Steam Deck Review

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The Steam Deck is a lot of things to me. It’s the most interesting handheld to date, but it’s also the most distracting and unrefined handheld that I ever owned. It holds plenty of surprises, but it equally reveals disappointing shortcomings. Even after two weeks, I don’t know if I would recommend it to the masses without qualifiers.

The Hardware

The Steam Deck was both deceptively big and light. I knew it was larger than the Switch, but I didn’t expect the grips to be so girthy. With all that size, I thought it would be heavier than it was, but it was surprisingly light. I eventually learned to appreciate the added grips for extended gaming sessions, but that’s only true for me. It’s slightly too large for my fiancée whom recently got into Hades.

I also found it was only comfortable if I were using the joysticks and buttons. It was comfortable and capable when I playing various Street Fighter games, but when I got my hands on Civilization VI and poured 50+ hours into it and the touchpads, I quickly discovered the fact that the touchpad wasn’t meant to be used for long Civilization sessions with a lot of scrolling on a map. 

The screen may be the most disappointing aspect of the Steam Deck. It’s barely okay for 2022 standards. My Nintendo Switch launch unit may have a smaller screen, but it has a better quality screen without distracting light bleed. 

The fan noise comes second, but that is highly dependent on the game that I’m playing. Slay the Spire, Hades, and any other “light” game, is a pleasant and quiet experience. Games like XCOM 2 or latter stages Civilization VI would send the fans whirring and into overdrive at times. It’s quite distracting.

Unfortunately, the fan became such a distraction that I had to replace it 5 months in. It began to rattle and instead of sending it back to Valve, I decided to just find a replacement fan and fix it myself. It was a painless and easy experience thanks to the guides at iFixit.

The Software

Unofficial

I spent a fair bit of time messing around Desktop mode, loading EmuDeck, Emulation Station, and getting a smattering of  Street Fighter titles loaded on the machine. It was surprisingly easy and (unsurprisingly) highlights how great of an emulation machine the Steam Deck can be. I loaded the following seamlessly:

  • Street Fighter Alpha 2 (CPS2)
  • Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max (PSP)
  • Capcom vs SNK 2 (Dreamcast)
  • Mega Man X3 (SNES)

The most finicky part was trying to learn how RetroArch works and saving the settings.

More importantly, I wanted to gain access to all those Epic Games Store titles that I’ve been collecting. There are at least 4 ways to access those games:

  1. Installing the Epic Games Store launcher as non-Steam executable and running the Proton compatibility layer with it
  2. Heroic Game Launcher
  3. BoilR
  4. Lutris

I tried option 1 first as it was the full “Epic Games Store”, but then I wanted a more seamless integration with Steam, so I tried options 2 – 4, but they all exhibited some additional issue that the Epic Games Store did not. Hades’ Cloud Save, for example, wouldn’t reliably work with any other option. Rayman Legends wouldn’t launch with options 2 – 4 either.

Even though I owned base game copies of Civilization VI and XCOM 2 on the Epic Games Store, I eventually bought complete Steam versions because the 2K Launcher wouldn’t launch properly on the Epic Games Store version. 

Official software: Verified, Playable, Unsupported

If I wanted the ideal Steam Deck experience, I would stick with Steam Deck verified games. They run well and they have the right controller layouts; there’s no futzing around with settings. Playable titles are technically playable, but they have a range of issues including small UI text to iffy performance. XCOM 2 and Civilization VI are both technically playable, but I find interacting with the games less than optimal with their default . 

I want the console controls and console UI experience as an option, because of the long term ergonomic issues I have with the trackpads. I switched XCOM 2 to be more controller friendly, but the UI was still tiny. Civilization VI worked well with the trackpads and triggers as mice, but its UI was also filled with tiny text. Even the relatively simple games like the Slay the Spire had slightly smaller text than I wanted. It’s clear that these games weren’t made with portable sized screens in mind.

I bought a compatible dock and was happy to see the desktop mode works well with the keyboard and mouse; it’s just a computer running Linux after all. I played a bit of Civilization VI at 2560 x 1440p with a mouse and keyboard which was significantly better for my hand. 

Then I decided to undock and tried to resume my Civilization VI game in portable mode and that’s when things unraveled. I had a newfound appreciation for the Nintendo Switch. The Steam Deck doesn’t switch resolutions or graphics settings between desktop and portable modes which means I either have to toggle those settings manually or just stick with 1280 x 800 resolution in desktop mode. Neither option is ideal.

Steam OS’ Evolution Makes This Work

What makes this entire Steam Deck experience tick is Valve’s commitment to Steam OS. The ability to tweak the device to my preferences is what makes this a standout product and makes me weary of playing any other handheld PC.

I found that leaving the Steam Deck’s APU at full TDP wasn’t doing me any favors. With games like XCOM 2, the Deck was running too loud, too hot, and draining battery too quickly. I realized that these games weren’t going to hit 60 FPS with all that extra juice anyways. So I toggled on the 40Hz refresh, turned down the APU’s power limit to 11W, tweaked some settings, and XCOM 2 was a more tolerable experience. 

I hope to see the Deck’s docking and undocking experience improve, but even if it doesn’t, I think Valve’s commitment to improve the Deck from an OS perspective is the highlight of the device.

A Bright Future Ahead

Valve’s been trying their hand at the hardware game for over a decade now and I think they finally hit it out of the park with the Steam Deck. It’s not perfect, but it’s slowly evolving and hopefully it’s enough of a success for them to keep iterating and releasing new models in the future.

I play games on this thing on a near daily basis now. I love it for connecting me with all the PC games that I had in my backlog. I see its flaws, but I also see a lot of promise and a revision of this device that could address many of my issues with it. Not a bad first try for your first handheld gaming device, Valve.

Verdict:
I like it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: It Takes Two [Xbox]

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It took us a couple of months, but we finished Hazelight Studio’s It Takes Two. I didn’t intend on trying it any time soon, but after hearing so much positive buzz surrounding it, I suggested it to my fiancée after the game appeared on Xbox Game Pass and we took to it quite quickly. Momentum waned a bit as the story and character motivations were watered down to pad out video game ideas, but we kept coming back to it and eventually finished it.

I didn’t play A Way Out, but I played Josef Fares’ directorial debut, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. His first game felt cohesive and concise. It Takes Two was incredibly well polished, filled to the brim with lavish content, and neat gameplay ideas, but the story felt thin and couldn’t reasonably justify the length of the game. I felt they didn’t need to invoke the rule of three in order maintain a better pace.

There were a lot of fun and interesting co-operative gameplay ideas that kept me motivated; every new area and level was like a small jolt of “wow”.  We both knew the story was going to wrap up in the proverbial tidy bow, but I was legitimately impressed with how much new stuff we kept seeing. The pervading thought mind through all of this was: “This is what Electronic Arts money gets you. And they’re going ham with it!” It’s a bit of a weird comparison, but I had the same feeling with Max Payne 3. It’s impressive how much high quality work was used or experienced just once and never seen again.

Friendly checkpointing, generous aim assist, and well designed challenges kept engagement high and frustrations low. That may seem like a throwaway compliment, but not even the great Nintendo can execute on the high bar that Hazelight Studio set with this game. I was consistently impressed with how they created common ground for two video game players on the opposite sides of controller proficiency.

The story was very predictable and while there were some cruel moments involving a stuff elephant, nothing surprised us on that front. It served as simple fodder or kittling for discussions for us. We either both agreed on the outcomes that transpired or who was “in the wrong”. We didn’t break out into any multi-hour discussions, but I think we still appreciated those discussion prompts.

It Takes Two was a triumph in co-operative games for the simple reason that it was something that my partner and I could sit down and play together without having it be entirely a shooter of some kind. Co-operative puzzle platforming was interesting for the both us and we were able to contribute in our own way; it wasn’t just video game skill leading the way. It could have used a bit more editing and it wouldn’t have hurt to see the story visit new territory, but in the end it was a fun time and I still highly recommend it.

Verdict:
I liked it!

Ratings Guide

LTTP: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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Third time’s the charm with Vanillaware and I. I tried Odin Sphere, but found the original PS2 release onerous to play. (The remaster was only marginally better.) I didn’t like Dragon’s Crown Pro either so I really didn’t pay much attention to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim until I started seeing the praise and noticing that it wasn’t a beat ’em up game like their previous works. I was cautiously optimistic so I put it on the watch list and finally picked up a copy during Boxing Day 2021.

I generally like the look of VanillaWare games despite their grotesquely proportioned women. Things were looking up for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim though; it only had one character was stupidly busty. The rest of the cast was fine, but a majority of them weren’t instantly memorable. Generic anime high schooler was a very common through line.

VanillaWare aren’t a big budget studio and they tend to wring out a lot of use with what they make. With Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, the backdrops, character animations, and gameplay ideas were reused to their breaking points. Unfortunately for beat ’em up styled games, that breaking point hits me very fast. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim mitigated wearing out their assets in a few ways. Firstly, they developed a story that justified the need to see events from different character’s perspectives. They made it actually interesting to revisit areas to reveal meaningful story tidbits. 

Secondly, they metered out exposure by splitting up the gameplay and story segments and then gating progress based on the different characters and battles. Subdividing the story into different character arcs may have been a source of frustration early on, but it ensured I wasn’t burning out on any one thing too quickly; they saved me from myself and I ended up appreciating it.

The story started off quite slow and reserved. After the tutorial and character introductions were out the way, the pace and science fiction tropes began flowing. The tropes may sound like a knock against 13 Sentinels, but there were so many of them that it somehow all gelled together to create something that compelled me to come back to on a nightly basis.

I was initially invested because of the strategy gameplay scenarios, but by the end, I just wanted to know how this wild story pieced itself together. I was content with the ending and even got a tiny bit misty eyed with some of the revelations and moments in the epilogue. 

I had reservations about the size of the cast. I thought I would lose track of storylines and wondered how many of them would resonate. As it turns out, if you spend enough time steeped in this game (just over 30 hours), you get to know everyone and everything rather well. Thankfully they included an easily accessible events timeline and information files that I could peruse at any time for a refresher.

I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion, but I despised the selfishness of Megumi Yakushiji.

Whenever I feel a strong negative reaction to a character’s actions, and discuss hypotheticals with my fiancee about a character’s decisions, I praise the writers for making me care enough about their story. While her choices ended up working out, her motivations were not just and nobody will ever call her out on it — in fact, she gets a very happy ending which upon reflection, sends the message: Obeying talking animals and shooting your friends with mystery bullets always pays off.

The gameplay half of this game was very straightforward, but I felt like I broke it from the get go. As soon as I was able to generate A.I. controlled interceptors and sentry turrets, I kept dumping upgrade points into it and then kept spamming them in battles. I S ranked every mission except for the last couple on the first try. I figured the game would force me to change tactics at one point, but it turns out that investing in drones, chainsaw swords, and EMPs was enough to bulldoze everything. Don’t get me wrong, I still found it satisfying to stomp through the hordes of enemies, but I was hoping for a bit more variety in the objectives. 

I ended up liking 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim quite a bit, but when I evaluate its component pieces, I realized a lot of what I liked about it was in the cutscenes and story payoffs. The strategy gameplay missions were serviceable if not repetitive. The adventure/story segments were not interesting mechanically often exposed the limits of asset variety as well. What made this game work was how the gameplay, story, and mysterious context of everything melded together to deliver an experience that warranted all that repetition. Intrigue and curiosity took me a long way with this and thankfully for me, I had boatloads of both.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

Metroid Dread Review

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11 years. That’s how long it took Nintendo to release a new 2D instalment in the Metroid franchise. It took them a long time to find someone else to pick up the mantle after the disappointing Metroid: Other M. The Dread project was given to MercurySteam after they proved themselves with the awesome Metroid: Samus Returns.

Metroid Dread played like a very refined Metroid: Samus Returns. Samus’ parry ability and 360 free aim returned, but she also developed the ability to slide under openings that were previously only accessible with the Morph ball. Additions like that and the wall climbing made her feel more versatile and nimble while staying with the confines of the game’s structure. She still required the staple of abilities like the Morph Ball, Space Jump, and Power Bombs to unlock the map.

The flow of the game did not deviate much from the Metroid games before it. There were little wrinkles like teleporters that brought Samus from one area to another to cut down on back tracking, but progress was still gated by abilities. 

The big “disruption” to progress were the E.M.M.I. encounters that offered a change of pace. I liked the idea of being hunted by an indestructible robot foe, but I didn’t like the punishment for getting caught. I might as well just skip to the Game Over screen because having to guess the right window to parry and escape the killer robots’ attacks was not fun. Samus would eventually obtain the ability to cloak and hide, but that would just delay the inevitable if she took the wrong turn somewhere. I found myself focusing on running away or kiting the E.M.M.I. through long winded paths just to buy Samus time to make her way to her destination. I would have preferred if the E.M.M.I. just sapped large chunks of her life away when Samus got caught.

Taking away health would have forced me to a bit more careful with platforming. The bosses kicked Samus’ ass, but the fodder enemies were easily dispatched thanks to the heavy reliance on the parrying mechanic. It’s not a slight against that mechanic, but perhaps one shot killing every enemy after a successful parry was a bit much.

I played Dread entirely in handheld mode which is made me consider picking up an OLED model. I found the game to look very nice on the original Switch’s LCD, but I know all those colors would have popped even more on an OLED. I only wish the game didn’t struggle to maintain its silky smooth framerate; there were a handful of areas where there were just a few too many X parasite thingies to render.

It’s been a long time since I thought about the X parasites and Metroids squaring off. Their introduction in Fusion brought a substantial change to Samus that I found functionally interesting, but aesthetically cringy. Making Samus more biomechnical was an interesting idea in Fusion, but I didn’t enjoy the path they went down in Dread. By the end, Samus became stupidly powerful and wouldn’t look out of place hanging out in the Kingdom of Atlantis as some kind of crustacean themed dark knight. It didn’t resonate with me at all. 

Weird suit transformations and other tiny misgivings aside, I really enjoyed my time Metroid Dread. It nearly convinced me to pick up a Switch OLED. I had such a good time playing through the game, and unraveling the map like a good one of these games should do. It took Nintendo a long, long time to add to the Metroid franchise, but they finally did and it was worth the wait.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

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