Every year, I try to chronicle the games I play and write short reviews for them to reflect my thoughts. Last year, my goal was to write longer reviews and publish my thoughts in quarters rather than one big lump at the end of the year. That was my plan, anyway. Then, life got in the way. I graduated college with my masters. I got married. I started another job. Some reviews got written, some others didn't, and thus in late December I was left scrambling, wondering what to do with the work I had accomplished. I decided to go ahead and write up for the games I had played but not reviewed based on the notes I had taken during the process. It might not be the best way to do things, but nonetheless it got done. I'm still publishing these in quarters, so stay tuned for parts 2, 3, and 4 to come in the following weeks!
Now without further ado, here's the games I played in January, February, and March of 2017.
Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One)
Developed by Crytek
Published by Microsoft Studios
2013; Xbox One, PC
Completed on January 3rd, 2017.
Ryse was one of those games that promised to bring gamers to the next generation of gaming on the Xbox One, and visually it does just that with some of the most impressive graphics ever seen on a console. But in most all other ways, Ryse feels beyond dated, and never pushes the boundaries beyond just passable.
In Ryse, players control a Roman centurion named Marius Titus who leads his Legion against invading barbarians of Britain that will—as history tells us—cause the fall of one of the greatest empires ever known. The brutal, incredible close quarters battles of ancient Rome seems perfect for an action adventure title, but its in the combat itself that Ryse perhaps falters the most. The game employs both quick and powerful attacks with the gladius sword, block and parry techniques, and the ability to throw spears at enemies from afar, and that is it. Instead of mixing up the combat with a plethora of moves, the designers aimed to entertain players with visceral fatalities to finish off hordes of foes. While it’s amusing to chop off enemy heads and watch the blood flow, there simply aren’t enough of these killing blows to even fill out the short five hour campaign. Players will see the same kills countless times even in a single stage. The astonishingly simple quick time events that take place to execute these fatalities don’t help, either. By the end of the game, I was able to finish off entire squads of barbarians without really looking at the screen because each encounter plays out the exact same.
Enemy variety is also paltry. While each level in the game has enemies that are visually different, they all fight in the same way. Every swordsman has the same attacks with the same finishers; every shield bearer has the same techniques as the next. This lack of variety is what makes Ryse become stale even before the halfway point. A game with limited controls can survive with a variety of enemies. Likewise, a game with few enemies can be fresh with several ways to dispatch them. Instead, we have a game here that is lacking on both ends.
What Ryse doesn’t lack are visuals that transport the player from the couch to the first century A.D. Characters are immaculately detailed with the grit and grime that comes with a seasoned soldier in a world before reliable plumbing. Environments, from towering stone citadels to dark forests, feel alive with the designers carefully paying attention to even the tiniest of details. Most importantly, battlegrounds are remarkable, with dirt soaked with glistening red blood, mangled corpses piled in the streets, and crackling fires that look like they may burn you if you get too close to the screen. Despite all of Ryse’s problems, the visuals are worth the price of admission alone.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4)
Developed by Eidos Montreal
Published by Square Enix
2016; PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
Completed on January 8th, 2017.
2011’s Human Revolution was one of my favorite games of the last generation. The game combined some of the best elements of first person role-playing with exciting abilities, an intriguing story, and wonderfully designed levels that can be tackled stealthfully or with guns blazing. Mankind Divided offers more of the same, which is definitely not a bad thing, but with even more polish than its predecessor.
This game picks up a couple of years after the end of Human Revolution and the “Aug Incident,” with Adam Jensen working with Interpol in Prague and the surrounding region to bring down a group of augmented terrorists. Since the events of the last game, humans with cybernetic upgrades are seen as outcasts in society, with many other humans viewing them as unstable psychopaths or at the very least criminals. These themes really resonate with today’s political climate, with the augmented humans standing in for refugees, blacks, and other minorities that have faced discrimination. The augmented are oppressed, often being beaten by armored police forces in the game, cordoned off from the rest of society in ghettos, or reduced to disgraceful roles as beggers, strippers, drug dealers, or other types of criminals. This premise also leads itself to great role play scenarios as a player. Adam Jensen is an aug himself, though he never chose his enhancements and was forced to accept them due to the injuries sustained in Human Revolution. As a player, one can choose to have Jensen side with the aug’s and fight the injustices against his kind, or elect to punish them as a means of rebellion against what he has become. The developers have done a great job of not making either path black or white, and many times aligning oneself with the side of “good” can feel as villainous as the other.
The best part of Mankind Divided is the complex level design. Every area in the game can be explored via multiple paths that make use of any and all of the skills one can learn. Stealth characters can use the network of air ducts or simply turn invisible for a short time to bypass enemy guards, while others may be more inclined to tear through weak walls or set off explosions that can wipe out entire squads. What’s most impressive is how vertical stages feel in this iteration. Many areas have secrets high above, or rafters to use to maneuver over, or multiple stories with dozens of surprises. These complex locales feel fresh and realistic in an age where dungeons in games can feel a bit too flat.
In Human Revolution, I liked the variety of upgrades but felt that they favored stealth gameplay over guns and action. Here, upgrades feel much more balanced, with numerous additional skills for the action centered crowd, such as a Titan Shield that sheds bullets, miniature homing rockets that can take out numerous foes, and knives that can be launched at enemies and pinning them to walls. On top of these new abilities, there is a revised system for upgrading that aids in making Jensen more balanced while still a formidable powerhouse. Jensen’s body can only undergo so much change at once, therefore players are limited by the amount of abilities one can activate at a given time. Each ability is given a number value, the more powerful having a higher number, and if the combined number for each ability is higher than Jensen’s overall energy counter, his augmented body essentially won’t work properly. Thus, players must balance between powerful, more expensive upgrades and smaller, weaker upgrades throughout the majority of the game. This added level of strategy makes for more diverse characters as well as for experimentation for future playthroughs.
Though abilities have been revised, the types of weapons unfortunately have not. Just about everything that one could ask for in a shooter is here, such as a sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistols and shotguns, but there isn’t anything nearly as creative as the futuristic abilities one has at their disposal, and thus the weapon choices feel a bit short in comparison. I would have loved some new weapons that bring the same excitement and power as Jensen’s abilities, but the arsenal here is stuck in FPS past rather than future.
Graphically, Mankind Divided is pleasing on the eyes with gorgeous lighting and glossy, chrome surfaces of the future. The art design is even more impressive, with dark alleyways penetrated by bright neon lights. It’s not just the visuals that are reminiscent of Blade Runner, but the ominous, synthesized melodies seem to have come from Vangelis himself. Many attempt to copy the stylish Blade Runner asthetic, and fortunately Mankind Divided suceeds in creating one of the sophisticated futuristic worlds ever seen in a video game.
Overall, Mankind Divided offers the best Deus Ex experience so far, excelling in delivering a solid FPS/RPG hybrid that many games these days strive for but fall short of. I can easily see myself coming back to this on a yearly basis to try different ability combinations, finishing quests in varied manners, and changing my choices to see their impact to the overall plot.
Lords of the Fallen (PS4)
Developed by Deck13 Interactive and CI Games
Published by Square Enix
2014; PS4, Xbox One, PC
Completed on January 13th, 2017.
The Souls games follow such a simple and yet enjoyable formula that it was inevitable before other game designers took note and produced near carbon copies of the best selling franchise. This isn’t a bad thing, as all game changing titles--from Pac-Man to Mario and the Legend of Zelda--have inspired games that have becomes classics in and of themselves. Fortunately, the developers behind Lords of the Fallen have taken the best of the Souls series to make a game that can stand on its own.
Lords of the Fallen has most of what one comes to expect from a Souls game: a grueling difficulty, non-linear exploration, checkpoints where one can cash in experience to level up, and slow, strategic combat. Players control a convict named Harkyn through a Viking inspired fantasy world, collecting new gear to battle deadly foes that can cut him down in brutal fashion. By that description alone, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this was Dark Souls’ Nordic brother.
Lords of the Fallen does differ from Souls however by presenting a class system that has more meaning than simply generating your starting stats. Each of the game’s nine classes has their own skills that they can learn to make the most of their different stats, such as the warrior’s Rage spell that boosts damage and temporarily eliminates the need for stamina, or the rogue’s Shift ability that makes him invisible and giving his next attack devastating qualities. While one may be hesitant to choose a class and feel locked into it for an entire RPG, Lords allows enough freedom for players by letting them choose what skills, stats, and gear to upgrade, and a plethora of additional skills and spells that can be shared among classes. Many spells are especially unique in Lords, in that they serve more as single use items that can generate some breathing room in tough combat situations rather than a “go to” for every encounter.
Similarly to Dark Souls, Lords forces players to return to the point of their death to reacquire their experience points. As a twist however, Lords places a timer on this experience cache, forcing players to decide if rushing for it and risking death due to carelessness is worth it for those valuable points. Combat also offers a unique twist, as players can rack up even more experience by performing lengthy combos and executing risky parries in battle. Like the spells system, this encourages players to switch up their strategies for greater rewards rather than falling into a comfortable pattern.
Speaking of patterns, boss battles are a little less epic than its Souls counterpart as these powerful foes follow more closely a pattern than use a mix of varied attacks. Instead of learning an enemy’s moves and figuring out how to escape those, players can rely on comfort and familiarity to take out these powerful foes. It’s a stark contrast from the rest of the game, which encourages experimentation and changing it up, and thus these battles fall just short of excelling.
Finally, it should be noted that during my roughly 25-hour playthrough, I ran into a multitude of glitches that, while not game breaking, lead to some unneeded frustration and even deaths. Some of these include getting stuck inside of objects or the ground, enemy attacks penetrating solid walls, unnecessarily large and inconsistent invisible walls that prohibit progress, and some animations not following through properly. These didn’t occur with every play session, but often enough that they lingered in the back of my mind during most major encounters. Lords could have benefitted from some good old-fashioned quality testing before being released.
If you enjoy Dark Souls, or just action-RPGs in general, I’d recommend giving Lords of the Fallen a go. It doesn’t have the polish of other big studio projects, nor the depth of many others in the genre, but it’s a cleverly designed game that feels more homage and inspiration from one of the decade’s best games rather than a carbon copy.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (PS4)
Developed by The Chinese Room
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment
2015; PS4, PC
Completed on January 14th, 2017.
As much as I want to like the concept of “walking simulator” games, I just don’t think that they are for me. Just like Gone Home which I reviewed last year, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture offers limited interactivity in favor of telling an emotional story in a gorgeously detailed space. Indeed, as an experience Rapture succeeds in tugging on a player’s emotional heartstrings and providing a thought provoking adventure. Sadly, the lack of player interaction makes Rapture feel more like a visual novel rather than a video game.
In Rapture, players seek to discover what happened to the residents of the fictional English hamlet of Yaughton, who have seemingly vanished in thin air. In their absence are mysterious particles of light that, when coming close to them, allow players to hear and loosely see the interactions humans had leading to their disappearance. Players will have the ability to enter most homes, businesses, and travel down every alleyway to discover the scenes and unravel the mystery of the rapture.
For this simplistic premise, it’s amazing how much can be uncovered. On top of the mystery of the mass disappearance, players will unravel secret affairs, arguments that have taken place behind closed doors, and the innermost secrets of the village’s residents by listening in to the conversations they have left behind. It’s enjoyable going from one small story to the next, piecing together everybody’s relationships from the little conversations left around, while also uncovering the larger mystery that’s abound.
Graphically, Rapture is immensely pleasing, with a realistically detailed village to explore and wonderfully designed homes to prowl about in. Screenshots of the game can easily look like picturesque photos of the English countryside to the untrained eye. The most stunning aspect of Rapture’s graphics is undoubtedly the lighting. Sunsets and sunrises make Yaughton appear glorious, and candle light accentuates the numerous dim cottage rooms one might explore. Above all however, it’s the fantastical particles of light that are most impressive. Being a key point of the game’s story, the developer’s have wisely made this a standout visually. The visage’s of humans made out of golden strands of electricity are a visual I will not soon forget.
The music in Rapture is incredible, and is perhaps the game’s best part. Composed by Jessica Curry, Rapture’s score is full of melodies that engage the player as much as the story, if not more. Angelic hymns sung by a full choir punctuate the loneliness of the empty village with somber, yet chilling, tunes; soft violins echo about while exploring the desolate homes; when making an important discovery, booming brass sounds raise the tension to a whole other level. This is a soundtrack that any fan of modern classical music should hunt down even if they don’t have any aspiration o play the game. The angelic choirs and luscious strings transports one to the English countryside, and you can’t ask for more out of a video game soundtrack.
Unfortunately, other than following these balls of light from one place to another, there isn’t much in the way of actual gameplay in Rapture. Players can open and close most doors, but unlike Gone Home players cannot interact with many of the objects they uncover in homes. Aside from the occasional telephone, television, or tape recorder one may turn on and off, there aren’t any other things a player can do to influence the world around them. Even collectibles, which are aplenty in games of this nature, are few and far between. There is also the nature of some trophies, which are unlocked by simply “waiting” in a certain area for several minutes. The descriptions for these make it seem as if the developers wanted gamers to sit back and contemplate life and the game’s events, but unlocking something by putting the controller down and not doing anything is about as opposite from playing a video game as one can get. Furthermore exploring Yaughton can be a bit of a chore due to how slowly the player meanders about. There is a sort of sprint button, but it isn’t instantaneous; instead, holding down the button gradually increases the player’s speed much like a locomotive until they are moving at a high speed uncontrollable. Letting go of the button doesn’t end the sprint either, and much like a runaway train players will slowly return to a halt after skidding forward several paces.
It’s hard to not recommend Rapture based on it’s emotional story and the gorgeous atmosphere the sounds and graphics bring to life, but know that the game is more like a book that you take your time with rather than a game that you carve your own adventure in. For these reasons, I can only score Rapture a middle of the road score based on the strengths of storytelling and absence of any actual gameplay.
Final Fantasy XV (PS4)
Developed by Square Enix
Published by Square Enix
2016; PS4, Xbox One
Completed on January 26th, 2017.
I wrote a full, in depth review for this awhile back. It can be found HERE.
"After my 70 hours with the Final Fantasy XV, I had done most of what there was to do with the game. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with the it—in fact it’s immensely enjoyable taking on quests and exploring the land—but I also wouldn’t be truthful if I said the game didn’t have numerous problems. I would be much more willing to overlook some things had it came from a less respected publisher, wasn’t from a classic franchise, and hasn’t spent more than a decade in development. The final result is a very uneven experience: battles are largely fun, but the camera at times defeats any enjoyment; the story is well crated, but numerous holes mean that it feels largely incomplete; music and voice work is excellent, but too few recorded lines of dialogue destroys the illusion of immersion the game creates; summons are epic in scale, but their unclear requirements make for a system that is confusing and ultimately disappointing. Considering all of this, I think fans new and old will be pleased with Final Fantasy XV, but the series still hasn’t reclaimed its throne on top of the RPG kingdom."
Resident Evil HD Remake (PS4)
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom
2002; Gamecube (original) - 2015; PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC.
Completed on February 1st, 2017.
I remember when I was a kid, just becoming a teenager, when the original Playstation came on the market and along with it’s more “realistic” polygons came more “adult” video games. One such title was Resident Evil, which aimed to make video gamers feel utter horror and dread for the first time while holding a controller. While far from being the first so called “survival horror” title, Resident Evil became the first that many gamers experienced, and to this day it remains one of the finest examples in the industry. Even after over twenty years, a plethora of sequels and spin offs, and numerous other franchises like Silent Hill expanding on the survival horror formula, one of the first things that comes to mind is still the zombie infested mansion of the original title.
For such an incredible game, it’s a shame that the Gamecube remake isn’t as fondly remembered despite it being an even better version of a stellar experience. Even by the early two thousands, the blocky graphics of the original playstation version were horribly outdated, making the terror within feel campy and childish by comparison. Thus, Capcom went above and beyond by making one of the most visually striking video games ever. When I first saw this in 2002, I was shocked that something this detailed, this so well designed, could exist on a gaming platform, much less on consoles. This was before the era of high definition, before 4K resolution, before motion capture was even standard in the industry. Capcom had made zombies scary again.
This HD remaster isn’t as impressive now as it was then, but it still looks good. If you’ve played the original remake (that’s almost an oxymoron), then you’re getting the same thing here. Sure, it’s a little less grainy, the presentation is made for wide screen, but all the other impressive details to the old mansion are just as they were in 2002 on Nintendo’s little cube console.
Instead of rehashing what the original Resident Evil was about, I’ll discuss what makes the remake different from a simple visual upgrade. For starters, while the core of the story and the environments to explore are the same, there are little changes that will surprise longtime players of the Playstation version. Additional rooms have been added to the mansion to make it an even more haunting affair. Enemies and items are often positioned in new areas, providing veterans with new scares and obstacles to overcome. These changes to the familiar keep gamers on their toes, the key to making a good horror experience.
New survival items also give players some much needed breathing room for when the zombies make their attack. Instead of suffering a hit when zombies or their ilk bite down on either Jill or Chris, players can hit a button that let’s them attack back. The knife will knock a creature back a few steps so one can make their escape, while the grenade can blow their head clean off. These defensive weapons may not matter much to experienced players, but they are invaluable to newcomers who are exploring the mansion for the first time.
The biggest new addition to this remake are undoubtedly the crimson head zombies. These super powered enemies are by far the most terrorfying part of the game, if not one of the scariest parts of the entire series. Normally, downed zombies are gone for good in Resident Evil games, but not in this remake. Here, once a zombie has been defeated, they will come back after some time has passed, so long as they haven’t been burned and their heads are still intact. These crimson heads, named due to the red hue their heads turn, run at a speed comparable to the player rather than the lumbering shuffle of their standard zombie counterparts, and their Wolverine-like claws can cause brutal damage to unprepared players. While players can get lucky with headshots that explore a zombie’s skull, or using grenades to set them aflame, the only other way to prevent a crimson head is to use the small amounts of gasoline to burn them while they are downed, but fuel is in such small quantities that it is impossible to burn every zombie that one may come in contact with. The addition of the crimson heads thus generates a whole new level of strategy in the game, making players choose which zombies to burn and which to avoid as they go back-and-forth through the maze like mansion.
The only downside to the Resident Evil Remake is that the tank-like controls feel even worse after a decade of games that have deliberately avoided using that playstyle. While not perfect, the Remake is indeed playable and with a little practice gamers will be able to tackle zombie hordes just like with any other title.
Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One)
Developed by 343 Industries
Published by Microsoft Studios
2015; Xbox One, PC
Completed on February 9th, 2017.
I must admit, I used to be a big Halo fan. I read the books, I collected the comics, and I shelled out extra bucks to ensure I had the helmets and statues that came with the collector's editions. Then, after Halo: Reach, I sort of just… lost interest. I liked Reach, and even enjoyed the flawed Halo 3: ODST, but I think I had burned myself out on the exploits of the Chief and Cortana. When Halo 4 rolled around in 2012, it took me over a year to jump onboard. Much of the Halo story I felt was wrapped up pretty nicely by this point, and although the new enemies looked entriguing, and shiny graphics for the late 360 title appeared incredible, I was hesitant to jump back in.
Fast-forward to Halo 5, and much of what applied to 4 is appropriate here. While I liked 4, the story just didn’t hook me, and I wasn’t all that eager to see the continuation of Master Chief’s battle against the Covenant. Add to that the fact that I did not own an Xbox One when 5 released, and this Halo adventure ended up being pushed deep into the gaming backlog.
Halo 5's plot is split between two campaigns. While many missions are spent controlling the legendary Master Chief, others introduce a new playable squad, Fireteam Osirs, who are tasked with bringing in a rogue Chief who has gone to stop the Covenant and the new foes, the Prometheans, as well as potentially save his longtime A.I. partner Cortana. Though the developers have tried to give this squad the feeling of camaraderie, along with playful banter and cast by recognizable actors such as Nathan Fillion, this group lacks the personality to leave a lasting impression. Though better than much more generic soldiers, or a squad of silent protagonists early Halo titles relied upon, it just does not elevate the series in any meaningful way. Halo 5 also relies on this squad far more than playing with the Chief and his group of unnamed soldiers. While playing with the Chief is nearly identical of an experience, the Chief’s legacy and popularity with fans makes these sections much more fun to play. Thus, when only a third of the experience puts players behind the iconic green helm, the game falls flat in giving gamers that feeling of controlling a bad ass hero.
While the graphics are nice and sharp, the art direction can sometimes hinder the gameplay. This is because the Prometheans seemingly blend in with the environment. One of the best aspects of the original games was how masterfully Bungie created the Covenant to stand out in the environment. Enemies with specific colors, movements, and even personalities distinguished them from the environments they inhabited, making foes easily recognizable to players running and gunning their way through levels. Here, Prometheans lack the personality, color, and charm that made the Covenant such good bad guys. It might be ideal in a real life combat situation to blend in with the environment, but for a video game that relies on some twitch shooting, it’s not the best design decision. On that note, Halo 5’s are some of the most vivid and gorgeous in the entire franchise. Alien planets are filled with bright, colorful flora and fauna that pops. Expert crafted lighting also makes the explosions and fire of battles feel more intense than ever, breathing life into high octane gunfights.
Several additions to the gameplay have been implemented, although not all are done so with polish. With the focus on squads, players can now issue simple commands to AI controlled characters, such as "take cover" and "attack," though these are so shallow that they rarely make the difference in a battle. Partners may listen to a given command for a moment, but should enemies draw near they will abandon cover or change targets unexpectedly. Unlike previous Halo games with some harsh difficulty, Guardians aims to make things easier by allowing teammates to revive the player should he or she fall. This is all well and good if it worked properly, but countless times my AI squad left me high and dry even if they were standing directly next to my injured body. The best addition I have to say is the new sprint feature, if only because I loved charging headfirst into a situation, hitting the first foe with a powered up melee attack, and watch him fly forward into a wall or fall off a cliff. That never got old.
All-in-all, Halo 5 is an enjoyable game due to the fun nature of the gameplay established by previous titles, but it's campaign is a lowpoint in the franchise. The conclusion of the Chief and Cortana storyline is wasted here on a plot that strays in too many different directions to remain satisfying even to the oldest of fans. Despite the disappointment though, the levels designed to make the most of four person squads make it one of the best in the series to replay with three friends. Just remember to fast forward through the story heavy cutscenes.
After Halo 5: Guardians, I decided to spend a month focusing on finishing my thesis before the Nintendo Switch's release. Breath of the Wild dominated my March, but I didn't complete it until April. Thus, this quarter is a bit short compared to others. Keep your eyes here for part two, where I discuss Zelda, Persona 5, and more!