Review – Jurassic World: Evolution DLC

If I could say only one thing about the expansions for Jurassic World: Evolution, I would say, “Buy Return to Jurassic Park; it’s worth it.” That one expansion was a stand-out, balancing nostalgia with new features, building on the solid foundation of the base game, and focusing on story to a greater degree than any other campaign mode in the game.

Slowly gaining Dr. Grant’s trust and respect was definitely a high point.

There’s a lot more to say about Return to Jurassic Park, but I want to discuss the other expansions first. I’ve now had some experience with all the existing DLC for JWE, which includes three added campaigns (Secrets of Dr. Wu, Claire’s Sanctuary, and Return to Jurassic Park), four expansion packs of additional dinosaurs (the Deluxe Dinosaur Pack, the Cretaceous Dinosaur Pack, the Carnivore Dinosaur Pack, and the Herbivore Dinosaur Pack), and one purely cosmetic addition (the Raptor Squad Skin Collection). Nothing really disappointed me, although some were better than others.

There’s nothing remarkable in the dinosaur content packs, but I liked having even more dinosaur options to add to the park, even though there’s largely a focus on existing clades, such that, at least with some of the new additions, they’ll feel more like new skins rather than truly new animals. Frequent additions to my parks have included the Styracosaurus from Deluxe (a ceratopsian I love about as much as Triceratops, given its appearance in Crichton’s sequel novel and its charismatic and dangerous role in “Last Link in the Chain” of Xenozoic Tales, not to mention the genus’s metal-as-hell skulls), the colossal Dreadnoughtus from the Cretaceous pack, the Proceratosaurus from the Carnivore pack (a small carnivore whose comfort in packs and ability to coexist with larger predators makes a helpful addition to boost ratings, especially in a certain carnivore-only challenge!), and the wide-jawed and small-for-a-sauropod Nigersaurus from the Herbivore pack (she’s too goofy-looking not to love). Dinosaurs in these packs, the campaign expansions, and some of the free content updates further round out the prehistoric life from the Jurassic Park novels, movies, and games that had previously been missing from JWE, although any marine life is still absent entirely. All that said, I liked adding more dinosaurs to the park, but you’re not missing anything vital if you don’t get these content packs. Furthermore, none of the dinosaurs break the balance of building a park, as they are unlocked over the campaign by building up favor with the different park directors, same as many of the already existing features in the base game.

The only thing that feels truly frivolous is the Raptor Squad Skin Collection. It’s only a couple bucks by itself, or less if bought discounted, but it only provides Velociraptor skins so that your raptors can look like Blue, Delta, Echo, and Charlie from Jurassic World. Since I have the pack, I’ve used the skins frequently; it adds a little more variety, and those skins are more dynamic than many of the other options available in the base game. But it’s a purely cosmetic choice. I can take it or leave it.

That gets us back to those campaign expansions. Unlike Return to Jurassic Park, the first two expansions, Secrets of Dr. Wu and Claire’s Sanctuary, are overall enjoyable, though largely forgettable.

Secrets of Dr. Wu serves as something of a conclusion to the base game’s campaign. All the secrets, plotting, and inter-division politics that never really went anywhere in the base game provide the platform for what happens next: Dr. Wu enlists your character to help him further his research into genetic modifications, taking you to new locations on the islands, including a top-secret research site. At first, you’re still juggling the interests of the Security, Entertainment, and Science divisions along with Wu’s requests, but the chief geneticist’s interests eventually become paramount. Wu’s research initially produces access to some new dinosaurs in a new park dubbed Muerta East. When you’ve met his initial objectives, though, he requests that you join him at his private lab, the Tacaño Research Facility. Here, you’re blessedly free of competing division contracts, but the scope is also fairly narrow. You help cultivate a new line of hybrid dinosaurs, culminating in a break-out and dino-to-dino battle before settling into a bland grind to increase the ratings of dinosaurs for export in the final mission. The base campaign’s story now feels more “complete,” but it still never really goes anywhere, and you’re still involved in deeply unethical activities without any real consequences.

Jurassic World: Evolution and Secrets of Dr. Wu are functionally alternative sequels to Jurassic World. While Claire’s Sanctuary is another alternative sequel, it also acts as a happier timeline in which Lockwood’s promise of Sanctuary was real and Claire is successful in relocating several dinosaurs. No Gothic horror shenanigans, no final dino release onto the mainland. Its narrative is rather subdued as a result, and the main challenge is dealing with the use of an ever-increasing Hammond Foundation fee while making sure your Sanctuary can both house happy dinosaurs (with an interesting new Paleobotany element requiring you to have the correct mix of plant life for different dinosaur types) and draw in a profit from tourists. (Yes, that means that it’s not so much a nature preserve as it is yet another island zoo, and yes, that’s a tragic compromise, but the game spends little time on this theme.) The standout mission is before you start your Sanctuary, however. You lead a team to set up a small research outpost on Isla Nublar. The map chosen winds from a valley up onto the slopes of the volcanic Mount Sibo. It’s a truly massive map, and dinosaurs roam freely in their own social groups. It captures the adventure-safari spirit of The Lost World and the first act of Fallen Kingdom quite well. I enjoyed driving across the island, photographing and observing the dinosaurs and providing medications to treat a new disease. The mission is very story-focused, so I concentrated on the story objectives and the setting, free from contracts or the demands of tourists. It was a delight, and I would have loved a whole game about exploring and researching this prehistoric preserve while attempting to prepare for, or even undo, a predicted tragedy. Some of my fondest memories of this level are of dealing with an ornery stegosaur herd near my base camp, which often attacked my perimeter fencing and sowed chaos among the researchers on the ground. It was an interesting experience, trying to find a way to coexist with these animals. The final moments of the mission also stood out as tense and horrific, as I had to choose which dinosaurs we’d be able to transport off the island in time, and dinosaurs began dying off in the chaos of the volcano’s imminent eruption. Sacrifices must be made.

Finally, there’s Return to Jurassic Park, yet another alternative sequel but this time to the original film, picking up shortly after the evacuation of Hammond and the other survivors from Isla Nublar. In this alternate universe, Hammond has convinced Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm to return to Jurassic Park, to start over and try to do things right. Hammond walks a line between his friendly tycoon persona and the born-again naturalist of The Lost World, as he is eager to build a park that is safe yet profitable, with dinosaurs who are well-cared-for, although sometimes his contracts darkly indicate that he’s still a little bit short-sighted and too profit-motivated. Hammond is aided by a young version of Cabot Finch, the PR manager from the base game. This Finch proves himself to be loyal to Hammond, even though he’s still ambitious and self-serving. He is the only central character not from the films, and the story largely focuses on Hammond, Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm (while Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum returned to voice their roles, Richard Attenborough of course passed away a few years ago, and his voice actor delivers at best a decent imitation, at worst a whinier and more nasally knockoff).

Contracts became far more tolerable to me in Return; instead of competing against everyone, the divisions are headed by people possessing more or less mutual respect, all with the goal of presenting as-accurate-as-possible dinosaurs in humane enclosures with safe exhibits and facilities for park guests. You still have to complete contracts to raise your reputation with a division and to unlock more features, but you’re not risking reputation decreases or sabotage by focusing on one division’s contracts over the others (after all, petty infighting and anything intentionally done to risk the safety of the guests and dinosaurs would be intensely antithetical to these characters). Contracts are also in line with the ethical, reasonable personas you’re working with, so don’t expect contracts to have dinosaurs fight each other or to sell off certain dinosaurs. The contracts also have more interesting overlap in interests: Grant’s are focused on expeditions and the creation of more authentic dinosaurs; Sattler’s are focused on the wellbeing of the animals and observation of them in their natural habitats; Malcolm’s are very focused on security, and rather than independently increasing a separate division score for himself, completion of his contracts improves your reputation with Grant and Sattler; and Hammond’s and Finch’s are focused on expansion of the park, improvement of guest facilities, and profit growth.

The story is simple and derivative but entertaining. We first have to get the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar contained again. We then have to address what went wrong and work out a solution to the breeding problem (sadly, as far as I could tell, dinosaurs are not self-reproducing in the game even before the fix, and they’re still reliant on concealed feeders even in natural habitats). This involves a side trip to Isla Sorna, where we get the production facilities back online; in the campaign mode only, all your dinosaurs are shipped to Isla Nublar from Isla Sorna, creating a fun variation in how you stock the park with new attractions that unfortunately is not carried over into the Challenge modes. Finally, back on Isla Nublar, you work to grow the newly opened Jurassic Park, attempt to stop a bit of corporate espionage, and use your Tyrannosaurus to end yet another Velociraptor outbreak. The returning characters voice their concerns with attempting this reopening, but the game doesn’t try very hard to explain why they’d agree to come back to this site of death or why they believe in Hammond’s mission; if you can accept that Hammond intends to try again and has convinced the others that working with him from the beginning could keep dinosaurs and people safer, then you don’t need a deeper explanation. The story doesn’t really offer anything new, either; it just ties up loose ends (mostly loose ends that didn’t really need tying) and provides enough of a narrative structure to explain how exactly we’re all back at Jurassic Park. As a huge fan of the movies, I had more than enough to satisfy me.

In addition to the new story, we get a couple new creatures, as well: Compsognathus and Pteranodon, which have both had significant roles in the first two sequels. On top of that, many of the dinosaurs present in the Jurassic Park trilogy now have specific skins modeled after their appearances in these films. Once you unlock the new creatures and skins in the expansion, you can use them in any other mode; same goes for the Jurassic Park aesthetic and park economy.

I found the gameplay to be the best in this mode, and it’s not just nostalgia speaking. Certainly, nostalgia plays a role: park staff are dressed like their counterparts in the first film, the visitor center is more or less a duplicate of the original, visitors arrive to the island by helicopter, you have the classic cable fences and electric Explorers, the dinosaurs are movie-accurate, the guests are dressed like nineties tourists, and the additional park facilities feel like natural extensions of the design aesthetic of the first park. But management just feels simpler, more straightforward, more focused on providing lovely enclosures for the dinosaurs. For starters, the needed infrastructure is greatly streamlined: helipad to arrive at (placed by you, instead of the default monorail locations), visitor center that houses all the R&D departments as hub add-ons, geothermal power plant to provide electricity, only two types of visitor attractions (the car tour and a self-contained Pteranodon aviary), and only five types of visitor-needs buildings (restaurant, restroom, gift shop, emergency bunker, and hotel) that can all be clustered around a single attraction entrance point. It’s easy to chain along the ride through multiple enclosures (or around them, in the case of carnivore pens). Even the dinosaurs are simplified, in a way: while the expansion does add more animals to all game modes, any Jurassic Park-themed park has a reduced roster of era-appropriate dinosaurs. It’s a more focused experience, though there’s still plenty to manage properly to get your park to five stars (especially when playing in challenge modes).

My Challenge mode attempts tend to use the Jurassic Park setting. The combination of tight park-building gameplay and heavy doses of nostalgia makes this my preferred Jurassic World: Evolution experience. Over two years ago, I described the base game as flawed, fun, and slightly disappointing. Frontier Developments has added so much to it since, so it was already an improved experience, but Return to Jurassic Park has transformed the game into something truly special.

Isla Pena: More Teeth

I hadn’t played Jurassic World: Evolution much since I was last writing about it in July of this year. But I’m a sucker for this franchise, and it doesn’t take much of a promotion to draw me back in. This time around, it was simply the build-up to the release of the Switch version of the game–and no, I did not purchase the Switch version after I’d already bought all the content on PC; I have some restraint. I did, however, decide to get back to the Challenge mode a bit.

This Saturday, I loaded the Challenge mode save I’d last seriously pursued in July, before I dropped out and moved on to other things in my spare time. I found myself picking up the controls as though I’d never left the game, and I remembered some of the more advanced management tactics I had finally gotten a firm grasp on in almost as little time. My particular challenge was to get to five stars in medium difficulty on Isla Pena while releasing only carnivores. I therefore hoped to get two achievements for a single five-star run (beating any Challenge for one, beating Isla Pena on medium or higher with only carnivores for the other). Back in July, I’d named my save file for this unique challenge “MORE TEETH,” which I thought was sort of cute because, you know…

I didn’t manage to get to five stars within the level’s suggested par time, but I did get to five stars in just under four and a half hours total time, dealing with a variety of crises big and small that climaxed with a thrillingly destructive storm complete with twister and the resultant chaos of various carnivores rampaging across the island, and I secured the two achievements.

I had fun, as usual. I think this is a game I’ll keep finding reasons to come back to over the months–maybe even the years. I have no idea whether I’ll ever get the final four achievements on Steam, though, especially given that three require timed Challenge-mode completions. And I strongly doubt that I’ll ever unlock all the dinosaur skins that would require completing every island on the highest difficulty at least once. There’s still a lot left to check off in the game, then, but it’s rather repetitive in nature. Get to five stars on islands I’ve already played through, dealing with a slightly different contract assignment system and the extra costs of the steadily increasing Hammond Foundation fee, again and again and again.

The reason I have returned yet again to the game, then, has very little to do with completionism at this point. Instead, I genuinely end up having fun, sometimes for hours at a time. I still manage to experience moments of awe, curiosity, and excitement with this game. I picked the featured image for this post not because it was a moment of great excitement but because the moment of rolling through a jungle canopy in a ranger Jeep and coming out at the edge of a small pond, seeing my pack of Velociraptors settling down to sleep for the night on the other end, and snapping a picture with the ranger’s camera just felt special and peaceful and unique; the more I play the game, the more these little moments of simulated animal behavior and dynamic interactions with them at ground level are what really stand out to me, although I’ll never get over the explosive excitement of a park in the midst of a tropical storm. There’s always going to be something to continue to engage me with this game. Perhaps the only thing to draw me away for good would be a bigger, better sequel…

On a slightly different note, writing this post made me realize that I apparently never wrote anything about my experiences with all the DLC. It looks like I last seriously wrote about JW:E when playing through the base game again earlier this year with some of the new updates that had been made available over time. By the end of July, I’d played through everything. I should probably fix that oversight at some point, huh?

Review – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

I finished the campaign in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider a few weeks back, spending under 20 hours with it. For the concluding chapter in the Kaldwin saga and a title that focuses so squarely on the bizarre deity at the center of its dark magic system, Death of the Outsider (DO) felt small and almost quiet, more like an expansion to Dishonored 2 (D2) than its own game.

The heavy influence of Dishonored 2 is obvious. Mission structures, black market shops, and the central city of Karnaca are all transplants from the preceding title. And the story itself wraps up dangling elements from D2, as Meagan Foster, readopting the identity of Billie Lurk, reunites with her former assassin master Daud and takes over his quixotic quest to kill a god, to put an end to the schemes of the Outsider. The game offers some new gameplay elements, with a newly tweaked set of powers that are all made available early on and the ability to talk to rats, although it plays more or less like every other game in this series, with the option for players to lean into stealth or assault, lethality or mercy. Ultimately, DO is to D2 as the Daud-focused expansions were to the original game, further cementing the character of this game as that of expansion title rather than a pure standalone.

While you still have the option to kill or spare characters (and as usual, I chose far more sparing than killing), your choices just don’t seem to matter as much to the texture of the game or course of the story. That said, the story was largely enjoyable, even though I often lost sight of objectives as I sunk focus into completing most of the side quests available in each level in the form of bounties.

The most interesting element of DO is that it feels like the world has broken a bit since the time-and-space altering events of D2. The magical realm of the Void has leaked out into the physical world, and Billie has somehow become a focal point for this change. She slips between two realities, one in which she lost her arm and eye years ago in a fight with a guard (reflecting her appearance in D2) and one in which she avoided the incident. Other details, like her appearance with former friends from her D2 backstory, also appear to slip between realities based on magical divergences in the timeline. Over the course of the game, the split realities seem to fuse together, but I never really saw much direct attempt to explain this. On the other hand, there was maybe too much explanation of just who and what the Outsider was. But even with the big focus on a literal deity, the stakes seem low for Billie: does she fulfill her mentor’s last wishes or not? Of course, the threat of death is ever-present, but there is nothing to resolve her history of many tragedies and losses; friends and loves and rivals are in the past, and she has only this god-killing objective before her, with nothing in sight beyond that goal. There is not much hope of her feeling like a more complete person by the end of the game, and if there was a big explanation for her role as a central figure in the timeline split, it was never made clear to me. To discuss a huge spoiler, I did feel that Billie and Daud made peace with each other and gave the world and the Outsider a fresh start by choosing to make him mortal again instead of killing him. Without seeing the other ending, I can’t say for sure how Billie or Daud would be left if they went through with the murder, but I think they’d be stuck in an unfulfilled rut.

All told, Death of the Outsider was a fun game, but its interesting premises were unfortunately executed in a somewhat muted way. Dishonored 2 remains the high point of the series for me, but I guess I’d put it this way: if you play only one Dishonored game, play Dishonored 2, and if you play that, then you might as well cap it off with Death of the Outsider as well.

Level 100 in RFA; no post next week

I’m going to a virtual professional conference this week, and I’m going to be using some of today and a lot of this week’s evenings to catch up on some normal work stuff. So I don’t think I’ll have a post at all next weekend, and this weekend I don’t really have the motivation to write anything longer than this.

I do, however, want to call attention to the fact that I’ve now surpassed Level 100 in Ring Fit Adventure. Woohoo! I’ve actually made it to level 101, because my last fight today was against some Rare Hoplins, whose beefy experience drop was heightened further by the use of an experience-enhancing potion. So I jumped from 99 to 101 by the end of that encounter. But it’s not as eventful a milestone, so I’m here to celebrate LEVEL 100!!

An attempt to review Ring Fit Adventure

I was a fan of Wii Fit Plus for a while, but it was never really a fan of me. The game didn’t work great as a fitness regimen, with a smattering of fitness activities and minigames that could be done in any order, without any particular rhyme or reason. There wasn’t much structure to these bite-sized activities. The game worked reasonably well at tracking metrics, recording how good your posture and balance were and keeping record of your weight. But the fitness element itself, despite the use of Balance Board and Wii Remote motion controls to accurately convey (most of) your physical inputs, did little to generate much real activity for me. I’d often give up on the game and return to it at a later date, at which time it would bemoan how much weight I’d gained or some other defect on my part. Rather than encouraging more activity in my sedentary lifestyle, it ultimately discouraged it. But there were some minigames that promised something more, like Island Cycling, where you’d step in place and lean controllers to guide a virtual bike along a course over an island you could ride freely on, or Obstacle Course, where you used your body’s movements to navigate a platformer level that could have felt appropriate for a Mario game. The promise of using your body in an active way to control movement through a virtual world was very appealing to me.

Ring Fit Adventure delivers on that promise. Released for the Nintendo Switch just about a year ago, Ring Fit Adventure is an exercise video game that works both as exercise and as video game. It’s made me considerably less sedentary, prompting changes to my behavior and diet more generally as small ripple effects out from the game itself, and in the 20 or so minutes a day I spend in the game, I get a good workout in an engaging fantasy world.

I’ve now spent 30 consecutive days playing Ring Fit Adventure. The game does not do anything to demand consistent playing. It in fact advises taking breaks–both in the form of encouraging you to quit for the day after a certain amount of activity, and in the form of tips that suggest taking days off from training. But I don’t need a mandate; it’s fun and rewarding to come back again and again. Keeping to the relatively short activity times suggested by the game, it’s no problem at all to return day after day. But I know if I needed to miss a day or two for whatever reason, it would be okay; I wouldn’t need to feel guilty, and the game wouldn’t chastise me for it.

My total stats after my workout as of today’s post. My Switch records 20 hours or more in the game; the time listed in the image refers only to the periods in which the game tracked actual exercise activity.

The game offers a range of difficulty settings, initially set by a short quiz that tries to assess your current level of fitness. I’m very sedentary through years of engrained habit, and my various attempts to develop a fitness habit usually begin to fizzle after a couple weeks, so the game started me at level 13. I’ve worked up to 18. There are plenty higher difficulty levels above that to continue challenging me as my level of fitness and comfort with the ever-increasing variety of exercises improve. Comments and reviews online suggest that people from a wide variety of fitness levels, including those with an already active lifestyle, have found benefit from the game–at least as a supplement to other activities, for those who already have a decent fitness regimen. But I think I’m the target audience for the game: someone with a sedentary lifestyle who loves video games and has never had much talent or interest in sports. Ring Fit Adventure is, in a way, a sport for those who don’t care for sports: it’s a fun way to get moderate to intense physical activity in, working toward a goal and oriented around accumulating various types of “points,” bound by the rules of the game. If you’re already a regular pickup basketball player or you hit the tennis courts a few times a week, you don’t really need this game. But I’m not that person, and I’m still amazed to find a fitness video game that emulates that level of “fun activity” for a sedentary person like me.

Ring Fit Adventure plays like a traditional roleplaying game, with turn-based combat against a variety of enemies that you encounter as you make your way across individual levels, which are in turn selected from a course charted across several world maps (really more like region maps, but the Level and World designation is pretty classic Nintendo). Within the traditional turn-based combat structure, you use sets of exercises to defeat the enemies. Exercises, navigation through levels, and a variety of other activities are all performed through physical movements by the player, tracked in the game by use of the Joy Cons, one slipped into a leg strap peripheral and one clicked into place in the Ring-Con, a high-tech Pilates ring. These peripherals work great, and the motion sensitivity, with a few occasional exceptions, works exceptionally well and is easy to reset if, say, the aim gets a little off.

As the game progresses, you gain new Fit Skills, or attack/exercise sets, with different effects. Early in the game, you gain access to Color Coding, which means that Fit Skills in the same color group as an enemy do more damage. Fit Skills are divided into five groups: Red (arms), Yellow (core), Blue (legs), Green (yoga), and Recovery (a later, non-combat addition that restores health). Your defense is defined by Ab Guards, where you slightly bend your legs, flex your abdomen, and press the Ring-Con controller into your belly, or occasional Mega Ab Guards, where you squat while taking the other steps of an Ab Guard to ward off an exceptionally powerful boss attack. You also gradually build a large catalogue of clothing to wear (with a variety of permanent buffs, augmented further when a full outfit is worn together) and potions to produce (providing typically short-term buffs, like increasing a specific color attack power or restoring health, and created by combining harvested ingredients and then squeezing them to make smoothies, soups, and drinks).

The plot is fairly simple so far. Your avatar (masculine or feminine, with customizable eye and skin color) is tricked into breaking the seal on a magical ring, releasing the imprisoned dragon Dragaux. Dragaux carries a dark influence that corrupts him and those around him, making them selfishly pursue their inner desires at the cost of everything else. The ring, simply named Ring, is actually a sentient artifact and former trainer of Dragaux, pre-possession, who enlists the protagonist in a quest to stop the dragon and the dark influence. You go from region to region, battling Dragaux’s minions and attempting to undo the effects of the dark influence along the way, meeting a variety of goofball characters in the process.

The narrative is always a little campy, and the dialogue is typically very self-aware and paronomastic. While the story broadens, it (so far) hasn’t gotten much deeper than what I’ve presented above. But that’s okay; the story keeps giving me clear objectives to push forward, and I love/hate Dragaux and have been charmed by many of the other supporting characters I’ve encountered. The silliness is energizing, and the fact that the game presents a solid RPG adventure at all, with all the typical accoutrements of the genre, is quite impressive for a fitness game. I could strike that–the game’s impressive, and while it might be a forgettable but fun diversion without the fitness controls, with those features it feels remarkably fresh and inventive. It is a good game, not just a good fitness game.

You’d think that 30 days of daily playing would be enough for me to have finished a game, or to at least have a good idea of all elements of the game. But that’s not the case here. For one thing, 15 to 20 minutes is a lot less than one or two hours of gaming on a weeknight or much more than that even on a weekend. (First behavior change: Ring Fit Adventure convinces me I’ve had plenty of “game time,” so the amount of time I spend playing video games altogether has decreased sharply.) As a result of this fairly limited approach to play, I’m still uncovering new gameplay elements regularly. It took me a few days to unlock Color Coding, and a bit more than that to unlock the ability to paddle over rivers, and a couple weeks more before the skill tree was opened to me, and nearly a month before the skill tree was expanded for the first time, and there’s still a steady trickle of new Fit Skills being unlocked as I play. From what I’ve read in forums, it looks like the skill tree should expand at least once more. And even when I finish the full quest, there are apparently new-game-plus modes.

Some of the newly unlocked content has a direct impact on gameplay from day to day; for instance, there are new enemies appearing, and enemies work together in new ways that create unique challenges in levels. The best example of this happened just today. The game had gradually introduced me to Skuttlebells, enemies with powerful claw attacks, and showed me in earlier boss fights that Dragaux would lift them up for extra damage. It also added in Matta Rays, enemies that could heal their allies by sliding under them. And it most recently added Megaphauna, which can provide buffs to their allies or call in more support as my enemies are vanquished in a fight. The most recent boss fight against Dragaux, who perpetually retreats after defeat, had him using Skuttlebells while supported by a Matta Ray and a Megaphauna. While I normally would have targeted the Skuttlebells first, I focused on the Megaphauna, to shut off any buffs or additional enemies; then I turned to the Matta Ray, taking it down in a group attack that also weakened a Skuttlebell; then I focused on the Skuttlebells directly; then I finally fought Dragaux himself. He often launches into a mid-battle special attack, and this one was a familiar form, hurling boxes at me for me to shoot down before impact, but it was still freshly challenging because he was now hurling a few boxes at a time, spread out across the screen, at pretty high speed. I’m not suggesting that the game requires strategic thinking, but it was nice that I could put a little thought into a battle plan more complicated than attack-attack-attack, and this is hardly the only example of engaging and different battles.

I’ve said almost everything that I could about Ring Fit Adventure, but I want to emphasize that the game is super-encouraging. Ring cheers me on and gives tips on better form. The game praises me for showing up and for working out. It celebrates milestones in activity and rewards me with titles. It’s very wholesome and holistic in its approach, focusing on the positive, encouraging me to think positively because I’m putting some work into this, suggesting I don’t overextend myself by pushing too hard or too long, providing healthy lifestyle tips at the end of the day, reminding me to drink water in between sets, and recommending a guided dynamic stretching session at the beginning of every workout and a static stretching session at the end. While I haven’t missed a day yet, my understanding is that the game never calls you out for time away, instead always focusing on how good it is that you’re back for another day. And I can speak directly to what happens when you lose a battle: the game still counts your reps, awards some experience, and lets you pick right up where you left off. I lost to Dragaux once, and the game gave me the option of skipping the course leading up to him to start my fight directly with him; I opted to instead go through the course again, but it was nice that the game doesn’t punish you for defeat. It’s not a hard game, and even if you have little gaming experience or struggle at first with some of the boss fights, it’s not going to punish you for losing. Even a “loss” is a moment to gain experience, recover, and push forward, both in the game and in reality. This positive and continual reward for engaging is a powerful motivator.

It’s hard to say how long I’ll stay with Ring Fit Adventure. But I have no desire to let up at this point. I’m excited to get to the game each day. And even when the campaign is well behind me, I imagine I’ll still want to jog through certain beautiful courses, or take part in some of the custom workout routines you can build with accumulated Fit Skills, or dig into the more recently released rhythm game addition that I’ve barely touched so far. There’s a lot to engage with, and I hope it will be a long while before any of this begins to be boring or stale. For now, Ring Fit Adventure has made exercise a fun, daily part of my life, and I’m grateful for that.

If you can find a copy of Ring Fit Adventure for its original price, which was easy enough when I bought it a little over a month ago, then this is definitely worth it for anyone hoping for a fun and fantastic way to make exercise a part of your everyday routine.

Review: Dishonored 2

That Arkane Studios bundle continues to pay off. Dishonored 2 is both sequel and soft reboot to Dishonored, and it offered a bigger, better, improved experience in just about every way.

The biggest improvement for me is in characterization. Instead of another silent protagonist, you plays as a fully voiced returning Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to the Imperial Throne, or his Empress/protege/not-so-secret daughter, Emily Kaldwin. You’re partnered early with the mysterious, one-armed, one-eyed smuggler Meagan Foster, who takes the place of Dishonored‘s boat pilot Samuel, now deceased after the 15-year narrative gap between the games. Considerable time is spent in establishing your cast of allies and enemies. Even the best have their flaws; even the worst have their virtues, however small.

The plot is largely a repeat of the original game (and, as it turns out, its two narrative DLC extensions). The protagonist’s loved one is captured by the leader of a violent coup, and to save them and restore the rightful ruler, the protagonist must first perform several missions involving surveillance and the elimination of high-profile targets responsible for the current state of affairs. Later missions lean more into the occult with a focus on investigating and defeating a rejuvenated witch coven headed by Delilah Copperspoon, who is the principal agent behind the coup, claiming to be the half-sister of the deceased Empress Jessamine; Delilah seeks to bend the whole world to her will, motivated largely by a deep sense of betrayal from her youth (a story arc and an antagonist straight out of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). Dealing with a decomposing empire and navigating the gap between the most destitute and desperate on one side and the sheltered but paranoid elite on the other tonally matches most of the original game. And once more, you can chart a course between High Chaos (death and destabilization) and Low Chaos (mercy and nonlethal solutions). Something new is that you actually get to pick between Corvo or Emily as the protagonist to play through the game.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Corvo more this time around, now that he’s done with his implicit vow of silence, but I picked Emily. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the echoes of the original story would have felt merely redundant and derivative. By playing as Emily, the game felt more like a story about legacy. Emily must deal with the legacy of her father, an infamous figure who has taught her in the arts of defense, stealth, and assassination, and of her mother, whose death has created a void in her development. The young ruler we are reintroduced to at the start of the game seems like the perfect action-fantasy heroine, someone born of privilege and entitled to rule but deeply bored with the role and with the requirements of courtroom protocol, instead preferring to sneak out and explore the city. Rather than an admirable trait, the game gradually shows us that this is actually evidence of a ruler who failed to rule. While she was well-intentioned, she inadvertently allowed great suffering and inequity in her empire because she failed to pay enough attention. In my (predictably) Low-Chaos run, Emily’s choices led her to gradually understand the importance of real leadership–and that she had to earn the right to rule; she was not just entitled to it.

As is now the standard for Dishonored games, the setting was incredible. While the beginning and ending missions are spent in Dunwall, most of the game takes place in Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, a city known as “The Jewel of the South at the Edge of the World.” Both Corvo and the assassin of former Empress Jessamine hail from Serkonos. It’s significant to the world, exporting its culture, foods and spices, and most significantly its silver to the rest of the Empire. Where the rest of the world has become overly dependent upon whale oil, which is at this point in the game’s history declining in availability, Serkonos benefits from the use of wind energy, with wind turbines large and small powering a variety of devices throughout the capital city. Karnaca nonetheless finds itself in decline. Where the former duke was well-beloved and worked to improve equality, his son is decadent and self-indulgent. He has stripped away the burgeoning rights of workers in the silver mines, and he taxes heavily to fund his personal projects. His interest in the occult led to the resurrection of Delilah, and he is the main political supporter of the coup and placement of Delilah on the Imperial throne. Karnaca is a place full of bitter, desperate people as a result. Serkonos and Karnaca are apparently inspired by southern Europe and the Caribbean, producing a very realistic yet unique culture. The corrupt and brutal Grand Guard roam the streets, extorting shopkeepers and assaulting strangers. Fishmongers and butchers and whalers work along sloping cobbled alleys with bloodied water seeping down to the docks. A former sanitarium juts from the rocks off the coast. The upper classes live in colossal estates along the periphery. Black market shops operate in abandoned buildings. The horrid buzzing of bloodflies (an oversized combination of mosquitoes and tsetse flies and those flies that cause myiasis) fills filthy apartments overrun with the flies’ mud-dauber type nests and blood amber-infused hives. And as per usual, journals and notes and book excerpts and newspaper articles and graffiti are found everywhere, providing further insight into the state of the city and the world. The city feels alive, seedy and hot and exotic and miserable.

While artwork has always been another tool that Dishonored has used to further detail the world, I was really impressed by many of the paintings I came across. Paintings in the game seemed to encompass parallels to Neoclassical and Romantic art in our world, except for the energetic, colorful, at times slightly abstracted works by the magically gifted Delilah. Many of the more traditional paintings found detailed little myths and legends that added to the tone of the game though never appearing anywhere else. And there were, of course, drawings by children–or the childlike, including one rather bad self-portrait by the conceited Duke of Serkonos.

The game offers some gameplay and design improvements over the original. There is more movement allowed when peering around corners. There are far more nonlethal take-down options, and a Low-Chaos play style that is focused on aggressive incapacitation of opponents is quite viable. Instead of having to get any upgrades or equipment purchased at a central hub between missions, black markets provide options in each level. And Dishonored came out in 2012, while Dishonored 2 released in 2016, so it goes without saying that the sequel looks much better and feels more realistic to navigate. It’s really fun to play, much like Dishonored–perhaps even more so than the original. I played on Hard mode because it was described as tailored for those familiar with Dishonored. This was accurate. The game never felt unfair or insurmountable, and I’m glad I picked the slightly higher difficulty setting.

I mentioned much earlier that Dishonored 2 was a soft reboot. I make that argument because while it builds out from a Low Chaos-ending to the original game and its DLC extensions, it does not really require any understanding of what came before. And by echoing the plot of those earlier stories, it basically tells a more intimate version of those same stories, only this time with more voice-acting, more explicit plot developments, clearer themes, and more diversity in representation. Normally, the choice to do the “good” or “right” thing is very easy to make in video games, but here, many of the antagonists are so awful that it is understandable to want to kill them. By choosing another option, by finding another way, many of these people still meet cruel fates, but it still requires an active performance of mercy, if not forgiveness, and greater effort to produce the nonlethal solution. Learning more about the politics and personalities of Serkonos and the Empire made decisions matter more. And the opaque occult realm of the Outsider is explored in greater detail, making it ever more complex and bizarre. Even simple concepts implied in the original are made explicit in the sequel; just as one example, the supernatural heart used to provide helpful hints and to detect occult items in the original makes another appearance, but while some of the musings of the soul within the heart and the voice used were the only things to clearly suggest that it contained the soul of Jessamine in the original, it is explicit in the sequel and her residual spirit is a major plot point. (The original also made Corvo seem a tad uncaring to rely heavily on this device without ever attempting to converse with it, while playing as Emily in the sequel provided an opportunity for closure with her mother. It would be interesting to see how a voiced Corvo reacted to the heart in this game, though maybe not interesting enough for me to do a Corvo run through the game.) The original threw out a lot of ideas that were not really explored, and the sequel picked up those ideas and ran with them.

I should note that I finished playing Dishonored 2 over a week ago. Since then, I returned to Dishonored to play the DLC, to try to learn more about the past of Meagan’s alter ego, and to try to understand Delilah more. I got some answers, but the adventures of the assassin Daud within the expansion are not vital to the story of Dishonored 2. Certainly the sequel builds on the framework set down by the DLC, much like it builds on what the original game provided, but familiarity with the DLC story is not required. Most interestingly, it is clear that Dishonored 2 actually took and improved upon a lot of features from the DLC, new ideas in gameplay that weren’t present yet in the original. I’ve also started Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, which so far feels like a tighter, slightly simplified version of Dishonored 2 that is heavily dependent upon an understanding of the earlier game’s story to be fully appreciated. In fact, Death of the Outsider leans more heavily on plot points from the first game’s DLC as well, and as a result, it feels like a game made particularly for the fan of the franchise’s lore. Certainly the gameplay could be picked up by anyone, but the attention to lore might make this somewhat inscrutable to someone new to the Dishonored setting. All that to say, Dishonored 2 is easily the game I’d recommend for anyone who wanted to give a Dishonored title a try. Thus far, I’d deem it the high point of the series, while working well as a standalone title.

Retrospective: Dishonored

I actually got Prey in a bundle of games from Arkane Studios, so with that title completed, I spent the past week with Dishonored. It was very interesting to go from Prey, a game released in 2017, to Dishonored, released in 2012. I’m actually amazed by that time jump. I remember hearing a lot about Dishonored when the first game came out, and that’s now about 8 years ago! It seems like it was just last year. Anyway, the interesting thing about taking this leap of 5 years back in time between games is that it gives the impression that features are being stripped away. Of course, that’s just a result of the developers building on features they’d already established, taking advantage of their existing foundation and newer advances in technology to build a better game. Yes, I think Prey is the better game. I absolutely loved my time with it and greatly enjoyed the story, characters, and setting. But I do see how much Prey owes to Dishonored, from the basics of stealth/combat/superpowers defining divergent play styles to the presence of an evolving world divided into zones.

The highlight of Dishonored, for me, was the setting. Dunwall is an interesting city, clearly inspired by a steampunk take on nineteenth-century London. The presentation of a city, and a nation, struggling with the spread of an epidemic against the rise of a violently oppressive dictatorship certainly feels timely, as well, even as it fits naturally within a setting inspired by English history. The glimpses of a larger world, largely dominated by a scattering of islands that have submitted to the rule of an Empire based out of Dunwall, with a fabled Lost World landmass that has defied colonization across the sea, feels fresh yet familiar. We are offered a unique fantasy world, vividly portrayed through environmental narrative (clothing, technology, architecture, art, the wear and tear on the city, the contrast between the remaining wealthy enclaves and the crumbling poorer districts overrun with those infected with the plague) and the usual copious excerpts from books, essays, maps, audio logs, and so on. It is clear enough that the industrial-fantasy world of Dunwall is directly responsible for the eventual creation of the radically different, retro-futuristic world of Talos I.

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We also see the same sort of moral choices in Dishonored and Prey. The moral system of these games can be boiled down to the presence or absence of empathy. If you work to save survivors in either game, your actions are rewarded in the long run. Dishonored has a greater emphasis on sparing your opponents and finding alternative solutions to eliminating targets that avoid killing. I tend to prefer the Good story paths in games anyway (I suppose part of my escapist power fantasy is being able to make the world a better place, to make good and principled decisions even in horrible situations), but I really enjoyed how pursuing less-violent paths encouraged engaging with the game’s systems and levels more. I went out of my way to explore the map to pursue nonviolent, or at least nonlethal, approaches.

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On a related note, while I wasn’t afraid to kill in the game, I generally tried to avoid it. I actually never finished a mission without taking a life, but I definitely tried to avoid a large-scale battle. One could certainly play the game in the manner of open combat, if they were seeking a more chaotic world and darker ending. But the nonviolent approach to any situation was typically more interesting and challenging. In fact, I saved frequently, and many of my copious reloads were not because of player-character death but because I’d triggered a large fight and ended up killing a lot of guards. Finding another, better way–which sometimes just involved careful timing and generous use of the protagonist’s special powers–was almost always quite satisfying.

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The powers themselves have a firm narrative purpose for existing. Similar to Prey, they have sort of an ominous origin. Instead of being cultivated from a ravenously destructive alien species, they are given to the hero by “the Outsider,” some sort of supernatural entity who mostly seems motivated by amusement in the conflicts of mortals. A major faction in the game, the state religion, was largely organized to root out practitioners of the dark arts provided by the Outsider. The hero is simply gifted these powers that many others commit terrible rituals to obtain. While at first it’s easy to view the church’s opposition to the Outsider’s followers as nothing more than a fantastical version of the cruel witch hunts of Europe’s actual history, the apparent evilness of so many of the Outsider’s most devout disciples becomes more apparent later on. By the end of the game, I didn’t particularly care for those who followed the major religion or for those who practiced black magic, and the Outsider himself seemed bored with and disgusted by many of his own purported adherents. More than just a magic system, the powers in the game were connected with some very murky thematic waters.

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The actual plot and characters, however, were weak points. You play as the always-silent Corvo, Royal Protector to the Empress, who starts the game returning from a failed diplomatic mission to the other islands. There is no known cure for the Rat Plague infesting Dunwall, and no aid is coming. Corvo is greeted by the precocious young Emily, daughter to Empress Jessamine, and passes by several other royal advisors who prove important to the plot. Upon delivering his news to the Empress, who is clearly quite fond of him, assassins with special powers arrive to disarm Corvo and assassinate Jessamine. They abduct Emily, and Corvo is framed for regicide. Much of the game is spent dealing with one or another group of conspirators, clearing Corvo’s name, and saving Emily. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are interesting, but it’s largely conventional and reliant upon some tired tropes. Characters come and go, and the recurring ones don’t really interact enough to develop particularly memorable personalities. Still, the fun in this game is actually playing it, experimenting with the tools at your disposal and bouncing strategies off the level design and enemy AI.

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There’s certainly the opportunity for a lot of replayability. There are various collectibles in each level and challenges of remaining undetected and avoiding any kills. Then, of course, there are the different endings to the game and the smaller fluctuations to each level dictated by who lived and who died in earlier levels. It’s not the sort of thing that excites me, but there’s certainly an open invitation to return to the game again and again, down to the option to replay a level immediately after its completion as you view your final level stats. I spent a mere 15 hours making my way through the main campaign (in contrast to the 31.4 hours in Prey).

I had fun with Dishonored. I don’t know whether I’d appreciate it more or less without the context of how it was the foundation for, and was ultimately surpassed by, Prey. But it was worth the time.