Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ten Exciting Games from E3 2016

I had very low expectations going into E3 this year. After so many incredibly exciting and surprising game announcements last year, 2016 seemed poised to be a “down year” for the convention, but it really took me aback. Both Microsoft and Sony had strong, tight showings and both had deeper looks into exciting games shown last year as well as some surprises. Nintendo’s wacky strategy of only focusing on a single game this year, on the other hand, also seemed to pay off: their beautiful new Zelda adventure took my breath away and has captured my imagination all over again. Here are ten games (and five honorable mentions) that I saw this E3 in any form and whether newly announced or not that have me excited and/or interested this year, in roughly ascending order based on simply how excited I am to play them:

ReCore caught my interest last E3 with a rarely compelling CG trailer. The game is being created by former Metroid Prime developers (and being directed by Mark Pacini, the director of all three main Prime games) and Mega Man veteran Keiji Inafune and appropriately enough it seems to be some kind of hybrid of Metroid and Mega Man. The game involves exploring a desert planet overworld and fighting through waves of hostile robots, melding platforming with frantic gunplay in addition to a unique robot companion mechanic. The movement in the game looks really slick and speedy and overall it seems like it could be a blast to play. It also features a very colorful and fun aesthetic and overall the game seems to have a classic, bouncy, “gamey” appeal, in a good way, like a 3D platforming action game you might have seen on the N64 or during the GameCube/PS2 days. ReCore just overall has some good vibes. After watching some gameplay footage, I have a few qualms, like how visually busy the game seems to be with a cluttered HUD and tons of numbers and colors flashing everywhere, but I’m still definitely keeping my eye on this one when it releases in September this year.

Abzu looks incredibly beautiful and there really isn’t that much else to say about it…other than, perhaps, that Flower and Journey art director, Matt Nava, is involved, as well as Austin Wintory, the composer of Journey. Did I mention that it looks really, really beautiful?

The best E3 demos are the ones that amidst all the excitement and energy of a typical press conference completely ensnare me and make me forget what I’m even doing. We Happy Few was one of those. I was completely taken into this game’s world and its narrative and simply couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. When it was over, I was sold. I’ve been hearing good things about this game, but the gameplay shown at Microsoft’s conference was the first I’ve actually seen of it and it definitely lived up to its good name. What a great concept and an artful, intriguing-looking game that looks to have some smart insights into the way our society looks at emotional expression.

I know almost nothing about Inside besides that it is an action-adventure puzzle game being made by Playdead, the creators of Limbo, and that I want to play it. I don’t want to know anything else. It captured my attention not just because of its creator, but because of an arresting trailer at E3 2014. It went dark for two years and now we have a new trailer that completely engrosses me. What’s more, the game surprisingly comes out this summer. I’m looking forward to turning down the lights and immersing myself in this one.

People are saying that I Am Setsuna is like a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger and that alone is enough to make me excited, but the game doesn’t look like a rehash or just a simple retro throwback. It seems to be taking some of the design and feel of CT and making something original. The narrative sounds uniquely compelling and melancholic and the art looks beautiful. I also love the idea of a snow and ice-covered world and how this supports the game’s central theme of “sadness”. This doesn’t seem to be just a glum, “dark” game for the sake of it though, but seems to really be doing something interesting with the central theme. I just love the feeling and atmosphere I get from the game’s trailer. The battle mechanics look to be taking a lot of inspiration from that time-traveling SNES masterpiece and that’s fantastic. There are a lot of RPGs I want to play and have yet to play, but I Am Setsuna has quickly climbed that list.

I’m a big fan of the Shantae games and Half-Genie Hero is shaping up to be the best one yet. I’ve been patiently waiting for this game since I backed it on Kickstarter in late 2013, but It looks like it is going to be well worth the wait. The first thing that is immediately apparent about this game is that it’s freakin’ gorgeous. When I first saw the new art direction back when the Kickstarter began, I was a bit skeptical and missed the wonderful spritework done in the previous Shantae games. WayForward has pulled if off though; the game looks like a playable Disney animation. What’s more, it’s bringing back a big part of Shantae’s identity, her transformations, which I missed in her previous game, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. The mechanics and platforming look as smooth as ever and most exciting of all we finally have a release date: September 27 of this year. Also, another Jake Kaufman soundtrack is always a good thing.

I cannot contain my excitement for this game, which is another from the Kickstarter camp (and another I supported in a heartbeat). Legendary post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania mastermind Koji Igarashi promised a new Metroidvania (or Igavania rather) in the style of his previous works and that seems to be exactly what he’s delivering. I’ve been wary about the choice of 2.5D visuals, but the game is actually looking pretty great, particularly the environment. I’m a little iffy about the monster designs, but it’s not a huge dealbreaker so far. The fact that the game looks (and seems like it plays) as good as it does so early in development inspires tremendous confidence in the final work though and makes me super happy that I supported this one. We haven’t gotten a proper gothic Metroidvania game since 2008’s excellent Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia and I’m just so excited for a new game in this style. Familiar isn’t always a bad thing, especially if the particular kind of game in question has been missing for quite some time.

Horizon captured my attention with a surprising and fantastic reveal last year and every time I see this game, I’m completely drawn into its beautiful, vibrant world. I love nature vs. technology themes and the whole far future concept where these mysterious machine animals have taken over the earth is just an instantly intriguing set-up to me. I love that there’s a mystery at the core of Horizon and that the developers aren’t giving too much away. Also, in a medium where combat mechanics saturate the landscape and often make my eyes glaze over at E3, the combat encounters in Horizon look exhilarating and gripping instead of merely routine and trivial affairs. There are a few aspects of the game I’m weary of, such as the protagonist’s constant narration but I can see that the developers are building her to be an established character that we step into the role of, which is a valid approach. Also, the characters’ expressions and animation during the conversation in the gameplay video shown at Sony’s press conference are a little rough, so hopefully that can be ironed out by release. All in all though, Horizon is a game that makes me whisper to myself how I really need to get a PS4.

The Last Guardian is ultimately the reason I will likely buy a PS4 sometime this year though, because it’s the kind of game I need to play as soon as it comes out to avoid the experience being spoiled in any way. It’s true that this is largely such an anticipated experience for me because of the pedigree of its director/designer Fumito Ueda and his team, and because Shadow of the Colossus is…well…Shadow of the Colossus, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t think The Last Guardian looks beautiful and compelling, and the concept of a boy and his beast is something near to my heart. I love animals and stories about human and animal relationships and I know everyone is saying it, and this isn’t necessarily an inherent reason for greatness of course, but at the very least this game will likely be quite the cathartic experience. TLG seems more Ico than SotC (or perhaps like a combination of the two), but that’s just fine (Ico is a beautiful experience in its own right). The Last Guardian doesn’t need to be a masterpiece and it doesn’t need to live up to years and years of expectation, it just needs to be whatever it is and whatever its creators wanted to make. I’m just so glad that it’s actually finally coming out on October 25 of this year.

I already wrote a detailed piece about my thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s grand unveiling, but suffice it to say it’s a beautiful-looking dream come true for a long-time Zelda fan like myself. I’m digging the art and overall vibe of the game as well as the freedom of exploration and action it is going to provide. The world in Breath of the Wild is also coated in mystery and I’m loving what Nintendo seems to be doing with the narrative, atmosphere, and overall feel of the experience. I simply can’t wait to get lost in the wilds of the ruined kingdom of Hyrule next year.

Dang! Just looking at this list of games makes me so excited! Particularly, looking at those last two together makes my head spin. 
What a great time for video games! On the whole, I’d say it was a pretty great E3 and I look forward to next year…and, you know, actually playing games in-between.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Has Been Unveiled and it is Glorious

This trailer made me cry.

Ok, I wasn’t sobbing, but I was pretty watery by the end. Going into this E3, all I really wanted was a proper trailer for the new Zelda in the spirit of the excellent trailers we got for Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, complete with the title reveal at the end. I got my wish and then some. That opening dialogue, those vistas, that music, that pace…that simple and beautiful logo. This trailer alone is probably one of the most beautiful things Nintendo has ever created.

But what of the day’s worth of footage Nintendo Treehouse Live showed after a very frustrating Pokemon interruption? While I’m a bit bummed that Nintendo spoiled the opening of Breath of the Wild, I can see why they started there as they wanted to establish how much freedom the game gives the player right from the get-go. While watching that initial trailer and this early footage, I was in awe. There’s nothing quite like the first in-depth look at a new Zelda game. I’ve been telling people that Breath of the Wild looks like the Zelda game of my dreams and I mean that quite literally. Ever since I got huge into this series back around 2003, I’ve longed for a 3D Zelda game with a vast, open, colorful landscape to discover, something akin to the 2D Zelda games more faithfully translated to 3D than Ocarina of Time’s hub and surrounding, boxed areas. Over the years I have only seen such an experience in my dreams, but during this past week I’ve seen such a game in my waking life. As much as I love OoT and many of the Zelda games that are based on its model, finally 3D Zelda has broken free from its shackles.

Breath of the Wild looks incredible and I mean both visuals-wise and otherwise. I love the art direction, which is directly influenced by Japanese animation (more than ever before anyway). It immediately brings to mind the sort of colorful, old-school anime look that the early Zelda games’ concept art had, which is what I have always wanted a 3D Zelda game to look like. It’s hard to describe just how exciting this really is, but suffice to they are finally delivering a Zelda game that actually captures this:

And maybe this:

I love how alive the world seems. What a joy it is to have an organic, natural world in a Zelda game again after Skyward Sword’s static sandboxes, and more organic than ever before this time. A lengthy day and night cycle complete with time of day, wind swirling through the flowered grass and the trees, insects scattering when one cuts the grass, a frog leaping away from beneath an overturned rock, a boar grazing in a grove of trees, shifting weather, and so on. I love the worn, rustic look of ruins that seem naturally weathered into the fabric of the world, vines and moss wrapping around them. I love the freedom right from the start of the game and even though it’s a bit on the nose, I couldn’t help but smile at the old man right at the start as well. I also love that there’s no chatty partner for the first time in a 3D Zelda game. I never thought we’d get another 3D Zelda game like this; I never thought we’d get another Nintendo game like this. This kind of tutorial-less, free adventure that focuses on discovery and the joy of play. When Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma said that this game was being heavily-influenced by the original Legend of Zelda, I didn’t think he meant it this literally, and that the game would even go beyond the original’s level of freedom perhaps. Apparently you can go straight to the final boss right at the beginning of the game if you choose to (you will likely get slaughtered though, I assume). I didn’t think it was possible for the Nintendo of today to create this game; it’s surreal.

The amazing thing about Breath of the Wild is that it seems to be delivering the experience that I feared to hope too much for, in numerous ways. Apparently this adventure is not going to feature an overt narrative that is force-fed to the player, but rather more minimalist storytelling that is unveiled at one’s own pace as they discover more and more of the world around them and try to discover the significance of moss-covered mechanoids and ominous purple clouds swirling around a distant castle. Clearly the Zelda team has been reading my diary.

Then during the Treehouse Live footage, Ganon gets name-dropped by a Sheikah monk like nothing, without even a word of acknowledgement from the staff playing the game. Again, it seems something else I feared to hope for is happening. Ganon isn’t a big secret this time around and it would seem there’s not going to be some pawn out there serving him or trying to resurrect him. Ganon is just a part of the world; a distant, ominous threat that you know you’ll have to face one day. But while Ganon may not be a secret, he does seem to be a mystery. Or maybe I should say it seems to be a mystery. I didn’t watch all of the Treehouse Live footage to avoid seeing too much and I know this information is out there, but I’ve unwittingly stumbled upon some narrative details involving Ganon’s role this time and it all sounds incredibly interesting and I’m just loving everything I’m hearing in this regard. The game seems to be doing something new and interesting with Ganon which I think is a very smart idea if they’re going to insist on continuing to use the character.

While it certainly seems that Breath of the Wild is catering to my wildest Zelda dreams for the most part and even going beyond them, I’m actually not enamored with everything I’ve learned of the game. I became a bit worried when I got my first look at the game’s “Shrines of Trials”, which there are reportedly over one-hundred of in the game. While I love the idea of tons of mini-dungeons to discover and explore hidden throughout the world, I’m not sure these “Trial Shrines” are really the form I want such a concept to take. Just the name makes me nervous: that word, “Trial.” One of my biggest issues with the last 3D console Zelda game, Skyward Sword, (spoilers if you’ve yet to play it) was that the entire game was basically an elaborate series of tests or “trials” designed by the Goddess Hylia and other spiritual figures in order for the hero to “prove” that he was worthy. In other words, it felt like a thinly veiled video game, instead of an organic adventure. I always prefer Zelda when it’s chiefly just a kid going out on an adventure to save the world rather than “the great hero chosen by the gods destiny blah blah blah” rhetoric constantly being shoved in my face; I don’t mind a little talk of destiny, but Skyward Sword took that stuff to a nauseating level. While almost everything I’ve seen about Breath of the Wild seems to be following the former model, the Shrines seem to speak to the latter. I’m going to be extremely disappointed if the narrative in Breath of the Wild ends up revolving around another contrived errand of the Goddess Hylia, in a literal sense at least, who is also mentioned by name within these Shrines.

So the narrative context of these places worries me, but what’s more is each Shrine seems to be a Portal-esque “test chamber” of sorts devoted to a single mechanic. The three Shrines I’ve seen also all looked the same aesthetically. Before I go further I want to say that I am completely in love with the mix of nature and high-technology in Breath of the Wild and the whole “high-tech” motif is something the series has been steadily heading towards since The Wind Waker’s Tower of the Gods (which was also designed as a trial for the hero, notably). Appropriately, the original Zelda was also originally planned to have sci-fi themes. The atmosphere in the Shrines seems interesting and the few mechanics I saw within them look nothing short of genius, but the way that they seem to be obvious “levels” rather than more natural spaces, their very samey aesthetics, and their contrived nature worry me. Ideally, what I’d like from an open world Zelda is caverns and more organic ruins and dungeons to explore out in the world. I want this to feel like a true adventure, not a series of “Trials by the Goddess”. I’m worried that these shrines will become too routine and static a concept. I think of The Wind Waker and how every island held a different secret, about the wide variety of caves and little mini-dungeons to explore and how I never quite knew what I was going to find. Ideally, I’d want this game to be something akin to that. To be clear though, I only saw three Shrines out of over one-hundred, so the concept could surprise me and end up being something I dig. Also, the Nintendo staff did confirm that there will be more traditional dungeons in addition to the Shrines. I’m guessing these dungeons won’t be as easy to access as the Shrines, but I’m hoping the player can still come across them naturally in the world (I’d love if it was just like the original Zelda though and you could just come across a dungeon and enter it, but I’m guessing that is largely what the Shrines are here for).

The only other thing I want to say about the exploration in the game is that the best reward for exploration for me is not always just finding more stuff. It’s great that it seems these physical rewards are possibly going to be better than they’ve ever been in a Zelda game in Breath of the Wild, but I’m hoping for even richer rewards such as interesting piece of architecture, a beautiful sight, a bit of lore, and so on. From what I’ve seen, it seems these kinds of rewards will largely be present, but I’ll probably be a bit disappointed if the game’s world is going to be Skyward Sword-ish in the way that there are only simply little pockets and nooks hidden around filled with treasure and the only larger “caves” and mini-dungeons to find are the Shrines.

I’m also hoping that the enemy variety is better than in Skyward Sword and the presence of “Stal-Bokoblins” instead of proper Stalfos (so far) worries me. I also have mixed feelings about the stamina meter being back (I at least wish it was off to the side of the screen instead of constantly hovering next to Link; it worked just fine this way in Shadow of the Colossus, Nintendo) and I also have conflicted feelings about the increased presence of RPG elements like enemy health bars and hit points and different stats for weapons. It should be noted that SS Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi is returning to direct Breath of the Wild (he also directed the fantastic Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages and The Minish Cap, among other things) and Eiji Aonuma has said that they wanted to “make a better Skyward Sword” with Breath of the Wild and that the game is “like an evolved or expanded version”. This could be worrisome or exciting, depending on how one looks at it (and also depending on one’s feelings on SS, which I don’t hate, by the way). Ultimately, I think taking some of the good bits of SS and melding them with a design philosophy inspired by the original Legend of Zelda could produce a truly spectacular game, so I’m going to be optimistic. At the very least, the fact that the Treehouse team made a point to reiterate that item description flavor text doesn’t repeat ad nauseam in Breath of the Wild gives me hope and shows that perhaps the Zelda team are paying attention to all the little annoyances that occasionally bog down the Zelda games.

Ok, so those are my fears and my worries, but let’s get back to what looks great, and a lot of what has me excited about this game is in the details. The animation looks more fluid than any 3D Zelda before. I love the cooking mechanic. I love that hearts are no longer found in grass, pots, rocks, skulls, your shoe, and everything else in Hyrule, and that the only way to restore health is by eating. I love that you can make campfires. I love how you need to dress for the weather and how they are making an effort to have more realistic biomes. Having to dress for the environment is one of those subtly brilliant things that I’ve never seen a fantasy adventure game do before. While on the note of clothing, I love that you can change it, and that there are such a wide variety of weapons and items to find. I love all the “realism” and survival elements mixed with more fantastical “video gamey” elements (the cooking is a great example of this). This is actually something that Zelda has always done well, but Breath of the Wild looks to be taking this idea further than ever before. I love how there’s a crouch button and how instead of just the obligatory one-and-done Zelda stealth mission we’re so familiar with at this point, stealth is now an option throughout the game. On that note, I love the variety in how you can approach enemy encounters. The combat looks slick, ditching hit and miss motion controls and building on the combat of pre-Skyward Sword titles while adding a ton of new mechanics (I’m a bit mixed on the weird slow-mo super attacks though, but whatever). The combat looks like it has that patented Zelda feel as well; that satisfaction and that mechanical polish. I also love how unforgiving the game seems and how the world actually seems dangerous. There are bosses out in the overworld! You can climb any sheer cliff! Koroks are back (and they fit in this world so well)! I love how they’re approaching sound design and music in the game as well, and the ambient music and environmental noise sounds engrossing from what I’ve heard. In terms of the more traditional compositions, well I already mentioned how the music in the trailer made me cry, didn’t I? And there’s voice acting, a little bit at least, and it ain’t half bad either. You can cut down trees. You can hunt or not hunt. You can do an all vegetarian run. You can do a naked run.

You can jump. MANUALLY. In a 3D Zelda game.


I’m sure Breath of the Wild is going to be polarizing to at least some degree just like any other Zelda game. I’m already seeing the inevitable comments of “the world is so empty!” and “tons of other games have already done this!” Of course, the open world, non-linear design also won’t be for everyone, especially those that have become Zelda fans with many of the more recent games in the series. And just a million other things. To briefly address the two common gripes I listed above: from what I’ve seen so far, no, the world does not look “empty” and in terms of there being people and towns, they were not shown in the E3 footage to keep the game’s mystery intact, which I appreciate. I’m also someone who appreciates “down time” in games, time to take in the world, the scope, the atmosphere. I’d rather not have every single square inch stuffed with treasure chests and monsters constantly hounding me. What’s more important to me than filling everything with stuff is how organic and alive the world feels, and Breath of the Wild looks to be doing a pretty good job so far. Riding Epona across a vast, “empty” field, grass blowing in the wind and the sun setting in the distance, may be a moment that seems empty to some, but it is very “full” to me. For some more context, many call The Wind Waker’s world “empty” but I think it balanced down time with tons of secrets and places to explore wonderfully, if not perfectly. In terms of the whole “tons of other games have already done this” thing, forgive me if this comes across as fanboyish, but the difference is that we haven’t seen Zelda do this, and seeing as how the original Zelda game was one of the central progenitors of the whole open world design, it’s about damn time. Zelda is unique; there are plenty of action-adventure games but there’s nothing else out there quite like Zelda. Sure, I get it, there is a deluge of 3D open world video games right now, and there are also plenty of games with similar mechanics to some of the ones that this new game is introducing, but Breath of the Wild is marrying this kind of design and these kinds of mechanics with the essence of Zelda. This is another reason why I love the game’s art direction; there aren’t any other games out there, especially open world ones, that look quite like it or have its kind of vibe.

Ultimately, I have a few misgivings about Breath of the Wild, but I keep reminding myself that I’ve only seen a tiny of portion of the game and there is still so much unknown, which makes me very, very excited. That is perhaps my favorite aspect to the game of all: the mystery. I love the sense of mystery and discovery that seems to be present in the world, which reminds me of why I was so first entranced by this series so long ago. People are theorizing and speculating and there’s much intrigue surrounding the game. I love this and I really hope Nintendo’s marketing department can stay true to keeping this mystery intact leading up to the game’s release. I’m going to try my best to avoid everything anyway, but it’d be nice if that were easier to do. The game’s official website spurs us to “Travel across fields, through forests and to mountain peaks as you discover what has become of the ruined kingdom of Hyrule…” and that that’s all I really need to hear to get pumped. Sign me up. I’m in. I shouldn’t expect Breath of the Wild to do everything I personally want and I’m not sure I’d even want it to. Ultimately, it seems to doing so much right in my book while also going beyond and surprising me and doing its own thing. It looks like it’s going back to the series’ roots while also being something new and different, and that sounds like a fantastic combination. It’s simply a stunning-looking game and it’s just so much fun thinking about, discussing, and anticipating a new console 3D Zelda in full force again.