interim” areas between each hub that contain some of the best moments of the game, as well as a few other curveballs that shake the formula up a bit. This all isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I actually quite enjoyed the experience’s traditional survival horror elements, but it all just felt a little too “safe” a lot of the time. And while I have a lot of love for the way the monster encounters are handled and while they are still very effective, sadly evading these eldritch abominations is often far too easy (at least the standard monsters); hiding behind a couple of boxes at a dead end was often enough to confound them and I only was caught by them once (after which the game dumped me in a random room I hadn’t been in yet, which confused me greatly…do the monsters actually kill Daniel? Or is he being revived somehow?). Once in a safe hiding place, one only needs to stay put for a few minutes until the creatures shamble off and disappear entirely.

There are other factors as well that kept Amnesia from being the scariest of scares for me. The Gothic castle setting is something I have too much affection for to be truly unsettled by (the game brought to mind both Dracula and Castlevania for me, and sometimes while skulking through a dungeon with my lantern lit, I was reminded of something out of The Legend of Zelda or some other comforting fantasy experience). The game is also very chatty; what is supposed to be a dark and lonely atmosphere is often interrupted by campy voice acting, whether in the entries of Daniel’s diary strewn about or the frequent flashback conversations between Daniel and Alexander. Besides this, Amnesia is a game composed of both brilliant scares and laughably goofy ones. Creepy statues suddenly appearing inside of bloody fountains and then being mysteriously gone the next time I look in their direction is a fantastic way of freaking me out, and dashing through a water-logged basement labyrinth being chased by loud, invisible horrors is one of the most purely terrifying moments in any game for me (along with a few other similarly tense moments in the game). But then there are the times when you turn a corner and the screen contracts accompanied by a spoooooky noise and some spoooooky dust clouds puffing about which are decent enough in the early sections of the game, but when these tame “scares” still happen occasionally even late in the game, it reminds me of a cardboard ghost popping out and saying “BOO!” in a haunted house. The sound design, for that matter, is mostly good and sometimes brilliant (mainly during monster encounters), but is also sometimes far too busy and consistent. What I mean is that while exploring some areas, the same random background combination of disembodied footsteps, fluttering paper, and soft whimpering chatters in my speakers constantly until it’s no longer unsettling but just mundane background noise. The same sound effects and musical cues are recycled throughout the game, so by the end they did little to disturb me. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by the masterful transformative sound design in the early Silent Hill games, where often you’ll hear a very specific creepy noise in one specific location and never hear it again…and never forget it again. Even though Amnesia is unpredictable on a moment to moment basis, it has a predictable nature to it in the grand scheme of things and this goes a long way in diminishing the horror for me. Ultimately, Amnesia just didn’t get under my skin the way I expected it to; it’s more of an in the moment “oh boy I’m having fun being spooked in this game” experience than a lingering kind of horror that I can’t help but ruminate on when I’m closing my eyes trying to sleep at night. In a game with a sanity meter, that is seemingly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and subtitled “The Dark Descent”, I expected this experience to get to me more psychologically than viscerally, but the opposite is true. This is both a disappointment and a relief, if you catch my drift. Also, full disclaimer, I only played this game alone late at night with all the lights off with headphones and the sound turned up, as it should be, so I certainly made myself vulnerable to the experience’s frights.

While Amnesia isn’t the kind of horror I was expecting, and maybe isn’t even the kind of horror I feel it’s going for a lot of the time, it’s not a bad horror experience. I quite enjoy its Gothic atmosphere and its traditional survival horror/adventure game elements and while I criticized it for diminishing the fright, I also enjoy its campiness to an extent. It also undoubtedly succeeds very well at momentarily tense and terrifying moments that made me want to just give up and curl up in a ball in the corner with a blankie. And since I most often didn’t quite know what was going to be around the next corner or at the bottom of those stairs leading into a dark void, it also did a nice job of keeping me on edge most of the time even outside of those sharply intense moments. I found the narrative intriguing enough as well, if not a bit muddily delivered. Exposition is fed to the player in so many different ways (scattered notes, flashbacks, random whispers, weird memory canisters, snippets of random text thrown at the player in the game’s brief loading screens and so on) that it becomes a bit overwhelming. I also feel that the game’s writing simply does a poor job of conveying information at times; some notes are unclearly-written while others seem to contradict information presented elsewhere and even within their own text. It’s not that the text is purposefully vague, but rather it just seems awkwardly written in places, and for me at least, some pieces of the story don’t seem to add up. The game’s finale also kind of infuriated me at first as well. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling too much but basically one’s ending is decided by what they do in the last three or so minutes of the game. I sort of predicted something like this would be coming, and I knew what I wanted to do, but the ending sequence was just very unclear to me my first time encountering it and there is a very brief amount of time that decides whether all your hard work throughout the adventure will pay off or, like in my initial experience, be rewarded with the most horrible ending I could have asked for all because I stalled for a few seconds and wasn’t exactly sure what I should be doing to achieve the goal I wanted. After the credits abruptly rolled to my extreme annoyance and confusion, I was able to think clearly and figure out what I should have done. I was then able to reload my save and get the other two endings, but I was still frustrated by the first ending that I got. I can accept an “unhappy ending”, especially in a horror game, but when I have the agency to make a choice, and it’s unclear what choice I’m exactly making or rather how to make the choice that I want to make, and then something happens that I absolutely didn’t want to happen and the game frames it like it was a choice I consciously made, it’s quite frustrating. Maybe this is more on me and not entirely the game’s fault, but I feel like there could have been a little more direction in the finale at the very least, not so much that it feels like I don’t have to figure anything out, but just a bit more of a nudge so I don’t unwittingly make a huge mistake.

I realize that a lot of my issues with Amnesia are based purely on it not living up to my expectations, but that’s just the experience I had with this game. But even if I attempt to view the experience through a lens divorced from those expectations, while I feel Amnesia is a strong experience, I still don’t think it’s a remarkable one. But looking back, there is truth in the notion that I built this game up in my head for years to be some kind of horror masterpiece, and naturally, it didn’t quite live up to those lofty expectations. But it’s still a very good horror experience and a very tense one for sure. “Terrifying” as opposed to “horrifying” is the word I would use to describe Amnesia. It’s not an experience that gets inside my head too much, but it’s still a worthy, atmospheric, and terrifying experience I quite enjoyed partaking in.

But there is also the matter of Amnesia’s free DLC add-on, Amnesia: Justine. Mechanically, it’s basically the same deal as the main game, and while I haven’t managed to finish it, I find its plot (which seems to be no more than tangentially connected to The Dark Descent) to be interesting. Essentially, you play as an unknown protagonist who wakes up in a prison cell and proceeds to be subjected to what seems to be a series of psychological experiments set up by the eponymous Justine, all while being hunted by some kind of creature (or maybe just a really messed-up human being, because it coherently talks). Why haven’t I managed to finish it yet, you ask? Well that is due to what is undoubtedly Justine’s most notable feature: perma-death. There’s no saving. You have one chance. Once the “monster” catches you, that’s it. After a fade to black and some creepy squelching sounds, the game simply boots you back to your desktop. This makes Justine an even tenser experience than The Dark Descent and an almost unbearably stressful one. If you do fail, you need to get back to where you were previously, and since the game remains the same each time you play it, this can be quite tedious and also obviously drains the tension out of the familiar bits. Predictably, the perma-death approach can also lead to frustration. I’ve attempted Justine three times now and all three times have died in the same area (for those that have played it: the flooded “Dungeon” area right after the Library), which seems to harbor a sudden and steep difficulty curve (and I might even go so far as to say it just feels cheap). My most frustrating death wasn’t the first one, but the second one, where the game seemed to glitch out somehow and put me in a seemingly unwinnable situation. That’s great; why bother wasting my time slogging through a game with perma-death again and again when it might just unexpectedly screw me over, at no fault of my own? I could probably succeed if I kept trying, but I simply just don’t have the energy to keep getting to my dying point just to try again; I know exactly what to do there at this point, but actually accomplishing it is a whole other story. There are a few aspects that make replaying Justine a bit more bearable though. For one, I hear the game in its entirety is fairly brief; an hour or so seems to be the average, though in my experience it took me longer than that just to get to where I keep dying. Also, the game’s different “levels” (at least up to the point I’ve reached) each involve a puzzle that doesn’t necessarily require solving in order to proceed with the game, so going back and trying again to figure these problems out (note: I still haven’t despite my best efforts) made my replays a bit less tiresome. All the same, maybe I’ll go back to it one day, but for now I’ve given up on Justine. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m really sick of the Amnesia experience right now and I have other games to play. And yes, I’ll admit that the game is just stressful as fuck to play and I’m tired of subjecting myself to it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Last of Us: Left Behind (Spoilers)

The Last of Us: Left Behind is a compelling and tragic companion to The Last of Us. It juxtaposes a glimpse at Ellie’s life as a (relatively) normal teenager with her future life as a hardened survivor adept at killing. The portion of Left Behind detailing what happens to Ellie shortly after Joel becomes incapacitated at the University of Eastern Colorado is just as tense and compelling as the core Last of Us experience, with some new twists thrown in such as having situations that mix human enemies with infected. It’s possible that this action-heavy side of Left Behind was added as an afterthought, in order to have some traditional action gameplay to break up the more relaxed and nonconventional Ellie and Riley sections, but it’s just as possible that having both was the plan all along because the two end up working really well together. The most interesting (and freshest) part of Left Behind, however, is  undoubtedly the side that details the last days of Ellie and her best friend, Riley’s relationship as they explore an abandoned shopping mall together. Here, we get a terrific and emotional piece of story-telling that not only gives more depth to Ellie’s character, but that is also just a commendable short story in its own right. Indeed, if The Last of Us proper did not exist and this part of Left Behind was completely standalone, it would be a fantastic and moving little vignette just on its own merits.

The mechanics of Left Behind are interesting because Ellie and Riley engage in nonviolent games together, like throwing bricks at cars and having a stealthy water gun fight, that are a playful mirror image of the brutal actions that Ellie performs in the future. Both sides of the game take place in a mall, so it’s very clear what the developers were going for and it’s very effective. Seeing Ellie as a (again, “relatively”) normal teenager hanging out with her best friend makes it all the more tragic how much of an efficient killer the world (and Joel) ends up making her. Most of the little scenes in Left Behind, like the two girls playing around with rubber Halloween masks and laughing about how people used to buy stuff like that, are charming in their own way, but two in particular stood out to me. The first is when Ellie and Riley ride the carousel. The whole process of walking over and getting on the carousel, Riley turning it on, Ellie riding it, and Riley joining in just before the machine stops being completely in-game and controlled by me made me reflect on how magical a video game experience can be. That may sound silly to you, but something about the perfectly-timed music, spinning the camera around to see Ellie’s excited facial expressions, and looking at the slowly spinning scenery as the carousel made its rotations perfectly put me in her shoes, strengthened my attachment to her as a character, and illustrated just how amazing something like this would be to a kid in a hellish world like The Last of Us’s. It struck a chord with me, and I teared up a little during the moment.

The second scene that stood out to me is the arcade one. At one point fairly early on in The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel happen upon a small record store with an arcade machine sitting in one corner of it. In an optional conversation, Ellie tells Joel that she played the game with her friend in the past and proceeds to describe it a bit. I was puzzled by this scene, because I questioned Ellie doing something as normal as playing a video game with a friend in the world that she was born into. Left Behind gives glorious context to that small throwaway conversation and it’s brilliant. Ellie and Riley come across that same arcade machine and seeing that it’s broken, Ellie expresses disappointment because she wanted to play the game. Riley casually tells her that “she can” and tells her to close her eyes. What follows is a surprisingly simple and brilliant sequence. The entire scene is just a close-up of Ellie’s face with her eyes closed. Riley starts describing the game and, Ellie’s hands on the arcade machine’s controls, she tries to imagine it. At first she is skeptical and so am I. But soon the borders of the screen begin to dim and I’m imagining Riley’s narrative of the game right along with Ellie. The imaginary game soon begins to bleed into reality as traditional fighting game health bars appear at the top of the screen and we begin to hear sound effects from the battle taking place in Ellie’s mind. As Riley describes each moment of the battle in detail, the player presses buttons according to prompts that appear on the screen. Whether you fail or succeed, the battle continues. Soon I’m wildly mashing buttons and by the end I’m totally into it. I want to win the imaginary fight just as much as Ellie. Similar to the carousel scene, this moment accomplishes so much with so little and simply and effectively puts me into Ellie’s shoes, making me feel like a kid playing a video game for the first time. It perfectly illustrates the importance of imagination and escapism, especially in a bleak world like Ellie and Riley’s. It also strengthens the bond between Ellie and Riley and demonstrates what a cool friend Riley is.

But Left Behind is also just a well-told teen romance. There’s no hamming it up and nothing feels forced or unnatural. This aspect of the game was unfortunately long spoiled for me, and I admit I was kind of waiting for it to happen, but the brief kiss shared between Ellie and Riley came at the perfect time and felt totally authentic. In that moment, when Ellie finally honestly told Riley “Don’t go” and Riley threw her firefly pendant to the ground, just for a second I desperately wanted the two to just stay together, keep having fun together and try to live the most normal life they can possibly have together in their broken world. I didn’t want Ellie to meet Joel and become his replacement daughter, or do all those horrible things later on down the road in the name of survival; I just wanted her and Riley to keep dancing in that department store. But, of course, this is The Last of Us, so that was never going to happen.

Thus the ending of Left Behind is truly tragic, in more ways than one. Even knowing that Ellie was immune, Left Behind’s short running time had effectively put me in the shoes of an Ellie before she knew that, and I had tears in my eyes seeing her anguish at being in such an unimaginably horrible situation with the friend she had just declared her love for. I saw the moment that Ellie describes to Joel in the final moments of The Last of Us play out in front of me, and the gut-wrenching tragedy of Ellie losing Riley and later so many others while she lived on came full circle. But thinking of those final moments of The Last of Us, and of the person Ellie became and where she found herself, the shattered tender moment shared with Riley in the mall becomes even more significant. In a moment of passion, Joel once berated Ellie for not knowing what loss is. Hardly.