Lost Ark Quick Thoughts

February was a damn good month for games. And only games it seems.

Lost Ark came out, with a few years of content already onboard. And there is a lot of content. Almost too much.

I find these types of localized releases quite interesting, because the western sensibilities to F2P are much different than the east. Allods Online is still burned into my brain as to how to lose an entire playerbase with a single swoop (they put in a resurrection sickness that could only be cured with a cash stop item).

From what I can tell so far, Lost Ark doesn’t have a huge burden with their cash stop. The typical acceleration items are there, potions and random boxes and whatnot. The actual gameplay doesn’t seem to suffer from it though… and PvP is normalized, so even if you did boost a character with money, it wouldn’t go very far.

I should note that as with any F2P game with a cash stop, there is a plague of bots. They only seem to be in the city, and they zip through walls. Guess they are running an easy quest to make currency to sell. Literally dozens of them, one on top of the other.

But enough about that. There are plenty of other reviews, videos, and blog posts that praise the game. I am certainly impressed. What I want to point out is one simple matter.

This is what Diablo 4 should have been.

It’s really that simple. The combat itself is tight, there are plenty of skill options, there’s min/maxing, a long tail that is more than about gear score, group content that is more than just DPS. The whole demon/angel bit. This isn’t so much a dig at Blizzard – I certainly could – but more a reflection of how there isn’t a revolutionary bit to Lost Ark. They took the best parts of ARPG games, figured out how to include actual group mechanics, and plopped a rather effective cash stop on the side. Hell, this might be the first game Amazon Studios (as publisher) actually gets right.

I’ll be giving the game a bit more time over the next month, see what comes out of it. So far, it scratches all the right places.

A ridiculous Yoda attempt. Like John Carpenter good/bad.

Switch and Steam Deck

I was browsing the Nintendo e-store and found the primary reason why the Switch has a interesting battle ahead. This is a narrow sample of prices on the Switch and then on Steam

  • FF7 $22/$17
  • FF9 $28/$24
  • FF10/2 $60/$33
  • FF12 $60/$66
  • Hades $32/$29
  • XCOM 2 $60/$15
  • Cuphead $26/$22
  • Death’s Door $26/$22

Somehow, Breath of the Wild is still selling for the same price as launch, as well as nearly every other first party game. The perks of exclusivity I suppose. Not to mention Steam can manage to have a sale seemingly every other day.

All consoles are built on a software library. The size and quality of that library is the largest factor of that success. Not only does Steam already dwarf every other console, but it offers lower prices in almost every single case, often by huge amounts. I’m waiting for the next hardware version to come out, and most certainly giving it a go.

That said, nearly every time we thought Nintendo was out for the count, they’ve somehow managed to come back up.

Mining Nostalgia – Square Enix

This is a weird topic, brought to you mostly by Square Enix themselves.

Without opening the history books too far back, quite a few gamers cut their teeth on Square Enix games, especially the RPGs (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, notably). There’s a nostalgia factor here, where we are on iterations that have gone on for 30 years. Here in the West, we haven’t been fully exposed to that library – which has a substantial set of franchises.

Now here’s where things get a bit odd. Square Enix appears to have 3 main arms. First is FF14, which is without question their cash cow. Second is their modern IP development stream – which includes Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and new IP such as Outriders. Finally, there’s the nostalgia miners, the remakes of older games sold on other platforms. The FF pixel remasters are a great example of supremely low effort development, with high margins on sales. There really aren’t any other dev/publishing arms that are able to get all 3 streams working… perhaps Nintendo if they could figure out how emulation worked properly.

Compounding this is the Square Enix board’s bar for success. The Tomb Raider remake sold 3.4m copies in a month and was “below expectations“. FF15 had DLC cancelled. Outriders sold gangbusters and didn’t turn enough of a profit to pay the developers. Marvel Avengers was an attempt at games as a service without understanding how that model actually works. Babylon’s Fall, which met with amazingly low review scores, saved a few bucks in development by simply taking them from FF14.

I have no doubt that game development is expensive, especially when you add in the AAA flavors. It takes a crazy amount of sales to recoup the costs of a big dev team. Somehow we can get Horizon Forbidden West, without any microtransactions to turn a profit, or at least be worth the investment. There’s some sort of challenge here in managing expectations – and Square Enix appears to be extremely optimistic in their projections.

A known IP has a chance of breaching the million copies sold threshold, not a guarantee. It has to be both working and good. (Cue the death of the SimCity). There’s a balance to be had here, where timing and luck have some factor. Titanfall 2 is arguably the best FPS in years, but it launched in the wrong window. BF2042 had a ton of pre-orders, launched broken, suffered refunds, and is all but gone now.

A new IP has a tremendous mountain to climb to get any attention, let alone sales. Hades, a game of the year winner, barely broke a million sold. Dead Cells hit 5m. There are literally thousands of games released every month, how does one stand out from the rest? Babylon’s Fall had rather poor PR before launch, plays like crap, and is nowhere to be found now. It’s a heroic effort to launch a game, let alone a good one.

Cash cow is too disparaging for FF14, more like it’s the sustainable mine. There’s little argument that the game delivers the best MMO experience in it’s genre. There’s also little argument that the cash stop has some of the craziest price points possible. Enough conspiracies that new items go up when another game fails to meet its objectives.

The nostalgia mining is also quite evident. Chrono Trigger was/is available on nearly every device imaginable. FF games have been sold, remastered, remade, and resold for over a decade – often at $30 or more. This is easy money, for the most part. They can’t yet figure out how to get fonts to work properly in any of these games, but the function mechanically and scratch that itch. I’ve had various remakes of the games over time, mostly on my (still functioning!!!) Nintendo DS. Very high odds I’ll pick up Chrono Cross too.

All of this makes Square Enix a very strange company to predict. For every Outriders, we see a dozen Babylon Falls. Somehow 3m games sold is a disappointment. Or that Marvel Avengers is deemed worth saving (perhaps this is due to the IP contract with Disney). I do hope that they learn from the past games so that we don’t end up with the EA approach of completely unrealistic goals that close studios. Not everything can be Game of the Year quality, and experimentation is good. Perhaps this is the best way to fund that innovation.

Metroid Dread Redux

I figured I’d give it another go, after having done a few more metroidvanias on Switch. While some opinions are similar, others certainly have become stronger.

Perhaps it’s best to recognized what Metroid Dread is not, and that’s a game developed by fans of the genre. Where other games take a scalpel to the genre, and focus on refinement of systems, Dread is instead a game that leans heavily on its predecessors and its lore. Morph ball, bombs, missiles, varia suit and nearly every other gizmo you collect comes from a prior game – it’s focused on nostalgia as the selling point. It’s also quite short as compared to pretty much everything else in the genre, but again, this is par for the course for Metroid.

The high point is the Nintendo polish. The game plays smoothly, and the visuals are crisp. Movement is still the chief highlight of Metroid. I have a fundamental dislike to any dbl jump that is input limited (i.e. it won’t work if you press too fast/too late), but that quirk aside the game feels fluid. There’s enemy variety and the enemies who may have posed a challenge at the start are like tissues in the wind by the end. The “core” bosses are good challenges as well, with the need to react defensively to attacks. It feels like you either ace or fail a boss, which is new for this series. Rarely do you need to focus on more than 1 attack at a time, which is simplistic when compared to the rest of the genre. Excluding the low points mentioned below, the game feels good.

The mid-point is the secret / unlock portions. The more equipment you have, the more access to upgrades you have throughout the zones. Maybe you need a morph ball to get into a nook, or a spin jump to reach the height. Shinespark puzzles (think a chargeable dash) are interesting, but the controls are quite finicky. It adds some optional length to the game. You don’t need any of it, as there are no “challenges” to be found, but it’s good padding.

The hardest of all Shinespark puzzles. This one took me nearly 30m to get the timing right.

The “miss” here is the lack of variety in content. There’s a single story, with lore that only makes sense at the final boss. There is only 1 ending. There’s no secret areas or quests along the way. To boil it to a theme; Dread lacks any concept of choice, which is fundamental to the genre today.

The low point continues to be the EMMI sections. They are RNG loaded in the enemy pathing, and often 1 hit kills. Even as you get stronger, it has zero impact on these sections, which remain insanely frustrating. The “puzzles” to defeat each are gated behind multiple gates between zones, and then finding enough runway to pepper them with special bullets. The good news here is that these zones are limited in size and when the EMMI dies, become “normal”. The greatest joy in this game is traversing an EMMI free zone, as they are often large and sprawling.

Which gets me to my largest of all gripes, and that’s zone design. A metroidvania operates on a trunk/root system, where there is a main channel with multiple offshoots. You will hit gates that you simply cannot bypass due to lack of equipment/skills, and there are going to be shortcuts that link up zones as you go through. What they all focus on is exploration.

Dread is linear through teleportation. You’ll be in a zone, need to reach the other side, but have to leave that zone, transverse another, and then come back to the original one. There are multiple “zoning” areas, which give you a good 10 second loading screen. I am still amazed to be writing that sentence in 2022. For a game that highlights speed of traversal, you’re put into these areas of nothing happening. It’s bonkers.

The 2nd playthrough of Dread made me appreciate the foundations of the game more, but the execution on the ideas even less. It brings few ideas to the table, and EMMIs in particular can be put back in a corner. You can get Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Dead Cells, Guacamelee 2, and Bloodstained combined for the price of Dread. All of which are better games.

Chrono Cross Remaster

As predicted, Chrono Cross is getting a remaster. Also that it’s PC & Switch. April 7 no less.

The video is pretty quick to watch through. I was hoping for more from this. Sure the FMV were not going to get touched, and the core mechanics either. What appears to be done here is the application of a filtering layer on the main game content, and a HD textbox layout. Something that emulators have been doing for years now. And it would be hard to ignore the fact that SquareEnix has had a horrible time remastering anything without kitchen sink patches.

Features include:

・3D models converted to HD
・Refined character illustrations
・Higher-quality background music
・Switch enemy encounters on or off (which is odd, because this game didn’t have random battles)
・Background filter feature (not sure what this is)
・Battle enhancement features to make combat easier (I guess this will simplify field effects?)
・Auto-battle function (this will be interesting given the 40 characters)
・Switch between imitation pixel font and HD font
・Change screen resolution (this one is worrisome since it was built for 4:3)

Still, for $20 I can think of much worse places to spend money. I won’t pre-order and will probably wait a month or two so it gets patched properly, but it’ll be a nice summer pick up game.

Blasphemous – Take 2

I took a run through this game on the Switch in the fall, posted my thoughts, and it’s been a bit like that hum of a song that gets stuck in your head. I took another stroll through recently. My first run was about 45hrs total, this recent one was just around 20hrs. The “boss walls” just weren’t there this time, with more than a few that I took out on the first attempt. And yet…

There have been 3 DLCs for the game, most recently in December. The first (Dawn of Sorrows) was what I like to consider the kitchen sink patch – lots of quality of life changes, new bosses, and NG+. The second (Strife and Ruin) was a tie in with Bloodstained for some challenging timed platforming runs and a boss rush mode. The final one (Wounds of Eventide) adds some new zones, equipment, skills, and a new ending to better set up the sequel. I didn’t have access to this last DLC when I had my first play.

WoE adds a new zone that is like that Mario Kart race where you’re going backwards on a highway. Everything until that point is pretty good, and then the rules change a bit and it’s super hard mode. I died more getting to the boss of this zone than I did at the boss. The DLC also brings two bosses, the one at the end of that hard zone (a giant snake, which is an awesome fight) and then one in a secret chamber in your main hub. I tried that boss at various points, and it required a specific set up of skills, including one that provided invulnerability for most of her 3rd phase. It felt amazing taking her down.

And the story extension is also worth noting. The penultimate boss gets her own story arc, which adds a needed extension to the lore to the game. It was somewhat cryptic as to what the “Miracle” actually was, and the curtains are revealed. Blasphemous is a weird game, in that the story itself is a significant draw, but is a right mess to understand the messaging throughout. It was super satisfying to come out the end.

Now the reason this game has stuck so much is because of another game – Metroid Dread -which I played just before the holidays (~8hrs for 100%). I think one of the interesting bits in a metroidvania is the choice to player engagement. Dread does nothing to change the combat mechanics from start to end. You get a gun, you get missiles, and you get a parry. What you get to change things up is movement skills – dash, run, spin (borderline fly). This makes traversing the game not only faster but safer – and honestly super smooth. There’s no story to the game aside from 3 key points (the start, 75% point, and final boss) which means exploration for exploration’s sake. There’s only 1 ending – which is crazy in the genre today. The challenge comes in two flavors – memorizing boss patterns (every boss can be cleared without taking a hit) and the EMMI robots. EMMI robots feel like an RNG element, and any RNG that 1-shots you is not fun. Once they are cleared, the game becomes so much more fun.

Dread being the grandchild of the genre really accentuates how much the cousins have taken over. Playing through it I couldn’t help but think “Blasphemous did this better” or “Bloodstained was more engaging”, or “insert other metroidvania”. I’m not saying Dread is bad, far from it, but it’s not great. The only risk it takes is to add an insta-kill mechanic. Look at what Ori gave us? Hollow Knight? Guacamelee? This cycles back to a previous post where indie/small developers are taking core concepts and making magic from them. For all the garbage we get in the AAA space, and we gamers love to complain, there is still a massive amount of awesome and fun out there to find.

Death’s Door

I picked this up during the Switch holiday sale. It’s an odd game, with a mix of quite a few genres. Isometric combat, heavy use of dodge and small health pools (Dark Souls-ish), and a bit of the Zelda model of getting new toys to unlock new areas.

I think the Zelda comparison is better than Metroidvania, in that backtracking is entirely optional here, where in the other genre its required. There are reasons to backtrack, as collecting everything gets you the “true” ending, which can only be completed after you’ve done the main campaign. I think that’s a better model than forcing you to collect doodads and secrets before the last boss – again because this is more Zelda and Metroid.

The art style is solid, the controls are simple yet responsive, and the enemy variety is more than sufficient to require you to think on your toes. There are also plenty of environmental hazards, so that positioning is more important than pretty much anything else. It’s a game where you will die, a lot, and it never truly feels punishing. Which gets me to the level design point.

The game tends to focus on three level designs. The first (Cemetery) is a sprawling mess of being lost. There’s no map, no indicator of where to go and what to do, so you’re just going to explore until you figure it out. This is a problem after the first 2 bosses, as there’s no good indicator of what comes next. Less a fan of this.

The second is the loop forward. This is where there’s a single path that is barred at multiple stages, and you take “off ramps” of challenges to unlock the next gate. When you die (you will, many times), the path forward is shorter. This model is up there with Metroidvania, where new shortcuts are established as you go forward. This creates a high tempo gameplay, which is where the game really shines.

The third is the cloverleaf. This is where there’s a hub and you take leaf paths out, complete tasks that increase a counter in order to get to the next area. You’ll have to visit the leaves multiple times as each path unlocks more on another leaf. This is the Zelda model of dungeon design where it’s frankly more of a puzzle.

Bosses are an interesting bit. It’s pattern-based, and success is based more on flawless execution than much else. There are very few bosses, which is really quite fine by me. And each has a particular quirk that you need to discover to find success. The Frog King for example… if you don’t figure it out, then the floor will give way and the battle is over. Thankfully the pace of the battles is super quick, and you always feel like you’re progressing.

This is one of those more quirky games that doesn’t fit in a mold so well. That is was developed by a team of 2 people is simply bonkers. I’m certainly not done with studio games, but someone needs to take a serious look at how creativity works when we’re getting a dozen+ quality games a year from extremely small groups.

Well worth the purchase.

Obduction Review

From the makers of Myst and Riven comes a puzzle game with full world exploration and the same fundamental head on keyboard obtuse puzzles. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy puzzle games, virtual or real.

A good puzzle is framed through acts. There’s a discovery phase where things are new and you’re trying to figure out the angles to the puzzle. A familiarity phase, where you think things are under control. There’s the sudden hurdle or difficulty spike, where what you thought you knew gets twisted. Then there’s the resolution, and you move onto the next puzzle. Odds are that new puzzle uses some knowledge from the previous. Even if you have all that, the actual puzzle mechanics need some fluidity.

Obduction follows this approach of acts. The world gets progressively bigger as you go, and a numeric system (on 4s) is seen throughout. The puzzles start off simple enough, and then evolve into some rather significant backtracking / multiple environment affairs.

Myst and Riven were known for some rather obtuse puzzles that were predicated on finding some obscure detail. Obduction has a lot of that, where even finding the puzzles is its own exercise. It then reaches a point where they fall into what I like to call meta-puzzles, where the solution to a given puzzle is predicated on some piece in an area that seems completely unrelated. These puzzles can work, but only if the linkages are obvious once started, and the path between the areas is relatively simple to cross.

Where Obduction stumbles, and stumbles tremendously is in the travel time portion. The way the game is built, there are virtual “zones” that take time to load. Crossing certain thresholds means the game simply stops to load, then 3s later, it moves again. These aren’t frequent for the majority of the game. Except 2 particular puzzles, which are frustratingly long due to the load times. The Maze in particular took over 30 minutes when the solution was evident from the start, yet the tools were lacking. What I saw instead was the following screen, multiple times.

I would be remiss not to mention the sci-fi story that keeps this going. If you read all the notes, listen to all the bits, and put it together that is. The ending has two options, though you are more than likely to get the bad one if you play it straight (and the ability to save is oddly hard to find). The core concept is that an alien tree sprouts seeds that travel the galaxy and once they land, they transport the immediate vicinity to another location. Humans and 3 other races have found a way to talk to each other through the seeds and are trying to work out what to do next. You end up landing there just as conflict is hitting full pitch. The concept itself is actually quite good, if somewhat similar to the Myst book travel model.

I won’t shy away that this game had some incredibly frustrating bits to it, where I just gave up and resorted to an online guide. And even when I did get the solution, I realized there wasn’t much chance I was every going to divine it on my own. I completed the Witness without help, so there’s something to be said about the level of obtuse/inferred I can stomach.

Still, it’s not like there’s an abundance of puzzle games out there and Obduction has many of the qualities I’d hope to see in one. I’d recommend it on sale (~$10), but not much beyond that price. It’s brushes on the edge of tedium a tad too often, but has some striking visuals and some rather interesting new ideas along the way. I enjoyed it more than not, which I suppose is a recommendation after all.

Microsoft to Buy Activision-Blizzard

I don’t think anyone had this on their “weird stuff in 2022” bingo card. It feels more like a parachute plan for Bobby Kotick than much else, as he’ll be there for the purchase and get a crazy cut of the deal before heading into the sunset. Impressive how there are no meaningful consequences for the top.

I am not super in to this deal, for a multitude of reasons.

  • Microsoft has been on a crazy buying spree. $7B for Bethesda was a crazy purchase. Nearly $70B for this is just a stupid amount of money that few people who already make less than 6 figures will ever see. Except for perhaps Tencent and Roblox, no one else has that kind of dough.
  • I have a very strong dislike of monopolies. Very. And Microsoft makes all their money from it. Their business arm stifles innovation, until someone else starts stealing market share. Then they pull a Facebook and just steal the technology putting the other company under.
  • The terms of this purchase will be interesting to see. Console exclusivity + PC access are massive red flags to Sony’s Playstation – and Nintendo to some degree. 2 years ago the best exclusives were PS–only. Don’t think that will be the case moving forward.
  • In the somewhat good news department, Microsoft doesn’t seem to stick their fingers in the purchases too much. They have yet to pull an EA where they buy a company only to close it a year later.
  • Also good news is that Microsoft is somewhat “head above water” when it comes to malpractice on the games side of things. Now, their playerbase is right up there with LoL in terms of scum of the planet, but that’s really what happens when all you have to offer are FPS games.
  • This won’t fix anything in regards to Activision Blizzard culture for a long time. It will probably make it worse given that Microsoft lawyers are many notches better than people expect. All those lawsuits and unionization efforts… I would be quite surprised if that situation got any better.

Put another way, if Activision Blizzard hadn’t shot itself in the foot a dozen times and was a flaming wreck, would this purchase be seen as a positive? Like if it happened 2 years ago, what would people think of it then?

Microsoft is not some saviour here. There was some blood in the water, and the purchase price was certainly 30% off or more from what it would have been prior to the pandemic and crisis. This is a money making machine that needed a leadership change. I’d be baffled if Tencent hadn’t made a similar offer.

Here’s hoping that this ends up positive for the people working at the company as much as it can for gamers. I’m not holding my breath.

FF14 MSQ Complete

The thing I did here that I regret is that I had marathon sessions through, rather than taking more time to better absorb all the amazing the MSQ actually delivers. This is entirely due to the absolutely stupid queue lengths near peak times. Logging on at 10am means instant queues. Logging on in the evening is a 4hr queue. (Side note, this means that our guild is pretty much meaningless right now.)

I don’t plan on any spoilers here, though I suppose there may be a slip up here and there. I played through as a White Mage.

I mentioned this in my prior FF14 post, in that Endwalker is simply more FF14. You will get dungeons at the required levels, you will get trials at the required levels. You’ll have 6 zones to explore. You get “free” gear at 89, and piles of non-jewelry while leveling. The are maybe a dozen combat quests all the way through, though there are some solo duties to get through. Mechanically, there are no surprises here, which is frigging amazing.

I’ve yet to poke around with the Sage or Reaper. I don’t know how popular they are going to be long term; I certainly do see a bunch of reapers in my group content. None of my trials ever had a Sage, though as a healer that’s not really indicative. I will say that there is a substantial amount of content that requires massive healing output, which really plays to the WHM strengths. Also, Warriors are apparently immortal now. The fights do not necessarily add crazy new mechanics, but do require much more visual awareness of the boss rather than simply avoiding the fire. Most bosses have multiple tells that allow you to avoid major damage, some effects which will stack and probably cause wipes.

The art and music are the best FF has ever been. I don’t know what type of drugs they give the art team, but each environment is distinct and feels meaningful. The last 2 zones in particular are just spectacular to see.

The story… well you’ve read more than enough on it from multiple sources. I enjoyed it thoroughly, for multiple reasons. It’s a rare event where a story is able to both open and close threads that were spun nearly a decade ago. And the big bad here follows in the themes of Final Fantasy through and through. This is clearly a capstone story, as the end of the last zone until the credits is just chocked full of call backs and closure. I’m sure I’ll have some things to nit pick eventually but for now it’s about absorbing what was there. I don’t think it’s possible to enjoy this story without having played at least Shadowbringers, which is a hell of a time investment for anyone coming into FF14 cold.

I guess the real question here is “was it fun?” Without reservation. And technically, I’ve just dipped my toe in the ocean of content that’s here. Best of luck with those queues.