Gears Tactics Review

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When Microsoft announced a tactical Gears of War game in the vein of XCOM, I believe many were like me in thinking: this is a match made in heaven. Gears of War has the enemy variety, the weapon variety, and inherent cover focused gameplay to make the transition from third person shooter to a tactical strategy game. I had blind faith that The Coalition and Splash Damage were going to execute on the tactical layer. Instead, my focus on how the strategic layer was going to function in the context of Gears of War.

I knew Gears Tactics was going to take place shortly after the COG disseminated their own cities in a failed effort to snuff out the Locusts. The idea of building up a small army to fight back against the Locusts made was a suitable premise that wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the aliens invading Earth in XCOM. I thought there would even be a research and development element considering the fact that Gears 5 had upgrades to tech. The Baird of this prequel era could have been the head of R&D, for example. 

To my surprise, a meaningful strategic layer was absent. I initially thought Gears Tactics would have been fine without one because other games like Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle fared very well with just a simple character management layer. 

Gears Tactics focused on their cast of named characters for story missions while customizable nobodies filled out the roster for side missions. I originally set out to play the game at the intermediate difficulty with Ironman mode on, but that turned out to be a mistake. If a named character like Gabriel Diaz or Sid Redburn died in battle, the game was over — save file deleted. Turns out character story driven games are a lot tougher to play through when you have VIPs to progress with.

I initially found the level of challenge fair on the intermediate difficulty. The different mixes of classes, objectives, and maps kept me on my toes for about a third of the game. It didn’t take long before I started to see familiar scenarios crop up. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was no stranger to these mission reruns, but they had a bigger pool of scenarios and locales to draw from.

Weapons, equipment, and armor were necessary to keep pace with the growing challenge that was the Locust horde. However, focusing on maximizing grenades proved to be far too effective for me to give it up. Chaining executions for increased action points via classic chainsaws, curb stomping or bayonet charges gave Gears Tactics a puzzle element that was very reminiscent of Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. If played correctly, an entire squad of Locusts could be cleared before they took a shot. It may sound broken, but it’s also incredibly satisfying.

Those moments of self-gratification were dampened by the fact that many of the Locusts enemy units charged blindly towards the Gears. All I had to do was setup in a choke position and watch them all succumb to overwatch gun fire. This strategy worked far too often in regular mission encounters. Boss battles were a different beast altogether and were the game’s highlight moments. They took the Brumak and Corpser and made them even more satisfying to fight than in Gears of War proper. Mixing fodder units with the giant boss’ far reaching attacks and shifting strategies kept these encounters engaging throughout. After facing off with the Brumak in Act 1, I played through the rest of game hoping for more that. Unfortunately, there were only two other bosses that capped off each of the remaining acts.

I initially theorized Gears Tactics was so focused on its core action because they wanted to focus the Gears of War fan’s attention to it. I believed they didn’t want to muddy the experience with geeky R&D distractions and the like, but by the end of it all, I simply believe the developers needed more resources to make this brilliant union truly sing. There relatively minor issues with unit pathfinding causing said units to get stuck on things, but the most glaring issue is the lack of variety to sustain such a long game. It felt like they had an act’s worth of gameplay and story ideas and stretched out into three overly long acts. 

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

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Ori and the Blind Forest was an early Xbox One exclusive that helped validate Microsoft’s struggling console. The sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, would have been the perfect way to cap off the Xbox One generation, but performance issues reportedly dampened that prospect. Fortunately, Microsoft’s strategy shifted since Ori’s debut and their first party published games are also available on Windows 10 via Xbox Game Pass for PC service. My aging NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 was able to deliver a steady 4K 60FPS with (what I assume to be) asset loading related hitches. 

Options outside of the game paid off for Moon Studios and there were even more ways to play within as well. Combat expanded significantly to include a number of abilities to accommodate different playstyles. Ori could wield a giant energy hammer, or fire energy bolts, or even summon a sprite that attacks enemies automatically. There’s a very light layer of strategy required but most enemies were dispatched with ease at the default difficulty. The challenge laid elsewhere.

Like its predecessor, Will of the Wisps was a challenging but forgiving platformer. Generous checkpoints and instantaneous reloading allowed the designers to include tricky jumps, hops, and dashes throughout the game without the frustration of replaying large chunks of the game when Ori failed. The most challenging and thrilling sections were the escape sequences which pitted Ori against an auto scrolling obstacle course of death. I felt they managed to execute and implement these sequences better in this game thanks to improved signposting which resulted in fewer retries. Nothing robbed an escape sequence of its thrill quite like a dozen retries of the same sequence. 

I initially thought the boss fights were going to be as challenging as the platforming. I mistakenly believed Moon Studios was going to pursue challenging combat like Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight. They did not. In fact, I would argue that the boss encounters were a bit too easy. I was able to brute force my way through most of it through healing and being flush with health orbs. I’m guessing things would be a bit more challenging at a higher difficulty though and if I didn’t bias Ori’s Shard loadout towards damage output.

Speaking of Hollow Knight, the Shards system should be familiar to anyone who played that game. It allowed me to increase enemy health for more in-game currency, or reduce energy costs for special moves; there were a fairly large variety of shards that allowed me to customize my experience in meaningful ways. To be honest, I think I made it too easy for myself. It didn’t make the platforming easier but it did take the bite out of much of the combat.

The Blind Forest’s soundtrack was one of those excellent scores that worked both in-game and outside of it. I revisit that soundtrack at least once per year since it’s release and I will do the same with the Will of the Wisps’. In some ways, it felt like an expansion of the style and atmosphere from the first game. Will of the Wisps soundtrack was allowed to breathe and steep in different moods. Some pieces reminded me of themes from different properties like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter; full of whimsy and emotion. Every time I think about it, I want to put on my headphones and experience it again.

I loved every minute of Ori and the Will of the Wisps. It’s one of those Metroidvania style games that I uncover every bit of the map for. I don’t even do that for Metroid games that I like. I don’t know if I love it enough to attempt a “no death” run, but I can easily see myself revisiting it at a higher difficulty. While the technical shortcomings are a bummer, I felt like Moon Studios realized their full Ori vision with this game. It’s my favorite Xbox exclusive of 2020 and that’s with new consoles coming later this year. It’s just that good.

Verdict:
I love it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Luigi’s Mansion 3

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We did it! It took months and months, but we finally finished Luigi’s Mansion 3. 

Minor correction: I finished Luigi’s Mansion 3.

My fiancée and I started Luigi’s Mansion 3 together late last year and we chipped away at it for months before I finally wrapped it up in early June 2020. Why did it take so long? A number of fundamental issues contributed to a rapid descent in interest.  Needless backtracking and growing frustrations with the controls during boss fights were primary factors.

The game made a wonderful first impression with its charming visuals and highly interactive environments. The ability to vacuum up nearly everything in the world was both impressive and fun. We would discover hidden secrets and coins which rewarded our desire for exploration.

Solving puzzles with the flashlight, UV light, and manipulation of world objects via the Poltergust vacuum amused for about a third of the game. Then we were asked to backtrack to older levels to chase down a ghost cat. They disrupted the game’s momentum by delaying the next piece of new content. We devoured each hotel level; we vacuumed up very inch of each level before we moved on and then they asked us to revisit those levels and look for this ghost cat by vacuuming up stuff again.

We collected a lot of money as a result of all the vacuuming. Unfortunately for us, we had nothing worthwhile to spend it on. There were purchasable hints for other collectibles, but that was it. I would have loved an upgrade mechanic or costumes for Luigi; something fun to cash all this currency for.

It started to feel like a drag but we pushed forward. We were amused by Luigi’s reactions to the antics surrounding him. We had fun taking down the early boss fights and figuring hidden tricks of the spooky hotel. The boss fights started out as wonderful caps to finish off each level, but they gradually became increasingly annoying. I never felt 100% comfortable with the controls and I’ve been playing all manner of console games for decades. Some of these boss fights required a level of finesse that these controls did not reliably deliver. These encounters transitioned from fun victories to frustration laden slogs as we repeated fights due to minor execution errors. 

I wrapped up the last few levels of Luigi’s Mansion on my own. My fiancée had checked out and gave me the blessing to finish it on my own. Since I initially played a large chunk of the game co-operatively, the switch to controlling both Luigi and his slime clone, Gooigi, was a bit awkward. It felt fine when I was simply exploring the levels, but it felt unnatural during combat. I stumbled my way through the last few levels and managed to defeat King Boo after a handful of tries, but was left dissatisfied with the gameplay.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 held a lot of promise early on and I was disappointed to see it fail to deliver on that promise. If they axed all the backtracking, included meaningful rewards for exploration, and tweaked the boss fights to accommodate their controls, I think my fiancée and I would have seen it through together. In the end, I was left playing with myself and that felt weird.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

Final Fantasy VII Remake Review

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Can you believe it? After tantalizing PlayStation 3 technical demoa surprise announcement in 2014, and six years of waiting: Square Enix finally remade (a part of) Final Fantasy VII. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original, but my appreciation for the game and its world grew over time. I found myself enjoying Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII immensely. I found Advent Children to be a fun watch. Before I realized it, I was looking forward to Final Fantasy VII Remake.

My primary reason for wanting a Final Fantasy VII remake was to establish visual coherence. The limitations of the PlayStation hardware dictated what was possible in 1996. The mish-mash of pre-rendered backgrounds, CGI movies, realistic, and unrealistic proportioned characters made it tough for me lend gravity to the events that transpired. 

The Final Fantasy VII Remake achieved much of what I hoped for with its presentation. It’s not flawless due to some awful texture loading issues and garish pre-rendered skyboxes, but as a whole, I felt they successfully recreated the look and feel of Midgar in real-time. Despite all the advancements, the characters still ended up being standouts with impressive attention to detail and graphical budget dedicated to them. They looked too good in some scenes which gave me flashbacks to the original PlayStation classic and how its polygonal characters stood out from the backgrounds.

I’m not certain if it was a coincidence or intentional, but the wealthier sides of Midgar were both technologically and aesthetically more pleasing than the slums. The texture issues were isolated to the poorer areas of Midgar whereas Shinra’s HQ and other plate dwellings were spared such technical issues. Square Enix really wanted to hammer home those themes of inequality, huh?

This instalment of Final Fantasy VII Remake was about steeping in the game’s themes and messages. I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with Midgar and its people. I experienced Midgar slum life. I spent a bit of time in the quiet Midgar suburbs. And I even visited the Shinra Power Electric Company’s HQ and loved how swanky that was. Square Enix made it abundantly clear who the haves and have nots were.

Some will describe the errands and side quests as meaningless fetch quests. I didn’t mind them because I enjoyed the opportunities to interact and see more of Midgar. My familiarity and affinity with the sectors 5 and 7 slums grew with each passing hour. It takes time form an affinity to a place and even though the side content could have been more meaningful, I felt they achieved something worthwhile by asking me to go on wild Chocobo chases.

It also took a bit of time to grasp the combat. It was an evolution of the ideas presented in Final Fantasy XIII where the key to success was to build pressure and stagger enemies to inflict more damage. They layered those concepts on top of real time combat while allowing me to indefinitely slow down time to issue commands. I found it a bit cumbersome at first, but after reading ability lists and exploiting enemy weaknesses, I grew to really enjoy the systems implemented. My only complaint was the threat management which was too easy to exploit. If I didn’t want a character to fall in battle, all I had to do was to avoid direct control of them.

I found the action so enjoyable that I toyed with the idea of going for the Platinum trophy. Maybe I will revisit that idea when the next instalment nears. But ow long of a wait is that? I have no idea and that’s a point of contention for some. I understand that this remake is marching at a snail’s pace compared to the original but at the same time, I cannot describe it as a legitimate remake. They’ve diverged from the source material in numerous ways and introduced elements that make this take on Final Fantasy VII look like a sequel. I’ve seen comparisons to the 2009 Star Trek movie and the way it plays with established events and there’s enough hints to say that Square Enix was and will be toying with our expectations. 

Square Enix have always been excellent with their soundtracks. I expected faithful modernizations of the classics and I wasn’t disappointed. There was a lot of music in this game but not all of it was found in places in the usual places. For thematic reasons, they shoved the goofier tracks like the Chocobo theme in jukeboxes which can be found in 7th Heaven and other relevant places. 

Finding places to ground the goofiness without entirely ignoring it was a concern on many people’s minds. How would they handle all the mini-games? The bike combat sequences were easy enough to integrate, but what about the squat competitions? They had no troubles with that one. In fact, they went all in on the mini-games by increasing complexity while keeping the spirit of them alive. They even embraced the cross dressing Cloud and I was all for it. The flip flopping nature of the game reminded me of Sega’s Yakuza games. We have this serious matter to tend to but first we have to find some missing cats. It worked for Sega and Square Enix made it work with Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Final Fantasy VII was never going to be an easy game to remake. How faithful is too faithful? Will these new ideas diverge too much? I believe Square Enix struck an excellent balance. They managed to acknowledge the original while walking their own path. If they simply made a like-for-like remake, we wouldn’t have gotten to know Jessie, Biggs, or Wedge like we did. In fact, Final Fantasy VII Remake is making me look at the original more fondly. Some remakes supplant the original while some do them a disservice. Final Fantasy VII Remake is one of the first ones that compliments it.

Verdict:
I love it

Ratings Guide

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