Age of Barbarian

My favorite movie genre is 80’s Sword and Sorcery. So when I saw Age of Barbarian: Extended Cut on Steam, I knew I’d have to get it. It looked like basically every 80’s S&S movie distilled into a game. It has all the elements: muscular hero, scantily clad women, crazy looking monstrous villains, and tons and tons of gore.

Underneath it all, there’s a really fun game in here. It has all of those elements I expected. Unfortunately, the game is hopelessly broken. There are so many glitches and bugs, it’s basically unplayable in its current state.

For example, I got to near the end, and this happened:

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What’s going on here is that I’m dismembered, but still have one hitpoint left. That means, I’m not dead, but I can’t move, can’t be hurt, can’t hit. The game didn’t freeze here, the boss kept trying to attack me, but didn’t realize I was in pieces on the ground. So I had to reset the game, losing all progress in the level to this point.

I thought maybe this was a one-time occurrence, but no. After resetting, this happened several more times. The maiden AI is glitched, the maps sometimes don’t let you progress, and some of the mini-bosses are completely ridiculous in how hard they are.

I really, really wanted to enjoy this game. And I had a few hours of fun with it. But I really hope the developers polish it and fix it up, because right now, it’s hopelessly broken.

Edit: I finally beat the last guy. If you like bullshit in games, you’ll love fighting him. He has: a cheap kill (knocking you off a cliff, in an unblockable, unavoidable way), a one-shot kill that blows up your head (often unavoidable), and the absolute worst hit box I’ve ever seen (literally watched my sword pass through him on multiple occasions). If you’re too close to him, you can’t hit him, you just watch your sword go right through him. But he can one shot you if you’re right there. The bigger problem is that he’s easy, if you are positioned just right. After you hit him, he teleports. If you get lucky, he’ll teleport near you and you can bash him before he can attack. If you’re unlucky, he’ll teleport to the floating island where he can knock you off into the abyss as you try to jump across the gap. The only way I found to beat him was to become exceptionally lucky with his teleport spawns. I hate this guy, it’s the worst designed fight in the entire game due to poor design, especially the hit box on him.

 

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Dark Souls Review

Finish style:

Finished the game

Time spent:

About 63 hours, then another 10+ in NG+ before calling it quits at O&S (for now)

Who should play this game:

Fantasy/RPG fans, fans of “old school” arcade/NES games, fans of a challenge

Who should avoid this game:

Anyone looking for a game you can sprint through without dying once

Thoughts:

The first thing everyone talks about when Dark Souls is mentioned is how difficult it is. Read enough online, and you’ll inevitably hear someone saying, “Come on, this game isn’t that hard.” I feel like I could talk at length on this point, probably write a whole book on the subject. But I’ll try to summarize my thoughts.

To discuss what is meant by hard or difficult or challenge, we really need to clarify what we mean. There really aren’t enough words, or at least not the right words, in English to describe “difficult” well.

Difficulty has many facets and dimensions. First of all, there’s mechanics: ability to move and control your character, how the overall game world works, how enemies and NPCs work, and so on. There’s also how powerful your character is, or can be, vs. how powerful the enemies are, which encompasses how much health you have, how much health you lose when you’re hit, how much damage you can deal, how much health enemies have, and the like. Also, overall time: how long does it take to get from one point to another, to battle an enemy, to level up, etc. Further, how much assistance is given: do you need to do everything on your own, or can you get help from others in game? Finally, at least for this discussion, there’s adaptability: can you adapt yourself to the game, and does the game adapt to you?

I’ll attempt to address these facets and compare with other games. Starting with mechanics. Dark Souls control scheme resembles first person shooters and Elder Scrolls. You move with the left stick, aim with the right stick, and combat is performed using the shoulder buttons. Being a third person game, this feels somewhat unnatural, since FPSs and Elder Scrolls are first person (at least, usually, in the case of Elder Scrolls). It feels more like the face buttons should control combat, rather than shoulder buttons. In the beginning, I hit X when I meant to hit R1 many times, causing me to drink a potion instead of swinging my sword. That would be fine, except that once you’ve initiated an action, you’re committed to that action. It feels as if you should be able to interrupt and say, “Put down the damn potion, let me swing my sword!” But you can’t, you’ll just take a drink while getting smacked in the face with a club by some megademon. Don’t hit the wrong button.

The good thing about that is, this mechanic affects not just you, but enemies too. There are many times that enemies early on will attempt to drink their own potions, giving you a perfect opportunity to attack. It’s as if the game is telling you, “Look how stupid it is to drink a potion during combat. Don’t do it, or you’ll die.”

Combat mechanics include parries and backstabs, which can be executed against humanoid enemies. Parries interrupt your opponent’s attack, giving you the chance to riposte with a huge damage multiplier over your standard attack. Similarly, backstabs are executed when you’re behind your opponent, again giving you a critical attack. These are difficult to master, but it’s absolutely essential to master at least the parry and riposte. Mastering the backstab will be imminently helpful for many enemies as well (but not bosses).

I’d say the mechanics of the game add a tremendous amount to the difficulty of Dark Souls. If you can master them, you’ll find the game much simpler. In the beginning, though, the learning curve is steep, especially if you’re used to other third person games. There’s a lot of unlearning to be done. I’d say that the mechanics difficulty is akin to Castlevania or Mega Man, more in spirit than in actual execution. In those games, a simple mistake can be exceptionally costly, as in Dark Souls.

Moving on to power differential: you start out really weak. After nearing the end of the game, going back to early areas reveals just how much stronger you’ve become. But even the earliest enemies can ruin your day even after you’ve reached exceptionally high levels, if you’re not paying attention. So you never really get to be “strong,” you just get to be “less weak.” Sure, you can level up your character and strengthen your weapons and armor, but at the end of the day, the enemies are capable of killing you, almost no matter what you do. This is probably most akin to Mario. If we’re talking about the NES Mario games, basically no matter what, you’re at most two hits from death (unless you have a star, of course).

When you’re brand new to Dark Souls, it takes a LONG time. It takes time to figure out where to go, to learn the enemies and their movement patterns, to fight the enemies, and even just to walk from one point to another. Bonfires (save points) are basically never close to bosses, so it’ll be a good minute or five if you die at a boss just to get back to the boss before you have another shot at killing them. This is probably the biggest punishment Dark Souls gives you: stealing your time when you die. Dark Souls has no respect for your time whatsoever. For the first half of the game, there’s no warp ability, so you’ll be walking everywhere. Fortunately, the level design makes these walks a pleasure, between the beautiful visuals and the amazing interconnections between areas of the world.

Many people will say that Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand, and for the most part, that’s true. However, by offering the ability to summon other human characters and NPCs to help you battle bosses, along with text hints placed by other human characters, I’d say the game actually offers a lot of assistance, if you choose to take it. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it can be a huge benefit. Especially for the Bell Gargoyles, just summon Solaire and get that fight over with.

I’d say the lack of assistance otherwise, in terms of figuring out where to go and what to do, is Dark Souls’s greatest strength. There’s no mini map, no compass, no tracking icon leading you to the next destination. Instead, you’re expected (forced) to memorize the map and figure out where to go and what to do. By the end of your first playthrough, you’ll pretty much know exactly how to get from any point A to any point B, as well as what enemies you’ll encounter, and where, along the way. It wouldn’t be surprising if you also know how many souls each enemy will give, approximately if not exactly.

Finally, adaptability. This is probably the one area where Dark Souls is tremendously easy. And in fact, what gives people the ability to say, “This game isn’t that hard.” Everything, everything, in Dark Souls is purely deterministic. If you do the same thing exactly the same way, the game will respond in exactly the same way as well. There’s no AI to speak of in any of the enemies whatsoever. They are all just automata who will respond exactly the same way to a given reaction, every single time. Once you’ve mastered a particular enemy, and you know how it attacks and reacts to you, you can exploit that knowledge to kill it every time, so long as you time your actions appropriately.

Given all this, is Dark Souls difficult? Yes and no. If you’re not focused, it’ll be brutally hard. If you don’t yet have the knowledge of what to do to defeat a certain enemy, it’ll be tough until you’ve gained that knowledge (and may remain tough even after, depending on how much precision is required to defeat it).

But it’s actually simple to name a game harder than Dark Souls: chess. Chess is mechanically quite simple. There are only a few pieces, each with unique movement styles, but none of them are particularly tough to remember or execute. But depending on the skill of your opponent, chess can be brutally difficult. If you’re playing against a human opponent, who has a skill level at least similar to yours, you’ll have to think much harder to win a game of chess than just about any boss in Dark Souls.

I think the better description of Dark Souls is that it’s punishing for making mistakes. It doesn’t take terribly long to learn the mechanics of any given enemy before you can beat them, though.

The thing I enjoyed most about Dark Souls was the level design. Opening up shortcuts, watching how you can be walking along without any idea where you are, only to end up back at Firelink Shrine. The first time I kicked a ladder and realized I’d opened a shortcut, I was hooked on that design. Every time I found a shortcut, it felt magical.

I’ve been struggling to find another game to play after having finished Dark Souls. Currently, I’m working on Dark Souls 2, because nothing else quite “stuck.” I think it may have ruined gaming for me. Dark Souls will take over your life the first time you play it, and despite cursing it and hating what feels cheap at times, it’s almost certain to draw you back until you can suck the souls right out of Gwin.

On the Nature of Difficulty

I’m currently playing through Dark Souls. My background with this game is, I played a bit of Demon’s Souls on PS3, and gave up after beating the first major boss. I stuck Dark Souls in my PS3 just to see how it was, realized it was similar to Demon’s Souls, and tucked it away for a rainy day.

Well, that rainy day came, except that I decided to try it as I was playing Hollow Knight. I was getting through Hollow Knight okay, and had been doing well at Super Meat Boy, and so I thought I’d try this supremely hard game on PC.

Years ago when I wanted to be a game designer, I read a few books on game design. One thing stuck with me: it’s incredibly easy to make a hard game, it’s difficult to make an approachable game. Approachable in this context can mean difficult but rewarding, or less difficult, but in either case, still fun and enjoyable to play.

Here’s the thing about Dark Souls. It’s not particularly difficult. It is hard and punishing, but not difficult. At least, in the way I think of those terms. You may have different meanings for those words, so allow me to define what I mean.

I’m a parent. My older daughter is picky about what she eats. Even with things she likes, she’s picky. It’s hard to find the food that she’ll eat. But finding what she wants to eat isn’t difficult. You just offer a bunch of different alternatives, or put something in front of her when she’s hungry. Providing food for her isn’t difficult. It’s frustrating, she’s picky, and it takes a while, but not difficult.

I think there’s a deficiency in the English language for explaining this sort of thing. There are tasks that are arduous and take a while to solve, but ultimately, it’s just a matter of time before they are solved. Then there are things that are actually extremely difficult and require great creativity to solve. Composing a popular sonata is difficult. Creating a beautiful work of art is difficult. Writing the great American novel is difficult. Feeding my daughter? That’s just hard, not difficult. It’s just a matter of time. When she gets hungry enough, she’ll eat anything. Finding what she wants right now is just a matter of offering things I know she might like until she says “yes” to something. It’s frustrating and takes a while, but doesn’t take any great amount of creativity.

Dark Souls is sort of like feeding my picky-eater daughter. There are only so many ways to approach any one boss. The bosses are picky in terms of how you can approach them. And they’re punishing when you mess it up. Much like hearing the irritating whine of my daughter when she’s offered something she doesn’t want, Dark Souls forces you to restart from the most recent bonfire when you fail to provide the type of combat it wants to face its bosses. But once you discover the pattern to each boss, it’s just a matter of time before you conquer them. They aren’t difficult, they’re just hard. They’re punishing. But it’s not at all comparable to things that are actually difficult and require creativity.

The bosses, or any enemies really, don’t require creativity. They take timing and precision, sure, and can punish you severely for guessing incorrectly or mistiming your input. But on the whole, enemies of all sorts are quite stupid. It’s only a matter of time before you find the pattern that works for any certain enemy.

There are many elements I am enjoying about Dark Souls. I love the feeling of accomplishment for finding the “right” place to go at a given time. It feels good to master the mechanics of a given battle and to finally perfect it to the point where you are ultimately successful. But at the end of the day, I hate it when people say that this is a difficult game. It’s not. It’s only a matter of time before you find the “right” way to beat any given enemy. You may stumble upon the strategy early, or it may take a long time of trying many different things that don’t work before finding what does. As long as you’re conscious enough not to keep trying what doesn’t work, you’ll ultimately find what does. Then it’s just a matter of doing that, over and over, until the enemy in your way is dead.

On the whole, I’m enjoying Dark Souls now much more than I did when I first attempted Demon’s Souls, because I understand that need for experimentation. But I wouldn’t describe this as my favorite game by any stretch. To the extent the game is “open world,” there is one objectively correct path through the game, one objectively correct way to beat each enemy. Yes, you can try things out of order, and yes, you can fight enemies in different ways, but you’ll be severely punished for it if you screw it up (which you almost certainly will).

So, good things about Dark Souls: no mini map, no guide, no compass, no direction. But don’t say that the enemies are difficult, they’re not. They’re just punishing when you do the wrong thing.

I feel as if the game feeds on daring you to not be bored. It’s pretty boring to fight each enemy or boss in the “right” way. It’s a lather-rinse-repeat process. Most enemies have a fight cycle something like this: wait until they attack, block, circle around to their back, and attack. Or attempt to parry and, if you’re on with your timing, stun-lock them and get a critical hit. In either case, you’re waiting for the enemy to make a mistake, while they’re waiting for you to do the same.

There’s little room for an exciting blitzkrieg of action. You both assume the role of Ice Man from Top Gun: wait for the other person to make a mistake, and exploit it. To me, that doesn’t inspire a lot of enjoyment or feelings of, “Wow, I’m awesome.” And that’s not what Dark Souls is. Dark Souls forces you to be patient and to wait for your opportunity. You’re not some amazing hero who can exert his or her badassness on the world, you’re just an underpowered adventurer trying to survive.

I can at least appreciate this now, and give it a name. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the experience, it’s just that it’s far different from games in which you’re far more capable than the enemies around you. I like overcoming the challenges, but on average, I’d rather be a superhero than just a mere underpowered weakling waiting to exploit someone else’s failures.

Contrast Review

Finish style:

Finished the game

Time spent:

A little over 3 hours

Who should play this game:

Fans of platformers and puzzles

Who should avoid this game:

Those looking for a long game, those easily frustrated

Thoughts:

Contrast plays with flipping between 3D and 2D platforming. You play as Dawn, who can only be seen by a little girl named Didi, in a Tim Burtonesque world. You can only see the adults in Didi’s world as shadows. And to get to 2D platforming, you can become your shadow, for which all other shadows are solid objects.

This makes for some interesting experiences. If you need to get to a higher level, you may need to move around physical objects or light sources in the 3D world to move shadows around. Then you can enter the shadow world to get to the level, and reenter the 3D world.

This is an interesting concept, and it’s enjoyable when it works right. Unfortunately, flipping between 2D and 3D (through the press of RT) can be finnicky. There were plenty of times I had to jump and then enter the shadow world, only to fall to my death because the button press didn’t register. There are also many things in the shadow world that can apparently kick you out back into the 3D world. Aligning objects and light sources often requires frustratingly pinpoint precision, else you’ll get kicked out of the world for touching some static shadow object, or simply be unable to execute a jump properly.

The storyline starts fairly dark, but gets lighter by the end. Didi’s parents are separated, and her mother and stepfather are also separated. Didi aims to reunite her mother and stepfather (whom she believes to be her real father). Unfortunately, her stepfather is basically a screw-up: he can’t do much right, and he’s in debt to the mob. You and Didi help to fix his mistakes in putting on a circus to raise money to pay them back.

Overall this was an interesting experience in gameplay. I wish the mechanics felt better, but they were mostly frustrating.

Axiom Verge Review

Finish Style:

Finished the game with about 63% of items, 94% of map

Time spent:

Around 12 hours

Who should play this game:

Metroid/metroidvania fans, action adventure fans

Who should avoid this game:

Those looking for story to be handed to you, those who hate revisiting the same room more than once.

Thoughts:

As I’ve mentioned before, Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. Axiom Verge is like a love letter to fans like me. It could very well be placed right next to Super Metroid in my list of favorites as practically a tie. I’ll need to play through it a few more times to say that for sure, but it just felt right as soon as I started playing and never really lost my interest.

The story takes some work to piece together. The gist is, you play as a scientist who has shifted from his dimension to another dimension. Giant robots are supposed to defend this dimension, but they’ve been disabled. You’re asked to help fix them. I have a lot more work to put the whole story together, but that’s the short short version.

Pretty much immediately you’re guided to finding the first gun in the game. It’s fairly basic, which can’t be said for many of the other guns in the game. There are many weapons, some of which I still have yet to find. There’s an incredible variety that keeps things fresh and interesting. It’s really nice to have that versatility, as certain enemies are far easier with the right gun. It’s also great to find something you really enjoy and just carry it as your default. I could see some people thinking there are too many, since there are some that I rarely if ever used. But I could also see others enjoying a different default gun than me, so I like it.

I was warned that this was a really tough game before I started playing. I didn’t find that to necessarily be the case. I would say it’s entirely fair throughout.

The music is delightful and awe-inspiring. I was amazed at certain points by just how good it was.

What truly makes this game shine is how you learn new movement mechanics, which unlocks new areas along the way. It almost feels like a spoiler to describe them in detail, so I’ll just say that you learn various types of teleportation.

Metroidvanias need to delicately balance platforming and combat. Too heavy on platforming means the combat is lackluster and boring. Too much combat, and the environments are boring to explore. I’d say Super Metroid and Axiom Verge balance those two elements perfectly, among metroidvanias I’ve played.

Axiom Verge is a tremendously fun game with a lot of replayability. I’m truly looking forward to diving back into it again sometime. I typically play through Super Metroid several times a year. I could see doing the same with Axiom Verge.

Super Mario Odyssey Review

Finish style:

Completed the main story, and found 803 moons

Time spent:

Around 35 hours

Who should play this game:

Fans of Mario, fans of platformers

Who should avoid this game:

Anyone who hates Mario and fun

Thoughts:

Mario games are almost consistently fun. Mario III, Super Mario World, Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and 3D World stand out to me as representative of platforming at its best for each game’s generation. Nintendo just has a way of finding the fun and making it shine.

Odyssey is no exception. It is truly a blast to play. In this game, Mario’s hat is replaced with Cappy, a sentient hat that rides on his head. Mario can toss Cappy to collect items, stun enemies, and can even jump and bounce off of him. But most powerful of all, Cappy allows Mario to take control of items and creatures around the world: goombas, koopas, chain chomps, and bullet bills, and a vast array of other never before seen creatures.

Need to get up to a ledge that’s way beyond your reach? Throw your hat at an onion-looking guy with stretchy legs. Need to cross a gap? Throw your hat at a stretchy caterpillar looking thing and stretch across the gap. Need to fly? Throw your hat at a dragon guy who can glide around. Need to get really, really high up? Find a series of forks planted in the wall and toss your hat from one to another, flicking them up as you go. Need to just rain down destruction on everything in your path? Toss your hat on a T-Rex and smash everything to bits.

The amount of variety in movement mechanics resulting from controlling so many different creatures keeps this game fresh and exciting. There’s constantly something new to try, some new area to explore, some new challenge to overcome.

I found that moving Mario himself in this game wasn’t quite as tight as in some other Mario games. Mario is just a bit slow to react when initially starting to run. I found some classic movements, like the side jump, difficult to perform as a result. This mostly meant that I had to adopt some new jump styles that were introduced in Odyssey, like the butt stomp jump.: do a classic butt stomp, but then just after Mario lands, jump, and he’ll spring far higher into the air than normal.

I want to emphasize that this is an absolutely phenomenal game. That said, it isn’t quite as good as some other Mario games. I’d rank Sunshine, 3D World, and even Super Mario World over this one. That’s not to say Odyssey is bad, it’s just to say how good those games were. I could see replaying the main story sometime, but probably not trying to get tons and tons of moons again.

Overall, fantastic game, and absolutely worth a playthrough.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review

Finish style:

Finished the main game

Time spent:

About 7 hours

Who should play this game:

Fans of puzzles, combat, and absolute weirdness in games

Who should avoid this game:

Those looking for 10+ hour games, those looking for games with replayability

Thoughts:

I got an early Christmas present: a GeForce 1080 Ti. I tossed it in my PC, and did some research on games that would push it hard and look beautiful. One game I found was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I didn’t know much about it other than the aesthetics and the brief synopsis I read. I’m so glad I picked it up.

I really enjoy games that provide new and completely different experiences, especially when those experiences descend into the bizarre. The closest analog I can think of is Eternal Darkness, in which the game changes as your sanity decreases. I hate to describe Hellblade as providing “bizarre” experiences, though, because what it does is puts you in the mind of someone suffering from psychosis.

You play as the eponymous Senua. She is a Celtic warrior who has lost her love and is on a quest to save his soul. In fact, a bundle she carries on her hip that looks like it could just be a knapsack or something turns out to be his disembodied head!

And she suffers from psychosis. That means you hear voices that talk to each other, to her, and even to you. Senua herself breaks the fourth wall and talks to you directly, asking you for help at times. The voices help you (“Watch out!”), troll you (“She’s going the wrong way”), and criticize you (“She can’t do it”).

The puzzles in the game probably make the most sense, in terms of internal logical consistency of Senua’s perceived reality, of any game I’ve ever played. Doors are often locked by runes that you need to find in the “real world.” For example, you may need to position Senua so that trees and branches form the rune, or shadows, or sunlight shining through cracks in the wall. Once you’ve identified all of these runes from the door, the door opens. I have a feeling that in reality, the door was open all the time, but in Senua’s mind, this is what is required to proceed, and her mind makes it real to her, and therefore, to you.

Combat uses a few simple maneuvers to create beautiful, cinematic fight sequences. You have access to light and heavy attacks, a disorienting kick, block, and dodge. Performing these at the right times with your enemies portrays a wonderful dance of swords, shields, axes, maces, and other weapons. Combos are a pleasure to discover and witness. Enemy variety is a bit lacking, as you experience almost all of the various enemy types early in the game.

It’s relatively short, but it’s a worthwhile experience. Seeing the various ways Ninja Theory captured psychosis and allows you to experience it is eye opening and incredible. To accurately capture psychosis, they worked with practicing therapists and patients. I don’t have any personal experience with this myself or anyone I know, so it was truly interesting to experience.

I think this is definitely worth a playthrough for everyone, highly recommended.