I've been low-key obsessed with Dungeon Encounters for some time now, but last week it truly sank its hooks into me now that Elden Ring is out of the way. There's something liberating about throwing away all the pretence of the common JRPG and fall back on pure stats. Even graphics don't go much further beyond a grid layout and some hexadecimal codes. There's art and models for the various player characters, but it's the one flourish the game allows itself. The rest is very dry.
And yet, the combat flow is so good, that I can't really stop playing. Each new floor brings the potential of new enemies and new enemy pairings. Sometimes necessitating a rethink of your equipment, your approach, or both. Also, because combat is fast and simple, this is one JRPG where the auto-battle function is unneeded and unwanted. Quite the spectacle really.
Eiyuden Chronicle Rising hasn't made much of an impact in comparison. It's a fully functional action-RPG that wants to rub shoulders with the likes of Odin Sphere and Muramasa, but its combat simply isn't there.
Likewise, its questing and Suikoden-inspired village-building are both fun, but it is exceptionally bland. Everything is an MMO-filler quest and nothing has any impact. The result is just something that plays OK, but doesn't leave a mark.
Lastly, I ventured into Cyberpunk 2077 for the first time over the weekend. Apart from a few genuinely good conversations and scenes in the main story, I am very afraid this game will simply end up as an Elder Scrolls game with retro-futurism trappings.
The cyberpunk window dressing is present, but all your actions are as run-of-the-mill as it can get for an open world game. I think even Watch Dogs managed a more futuristic ideal. And, as a cyberpunk piece of media, it also seems weirdly un-obsessed with the online nature of it all. There are notions of the Net being there, but nobody seems to engage with it. Kind of deflates the entire premise, but maybe that's fully in line with the tabletop RPG rather than Gibson's material.
Wondering if this will keep my attention for long.
Proclaimed game of the year before the year well and truly started, it's maybe a bit redundant to write… well, anything about Elden Ring. Doubly so as I didn't have the stomach to gorge myself through a well over 150 hour epic, just to be able to say anything during the first week.
Now we're a good three months further and yes, I did complete Elden Ring. Is there anything I can add to the conversation? Not much. But I do have a few remarks that I didn't see much talk about.
When the game came out, one of the things that just about everybody was claiming, was how large and unique the world is. It isn't. That is, it's large. But by the time you hit Liurnia, you should have a pretty good idea of what's going on.
It's here that the recycling of the various parts that make up the Elden Ring construction set, becomes more apparent. Seeing the shame shack and it miniature staircase of planks repeated over and over makes it clear. Same with the catacombs and soldier camps.
It's not bad, but the 'uniqueness' of Elden Ring's content has been grossly overstated. Instead what we get is a master class of asset recycling. Because really, that one shack is so grating because it's probably one of the few assets that doesn't get some kind of lighting or composition tweak applied.
Often you can just look at a new area and marvel at how it's actually the same stuff you encountered hours ago, yet it still feels entirely fresh. The game also manages to "upcycle" several areas as you progress and it's similarly effective.
An overlooked side-effect is that this makes the entire game feel magically coherent. Everything fits together in the same style, mostly because it is the same style. The deviations it manages to display within that style just enhance the experience.
It's nothing new — games have used asset recycling since the beginning — but it's mesmerising to see From Software go to town with it here. And although it doesn't diminish the grandeur of the game, I do feel that calling all the content unique is maybe a bit of overkill.
Is there a balance at all?
Another aspect that has been discussed to death before, during, and after the game's launch, are its difficulty and accessibility levels. Souls-games have traditionally been very strict in its combat setup despite its minimal options within a tightly controlled environment, leading to very unforgiving but also exploitative combat situations. The "git gud" conversation is not so much about displaying skill, as it is about knowing where and how to abuse the game's combat mechanics.
Elden Ring is no different, though both environment and combat options have been expanded upon. Greatly. The result is that for the first time in the Soul-series it feels like grinding for levels is actually a viable option. Both in time invested and the power gained through it.
The beginning of the game is still the usual Souls-fare of being maybe a bit too hard with a couple of gotcha-moments sprinkled in, but once you gain the ability to level up and travel by spectral steed, the world is your oyster.
You can go anywhere and because the game world is no longer a set of corridors pushing you constantly onwards, it becomes far less stressful. Also, running away is a viable option. The result is that every venture is likely to net you something: whether it's runes for a level up, a new piece of equipment, or access to a new grace or location.
Another benefit of this, is that because you have so many options, and there's always somewhere else to go instead, the player subconsciously follows a path of least resistance. This and this alone is why the game feels more accessible, and yes to some, even easier than other Souls-games.
The possibility to grind, whether deliberate or accidental, gives players a foothold. Once you bump into something difficult, you've got a plethora of options to tackle it. Summon an NPC. Summon a PC. Equip a new load out. Use different buffs. A combination of everything.
It's only near the end of the game when it becomes clear there aren't many more options to unlock, that the game shows some of the bite it had in previous games. Malenia is a not a test of brute force, but rather an exam to see if you can put together a character that can make short work of her. As if you were creating a tournament level deck for a collectible card game from your decade old collection.
Cheesing, finding exploits, and calling in help is just the name of the game here. I feel like the game didn't require much difficulty balancing directly. As long as the player had enough access to other things to do, the difficulty would sort itself out as the player would find that path of least resistance.
I also see this as an absolute win. The actual skilful players will always continue to amaze with no-hit runs and insane tales of derring-do, while the others can just play it in their own pace without feeling too frustrated.
That said, yeah there might have been a few graces too many in the game, but on the other hand, that's only because veteran players were missing the induced stress and subsequent relief of finally finding one like in older Souls-games.
The English language
This is more of a hunch really, but the story of Elden Ring is pretty easy to follow. It's not necessarily less opaque, but the sentences, the actual conversations in the game are far easier to follow than in previous games with most things spelled out deliberately.
That's a rather novel concept for a game series in which every sentence uttered could mean multiple things. In Elden Ring, it feels like everyone is just telling you about things as they are. Now this could be the effect of upping the localisation quality (either by beginning sooner, having more context, or switching from a previous localization agency), but I think this might be George R.R. Martin's influence on the project.
English is Martin's native language and while Japanese isn't a worse or better language, it's one wrought with more subtext. A kanji can have a pronunciation alluding to a different kanji, encompassing a set of concepts rather than just one. Not to say this it is impossible to translate, but you'll most likely have to cut some meaning when translating to English. Starting from English may have eliminated this potential issue. It may not.
I don't think Martin wrote the entire story by the way. It's far more likely he connected loose ideas from Miyazaki into a coherent whole. Rennala begin angry and a master of magic is pretty basic and typical Miyazaki in that it focuses on her activities within the world, but the broken family angle of her backstory is something that feels right at home in one of Martin's stories.
In starting from an English background story, the resulting context and translation may have simply been better to understand for all parties involved in being able to add subtleties, instead of having to convert into English from Japanese and losing subtleties to start with.
It's pretty hard to point at perfect examples here, but the feeling I had throughout the game is that it flowed better in its conversations. Fia probably being the closest to a 'traditional' Souls NPC in terms of obtuseness.
I don't think these points add to or subtract from the experience. They are merely tweaks and experiments in a long-running series. Maybe they aren't those at all and I finally noticed some things that were there in the series all along.
Regardless, I can't recall a previous action oriented game that kept my attention for so long. Where other games start to outlive their welcome around the 20 hour mark, Elden Ring breezed past 100 hours without looking back. Even now, having completed it, there is an urge to just keep playing. Be it in a new game+ or simply from scratch.
It's a very comfortable and inviting Souls-game and that is truly special indeed.
It wasn't so much the hardware that made the Playdate an enticing proposition to me. Nor was it the admittedly great track record of both Panic and Teenage Engineering. The thing that truly won me over was the attitude; the Nintendo-philosophy applied outside of its native Nippon setting. Others have tried this, but often with a misguided sense of nostalgia or an equally misguided sense of hitting it big in an "obviously untapped" market. Ouya, Intellivision Amico, Atari VCS. Even Nintendo had a few blunders with the Game Boy Micro and the Pokémon Mini.
Panic somehow didn't care. It's quite enlightening to listen to the first episode of the Playdate podcast and realise this all started as a nice 5 15-year anniversary clients & partners gift. Because, while the device is even fashionably late to celebrate Panic's 10 25-year anniversary1, it feels like a gift. It's not a new platform that will compete with the Big Three. Neither is it going to be a paradigm shift in the tradition of the Wii, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo Switch (Nintendo is freakishly good at that particular branch). This is a tiny device that plays games. Its only purpose is to delight and to provide fun. And it's doing a fine job so far.
The hardware is pretty much immaculate. Sure, you can moan and complain about the screen not having a backlight and being 1-bit (giving it less 'colour' depth than even the original Game Boy), but that's trying to make it into a full-fledged console again. Its yellow casing makes it small slice of yellow with a somewhat odd metal protrusion. Folding that protrusion out will turn it into a crank to turn in turn. Functionally, the crank is the same as being able to move a joystick in a fixed circular motion. Aesthetically, it's the lynchpin of the Playdate.
Your other interface options are a d-pad, two action buttons, a pause/menu button, and a power button. So the crank instantly commands attention when playing games. It can be gimmicky, but in the case of the Playdate, that's a strength rather than a flaw. The size of the device, combined with the sharpness of its screen (and its amazing reflectiveness when lit) and its solid build quality, gives the Playdate a certain desirability. The same one that makes one play with a business card holder, or snap off and on the battery door of a remote control. It begs to be fidgeted with and the crank makes sure there's a physical outlet for all your fidgeting needs.
So how does it play? Well, liked the mixed indie bag you'd expect. The first two games Whitewater Wipeout and Casual Birder are two very different beasts. The first is a simple score hunting arcade game straight from the classic California Games: use the crank to position you and your surfboard on a rolling wave trying to score points through tricks. The second is a tongue-in-cheek birder simulator. Go out in a Pokémon-esque gameworld to photograph birds and snap the legendary bird, while a cast of characters gets in your way. The crank? It's used to adjust the focus on your camera.
Both games are fun, though I've spent the most time so far on Bloom, which is an indie game available for side-loading onto your Playdate at itch.io. It's a perfect fit in my opinion: in it you play as a graduate drop-out starting her own flower shop while a light visual novel plays out through text messages. It's a real-time idler where you can plant and sell flowers. A very tiny and familiar loop, but the story playing out in quick to-and-fro's messages is strangely compelling even though its pacing and triggering of follow-ups could do with some tweaking. The crank? Used to move the lift between your apartment and the roof where your flowers grow (oh, and to crank out a daily gashapon).
None of these experiences are as meaty as full-fledged (portable) console outings, but again, that's not the point here. I find the experimental nature of both the Playdate and its games enthralling. There's a punk vibe throughout the entire experience that reminds me of the zany world contained within the Game Boy Camera. While the hardware reminds of a NeoGeo Pocket: superficially close to a Game Boy but surprisingly more powerful when the games put some thought behind it. Starting up the Playdate for the very first time puts a playful ceremony front and centre that's more at home on a Nintendo console, but at the same time it's infused with a Western sense of showmanship. It's pure joy. And it manages to hold on to that joy throughout the device. Even when its games may lack it.
Is this worth the $179 asking price then? I would definitely say so. Taking into account the weekly games you get for free, the fact that Panic has made ample tools available for side-loading and indie development, and the appeal of the hardware itself, this is catnip for anyone into the more experimental side of gaming.
1 Oops, it wasn't 5 going on 10, it was 15 years going on 25 instead! Thanks to @gingerbeardman for pointing that out.
It looks like an old Flash-game and to a certain extent it plays like one too. Just move around dodging enemies and projectiles, while picking up gems to level up. And that's just about all there is to it. Vampire Survivors is incredibly simple. But like the best clicker and idle games, the devil's in the upgrades.
With every level up, you can add a weapon or skill, or improve one already in use. There's a careful balance here. Every single upgrade often doesn't do much. Unless you pay attention and plan ahead. Which is made more difficult by the (semi-)random nature of when which upgrades appear. Stack accordingly and half-way through a time-limited run, a single upgrade can break the dam and you can turn your character from a fragile little sprite into a frame rate crushing projectile death-machine.
That in itself would already be just fine, but the game wants to maximize those positive vibes and does so by way of treasure chests. Left behind by boss enemies, picking these up will start a slot-machine like cycle as you get a random upgrade for free. Extra lucky? Then the chest will provide you with three, and sometimes even five - FIVE - free upgrades! The audiovisual cues that accompany these moments of random joy are deeply intoxicating and you may find yourself bopping along to them in a seemingly ritualistic fashion as you prepare to slaughter the undead hordes with your increased powers. And after Death inevitably claims your mortal coil, and your heart rate subsides, you are left with gold to buy permanent upgrades and give it another shot. Because, who knows? Could even Death be killed with enough upgrades? Only one way to find out…
Is it good then? Absolutely. A dangerous template for purveyors of loot boxes to ensnare their audiences even more? Very likely. One of the best time-wasters this side of de-Flashed Newgrounds.com?
My friend, why are you dodging the opportunity to find out for yourself?
With Elden Ring around the corner, my thoughts wandered back to Bloodborne (as they often do). And that means recollecting the fight with Orphan of Kos, which for some reason I managed to defeat on my first try.
It was probably due to having massive stats through gear and levelling, but I couldn't quite believe it back then. And it still feels a bit surreal to watch. That last strike is just a pure panic attack, trying to get rid of that last sliver of health.