LTTP: Rise of the Tomb Raider [X1]

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With the release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I thought it was about time to finally play Rise of the Tomb Raider. I didn’t like the second installment of this prequel trilogy as much as I thought I would. It played well, it was still able to hang with the best of them on the presentation front but I didn’t find Lara likable this time around

Rise of the Tomb Raider continued Lara Croft’s evolution into the Tomb Raider. In her 2013 adventure, Lara was depicted as an archaeologist thrown into traumatic situation. She was a bit hapless at first but by the end, she was taking out mercenaries like Nathan Drake. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft was a bit of an obsessed and selfish jerk who deliberately put her friend and others in danger in order to obtain the “Divine Source”. She even convinced herself that she was doing the right thing if she liberated the Divine Source and relieved the natives from the burden of defending it. Lara ultimately did the right thing but not before doing everything in her power to become very unlikable in my books.

The gameplay loop didn’t change much from what I recall of the last game. There were comparatively cinematic firefights, chases, and climbs broken up by larger open spaces for Lara to explore. These open spaces featured the hunting, gathering, crafting, and fetch quests that one would expect. Some fit the context of story well, while others required a long suspension of disbelief. Tombs were also unearthed in these spaces but this time they were a bit more elaborate and challenging compared to those of the last game.

Thankfully, Rise of the Tomb Raider was not as gruesome as its predecessor. Lara was still brutal with her executions but her deaths weren’t so wince inducing. It was unnecessary in their pursuit of grittiness. She still has a violent rage to her but at least, it matched her gruffer demeanor, this time around.

I played this game on the Xbox One X courtesy of Xbox Game Pass. The game looked very impressive with solid performance  early on but as soon as I stepped foot into the Geothermal Valley, the framerate suffered. I played it on the Digital Foundry recommended “Enriched 4K” mode and I was none too pleased by that experience. I would have preferred if they focused on getting the framerate to lock at 30 FPS. Rise of the Tomb Raider was supposed to be one of the Xbox One X showcase games and watching the game struggle was disappointing.

I continued to compare Rise of the Tomb Raider to the Uncharted series – I cannot help it. I played Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy before tackling Rise of the Tomb Raider so my expectations were inflated. I found Lara’s facial animation odd and distracting during dialog exchanges during (what was supposed to be) dramatic sequences.

One of the sillier aspects of these Tomb Raider games were the rewards. Lara found modern weapon parts deep in caves and knowledge to improve her survivability in texts at the end of tombs. I understand the desire to loop gameplay rewards into collectibles but at least try to make some sense of it. I also found the idea of her slaying half a dozen bears, wolves, and other wildlife to improve her equipment to be extreme. I felt they were stretching the survival angle thin in this game; it didn’t feel necessary once she met up with others.

Lara Croft was at her best doing what she was known to do and that was raiding tombs, solving puzzles, and occasionally fending off mercenaries and vicious animals. When she was interacting with other humans or skinning animals for their furs? I wish it was better realized.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PS4)

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Life is Strange was a captivating game. I genuinely enjoyed the tale and dark twists weaved by Dontnod Entertainment. I expected Square Enix and company to forge a sequel but when I heard a prequel by Deck Nine — a different studio — was on its way, I was very skeptical. Life is Strange: Before the Storm fleshed out the lives and events Life is Strange cast members prior to Max’s return to Arcadia Bay. It gave insight into Chloe Price and how she evolved and it gave Rachel Amber a voice. But were these good additions to the Life is Strange story thus far? I’m not certain. 

I found Before the Storm to be a surprisingly excellent self contained story of teenagers dealing with the real world. The influence of peers and parents were explored through the stories of Nathan Prescott and Drew North. They showed how familial pressures lead people down the wrong path or negatively warp their personalities. Some influences were direct while others were unfortunate circumstances.

Showing the origins of Chloe and Rachel’s relationship was fascinating and cute but it just raised more questions. Before the Storm spanned the nascent stages of their relationship but it didn’t address how Rachel and Frank Bowers got involved. The bonus episode, “Farewell”, explored the fateful day when Max left Arcadia Bay for Seattle but it didn’t share why she didn’t stay in touch. Situations and story threads left dangling like this highlighted more opportunities for Square Enix to introduce another sequel in-between but I think that would be a mistake. Some questions are better left unanswered.

Three full length episodes (about 3 hours each) and a one hour bonus episode was just enough time to explore the Max-less life of Chloe Price. Max’s time rewinding mechanic was replaced with a forced and unnatural feeling argument system where Chloe and I can start shit talking people to get our way. I think the only instance where it felt natural was within the tutorial.

For the most part, Before the Storm served to shore up my feelings and impressions of the characters from the original game. I felt a bit more sympathy here and there but as a whole, my feelings were largely unchanged. Max and her faceless parents, though? They altered my opinions of them quite a bit. Max failed to keep her promise to stay in touch and eventually gave up altogether. And considering the circumstances that preceded her departure from Arcadia Bay and how close Max and Chloe were, I was shocked that Max and her family didn’t even visit. They spent so much time together and to just disconnect like that was odd to me. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised by Chloe’s sense of betrayal by her friend.

One of the most impressive aspects of Before the Storm was how seamless the switch from Unreal Engine 3.0 to Unity was. If that Unity logo didn’t make itself known, I wouldn’t have noticed that they were running on a completely different engine. I wasn’t too keen on the game’s performance on the default “resolution” mode but it ran quite well with the “performance” option. I didn’t fathom 30 FPS would be a problem in an adventure game like this but I was wincing during those camera pans.

I went into Life is Strange: Before the Storm filled with skepticism and left just the same. Was it necessary to delve this deep back into Chloe and Rachel’s lives? I did enjoy their rendition of the Tempest but did I need to see someone remark on that wine stain in the Price living room again? I was glad to see Nathan Prescott before he walked down his dark path but what happened to Samantha? For better and worse, answers and questions ping ponged themselves throughout. While its relevancy and necessity can be debated, its quality was undeniable to me. Deck Nine’s contribution to Life is Strange was solid.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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I should have played Horizon: Zero Dawn before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I know they have very little in common outside of the fact that they’re both giant open world games but Nintendo made some transcendent additions that I sorely miss. I can scale many mountains in Horizon by hopping around like a red haired mountain goat but getting down from said heights was laborious. I missed the ability to glide. It’s not fair to expect the ability to scale everything with ease but I found it frustrating having to run around a mountain to seek out this “golden path” of handholds. Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn felt limiting for an open world game.

I wish I could look at Guerilla Games’ contribution to the open world genre in a vacuum but I cannot. The game’s map evoked Ubisoft open world games with its flood of icons. They put their own spin on certain elements like towers (they walk in the far flung future) but it’s so structurally similar that I cannot help but feel like Guerillla Games’ and Sony essentially made a first party Ubisoft game. It’s reductive but that’s how I feel about it.

The moment to moment action involved a fair bit of hunting with a bow. There were slingshots with explosives and the occasional chain gun here and there but the bulk of the action stemmed from the use of the bow. It was easy to wield with a generous amount of aim assist. A myriad of quests gave Alloy, the red haired protagonist, numerous opportunities to kill mechanical animals and humans. Going toe-to-toe with the mechanical beasts was engaging but the same cannot be said with the humans. Fighting them was a chore. Some were weirdly tough for humans wearing nothing but cloth and animal pelts.

The sabretooth and T-rex sized machines were formidable foes due to their size, ferocity, and complexity. Their resilience in battle meant I had to be smarter and not necessarily stronger to win. This was achieved through exploiting elemental weaknesses, shooting off component parts, or using the terrain to keep the mechanical beasts at bay. I found the last tactic shockingly easy to abuse and wonder how open world games will curb tactics like this. I felt I was breaking the game.

The main story thread was the reason for me to keep going forward. I was fascinated by the past and the events that lead the world to ruin. I was fascinated by how FARO doomed the world and how Elizabet Sobeck devised a plan to save humanity. There were a number of eyebrow raising moments that made me question the plausibility of events but in the end, I found it to be intriguing enough to suspend disbelief.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games have its historic and “present” day stories. I was invested in both narrative halves in those games but I had virtually zero interest in the politics, characters, or problems that did not directly tie to uncovering the past. Carja, Shadow Carja, Sun Kings, and Nora nonsense didn’t register with me after the world opened up. I just couldn’t muster a care in the world for tribal politics when there were giant robots running amok.

The new God of War shared similar limitations with golden paths but they worked within those limitations and didn’t create the illusion of being able to scale everything with a giant open world. I felt every inch of God of War was worth exploring; it felt rewarding and not a waste of time. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s strengths laid with its combat and narrative ambitions and I think they would have been better off scaling down.

Verdict:
It was okay

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

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Mario and Rabbids together at last. In an XCOM styled game as well. What a pleasant and bizarre surprise announcement that was. I was immediately curious and seeing it was well received, I had every intention to pick it up. But since it was an Ubisoft game, I chose to bide my time and await a sale.

There were only four kingdoms in the Ubisoft strategy title but I was ready for the credits heading into the fire kingdom. I thoroughly enjoy the battles for their inventive situations, gimmicks, and boss battles. But everything else in-between said battles became a chore. 

It was initially charming to roam around these worlds checking out the random hijinx the other Rabbids were up to. I even enjoyed the simple puzzles and light exploration at first. All these innocuous activities wore out their welcome through repetition and lack of diversity. They could have made it worthwhile by including worthwhile treasures but instead I picked up a lot of artwork that will go untouched.

I felt Mario + Rabbids had a very solid gameplay foundation. The simplified take on turn-based strategy worked very well and it didn’t result in me uttering curses because a high percentage shot missed. Having 0%, 50%, and 100% be the only three shot percentages made for a quicker paced game. The combination play between the different characters was unique and sparked the desire for strategic thinking. I wasn’t particularly keen on the restrictions of a Rabbid party member at first but after spending some time with them, their silly personalities won me over. 

Without taking into account turn restrictions, Mario + Rabbids is an extremely easy game. However, adding turn limits into the equation gave this game a puzzle element. It became a game of ability examinations, build combos, and efficient movement. Unfortunately for me, I decided to go for the high marks and restarted the battle any time I took a misstep. I tried to run through every battle as efficiently as possible which resulted with me restarting battles over and over again. I focused on the high marks to a fault and willingly interrupted the flow of the game repeatedly.

To my pleasant surprise, the Rabbids were fun. Peach Rabbid and the rest of the Rabbid variants brought quirky fun to the classic Nintendo characters that we wouldn’t have ever seen from Nintendo proper. I was also pleasantly surprised by the the aesthetics. That Snowdrop Engine produced some very impressive visuals for the Nintendo Switch. I would have liked to see it run at 60FPS for the “running around” moments but seeing how simplistic those parts were, it wasn’t a deal breaker.

I was far more impressed with the musical score brought in by the the great Grant Kirkhope. It’s very him and it didn’t take me long to realize that he was bringing his iconic touch to this game. I distinctly recall thinking: “This music is far too good for your typical Ubisoft title. It reminds me of Donkey Kong Country.”

Whoever came up with the idea of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was a genius. But whoever managed to successfully pitch this idea to Nintendo was the true hero of Ubisoft because I cannot believe Nintendo green lit this unorthodox pairing. I guess all the Red Steels and ZombiUs of the last decade or so finally paid off. Some issues aside, I felt Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was a success and I look forward to the next iteration of this unlikely collaboration. 

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

 

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