LTTP: Yakuza Kiwami 2

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Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 was an eye opening experience for me. It was my first Yakuza title and it was also my first time experiencing a smidgen of life in Japan. The neon of Japanese nightlife, the small cramped alleyways, the hostess clubs, and the art of punching tigers in the face. Yakuza Kiwami 2 allowed me to revisit all those wonderful memories through its faithful remake of that 2006 cult classic.

When I think back at Yakuza 2, I see Kiwami 2. The character models, the cutscenes, the cities; all the years of playing Yakuza games slowly evolved that image of Yakuza 2 to what Kiwami 2 actually looks like. The reality is anything but. I took a look at some screenshots and footage from that old PS2 game to remind myself how far the series progressed in the last 15 years.

While it plays and looks a whole lot better than the old PlayStation 2 version, I’ve grown accustomed to playing this game at 60 FPS and I really wish that was an option on the Xbox Series X. It runs fine on the console, but the sluggish response makes navigating in the cluttered and crowded streets of Osaka awkward. It’s hilariously awkward, but not ideal if I were trying to evoke the calm and cool Kiryu Kazuma demeanor.

 The story beats were as I remembered which only reminds me of the disappointment of not seeing Kaoru Sayama play a role in subsequent Yakuza game. I recognize that other prominent characters introduced in one game would fade away in the future games, but she was Kiryu’s love interest and the lame way that she just disappeared in Yakuza 3 and to never return was a bummer.

While the core story remained intact and relatively untouched, the peripheral activities and side missions received more significant reworks. The hostess management game from Yakuza 0 made its way here along with a brand new real time strategy game involving Majima’s construction crew fending off gangsters guest starred by Japanese wrestlers. I’m not familiar with any of those names, but they gave off strong wrestling vibes. 

I didn’t spend much time with either of those activities. I spent more time playing Riichi Mahjong which I actually learned how to play for the first time. It was similar to Hong Kong Mahjong which I learned earlier this year so I wasn’t going in blind. 

I also spent a fair bit of time completing all the side missions and trying to impress Haruka by taking her places around Osaka and Kamurocho. The latter I gave up on after her demands became increasingly ridiculous. Taking a little girl to various eateries around the Osaka was one thing, but her request for me to dominate a poker game in a seedy underground casino was just too much. This little girl needs to stop hanging out with Kiryu.

I declared Yakuza 2 as the best of the series for the longest time only to have it be dethroned by the excellent Yakuza 0. I wondered how well Yakuza 2 would hold up many years later and I’m glad to see that it has. It’s still the second best Yakuza title. I have yet to play Yakuza 5 and Like a Dragon, but I doubt they would do much to sway my opinion on this.

Framerate preferences aside, revisiting Yakuza Kiwami 2 was a pleasure. An engaging story set between two iconic Japanese locations filled with drama and over-the-top action? What’s not to love? With the remasters, remakes, and the availability of a majority of these games on Xbox Game Pass, it’s never been a better time to check out this weird and wonderful franchise.

Verdict:
I liked it

LTTP: Psychonauts [Xbox]

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I played Double Fine Production’s classic adventure platformer way back in 2005 on the PC, but I never actually finished it. I enjoyed what little I played, but I never took the opportunity to return to it until Psychonauts 2 — a game that I helped crowdfund — finally launched. I’m so glad I went back to finish it because it was a pleasant and wholesome game that stood the test of time. 

I played Psychonauts on the Xbox Series X and thanks to the amazing work by Microsoft’s backward’s compatibility team, the game looks like a legitimate remaster. A much higher resolution (1920p) and a mostly smooth 30 FPS framerate yielded a game that was more than playable in 2021. The 4:3 aspect ratio and untouched pre-rendered videos were reminders of the game’s age, but they weren’t enough to complete rob the game of its timeless charm. I wouldn’t describe the art style as my cup of tea, but the exaggerated nature of it allowed the visuals to age gracefully.

The voice work shining through from 2005 was another astonishing feat from Double Fine. Each and every character was on point with fitting voice performances infused with memorable personalities.

Psychonauts’ claim to fame was never its platforming and in the end, I found it to be completely inoffensive and functional. There were a handful of tricky spots, but it wasn’t anything a bit of perseverance and a review of Raz’s psychic capabilities couldn’t address. I enjoyed the fact that they didn’t make it glaringly obvious which powers I had to lean on to overcome an obstacle. It gave the game familiar classic adventure game inventory vibe that Tim Schafer and his ilk were known for. There were a boss fight or two where I had to cycle through my arsenal of powers like a key ring full of keys, but it was still very satisfying when I finally “unlocked” the boss. If all else fails though, I could always ring up Agent Cruller like Solid Snake to the Colonel from Metal Gear Solid.

This classic game’s claim to fame was its distinctive and imaginative worlds. Creating worlds out of the minds of individuals and broaching the topic of mental health and how inner turmoil affects people was very unique in 2005. Mental health in the early 2000s garnered images of straitjackets and asylums which was incredibly cliché and created an unwarranted stigma around the topic. And while Psychonauts leveraged that trope in this game, it handled it with a bit more care than most. They gave the inmates relatable stories and reasons as to why they were caught up in their own minds. 

Each world was unique with their own vibes and game mechanics. They weren’t that divergent from the staple of smashing enemies and collecting stuff, but their respective conceits were novel. I was a big fan of the boardgame and conspiracy worlds. 

Raz ran away from home and his father to attend a psychic camp believing he was meant to become a psychic secret agent and join the Psychonauts. Raz helped his campmates, helped long forgotten people solve their issues, and eventually took down a rogue instructor’s plans for world domination. He eventually became the Psychonaut he wanted. The pleasant surprise was the little twist in the end where we discovered Raz had his own personal demons. A misunderstanding with his father lead Raz to conjure up unnecessary hardship for himself which he solved through communication with him. The takeaway for us all is that if we cannot read each other’s minds, the best way to overcome our own hangups is to talk to one another; a very useful life lesson.

Psychonauts was a gem of a game and I was so pleased to see it hold up as well as it did. A significant portion of the kudos goes to Microsoft for their incredible backwards compatibility work, but the heaviest of lifting came from Double Fine who made so many smart decisions during development all those years ago. They created something that was so enduring and beloved by its fans that a sequel was backed into existence. I cannot wait to play the sequel!

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Doom Eternal [Xbox]

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2016’s Doom was a very pleasant surprise to many including myself. I loved it; it was easily one of the best games of 2016 with only Overwatch beating it to the number one spot. I was looking forward to Doom Eternal until I heard the impressions from other Doom (2016) fans. As a result of the less than glowing impressions, I held off Doom Eternal until it made its way to Xbox Game Pass and received its ray tracing update for Xbox Series X. With a fresh coat of paint, enough time for the post launch dust to settle, I was ready to find out if Doom Eternal was a worthy sequel to one of my favorite games from the last generation.

First impressions started very positively, but was quickly complicated by the nonsense of a story and over-complication of ideas. I was not a fan of the story, lore, or any of the Doom Slayer, Khan Maykr gibberish they were putting forth. I missed the singular foe for whom the Doom Slayer to focus his energy on. Instead I was subjected to lore that I didn’t want any part of.

Following the footsteps of the original Doom II, Doom: Eternal starts off on Earth. The demons landed on Earth, overran the humans, and it’s up to silent space marine to clear them out. Unfortunately, just like Doom II, I missed the cohesion and sense of progress from place to place. Hopping around the Earth looking for some demon priests was underwhelming in comparison. This was especially true considering how they stitched everything together via the “Fortress of Doom” ship which felt like a giant time waster.

I understand the desire to give the Doom Slayer a place to hang out and display his collectible Funko Pop knockoffs and other useless records that he picked up, but it dampened any momentum the game tried to muster. I wish I could ignore the ship, but they decided to stuff that place full of upgrades.

There were too many upgrades and too many currencies to collect to unlock said upgrades — it was ridiculous and excessive. Weapon points, batteries, two different coins, and crystals? Are you serious? Add the unlockable cheat codes, soundtracks, and the Funko Pop knockoffs mentioned earlier and I’m finding myself checking the map screen every time I step into a new room.

The idea behind shooting off armaments off demons to alter their behaviour and reduce their threat profile sounds like a good idea in theory. It adds a layer of depth that Doom (2016) didn’t have, but at the same time, it made certain weapons indispensable. The Heavy Cannon was always in Precision shot mode and the Shotgun’s secondary was always lobbing grenades; it didn’t make any sense to move off those weapon modes. The added depth came at a cost which was all, but requiring me to play a Doom  game with a scoped weapon. That was blasphemous and I wish I could play Doom Eternal without engaging with that mechanic, but it was somewhat necessary on Ultra-Violence difficulty.

The higher difficulty forced me to come to grips with the full gamut of gameplay mechanics quite quickly. Two types of grenades, super punches, flamethrowers, and dashes were required to tame the demons. Staying on top of ability cooldowns to dispense a steady stream of damage and regularly harvesting resources resource reclamation would eventually yield success. Extra lives found throughout the levels can bail me out of a jam, but they were not absolutely necessary once I was fully kitted.

I think the inclusion of the Marauder; a demon that can block the BFG9000 was the antithesis of fun and was the summation of everything I disliked about Doom Eternal. It swatted the most powerful abilities in the game away and reduced me to playing Simon with it. It’s one of the lamest looking enemies to come out of id Software with the most jarring stagger sound and animation. It wasn’t impossible to deal with a Maurader; it was annoying. Topping it all off, I took a peek at the backstory and it was whole lot of nonsense about betrayals and nothing particularly rad.

It’s funny how my feelings for Doom (2016) to Doom Eternal resembled those from Doom I to Doom II; I liked both original outings more than their respective sequels. Doom II and Doom Eternal felt like games that were made to challenge fans of the original and not necessarily make it more fun. Unlike Doom II, Doom Eternal went too far in a number of areas that detracted from what made the original so good. I realized that the further I got into the game, the shorter my play sessions became and by the end, I was yearning for credits and end my time with this game. Eternal? No, thanks.

Verdict:
I don’t like it

LTTP: The Last of Us Part II

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Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II was a fitting name for the sequel to the PlayStation 3 classic. Sometimes sequels shake things up or dramatically evolve from one instalment to the next, but not this franchise; it was cut from the same cloth. It evoked similar feelings of despising and pitying the protagonist. It smothered us with stories of humans being absolutely awful to each other. And it gave us plenty of opportunities to dispatch or sneak by infected and humans alike. 

Part II felt instantly familiar as someone who replayed The Last of Us via its remaster last year. There were evolutions and expansions on ideas, but it largely played the same on Hard difficulty. Snuffing out infected and humanoid enemies alike without expending too much resources would often yield even more resources. It all quickly snowballed the two protagonists into powerhouses. Being careful paid off too much in this case. 

Ellie was a playable character in The Last of Us, but she wasn’t a full fledged playable character with her own skill tree. Ellie starring in the Part II was expected, but her sharing the spotlight with Abby, the daughter of the late surgeon that Joel killed in that Colorado hospital operating room, was a bit of a surprise. She had her own story, skill tree, and set of exclusive weaponry. 

The two protagonists were more capable than ever having remembered that they were humans that could go prone and crawl through grass like Metal Gear’s Solid Snake. They could even shoot while on their backs which gave me Metal Gear Solid V vibes. New gadgets and skills mixed things up a bit, but they weren’t enough to stave off the familiar feeling of it all. The characters continued to consume decades old pills or “supplements” to expand their skill trees in-between firefights involving makeshift bombs and Molotov cocktails. Fighting off infected felt as natural as swimming (which you can now do) while human enemy behaviors stood out like a sore and inadequate thumb in 2021. Many of these issues exist in newer full-fledged stealth games, but I was hoping Naughty Dog made further advancements in that area.

I was also disappointed by two new enemy types: the dogs hunting along with humans and the Stalker from the infected ranks. They were annoying to deal with and didn’t really pose the interesting threat that the developers intended. I see how these two can seriously ruin someone’s day in the higher difficulties, but on hard difficulty? They were either silenced unceremoniously, lured into a makeshift bomb or greeted with a shotgun blast to the face. Yeah, the game is still very violent.

The Last of Us was violent and occasionally cruel, but I felt Part II was very violent and often cruel. Abby and Ellie were monsters in their own way and they displayed it often in both gameplay and cutscenes. They were born into a world where the most monstrous survive and where restraint and compassion often leaves you lying in a pool of your own blood later down the line. The story’s twists and turns didn’t surprise me, but its expansiveness did. It felt like they made two games that joined at a single event before concluding with yet another decision made by characters that I personally did not agree with, but understood. 

The developers sprinkled minute and overt touches of humanity amongst the enemies this time around. Enemies would often call each other by name. They’re often heard discussing plans for their own communities and the threats they faced. And by the time the player swap occurred, it was apparent that people were just trying to survive and many of them were following orders to ensure the survival of their friends and family. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I didn’t change my approach even after these details were made very apparent. You could say I just played my side’s role to the extreme, but I just wanted to loot in peace.

Exploring the environments was the highlight of the game for me. I tried to explore every nook looking for “environmental story telling”. The hotel and the basement floors of the hospital were my favorite spaces because they told epic tales from the early days of the outbreak. There were dozens of tiny awful discoveries through the course of the game, but the one where this small town’s greatest archer drugged his friends and neighbours and locked them in a spore infested mechanic’s office stuck with me. The brilliant touch was me stumbling across this hell room first; before piecing together the journal entries and notes to discover the grim reason for this room full of infected. 

I’m glad I chose to wait a whole year before playing The Last of Us Part II. In that time, the PlayStation 5 launched and a free PS5 update unlocked the framerate to 60 FPS among other tweaks. The game ran extremely well on Performance mode; I’m certain it’s playable at 30 FPS, but I’m opting into the 60 FPS life when I can. The animations were top notch and was a technical highlight. I don’t know how they kept everything looking so smooth and responsive. I didn’t feel like I was waiting for actions to play out. 

The Last of Us Part II wasn’t a wild or earth shattering sequel like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was, but Naughty Dog did just enough to keep me locked in. I want them to shake up the gameplay systems for the next game, but I don’t know what that would look like. All I know is that this loop of seeking out supplements and silently snuffing out humans and infected is well worn territory. I wasn’t bored or tired of it by the time credits rolled, but I don’t know if I can tolerate a third installment of the more of the same on the gameplay front. 

As for story? Questions linger. What are the fates of the survivors? Will there be a bitter sweet ending one day? Is there hope in this world or will humanity be doomed to succumbing to barbarism? Only Naughty Dog knows and I’m looking forward to finding out how it all unfolds.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

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