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.

I love it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Red Dead Redemption 2 (X1)

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I noticed a resemblance between Red Dead Redemption 2 and the Star Wars film prequels. Both were self-indulgent, meticulous, and comprehensive to a fault. Fortunately, unlike with George Lucas’ treatment of Star Wars, I felt Rockstar told their story remarkably well and stitched the two Red Dead games together in a compelling manner.

Exploring the events leading up to Dutch Van der Linde’s gang’s demise was worthwhile but I don’t know if they needed to tie up every loose end. They went out of their way to ensure every connective tissue between the two games were formed. They developed a few threads to the point where one could conceivably roll right into Red Dead Redemption without missing any pertinent information. They left very little to the imagination in those key areas.

Meticulous attention paid off for Rockstar’s world building. Fictitious 1898 America never looked better — on both macro and micro levels. These developers simulated the scent of living things for the sole purpose of a more realistic hunting experience for crying out loud. On top of a gorgeous weather and time of day systems, temperatures differed between areas of the map which required the game’s protagonists, Arthur Morgan and John Marston, to don the appropriate attire or face gameplay ramifications. They’re no longer content with including visible detail.

Differing aesthetics were one thing but different areas of the map yielded different populations, cultures, and languages. The sprawling city of St. Denis featured authentic and convincing Cantonese immigrants crossing paths with snooty French patrons looking to build more wealth in America.

Beyond cultural diversity, there were glimpses into the social and economical issues of the time. Racism, sexism, treatment of indigenous peoples, corporate manipulation, and climate change were just some of the topics and themes that permeated throughout. I didn’t feel they said anything radical for today’s standards but I imagine Dutch and Arthur’s progressive views were not so commonplace back then. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Dutch’s motives were not entirely selfless.

Arthur couldn’t afford to be entirely selfless either; he had to meet his own needs in order to survive. He had to hunt, cook, and eat so he wouldn’t waste away. He had to watch what he ate or he would find himself poisoned or overweight. Cigarettes, cigars, and bourbon helped restore the slow motion Dead Eye meter, but they were detrimental to his health. He had to manage his hygiene for the same reason. I could have left his hair and beard to grow into a shaggy mess but for amusing vanity reasons, I visited the barber and shaved often.

The cowboy simulation was just getting started.

On top of all of that, Arthur had to manage his horse’s grooming, dietary, mental, and emotional needs as well. I had to calm it down when it was spooked and show it love in order to develop a bond in order to pull off sick horse drifts. And if that wasn’t enough, I had to maintain my guns with gun oil or else risk wielding a weaker weapon.

Those were the more immediate needs that walked the line of tedium. There was also the semi-optional management of the gang’s camp. Thankfully, these were strictly optional and my neglect of those chores didn’t adversely affect the moment to moment gameplay. Since I was trying to steer Arthur Morgan towards the honorable side of life, I partook in some menial chores.

There was a lot to do in Red Dead Redemption 2 and that’s not counting the more entertaining aspects like the mini-games or theatrical shows. Dominoes? Poker? Silent films? French ladies doing the cancan? They were all there alongside the stranger missions.

I adored the stranger missions in Red Dead Redemption and I adored them just as much here. They brought interesting flavors to the world of Red Dead and I found myself beelining towards them before any other mission. Revisiting areas or choosing to avoid fast traveling often yielded something interesting. It took me a long, long time before I felt that I wrung out the fun from the world. Even now, I still have reasons to go back.

Rewarding exploration is tough to accomplish in itself but rewarding people watching and observation? Rockstar often ensured you got something from that too. There was a fair amount of optional fluff happening around Arthur’s life that wasn’t explicitly highlighted. Hanging out at the camp and checking in between missions provided morsels of entertainment. Stories and concerns of other gang members was shared with Arthur if he inquired. He would also witness altercations and conservations amongst the NPCs. All of these tidbits were optional and I respected that. I could safely ignore it all if I just cared about the shooty shooty bang bang part of this game.

I don’t know why any one would forgo all that world building in favor for the action though. Quite frankly, Red Dead Redemption 2’s moment to moment action wasn’t very good. It’s been years since I played Red Dead Redemption but I felt this prequel’s action was lifted from 2010 and polished up for 2018. It was serviceable then and it’s serviceable now. When the challenge came down to managing Dead Eye meter versus waves upon waves of cowpoke, I felt like I was just going through the motions. It was a noticeable step up from the chores around camp but still a bit of a chore.

Staying on main story mission scripts was the real challenge for me. I couldn’t looting everything — even during the “tense” shootout sequences. I often witnessed fellow NPC gang members die because I was looting. Considering how easily Arthur shrugged off bullets, it was really the only way to maintain urgency.

There were times when I kept to the heavily scripted missions. Towards the end, my dislike for Dutch and Micah grew to the point where I desperately wanted to shoot the two of them. I knew the game wasn’t going to allow me to create a time paradox but I gave it a desperate try. Like Arthur, I felt bound to script that didn’t make sense.

Sadie Adler was the highlight character of the game. She snuck onto the scene and became a driving force of action that I got behind. She followed her sense of justice and didn’t take gruff from anyone. She demonstrated a lot of emotional, mental, and physical strength that I admired.

I witnessed Dutch and Arthur evolve along with other minor characters throughout the game, but not of them were fleshed out as I hoped. Bill and Javier were loyal to Dutch until the very end but I couldn’t glean their motivations.

Fortunately, the common thread tying all the characters together were their superb performances. Rockstar Games were in their element here.

Technical performance concerns kept me waiting for the PC release ; I wanted to play this game at 60 FPS and I still do. With hindsight though, I’m glad I decided on the $20 Xbox One X version because I may have ended up capping the framerate at 30 FPS on the PC version regardless. My NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 with its measly Core i5 6600K would have felt short of my goals for the game. To my surprise, the Xbox One X performed admirably with a few unpleasant but tolerable spots. It was typically a smooth 30 FPS throughout the game with noticeable dips in taxing areas like St. Denis.

Even in the most ideal conditions, controlling Arthur was akin to moving a boat in water. It wasn’t unwieldy but it was certainly not meeting high benchmarks set by other third person shooters like Uncharted or Gears. In a game where you can offend people by bumping, let alone, with accidental punches to the face, these sluggish controls forced me to adapt to the game’s animation priority. Blitzing around a crowded St. Denis at full tilt required a high degree of finesse.

The music continued the Rockstar way of going full bore. Unlike with other areas, the music stood out unblemished in its execution. It was always there to set the mood without getting in the way. I didn’t notice how affecting it was until the back third of the game where things have begun to go awry.

Max Payne 3 showed what Rockstar Games can do in a confined space; an opulent game filled with spectacle, detail and ideas that few studios can even attempt. It took them a while, but Red Dead Redemption 2 finally reached that standard on an open world scale. That’s not easy. It’s not easy to reign in ambition and not overburden on details. While they and stumbled in some areas and obsessive in others, by and large, Red Dead Redemption 2 was a great experience.

Ratings Guide

I loved it

Devil May Cry V Xbox One Review

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It’s disingenuous since I haven’t gone back to play it in a long time, but in my mind, Devil May Cry V feels like another Special Edition of Devil May Cry 4. I know it isn’t; It’s more refined than that PS3/360 era game. But – for better and worse — the feel and structure of the game felt deeply rooted in the past.  

I don’t like how Dante looks in Devil May Cry V. Nero, V and Lady were fine. Trish looked oddly out of place and along with the goofy looking Nico who continued to remind me that people’s teeth shouldn’t be that defined. I understand the desire to move beyond the anime-inspired art styles but I wasn’t keen on this realistic bent they took in this game.  

In the end, how Dante looks is a non-factor. How he, Nero, and V plays are what makes or breaks a game in this genre. Nero and Dante were stylistically familiar with tweaks and reintroductions to freshen things up. Like in DMC4, Dante was the more diverse and varied character. Nero wasn’t nearly as complex but they did give him swappable arms that enabled abilities beyond simply snatching enemies from a distance. I wished these arms were selectable like Dante’s array of arsenal though.  

V’s style of play was the intellectual highlight of the game. Beastmaster classes and characters have been in games like Final Fantasy and Diablo for ages, but I’ve never seen them in action games and I certainly haven’t seen a game execute on that idea so well. Capcom mapped the different beast summons to each button which resulted in V’s attacks functioning like Dante’s or Nero’s but at a distance from V himself. The closest analog I could think of is God of War’s Atreus where these proxies interweave in combat. I wish they could have an entire game dedicated to V where he captures/acquires different beasts.  

It’s been a long time since Devil May Cry 4. The franchise went on a bit of a tangent with DmC by Ninja Theory and Platinum Games put forth a few action bangers of their own with Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. That lineage of action games went places and I felt DMCV was a bit of regression in several key areas. The stylish act of beating on fodder was comparable to its contemporaries but it failed to match the spectacle and progression variety offered by them.  

DMC4 was criticized for recycling their boss fights and I cannot help but wonder why they found fighting Urizen over and over again would fly in DMCV. They may have cobbled some narrative reasons to justify it but it just hammers home the fact that this game isn’t very fun outside of its sole core competency; fighting low level monsters. 

Finally Capcom concocted a reason for Vergil to make an official return to the Devil May Cry universe. Vergil making an appearance in a DMC game is just as much of a surprise as Vegeta making an appearance in a Dragon Ball Z game. I wasn’t impressed with how his return was handled. It felt needlessly long winded and very much like Dragon Ball: inevitable.  

For fans of the series, Capcom delivering on Devil May Cry V’s combat was enough to win them over. I liked Devil May Cry’s combat but it takes more than just a flashy and stylish combat scenarios to keep me playing. I struggled to maintain pace with Devil May Cry V. It took me well over two weeks to complete this relatively short game. I never felt compelled to play multiple chapters in a row because I wasn’t interested in what was happening. The introduction of new foes early on would just be enough to keep me coming back the next day but rarely in a single sitting. I was happy to see Devil May Cry make its triumphant return but I would like to see Capcom take a massive step forward in the next installment. 

It was okay 

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (X1)

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I admire Ninja Theory for their efforts in bringing awareness to mental illnesses like psychosis. I empathized with Senua; it would certainly be maddening to constantly hear differing voices doubting and prodding me constantly. I found the use of binaural audio to give players a sample of that experience effective. Watching someone struggle to maintain her reality wasn’t unique to Hellblade but it was one of the better uses of world bending imagery. I just wished they didn’t use live actors and full motion videos. They were jarring. 

Hellblade didn’t run well on my PC so I flipped over to the Xbox One X version and played it with “Enriched Visual Mode” which produced a good looking Unreal Engine 4.0 game. I wish I could have ran it at 4K and 60 FPS but there’s only so much this console can do. I eventually acclimatized to the performance but I never got used to the eerie uncanny valley. Senua’s eyes conveyed so much human emotion and was effective at highlighting her struggles without words. Unfortunately, her mouth and the way they rendered it was consistently distracting to me  — and there were a lot of close ups of her. I found her ghoulish from the beginning which may not have been Ninja Theory’s intention. Did they want me to view this warrior as a member of the undead army? 

What’s the answer to overcoming the uncanny valley? It’s not mixing live action and computer generated graphics, that’s for sure. Every live action clip that I saw conjured a chuckle out of me; they all looked silly. No matter how they tried to integrate it into the game, I found them goofy like the ones found in a Remedy Entertainment game. I don’t think that was their intention, was it? 

The Nordic mythology and over-the-shoulder third person camera bore unavoidable comparisons to God of War. They were unfair and unfavorable comparisons but I couldn’t help it. In every respect, Santa Monica Studio did it better.  

I enjoy “walking” simulators. I don’t have issue with slowly moving around in a space. But I do have issue with movement speed when there’s so little to see between points of interest. Senua walks incredibly slow and her run speed (which I recommend people bind as a toggle) is not drastically faster either. She can move faster in combat which makes it so frustrating to have her move at snail’s pace. I know what I need to do during these “puzzle” moments; they’re not difficult. They’re just time consuming because Senua cannot be bothered to move about the environment quickly.  

I wished I liked Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice more. I found its pacing add odds with my expectations and many of the developer’s intentions falling short of hitting the marks they sought. I wasn’t supposed to giggle at what were supposed to be emotional moments either but I did. When Hellbade works, it works well. But when it doesn’t? It can make you feel like an outsider. 

I don’t like it

Ratings Guide

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