Tuesday, October 22, 2019

On The Razor’s Edge of Difficulty: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice



The relationship that video games have with pacing and challenge is somewhat unique among mediums of entertainment. A book or movie may be challenging to get through, but there will never be anything that is physically stopping you from continuing. There are no boss battles in movies. There are many games (particularly from the late 80s and early 90s) that are nearly impossible for even the most seasoned gamer to beat. 

When I was younger, I rarely finished a video game. This is partially because I was an unexperienced kid and partially because video games were more difficult. This created a strange expectation; no matter how much a I loved a certain game, I didn’t expect to see the end of it. I have never had this expectation with a book or a movie, if I enjoy a book or a film, I finish it. Frequently while playing a game I would reach a particularly challenging section and I would get stuck. This could be an obtuse puzzle or something that pushed my reflexes further than they could go at the time.

Now, I rarely have trouble beating most games. I actually seek out more difficult games because I find the challenge creates a more rewarding experience. I recently played through a game that brought back the feelings I had as a kid. 

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This is the newest title from the Japanese developer From Software. This company makes the Dark Souls series (my favorite series of all time) and is famed for their brutally difficult games.

There was a lot of buzz on the internet about Sekiro after it’s release. Some people were very upset. This game was supposedly harder than any previous From Software game. There are a lot of posts on reddit about people who had paid $60 for the game only to get completely stuck 20 mins into the game.

I thought this wouldn't happen to me because I have played hundreds of hours of Dark Souls and I felt very prepared.  I was wrong. The first true mini boss (about 20-30 mins into the game) crushed me in into the ground about 50-60 times. It took me hours to get past this early boss and there were multiple times in Sekiro that I wanted to stop playing because of the difficulty. Eventually I got through it, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t enjoy it. The game frequently went over the edge of difficulty into the realm of pure frustration. There was some feelings of satisfaction in progressing, but it was more of a "finally" feeling rather than a "hell yeah I did it" feeling.

The world in Sekiro is fascinating, beautiful and sometime terrifying. Its a fever dream of feudal Japan. The experience of exploring endless castles and corrupted temples is heightened by the consent threats that lurk within. So when a massive bull with flaming horns is keeping you from progressing it can be downright anxiety inducing.   

All that being said, I’m glad Sekiro exists and I wouldn't want it to be an easier. Games are much less challenging and more accessible and I love that, but I still appreciate games that remind us the price of admission alone does not guarantee the full experience. This is on full display in games that are set up to challenge the player and force you to grow in skill and depth of understanding to progress.


2018 in Review






2018 In Review


I played a lot of different games in 2018. Here are my thoughts on those games:

Breath of the Wild: This was by far my favorite game of last year. I have never been a fan of the Zelda series but this title blew me away. I appreciated the free formed nature of exploration. The game gives you very little direction and encourages you to climb up high, look for something and head in that direction. The dungeons are much smaller than in previous Zelda games, which I liked because it meant the solution to any puzzle you are tackling is in the room with you. Also considering the game is running on the fairly limited hardware of the Switch it looks beautiful.

Mario Odyssey: I had a lot of fun with odyssey, but in some ways it was disappointing. It didn’t nail the exploration elements for me and there was no real challenge until the end game. Then it felt like the difficulty ramped up to the point of frustration. That being said odyssey is packed full of charm, controls really well, and I had a fun time with it.

Total War Warhammer 2: More of the same. Very similar to the first Warhammer. It uses the classic Total War formula (control a large empire with turn based strategy- engage in battles with real time strategy). Build your empire on a huge fantasy map and fight in small and large scale battles. I loved the mix of classic strategy and high fantasy.

God of War: My number two, not much more to say on this one, check out my full review already on the blog. Really shows how videos games, as an industry, have grown in the last decade.

Horizon Zero Dawn: One of the best executed stories I have ever experienced in a game.  There is an Interesting and mysterious word to explore, fun combat, and good dialogue/ character development. Rarely do you find a mystery like the one here that has such a satisfying conclusion in any genre.  

Monster Hunter World: I have tried to play previous monster hunter games on three or four occasions and it didn’t stick. This one finally clicked. I got in the rhythm of killing monsters and upgrading my gear to kill bigger monsters. This title features many quality of life improvements that make it much less daunting than previous titles in the series.

No Mans Sky: I heard the update had the game closer to what was promised. Turns out I’m not interested in what was promised. I thought it was boring and repetitive from the getgo.

Crash Bandicoot remastered: Holds up better than I thought it would. I really enjoy the straight forward challenge. There are some crazy spikes in difficulty that can be frustrating, but not impossible.
Bayonetta: I didn’t like it. The combat didn’t age well and I wasn't into the story.

Mario kart 8 Deluxe: Mario kart is fun, switch is portable, what else do you need?

Red Dead Redemption 2: Takes a while to get into it but one you do it’s fun game that is well written, beautiful, and takes it time. The game can be really slow, but if you let yourself get wrapped up in it you'll find an amazing experience.

SNES Classic Console: Why did I buy this if I already own most of these games? System looks cute. So far I re-beat Super Castlevania and played a bit of almost every game on it. Nice package with 21 great games.

Dead Cells: A rougelike is a subgenre of game where when you die you start all over from the beginning, only you keep some limited items you collected. Dead Cells is a rougelike with tight controls, a pretty art design, and procedurally generated levels. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roguelike). The game can be really challenging, but it great for the Switch because each run is only around 20 mins.

Stardew Valley: I am normally not into farming sims, but I really adored this game. The map is well thought out and fun to explore there are interesting people to meet and different ways to play. You can farm, fish, mine, or fight monsters. The art style and music is also very relaxing and charming.

Smash Ultimate: It’s all the previous smash games combined into one. There are over one hundred maps, tons of items, content, music, and playable characters. If you love smash you’ll love this. You’ll need to get a real controller though.

Celeste: This was my biggest surprise this year. It’s a very very difficult platformer that centers on dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s hard to pin down what makes it so special, but you really shouldn't miss this one.

A Simpler Time Part 4: Finale 1999


1999 was a year of momentous change. Almost all of the major titles were in 3D and took a large step towards looking more like a modern game. Some of the classics from 1999 included

Tony Hawk Pro Skater- The first in a long line of titles where you could play as your favorite skater (or Darth Vader) and achieve tricks and heights we could only dream of. This game and those that followed had awesome soundtracks and precise addictive gameplay. There were also hidden areas and collectibles.

I spent hours and hours as a kid playing Roller Coaster Tycoon- This was probably my first experience with a simulation game. Building a theme park and designing the most over the top, and sometimes very unsafe, roller coasters was a blast.

Donkey Kong 64- One of the last games made by Rare for Nintendo before they were purchased by Microsoft. DK 64 was a game all about exploring and collecting. To its own fault actually, some people complained there was just too many things to collect. I don't know if there were too many collectibles  I never beat it. I do know that it had the dopest theme song of all time. see : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKuO-1GoNJk

Jet Force Gemini- This was a third person shooter that leaned heavily towards the outrageous. A species of alien ants invades a planet of teadybears and its your job to stop them. There was a large variety of weapons and the levels utilized verticality in a manner that was rare for the time. You could also play as dog that had a gun attached to his back, which was pretty rad. I use to love playing this common on local coop with my cousins.

Ape Escape- This was the first game that I ever played that utilized a dual stick controller. Having two joy sticks is now a standard feature for a controller, but at the time is was a big change. Stores sold Ape Escape bundled with a PS1 dual stick controller because so few other games utilized the control scheme at the time.

Super Smash Brothers- Talk about saving the best for last. SSB is on of my favorite games of all time. SSB was an instant classic because it featured characters and levels from the most beloved Nintendo franchises. The game played in 2D, but had 3D models and stages. I still play original SSB frequently. Four player local multiplayer with a easy to learn hard to master styled game play made SSB my most played game in college, by a wide margin. There is also a strong variety in play styles, maps, and items that adds depth to the game. There have been three sequels since the original and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate comes out in December. Although I have extensively played all of the sequels and eagerly await the new title nothing will ever replace the special place I have in my heart for the OG Smash blue Kirby for life.

So much changed in video games throughout the 90s. Trends came and went, technology rapidly advanced, and new series and developers were born as others faded away. This was a time before micro transactions. The game you bought day was always the finished product. Although Computers had online multiplayer most competitive and cooperative play was done locally creating another reason to have friends over. If you had trouble beating a game you would have to ask a friend on the bus how to proceed or get an older relative to surpass an obstacle. I don't mean to be overly nostalgic and I'm not saying that games have gotten worse, but there is a strong part of me that misses gaming in the 90s and its been a lot of fun thinking about these games again and writing about them, thanks for reading.


A Simpler Time Part 3: 1996-1998


1996 was a huge video game year for me. The Nintendo 64 released and it featured four titles that made it into the top 30 of my top 50 list (now top 51 since I updated it). Crash BandicootSuper Mario 64Pokemon Red (and Blue for losers), and Mario Kart. In the long run Mario 64 was the most important title from 1996, as it became the template and gold standard for all 3D games of the generation, but I am going to be discussing Crash Bandicoot. I recently purchased the Crash Bandicoot N'Sane Trilogy, which is a careful recreation of the Crash Bandicoot trilogy in HD. So far I have beaten the original Crash so here is my retro review:

Crash Bandicoot- I want to start by saying  wow this game was hard. I gave up trying to 100% every level around half way through because it was driving me a little crazy. That being said I loved it. The challenge felt fun and fair. The levels are unique  and varied and are short enough that even if it took me 20 tries to beat a level that would only amount to about half an hour. I have read some other reviews that said Crash hasn't aged very well and that the ultra precision required in some of the platforming is unfair. I really felt that Crash has aged  well. I enjoyed the challenge and felt it was difficult, but fair, and rewarding. There were very few instances where I died and I felt it wasn't my fault and even fewer instances where I didn't want to jump back in and give the level another shot after a game over screen. The simple layout with a single path filled with challenges was refreshing. What is also great about Crash is the secrets and collectibles. Hidden bonus levels and a 100% reward for getting every box in a stage adds an obtainable extra challenges for those who want to get more out of the game. All in all I was almost surprised at how much fun I had revisiting the SONY mascot.     

1997 had some heavy hitting titles, Golden EyeFinal Fantasy 7, Starfox 64Grand Theft Auto, and Gran TarismoGolden Eye stands out to me because it was my first experience with a competitive split-screen first person shooter, which would become a staple activity with friends from middle school through college. Final Fantasy 7 was a landmark title for graphics and story telling, and actually has a remake in the works right now. I remember watching my older brother and his friends playing Final Fantasy 7 and being blown away by the graphics and presentation.  

I feel like I have said almost every year was a big year or an important year as I have gone through the 90s, and that is because it’s true. 1998 however, is different. 1998 was the biggest year of the decade and maybe the biggest and best year for game releases ever. Let me list all the titles, then we can unpack why this year was so important I want you to picture me reading the next three paragraphs in one breath.

Here are just some of the titles: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of TimeBanjo- KazooieGrim FandagoHalf-LifeStarcraftBalder's GateResident Evil 2Sonic Adventures (also the dream-cast released), Star Wars: Rouge SquadronDelta ForceSoul CaliberMetal Gear Solid, Spryo the Dragon.

Although, I don't personally care for Ocarina of Time, the first 3D Zelda title is held near and dear by millions and you can often see atop best games of all time lists. (I was once talking with a friend from law school who apologized that it was only his second favorite game of all time saying he knew it was sacrilegious to not have it number one). Banjo-Kazooie represents the high water mark for the collect-a-thon genre that was huge in the late 90s, Grim Fando is widely considered the best point and click adventure game of all time, Starcraft is widely considered to be the best RTS game of all time (second maybe to Starcraft 2)Metal Gear Solid redefined the stealth genre as well as narrative structure and player interaction in video games. For example, there was a boss fight in Metal Gear Solid where the boss read games from your memory card stating he was reading your mind and to beat the boss you had to take unplug the controller and plug it back in the player 2 slot.

Delta Force was the first online shooter game that I ever played. I could go on saying why each game I mentioned was critically important and successful. And I will, Star Wars: Rouge Squadron kicked so much ass, you flew space fighters from Star Wars with a huge variety of ships and missions. Watching Paul play Resident Evil 2 gave me nightmares for years, also people really love it, so much so that its being remade in HD this year. Sonic Adventure was the first true 3D Sonic Game. Soul Caliber launched a fighting series based around sword combat that is still around today, Soul Caliber 6 is coming out this October. I've never played Boulder's Gate, but it sold over 2 million units and reinvigorated the classic DnD based computer role playing game. I think that's all of them.... Oh wait I forgot that little title, Spyro the Dragon. Spyro became almost as popular as Crash and the first game alone sold over 4 million copies. Spyro eventually spawned ten squeals and a remastering of the original trilogy is currently in development. Also, I had a deal with my mom that if I read 10 books over the summer she would buy me one video game at the end of the summer, and I got Spyro and loved it. 

That's it for now, tune in next week for the finale and an update on the state of the blog.

A Simpler Time Part 2: 1993-1995


“Twenty minutes, and then you have to go outside,” my mom said, as she turned the timer above stove to the twenty-minute mark. My brother and I race downstairs. I open the panel to the right of the CRT television screen. There are two metal dials and a plastic knob. I push the knob in and the screen crackles to life as white noise fills the room. I then move to the top dial and twist it, every channel that goes by makes a satisfying click. I set the channel to three...or four, I could never remember what channel had to be set to turn the NES on. As I fumbled with the television that my family has had since long before I was born, my brother, Paul, was readying the NES. He placed the game in, snapped it down, and hit the power button. The screen flashes red and then black, there is no noise. He hits the reset button, nothing. The power is cut and the white noise returns. I feel panic. I run to stairs and yell up to pause the timer. Paul removes the cartridge, blows into it, and snaps it back in. This time it works. This temporary problem was common with an older NES (not to mention one that was handled by children for many years ).
The game we were playing was Double Dragon, my favorite game to play at the time. I enjoyed it because my brother and I could play it cooperatively and you got to fight ninjas. A strong combination. I was never any good at Double Dragon and I always died first, but I always felt like I was helping and being able to play together was a blast. I don't remember the specific results of that play session, except that, as always, I did everything I could to stay alive as long as possible, so that Paul wouldn't have to waste his extra lives to revive me, which he would inevitably have to do.
I’ve shared this stream of consciousness scene because it is my very first memory of playing video games, and I imagine it must have occurred during this time period.
1993: 1993 was a big year that had a bunch of big hits. NBA Jam cemented the phrase “boom shakalaka” in our collective vocabulary. On the Super Nintendo, Star Fox and the Secret of Mana released to critical and commercial success. Nintendo also released The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, the first handheld Zelda title.
Mega-Man X also released 1993, and brought a new art style and overall tone to the Mega-Man series. Mega Man X is praised for its intuitive introduction that teaches you how to play the game without too much hand holding as well as its meticulous level design.
By far the biggest title to release in 1993, a game that I would argue is either the second or the third most important game ever released, was Doom. The brainchild of John Carmack and John Remaera,  Doom featured fast-paced action, an energetic sound track, tons of enemy variety, giant levels packed with secrets, and a large arsenal of weapons. By 1994, there were more computers that had Doom installed than had a windows operating system. 
1994: Probably the greatest video game of all time, Shaq Fu, released in 1994 and forever changed the landscape of video games as a medium for art and entertainment. Oh, also, Donkey Kong County, Primal Rage, System Shock, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Doom 2, Sonic and Knuckles, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, Earth Bound, Killer Instinct, and Final Fantasy III all came out as wellSeriously though, the volume of quality titles that came out in 1994 is pretty amazing, even if they all have to take second place to Shaq Fu. I don’t have time to go through all of the titles I listed, but they are all classics that have garnered critical and commercial success.
1995: Although 1995 didn't have as many impressive games release as ‘93 and ’94, it did see the release of the Play Station 1. The PS1 became the first computer entertainment platform that sold over 100 million units and is the second highest selling console of all time (PS2 holds the top spot). The PS1 utilized CDs instead of cartridges, and SONY was able to court many third-party developers to their system. Releasing before the N64, the PS1 took the video game world by storm when it outsold both Nintendo and SEGA consoles. In fact, SEGA also launched the SEGA Saturn in 1995 and the system only sold a total of 9 million units in its entire lifespan.
This slice of the 90s may very well be the most important. Many of the games that came out in 1993-1994 are still held among the greatest of all time and the PS1 took the wold by storm and revolutionized the world of console gaming.

A Simpler Time Part 1: 1990-1992


Like so many of my contemporaries, I have a deep nostalgia for the 90s. Maybe it was a simpler time or maybe it is just my fond childhood memories. So many of these memories take place in my basement, playing my older siblings’ games on our old wood paneled CRT television. The 90s were a pivotal period for video games: the shift from 2D to3D, the rise of SONY as a gaming juggernaut, the fall of SEGA, and leaps in computer technology all contribute to the 90s being the most important decade in video game history. This will be the first of a three part series exploring video games in the 90s. Let's go through a journey of the 1990s together.
                                                                                                      
We start at the end—the end of the third-generation of video game consoles. The Super Nintendo (a.k.a. the Super Family Console or Famicon in Japan) launched in Japan in 1990, but did not arrive in North America until the following year.

1990 saw some of the best and most refined titles of the third generation on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, and of course personal computers.

Nintendo launched Super Mario Bros 3 in 1990, which sold almost 18 million copies and is considered by many to be the height of 8-bit platforming. A few months later, Square Software released Final Fantasy, a title that would start one of the most important and popular RPG franchises of all time. Final Fantasy is still around today—Final Fantacy 15 came out in 2016, and more games are planned. Capcom also released Mega Man 3 in 1990, which introduced sliding and faster paced combat to the Mega Man series.

1990 was also a big year for P.C. gaming. Secrets of Monkey Island and Kings Quest 5 took the point and click adventure genre to new heights, while Wing Commander and Roller-Coaster Tycoon kicked of the simulation/management genre.

Whereas 1990 was a strong and steady transitionary year, 1991 was an explosive year of genre creating and defying change.

The first big title of the year was Street Fighter II, the gold standard for fighting games. This title is still widely played in tournaments today. Street Fighter II is often referred to as the grandfather of fighting games and you can see its influence in titles coming out today.

On June 23, 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog released in North America. Even those who don't play games or have any interest in video games know who Sonic is. Sonic went on to become SEGA's mascot and reached such a high popularity in the mid-90s, that he was able to compete with Mario and help the SEGA Genesis to compete with the Super Nintendo. I was never able to beat Sonic as a kid, one time I got so scared when Sonic was drowning in the water that I  ran upstairs, but slipped on the last step and bruised my knee.  

Just two month later, the Super Nintendo (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) launched in North America. Its two biggest launch titles were Super Mario World and F-Zero. Super Mario World is generally still considered to be the best 2-D platformer of all time. That same year, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released for the Super Nintendo. Game Informer Magazine recently went through the 300 greatest video games of all time and ranked A Link to the Past as the greatest and most influential video game ever made.

The year would finish out with Sid Myer's CivilizationCivilization had you guide a society from hunters and gathers in 4000 BCE all the way to the modern era. A simulation game of this scope was revolutionary and the focus on slow and thoughtful decision over a long period of timehelped make Civilization a best seller.

1992 was more of a slow, building year, and started off on an unfortunate note. On January 1, 1992, Atari stopped supporting its various platforms.  A few months later, Activison, the first ever third party developer who made many Atari games, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy  (Activision survived and is still around today).

1992 was a good year for the Gameboy.  Kirby Dream Land, the first ever Kirby title, and Mario the Six Golden Coins released. My brother had both of these games on in Gameboy. I remember thinking that being able to play Mario on a road-trip was the absolute height of technological achievement.  

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was also released and Nintendo launched the first Mario Kart title.

Probably the most important titles that was released in 1992 was Castle Wolfenstein by Id Software. Wolfenstein is credited with creating the first person shooter genre and put Id Software on the map.

Mortal Kombat was also released in 1992. Mortal Kombat was a fighting game that featured blood and gore. Notably, the game featured "fatalities." After you defeated an opponent, you could kill them in a vicious manner (for example, if so inclined, you could rip your opponent’s skull and spine out of his body, splitting him in half vertically) by hitting the correct sequence of moves and attacks. This created an outrage among various groups and lead to the creation of the ESRB (which I will discuss further in a future post).

That's it for the first three years. Let me know if their are any classics from the early 90s that you have serious nostalgia for!




God of War (2018) Review


The original God of War trilogy was a best seller on the PS2 and PS3. The game features Kratos, the half son of Zeus on a revenge quest against the gods of Olympus. In his quest to kill his own father Kratos murders hundreds if not thousands of innocents and shows no compassion or forgiveness for anyone he crosses.

God of War (2018) shows how much gaming as a genre has evolved over the last decade. Gone is the Kratos who was filled with ceaseless, often unjustified rage who kills and destroys indiscriminately in his quest for vengeance. Kratos is still angry, but it often boils below the surface as he tries to set an example for his son, Atreus, who is your companion throughout the game. Kratos struggles as he attempts to be a patient  and supportive father. This attempt at being restrained makes the moments when Kratos lets his rage loose feel so much more impactful. 
God of War takes place in the realm of Norse mythology. The game opens with Kratos chopping down a tree to build his wife's funeral pyre. His wife's dying request was that her ashes be spread atop the tallest mountain in the land. Early on it’s made clear that this will be no easy task, as the world is dangerous and the Norse gods have taken notice of Kratos and want him dead. The overall plot is compelling and interesting with great twists and turns. There were solemn and reflective moments and big bombastic set pieces that created an overall well-paced and satisfying story that takes around twenty hours to complete. There are also some extremely tense and draw dropping cinematic moments.

Both Kratos and Atreus have substantial character arcs. Watching the characters grow as their relationship grows makes the journey they are on even more compelling. The side characters that populate the world are well written and have believable faults and motivations. The overall writing and voice acting is very strong and helps to make the characters come to life. 
There's also a large amount of side content with side quests, hidden collectibles, and some late game hidden boss battles that will really push your skills. These help to flesh out the world and give you reasons to re-explore areas after having gained new abilities. This is good because the world of God of War is beautiful and interesting, with locations ranging from a dead giant the size of a mountain range to a sub-terrain vault filled with traps and treasure.
The combat is fantastic. Kratos wields a large ax, called the leviathan, that is imbued with frost powers (shooting frost beams, freezing enemies on contact, etc.) The ax is an absolute joy to use--it feels powerful and making contact with enemies is satisfying. The ax can also be thrown and recalled like Thor's hammer, Mj√∂lnir. Kratos can also fight with an Athenian shield and his bare hands. Combat opens up as the game goes along giving you more variety and options. The depth of combat grows as your proficiency does which creates an organic rise in your capability to deal with the game's challenges as they ramp up in difficulty.
Although there is a healthy variety of enemies, I was a little disappointed with the lack of variety in boss battles. There is one mini-boss in particular that gets reused far too many times. All told, there are only four unique bosses in the whole game. One of the bosses, who serves as the games main antagonist, provides one of the most entertaining and interesting boss battles I've ever experienced.   
One other minor complaint that I had with God of War is that some of the puzzles felt like busy work. Overall most of the puzzles offered the right blend of challenge and approachability. But many of the optional puzzles (that you can complete for helpful items) have you finding and destroying three runes (Nordic symbols). Finding where these runes are hidden was often a little frustrating and felt like the only purpose that was being served was padding out the game.
I would highly recommend this game to anyone who owns a PS4. My final scoring of the game is a 9.5 out of 10. The only real misstep in the title is a lack of boss variety and some bad puzzle design, although the offending puzzles were not mandatory, everything else is stellar. 

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