Spyro Is Fun

I’m trying to keep me streak of three posts a week going, but unfortunately I’m mostly playing the Spyro Reignited Trilogy right now, and there’s not a whole lot to say about that. I played the first game as a rental when I was a kid, and could recognize the remastered levels, especially in the first two worlds, which I played and replayed a lot. For some reason worlds three through five of the original have pretty much completely vacated my memory, even though I remember playing the final boss and finding it surprisingly easy. I kept expecting each segment was gonna be when the hard part started and it never came.

Spyro is good enough at being what it is that I don’t really have any suggestions for it, though. Its hub-and-levels design allows for exploration while still giving a clear goal and way forward, which is good because this is a platformer and not a Metroidvania so a player should never feel lost. The different games don’t all have the exact same setup, but there’s some kind of main collectable that you can, but don’t have to, collect all of, which is a good way to add optional challenges to the game, making it clear that if a specific dragon statue/power orb/whatever is too hard to get, you don’t have to keep banging your head against it, without siloing those statues/orbs/whatever into entire optional levels. The basic controls are really fun and responsive, the charge, fire breath, and gliding make Spyro feel like a dragon, and the gliding in particular makes for platforming challenges that are very different from most 3D platformers, where gliding is usually a temporary power-up when not completely unavailable. The health system of having a little guardian dragonfly that changes color as you accumulate more damage is fun, and recovering health by chasing down local wildlife like sheep feels appropriately dragon-y.

Running around accumulating a huge hoard of treasure is also pretty draconic, although it’s something that basically all platformer protagonists do, and it would’ve been nice if that accumulated treasure could actually be seen piled up somewhere rather than just a number in the corner of the screen like every other game. Crash Bandicoot doesn’t particularly need to be able to make snow angels in the huge pile of wampa fruit he accumulates over the course of a game, but Spyro’s a dragon, he should totally be able to lie on (and, energetic young ‘un that he is, run across and glide around) a huge pile of gold and gems. Maybe there’s something like this for reaching 100%, but it should be something available at any time, from the first hub world of each game, some spot that’s barren when you have no treasure and gets a bigger and bigger pile after certain treasure thresholds. 100% should just put the finishing touches on the hoard with, like, a giant gold statue of Spyro or something.

And the climbing animation for the second game of the remaster is absolute garbage. Look at it:

If you’re reading this from some point in the future and the embed link no longer works, rest assured it is very dorky. I can’t find any footage of the original Spyro 2’s climbing and I never played that one as a kid, but I’m guessing it had basically the same climbing animation, except it didn’t look nearly as out of place in the blocky, low-poly style of the original. Spyro himself was already a rough approximation of a dragon, so his climb animation being a rough approximation of climbing would’ve been fine. Now that Spyro just looks like an actual dragon, the climb animation doesn’t work.

Still a fun game overall, though. I got all the dragons from the first one but didn’t bother hunting down every last gem before moving on to the second, which I’m half-ish the way through now. Hopefully none of what I’ve said turns out to be totally wrong because of some development in the third game.

Not For Broadcast

Evo Morales was the 55th president of Bolivia, elected in 2005 as the candidate for leftist party MAS with long-lasting (though recently waning) popular support, winning over 60% of the vote in the 2009 and 2014 elections, before receiving just under 50% of the vote in 2019 but winning anyway because the remainder of the vote was split between two other parties. The subsuequent coup de’tat installed a fourth party who received an absolutely trivial fraction of the vote, but this story has a much less widely reported happy ending: Facing the threat of mass strike and possibly even armed revolt, the coup regime ran new elections in 2020, which Evo Morales’ finance minister Luis Acre won handily with 55% of the vote (in a three-party system, no less). During his presidency from 2005 to 2019, Evo Morales enacted a number of left-wing economic policies, with lots of government intervention in the economy, an emphasis on inclusion and equality between the European descended and native American peoples, and a strong welfare system.

Fidel Castro ruled Cuba under a variety of different titles as they shifted nominal government from nationalist independent immediately after Castro was installed by violent revolution to Soviet-aligned Communist after the US tried to have Castro forcibly removed from power through a variety of means (most dramatically the Bay of Pigs invasion) to more nationalist independent focus again after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In practice, Castro was unilateral dictator from his 1959 ascendance through to his 2008 soft-retirement, and still wielded considrable behind-the-scenes influence until his death in 2016. Under Fidel’s rule (and continuing today under his brother Raul Castro), all political dissent was banned, with protesters receiving sentences over a decade in length for acts as tame as shouting a slogan at Castro. Efforts to leave the country were also illegal, and famously many of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience were arrested for creating homemade rafts and trying to sail to Florida (others tried to hijack regular rafts, which is more obviously a crime even for a free country, but also speaks to the desperate lengths people are willing to go to in their efforts to leave Cuba). Cuba remains the least politically free country in the entire western hemisphere.

According to Not For Broadcast, these two guys are basically the same.

Continue reading “Not For Broadcast”

“Gang Up On The Human” Makes Gremlins, Inc. Less Fun

Gang Up On The Human is a video game trope in which NPCs that are supposed to be on different teams will ignore each other to attack human players. Sometimes this is because the AI is too weak and the game needs to let them cheat to catch up, and having multiple AI opponents team up despite a nominal free-for-all is actually a pretty low-key way of doing that (compared to, for example, giving the AI extra resources or abilities that players don’t get).

Gremlins, Inc. is a video game in the genre of video games that are kinda like board games, where you take turns going around a board and stuff, but taking advantage of the computer to have mechanics that would be a pain to calculate out by hand for a board game. It has several single player scenarios. The early ones have the AI set to a proper free-for-all, but later scenarios up the difficulty by having the AI players gang up on the human. That would be fine, the AI here isn’t exactly AlphaGremlin and it could use an edge to keep up with humans.

The problem is that winning despite three AI players ganging up on you often means a lot of the game is less fun. I just finished a single player scenario where I played against three AIs willing to gang up on me, one where the highest score player wins after fifty turns. Fifty turns goes by pretty quick in this game (it took me about 45 minutes), and the last 10 or so of those turns were really nail-biting as I had to use my character’s special abilities (assigned at the start) to burn down longterm income for short term gain and quickly gain the victory points needed to come from behind. I went from 11 points behind the game leader to exactly 1 point ahead on the very last turn. Thrilling!

The problem is that the first 40-ish turns were really frustrating and dull, because the reason why I was even in a situation where I needed to almost double my score in 10 turns is because the AI had been so effective in ganging up on me that I’d spent about a third of my turns in jail. You see, there’s lots of police spots on the board, with a 1/6 chance of police throwing you in jail when you land on them. Certain cards let you throw the police onto another player instead, either putting them in jail if certain conditions are met or, in one case, just throwing them in jail automatically. And with three AI all aiming these police cards at me whenever they have them, I was in jail a lot for over half the game. There’s gameplay in jail, but no way to get victory points (with very rare exceptions, none of which proc’d for me), so I just sat there, accumulating wealth, making a break for a spot where I could turn that wealth into victory points, and ending up thrown back in jail before I could make it.

One of the other scenarios has just one AI opponent, but gives that opponent a huge score advantage to start with, immediately throwing you into the need to work out a cunning come-from-behind victory, and it’s much harder yet also much more fun.

Replay Value in One-Building Games

I enjoy one-building games, that is, games in which you are building one building, like Project Highrise (the best entry in the SimTower genre I’ve yet found) or Spellcaster University, or a campus of buildings that could be one building, but don’t have to be, like Prison Architect or the alarmingly similar Academia: School Simulator.

One thing that turns up a lot with these, however, is their lack of replay value. Once you’ve played one stage of them, you’ve played them all. Why is that? City-builder games seem to get replay value out of things like different lot restrictions (i.e. smaller lots, lots with rivers in them, that sort of thing) and resource restrictions (i.e. no water on this map so no hydroelectricity, weird zoning regulations require you to have no residential lots in this city at all, and so on). How come one-building games can’t seem to do the same? Are they just not trying hard enough? Are there versions of the scenarios in Project Highrise and Prison Architect that could do better, and just aren’t? Or is there something about the one-building concept (maybe the inevitably narrow focus of making a single building, even one with as broad a purpose as “a skyscraper”) that narrows variety to the point where you can’t make good scenarios out of removing options, because removing any significant number of options cuts the game to ribbons?

I definitely feel like there’s a better version of Spellcaster University to be had, just by changing up its victory goals, mainly. I think Spellcaster University has a problem in that you have three objectives to complete, all of which will likely take at least 75% of a stage’s runtime to finish, and none of which are directly related to the game’s basic premise of fending off the invasion of a dark lord. In fact, you continuously lose against the dark lord. You can delay, but never thwart, the invasion. Instead of choosing either to get twenty students who graduate into a mediocre job or three who graduate into a rare and prestigious job, what if you first had an objective to do one, and then the other? What if the assumption was not that the dark lord would inevitably destroy your academy, but rather that preventing the dark lord from doing so is a resource you have to manage but which can be kept at bay indefinitely, with the goal being to achieve all of your objectives before that happens? I think this would make Spellcaster University better, but I don’t know that it would make it any better than Project Highrise.

There’s not really a conclusion to be had because I have no firm idea on how to solve this problem. It’s just a thing I noticed.

Pumpkin Jack

I was nervous about the quality of Pumpkin Jack going into it. Its first level hinted that it might have embraced the concept that high difficulty makes a game better automatically, so they turn up the difficulty as high as they can get it by the game’s halfway point (or even earlier) and then they have nowhere left to go.

Fortunately, this proved not to be the case. The game is certainly tricky throughout, but never unmanageable. More importantly, the game never runs out of new ideas to throw at the player. Because the game is constantly introducing minecart races and memory puzzles and whac-a-mole and a steady stream of new enemies who require entirely different methods to fight (rather than the same but with less room for error), it doesn’t become tedious despite its difficulty plateau (the game keeps a running tally of how often you’ve died on any given playthrough, so I know I died about the same number of times on every single level). The game is consistently whimsically spoopy and fun to play through its entire 5-6 hour duration. I don’t think that duration can really justify its $30 price tag, but I got it as part of a Humble Choice so it was more like $6 for me, and at that price it’s certainly worth it.

Unfortunately, the graveyard level does have a very annoying bug. There’s a sequence where a gargoyle grabs you and you have to navigate through ruined debris while being carried by the gargoyle. It’s got a really catchy soundtrack and these sorts of interludes breaking up the main gameplay of platforming and whacking bad guys is generally a welcome bit of variety. Unfortunately, this one has a bug that causes gates you’re supposed to open with a ranged attack to be impervious. Luckily, ramming into such a gate deals damage but doesn’t kill you instantly, and it is possible to finish the sequence while ramming through every gate so long as you miss nearly all of the other obstacles. The frenetic camera of the gargoyle flight is annoying enough to deal with even before introducing the requirement of near-perfect play, but it is beatable. The bug only happened after I had failed the flight the first time, which means I have no idea if it applies to the second gargoyle flight, which I beat on my first attempt. This also means I have no idea if the second gargoyle flight is beatable if the gates won’t open. Turning volumetric fog off and setting the field of view as wide as possible help make the flights easier in general, so if you’re having trouble with this bug, try that.

The story is also very aimless and episodic. The Devil has put a curse on the kingdom of whereverstan and a wizard has set out to break it. You are Pumpkin Jack, the devil’s mercenary set to stop the wizard. Working for the Devil, who seems to be the regular old evil Devil and not one of those up-is-down black-is-white demons-are-the-good-guys type Devils, comes across as kind of edgy for its own sake. They still have to characterize the Wizard as being a jerk to make him satisfying to defeat, and Pumpkin Jack’s most talkative ally is a cowardly crow who plays the Samwise Gamgee “best friend whose loyalty comes out when it counts” role, so at that point why not just imply more heavily that the Devil is a good guy, and that the stability his curse disrupted wasn’t an unambiguously good thing? You don’t even have to be full good-vs-evil-but-reversed, you can do an order vs. chaos thing where the Devil is disrupting a period of stability that harms an entrenched aristocracy to bring frenetic opportunity to a dispossessed peasant class.

Ignoring the frame story, the story of each individual level is so disconnected that they could be in almost any order. The first level is about teaming up with your crow buddy, so it has to come first to get our party assembled, but after that we go to an underground mine to try and retrieve some magical artifact but the Wizard gets it first, and then we try to track down the Wizard by consulting a swamp witch but it turns out she just wants to make Jack’s pumpkin head into a stew, and then we wander into a city being besieged by curse monsters and beat up on monsters and humans alike pretty much just for lack of anything better to do, and it’s only when we arrive at the graveyard (level 5 out of 6) that we start making meaningful forward progress towards our goal of stopping the Wizard, since that’s the point where we catch onto his real trail rather than the red herrings in the witch swamp and the besieged city. The levels are well-paced internally, but taken as a whole they’re a mess.

Back on the positives, though, I like that at the end of each level you unlock a new weapon, and they give you setting appropriate weapons before you enter the level they’re appropriate to, not after. Sure, it would make sense to get the shotgun from the besieged city and the scythe from the graveyard, but it’s more fun to get the shotgun from the witch swamp so you can use it in the besieged city, and the scythe from the city so you can use it in the graveyard.

Making Hard Games Is Easy

A couple of games I’ve played lately – specifically, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter and God’s Trigger – have had a problem where they didn’t increase in difficulty much after about their halfway point. The new game I’ve started picking at, Pumpkin Jack, is so far shaping up to have the same problem. Bounty Hunter released long before Dark Souls, but Pumpkin Jack and God’s Trigger both released long after, and I can’t help but wonder if the reason they hit their difficulty peak so quickly is because of the idea the Dark Souls games have instilled in a lot of gaming spaces that harder games are automatically better, that they have to get hard early on because if they don’t get particularly difficult until the final quarter of the game, that makes their game worse than if it was hard by the end of the first quarter, or even from the very first level.

But making hard games is easy. A lot of total conversion mods are simultaneously much harder and much more poorly crafted than the originals. A lot of Mount and Blade mods which tackle other time periods, for example, are interminably dull because they’re slavishly devoted to historical accuracy, which leads to a massive explosion of villages and factions to the point where low-level delivery quests break down because the destination is potentially so far across the massively expanded map that it can’t be reached in time even if you make an immediate beeline and taking over the map takes five times as long as the base game while the (historically accurate) similarity between the factions means the game has half the variety to go around. Tournaments are often removed for being unrealistic, and sometimes the recruiting system is overhauled into something that makes it much, much harder to recover from losing your army in battle. Curiously, this fetishization for historical accuracy doesn’t seem to extend to casualty rates, which are still sufficiently grim that you can lose half your army in one victorious engagement.

Mount and Blade mods arrive here through an obsession with historical accuracy rather than being directly obsessed with difficulty, but nevertheless they make the game both harder and less fun, because they are made by less skilled developers. And I don’t hold anything against those mod creators. I use them to make the point that creating a hard game is easy not because I expect them to do better – they gave me their mods for free, so if I have so much as thirty minutes of fun with it before getting bored, they’ve done me a solid – but because it makes it really clear how inexperience and lack of polish are the root of the difficulty. Making the game hard is easier than making it easy.

And God’s Trigger would certainly have been improved if most of its levels were easier. It’s a pulp comic book visual spectacle, and making its earlier levels easier would’ve both served the spectacle better while also giving it room to escalate its difficulty in the later levels. Because its actual difficulty is quite flat from start to finish, its effective difficulty actually goes down over time. Once you get the hang of the Pestilence levels in chapter 1, that’s basically it, the game will never be noticeably harder, and as you get used to it, it will even come across as easier. The game gives you grades on the levels based on time taken, deaths, and maximum combo, and in games with a functioning difficulty curve, these kinds of grades should descend over the course of my first playthrough. Instead, my grades are pretty flat (I usually got a B), and the biggest exception was boss fights, where I consistently did poorly. I’m not sure if they’re broadly more difficult or I’m just bad at them. Certainly the nature of a fight against one enemy who already knows where you are means it’s much more based on twitch reflexes and memorizing attack patterns and much less based on figuring out a plan of attack that ideally uses some combination of surprise, powerful ammunition, and special powers to kill tricky enemies before they know I’m there and then mop up the rest with regular attacks.

I was as likely to get a B on the chapter 1 non-boss levels as on chapter 5, though, and particularly for a game with this kind of scoring system, it would’ve been better off with an easier opening so that the harder later levels would’ve been an escalation, especially since chapter 5’s time-slowing fields are already pretty much the only new idea the game has to throw at you once you’ve beaten chapter 1. Chapters 2-4 have a handful of new weapons, but they can’t even make much use of them because you can pick up weapons your enemies drop, so if there’s a ton of baddies with SMGs, that actually makes the game easier, because now you have an SMG pretty much all the time. They totally should’ve done it anyway, though. Drop the obsession with difficulty, let chapter 4 be relatively easy because it’s full of soldiers with automatic weapons that carry 30 rounds and tactical shotguns that hold up to 8 shells. It’d be easier, but it’d also be fun.

And it’d be easy to make a scoring system that gives more points for some weapons as opposed to others (the easiest way would be to take points off for firing a bullet that doesn’t hit anything – shotgun blasts are basically guaranteed to have several missed shots and the only way to get a good score with an automatic weapon would be to fire it one shot at a time like it was a semi-auto), and add that to the grading system, so people trying to master the game will want to rely on semi-auto weapons and melee attacks.

I haven’t finished Pumpkin Jack yet (it looks like it’s only six levels, though, so I probably will soon), but so far it has the same problem. I’m guessing it hearkens less to Dark Souls and more to MediEvil for its difficulty, but it still has the problem of being a visually striking game that could’ve and should’ve sold itself on that alone, but which makes itself very hard for basically no reason except this delusion that being harder is automatically better. But Dark Souls isn’t hard just because. It’s hard because that fits its theme and atmosphere. Plus, it’s hard because of clever level and enemy design, not just because it narrows the time window on twitch-based reflex challenges to a quarter of a second. In fact, the combat of the Dark Souls games themselves (but not Sekiro or Bloodborne) is actually quite slow and lumbering, with a lot of its difficulty coming not from how fast you have to put inputs in, but the fact that you can’t cancel an animation once it’s started. You’ll know you’ve fucked up long before the attack lands, but be helpless to cancel your last, greedy attack and dodge the counter.

From my understanding of MediEvil, it actually is hard just because, but it also would’ve benefited from being easier.

Anyway, we’ll see whether Pumpkin Jack has enough gameplay polish to justify its difficulty deeper in. Its combat has been pretty good at that so far, but its platforming has not, so my concern is that it might have too much platforming and not enough combat.

God’s Trigger

A few weeks ago, I went through my Steam library and found all the games I want to complete, but haven’t (whether that means I haven’t even started them, haven’t finished the main story, or if I really liked them and would like to go back and 100% them but haven’t gotten around to it). I put them all on a backlog in howlongtobeat.com and have been picking at the shorter ones in between Star Wars games. Hence my recent playthroughs of games like Journey and Katana Zero, along with some I didn’t mention like Party Hard.

All this to say, I’m not intentionally looking for games that are similar to Hotline Miami, it just so happens that both Katana Zero and God’s Trigger bear some strong resemblance. Katana Zero felt like an anime noir take on Hotline Miami’s themes, whereas God’s Trigger is totally unrelated in theme and plot but has much more immediately similar gameplay. Like Hotline Miami, it’s a top-down game where you have one hit point and must figure out how to clear out several rooms full of enemies without dying, with the expectation being that it’s going to take you at least a couple of tries to get it right.

Unlike Hotline Miami, God’s Trigger is about a fallen angel and a rogue demon teaming up to hunt down the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and save humanity. The way the Four Horsemen are depicted makes me suspect this was originally supposed to be a seven deadly sins thing, but at some point they decided they only had time/money for four, because Pestilence is a TV star who was probably originally either Pride or Lust, and Famine is a grotesquely overweight woman who eats her cultist followers to heal and gets skinnier the lower on health she is, until she’s grotesquely underweight at the end of her boss fight, and while the whole “all the food in the world is for me alone” thing isn’t as mismatched as Pestilence and the TV star thing, it still feels like this was originally Gluttony. Death is a drug dealer, which tracks better, but the way the drugs induce rage seems like he might’ve originally been Wrath.

On the other hand, the Four Horsemen seem mismatched even amongst themselves. Death gets the rage-inducing drugs instead of War, Famine’s cult is full of disgusting worm eggs and general filth (especially as you get deeper in) that seems more reminiscent of Pestilence, and while Pestilence’s TV star act doesn’t map to any horseman especially well, the closest fit is definitely War, which at least requires propaganda and gets televised and such. Granted, this does mean that both the TV star and drug ring villains make most sense as War, and War is already running a military base, so you’d have to pick one of the three, but making Pestilence a TV star instead of the leader of the worm cult is a really baffling choice.

Missteps concerning which villain got what theme aside, the plot is straightforward, the stakes are clear, and the tone is completely different from Hotline Miami. It’s got a tone that I think of as “Dark Horse comics style” (although I don’t actually read enough comics to know whether this is accurate or if the small amount of Dark Horse comics I’ve read just happened to be in this style despite being unrepresentative) where it’s pulpy, focused on spectacle and strong visual design with the plot and characters not being totally ignored, but clearly secondary. The setting and plot rely a lot on common mythology (Four Horsemen, angels and demons) to minimize the time required for set up and jump things straight into the action, something which works well both to save pagespace in comics (where it’s very expensive) and get straight to the visual setpieces the comic sells itself on and to get to the action as fast as possible in a video game, where the action is (unless you’ve got a lot of dialogue options or you’re Hideo Kojima and can somehow get away with ten actual minutes of opening cut scene) the part that players actually interact with so you need to get there as fast as possible.

In addition to the Hotline Miami options of unlimited melee and ammo-limited ranged attacks, God’s Trigger has cool angel/demon powers like slowing down time, teleportation, mind control, and invisibility. Plus, it’s got an upgrade system, and the demon has one of those spike-y chains as her melee weapon, and with enough upgrades, the range on that thing is pretty close to the edge of the screen anyway, at which point guns are only useful for spray-and-praying at offscreen enemies. It is, in short, an actual iteration on Hotline Miami gameplay, while also being a massive visual upgrade, which is good because this is ultimately a game that sells itself on visceral spectacle and strong visuals are important here even for me, someone who does not usually care.

The visual upgrade does mean that God’s Trigger can’t be one of those games I open up in a window and play without even closing my browser windows, because it’s enough strain on my processor that it’ll slow down almost imperceptibly if I have any other heavy applications open. It might be almost imperceptible under most circumstances, but even small amounts of lag in the cursor can be the difference between hitting and missing a foe, which is kind of a big deal when you’ve got one hit point.

Overall, though, I think God’s Trigger is a noticeable improvement on Hotline Miami’s gameplay, and I’m kind of sad that nobody’s ever heard of it. I only played it because it was in some Humble Bundle or something, and looked cool enough to wind up in my nearly 200-strong pile of games I’d like to play/finish/100% someday. I guess God’s Trigger has a much weaker soundtrack than Hotline Miami’s pulsing 80s-style that has just continuous momentum, but while that might reasonably it a lesser game for a large chunk of players (maybe even a majority), I wouldn’t think it would be such a crippling blow as to render this game totally uninteresting when Hotline Miami was such a big deal.

It makes me wonder if the discussion around Hotline Miami was purely because of that “do you like hurting people?” line, which isn’t even really what the game was about. Like, that question comes up as part of a series of questions which don’t have anything to do with violence: “Who’s leaving messages on your phone? Where are we right now? Why are we having this conversation?” An interpretation I’ve heard is that Hotline Miami has a floaty narrative and uses questions like these to draw attention to the fact that ultimately you don’t actually care, because the gameplay is solid and that’s what matters. Personally, I took it as a drug trip in which the protagonist(s) was so out of touch with reality that he wasn’t even sure what was real or not, and those questions were drawing attention to the dreamlike nature of the narrative. You receive missions from a phone and complete them, and that seems natural and intuitive, but when your conscious mind is drawn to them, you realize you have no idea why and that this is deeply fucked up. But that’s not a commentary on video games in general (or if it is, it’s a bad commentary) because most video games are perfectly happy to serve up a reason for all the violence.

In both these interpretations, the answer to the question of “do you enjoy hurting people?” is no. Hotline Miami would be interminably dull if it was just a row of helpless white-suited mafia goons for you to perform the brutal execution animations on. The series of questions begins by rejecting the most obvious answer as to why someone might be clearing out buildings full of people just because someone asked, to lead the player/protagonist to ask why they keep doing it. You don’t enjoy hurting people, you don’t know who’s giving you the missions, you don’t even know how you got to the room where the conversation takes place or why you came here. Whether you interpret this as “because none of that matters as long as the game is fun” or “because you’ve been so high for so long that you’ve totally lost touch with reality,” it’s not a criticism of the player for playing the game. The only way to come to that conclusion is to ignore everything from that conversation except the one question “do you like hurting other people?”

Paragus Mining Station Is Alarmingly Dull

My binge through the spoils of the May the Fourth sale last month continue into KotOR II, and dear god I’d forgotten how dull the Paragus Mining Station was. In a game focused on dialogue and roleplaying with a serviceable but not great combat system, here’s a two- or three-hour first episode with a grand total of four NPCs to speak with, none of whom have any side quests, one of whom is an astromech that communicates purely in beeps and boops, one of whom is an HK droid clearly trying to kill you, and the other two have basically nothing to say except as relates to the immediate problem of getting out of this asteroid mining massacre alive.

Despite the fact that you meet your two party members almost immediately, you don’t actually get them in your party until the near the end, which means this game’s party-based combat is running with just one character for hours. KotOR II doesn’t have anywhere near the combat depth to be carried by its combat period, let alone with only one party member. At least you’re a Jedi from the word “go” this time, so you get Force powers. The game badly needed less combat in its opening to trim down the length of this, what is perhaps the weakest section of the game, and to put Kreia and Atton in the party much earlier. I understand wanting to make the game accessible to new players and thus not overwhelm them with three party members, two of them Jedi, early on, but letting Atton join the party as soon as you release him from the holding cell would’ve been fine. He’s a very straightforward character to run, being primarily a skill monkey and not actually much of a ranged combatant (in terms of writing, though, he’s a clean improvement over the first game’s Carth Onasi, so props for that).

Having the Sith breathing so close down your neck in the opening is also unnecessary. The Sith assassins have to be armed with vibroblades because otherwise lightsaber-less players unable to loot lightsaber-wielding assassins would’ve burnt Obsidian’s office space to the ground, and Darth Sion appears but accomplishes nothing. The entire section on the Harbinger could be cut, Paragus could instead lead up to a confrontation with HK-50 (the exact timing and balance of which would have to be tweaked, of course), and the Sith could appear from hyperspace as the Ebon Hawk is leaving the station, giving you the explodium asteroid chase but getting the lackluster Paragus episode down to under two hours. If you can’t make a section of a story engaging – and the very nature of Paragus means that dialogue, exploration, and side quests are at a minimum – then at least cut it down to the bones so that the player/reader/viewer gets past it as fast as possible.

Telos doesn’t even get off to a particularly good start, since the player is immediately captured and has to get through a couple of different conversations before their house arrest is lifted and they can finally start exploring the town and talking to people and picking up side quests and stuff. Telos proper picks up a lot, the ability to side with either Czerka or the Ithorians is not exactly groundbreaking, but it’s a solid execution of the branching story paths BioWare established in the first game, there’s side quests and dialogue choices that actually affect the story, you have a complete party so the combat is at least living up to the fullness of its limited potential, but damn, those first few hours (an entire play session!) are a pain to get past.

Katana Zero

Katana Zero is an indie game where you play an assassin clearing out entire buildings full of mysterious shady underworld types for the sake of an employer whose motives you don’t fully understand whilst in a drug-fueled haze that distorts your ability to properly perceive what’s going on. The only differences between it and Hotline Miami are that it’s a side-view instead of top-down and that the drug-fueled haze is explicit and the driving force of the plot rather than it just kind of being implied that some guy killing a building full of people in 1980s Miami is probably on cocaine.

Katana Zero even has similar gameplay, in that you’re a one-hit-point wonder taking on multiple enemies by constantly replaying the same level until you’ve built up enough understanding of the building layout and enemy behavior to know how to get through the level, plus the muscle memory to pull it off with no mistakes. You’re an anime samurai instead of an 80s anti-hero, but that’s probably the biggest difference.

Katana Zero looks really nice, and it invests a lot of time in its story. The cut scenes conveying the story look good, but they irritate me on two counts:

Firstly, it ends itself on a cliffhanger. This game came out in 2019 and there’s still no sign of a continuation. A three year delay between installments in a game series isn’t unheard of, but it’s starting to look pretty grim. The story does at least wrap up the big mystery of your amnesiac protagonist’s identity by the end, but the final boss (not counting the secret boss) is clearly a sidekick to another, more important villain, and it’s still not really clear what exactly you were doing in the present or who exactly your employer or enemies are. You vaguely understand that your employer is trying to cover up the government-created super drugs you’re high on, and one of the villains is very definitely working in service of their own personal vendetta, so that doesn’t need any more explanation. It’s not clear if you’re working directly for the government, though. Wouldn’t they have better alternatives than an amnesiac murder-cocaine junkie for doing their dirty work? They’re definitely not super satisfied with your erratic performance and behavior.

Secondly, towards the end it really leans into the “do you enjoy killing people?” throwaway line that totally overshadowed everything else in Hotline Miami only because, as far as I can tell, it happened to come out near Spec Ops: The Line and the conversation surrounding the two games blurred together. You get dialogue options which, for the most part, change nothing except the immediate reaction of other characters, which is fine. It gives you a chance to define some details of the protagonist even if that protagonist’s motivation and goals are chosen for you. But then, faced with perhaps the biggest opportunity to do this sort of thing yet when another character asks you if you like killing, the game gives you a fakeout choice. If you pick a dialogue choice other than the “yes I like killing” one there’s a little glitch-y animation and the game selects the “I like killing” option anyway.

It comes off like a bunch of indie game tropes being smashed together with no understanding of their purpose. The game’s UI changing its behavior to reflect the mental state of the protagonist is, at this point, a fairly common indie game trick, but what mental state is being reflected here? Apparently the protagonist is incapable of saying they don’t like to kill people? This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the game, so there’s no point of comparison that might help us figure out what this moment is supposed to say about the protagonist. Like, even if they do really like killing people (not that this character trait ever informs the story), it’s still totally unexplained why the protagonist is apparently incapable of even claiming they don’t enjoy murder. Why they tried to say one thing but said something else instead. And since the protagonist has motivations to pursue the plot independent of how much they enjoy the act of killing mooks itself, there’s no reason why the game couldn’t let you characterize the protagonist a bit here by deciding whether they find combat to be a thrill, an ugly necessity, or a chore they’re by now numb to.

The climax of the story involves the protagonist being assigned to kill everyone in a building and then, after mowing through all the combatants, not killing a couple of unarmed people deep in a bunker (presumably related to the guy who owns the place), and there’s another UI bit wherein all your dialogue options are to kill the bystanders, but then you don’t anyway. Is the implication supposed to be that something is trying to force him to kill, and also I guess to claim he loves killing people? This ties into the cliffhanger thing above, where it’s hard to know whether these unanswered questions are intentional loose ends or just poor design, but without knowing when (if ever) the DLC that’s supposed to wrap up the story will be released, it’s poor design for the game as it is now.

Journey

Journey came out in 2012, when financially I was firmly in the “can I afford a third tomato this week” phase of life. I bought used PS2 games for $5 or less, played on a console my parents had bought when I was in middle school. My high school laptop, a gasping Toshiba that I carefully squeezed every last bit of use out of, was too far on its last legs for me to even be thinking about getting new games on it. Instead I played emulated NES games and 2007 MMOs that had gone free-to-play with the graphics turned all the way down. Possibly this machine still could’ve handled Journey, but I wasn’t even looking at new releases, so I missed it. The asking price of fifteen whole dollars was a bit rich for my blood, anyway.

My finances have become considerably less dire since then, and at some point I picked up Journey, probably from a Humble Bundle because it only lasts 90 minutes and yet it took me until today (May 29th, 2022) to actually play it, which suggests I probably got it packaged with a bunch of other stuff and didn’t immediately play it for a full session. I know I at least booted it up and got as far as retrieving the scarf, but I didn’t get more than 5-10 minutes in with that first session before leaving it alone for however many years.

Masterfully designed indie darling that it is, someone even casually interested in game design was inevitably going to get the basic gist of Journey after waiting ten years to play it, so I knew that it was primarily a two-player game. You’d get matched with a random companion fairly early on as long as you’re connected to wifi. I’ve played so many MMOs, though, that the idea of a game ten years past release still having a sufficiently active population that you’ll actually bump into them outside of a single trade hub, the final bastion of player interactivity, seemed intuitively impossible to me. When I play a “multiplayer” game, unless I’ve specifically arranged to get some friends to play it with me, I’ll be walking through the remains of a dead community, full of wide, empty spaces between NPCs intended to hold crowds of players who’ve long since moved on. Sometimes it’s the boarded up shell of a ghost town that once bustled with dozens of inhabitants active at once. Sometimes it’s the ruins of an empire millions strong. What it isn’t, ever, is alive.

Journey, of course, isn’t an MMO. It’s got about ninety minutes of content and so long as any other player anywhere in the world is playing the same stage as you while connected to the internet, you will be matched with that player.

So, when I reached the ruined bridge and started figuring out how to rebuild it, I logically should’ve known immediately what I was looking at when I saw another figure that looked identical to me. They weren’t moving, so my first thought was “is this some kind of mirage?” And I started running towards them to see what would happen when I got close. They started running towards me, with what was unmistakably player-directed movement – purposeful but rigid, constrained by the inputs of a controller, yet not totally precise, making minor course corrections along the way rather than pointing themselves exactly at where they want to go like a computer. Somehow the idea that a ten-year-old game would still have other players seemed so impossible that I still didn’t get it. “Is this some kind of recording of me, playing back my own entrance to this valley?” I thought, which seemed weird because you’d think such a mechanic would’ve come up in discussions of the game, even if it only affected a small section near the start.

It wasn’t until they got close and I saw how much longer their scarf was that it finally hit me. Of course. Another player. The two of us stood next to one another, and exchanged a few notes of song. The only thing you can really use to communicate in Journey, besides the game’s movement mechanics, is the song produced by a single button, so it’s kind of like honking your car horn except it’s much more melodious. Still, you can’t even sing a specific tune, let alone add lyrics, so it’s pretty limited. So I’m sure my companion had no idea what exactly I was trying to sing at them.

“I thought for sure I was the only one left.”