Recently there’s been a lot of discussion around Sekiro, From Software’s latest mysterious and beautiful action epic in (mostly, kinda) the lineage of the now seemingly ubiquitous Souls games before it. As is somewhat par for the course with these games, you’re thrust into an unforgiving world without a whole lot of preamble, given an increasing number of weapons and other tools that you’re tasked with figuring out how to best use to make progress as a lot of things attempt to murder you, and ultimately face a whole lot of difficult combat (and failure) as you make your way through tricky challenges, finely tuned and brutal boss fights, and the accumulation of small lore and story moments. Also true to form, there are a lot of people who aren’t happy with how difficult the game is, and they’ve gotten increasingly insistent that they should be able to play Sekiro how they want to play it, namely with an easy difficulty mode that negates at least a portion of the challenge and potential discomfort.
Those people are wrong.
Well, sort of.
Taking a stand in favor of the game existing as it does is a risky position. I know that I’m immediately going to be called a gatekeeper by many, as the immediate assumption is that any defense of difficulty is done from some competitive ego or a spirit of meanness. Neither of those things is true in my case, but I also get why someone would make that assumption. The Internet is full of jerks who are defending the difficulty of From Software’s games because they’re jerks, and they’re doing it like jerks. I get it. Those people are sometimes just bullies trying to keep themselves part of what they feel is an exclusive club of “hardcore gamers”, which is stupid for several reasons: firstly, because a quick Internet search tells me that over 13 million copies of the Souls games (including Demon’s Souls) had been sold by 2016, and that Dark Souls III was the best-selling game in publisher Namco Bandai’s history; and secondly, because the completion rates of the Souls games are not especially different from the completion rates of most games. Sure, they’re hard-ish, but people beat them with regularity, and then go on to do crazy things like no-hit run every single one of them in sequence. Okay, that’s not exactly the norm, but you get what I’m saying. The skill ceiling isn’t just getting through the games.
So there is no exclusive club, not really. We all know that anyone who had more trouble than they could stomach with most bosses in said games used the easiest and most obvious tool at their disposal: they played cooperatively and summoned other players to help out. This was fundamentally built into the products, so I have trouble with people who suggest that they are too hard (or that From intended them to be only for those with the chops to solo them—clearly not). Even when going it alone the difficulty is often overblown or misattributed purely to design, and while this has all changed with Sekiro, which is single-player only, that’s a matter for later discussion.
My point here is that most of the people talking about difficulty in these games are coming at it from all the wrong angles. Most are probably at least well-intentioned. The defensive gamers want From Software to stay on the same roll they’ve been on, making truly incredible games that seem fated to weather the storms of time for many years to come. They’re afraid that too much change is going to imbalance what has been some inarguably intricate design. I can fully appreciate that. On the other hand, the people demanding that there be changes that allow them to play what has been too difficult for them are only trying to open the games up to a wider audience so that they and others like them be better able to enjoy games that have become cultural touchstones all across the industry, both for developers who’ve learned from what they’ve done so well to the consumers who have purchased and enjoyed them. And all that to say nothing of those who have done deep dives to piece together the cryptic lore and other somewhat well-hidden details the games keep tucked away for the diligent. Of course, everyone wants to play these. They’re amazing games. Why would we look down on someone who just wants to experience them for themselves without smashing their controllers on the furniture?
That there is resistance to easing the steep difficulty climb, of course, begs numerous questions. Do we all have so little faith in From, who have proven themselves time and again, that we think they couldn’t successfully implement an easy mode? Do we really think there are some people who don’t deserve to play these games because they lack either the raw reflexive skill or determination to see it through? Is it actually that the difficulty is so wound up in the design that changes to it would change what makes it special? What’s the actual problem here?
I’m sure opinions vary widely, but I’m here to make a few arguments I’ve been hearing all too rarely that I think deserve a lot more attention than they’re getting. It’s much easier to simply embrace the idea of “everybody should get to play everything”, but I think doing so misses opportunities to better understand game design and the people who undertake it.
Not Everyone Needs to Play Everything
If ever I had an opinion that was unpopular, it’s this one. But hear me out.
Part of what makes people get angry at games and demand easy modes, to begin with, is the fact that they differ from other media. They’re interactive in a way most things aren’t, and that leads us to believe they can be (and perhaps should be) changed to suit us. That’s interesting given that we don’t have the same expectations of other forms of art. If we don’t like an action movie, we don’t think it should have a selectable option to watch a version of it with a better story, nor do we think that difficult books need to have a separate, low-level language option for those without the educational background or mental endurance to get to the end. We don’t ask heavy metal musicians to write pop music. We don’t ask abstract artists to start studying realism. If we don’t like what we see or experience in other forms of art, we tend to simply move on and say that those things aren’t for us.
And that’s the correct response to art. Not everything is for you, and not everything has to be. It should absolutely be okay that there are things you appreciate and might want to experience but can’t or don’t or won’t for any number of reasons. In fact, this can and does often lead to growth, where the desire to reach an experience and interface with it causes us to power through something we otherwise wouldn’t. Activities that get us to push our personal envelopes are usually worth the effort.
But of course, it can go the other way too, especially with games. I hated Shadow of Mordor because even though I loved what it was trying to do, and thought the Nemesis System was one of the coolest ideas I’d ever seen, it was button mashy and stupidly easy, rendering all of that work a total waste. I got a third of the way through and gave up out of boredom after stomping every challenge set out for me even after attempting to artificially inflate the difficulty by killing myself repeatedly (allowing the aforementioned system to give me some stronger bad guys). Which I don’t say to brag. I like difficult games and I don’t consider that a point of ego. It’s just a thing I happen to like. I also like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. Clearly, I’m in the minority on the Shadow of Mordor case, but that’s my point: taste is subjective, and it’s okay to like different things. Art that tries to be for everyone usually fails at being for anyone, and I don’t think most people have an especially difficult time wrapping their heads around that when it comes to art that isn’t games.
But games are, as always, another matter. If you want to see an opinionated group of people who believe that everything should be exactly how they want it, look no further than gamers. Whether that be because a game is too easy, too hard, has the wrong music, has great combat but bad level design, has beautiful art but not enough story, is too short, too long, too long in the wrong spots, is just the right length but has too much paid DLC, appeals to the wrong demographic—there is no end to the ways that gamers are frequently (and vocally) dissatisfied with games. They’re also often notoriously—ahem—high-spirited, and the Internet’s centrality to their existence makes them all the more susceptible to the alarming sorts of negative behavior we see when people feel protected by the haze of anonymity.
People demanding an easy mode in Sekiro are generally not the kind of people we’re talking about here, but that said, in this case, there’s one thing they have in common with their brethren on the other side of the spectrum: they think they know a lot more about game design than they actually do, and that often leads to oversimplification of what is a genuinely complex process.
Games can have problems, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have opinions about that. Having spent the last 20 years as an occasional game critic and occasional editor of games critics, of course, I’m not saying that. Sometimes the level design is bad. Sometimes the music does suck. Sometimes the dialogue does feel like it was assigned to an especially disinterested texture artist. Where we go wrong is thinking that we know just how every problem could easily be fixed if that lazy developer would just get off their collective ass and do the work.
Even if we can successfully identify the problem, rarely do we know as much as we think we know about a realistic way to fix it.
It’s Not That Simple: Difficulty Affects Design
To begin with, I’d like to point out a couple of things, the most important of which is that game development is brutal. That we have so many great games is almost a miracle when you look at what a lot of developers have to grapple with. Situations can vary from organized chaos to total bedlam, depending on the group of people doing the work (and who’s in charge of it), but even if you’re a small team of only a few people, there are a lot of moving parts that all need to be lashed together to create a cohesive whole. You’ve got a team of people, or maybe several teams of people, potentially hundreds of them in a dozen departments, making lots of different stuff that has to find its way into a single artistic work that can be packaged and sold, and then has to review well enough and get enough coverage to sell enough to be profitable. If you’re a smaller team, you probably have a somewhat easier time with communication and logistics, but you have more people whose opinions on the game need to be listened to and taken seriously, and team cohesion becomes as much about personalities meshing well as about complementary skillsets.
Making games can be a monumental task even when you’re making something fairly boilerplate, but it’s even harder when you’re trying to take a truly unique idea and make it a reality. As we’ve seen from the colossal failure of Anthem so thoroughly documented by Jason Schreier, there are a whole lot of different potential points of failure, and this goes for big AAA studios and indie devs alike.
I’m not making this preamble just to defend developers, but I do think it’s easy to talk trash when you aren’t sitting in a cubicle doing the work, and you’ll note that the vast majority of people talking about adding an easy mode to Sekiro are either people who have very little to do with games at all beyond being casual consumers, or are journalists who’ve never even tried to make a game. In fact, the number of journalists or journalist-adjacent folks making grand sweeping statements or inappropriate comparisons to other games has me incredibly frustrated. Frankly, they should know better. As I write this, I’m having a discussion on Twitter with someone who told me that because a couple of arbitrary roguelikes and DMC5 have difficulty levels, and because there are difficulty mods for Souls games on PC (to make them harder, I should note), this is unassailable proof that Sekiro could have an easy mode.
Where do I even begin with the problems in that line of thinking? Roguelikes and DMC5 aren’t even roughly comparable, not to each other and certainly not to games like the Souls games or Sekiro. DMC5 is closer, but it isn’t a quarter as deliberate and has wildly different forms of gameplay, environment design, pacing, and exposition. All of those things matter. I think you can mostly imagine why without undue explanation, but that isn’t even the most far-flung argument I’ve heard in terms of “hey, but this game had difficulty options” comparisons. I don’t want to throw too many people under the bus here, but my Twitter feed has been full of people (including a few game developers) making really bad comparisons about games nothing like what From Software makes, from developers nothing like From Software, and attempting to use that as proof that Sekiro can have an easy mode.
I think that lack of logic is pretty self-evident, so let’s take a look at something less obvious, like the aforementioned exposition. The way these games have told their stories is pretty unique, but it also seems at first glance like far and away the least important thing when it comes to difficulty. Story (and these games don’t have a whole lot of big cutscenes, but are fairly quiet to begin with) seems like it would have nothing to do with swinging a sword around or stabbing people and could thus all but be forgotten in a discussion of difficulty.
But it can’t.
One of the most beloved facets of the Souls games, and one of the reasons so many who haven’t actually played them would like to, are because of the interesting ways in which they relay world-building and background information. There’s little in the way of traditional storytelling. We don’t have dark overlords making long speeches about how they want to rule the world, don’t have heroes waddling into taverns and spending time talking with the locals about the latest in local villainy that needs a good questing. From’s games have instead opted for a drip-feed method, where character dialogue is (usually) a mere punctuation mark in the greater refrain, where in lieu of picking up a book on the history of the world or reading a short story or two like you might in an Elder Scrolls game, you read the description of a sword, shield, or fragment of bone buried in a menu, that has a single line about the land from which it originally came, or perhaps its previous owner. In order to piece it all together, you have to find many of these tiny, sometimes secret little moments, and your understanding of the larger whole gradually forms throughout the course of the complete experience.
The way that fits in with difficulty I think is obvious enough once you boil it down. One of the major drives for many players was a desire to interface with this sparse fiction, and it remains a frequently cited motivation. Not only does one get an inherent adrenaline boost and hit of dopamine for overcoming the challenge of defeating a major boss, which is obviously pretty satisfying, but one also then gets the opportunity to explore more of the world, to wander its geography and stumble upon more of those little moments that gently elucidate its many mysteries. You don’t just walk into a cave and kill a bad guy who gushes about all his bad guy stuff. You walk into a cave and find the glint of something forgotten, something that hearkens back to another bit of information you remember reading hours ago, and you slowly begin to draw connections.
Would that have been nearly as compelling if someone could simply have turned on easy mode and blasted their way around the world trying to find it all? Part of what made the item and information hunt so compelling was that it took effort and dedication to track it all down. I’m sure you and I can both think of various ways around that, like limiting which items you could find per difficulty, etc., but that’s yet more work tacked on to a developer that has limited resources in terms of time, money, manpower, and ideas. Plus a lot of the ideas sound kind of … well, not fun.
I’m not mentioning this because I think it’s an unbeatable obstacle, only that it’s an obstacle people don’t commonly consider, and these are the kinds of details that are easy to overlook. It’s not that adding an easy difficulty option is guaranteed or even likely to break a game, but in the case of these particular titles, the atmosphere surrounding them might have ended up worse for the wear, and that atmosphere is a huge part of what led to their success. Where would we be if all the mysteries had been readily accessible to anyone who wanted to flip the switch?
It sounds flippant, but I don’t think it’s so easy to write that off. These games had been building their strange aura since Demon’s Souls first introduced the concept of giving players virtually no information but allowing them to place notes around the world that could be seen by others online. It was genius, and an easy mode would have almost certainly trivialized its value. So too would the whole concept of the interesting brand of Souls co-op and competitive play, where players could be invaded by others online, or summon others to help them fight difficult bosses. What would the point of those systems have been if playing on easy simply kept you safe from invasions and there was no need to consider summoning others? Would a far larger number of players have played on easy to avoid being invaded, and if so, how might that have affected the online mechanics? Would an easy mode have simply left all that stuff intact, and would have people then been upset that it wasn’t so easy? Some chose to play offline as a form of opting out entirely, but that at least meant they weren’t able to summon others, or read online messages. There was still motivation to participate, even if you weren’t the “git gud” type, and there was a bit of risk/reward however you chose to approach it. It’s entirely possible that if From had decided during discussions that an easy mode was more important, those things would either have looked completely different or been removed entirely. It’s all speculation, of course, and maybe they would have found a creative way for them to work together, but my point is simply that these things don’t exist in a vacuum. All of these things have to be considered together, and generally are during the development process. These are undoubtedly discussions that circulated in boardrooms at From’s offices during the development of each game.
Difficulty Affects Design
There’s no escaping that difficulty affects design. It does in many games, and I think does so in From’s games more than most. The careful and deliberate way in which many of their boss fights have been built over the course of these 6 titles is not the sort of thing that’s easy to simply throw damage percentage changes at and call it a day. When developers create games, they spend a huge amount of their time thinking about how long things take, how much effort a player may need to invest in order to achieve a given task, what the payoff for difficult accomplishments is. And when it comes to combat in a game that focuses so heavily on it, the dance of what styles are available, when and how to block, stamina usage, and all those other systems just add another layer of complexity. Because the Souls games (unlike Sekiro) are role-playing games, you’ve also got stuff like encumbrance and varying stamina/health levels and loads of different weapons to consider. That’s a lot of stuff to keep track of when you’re making a tightly controlled experience, which is what these games are.
You don’t simply “make the game easier” without at least considering what fundamental changes may need to be made to achieve what you set out to achieve by making the game in the first place. Maybe you have some great ideas for how to implement different difficulty modes, but then again, maybe you don’t. From has made 6 games in this vein since before their popularity exploded with Demon’s Souls, and they haven’t added an easy mode yet despite the fact that Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed all but one of them, has openly said he doesn’t want difficulty to keep people away from his games. And yet here we are with Sekiro probably being the most difficult of all of them, and also widely considered to be a masterpiece.
If you check out any of Noclip’s fantastic documentaries (including a well-reasoned little rant from Danny O’Dwyer on this very subject that touches briefly on some more developer-oriented viewpoints), you’ll see a lot of discussions about design and balance, and in the case of Supergiant Games in Hades: Developing Hell, see a glimpse of the inevitable scramble that occurs when something ends up different in players’ hands than intended. Having multiple difficulty modes in some games can be very simple, but in others ends up being like tuning several different versions of the game, and that has to be taken into consideration. Having a throwaway easy mode for people who “just want to experience the game” seems great in hindsight when everyone already knows your game is great, but in the early goings that could potentially cost you in review scores and coverage if you haven’t put enough consideration into how that mode actually works. If it doesn’t retain the same magic, those players still won’t be happy, because they’ll be playing an inferior version of the game, and that can mean negative reception (even critically). What this really means is it’s great to have an easy mode if you can take the time to make it meaningful. And having hard modes is great too, so long as you can do the same with them and not just make the numbers impossibly huge. Any such mode needs to withstand the same scrutiny that your baseline experience does.
Take The Witcher: Wild Hunt. I played that on the hardest difficulty mode, not just because I wanted the enemies to be crazy hard, but because I liked the fact that it forced you to rely on what was supposed to be one of the core features of the titular witchers. They used crazy alchemical concoctions to deal with certain enemies and problems, but it had too often been my experience in the first two games that I could kind of ignore that stuff and just brute force my way through things. I restarted The Witcher 2 later on a harder mode that required more use of the witcher tools, and it was considerably more fun, and so it was no surprise when Wild Hunt felt similarly rewarding on the hardest difficulty. I had friends who gave me stories about accidentally killing things or skipping quest steps, where I had to very carefully track monsters, learn about their weaknesses, and plan accordingly. I reveled in that, and those distinctions were smart design. Many games with difficulty options don’t do nearly as good a job at distinguishing them from each other.
In fact, the Souls games have their New Game + modes, which I don’t find especially compelling, as they’re just a retread of the same content with the same character but everything has more hit points and does more damage. I’m not complaining because those games offered more than enough to satisfy me, but that’s one of the handful of complaints I have with them: a more nuanced hard mode with more interesting facets would certainly have added to their longevity. Here my aforementioned Twitter acquaintance and I agree, as he seems to think the Souls games are far too easy for repeated play, and he’d have preferred a more solid hard mode rather than having to mod difficulty into it.
Difficulty Options Are Awesome, and Accessibility is Not Difficulty
So before you call me a gatekeeper, understand that I support difficulty levels in games, and I wish we saw more of them. My ex-wife used to try to play a lot of things that were just too hard for her, and it was great when there were options so she could enjoy them. But that said, she never demanded that every game have one, or yelled on the Internet at developers who didn’t make those options available. It was generally easy to identify when something was just not made for a person like her.
None of us work for From Software, none of us know all the nuances of their creative process, and none of us know exactly how difficult it was to get the Souls games as well balanced as they’ve generally been. There may well be a lot of very good reasons for why these games still lack an easy mode beyond what seems obvious at first glance. I’ve played a rather obscene number of games over the course of my life, and very few of them have come close to giving me the kinds of experiences that From’s latest batch has. The number of finely tuned boss fights in Bloodborne alone is staggering, and I absolutely do not feel as though I am qualified to tell a developer that’s made such consistently good games how they should be changing their process. And while I do firmly believe that they could (in future, at least) add difficulty options that work well if they spent time in thoughtfully doing so, I also think they should make whatever it is they’re inclined to make in the best way they see fit under the set of financial and logistical limitations they’re under, all of which are unknown to me and to the vast majority of us. Because as we’ve discussed, even shipping a game that isn’t broken is a monumental task, let alone building and supporting something truly special.
I think if we as an industry have anything that deserves more focus, it’s on actual accessibility, not just making games easier or more difficult for people of varying skill levels. It’s entirely okay to make an easy game, like Clover’s brilliant Okami, which was intended from the start to have easy-ish combat and to be relatively stress-free, or to make a brutally hard game, like Dodonpachi or Ikaruga, the latter which includes an “easy” mode which would make most of the uninitiated wonder what the hell hard must look like.
What is a real problem is when there are major limitations in the way games can even be accessed. Input device support, controller remapping, making good design choices in regards to colorblindness or avoiding over-reliance on single-source pieces of information, and many other considerations are often overlooked, and can lead to a wholly different situation where you’ve made something that could be played as intended by people who simply can’t because of deficiencies in the interface, etc. That’s a conversation we’re only just starting to take seriously, and we’re seeing a lot of new creative work that’s taking it in great new directions, but it’s got a long way to go. Difficulty modes can certainly be part of that conversation but are by no means the most important part of it.
Ultimately, what I want people to understand is that things that seem simple at first glance often aren’t, and that when you make sweeping statements like “adding an easy mode would never affect your harder experience”, you have absolutely no way of supporting that statement. Adding an easy mode would totally affect the game, and those changes could be positive, negative, or more likely a mix of both, and would require a deft hand and thoughtful leadership to implement properly while still maintaining balance and vision. In the case of From Software’s Sekiro, I don’t think we would have the same game if the difficulty were allowed to be marginalized without some very careful and creative ideas. The balance is far too fine. Certainly something could have been done, but would it be the same game at the end of the day? Very likely not.
But Sekiro is also kind of an edge case, and this is not every game by any stretch. I love to see difficulty modes in games not only so I can crank the difficulty up to the max, but so when I want to recommend the game to friends I can do so with fewer reservations. But bad difficulty options have sometimes lead to easier modes that are less compelling, and people didn’t enjoy the games I recommended as much as I did, which is again why it’s important that these things get baked in from the start and not shoehorned in at the last minute. It’s all really on a case by case basis, as not every game can adjust difficulty in the same way, and these things take more time and thought than it seems most people believe they do, especially when it comes to critical reception and controlling (insofar as one even can) the experience the public at large will have with your game.
Every developer is made up of people with different development experience, overseen by different directors with very different ideas about design and what they want their games to be. This is at the heart of what art is, when it comes to games or anything else. You may not like that a game is too difficult for you, and I may not like when a game is too easy for me, but in the end, these aren’t our calls to make. We can certainly voice our opinions, but I do hope that we can do so going forward with less of an air of entitlement, and have a little more respect for the fact that crafting a game the caliber of Sekiro is an unbelievably difficult task, one that very few developers manage to achieve. If it takes having a single unforgiving difficulty level to make such an experience possible, that is a condition we should all be willing to accept.
Even if it means we have to give up halfway and watch the rest on YouTube.
‘Daemon X Machina’ – Spotlighting 2019’s Least-Hyped Switch Game
Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.
Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.
From the very beginning, Daemon X Machina has struggled for attention. It’s certainly not for lack of trying; after all, Nintendo has worked tirelessly to help promote this Switch-exclusive mech action game from Marvelous, even going so far as to position it as the first announcement of its big E3 Direct last year. Despite these efforts, though, Daemon X Machina has often been lost in the shuffle of other Switch exclusives. When there’s constantly talks of a new Animal Crossing, Zelda, or Smash Bros., an original IP like Daemon X Machina easily gets left out of the conversation. However, there’s no denying that it has some incredible potential, making it a game that’s certainly worth checking out amidst the crowded release schedule for the rest of the year. Now is the time to spotlight that ahead of its launch on September 13.
A good mech game doesn’t need to do much – it must simply provide the player with massive robot suits, near-excessive over-the-top action, and a story to help the game make at least a little sense. Daemon X Machina looks set to deliver in all three of those departments. It will feature a huge amount of flexibility to create the perfect mech, thanks to hundreds of interchangeable weapons and body parts, many of which can be scavenged from fallen enemies. With gargantuan destructible environments and hordes of robotic foes to take down, the combat looks to be as extravagant as some of the best action games of recent years. That’s not to mention the main plot, which focuses on the aftermath of the moon exploding. Yes, it does sound like ridiculous anime-inspired fodder, but a game about giant roots blowing each other out of the sky doesn’t need a plot that adheres to realism. It need only set up a somewhat-reasonable backdrop for intense mechanized combat, and in that regard, it’s looking like a recipe for success.
All these features are great on their own, but what makes them truly exciting is the pedigree behind them. Daemon X Machina is being developed by a dream team of developers who have worked extensively on some of the most iconic mech games ever made. For instance, the team includes Kenichiro Tsukuda and Shoji Kawamori, who respectively produced and designed the mechs for the legendary Armored Core series. This team aims to take the classic formula that made Armored Core and other classics so special and put it back in the spotlight with Daemon X Machina. However, that doesn’t mean that it will be merely derivative. It already displays a distinct personality of its own thanks to its ambitious gameplay concepts (again, exploding moon) and its distinctive cell-shaded visuals. Its striking color palette of bold reds, blacks, and whites shouldn’t be surprising, considering that its art is directed by none other than Yusuke Kozaki, who has worked on such stylish titles as the No More Heroes series.
If it achieves its potential, Daemon X Machina could be a godsend for its genre. While it would be unfair to call the mech action genre “dead,” it is certainly quite niche. This would be the first time in years that a giant robot action game has had the full support of a major company like Nintendo behind it. And while Nintendo has already supported this genre in the past, this will be the first time that it’s done so on a hit console like the Switch, which automatically gives it a wide and passionate audience. Even with its inherent niche status, Daemon X Machina is already in a better position than many similar games before it thanks to its publisher and platform. If it does well, it could inspire Nintendo and other companies to promote similar games, leading to a needed revival of the genre’s popularity.
But this leads to one of the simultaneously best and worst aspects of Daemon x Machina: its demo. Marvelous released an early demo on the Switch eShop back in February with the intention of drumming up interest in the game and getting player feedback. To put it plainly, it wasn’t very good. The action felt unsatisfying with a lack of any feeling of real impact with each blow; it was difficult to aim at enemies due to imprecise targeting systems, poor visibility, and an absence of gyro controls; and worst of all, its performance was horrendous. It was stuck at a mere thirty frames per second, which is already less than ideal for such a fast-paced action game. But it didn’t even manage to hit that target consistently, leading to a choppy and unsatisfying experience. One need only take a quick look through Digital Foundry’s breakdown to understand the demo’s many issues.
“Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans.”
However, the demo has turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. Shortly after the demo’s release, Marvelous distributed a survey to many players and requested their feedback. A few months later, Nintendo released a new trailer showing how the feedback had been integrated into the game. The full list of changes reads like a wish list of everything that needed to be adjusted following the demo. Highlights include the addition of gyro controls, improved targeting and feedback systems, and most importantly, an improved framerate. In fact, the developers have stated that performance was one of their “top priorities” when adjusting the game.
Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans. The fact that they were so open to feedback and eager to improve bodes incredibly well for the final release. They know that the mech action genre isn’t what it used to be, and they seem truly passionate about creating a quality title in the genre they love. In an industry that is so often focused more on emptying players’ wallets than creating a worthwhile title, this attitude is incredibly refreshing, hinting of a project that’s filled with genuine care and passion.
The unfortunate truth remains that Daemon X Machina is bound to be one of Nintendo’s least-hyped games this year. As long as games like Astral Chain, Dragon Quest XI S, and Link’s Awakening are all releasing within the same month, it will almost inevitably remain that way. But there is incredible promise for it nonetheless. With the quality of the game design, the legacy of its creators, and their clear passion for their project, it looks set to become something very special and deserves every bit of attention it can get. If fans can look past the games that typically hog the spotlight to find this bombastic little secret, they could be in for an enthusiastic, if under-hyped revival of a once-dormant genre.
‘Earthbound’ is one of the Weirdest, Most Surreal Video Games
25 Years later…
Games that Changed Our Lives
The SNES is arguably home to some of the best Japanese role-playing games ever made, but even among such revered company, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) stands out as a brilliant satire about growing up and our fears of conformity. It’s anarchy versus conformity, only conformity doesn’t stand a chance.
EarthBound has been often compared to Catcher in the Rye with its complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, connection, and alienation. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, Earthbound is a one-two punch of social satire and a hilarious ride into the twisted recesses of a boy’s psyche. This often funny, always poignant coming of age tale, deeply embedded in suburban mores, centers around four kids, off to save the planet by collecting melodies while en route to defeating the evil alien force known as Giygas.
Earthbound didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sure had fun twisting the usual JRPG tropes. There’s a princess you must rescue, not once, but twice, who’s really just a child prodigy, and there’s an arch nemesis who turns out to be your next-door neighbour. The game puts you in the shoes of a young boy named Ness as he investigates a nearby meteorite crash. There, he learns that Giygas, has enveloped the world in hatred and consequently turned animals, humans, and inanimate objects into dangerous creatures. A bee from the future instructs Ness to collect melodies in a Sound Stone to preemptively stop Giygas from destroying the planet. While visiting eight Sanctuaries, Ness partners with three other kids, a psychic girl (Paula), an eccentric inventor (Jeff), and the prince of the kingdom of Dalaam (Poo). Along the way are underlining themes of corrupt politicians, post-traumatic stress, corporate greed, depression, capitalism, police violence, terrorist attacks, homosexuality, religious cults, and xenophobia. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, cold winter climates, a desert wasteland, monkey caves, swamps, dinosaur museums, and even a yellow submarine.
“Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth. From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”
A pivotal moment in the game comes after collecting all eight melodies with the Sound Stone. After Ness has taken control of his Sanctuaries, Ness visits, Magicant, a surreal location that exists only in his mind and contains his warmest memories and his worst fears – an allegory perhaps, for how the entire game allows us to see into the mind of the creator. There, Ness must face his dark side. A man tells him, “Magicant is a place where you must cleanse yourself of the evil hidden within your mind. Take the time to look around, it is your mind after all.”
EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game.
The tone of Earthbound is perhaps its most fascinating attribute, best exemplified by its most famous quote: “There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.” Earthbound skillfully surprises you with a reservoir of emotion and sentiment that happily counters the game’s trendy ironic veneer. Along the way, Ness visits the cultists of Happy Happy Village (based on a real-life Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984); their mission statement is to paint the town red by literally painting it blue. You’ll fight a watchful puddle of vomit and battle through the zombie-infested town of Threed. You’ll use a peculiar device called the Pencil Eraser to remove statues of pencils that block you from advancing through specific areas, and you’ll suffer through terrifying hallucinations of your family and friends, and be asked to dismember your arms and legs, or otherwise, lose your mind. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Paula is kidnapped by the Department Store Spook, an unseen entity that resides in the town’s shopping mall. And after defeating Frank Fly and his evil creation Frankystein Mark II, you’ll be escorted to the back of a police precinct, only to be assaulted by four officers and Captain Strong, the chief of the Onett police force. Defeat the corrupt cops and you’ll gain access to the second town you’ll visit (named TWOson, so as not to be confused with Onett, Threed, and Fourside). And when entering a cave, you’ll battle five moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of their group. Then there is backwards city Moonside, a warped mirror image of Fourside, that hides a secret more terrifying than the town itself. Just walking around feels like something between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance, in which abstract art attacks you and the psychedelic imagery, lit by gaudy fluorescent neon-lights which contrasts the entire look and feel of what came before. It’s a city where yes means no and no means yes; a place where blond-haired business men teleport you across the city blocks and where an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth gets you past the sketchy sailor hiding out in the back alley.
Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who resurfaces several times, and countless other enemies including Titanic Ant, professional thief Mr. Everdred, and a glorious evil statue Mani, Mani. But the real big bad of the game is the aforementioned Giygas, a.k.a. The “Embodiment of Evil” and the “Universal Cosmic Destroyer”, who intends to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. Giygas borrows heavily from Stephen King’s It and was inspired by a murder scene from the black-and-white Japanese horror film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty – a sequence which scarred creator Shigesato Itoi, when he accidentally watched the film as a child. Giygas is without question, the most disturbing, and strangest end-boss villain of any Super NES game – a character so deranged, there’s been hundreds of fan theories about what he really is.
While EarthBound’s overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game is full of ingenious ideas that buck genre trends. EarthBound also makes no apologies for being very difficult to complete. It takes days to finish and is most challenging at the beginning when Ness travels alone and hasn’t yet powered-up. Inventory space remains incredibly limited since each character can only carry a certain amount of items and you can’t drop many of the items since they will come in handy later in the game. Boosting your XP is a must, otherwise, you won’t stand a chance in defeating any boss; and currency is also important when buying new weapons or visiting the hospital to attend to fatal injuries. Money must be withdrawn from the nearest ATM, deposited by your estranged father, and a bedtime snack from your loving mother sends you off to bed to recharge your stats. There are other refreshing deviations from RPG tropes, and every one of the four characters has a specific skill-set.
Earthbound is a strange game, themed around an idiosyncratic portrayal of American culture from a Japanese point of view. The game subverted popular role-playing game traditions by featuring a real-world setting while playing with various staples of the genre and adding a number of pop-culture references throughout. The Japanese title was inspired by the song of the same name by John Lennon – a song about growing up without a father for most of his life, and unsurprising, Ness’ dad is never once seen, and only communicates with his son via telephone. And that’s not the only Beatles reference you’ll see: EarthBound makes two additional nods to the world’s greatest band, along with allusions to Bugs Bunny, comedian Benny Hill, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Brothers, Monopoly (Monotoli), Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Rambo, Mr. T, and The Who, to name a few. Written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; this is surely his love letter to 20th-century Americana.
Localizing Earthbound was a massive undertaking. Under directives from Nintendo, Marcus Lindblom worked with the Japanese artists and programmers to remove references to intellectual property, religion, and alcohol from the American release, such as the Coca-Cola logo and the red crosses on hospitals (due to issues with the Red Cross). Alcohol became coffee, Ness was no longer walking around nude in the Magicant area and the Happy Happyist blue cultists sprites were altered to look less like Ku Klux Klansmen. The Runaway Five members’ outfits were changed to make them look less like the Blues Brothers, and the “Sky Walker” was changed to the “Sky Runner” to avoid the Star Wars reference. Apollo Theater was changed to Topolla Theater, presumably to avoid issues with the real-life venue and the use of the word drug, seen on the various town maps was removed or changed. The list goes on and on…
Chock full of odd charm and humour in a genre that usually takes itself a little too serious, Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal video games you’ll ever have fun playing.
The game had a lengthy development spanning five years and involved a number of Japanese luminaries, including writer Shigesato Itoi, songwriter Keiichi Suzuki, sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, and future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Released in a huge box-set that contained a strategy guide with scratch-and-sniff stickers, Earthbound came with a $2 million marketing campaign derived from the game’s unusual brand of humor. As part of Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign, EarthBound’s tagline read, “this game stinks.” Earthbound was proud to one of the most bizarre RPGs – and it didn’t shy away from its offbeat premise. Unfortunately, the game was met with poor critical response and sales in the United States, but as the years went by, the game received wide acclaim and was deemed by many a timeless classic. It has since become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 for the cartridge alone. Holding onto an incredibly dedicated cult following, the main character Ness became a featured character in the Super Smash Bros. series and in 2013, EarthBound was reissued and given a worldwide release for the Wii U Virtual Console following many years of fan lobbying.
EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game. There are two extremely popular fan-made sites dedicated to the game (Starmen.net, EarthboundCentral), and dozens of other sites have devoted countless hours in translating the sequel for English-speaking audiences. Earthbound was ahead of its time when released and its influence continues to be felt, inspiring the likes of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Majora’s Mask, Chibi Robo, Retro City Rampage, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
While Earthbound’s game mechanics stick to the traditional JRPG template, its surreal world, imaginative locals, and experimental soundtrack created a truly unique experience. Nothing stands out quite like its visual style – an 8-bit presentation powered by a 16-bit processor. The graphics might not be as advanced as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most memorable. The SNES was home to some amazing soundtracks, but EarthBound’s soundtrack remains the best. Created by four composers, there’s enough music here to fill 8 of the 24 megabits on the cartridge – with direct musical quotations of classical tune and folk music, and a few samples culled from commercial pop and rock. It also contains one of the very best endings in any video game, a touching climax that captures the vulnerability and beauty of adolescence and the power of friendship. And the punctuation mark comes during the credits. Throughout the game, you’ll cross paths several times with a photographer who descends from the sky and snaps a photograph of your most recent achievement. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time spent playing the game. And be sure to stay until the very end. To say more would be giving away the surprise.
I can’t think of another game as irreverently comic and deeply touching as Earthbound. Here is a game that resonates long after completion, and oozes originality in just about every frame. Ness may rock his sweet ball cap, handy backpack, telekinetic powers, and a trusty baseball bat, but even this hero needs to call his mom regularly, otherwise, he may suddenly find himself useless in battle. Earthbound stands, sweet and strong, outrageous and quirky, like its heroes — it’s about the loss of innocence as well as gaining wisdom – and is one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed. While it suffers from a slow start and stretched premise, the charm of its cast debunking an intergalactic conspiracy goes a long way. Of all the games I own on the Super NES, Earthbound is the game I treasure the most and the game that made me fall in love with the medium.
– Ricky D
Indie World 2019: The Best Games From Nintendo’s Showcase
With a healthy mix of brand new titles and a few shocking ports, here’s all the best games announced at Nintendo’s Indie World showcase.
Whenever Nintendo announces another indie presentation, it’s impossible to know what to expect. One may be a fairly low-key event, while another might announce a brand new Zelda game. The latest “Indie World” presentation for Gamescom 2019 found itself somewhere in the middle. It didn’t feature quite as many earth shattering reveals as the previous presentation in March, but with a healthy mix of promising new titles, updates on previously announced games, and a few shocking ports, Indie World was a worthwhile showcase in its own right. Without further ado, here’s some of the very best game announcements from the presentation, arranged in order of their appearance.
I’m firmly of the belief that you can never have too many Zelda-likes in your life. For this reason alone, Eastward looks like it could be an exciting addition to the Switch’s indie lineup. Better yet, this latest Chuckelfish-published game looks like it has all the makings of a great entry in the genre.
It tells a simple story: a miner finds a young girl alone in a secret underground facility, and together, they go on to explore a post-apocalyptic land. Although this world has been apparently ravaged by a cataclysmic disaster, it still looks gorgeous thanks to its lush pixel art and fluid character animations. Pair this with your typical Zelda-like gameplay loop of overworld exploration and dungeon puzzle-solving, and Eastward looks like it will be a promising prospect when it releases next year.
Shin’en Multimedia has long been known for making some of the best-looking titles on Nintendo consoles with visual stunners like the Fast Racing series. However, The Touryst is a departure from the games they’re known for. While it’s just as breathtaking as their previous work with its beautiful lighting and voxel-based design, it’ll be a much slower experience than Shin’en’s signature lightning-fast racing games.
As its name would suggest, it focuses on a tourist taking a relaxing tropical vacation, whiling away their time with activities like shopping, scuba diving, and visiting arcades. However, the trailer also hints of a greater mystery lurking beneath this laid-back surface. With Zelda-like dungeons to explore and puzzles to solve as well as a contemporary tropical setting, it seems like it could be considered a spiritual successor to the NES cult classic, StarTropics. It should definitely be one to keep an eye on when it launches this November.
Who’s the real monster here? Röki is a narrative-focused adventure game set in a world taken straight out of Scandinavian fairytales, featuring a snow-laden forest inhabited by fantastical creatures of Nordic mythology. It puts players in control of a young woman exploring this mystical environment, with the goal of saving her family and interacting with these various monsters. Its visuals adopt a beautiful storybook style, and with its emphasis on accessible gameplay and telling a touching story, it looks like it could be a worthwhile purchase for anyone in search of a more poignant adventure when it hits Switch this winter.
It’s not a true Nintendo presentation without a shadow drop or two, so SUPERHOT took it upon itself to be the first to fill that void during Indie World. It’s a striking shooter built upon one simple concept: time only moves when you do. This core idea creates a uniquely methodical approach to the genre, nearly turning SUPERHOT into more of a puzzler than a shooter. It’s already made quite an impact on other platforms, so it should fit right in on Nintendo’s hybrid wonder – and best of all, it’s available right now.
Hotline Miami Collection
If it has style, action, and plenty of violence, it’s probably a Devolver Digital game. The boutique indie publisher has supported the Switch with plenty of quality games over the past few years, but the brutal series that launched the publisher into fame in the first place has been strangely absent. Thankfully, that changed today with the surprise release of the Hotline Miami Collection on the eShop.
Gathering both games in the iconic Hotline Miami top-down shooter series into a single package, this release brings all of their signature hardcore difficulty and neon style to a Nintendo platform for the first time. For anyone who’s enjoyed Devolver’s fantastic output thus far on the Switch but hasn’t yet experienced these famously bloody titles, it should be an excellent purchase.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Microsoft’s surreal love affair with Nintendo continues with the reveal that another Xbox One console exclusive will be making its way to Switch. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the ultimate version of the acclaimed artistic platformer. It will feature the same beautiful visuals, detailed world, and touching story that made the original release so special, along with all the additional areas, story, and improvements of the Definitive Edition.
For those concerned that the game’s incredible visuals will lose their luster on Nintendo’s under-powered device, there’s no need to worry: the developers have confirmed that the Switch version contains no compromises, running at a locked 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution while docked, with a native 720p resolution in handheld mode. It joins the ranks of Cuphead and Super Lucky’s Tale as yet another former Microsoft exclusive to appear on Nintendo’s console, and with its uncompromising conversion to Switch, it should be one of the most remarkable Switch ports yet when it releases on September 27.
‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard
Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.
There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.
Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path
Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.
The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.
In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.
The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom.
Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams.
Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.
The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.
All In a Day’s Work
Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it. Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.
There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.
Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations.
As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.
In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.
It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.
Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.
It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.
All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.
Applying Theory to Practice
The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.
Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.
The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.
The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.
Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.
Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.
Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.
Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience.
Lessons Learned, Experience Showing
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.
The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.
Why Does the ‘Control’ Northlight Engine Matter?
With less than a month to go until the release of Control on Xbox One and Playstation 4, the hype surrounding the game is reaching its peak. We recently called Remedy’s upcoming title “the best game playable at E3 2019” and deemed it the “highlight of our experience at the conference,” but few details have been released about the title since the controversial Electronic Entertainment Expo. Remedy Entertainment, best known for their Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break releases, has a track record of delivering storytelling experiences like no other, but they have an important secret to their recent successes that might aid their upcoming survival horror/action-adventure release. To better understand Control, let’s take a look at its in-game engine, Northlight, and explore why it enables Remedy to craft such gripping narratives.
What is Northlight?
For all of its titles, Remedy Entertainment has relied on the unique strengths of their self-created in-game engines to allow their storytelling experiences to thrive. Many of their previous successes have utilized in-house engines specially designed to deliver cinematic experiences and create games that keep the characters in focus, and Northlight was created to further advance upon their previous technology. Initially built for the Microsoft title Quantum Break, the new engine was created to allow for better interactive narrative experiences that could establish greater depth and realism in a digital world.
According to an interview with writer and creative director Sam Lake, Northlight pushes the envelope by allowing for “Mo-cap with full faces, with surface capture, and 4D scanning, and how to get that into an engine and make it really, really good. It focuses on character lighting, lighting overall, obviously pushing it to the next-gen.” These features all work in tandem to create photorealistic environments and characters that look, sound, and feel real to enthralling players and captivate viewers. In short, Northlight allows Remedy to create Hollywood-quality cinematic experiences within a digital platform.
Supporting Ray Tracing
A big part of Northlight’s success as an engine is due to its support of ray tracing technology, offering dynamic ambient light that sets the scene and creates engaging landscapes. For those unaware, ray tracing is a modern rendering technique that allows for more realistic shadows and lighting than previous digital rendering software, although often times it is prerendered, slow, and incredibly data-intensive. Thanks to advancements by Nvidia, ray tracing is finally possible to be rendered in real-time inside of in-game engines, making it more accessible to game studios.
Northlight’s game engine pushes the limits by incorporating these advancements into its software, making it possible for players to have the future of in-game lighting, provided that they have the right graphics card. This allows Remedy to truly bring scenes to life within their titles, dynamically lighting environments to create intense emotional moments and the biggest spectacles.
Although motion capture has been an integral part of narrative video games for a number of years, Northlight uses the Dimensional Imaging’s top of the line 4D technology to capture facial performances and accurately model emotions. According to Dimensional Imaging, this software utilizes “nine standard video cameras” to capture footage “without using markers, makeup or special illumination.” In turn, this allows for every nuance of an actor’s performance to be articulated in the game engine, giving greater realism and deeper emotional experiences.
In addition to this technology, Northlight utilizes traditional motion capture technology to create realistic clones of actor’s bodies. This was most notably seen when Remedy’s motion capture team’s picture of a dog in mo-cap gear went viral.
Hollywood Quality Picture and Sound
Because of its emphasis on delivering narrative experiences unlike any other in gaming, Northlight’s software has built-in timeline editors that provide greater creative freedom than conventional game engines. By offering the ability to analyze and adjust lighting, physics, and movement in real-time, Northlight ensures that every scene is picture perfect and rooted in realism.
Similarly, sound is also an integral focus of the built-in editing software in Northlight. According to their site, developers can “freeze and rewind sound, analyze it and even use it to drive visual effects and animations in perfect sync with the soundscapes.” With audio and visuals working in tandem, Remedy can create a dynamic game environment that looks and feels as real as any conventional narrative on television or film.
Northlight and Control’s Release
With Northlight, Remedy will be able to make the most immersive and story-driven world possible by delivering top of the line graphics and performances, both of which will play a huge role in Control’s success. Unlike Quantum Break, Control will take place outside of the conventional linear style game and work as a Metroidvania style title, making setting the scene and developing a dynamic and photorealistic environment an important part of propelling players through the game world and an integral piece of the experience.
At e3, Control’s featured demo was primarily centered around demonstrating the title’s gunplay and physics -which absolutely blew us away- so combining this positive experience with top-notch acting and cutscenes will surely create one of the better experiences of the year. With all of the unique possibilities offered by Northlight, Respawn is sure to make a massive mark on the industry and encourage other developers to push the envelope of available technology. Look for Control when it releases on PC, Playstation, and Xbox One on August 27th.
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