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‘Final Fantasy XV’, Game Preservation, and Evolving Art

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Hajime Tabata – the director of Final Fantasy XV  recently announced that Square Enix will be tinkering with the story of the game both in the short term and in the long term via free updates. Updates aren’t unheard of in 2017. Games are frequently patched on day one to fix all of the things that probably shouldn’t have been broken in the shipped product in the first place, and sometimes, games are patched before they’re even released at all. I’ve played multiple games in my capacity as a reviewer that have received updates before the release date has hit – sometimes numerous updates – meant to fix problems that the developer either identified once the game went gold, or that they knew about before they shipped it and decided to just sort out down the road. Then once the game reaches the public eye, reaction to the title might prompt further updates from the developer to fix bugs, mess around with balancing issues, or even add in new features at the behest of the community.

The software that ships on a disc is no longer the final version of the product, but while the fixes and updates developers traditionally apply to their games are mechanical or feature-based, the latter of which are generally devised as a method of extracting a little more profit from games that are already on the market, Square Enix is proposing a far more drastic set of updates that will significantly alter the narrative of Final Fantasy XV in order to improve it over time. This intention, while ostensibly noble in the desire to improve an already sold item for no profit in the name of what is presumably artistic integrity, is interesting, exciting, and troubling in equal measure.

At its core, the driving force behind creating a piece of art has never really changed. The artist wishes to create something, be it visual, aural, or another singular or combined form of sensory stimulation, for the purposes of evoking some kind of emotional response from the consumer. It doesn’t matter whether the words of Shakespeare are printed on parchment, a cheap paperback, or emblazoned across the side of a double-decker bus – the original artistic statement remains unmolested, and only the distribution method has been altered.

Backstreet’s back, alright!

As the powers of our technology have increased exponentially over time, so too have the options afforded to artists when considering how they would like to disseminate their art amongst the populace. When the first, ancient Greek thespians began performing plays for the inhabitants of small villages, live performance was all they had. Today, acting is still performed in theatres in a method analogous to those early dramatic performances, but we also have radio plays, television mini-series’, and Michael Bay movies. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristophanes would have found it inconceivable that in the year 2017 a popular method of dramatic storytelling would be blowing things up in slow motion while Linkin Park songs play in the background but then I suppose many of us living through it today are equally dumbfounded. 

Importantly, technology has given us the gift of recording entertainment for consumption in the mass market. While many will lament that listening to John Coltrane on Spotify while you’re driving to work will never compare to sitting in a smoky jazz club in New York in ’63, the fact remains that our ability to capture performances and distribute them to people who might otherwise have never been able to experience them is one of the great feats, artistically speaking, in our history. Evolving technology has allowed artists to reach more people than ever before, from recording movies to film to eventually dispersing comic books across the Internet to be downloaded to a smart phone in the blink of an eye, preserving the work of these artists in perpetuity, to be passed on to later generations long after the creator has passed on. 

But for all of the advances in technology, storytelling, be it via giant CGI robots fighting while Megan Fox pouts, or old men in robes standing in a village square reciting sonnets for an audience, is philosophically the same as it always was. The village squares have been replaced with IMAX and overpriced nachos, that’s all. 

“Yeah, so really, it’s no different to King Lear, except we filmed Megan Fox bending over a lot.”

Video games are a relatively new form of entertainment, and though many would still deride gaming as being bereft of artistic merit – even famed movie critic Roger Ebert once famously opined that games would never be art – the fact remains that gaming has proven itself as a viable art form in the handful of decades since Pong first appeared in arcades. People scoffed at movies back in the early days of cinema as a form of entertainment for the peasants and the plebeians; scores of poor dullards, transfixed by shiny moving pictures on a big, bright screen. Rock and pop music were similarly dismissed by critics at their inception, while classical and jazz were considered the connoisseur’s choice for aural delights. As the older critics retired, they were replaced by younger versions that had grown up enjoying these once stifled genres or art forms and as a result, movies and rock music became more popular and more respected; the dinosaurs had to die out in order for art to evolve.

Part of the reason that those largely unfamiliar with video games seem to struggle to accept or even fully understand what video games are is that the medium is wholly unlike most other forms of art that appear in mainstream culture. Books, movies, music, comics, painting, sculpture, theatre, and most other appreciated and respected art forms are entirely passive mediums, but video games are not.

It doesn’t matter how many times you watch Back to the Future, where you watch it, who with, or the size of the screen you’re watching it on. Nothing changes about the movie between viewings, and while the company you keep might make the experience altogether more enjoyable on a particular screening, or a noise outside might ruin it for you on another, the piece of art remains stoic. The same can be said for most traditional art forms. Video games, by their very nature, are entirely different because in order to meet the criteria for the definition they must include some form of interactivity, however slight that may be. 

“It’s your kids, Marty! Something’s gotta be done about your kids! They’re still waiting for Final Fantasy XVI!”

Interactivity is an odd beast because one can never truly know what another person is going to think or do. A skilled director can make sure that the story beats and emotional highs and lows of a rip-rollicking 1980s time travel adventure movie hit all of the right notes, but even the most seasoned video game director can’t anticipate when the player will accidentally walk their avatar off of a cliff. The role of the player is integral to the success of the artistic statement at the core of any video game, and it’s in this regard that gaming as an art form is relatively unique.

While many video games strive to replicate the thrills and spills of an action movie, interspersing gameplay sections between cut-scenes that elaborate on the narrative, some embrace the interactive nature of the medium to spin unique yarns that couldn’t be replicated in a passive medium. A game like BioShock, for example, couldn’t resonate to the same degree as it does were the story translated to the silver screen because the narrative of the game is so intrinsically tied to the very idea of interactivity and player agency. As a movie, BioShock would be an interesting, dystopian adventure with a little to say about the nature of morality and a distinct whiff of Ayn Rand. As a game, BioShock offers a thought-provoking commentary on the nature of control that is widely regarded as one of the shining examples of how gaming as a medium can push buttons that other art forms simply can’t touch.

Video games also differ from other forms of art because, as the most recent major entertainment medium, they’re at the forefront of technological advances in ways that other art forms haven’t yet fully embraced. Traditionally speaking, once a movie or a book or an album is released, it exists as the objectification of what the creator deemed to be their artistic vision at that moment in time. OK Computer by Radiohead sounds exactly the same today as it did back in ’97. Once the artist’s brush leaves the canvas for the final time, their painting is finished, and it will never change barring disaster, erosion, or vandalism. There are examples of artists changing their work over the years – be it the seven various cuts of Blade Runner, or the Harry Potter books being re-released with illustrations, but for the most part, once a piece of entertainment has been released, those responsible for it move on to other projects.

If I ever win the lottery I’ve always thought I’d get a massive statue of myself built outside my house, too.

Video games were – before the advent of the Internet – analogous to movies, only in interactive form; once they were released to the public they were a finished article. The Internet has afforded video game developers unique opportunities as an art form. If the world created by the developer contains an error, or if a little too much action on-screen causes the game’s frame-rate to struggle, the developer can conceivably alter the code and then deploy a patch to be downloaded – automatically by today’s consoles – that will then change the experience for the user without them having to actually do anything. Between playing a video game one day to the next the title could have been changed, perhaps subtly, or sometimes overtly.

There are examples of creators trying similar ideas within different mediums. George Lucas has been routinely eviscerated by many among the Star Wars fandom for years for frequently and – let’s face it – unnecessarily changing aspects of the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas seemed determined to bring his sci-fantasy movies kicking and screaming into the modern era of cinema by adding obnoxious CGI creatures to scenes that resulted in the films looking every bit as natural as a baseball cap on a medieval statue, annoying long-time fans of the franchise in the process.

What was most important about George Lucas repeatedly altering the Star Wars movies of the ’70s and ’80s was that it became increasingly difficult to get a hold of the untouched, as released to cinema versions of those movies as VHS, DVD and eventually Blu-Ray copies tended to only include the post-tinkering versions. Lucas was, for all intents and purposes, rewriting history; he was removing his original films from mainstream, readily available circulation, and replacing them with his new artistic vision. People might have been disappointed with his changes to what are beloved movies, but few would go to the lengths of tracking down original VHS copies of the films and hooking up a VCR just to watch them for the sake of not having to deal with a few badly implemented CGI additions to what is largely the same picture as before. In effect, the new versions of Star Wars have overwritten the originals in the eyes of most.

From Star Wars to Kanye West: quite literally, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Similarly, last year Kanye West released his latest album, The Life of Pablo, but since then he’s been systematically changing songs – tweaking mixes or in some cases adding or removing guest vocals or entire tracks – and for those listening to the record on streaming services like Spotify, the version that was first released is no longer available. For those who bought a copy of the album on compact disc the music contained within it has never changed, but in a world increasingly reliant on the Internet and streaming for their entertainment needs, whatever The Life of Pablo was upon release has been forgotten in favour of whatever version Kanye West decrees to be the most up to date one.

The Life of Pablo and Star Wars are prominent examples of evolving art; pieces of entertainment that have been refined or tarnished – depending on your perspective on the matter – by creators that have perfectionist mentalities and access to technology that allows them to fulfill their compulsive desire for improvement. But what of preservation, and of the importance of retaining the original work of art, as it was at the moment of its completion, and as it was enjoyed by people at that time. For somebody that had never seen Star Wars since 1977, reflecting on their favourite aspects of the movie with someone seeing it for the first time in 2017 would be an odd experience, as a favourite moment as enjoyed by one of the people in question might not even be present in the version that the other person watched. Case in point, my favourite track on The Life of Pablo wasn’t even on the original version released to the public.

Imagine that Leonardo Da Vinci had somehow discovered the secret to immortality, and in 2017 he decided that he didn’t like the Mona Lisa any more and he wanted to give his old painting a spruce up. That’s his prerogative as an artist. Ultimately, he created the piece, and if he wants to change it then he should be allowed to alter it as he sees fit. But what would the world lose once he had changed it? As a piece of art the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the history of our species, but in the blink of an eye it could cease to be, replaced by a painting that regardless of its eventual quality, would exist at the expense of the revered work that came before it. It’s hard to know where the balance between freedom of artistic expression and the preservation of important works of art should lie, and that’s the difficult quandary that video games face if Square Enix’s changes to Final Fantasy XV become something that other studios embrace going forward.

“Alright Leo, I see what you’ve done here. Just a couple of minor quibbles…”

While the most prominent example of the refinement of video games via post-release patches is the fixing of bugs or DLC adventures sold at a premium, there are examples of a studio altering a game in order to improve the narrative before now. The most famous example of this was when Bioware changed the ending to Mass Effect 3 after the original conclusion to the trilogy resulted in heartbreak and uproar from many of the most ardent fans of the franchise. Commander Shepard’s final hurrah was widely considered to feature an ending that was at best somewhat rushed and overly brief, and at worst a confusing, cynical and anti-climactic mess. Bioware responded to the fan backlash by offering a free update to the game that didn’t change the ending of the story conceptually, but did elaborate and further explain many aspects of it, as well as offering greater closure to the story of Shepard and the rest of the prominent characters in the series.

In essence, Bioware didn’t alter the story of Mass Effect 3 in any meaningful way. What they did was alter how that story was delivered to the player in order to make it more palatable to the fanbase. Square Enix is proposing numerous updates to Final Fantasy XV going forward that seem destined to radically change the story of the game in light of what many people critical of it deemed as a somewhat disappointing narrative. In order to satiate those gamers, and for the studio to live up to the high standard expected of a game bearing the Final Fantasy name, Tabata and Square Enix want to add to the game and subtract from it. By the time they’re finished, the title will likely be a very different creature to the one that most of us played late in 2016.

As somebody who played Final Fantasy XV and largely enjoyed it, but thought that the story of the game was muddled, badly delivered, and featured numerous characters whose motivations were never really clear, I do wish that the game had shipped with a more refined narrative. But at the same time I recognize that Final Fantasy XV is, culturally, a very important game, thanks in part to the legacy of the series going back to the 1980s, and in part due to the troubled nature of its development and the weight of expectation levied upon the game because of it. Is it not important to retain what Final Fantasy XV was upon release, so people can look back and see how the story of the development of the game eventually paid off?

Mass Effect 3’s original ending paid a disservice to a cast of characters that many gamers had grown to love over the course of three games.

For those who bought a copy of the game on disc, they’ll forever have a time capsule version of Final Fantasy XV that serves as a reminder of how the game shipped in 2016. And after the updates come, all they’ll need to do is delete the game from their console, and reinstall it without patches to play the game as it was released. But in a world in which many gamers are switching to digital distribution as their method of choice for purchasing video games, any changes made to the narrative of Final Fantasy XV and delivered in patches will be automatically included in the download file of the game going forward. Effectively, for gamers who buy digital, the original version of Final Fantasy XV will cease to exist, and the new version – whether it’s better or worse than what came before – will be all that’s available.

As gamers move ever closer to fully embracing the all digital future of video gaming, this sort of post-release updating of games will, presumably, lead to many original versions of games being lost to time. We can still plug the original Final Fantasy cartridge into an NES and play it as it was intended to be played back in 1987. By the time Final Fantasy XVI or XVII hits, will physical media even exist beyond part of limited edition packages released solely for collectors? And will updates result in video games evolving over time at the expense of the version of the game that came before, with each reinvention of the title causing the previous iteration to be lost in the electronic ether?

As somebody who creates on a semi-regular basis – as a writer in various forms and as a podcaster – I can understand the regret that comes with finishing a project. I’m writing this article at this very minute, and hey, I know it’s not exactly Michelangelo putting the last lick of paint onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the final scene of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when Rufus plays that kick-ass guitar solo, but it’s a creation none the less. It’s a piece of writing that will eventually be sent to an editor who’ll pretend to read it, publish it, and then get back to watching funny dog videos on YouTube. Hours later I’ll be giving it a read over to reflect upon it – mainly to see if there’s any comments on the article being mean about me – and I’ll see a sentence that’s awkward or goes on way too long or is overly loquacious or features too many redundant non-sequiturs or there’s a fancy word used incorrectly or it’s perhaps just a little too meta for its own good, and I’ll think to myself that I could have done a better job than I did.

This isn’t the Michelangelo I was talking about, but if I’m honest, I prefer this one.

It’s an uneasy feeling that comes with the territory when you’re putting anything that you’ve worked on out into the public eye to be judged. You can be proud of something, perhaps even elated if you believe that the work has turned out better than you’d ever hoped it would, but you’ll rarely escape the niggling feeling that there’s something, anything, that you could have done a little differently that would have made it better. I write articles about video games and I get that feeling. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like creating Star Wars and then wishing that you’d made Greedo shoot first.

Anybody who has ever created anything, whether it’s a movie script you’ve written or a finger painting you made when you were in school, can understand that feeling, however small, however inconsequential, that you could have improved it. And so it’s easy to sympathize with the artist that revisits their work in order to refine it and get it a little closer to their artistic vision. But at what cost?

Video games are here to stay, and in thirty years time they’ll be far more respected as an art form than they are today. Video game historians will look back at the period of gaming that we’re living in with the same reverence and intrigue that many movie experts have for the early days of talkies today. Gaming is evolving, and growing, and the boundaries of the medium are forever being tested, be it by seismic changes to control like the kind being spearheaded by many Nintendo products over the years, or by challenging what the nature of a video game can be as with titles like Gone Home or BioShock.

When those historians look back at our time, it’s incredibly worrying to think that when they talk about the infamous, tortured development of Final Fantasy XV, they might not be able to lay their hands on a copy of the game as it was released, but will rather have to settle for an updated version that was finished whenever Square Enix stopped patching it. For bigger games like Final Fantasy, this might not be a huge problem as physical copies will undoubtedly survive, and copies could be made going forward. But for games released digitally, evolving art is an exciting prospect for consumers looking for titles that will improve over time, and a terrifying concern for game preservation, and the importance of art as a reminder of a time long since passed.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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Games

Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

Gaming has its fair share of subscription services, but with its flexibility and clarity, Apple Arcade could be among the very best.

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Apple Arcade

Gaming has moved beyond consoles and physical storefronts. The past few years have seen the birth of ambitious new projects like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, which aim to change the way you play your games. Apple has now entered the fray with a subscription service of its own, Apple Arcade. This might look like little more than yet another effort from a major company to capitalize on major trends, but in reality, this new project has the potential to be the best gaming subscription platform yet.

So…what is it?

Apple Arcade is a basic concept: for $5.00 per month, you gain access to an expanding library of games that can be played across all Apple devices, including Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad.

Compared to other subscription platforms out there, Apple Arcade is refreshingly simple. Unlike Xbox Game Pass, you don’t need to spend extra money to play your games on additional platforms; for that one monthly price, every game can be played across every one of your Apple devices. And unlike Google Stadia, a solid internet connection isn’t required to play your games. Every title on the Arcade can be natively downloaded onto the device of your choice and played regardless of the strength of your WiFi.

Apple Arcade

The mention of iPhone and iPad may have already set some readers on edge – after all, the gaming community can’t agree on much, but it has generally determined that mobile games aren’t always the best. They rarely provide the same caliber of experiences as console or PC games, so why would anyone want to spend a monthly fee to play a bunch of mediocre mobile games?

However, Apple Arcade is intensely curated to provide a high quantity of stylish, memorable games from some of the most respected creators in the field. For instance, famed indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive are fully on board, with multiple exclusive games planned to launch with the service. That’s not to mention the sheer number of highly anticipated indie games like Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens that will be included in the Arcade. Appple’s website promises that more than 100 different games will be available to play over the course of the launch period this fall, so if the game library can keep up this quality, then it could be promising indeed.

Image result for sayonara wild hearts gif
Sayonara Wild Hearts is just one of the many incredibly stylish indie games of Apple Arcade.

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

It seems like every company and their mother has a storefront nowadays. Ubisoft, Blizzard, Epic, and even Rockstar have all debuted platforms of their own, while Google Stadia is trying to remove traditional platforms entirely. In such a crowded environment, how can Apple Arcade possibly stand out? Simply put, Apple Arcade is already set to be the most flexible and easy-to-understand gaming subscription platform yet.

Every one of the many subscription platforms out there touts its “flexibility” in allowing you to choose what games to play and where to play them. Apple Arcade does the same thing but with one major difference: less limitations. As mentioned earlier, each game can be downloaded directly onto your device, and with save data being stored in the cloud, progress can be carried on between every one of your Apple products. Meanwhile, platforms like Google Stadia effectively shut down without constant WiFi access.

Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade offers a lot of games on a lot of platforms for a low price

In terms of price, Apple Arcade continues to stand out. For $5.00 a month, you can play over a hundred unique titles. Compare this with the $15.00/mo price of Xbox Game Pass or the $10.00 subscription price of Google Stadia Premium, and Apple Arcade easily comes out on top (that’s not to mention that you still have to pay for Stadia games individually on top of the monthly fee). For reference, a year of access to the more than 100 games in Apple Arcade costs the same as the retail price of a single triple-A retail title. You won’t need to invest in a new controller either, since PlayStation and Xbox gamepads are fully supported.

Even when it comes to the games included, Apple Arcade should stand out from the crowd. Stadia may already have some massive third party blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 and DOOM Eternal, but they don’t offer much incentive to be played on Google’s streaming service instead of traditional consoles or PCs. On the other hand, Apple Arcade’s low price point and more practical flexibility offer a compelling reason to play games on Apple’s service instead of purchasing them individually on other platforms. That’s not to mention the handful of exclusives available at launch or coming soon after, from famous minds like SimCity creator Will Wright and the father of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The world of gaming certainly has more than its fair share of subscription services. Yet Apple Arcade stands out for its clarity, its accessibility, and its remarkable library. With these factors combined, it could become the very best gaming subscription on the market.

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Games

Sirfetch’d is the Leek ‘Pokémon Sword’ Needed

Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically, has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

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Sirfetch'd Pokémon Sword

Ever since we were chasing pokémon around the tall grass of Johto, it was obvious that among the Kanto pokémon given evolutions, Farfetch’d was the one that had been forgotten. A pokémon with more dishes than moves, Farfetch’d had the usability of a fork scooping water, becoming a time-dwindling nuisance due to its rarity. Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

Sirfetch’d is easily one of the best-designed pokémon for Pokémon Sword and Shield that has already been announced. With a sword and a shield made from its previous garnishing, and a prideful stance that oozes confidence, Sirfetch’d genuinely looks like the next stage of evolution from the woefully inept Farfetch’d. What we don’t yet know is its stats and, as a consequence, what tier it will be in competitive gameplay. But what we do know is it will be a fighting type with the ability steadfast, much like the fellow knight Gallade. Its signature move, Meteor Assault, will be debuting in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which inflicts heavy damage that forces the user to recharge the next turn.

Farfetch'd and Sirfetch'd
Farfetch’d and Sirfetch’d

The announcement of Sirfetch’d only creates curiosity as to who its opposing pokémon will be in Pokémon Shield. It’s doubtful that there will be another evolution for Farfetch’d, as Sirfetch’d is shown already in command of a shield, so the play on sword and shield will not feature in a twin evolution. The likelihood is another pokémon that has been neglected for so long, and in dire need of a renaissance in the franchise; something like Dunsparce from generation two would be ideal, considering that, like Farfetch’d, it manages to be both rare and pointless.

What has made the addition of Sirfetch’d and some of the other Galar region pokémon so appealing is their alignment with the inspiration and theme behind Pokémon Sword and Shield. Sirfetch’d breathes the nature that the games are trying to convey, but so does Corviknight in its chivalrous demeanor. Crucially for Corviknight, it’s another hint at a Victorian England inspiration behind Pokémon Sword and Shield; the raven in the Tower of London is as iconic as the factory chimneys that tower above Galarian form Weezing. Even the possessed teapot is taking a less casual approach to the stereotype.

But honestly, it’s quite charming to see so much inspiration derive from a region of the world. Kalos was inspired by France, but the only pokémon that conveyed a French stereotype was Furfrou, which feels like a missed opportunity in hindsight. If Pokémon is to continue using regions of the world as the inspiration behind their generational games then, from what we’ve seen so far, Pokémon Sword and Shield could be ideal templates.

Impidimp
Impidimp in all its unwanted glory.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any poor designs. The two legendaries, Zacien and Zamazenta, are the rather generic canid legendary pokémon. Rolycoly looks like the love-child of Beldum and Minior, while Impidimp looks like it fell off the pages of a lost Atom Ant storyboard from the sixties. However, if there weren’t contemptuous new pokémon in Pokémon Sword and Shield, then the games would exist without reliable antagonists; getting through Pokémon Moon without the humorous Bananarama Dugtrio would have been an emptier experience. That is why it is easy to accept an Impidimp as long as there is a Sirfetch’d.

This is partly why it is easier to look forward to Pokémon Sword and Shield than it was to Pokémon Sun and Moon. There was a slight drop in pokémon design quality from X and Y to Sun and Moon, while so far, the designs in Sword and Shield have improved from Sun and Moon. The announcement of Sirfetch’d only confirms that designs have at least been slightly improved and we can await with great anticipation for what pokémon the opposing exclusive will be in Pokémon Shield.

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PAX West Indies 2019 (Final) – feat. ‘Indivisible’, ‘Shovel Knight Dig’, and more

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Pax West 2019 Indies

After plenty of PAX coverage, I’ve finally got the last of the indies out of the way! There were too many good games to cover this year; hopefully you were able to find a few that caught your eye!

Indivisible

Indivisible is a game that, at this point, needs no introduction. From the creators of Skullgirls comes a new gorgeously 2.5D-animated game that seeks to bring back the gameplay popularized by Valkyrie Profile. After a successful crowdfunding campaign back in 2015, Indivisible will finally be releasing this October, and it’s shaping up to be worth the wait.

A pastiche of Southeast Asian mythologies, Indivisible’s story follows Ajna, a girl who sets out on an epic adventure to discover the origins of her mysterious powers. She’s joined by a colorful cast of heroes, each of whom possesses unique abilities that will help her both on and off the battlefield. Lab Zero’s signature 2D animation shines even brighter against a vividly designed 3D backdrop. Ajna’s world comes to life in a stunning array of colors and motion as you explore extensively detailed vistas and delve into fast-paced action-RPG combat.

With Skullgirls under their belt, developer Lab Zero is no stranger to game polish. The team brings back their fluidly stylish sense of design with a game that just feels good to play. While there are bits of platforming here and there, the real meat behind Indivisible lies in the combat.

True to Lab Zero’s fighting-game background, Indivisible calls for fast-paced strategic button-mashing as you control four characters in battle. A combination of button inputs, stick directions, and proper timing makes all the difference between hacking away at your enemy and truly comboing them down for big damage. You can’t just randomly button-mash, however. Each character has limited actions on your “turn”, so you need to be judicious with how you fight.

This game looks and feels pretty incredible; the four years in-development have clearly been well spent. With their release right around the corner, Indivisible is shaping up to be one of 2019’s most anticipated releases, an accolade that’s well-earned.

Bravery Network Online

If there’s one thing that Pokemon shares in common with Smash Bros., it’s that the competitive community has evolved far beyond the original scope. Pokemon Showdown, a browser-based Pokemon combat simulator, developed a strong following of players who wanted to do away with the fluff of catching and training to focus purely on the battles. Bravery Network Online is the result of a hardcore Showdown fan looking to to take the game even further that that.

Bravery Network Online is stylishly flashy, with an aesthetic that perfectly suits the punchy combat. Players pick from a pool of combatants, each with their own set of unique moves and stats. One of the big differences between BNO and Pokemon is the lack of type-effectiveness. Strengths and weaknesses are instead based around more of a binary “type” system of physical vs. technical, which still manages to keep the strategy of Pokemon types without their cumbersome granularity.

The other key difference in BNO’s combat is the “Flourish” mechanic. As your fights progress, you build up charges that can be stockpiled and used to augment existing abilities. These added bonuses might come in form of extra damage, higher hit rates, self-heals, etc. While BNO is undoubtedly built on the Pokemon framework, it’s different in all the right places to make it stand out as an evolution to the decades old franchise, rather than a copy of it.

Shovel Knight DIG

Ya know him. Ya dig him. It’s Shovel Knight, baby.

The Shovel Knight series has been the darling of the indie gaming scene ever since he first dug his way into our hearts more than five years. It’s not hard to see why: beyond the stellar gameplay, inspired by games like Mega Man and Ducktales, Shovel Knight himself is a helluva mascot. His striking design is up there with the best of them, and Yacht Club’s sense of style and color come back in spades with Shovel Knight Dig.

Unlike previous games in the Shovel Knight franchise, Shovel Knight Dig focuses on vertical movement rather than horizontal. The name says it all: your primary objective is to dig down, collecting treasure and smiting your enemies along the way. Skillful platforming is still required, but the inclusion of dirt blocks in Dig makes for some neat twists on the traditional platforming action. If Shovel Knight is adjacent to a dirt block, you can tap the “dig” button to rapidly shovel through blocks in one of the four cardinal directions.

The freestyle digging mechanics mesh wonderfully with the traditional action platforming. Yacht Club is a master of gamefeel design, with every step, every jump, every swipe of the shovel flowing smoothly from one input to the next. Shovel Knight Dig speeds up the pacing with enemies and environmental hazards that actively chase you down. Once you get into the rhythm of the mechanics though, you’ll find that digging comes just as easily as breathing.

Journey to the Savage Planet

Part No Man’s Sky, part Aperture Science, Journey to the Savage Planet has players embark on an intergalactic journey at great peril to their own wellbeing. You take on the role of an employee at Kindred Aerospace, rated 4th Best Interstellar Exploration Company, who has been dropped off on an uncharted planet in the faraway recesses of the galaxy. Either solo or with a friend, you’ll venture out into this savage wilderness and tame it for the benefit of all humanity (and a paycheck).

While it’s an FPS, combat takes a bit of a backseat in Journey to the Savage Planet. The demo at PAX featured two different enemy types, small rotund birds and flying electric jellyfishes, that acted more as environmental hazards than real threats. Savage Planet’s primary focus was on exploring, and the game gives you plenty of tools to do that. Set in a colorfully lush alien world, you run, jump, and zipline all across a wide expansive map as you chart out the unknown terrain. Fans of the Metroid Prime series will also enjoy the “scan” mechanic, which allows players to take a deep dive into their surroundings to uncover more about them.

Journey to the Savage Planet has a distinctly goofy feel to it that’s embodied in much of the game’s presentation. Your employer, Kindred Aerospace, makes a point of assuring you that you (and they) are galactic pioneers, charting out a course for humanity. Never mind the shoddy equipment, thinly veiled questionable business practices, or utter disdain for native flora and fauna. Journey to the Savage Planet also features co-op play, so you can trample on this lovely alien world with your friends!

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Games

‘Majora’s Mask’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Stone Temple Tower

I will be looking at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This week is Stone Temple Tower.

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Halfway through my analysis of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo unveiled an adorable chibi-clay “reimagining” of that game for the Switch. In celebration of its upcoming launch, I will turn my eye from the strangest, darkest, most surreal portable Zelda to the strangest, darkest, most surreal console Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Majora’s Mask is arguably the Zelda game most open to hermeneutic critique, as its narrative themes run deep but somewhat vague, and it’s wholly original structure feels like postmodern art compared to the conservative story and character arcs of nearly every other Zelda. In this series, I will be looking specifically at the dungeon design of the 3DS version of the game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. While this version makes several changes to the Nintendo 64 version, some of which are rather consequential and controversial, I am choosing to scrutinize this version because it is probably how most players currently play the game (plus, it’s the version I own that isn’t hundreds of miles away at my mom’s house). In this entry, I will be looking at the game’s third dungeon, Stone Temple Tower.

Stone Temple Tower

Stone Tower Temple’s name is a bit misleading, as it is more of a temple at the top of a stone tower than a stone tower itself. In fact, Stone Tower Temple is the least vertical of the four main dungeons, consisting of only nine rooms across three (but essentially two) floors. Aesthetically, the dungeon is premised around its stone theme, which is admittedly less inspired than Woodfall Temple, has less potential than Snowhead Temple, and is less vivacious than Great Bay Temple. Most of the dungeon dabbles in greys and browns which can get a bit bland, however they do lend the dungeon a visual clarity that is absolutely essential given Stone Tower’s unique navigational complexities. For example, a drab color scheme makes hidden elements, such as a treasure chests on the ceiling the player can grapple to, stand out from the backdrop. While occasional flourishes like wall sketches and the giant face in the main room lend the dungeon a bit more character, it would have been nice if this character came through more prominently in at least the rooms where visual clarity isn’t a necessity.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

The dungeon’s layout may be where it shines brightest, as it plays equally well rightside up and topsy-turvy. This is a magnificent design feat that bests the previous year’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night at its own game in several regards. Aside from this famous inversion mechanic, the dungeon holds up incredibly well on a room-by-room basis. It houses some of the toughest puzzles so far, the most difficult and intentional platforming, and the most intricate combat scenarios. Moreover, the dungeon features some surprisingly varied use of the Mirror Shield in its first half (though angling it precisely can get tricky in a couple rooms), as well as fairy placement that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Great Bay Temple. The only downside to the fairy placement here is that since a couple are placed in well-hidden nooks and crannies, the player may have to flip the dungeon a couple extra times to find their last fairy or two, and that flipping process is grating. The aforementioned treasure chest grapple points should also be noted, both in how they ask the player to reconsider the salient properties of treasure chests, and in how they act as both a platforming mechanic and a reward. All of this said, it can sometimes be difficult to find the way forward when the player has to transition between levels, as the dungeon map doesn’t much help the player navigate its intricate layout. This is another instance of where the game could have benefited from a 3D map that more clearly gave the player a sense of how the dungeon’s different levels connect. In a couple moments, such as locating the upside-down treasure chest needed to reach the final boss door, the treasure chest is so well-hidden that many players probably hit a wall. It should also be noted that having to play the Elegy of Emptiness to weigh down switches so many times gets tiresome, makes backtracking especially obnoxious, and never feels like it is used to its full potential.

Stone Temple Tower, Majora's Mask

This flipping mechanic is the dungeon’s central gimmick, and while it is an incredible accomplishment in its own right, it also plays into Stone Tower Temple’s concern with perspective. Indeed, the player will find themselves actively searching almost every room of the dungeon multiple times from multiple angles, asking themselves what a room might look like upside-down or mentally bookmarking something currently out-of-reach knowing there may be a reward to reap there later. On a deeper level, this flipping mechanic instills an increased spatial awareness in the player that in turn inspires speculative, curious, perspective-conscious thought. It takes the dungeon’s three dimensions and adds another dimension to it, rewarding players who are especially observant and attuned to abnormalities. In many ways, the Zelda franchise has not seen this form of inspired dungeon design since, with even Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts failing to match the poignancy and immediacy of understanding how flipping a space upside-down impacts layout and traversal. Almost twenty years later, Portal is the only game that come to mind as matching Stone Tower Temple’s ability to recontextualize interior space in such a way that the player has to reevaluate that space from a totally unique perspective in order to play most meaningfully. While flipping is used expertly for navigation, it would have been great to take this one step further through enemy types, bosses, and more puzzles that integrate this mechanic (though this was likely technically infeasible on the N64).

And while the dungeon does not feature its own unique transformation mask, it uses the three from previous dungeons as well as those dungeons ever do. Actually, Goron Link is used to withstand heat (along with rolling), which many players may not even know is one of its unique abilities because it’s not required in Snowhead Temple. Meanwhile, Zora Link is used is for both swimming and underwater combat in areas more spacious (and therefore more suitable to the mask) than Great Bay Temple, and Deku Link is brilliantly integrated into a room with air currents of various power. On the whole, each mask is arguably used better here than in their respective dungeon, though not nearly as thoroughly (especially in combat, where masks are almost never required to fight a specific enemy). Having one multi-stage mini-boss that utilized all three mask types, for example, would have further integrated these transformations cohesively, and having them relate more directly to the dungeon’s flipping mechanic (such as swimming Mario Galaxy-like in a floating pool of water) could have pushed the masks and the dungeon’s central gimmick one step further (though again…technical limitations).

light arrow in the Stone Temple Tower

The dungeon’s item are the Light Arrows, which are yet again just another variation on the basic Arrows earned in Woodfall Temple. Fortunately, their strength and high-rupee rewards upon defeating an enemy make them especially useful in battle, and they are also the key to flipping the dungeon. It’s unfortunate, however, that there isn’t much use for them outside Stone Tower Temple, and that they essentially nullify the Mirror Shield by allowing Link to always have access to light. Combined with heavy mask usage, the Light Arrows can also be a magic drain, meaning players unequipped with some form of magic restoration may have to occasionally farm magic. While the player gets more mileage out of the Light Arrows here than in Ocarina of Time, a couple more unique properties could have made them feel more like a distinct item rather than just powered-up arrows that nullify the Mirror Shield.

Stone Tower Temple is home to a whopping fourteen enemy types, which represent the best enemy selection in the game as a whole. While the dungeon may be lacking a distinct theme, each of these enemy types somehow feels at home, and is almost always placed in a manner that synergizes with a room’s architecture and specialized challenges. Furthermore, some enemies, like the Eyegore, are unusually formidable, while others, like the Death Armos and Hiploop, require forethought and strategizing uncommon in normal baddies. Overall, this is a fantastic enemy palette that represents the pinnacle of Majora’s combat.

Link firing a light arrow.

Fortunately, the three(!) mini-boss fights play only substantiate Stone Tower Temple as having some of the best combat in the game. The Garo Master and Gomess, the dungeon’s first and third mini-bosses, are intricate Souls-lite swordplay scuffles that emphasize defense, timing, and pattern recognition. They are some of the most fully-realized enemies in the entire game and each is far more satisfying, interesting, and enjoyable than some of Majora’s actual bosses. And while Stone Tower does feature another Wizzrobe fight, it is at least slightly more difficult than past incarnations because his warp points are harder to target and his attacks deal more damage. Still, if Wizzrobe were one of two mini-bosses instead of one of three, he would have been supremely disappointing. 

Majora's Mask combat

The boss fight against Twinmold is certainly grand and climactic, but it is also clunky and boring. The first phase has the player shoot at the eyes of a giant flying centipede while dodging another giant flying centipede. While it has a Shadow of the Colossus-like vibe and premise, it can be incredibly difficult to track both bosses at once due to the game’s camera, so Link is often pummeled from off-screen at seemingly random intervals. Unfortunately, the second phase of the fight, which sounds cooler, is even more aggravating. After donning the Giant’s Mask, Link grows massive in stature and learns wrestling moves that allows him to smack, grab, spin, and throw the remaining flying centipede. Unfortunately, a mix of slow movement, shoddy hitboxes, and a far-too-large health bar ultimately make this fight incredibly slow and repetitive. In the end, Twinmold is not the worst boss in the game, but it ends up feeling the most disappointing because its potential is so obviously sky-high.

As a whole, Stone Tower Temple probably features the most consistently satisfying, varied, and innovative gameplay in Majora’s Mask. While fans primarily remember it for its fantastic flipping gimmick, it is just as remarkable for its vast array of combat scenarios, tricky navigational puzzles, and shrewd use of all three transformation masks. Its aesthetic and boss fight might not live up to their potential, but in terms of sheer level design, Stone Tower Temple remains one of the most ambitious and remarkable dungeons in the Zelda franchise. If Great Bay Temple was an inspiration for the Divine Beasts of Breath of the Wild, we can only hope that Breath of the Wild’s inevitable sequel takes a cue from Stone Tower Temple and makes a similarly remarkable evolutionary leap forward.

For deep dives into other levels from Majora’s Mask, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.

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Game Reviews

‘Heave Ho’ Review: Us & Chuck

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Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise is a very similar task that involves swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. The game is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there are a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise involves the very similar task of swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. But Heave Ho is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there is a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Fingertips count in ‘Heave Ho’

There’s really not much to Heave Ho that warrants more explaining, as expressed via the world’s shortest tutorial at the beginning of the first level. Use the left analog stick for moving both of your character’s arms, press L or ZL for grabbing with the left arm, and press R or ZR for the right; that’s it. At least, that would be it, unless — and this is admittedly a somewhat niche bugbear — you’re a user of the neon red/blue launch Joy-Con, because their colors are flipped on the game’s assistance gloves. You can tell yourself you won’t be affected, but if you’re playing handheld and staring at bright blue and red in your own hands, you’re naturally going to associate those colors with the in-game hands.

A lot of the game feels flat solo, but these moments are still great

Upon acknowledgement of the incredibly basic controls, players are promptly (and literally) dropped straight into the level, left to fumble your way around the various objects and pitfalls en route to the goal. Striking a balance between careful, methodical navigation and reckless flinging is the key to success, with the former being more reliable and the latter being a hell of a lot more fun.

Heave Ho does feels a little forced in terms of its attempts at humor; it’s all very noisy, colorful and silly, which is obviously the point, and playing a game where you chuck a gangly anthropomorphic blob around with little-to-no coordination is never going to be the way to get your fill of sophisticated chuckles. I guess goofy wigs and obnoxious voices are funny to some people, but as the game gets harder and the challenges begin to frustrate, the humor is less of a mood lifter and more of an annoyance.

It all looks like fun and games here, but this world is horrific

The strength of a game like this will typically be measured in the number of laughs emanating from a packed living room, but its longevity will always be judged on how it endears as a solo experience. This is even more vital in the absence of online multiplayer, meaning you’re either playing with a house full of mates, or by yourself. I don’t have a house full of mates all that often, so the majority of my time with the game was playing solo, and that really doesn’t feel like the optimum way to get the most out of Heave Ho. The wacky, party-gaming hijinks sharply degenerate into a frustrating, often tedious slog when played alone.

The moments of intense satisfaction when nailing a long swing to a distant platform, or completing a particularly tricky level, shouldn’t be ignored, but they are too often mired by either boredom or anger. Easier levels require very little thought or technique to complete, and late-game ones are rage-inducing. This is exacerbated by the inexplicable decision from the developers to force players to complete all of an area’s levels in one run. There are no checkpoints after individual levels, so if you find yourself at a wall on the final level of a run and need a break from the game, you’re going to have to go back and complete all its preceding levels just to get yourself back.

I ain’t even gotta look!

This is a real mood-killer, and I found myself apathetically averse to trudging back through older levels to merely match the progress of a previous day’s attempts, especially when that previous day ended in frustration anyway. The type of game that Heave Ho is — one that builds itself on rapid-fire, bite-size challenges — just cannot benefit from forcing players into marathon sittings, especially when multiple people are required for optimum enjoyment.

Having online options would help, and it’s baffling as to why couch co-op and online co-op are mutually exclusive in some games. Playing an online game of Worms back on Xbox 360 was one of the most hilarious experiences I’ve had in any multiplayer game, and it’s such a shame to be denied even the potential for this with Heave Ho instead of being left to drag my tired fiancé to the TV for some forced hilarity. It might have been the worst possible litmus test for a party game, but were she writing this review it would have consisted largely of how “stressful,” she found it. I saw a few smiles, but perhaps the game isn’t as inclusive as it tries to present itself.

Two heads are definitely not better than one here

With the fiancé out of the potential player pool, I may bring Heave Ho out at a more receptive social occasion in the future, as the potential for communal hilarity is definitely there, but solo play is definitely not going to be something to engage in again. Perhaps if the necessary quality of life improvements were made — chiefly, being able to swap the colours of the assist gloves around and having a checkpoint after each level — then players might be more inclined to hammer away at it, but unfortunately, it’s likely to be just squirreled away as a potential curiosity rather than a go-to source of fun.

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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.

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