Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!

Abandoning Vampyr

Having wrapped up Little Dragons Café, I figured I’d finally make an effort to finish Vampyr. I overall liked the story, and I liked the game’s themes, even if I was frustrated with the gameplay and my own technical issues with the game.

Earlier this week, I booted up Vampyr. And the game immediately fell into a chugging pace. Even stepping forward caused substantial stuttering. It was a dreadful mess, a slog of choppy frame-rates just to get up the stairs of the protagonist’s hospital base. And I realized that it just wasn’t worth it for me to finish the game.

Yes, I gave five minutes or less and abandoned the whole project. But I just wasn’t willing to keep pushing through. I played through a substantial portion of the game. I had unlocked 50% of the game’s achievements. I had mostly found my time in the game rewarding. And I would like to see the end of the story. But it just seemed too painful and frustrating to push on through.

From the reviews I’ve seen, it would seem that I’m not alone in encountering technical issues with the game. I’d say that my experience has been in the minority and on the extreme end, though. It’s hard to say where the game’s issues end and where my own computer’s issues pick up. I’d say my computer still runs most things great, but I do spend most of my PC gaming time playing older titles. I built this rig in 2010, so it’s not quite a decade old yet–but that’s a fairly long time for a computer. I’ve upgraded parts occasionally, but the last significant improvement was probably four years ago.

The computer does what I need it to do. And I’m rather fond of it. I’m not going to build another one soon. I’m not going to buy another one soon. So I might finally be reaching the point where my days as a primarily PC-focused gamer are at an end, outside of exploring older titles that I missed or returning to my favorites. That’s fine. Even with my most recent lackluster Switch gaming experience, I’ve still at least somewhat enjoyed everything I’ve played on the console. Some of my favorite games ever have been on that console already. And I like the console itself rather a lot.

Maybe eventually I’ll get a more powerful console or a newer PC. But right now I’ll just allow myself to complete this pivot to Switch-focused gaming. There’s already quite the backlog of games on the console that I want to try out. And it just so happens that Vampyr is making an appearance on the Switch sometime in the second half of the year…Maybe I’ll pick it up for the console and give the game another try with some distance (and the hope that it will be optimized for the platform).

For now, I find that my thoughts after 36 hours in the game remain much the same as they did when I wrote my initial impressions: it’s fun, it’s flawed, and–if you don’t encounter frustrating technical impediments–it’s worth your time.

Closing the Book on Little Dragons Cafe

I did not write a blog post on Sunday because I was on a mission for much of that day. My mission, unfortunately, was to finish Little Dragons Café. While I have a feeling of relief at having finally closed the chapter on this game, I’m mostly disappointed by what could have been and frustrated with the tedious grind of the final third of the story. (If you haven’t already, please check out my initial charmed reaction to the early sections of the game and my reflection on my eventual disillusionment.)

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I was actually engaged for a good portion of the game. Even when I didn’t want to care for some of the characters, either because they start out as such unrepentant jerks or because they seemed like simple anime stereotypes at first glance, I ultimately found almost everyone who came through the cafe doors to be endearing. I loved Billy, Ipanema, and Luccola, and I loved the playful, teasing, sometimes mean yet ultimately loving dynamic between them. Poncho the cowardly child warrior is adorable and incredibly sweet once you get his whole story. Celis has a great arc, moving beyond her witch-supremacist, anti-human bigotry. Huey’s hilarious and energetic; Chou Chou, despite being a pop idol, deals with a lot of guilt and insecurity in the wake of achieving stardom when her other companions did not; Ginji is a badass master thief questioning his life choices. The runaway Rosetta was somewhat annoying to me, but her story had a nice resolution that left her in a better place after forcing her to reconsider past events–in fact, most characters are left in a better place after being forced to reconsider past events, typically through the combination of compassionate prodding by the cafe staff and one really good meal.

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But the final few characters were unappealing to me. Miere is a famed fortune teller whose fortunes are all obviously garbage. She believes the world’s ending. The most amusing and interesting thing about her is that she has supreme confidence in her fortune-telling ability because she predicted when she was young that all her predictions would be true. Miere doesn’t really have a resolution, though; she never really recognizes her flaws. She just decides that maybe she can change fate with enough good luck, and she decides to continue her fortune-telling. Lanche is a child vampire, a trope that’s been done to death and is always a little disturbing to me; rather than focus on how disturbing it is to be stuck as a child forever, her story is about coming to terms with her pre-vampire memories. In this way, Lanche is just like Maurice, a ghost from earlier in the story who must come to terms with the memories of his own departed past life. I didn’t like Maurice (his main character trait is being annoying), so to see the character type return didn’t improve things for me. And it meant that we’d had a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire show up. Finally, Dr. Zeff is a mad scientist who must be convinced of the value of his own humanity, and of humankind in general; in this way, he’s just a freakish and grumpy repeat of Celis’s arc.

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I’ve talked about the characters a lot, and even the weaker, redundant character stories toward the end of the game will probably stick with me for a while. In a way, each character story was like an episode or small arc in an anime, representing side adventures that are only loosely connected to the larger story. That larger story never really built to anything here. For all the talk of draconic bloodlines, the game fizzles out in the end. The final chapter, in which you now have a fully matured dragon that can take you all about the island, is an incredibly boring series of fetch quests.

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The failings of the plot are really on display by the last section. Your journal tells you how to trigger plot developments, but it’s frustrating that the plot can only be advanced one day at a time, basically by being in the right place at the right time (augmented only by the collection of a recipe and preparation of a special dish for each of the visiting characters). By the end of the game, with my cafe reputation maxed out and all my attention on concluding the story, the plot was still advanced at a slow trickle. The story advice was basically a perpetual recommendation to go to sleep. I quickly gave up on the cafe entirely at the end, choosing to just sleep as soon as the day’s cinematic or island scavenger hunt concluded.

It’s not as though I really cared about the cafe by the end. You never really get much better at what you’re doing. Your staff doesn’t improve. Despite the magical growth of the inn, the cafe itself stays small and cramped. The controls remain frustrating (in all things, the controls remained frustrating, with substantial lag for tasks like flying or jumping). Your success and increased reputation is just marked by more customers, such that if you stay to help the staff, you can devote the entire day to the most tedious of grinding as you hop between taking orders, serving, and cleaning up. There’s very little strategy to it all; there’s no true management. You just hop in and develop a system for yourself and hope that you don’t have to interrupt your coworkers’ slacking all too much. In the final third of the game, my time in the cafe was a mind-numbing repetition of the thought cycle, Take Order – Place Order – Serve. It worked for me, and on days that I was there for the majority of the time, the customer base would often be satisfied or happy. On days I helped a little, customers would often be okay. If I skipped out entirely, to focus on the other mind-crushing reality of ingredient gathering, I’d often get reports that the customers were outright disappointed.

And I should emphasize that ingredient gathering never gets better or more interesting. You remain a perpetual forager. I developed a routine of hitting up spots that most consistently yielded needed ingredients, hoping for a good randomized production. Occasionally disrupting the routine to check for any newly washed-up recipe boxes was hardly all that refreshing.

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By the time my dragon was fully mature, I knew most of the areas with debris that couldn’t be destroyed earlier. I knew the one tall section on the mountain that I still couldn’t fly to. And I knew the one bridge I still couldn’t cross. I tried to do all the things I couldn’t do earlier, and it took me about a day in-game (I still couldn’t cross that final bridge). I had this powerful dragon with this amazing ability to engage in high-soaring flight, and there was very little for me to do with it.

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Closing out the game at the very end was anticlimactic. There was a lot of speechifying about the power of friendship and love–although there was still a lot of dry humor, with Billy in particular really lampshading the campy tropes and ridiculous coincidences used to reach an ending. The credits rolled (with game stills that reemphasized the canonical dragon of the game to be red, in contrast to my adorable blue boy). A handful of lovely storybook images showed the revival of the mother. Then you’re dumped back in the game with the ability to change the dragon at will between its sizes, by way of some new recipes. I tried the final bridge once more, and I still wasn’t allowed to cross it. I was burnt out on the cafe and the ingredient collection. I’d explored everything–well, if not everything, all that I wanted to see. There were presumably lots more recipes to gather (especially by way of combining dragon forms to get to tiny hiding holes in far-out places) and to then practice, but there was no driving reason to engage with any of that. I cannot foresee any reason to return to the game now. And while I mostly liked the story, I know that its final third is simply not worth revisiting again, and the rest is probably best just left as fond memories.

As I prepared to write this review, I tried to look into the mystery of the final bridge. Best theory seems to be that this bridge just symbolizes the mainland where everyone comes from to eat at the cafe. Given that the island across the bridge seems fairly small and the world around the island is mostly covered in water, this purely aesthetic insertion is mostly annoying to me and felt misleading. It’s the promise of more where there is none. That’s the whole game, really: the promise of more, and the failure to deliver.

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It turns out, I discovered, that the game probably feels emptier than it should be precisely because it is: many elements that would have given a fuller experience were cut. Lead designer Yasuhiro Wada told IGN that about seventy percent of what he had originally planned for the game was cut from the final version, adding that “there are parts that were cut out that feel like a waste to cut out from the game.” Those features include much greater customization of your cafe, your protagonist, and your dragon (including, it would seem, features that would have allowed the dragon to specialize in certain activities, which certainly would have made it more useful to me); a fuller experience for the cooking rhythm game; and additional characters and plot points. That last one really sticks with me: the story feels incomplete and rushed toward the end as-is. Wada wants a sequel that incorporates many of the above elements (and presumably even more); as much as I was disappointed by this game, I’d love to see a follow-up that more fully delivered on its potential.

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Hey, if nothing else, the return to the dragon-pal simulator got me in the mood for more dragon-pal fantasy, and The Dragon Prince Season Two is right around the corner!

My Five Favorite Games in 2018

It’s the end of the last day of January 2019, so I suppose I’d better get around to a retrospective on my favorite video game experiences of 2018, if I’m ever going to do it. Coming up with my five favorite games in 2018 proved difficult. You’ll notice it’s not five favorite games of 2018, which would have substantially limited the playing field. Rather, it’s the games that I played in 2018, which was still rather difficult. Looking over the reviews I posted over the year, I found that (a) I really hadn’t played all that many games in 2018, and (b) many of my video game experiences were downright mediocre. In fact, because I didn’t do a list like this for 2017, I’m bringing in Super Mario Odyssey to round things out, even though I wrapped up my experience with that game in December of the year prior.

So, in order of preference, more or less, here it goes…

5. Star Wars: Battlefront II

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No, not that one. The 2005 one, of course. I still have a lot of fun playing this game, and I’m beginning to suspect that I may never fully tire of it. I don’t care that it’s getting older. I still load this up when I just want to have fun. And believe it or not, this title, released over a decade ago, had relevance once more in the past year, as it received new patches for renewed online multiplayer in late 2017 and early 2018. So all in all, it’s just as good a time to hop into the game again (or for the first time) now as ever.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

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It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s sprawling, and it can be challenging. There are lots of collectibles–many of those collectibles, like outfits and hats, are rather fun to collect. It’s colorful, quirky, and weird. It’s a damn good Mario game and a damn good platformer. It was the first game that I played for the Switch, and it instantly made the console worthwhile.

3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a Super Smash Bros. game, you should like this. A huge roster of fighters, a variety of game modes, and a colossal pile of stages give any gamer more than enough content to work through, and there’s more to come. It’s flashy and addictive in single-player. It’s brutal (for a horrible player like me) but still fun in online multiplayer. And local multiplayer matches are still a blast.

2. 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

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This was a game I encountered by accident, and it was a deceptively simple and surprisingly rewarding game to play with a rich narrative spun out of chance and my own efforts at cross-generational success. This was a beautiful game, and I’m only disappointed that the planned series to follow seems unlikely to ever manifest. And this is also a really cheap indie title, so you really have no reason not to give it a try!

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I’m not a Zelda fan. I loved this game. It’s not only my favorite game that I played in 2018, it might be my favorite game ever. As I’ve said before, BOTW is a “massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).”

And so concludes my list. What were your favorite gaming experiences in 2018? And what video games are you looking forward to playing in 2019?

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I can start my return to this site off really easily: I got Super Smash Bros. Ultimate over the holiday break, and I like it. It is a good game. I also really suck at it. That is all.

Just kidding; of course I have a lot to say. But I’ll temper my reaction a bit, as there’s no reason for thousands of words on a game that has already been played and reviewed and combed over a great deal already.

I’ll try to limit this to pointing out what I really like. (What little I dislike is mostly trivial.)

I like that the game starts with the original roster of characters from the first game on N64.

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I like that the roster rapidly expands, with new challengers appearing in reaction to your own experimentation with the game modes. Play Smash, play some of the side games, play the Spirit Board, and you’re bound to rapidly unlock new characters.

I like how many new characters there are to unlock.

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I like that many of the new characters are fun to play as, and that the old characters are worth revisiting. I like that I was shaken out of some predictable play patterns–at least some of the time. Pikachu has always been, and will always be, my go-to fighter, no matter how many times I’m steam-rolled in an online match.

I love the wide variety of game modes to play. I like the different in-game currencies that encourage you to play different game modes. The game’s interface seems inspired by mobile games, with a constant drip of content that encourages constant engagement and micro-management. The Spirit Board is a mode where you can unlock new support spirits to power up your fighters; spirits rotate out on the board over time. You’re thus encouraged to attempt to unlock spirits while they’re available and to check back regularly for new spirits. It’s a good way to hop in for a quick challenge. Likewise, there’s a shop where you can spend another type of in-game currency to obtain a rotating assortment of extra items, spirits, Mii costumes, and music.

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I also like the Adventure mode. It offers a broad, overly dramatic story that quickly becomes inconsequential to the actual events of the game. But I like the sprawling map exploration, the JRPG-like roaming of an over-world as you hop from battle to battle, the gradual grind and collection, the varied challenges, the overarching sense of purpose. I haven’t played the Adventure mode all that much yet, but I’m turning more attention to it.

I like playing with friends locally and online, though the online aspect still has a lot of refinement to go. While lagging seems less and less frequent, it’s still infuriating when it happens. And there’s not yet a way to play couch co-op while also playing with your online friends–although I believe that this will be implemented. I have less fun in the quick matches with strangers, but I’ve never had that much fun with multiplayer games. And let me point out, again, that I really suck at this game. There are only so many times you can get your ass served to you before it gets a little old, and I’m past the age and lifestyle moment where I could devote enough time to the game to GIT GUD, even if I wanted to. But online play can still be fun!

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To reemphasize, I like that there’s so much to do, so much to try, so much to collect. There are so many fighters, spirits, costumes, levels, game modes, and songs. There’s a whole virtual jukebox built in to play all the songs that you’ve unlocked. And since I will remain fervently casual with the game, it’ll be a great experience to keep coming back to, to play with friends or to poke around in during special events. I’m not tired of the game yet, but when I inevitably become tired with it, I’ll be okay with putting it down and coming back to it weeks or months later to pick up where I left off. It’s a progressive improvement on the franchise, and it really appeals to nostalgia. There’s a lot of love for Nintendo’s game history here (and for many other classic video game properties, at this point).

This is a good game, and yet another indication that Nintendo is knocking it out of the park with the Switch and its first-party game releases.

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Starting to be a Vampyr

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays, as is my custom, but I also started a new game: Vampyr. I like Dontnod Entertainment’s games, I’d had my eye on this title for a while, a good friend had been strongly recommending it since its release, and it was on sale over the holiday, so it was easy motivation to purchase at that point. (And I wanted to play something other than Little Dragons Cafe for a while.)

I’m still fairly early in the game, but I like it. It’s flawed, but it has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s clear what the developers wanted to do with it. In many ways, it reminds me of Remember Me: it’s a game overflowing with ideas and intentionally crafted themes, a game that promises openness but doesn’t fully deliver, a game with a satisfying but maybe over-developed combat system. The dialogue system in the game is especially interesting; there are often robust dialogue trees, but it always feels investigative rather than interpersonal. Even when you unlock a secret and probe to learn more, the game presents this as using vampiric power to coax the user into speaking; you’re not getting closer to the speaker, but instead you’re stripping more valuable information away from a target. It’s lonely being a vampire, and that dialogue system adds to the loneliness–you’re isolated and poorly understood, even when surrounded by others.

So far, my biggest complaint is that I’m experiencing long loading times and a fair amount of lag when passing through area transitions (and sometimes in combat), despite substantially lowering the graphics settings. To be fair, that’s likely just an issue on my end; my computer’s getting close to a decade old, with only fairly minor upgrades since I originally built it. Still, while I don’t have the technical expertise to assess how this compares to other games, it does seem like even fairly recent games of comparable size and appearance have played more smoothly for me.

Interestingly, the game echoes certain plot elements and themes of Interview with the Vampire. I suppose some of that comes with the nature of a pseudo-historical fiction starring vampires, but a lot of the same motivations and goals drive the protagonists in both works. That’s the sort of thing I might want to write about more later–given sufficient motivation, and after completing at least one ending of the game.

For now, I’m just enjoying my time as an angst-filled vampire.