What I’m Playing: June 2019

With E3 in full tilt this week, I figured now was a good time to chip away at some games that have long since left the zeitgeist. I just picked up a used New 3DS XL along with a few of the games people deemed essential. I’ve missed all of Nintendo’s portable output since my original launch DS kicked the bucket, so I’m excited to catch up on a stupid number of quality games.

 

Super Mario 3D Land

Main thought so far: really wish I enjoyed this game more. Granted I’m only a couple of worlds in, but I’m just not as hooked on this as I was expecting. I fell head over heels for Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U and thought I would feel that same magic here, but it hasn’t come yet. I know that plenty of Mario games don’t open up until you get to the late or end-game content so I’m not calling it quits just yet. The use of the 3D effect is novel and welcome, and the overall design is charming as hell, but it’s just too easy so far. I hope I’m forced to eat crow as I progress further. Prove me wrong, Nintendo.

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Possibly the biggest blind spot in my gaming knowledge (shudder) is the Legend of Zelda franchise. The only game in the series that I’d sunk significant time into prior to this is Breath of the Wild, which (from what I understand) is such a significant departure from the classic formula that it probably doesn’t inform me much on what the rest of the entries are like. I think I may have picked a great entry point then, because A Link Between Worlds has been an absolute delight thus far.

Devoid of any amount of real nostalgia for A Link to the Past, my experience playing this game has been sublime. I’m getting locked into loops of exploration, discovery, and puzzle solving that are on the level of the Resident Evil 2 remake from earlier this year (that’s a very good metric for me). The biggest gripe I heard about the game before playing it was in relation to the weapon rental system. I don’t find it annoying so much as I find it arbitrary? I’ve only ever died a handful of times so far, which realistically set me back about 500 rupees. And once I hit the point where I could purchase the weapons outright from Ravioli boy, I had enough cash in hand to already buy half of them. The system hasn’t impacted how I play very much, besides acting as a modest death tax earlier in the game. Compared to the weapon breaking in Breath of the Wild, the item rentals in A Link Between Worlds is a minor part of my experience.

I’ve been moving through this game like water and can’t wait to see what else it has to offer.

 

Superhot VR

The original Superhot is maybe the greatest game jam gimmick to be spun into its own full release. The concept of “time moves when you do” was iterated wonderfully and lasted exactly as long as it needed to for that game. I wouldn’t have thought there would be a whole lot else to do with that bare skeleton of an idea without creating something that overstayed it’s welcome, but VR has added a bit more runway for it. While playing Superhot on PC with a keyboard and mouse was a surprising and wonderful experience, Superhot VR feels like the definitive experience. It’s tough as nails and a true workout near the end, but it proves that there is still more juice to be squeezed from this concept.

 

The New York Times Crossword

As sure as the sun will rise, I will always suck at the crossword.

 

On the Horizon

The next new(ish) release I’m looking forward to playing is without a doubt Outer Wilds. The demo/beta is already my favorite adventure/mystery game I’ve ever played, and the new release looks like a polished, refined and expanded version of that. Once I clear through a few more games I will find a quiet weekend to sit down and fall deep into that. Also looking to get through Nier: Automata as I can tell that that game is dealing with some sci-fi/philosophical concepts that are right up my alley. That one might have to wait until the wonderful sunshine and weather of the summer passes.

 

 

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DeathBall Is Elegant Wizard Soccer

DeathBall is a 1v1 arcade game developed by Tony Hauber, and it is elegant as hell. Each player controls a small wizard that must attempt to knock the “DeathBall” into the other players goal, i.e. the classic game of wizard soccer loved around the world. If you’re not already sold on the phrase “wizard soccer” you may be a joyless chump, but not all hope is lost for you yet. Let’s try to briefly break down what makes DeathBall so damn exciting. The game (mostly) consists of these rules and mechanics:

  • Player has infinite jumps – let’s call each jump after a ground jump an “air jump
  • The DeathBall is a physics driven object
  • Every air jump creates a bubble that can collide with the Deathball
  • Bubbles are stationary and immovable as long as they exist
  • The bubble only lasts until the next air jump is made – this means the player can land on the ground, make ground jumps, and leave their bubble spawned during that time.
  • Each goal is surrounded by a spherical slow-mo zone (best I could do) that reduces game speed when the DeathBall enters it
  • Players can perform a slide tackle by holding the jump button and pointing the control stick down. This gives them a speed boost and will hit the ball up at an angle
  • Most of the play fields employ curved surfaces and screen wraparound
  • The slide tackle can be used on curved surfaces to launch the player

While games like DeathBall can seem simple at first blush, there are usually more rules in place than are immediately obvious, as evidenced by the list above. Still, DeathBall achieves elegance by having a lean design that is not overstuffed with mechanics for its purpose, and having those mechanics interact with each other on a moment to moment basis. To demonstrate this point, here is a totally scientific, definitely accurate, completely comprehensive and infallible diagram connecting the rules and mechanics:

Deathball Diagram

yep, definitely all correct

While not perfect, the diagram does demonstrate the idea that these mechanics interact and collide constantly. There isn’t a superfluous or unused idea either – every part of the design is on display through the act of play. Players are constantly jumping; jumping creates bubbles; bubbles collide with the DeathBall and send it flying; flying DeathBalls frequently end up near goals; DeathBalls near goals cause the player and DeathBall to slow down; palms sweat profusely; players use bubbles to deflect ball out of goal; yelps of relief (or frustration) are heard; bystanders glare; repeat.

Not only do these mechanics constantly interact, they are recognizable and easy to understand. The average person understands the basic rules of soccer, and the same average person will likely understand the basics of a platformer (e.g. “Mario moves and jumps”). The core mechanics to the game are familiar so when the unfamiliar mechanics do show up, they aren’t overwhelming.

The final result is a game that feels chaotic and frenetic, but precise and accessible. The elegant and lean design is the catalyst for a multitude of emergent situations between two players, shoulder to shoulder at a cabinet. I’m incredibly eager for this game to grow further. Check out some gameplay below, or if you’re lucky enough to have a cabinet near you, play it for yourself.

Just the Essentials: Games That Streamline Difficult Genres

I’ve recently become more attune to my personal tastes in games, and what I’ve realized is (for the moment) I don’t tend to stick with games or even specific genres for terribly long. With the breadth and variety of design on display right now I’m content with being a tourist, hopping along from one novelty to the next. The downside is I feel I am missing out on games that demand a “hobby-grade” amount of time from their players. Games like Hearts of Iron, Dwarf Fortress, and Dota 2 seem like they can return what the player puts in tenfold, but for me the return has yet to be worth the initial investment.

But I still want to have my cake and eat it too. Because of this, some of my favorite games of the past few years are those that either streamline, simplify, or distill the experiences of these impenetrable games into a scope that I can manage. Spending fifteen hours just to wrap my head around the basics of a MOBA can be turned into thirty minutes and a few beers with Killer Queen, or spending hundreds of dollars and wiki hours assembling a Magic: The Gathering deck becomes a couple hours playing different games of Dominion. That’s not to say that these games I’m listing are either watered down experiences or perfect substitutes for other games; they simply deliver similar mechanics and experiences in a way that fits my current tastes and commitment level. Maybe one day I will sink enough time into Crusader Kings 2 to breed bastard princes and make 4 failed assassination attempts on the queen of France, but for now I’ll be more than happy with these games.

Rimworld

Ludeon Studios (PC, Mac, Linux)rimworld

This game is for everyone that has read a Reddit comment recounting a Dwarf Fortress story, thought “holy moly where has this game been all my life”, gone to Bay12games.com, downloaded it and physically felt the excitement drain out of themselves after hammering at an ASCII world for twenty minutes. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Dwarf Fortress; it’s a wonderfully impenetrable game by nature. But people like me can’t help but crave the moments that emerge from the multitude of systems that make the game so difficult to play.

Rimworld has given me plenty of those Dwarf Fortress-esque stories, but these were happening in the first couple hours instead of in the first hundred hours. Developer Ludeon Studios made the excellent decision to include dynamic tips and tutorials that appear as you progress through the game’s early hours. If it wasn’t for these guiding me along, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. While Rimworld likely has the steepest learning curve of all the games here, the on-boarding process is friendly enough that I didn’t feel like I had to gain a master’s level understanding to enjoy it, or to get satisfying stories like a rabid squirrel terrorizing my base and forcing all my colonists to cower in a bedroom together until raiders came and killed it.

Into the Breach

Subset Games (PC)

ITB_main_animation2

The pre-release appeal of Into the Breach for many people, myself included, was that it might fill an Advanced Wars-shaped hole that has been open for years. In reality, the game we got is very functionally different from Advanced Wars, but not to its detriment. Into the Breach is a fantastic distillation of the tactics genre, including the heartbreak that comes from losing a squad of soldiers you’ve been to hell and back with. But whereas XCOM left me feeling burnt after seeing my team fall after a 30 hour campaign, Into the Breach gives me the freedom to experiment with different strategies from run to run. Yes, losing a pilot you’ve carried through multiple timelines fucking hurts, but the matches move relatively fast here. Entire runs will last anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour or so, expediting my grieving process. Not to mention that the mechanics can be picked up in the first thirty minutes, with a limited set of moves and states to keep track of. There is density in every board of Into the Breach, but this is revealed as you learn and improve so the game feels like it scales with your skill ceiling.

Killer Queen

BumbleBear Games (Arcade)

day map.png

My first experience with Killer Queen was practically transcendental (only 10% hyperbole), and this was in no part due to the 2.5 beers I had going into it. What should have been an anxiety riddled experience of working with four other complete strangers to reach a goal was an absolute blast. Right away I felt like I was making contributions to my team, even if in reality I was targeting the wrong win condition or moving through the map sub-optimally.

It’s a comparison that likely draws ire from both games’ camps, and I would definitely not be the first to make it, but Killer Queen feels inspired by the match structure and flow of games like MOBA’s and Starcraft. Killer Queen does have distinct features that set it apart from these: Matches are short (1-4 minutes), there are multiple victory conditions and the entire game is always visible on screen. In particular, the short matches and constant visibility of the game state make it friendly for new players and condense the experience. After putting fifteen hours into Dota 2, I can confidently say the game isn’t for me. I understand the appeal, but the mental overhead required for the game is daunting. Killer Queen gives me the team dynamics and map control in these games, but in bite-sized amounts that I can’t get enough of. Plus, people are less likely to throw slurs and insults your way when they’re standing next to you at an arcade cabinet than if they’re sitting at a computer a thousand miles from you.

Dominion

Rio Grande Games (Tabletop)

dominion

While my experience with collectible card games (CCGs) ended with Yu-Gi-Oh! in 6th grade, I knew plenty of people through high school and college that played Magic: The Gathering. There was real appeal to the idea of a CCG with a combat system that actually worked, but I felt too exhausted and wallet drained to get into another rat race of booster packs and artificial scarcity. Deck building as a meta-game strategy also fascinated me, but again, I didn’t quite have the patience (or money) for it. And then Dominion came along.

Dominion is a deck-building game, where each play session is changed by the cards you decide to put in to play from the pool of available cards. And what a pool it is. Each players deck is built per match, with strategies changing on the fly based on the chosen cards. Matches can be endlessly fascinating by throwing together bizarre, possibly unbalanced games and trying to build effective deck strategies around it. It removes the anxiety and investment of deck building in CCGs by encouraging experimentation and inventive play. I’ve had more fun with Dominion than just about every tabletop game I’ve tried, and this is in large part due to it’s flexibility.

Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds

Bluehole (PC, Xbox One)

3296453-player_unknowns_battlegrounds_third_person

I’ve never enjoyed survival games much, but one that did grab me a long time ago was the original DayZ mod of Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead. It’s well documented how broken the mod and subsequent standalone game are, but it gave me some of the most bizarre, hilarious, and tense online experiences I’ve ever had. There were nerve-racking standoffs with other players that could last hours, or I would be chased across the map by a roaming band of psychopaths until I submitted to their demands. However, the more I played the more I realized that these moments were becoming few and far between. It was taking hours and hours to make any progress with the broken systems and inventory, and the vastness of the land mass meant that encounters became less frequent as the server counts dwindled.

Luckily, the moments I loved from this game, the ones of helpless terror that encouraging cautious play in a way most games are afraid to, can all be found in a 20-40 minute match of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. By forcing player confrontations through an ever shrinking circle, those tense firefights happen every. single. match. Some of the “quirks” of DayZ are still there, things like a clunky inventory and world geometry that does not always cooperate with character models. But given that the matches are so short, it’s easy to forgive the game when I can load into another so quickly and be all but guaranteed at least one moment of tension.

“Outer Wilds” Is a Mystery Game That Moves Through You

These are some brief impressions of the Outer Wilds Alpha demo that was released in 2015, as I’ve had it banging around in my hard drive since it was released. While the demo is no longer publicly available (it can be found through some not-too-difficult internet sleuthing), you can learn more about the final release here.

The Outer Wilds Alpha opens with a view of the night sky. Planets, comets, moons, all pass over at a rapid pace, fast enough for the player to trace the path of each in their head. The sun dips below the horizon almost as soon as it entered, making a day on this planet less than a few minutes. This kind of moment happens a lot in the opening of Outer Wilds; A larger mechanic or concept that governs the whole of the game is introduced early on in a smaller, more bite-sized context, like a toy remote control ship to play with, or a slide projector teaching you how your space probe will work. But that first lesson, right when you wake up and see the solar system passing overhead, is probably the most important one: This world functions like clockwork, and it will keep moving with or without you.

Screenshot (13)

This revelation isn’t immediate, though. After taking off from your backwater planet inhabited by curious-but-probably-too-curious-for-their-own-self-preservation aliens, Outer Wilds sets you loose in a fairly compact solar system, free to explore in any direction. What becomes clear early on is that this is not a huge sprawling world a la Elite or No Man’s Sky. It takes a maximum of a 3-5 minutes at full throttle to get from one end of the system to another. You’re free to see anything you would like from the start, and if you feel so inclined you could visit everything in the span of one playthrough. But Outer Wilds isn’t so much interested in spatial exploration and discovery, but rather temporal. The clockwork nature of the game is due to the solar system dying, the star at the center on the brink of a supernova ready to swallow everything in its final death throe. Everything in the solar system is rapidly changing as the ending approaches: one planet’s oceans are rising and falling thousands of feet, two planets in binary orbit are slowly being smashed together, and another is disintegrating into a wormhole at it’s center, among other sights. And secret areas and messages can be found in these spots at various stages of their calamities. It doesn’t matter so much where something is but rather when you are seeing it. In this way it feels akin to something like Sleep No Morea space that will move around you as much as you move through it.

Screenshot (3)

During an E3 demo of the game, creative lead Alex Beachum compared Outer Wilds to Myst and called it a mystery adventure game, and this couldn’t be more true. Both game worlds are small but dense, meant to be observed, rotated, picked and poked at to uncover what is within. During my time with the game I found everything from giant Anglerfish and collapsing black holes to a banjo plucking explorer marooned on an ocean planet. But whereas Myst is a static world, only shifting when the player chooses to interact, Outer Wilds is undergoing constant change that you’re tasked with seeking out. It has a fantastic balance of dynamic, interactive systems and bespoke content to discover. In a couple hours I got a sense of the greater mystery of the game, which is figuring out why the world is stuck in a repeating loop of destruction. But it was the pure spectacle and exploration that made it so enjoyable. The world is unraveled at the player’s pace, and the answers feels more inferred by the player than stated by the game, similar to something like Her Story‘s narrative unfolding organically through exploration. In this way, it doesn’t feel like Outer Wilds is making any promises to me that it can’t keep upon release of the final version, as the journey is inherently satisfying. I’ll be more than happy just to revel in the oddities and eccentricities on offer. If there is a greater secret to uncover, great. If not, Outer Wilds will have won me over anyways.

Random Thoughts on God of War

Having seen the credits roll on God of War 2018 Edition, I have some random, numbered, slapdash thoughts that I would like to spill for no one in particular:

  1. I spoiled myself by making this the first game to play on my PS4 pro. I picked up Horizon: Zero Dawn in the same impulse purchase as GoW, and was amazed to find myself nitpicking parts of what is still one of the most beautiful console games I’ve ever seen. Namely the facial and character animations in Horizon were seriously lacking compared to what’s on display in GoW. Both games are stupid gorgeous all the way through, but GoW has just that amount more polish than Horizon. This is an unfair comparison as the scope of the 2 games are wildly different, but I noticed these differences nonetheless.
  2.  I have mixed feelings about Atreus’ heel-turn around the second half of the game. While I know it is very much like a ten year old boy to enter a narcissistic power trip if they’re told they are literally a god (this can already happen with less-than-godly praise), Atreus loses all of the compassion he displayed earlier in the game. I think the game tries to explain this partially as Atreus being possessed by some force of Odin or the like, which makes a certain amount of sense but still doesn’t feel like it was elucidated enough for my pea sized brain.
  3. The slog of the early part of the game, before you realize you’ve been climbing the wrong damn mountain the whole time, is totally justified by the revelations and spectacle of the rest of the game. I expected the journey to be a far more understated affair, with the conflict and drive of the story being placed wholly on Kratos’ inability to express affection. I got this impression from the trailers and teasers running up to the release of the game. I was pleasantly surprised to see there was so much more in store. While the development of a father-son relationship is a huge part of that game, there’s far more to it than Kratos never seeming to be able to place his hand on Atreus’ shoulder. Faye’s final request becomes far more intriguing when Mimir informs the boys they’re in the wrong spot, and thrusts the simple narrative of their family into the broader context of the world around them. This is where Kratos and Atreus’ journey becomes so much bigger than them, and the questions that are opened up here are what drove me to see the credits roll.
  4. Mimir is the fucking best. He’s comic relief, combat aid, lore dump and colorful commentary all in one beautiful, horned, decapitated head.
  5. I don’t usually feel motivated to explore end-game content, but I’ve enjoyed the combat enough in this game that I plan on seeking out the Valkyries. I would also love a new game plus mode at some point, as I could definitely see myself wanting to replay at least some of this game at some point in the future.

I hope I can try writing up something cohesive on this game soon. There’s a lot that can be explored here, and I find myself thinking about the game more and more since I finished it.

I Shouldn’t Feel Bad for Liking: Devil Daggers

I didn’t grow up on the first wave of first-person shooters, of the likes of Quake, Doom, or even Half-Life. But I think I, along with other people in my generation, have a certain amount of fascination and reverence for them. The reverence is held in a similar way to how people can respect the classic rock bands they never grew up with and understand the impact that those groups had. Those bands established trends, motifs, and cliches that reverberated through generations. It’d be difficult to deny that the team behind Devil Daggers has picked up on the same kind of trends that were established by the early first-person shooters, and it would be practically impossible to deny that they’ve done this exceptionally well.

This game consumes me. I had an issue of my eyes watering up to the point of tears when I was playing early on. I eventually realized I wasn’t blinking during rounds. Devil Daggers demands your complete attention, but even more so than other fast round-based games. I currently have about 8 hours logged in-game, which may as well be an eternity. The premise and goal of the game is simple: you’re dropped into a featureless arena floating in the abyss and must survive an endless army of demons thrown at you. Survive. The enemies are increasingly difficult to kill, and just as you learn how to deal with one new enemy type and survive another 15 seconds, you see a new type that makes your jaw drop and say “How the fuck am I supposed to deal with that?”.

This touches on one of Devil Daggers best qualities: it is dripping in atmosphere. The  game uses 3D audio, making headphones necessary as a means of locating new enemy spawns. The enemy design makes you wince and wonder what kind of nightmares the artist on this team must be having. The gameplay isn’t the only thing that takes inspiration from early first-person shooters. The fidelity and graphics are intentionally lacking aliasing and work well to recall early 3D engines. This lower fidelity in combination with the dark atmosphere and aesthetic make it feel exactly like the kind of demonic, Satan-spawned games that politicians feared in the ’90s. Everything about this game has clicked for me. It’s intensely difficult and frustrating, but rewarding for every small step of progress you make. Every extra second you stay alive is a middle-finger to the game and everything it’s doing to try and stop you. I really didn’t need to write this much to convince anyone to get this game. It’s $4.99, just buy it.