Category Archives: Playthrough

Nostalgia

My slow crawl back to more active gaming has continued this week with modern retro. It was time to check out the only (physical) PC game in my collection, Thimbleweed Park, which after a lengthy development period finally saw daylight last fall. Courtesy of graphic adventure grand old man Ron Gilbert, it provides a really impressive time trip back to the late 80’s and early 90’s when wild adventures by LucasArts and Sierra pretty much defined the gaming childhood of us old farts. For some reason the genre, as popular as it was back then, slowly sank into oblivion. No wonder, then, that the stylishly retro Thimbleweed Park immediately felt like the second coming of adventuring Jesus.

The game promises highest quality old school entertainment from its very beginning. The year is 1987 when two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, end up in the tiny hamlet of Thimbleweed Park (population 80) to investigate a local murder. Thematically it’s something along the lines of Twin Peaks or X-Files while visually it’s back to the early Lucasfilm days, although with a much more vibrant color scheme and pretty decent voice acting. Fans of the genre should feel right at home. Action verbs on the bottom left, inventory on the bottom right, and plenty of locations to explore with characters, items, discussions, and events each stranger than the previous ones. The cast of two playable characters soon grows to five, one of them having already passed on no less. Their fates are mysteriously interconnected and for a single night, the town of Thimbleweed Park acts as a grand stage for an adventure experience most abundant.

Although the challenge of any adventure game always depends on the player’s own noggin, the balance between sensible logic and sheer absurdity initially seems pretty good. As a delightful innovation in a game that is otherwise so (deliberately) old-fashioned, each character always carries a personal notebook that keeps a broad but consistent track of their personal goals. As for the town itself, it’s pleasantly compact at first, and when the exploration area eventually expands, a handy guide map allows quick travel to any location. Those familiar with the old adventure classics are showered with generous fan service at every possible turn, and both verbal and situational comedy work remarkably well.

This time the elephant-sized hole lies in Thimbleweed Park being an uncompromising journey to both the good but also the bad of old times. When the game mocks its former rival studio about how their games featured cheap sudden deaths to artificially lengthen the overall experience, that is fun. When I lost almost an hour of my own progress in a similar fashion, that was not. When the game laughs at pointless items that were used to confuse the player, that’s fun. It’s still mildly amusing that this game, too, features such items (and a LOT of them) but that you can simply toss them in the nearest trash bin. What is no longer fun is that it is also possible to accidentally bin something of actual importance. Thimbleweed Park makes a lot of fun about the cheapness of old graphic adventures only to troll its player in similar but often even more unpredictable ways.

Towards the end, puzzles become increasingly more abstract. When all characters are available and the entire play area open for exploration, there’s just too much to cover. Sure, the automatic notes are always there to tell what should be achieved but it’s still easy to hit a roadblock with all five characters. When eventually being able to make at least a little bit of progress, the joy sometimes lasts for about five seconds before getting stumped again. Granted, some dialogue probably hints vaguely on what might be worth trying but such hints easily drown into excessive noise. You can never be quite sure if the game is trying to pass on a hint or if it’s simply entertaining you with (genuinely funny) dialogue as it does 95% of the time.

As a polite gesture, Thimbleweed Park does feature an in-game hintline. It can be called at any point in the game to receive progressively clearer hints on how to solve any given puzzle but it goes without saying that resorting to something like that pretty much equals virtual seppuku for most self-respecting adventure gamers. Despite that, I eventually got so fed up with aimless wandering around that during the last three hours of the game, I abused it on an almost constant basis. Some of the solutions were simple enough to nearly make me hit myself but there were also many that would’ve probably taken me days to figure out and even then the revelation would have been along the lines of “Oooookay… So that’s what it was all about… Yeah, suuuure…”

On whole, Thimbleweed Park left me feeling slightly conflicted. It definitely does an absolutely brilliant job of resurrecting all that was so magical about past graphic adventures but it fails to fix many of the things that might have been part of the reason why they went out of style to begin with. Despite that, the approach itself is so commendable that if there’s ever going to be more in a similar vein, we’ll meet at the checkout line once more!

The Witcher Comeback

Oh, it’s February already? If sheer laziness doesn’t count, I only have two excuses for the silence of the past five weeks. Firstly, there haven’t yet been any new game releases this year that would’ve piqued my interest. Secondly, despite a sizable backlog, I ended up revisiting CD Projekt’s exquisite fantasy epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, complete with all the DLC and everything. Although I had already experienced all of that before, the adventures of the Witcher Geralt turned out to be just as enchanting and content-rich the second time around. Even the pivotal main and side quests once again took well over a hundred hours and the world map is still littered with tons of minor locations to explore. In both good and bad sense, the game is just plain massive.

In this entry, I mostly focus on how replay value holds up. Probably the most surprising thing was still the vastness of the game world. Even White Orchard, essentially just a tutorial area, felt delightfully large only to pale in comparison to the desolate quagmires of Velen and the hustle and bustle of the free city of Novigrad. There’s just so much to see and do that it might start to feel excessive even before embarking to the rocky shores of Skellige, let alone the duchy of Toussaint introduced in the Blood and Wine DLC.

The game’s story branching was surprising, too, given how often the player is given a choice to affect the outcome of pretty much every main and side quest, sometimes in minor but often in major ways. One might think that the second time would be perfect for trying out alternative ways of resolving things, yet I constantly found myself making the same choices as the first time around, even the same gross misjudgments included. I guess this is at least partially to do with the player’s own moral compass but also the fact that there are often no easy, predictable outcomes available. Besides, even the most tragic of fates have been written with such care that they feel like a natural, necessary part of the story despite there perhaps having been a chance for things to go better.

I was quite happy how well the game has been patched over the years, getting rid of a large number of minor bugs and improving the user interface. Still, some core problems were never addressed. For example, the most challenging Death March difficulty is absolutely thrilling for the first few hours when even the most basic of foes can pose a lethal threat to an inexperienced Witcher. However, after leveling up Geralt even just to character level 7-10, new skills and constantly improving gear start tipping the scales the other way. After a few dozen hours fighting becomes a routine and by the time of the DLC, Geralt has become so overpowered that nothing feels genuinely threatening anymore.

Also, the game’s economy is still as broken as ever. The street value of a magical sword can equal that of a roasted chicken leg, and if slaying a fierce monster is worth a few hundred crowns, that hardly feels like a reward when you already have tens of thousands in the coin pouch. Merchants practically never have anything worthwhile to buy as the game world is bursting out of its seams with useful and valuable loot of all kinds. The DLC introduce a couple of places where Geralt can squander away all the pointless wealth amassed during the main game but even those only serve to emphasize just how meaningless money in the game is.

In hindsight, the best way to truly enjoy this game is to approach it calmly. During both of my playthroughs, I made the mistake of going from village to village, eagerly picking up any and every side quest available. This caused my mission log and the game world to be so full of stuff that going through them turned into arduous, monotonic work. Sure, even the smallest of side quests are genuinely written but the basic theme always remains the same: go somewhere to find or kill something. I’m quite certain the game would entertain a lot better in small doses over the course of several months (or even years) rather than trying to wolf it all down in quick succession.

Despite all this, I have to admit The Witcher 3 earns all of its acclaim. Its fantasy is as stark as it is beautiful, and everything in it has been produced with such dedication and attention to detail that it’s a blast even when replayed.

Around the Park in 79 Days

Since I was already shopping at PlayStation Store, I also ended up buying Firewatch, Campo Santo’s fairly well-received debut adventure from 2016. It stars Henry, a man broken by life’s surprising curve balls. He decides to get away from pretty much everything and takes a job as a reclusive fire lookout in the Yellowstone National Park. The only one to keep him company is chatty Delilah, a lookout on the neighboring watchtower. Although Henry has never met her, they quickly end up forming a long distance (work) relationship through radio. Days go by with small talk, long hikes, and dealing with drunken teenagers, although it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it should. There are shadowy people lurking about, park visitors either go missing or have gone missing ages ago, Henry and Delilah find out they’re being eavesdropped, and some areas have been suspiciously fenced up. Amid all these mysteries, Henry is still expected to take care of his post and ensure that an exceptionally hot and dry summer won’t end up in a catastrophic wildfire.

Probably the first thing the player notices is the openness of this first person exploration adventure. Henry has been put in charge of a fairly vast area and the game isn’t that much into hand-holding. If the man has to do some routine patrolling or spots something peculiar in the horizon, the route has to be figured out with frequent glances to a map and a compass. Even if merely walking around in the middle of beautiful nature has its charm, Firewatch is first and foremost about the chemistry between Henry and Delilah. They’re both adults, slightly broken personalities who possess a delightfully cynical attitude towards life, complemented by crude humor. Their abundant interaction supports an otherwise tranquil story most well, especially as the player is frequently given a chance to choose how Henry reacts.

In real-time, Henry’s two and a half month summer job takes about four hours to experience. This time consists of plenty of peace of nature, remarkable sunrises and sunsets, magnificent vistas, rappelling down cliffs, discovering abandoned campsites, and getting caught up in odd, increasingly unnerving events. As a slight blemish, gaining access to some areas can feel awkward and implausible, and even the overall story stumbles a little towards the end. This is, however, easy to forgive as the main attraction is still very much the chance encounter of two imperfect souls only via walkie-talkies. Granted, when all is said and done, Firewatch is another release that is game in name only but like so many of these “walking simulators” have shown, this media is perfectly suitable for mere stories, too. Me likey.

Edith, Edith, Who the F*** Is Edith?

That’s pretty much what I was asking myself when going through other players’ lists of the best games of last year. Quite many of them mentioned What Remains of Edith Finch, whose developer Giant Sparrow sounded oddly familiar. After a bit of thinking, I remembered that they were the studio behind the really quite lovely The Unfinished Swan back in 2012. Since What Remains of Edith Finch happened to be on PlayStation Store’s sale this month, I had no choice but to see what sort of potential hit had managed to fly under my usually so finely tuned radar. Now, only a couple of short hours later, I have to admit that despite the experience having been a fleeting one, it was also an extremely beautiful and touching little story.

Despite being just 17, Edith Finch is the last of her kin. As years have gone by, all Finches have either disappeared or died, often in the most peculiar of circumstances. After being away for six years, Edith returns to her childhood home in order to get better acquainted with her roots that some claim to be cursed. Although the doors of the derelict mansion are seamed shut, the house is full of hidden passages through which Edith finds her way around to learn more about the life and fate of her ancestors. Through letters and diaries, she gets drawn into flashbacks that make her experience the last moments of her family through their eyes. As creepy as that might sound, the game most certainly isn’t a horror adventure but a wistful and mystic journey full of captivating fantasy.

As a first-person adventure, What Remains of Edith Finch is pure exploration with all interaction limited to just walking around and activating miscellaneous hotspots with the controller’s shoulder button. The narrated thoughts of both Edith and other Finch family members float nicely around the environment, taking care of not just storytelling but also gently guiding the player along. Although the abandoned mansion is pretty huge, the adventure is remarkably straightforward and much more about soaking everything in than actually playing as such. And that’s about all that can be said to avoid spoilers. All the magic stems from the melancholic but also remarkably eccentric fate of each Finch, often ripping open the fabric of reality.

In a nutshell, What Remains of Edith Finch is an impressive fairy tale for grown-ups, one that can easily make the player even a little misty-eyed. Its short length, deliberate tranquility, and lack of genuine gameplay elements might not be for everyone but for those interested in emotionally powerful stories, it’s a journey most fine and memorable!

Punful Days with a Side Order of Cats

Spirry just being her (?) lovable curt self

Good quality games can pop up from anywhere around the world. Yesterday, this claim was proved by the Singaporean indie studio The Gentlebros, whose consciously tongue-in-cheek cat action RPG Cat Quest managed to glue me to the telly for all of its eight hours’ worth. Its nameless feline hero is in trouble from the very beginning. A wicked white cat, Drakoth, kidnaps his sister and starts terrorizing the hapless, peasant-filled kingdom of Felingrad with ancient dragons. As luck would have it, our poor hero turns out to be a descendant of the mythical dragon slayers. Granted, he’s also very much the silent type but that’s not really an issue as he’s soon joined by a jovial and chatty cat spirit Spirry. Together, these two end up pouncing all over Felingrad, foiling Drakoth’s dastardly plans while bumping into pretty much every imaginable, most awkward cat pun in known existence.

After a delightfully compact intro, almost the entirety of Felingrad is immediately open for exploration. The whole game world is literally a map that has been filled with amusingly named areas, villages, dungeons, and a bunch of cutesy monsters. The latter are beaten in fluent real-time combat that is based on skillfully simplified controls. One button is reserved for attacking and another for nimby rolling away from harm’s way. The four shoulder buttons of the controller, in turn, can be customized to fling spells sold and enhanced by Felingrad’s mage kittens. Although magic is powerful, it requires mana that can only be restored in melee combat, so all brawls require at least a modicum of tactical thinking. As for items or shops, there are none. Village inns are just free save spots and practically all weapons and gear are acquired from cat chests within dungeons.

In order to keep the player suitably leveled up for the main story, all villages have notice boards providing plenty of miscellaneous side quests. Some of them end up teaching the hero essential special skills such as the ability to walk on water or even fly. Most of them, though, are merely simple variations of themes such as “fetch something”, “go somewhere”, “kill all”, or usually all three rolled into one. While this sort of lazy and haphazard quest design would poison pretty much any game, Cat Quest sports a full house of cuteness and (good) bad humor but, most importantly, exemplary pacing. Since all the quests and dungeons are extraordinarily short, those eight hours are perfectly adequate to complete all 62 side quests, triumph over all 52 dungeons, and even level up the hero all the way up to 99. Even if the entire adventure ends up repeating itself from the very beginning to the very end, the pace itself is so delightfully brisk that the repetition never has time to turn into an actual issue. Since all quests and dungeons are even polite enough to hint what their recommended character level is, there’s not even need for pointless grinding.

Whereas so many games, indies in particular, expect their players to come around and then stay around for extended, often unreasonably long periods of time, Cat Quest is lovably honest. It is fully aware of its capability to provide goofy entertainment for no more than a day or so, but it also does its darnedest to ensure that day will be as entertaining as possible. That’s exactly how mine turned out, so mission accomplished and two thumbs up!

That aforementioned mini-gem also kicked off this year’s shopping coverage as Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park actually managed to find its new home during the very last days of 2017. Not only is it my first (and most likely last) physical PC release, it’s most certainly one of the finest commemorations to all those wonderful Lucasfilm graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. You know, those games that were loved by so many of us modern day geezers who were too broke and flippant as teenagers back then. Even if the likes of Good Old Games have since then given us a chance to atone digitally, those big boxes of the past remain just as awesome as they once were.

Flogging an (Un)dead Horse

Even Clementine knows how the story will go

My gaming year seems to continue in a gloomy fashion, even if Japanese spirits have already been replaced by American undead. Telltale’s five-episode The Walking Dead: A New Frontier culminated in last May but I once again waited for a retail release to enjoy this third season in one fell swoop. Although the series’ long-standing heroine Clementine is still very much around, the spotlight now falls primarily on former baseball player Javier Garcia and his makeshift family. Not only do they have daily trouble with the undead, they also have to deal with the titular New Frontier; a notorious group of settlers operating from Richmond. As expected, in a collapsed society humans can be an even bigger threat than zombies, so both Clementine and Javier’s posse soon end up fighting not just for their survival but their humanity as well.

Rewinding time for about five years, Telltale had just published their first The Walking Dead which handily ended up rejuvenating almost the entire genre of graphic adventures. Although the game didn’t feature much in the way of actual gameplay, this was easily forgiven. The chilling story that delivered a constant barrage of tough moral dilemmas altering its flow took the gaming world by storm, myself included. It was a wild success story that surprised players and maybe even the studio itself. Since then, however, things have backfired. The studio churns out its episodic adventures with such a hectic pace that it’s hard to get excited about them. The likes of The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands still worked because of their original source material but as for The Walking Dead, even its second season started to repeat itself and A New Frontier only manages to do the same in an even more pronounced fashion.

This latest story is less than seven hours in length, which is actually a good thing as everything is already overly familiar. The zombies are nothing more than a tired source of mandatory drama, nonchalantly dealt with in various gory ways via simple QTE button presses. All humans, in turn, are almost predictable in their capriciousness with all interactions irrevocably leading to increasingly more dire situations. The weight of having to make painful decisions and deal with the consequences worked once, in the first game. By the second one, that charm was already thinning out and now everything is just plain awkward; no matter the choices, things are guaranteed to only get worse. The game hasn’t got a single plot twist or action sequence that wouldn’t feel recycled in some way and thus even the saddest of fates no longer manages to raise any eyebrows.

If anything, it’s at least nice to see how Telltale’s notoriously stuttering game engine finally runs smoothly on PS4. Sadly Javier’s satchel in particular is prone to many weird graphical glitches that easily ruin cutscenes for long periods of time. The retail copy is a bit disappointing, too, as only the first episode is on disc while the remaining four have to be individually downloaded from the PSN store.

Despite all this naysay, A New Frontier is a passable Telltale production. It’s unsurprising, yet still reasonably entertaining one-night stand, especially if picked up from a bargain bin. Unfortunately it also teases a fourth season that will most likely meet the same fate; this series simply doesn’t seem to have any ideas or content left.

Chibi Scares

That’s not what I meant wanting to cut ties with you!

Scary merry New Year to all fellow gamers! Scary mostly because I lack all sense of sensible timing and decided to kick off 2018 with a release that would have felt more at home during Halloween. Then again, those who are not into horror have nothing to fear; Yomawari: Midnight Shadows draws much less from cheap jump scares as it does from gloomy melancholy and Japan’s exceptionally bountiful spirit mythology. The game revolves around childhood friends Haru and Yui, who enjoy a cheery late-summer fireworks show before heading back home through a dark and foreboding forest. Sadly, malicious spirits soon appear to separate the girls from each other. What’s worse, such apparitions even patrol the streets and alleyways of their suddenly desolated home town. Both girls wish nothing more than to be reunited, so they have no recourse but to brave the night and head out to the streets in search of one another while desperately trying to figure out what has happened.

Since it’s not very realistic to expect elementary school kids to have a fighting chance against forces of darkness, Yomawari is all about survival horror. Some spirits can be vanquished, halted, or at least made visible with the beam of a flashlight, and it might even be possible to harm some by pelting them with rocks. Still, hands down the best way to survive is to run away as fast as a rapidly depleting stamina meter allows. Billboards, discarded cardboard boxes, and bushes act as good impromptu hiding places when something wicked just won’t give up a chase. Ten yen coins picked up from here and there, on the other hand, are just perfect for activating Jizo statues that serve both as save points and handy warp portals to the various parts of the girls’ little home town (and eventually even the neighboring town).

Alternating regularly between Haru and Yui, the really quite loose and vague story has very little else going for it. Coupled with moments of aimless wandering around in free roam style, the adventure leads the girls’ to haunted mansions, sewers, derelict train yards, and many other spooky places that aren’t ever pleasant to explore in nighttime. Every now and then they come across slightly bigger menaces, although these confrontations, too, are mostly about madly scampering away from lethal attacks.

The biggest issue about Yomawari is that it seems to love folklore more than it does storytelling. Haru, Yui, and their eventual fates are merely grace notes to a huge bunch of imaginative spirits. Sadly, learning the nature and how to either avoid or banish each of them is – at least from a western perspective – a matter of trial and error leading to dozens and dozens of deaths on the way. Not that game over itself would be much of a threat. Death simply means returning to the last activated save point, even with all collected items still in tow. The biggest hurdles in making progress are the excessive cheapness of some spirits and the sheer boredom of having to trek back to the point of last demise. Having only a couple of seconds to react to many threats, or even dying without knowing what just happened are fairly frequent occurrences. Both Haru and Yui are annoyingly slow when walking and not much faster when sprinting, especially as panic depletes their otherwise ample stamina meter within seconds. All of this contributes to the game being more about sheer frustration than actual suspense or fear.

The production values aren’t much better. The isometric chibi graphics can be beautiful and detailed at times but the sounds are overly sparse. There’s no spoken dialogue or even music (apart from the ending credits), so the roughly seven-hour-long journey is only about footsteps, heart bumps, chirping cicadas, and various moans and growls of nearby spirits. Even with a comprehensive guide, it takes almost as much time to locate everything the two towns have to offer, as they both feature plenty of small, inconsequential junk serving no other purpose than to be collected. At least it’s nice to be able to still grab everything during the post game but a chore is still a chore.

Sure, Yomawari can be amusingly weird in that unique, deeply Japanese way, and its rich assortment of spirits is at least moderately enchanting. As it stands, however, it’s mostly just a mundane slaughterhouse of cute chibi characters, which isn’t really that entertaining, especially as so many others have already done something similar in the past. Still, it’s at least an initial benchmark for 2018, so thanks, I guess, and with that I’m off to find the next contestant!

D’awwwww!

This gaming year sticks into mind not only because of its decent overall quality but also because colorful platformers seem to be making at least a moderate kind of comeback. Sadly, big companies still rely mostly on established brands and HD remakes of their past hits. Although playing safe like that is mildly boring, the world is lucky to have pioneers like Gears for Breakfast. It’s a small newcomer studio whose crowdfunded debut game A Hat in Time turned out to be quite the Christmas miracle. According to the developers themselves, the game is a “cute-as-heck 3D platformer.” Not only is that a very accurate description, the game has no trouble leaping to the very top of the entire genre, proudly showcasing how all it takes is a bit of fresh ingredients to bring back the once forgotten charm of its mid-90’s beloved brethrens.

The protagonist of the game is known simply as the Hat Kid, a young girl whose interstellar home trip is interrupted on the orbit of a mafia planet. After a brief toll dispute, her ship takes a bit of damage that sends both her and her ship’s fuel source, 40 magical hourglasses, plummeting to the surface of the planet. The journey back home can resume only after retrieving the fuel, so it’s time for another traditional collectathon. The planet has been divided into four reasonably vast open world areas, each featuring ten more or less story-driven acts. The girl’s ship acts as a central hub from where she can challenge these acts in any order, although entirely new areas require a certain number of retrieved hourglasses and some acts cannot be completed before acquiring specific gear from the others.

The nimble Hat Kid masters basic necessities like double jumping and air gliding from the get-go, while an ordinary umbrella acts both as a useful melee weapon and a makeshift parachute when daring leaps turn out to be a little too daring. On top of these rather ordinary skills, the stages feature balls of yarn that can be transformed into new hats that provide unique special powers such as sprinting, making massive leaps off special platforms, concocting explosive potions, or even slowing down time itself. The hats can be further enhanced by badges found or bought. They provide further bonuses such as faster recharging of hat powers, an immensely useful throw hook, or a magnet for automatically pulling in nearby collectibles.

In order for a game to be an action-adventure instead of “merely” a platformer, it needs a story and a bunch of great characters. This is an area where the game truly excels. Not only is the ever-positive Hat Kid perhaps the most endearing heroine ever, the planet is full of eccentric personalities. As well as whooping mafia butt, the girl gets tangled in movie world power struggle between penguins and owls, has to do odd jobs to reclaim her spirit after it gets stolen by a pompous shadow spirit, and hurtle around majestic mountains aiding the local goat people. It’s a highly amusing adventure with constant surprises and plenty of excellent voice acting and music.

On top of all this, A Hat in Time is pleasantly challenging. The end bosses of each area in particular are long, impressive clashes that require far more than, say, landing three easy hits. Instead, they are all about frantic dodging of massive attacks while trying to desperately spot brief openings for a bit of counter damage. It’s hard to avoid retries, hearty cussing, and maybe even a rage quit or two, but in some weird way the game never feels cheap. Sure, the camera can occasionally be a little temperamental, making it unnecessarily hard to leap with precision, but that’s a pet peeve of pretty much any 3D platformer. The trophies, however, deserve another tip of the hat, challenging the player to complete individual acts in unorthodox ways or simply as flawlessly as possible. To see and experience everything took me around 18 hours, so A Hat in Time is delightfully rich in content, too.

Hands down the best thing about the game, though, is how it takes a little rookie studio to show the whole game industry that it’s perfectly possible to create a first-class 3D platformer without always relying on Nintendo and Mario. I, for one, would have happily bought this even as a full price retail game and still feel like getting value for my money. A Hat in Time brings back a once cherished genre with such flair and admirable originality that bigger boys should definitely take notice. One of the most stellar shows in 2017, Gears for Breakfast! More of this, please!

Although a couple of deliveries are still on their way (hopefully, at least), it looks like games shopping for this year is now done. Come next year, I’ll be going for more indie kicks with Thomas Happ’s acclaimed Metroidvania Axiom Verge. Also, even if A Hat in Time will be very hard to beat, I still want to see if one blast from the past, Yooka-Laylee, would quench whatever thirst of 3D platformers I might have left.

Charted by the Book

Even if this year is already on its last legs, there’s still a few more days left to prune the backlog and bump into memorable experiences. In a way, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy could have been one such instance but just like the current year, the series, too, seems to be on its way out. I still remember year 2007 when the first Uncharted managed to set the whole action-adventure genre on fire. The charm of the delightfully roguish Nathan Drake worked wonders from the very beginning, climbing in breathtaking scenes was wild and exciting, taking out mercenaries in cover-based shootouts was the epitome of fun, and the story was pure Indiana Jones in the best possible way. “Why don’t developers make more gems like these?” I remember pondering. A decade later, this once so very enchanting formula has been replicated both by Naughty Dog and rival studios so many times that its taste has gone a bit stale.

The Lost Legacy is, for all intents and purposes, the sixth Uncharted. This time around ancient relic hunting takes place in the jungles of India, although the already weary Nathan Drake is given a well earned day off. Instead of him, the stage is given to two women familiar from the earlier games, the fortune hunter Chloe Frazer and ex-mercenary Nadine Ross, who face off against a local insurgent leader Asav. It’s a familiar setup followed by an even more familiar selection of incredibly beautiful scenery, loads of treacherous leaping and climbing, puzzles hidden in decrepit ruins, and plenty of confrontations with Asav’s troops, most of which can be handled just as head-on or as sneaky as one prefers. Before settling into a traditionally driven story, the game is even kind enough to provide a small open world area which Chloe and Nadine are free to explore in a jeep, checking out various interesting locations in their own pace and order.

It’s quite hard to be critical of The Lost Legacy as it’s pretty much the most polished and structured Uncharted ever. It brings in most of the stuff that worked in the previous games while ditching elements that were less entertaining. The balance between bombastic action and tactical stealth is almost spot on, and everything there is is bigger, better, and especially more beautiful than ever before. It’s even hard to miss Drake, as the chemistry between Chloe and Nadine is most excellent and the duo does a really good job keeping up that distinctive, jovial dialogue that has become a loved hallmark of the entire series.

However, the Indian elephant-sized problem lies in the fact that The Lost Legacy is, indeed, already the sixth Uncharted. As brilliant as it is both technically and in production values, absolutely everything featured has been seen way too many times already. Making death-defying leaps on treacherous mountainsides no longer feels thrilling rather than a boring and predictable necessity, the ancient ruins, statues, and puzzles are a dime a dozen, and taking out hostile troops is just plain perfunctory. The race against Asav for yet another priceless artifact begins, progresses, and culminates in the most expected of ways, and thus the entire eight-hour journey fails to leave any kind of lasting impression.

It’s not that The Lost Legacy does anything wrong as such. It’s just that despite the new leads and settings, it’s disappointingly by the numbers. Even the best of formulas is usually good for no more than a trilogy, and that’s what Naughty Dog seems to have forgotten. Even if The Lost Legacy is its developers’ obvious love letter to a decade-old franchise, it is the first victim of its own success. Fun but ultimately lackluster.

Demon Dating

It took a little while but everything is once again fine in Asteria. Demon Gaze II yielded after about 35 hours and, despite a few minor gripes, turned out to be a merry little adventure all the way to its ending credits and even beyond. During his journey, the Demon Gazer befriended so many demons that the inn actually ran out of stat-boost-providing rooms to accommodate all of them. No harm done, as leveling up absolutely everyone to a useful level would have been too arduous, anyway. As well as battle experience and lodging, demons are refined via dating. In practice, this means a silly little mini-game in which they are given “maintenance” by locating and poking sweet spots on their bodies. As their intimacy towards the hero grows, they gain new abilities and unlock humorous cutscenes that nicely deepen their otherwise somewhat inconspicuous characters. Although this feature is decidedly lewd and mischievous in nature, the demons include not just cute girls but also bishounen boys and burly men, meaning that there’s a wholesome amount of ecchi for players of both genders.

If Demon Gaze II started out as easy, it’s latter half is challenging enough to raise blood pressure. Grinding and constantly renewing (or upgrading) gear is a must, as an unlucky hit even in an everyday encounter can knock out a feebly equipped demon in one swing. This is especially aggravating as revival items are fairly rare and most of them only revive back to one pathetic hit point. It’s a traditionally cheap design decision that means knocked out characters are better revived by hightailing it back to the inn. Trying to revive them in the heat of a battle ties up too many valuable resources and, mostly thanks to capricious turn order, rarely even works. Although constant retreating is annoying, it’s at least possible to select any previously visited square on a dungeon map, causing the party to navigate there swiftly and automatically.

As for the dungeons themselves, Demon Gaze II is fairly lenient. Sure, there’s the usual selection of devious conveyor belts, trap plates, one-way doors, and teleports, but at least they’re used in much more moderation than in many other games of the same genre. It’s not until the post-game dungeons that the game truly begins to troll its player but at that point the party is already tough enough to survive even if navigating through the dungeons requires plenty of trial and error. Such cheapness is even more tolerable as the post-game provides an exceptionally generous fan service treat to anyone who enjoyed the original adventure.

If the platform isn’t an issue, Demon Gaze II feels more suited for the Vita. As gorgeous as the enemy art can be, everything looks uncannily huge on a big screen TV and the PS4 version hasn’t even been enhanced in any way. Also, the guys responsible for audio have been slacking. Although the original voice acting is good quality as such, the voice levels themselves are strangely subdued and even fluctuate noticeably between characters. Still, that’s about all the naysay I can muster. Although the game brings nothing particularly new to a genre that might already be a little too tired for its own good, it still rises well above average due to its emphasis on storytelling, frisk pacing, and rewarding loot mechanics. It’s a very solid sequel to an excellent game, and that’s already more I dared to hope for!