Category Archives: Role-Playing

Lost Sphear

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Delve into ancient memories to save your homeland.

PC Release: January 23, 2018

By Ian Coppock

Truly, strange times are afoot. A reality TV star is president, Britain is leaving the EU, and weirdest of all… a JRPG is being reviewed on Art as Games. Lost Sphear is the first ever JRPG to get a spot on this page, and it seemed like a good place to start because its developer, Tokyo RPG Factory, insists that it’s a collage of everything great about the genre. Lost Sphear does indeed offer up a lot of JRPG conventions; whether those constitute a successful game is the question of tonight’s review.

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Created by the one and same Tokyo RPG Factory that produced 2016’s I Am SetsunaLost Sphear is an isometric Japanese role-playing game that just screams Final Fantasy. The game kicks off with a nameless king battling an ancient evil before fast-forwarding to a small town in a magical kingdom. As JRPGs so often go, players are given command of three heroes with whom to stop the moon from destroying the world… or something. The exposition is a little vague on that one.

The aforementioned protagonists hit every JRPG checkbox. The star of the show is a kid who lost his parents and is destined to save the world. His sidekicks are a blatantly obvious love interest and an embarrassing best friend who provides forced comic “relief.” Each character also adheres strictly to the JRPG dress code with crazy hair, bright clothes, and shoes that are about 10 sizes too large. Likewise, the game’s villains are the usual flamboyant masterminds who look like they’re on their way to a Criss Angel lookalike contest.

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In case it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a JRPG…

Lost Sphear‘s characters look straight out of a 2004 JRPG, and not just because of their attire. This game’s characters look dated, with fuzzy facial features, stiff animations, and blocky extremities. They also do that JRPG thing where they awkwardly move their entire bodies for even the smallest physical expressions. It would seem that, in its haste to emulate the JRPGs of yore, Tokyo RPG Factory ripped off even the now-obsolete graphics of Lost Sphear‘s predecessors.

Even though Lost Sphear‘s character models look like they were copy/pasted from Final Fantasy VII, the game’s environments look fine. They’re lovely.  Tokyo RPG Factory can’t render a character model worth a damn, but the studio excels at creating intricately detailed environments that burst with color. There’s also plenty of object detail to draw players’ eyes. While it’s great that Lost Sphear‘s world looks pretty, that prettiness cuts a conspicuous contrast with the mannequin-looking characters. Save some pixels for them, Tokyo RPG Factory!

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Meh.

Lost Sphear scores some additional art points with its soundtrack. The game’s background music is a lovely assortment of light strings and woodwinds, while the combat anthem sounds straight outta Pokemon. While Lost Sphear‘s music is mostly pleasant, it has a nasty tendency to loop. There’s one town in the game where players have to suffer this problem in the extreme, as the same dainty little song repeats itself over and over and over again.

Lost Sphear is incompetent when it comes to other areas of sound design. While its music is nice, everything else from the sounds of combat to exploring the wilds sounds muffled. This is particularly troublesome for the combat. Part of the thrill of battle lies in hearing the force of every hit, but even the fiercest sword strike sounds more like a butterfly kiss than a blade rending flesh. Like many JRPGs, Lost Sphear is so focused on making its world look cool that it forgets to make that world sound cool, and that’s a problem. Nothing breaks immersion like a conspicuous audio-visual imbalance.

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Do we have any hearing aids in the item pouch?

Lost Sphear‘s combat isn’t much for immersion, either. As with many JRPGs, Lost Sphear relies on that clunkiest and most boring form of “battle”: turn-based combat. Y’know, that system wherein the combatants stand in neat lines slapping each other instead of actually fighting. Some JRPGs have agonizingly long “battles”, but Lost Sphear‘s are mercifully quick. Use an item or ability, sit there like a b**** while the bad guy slaps the player back, rinse and repeat.

That last sentence is more of a tutorial than Lost Sphear ever provides. This title continues the age-old JRPG tradition of burying players alive in an avalanche of menus and expecting them to just… figure it out. The tutorial points out how to use a few specific attacks, but fails to illustrate how to effectively use the overarching combat system. Seriously, even a few button prompts would be great, Tokyo RPG Factory. Anything to help this game’s combat system be less of a sleep aid.

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(yawn).

Lost Sphear‘s exploration is marginally more interesting than its combat. It’s not anything that JRPG veterans won’t already have done a million times, though. Walk around neat little mazes of houses (or trees), open treasure chests for money (or items), and occasionally uncover hidden paths (or not). This exploration system isn’t odious but it sure doesn’t deviate from the road trod by dozens of other JRPGs. Isn’t blazing new trails the point of exploration?

Lost Sphear‘s strident dedication to rehashing what’s already been beaten to death in other JRPGs seeps into its user interface. The game’s combat and navigation menus feel primitive… almost as if they’ve been plucked from an early Final Fantasy game rather than built for a contemporary title. Lost Sphear‘s options menu is an unadulterated train wreck that contains a few paltry options for visual and audio fidelity. There are no options for rebinding controls; worse still, players who opt to play Lost Sphear with a controller may still have to input a few commands with a keyboard!

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Good question: it’s the void where Tokyo RPG Factory’s QA team should be.

Lost Sphear has committed many egregious sins so far, but the title’s piece de res***stance is undoubtedly its writing. Lost Sphear‘s writing is stilted, awkwardly phrased, and feels like it’s there more to fill space than to tell a story. The game’s character writing is laughably bad. Every person in this title spends ten minutes arguing about the most trivial details, and not a single joke lands in the entire production. None of the characters evolve beyond their well-worn JRPG niches, nor do they ever shut up about the usual platitudes that this genre drowns players in.

The narrative that these characters trudge around in is worse even than the dialogue, and it only kicks in after about five hours of playtime. That’s par for the course with JRPGs, though; nothing terrifies these games more than letting players jump into an actual story. No, Lost Sphear says, let’s slow the narrative down with drawn-out character intros and running around in the woods doing nothing of interest.

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Use your words, buddy.

Lost Sphear‘s story doesn’t have much to tell, especially to JRPG veterans. Basically, an ancient evil is returning after many years away, and a boy has to stop it using the powers of love, friendship, and phoenix down. Lost Sphear gets a point for its evil taking the form of a white fog instead of something more conspicuous (like the Heartless), but its narrative goes through the exact same motions as the stories of many JRPGs before it.

Lost Sphear is one of those rare games that disappoints all gaming audiences equally. Players who dislike JRPGs will despise it for exalting the genre’s worst tendencies, while JRPG fans will grow bored with the game’s reluctance to innovate. In trying so hard to be a love letter to past JRPGs, Lost Sphear ends up being utterly derivative. It’s a flavorless, unoriginal blob that’s too busy ripping off of other games to conceive a single iota of novelty. Gamers of all stripes are thus best off giving Lost Sphear a wide berth.

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You can buy Lost Sphear here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Far Cry Primal

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Bash heads and shatter ribs on a quest to reclaim your tribe’s homeland.

PC Release: March 1, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Once upon a time, in the distant past, mankind flourished in a golden age. An age without murder laws or sanitary guidelines. An age in which men and women were free to don the skins of their fallen enemies and bash people’s heads in with rocks. An age that predated all of this modern “civilization” and “judiciary” nonsense that man now suffers under. That age is, sadly, long gone… but video games have brought it roaring back to life in the form of Far Cry Primal.

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Released in the spring of 2016, Far Cry Primal is a spin-off of the Far Cry series that takes the franchise a whopping 10,000 years back in time. Rather than killing foes with AKs and machetes (as is customary in Far Cry games), players take up a spear, unleash a mighty caveman battle cry, and charge into combat at the head of the most unwashed horde of warriors gaming has ever seen.

Far Cry Primal begins when a mammoth hunt goes south and all but one caveman in the hunting party gets mauled by a saber-tooth tiger. Forced to journey to his ancestral homeland alone, player character Takkar arrives to the Land of Oros expecting his fellow Wenja tribesmen to be everywhere. Instead, all he finds is a handful of survivors and a land ravaged by war (proving that the vaunted awesomeness of bashing someone’s head in with a rock is really a matter of perspective).

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Hey! That’s MY deer skull!

Luckily for what remains of his tribe, Takkar is good with animals… some might say that he’s unnaturally good with them. Whether it’s his shining personality or some kind of voodoo, Takkar has the ability to befriend Oros’s many animals and lead them into combat. Players start out small by taming badgers and dogs, but can move up to bears and lions before too long. Takkar can also use an owl to mark targets and places of interest like the drone in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Even though a few tamed bears make for quite the intimidating posse, Takkar has his work cut out for him navigating Oros. The game world is populated by dangerous ice age-era wildlife, including saber-tooth tigers, gargantuan cave beers, and woolly mammoths that’d sooner stomp on a caveman than look at him. Most of these beasties can be hunted for valuable materials, but think twice before taking on that huge rhinoceros (and check Takkar’s quiver for extra arrows).

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HOLY S*** BACKUPBACKUPBACKUP

Bloodthirsty animals aren’t Takkar’s only problem. Two unfriendly tribes have invaded Oros and whittled the Wenja’s once-expansive empire down to nothing. To the north reside the Udam, a tribe of cannibalistic neanderthals led by the biggest, baddest warrior of them all. To the south can be found the Izila, a matriarchal tribe that likes burning people alive (but it’s their sincerely held religious belief so it’s totally okay).

Players can only secure victory in Far Cry Primal by systematically reclaiming Wenja territory and, ultimately, wiping both enemy tribes out. Each tribe has its own combat challenge: Udam warriors are huge but slow, while the Izila compensate for their slender size by using advanced weapons like fire bombs. Each tribe also has its own slate of combat specialists who wield different weapons for Takkar to contend against.

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OOGA-BOOGA!

Far Cry Primal certainly has a greater emphasis on melee combat than other Far Cry games. Players can craft and upgrade spears, clubs, and other weapons to take the fight to the enemy directly. Ranged weapons still have a place in the player’s arsenal, though. Bows, longbows, and slings help round Takkar’s weaponry out and give players some long-distance options. Most melee weapons can be thrown if the player is out of ammo (or is feeling particularly pissed).

In lieu of cars, players can get around Far Cry Primal using the animals they tame. As amazing as it would be to ride a honey badger into battle, Takkar can only ride beasties larger than himself. Primal‘s riding controls feel smooth and most of the animals that Takkar can ride can also leap over obstacles. Ridiculous and unrealistic though this mechanic may be, nothing feels more badass than leading a tsunami of cavemen into battle from the back of a saber-toothed tiger.

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CHAAAAARGE!

Even though Far Cry Primal gives players a spear and a tiger instead of a gun and a jeep, the game still plays a lot like the mainline Far Cry titles. Just like in those games, players take outposts from enemy factions, search the world for medicinal herbs, and hunt animals for their hides. The combat’s shifted focus and the whips are a little hairier, but beneath that caveman stank is a good ole Far Cry title.

Far Cry Primal does make a few shakeups to the Far Cry formula, though. Because cavemen have no understanding of money, players have to make their own weapons and tools from materials found out in the world. Some materials are only a stone’s throw away; others are much harder to find. Still others exist only in certain regions of Oros. Players may also happen upon animal skin bags that contain a random assortment of goodies for Takkar to sort through.

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Primal stops short of letting players use human body parts for tools… I think…

Players out looking for crafting components should take some time to enjoy the view. Far Cry Primal goes beyond being pretty by being the most visually sophisticated Far Cry game ever made (at least as of writing). Far Cry Primal succeeds in delivering a, well, primal environment, covering Oros with exotic-looking plants, huge redwoods, and cavernous rock formations. All of these objects are brightly colored and accented with volumetric light.

Far Cry Primal boasts impressive visual effects in other areas of its design. The title’s in-game character models are gorgeously animated and detailed, more so than those of other Far Cry games. Primal‘s facial animations are scarily lifelike; never before has spotting a dead bug between a caveman’s two front teeth been so easy! Primal‘s visuals succeed at capturing that primeval, untamed vibe that could only come with the Stone Age, which makes the game more immersive.

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Oh! You made me a, uh… drink? …Thank you?

Far Cry Primal‘s characters may look stunning, but there isn’t much more to say about them. Each one occupies a fixed niche in the caveman community: there’s the witch doctor whose jokes fall flat, the aged huntress who makes fun of Takkar for no apparent reason, and the chick who’s obsessed with collecting ears. For some reason Ubisoft elected to shoehorn Hurk (err, “Urki”) into Primal. As with all Far Cry games, the antagonist is the most interesting character. Ubisoft elected to make the neanderthal war-chief a sympathetic villain instead of a comedic one, and it works surprisingly well.

The reason why Far Cry Primal‘s characters aren’t all that memorable is because they only get so much screen time. This game devotes very little time to conversations with NPCs… or, really, character development of any kind. The reason for that, in turn, is almost certainly because all of the characters speak in an artificial language that sounds like vulgar Latin. Ubisoft probably only had so much time to develop words and syntax for such a dialect, which would explain why it’s spoken so sparingly. For some reason there’s an option to turn Primal‘s subtitles off; y’know, for all those millions of gamers who can speak made-up caveman lingo.

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Hey Fluffy, what’s the caveman term for merciless slaughter?

So, what do Far Cry Primal‘s archaic weapons and nonsensical animal powers mean for players? The game doesn’t have much going for it in the story department, but it offers up a, aha, meaty slice of gameplay. Primal‘s combat and exploration both feel like deconstructed variants of the main Far Cry series’ gameplay, but in a good way. The game’s stripping out of vehicles makes exploration feel more organic, while the combat’s focus on melee fighting is elegantly implemented.

Couple these simpler gameplay emphases with excellent system performance, and the result is a game that captures the fierce spirit of its modern-day forebears despite being presented in a different format. Far Cry Primal may be set in the Stone Age, but its focus on smooth exploration and open-ended combat is not lesser for that setting. Players who enjoy open-world games and lots of brutal melee combat will likely enjoy Primal; just make sure to take a break if all that combat starts to feel repetitive.

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You can buy Far Cry Primal here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Far Cry 4

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Liberate your parents’ homeland from an eccentric despot.

PC Release: November 18, 2014

By Ian Coppock

This month’s tour of anarchic third-world dystopias continues with Far Cry 4, the most recent mainline installment in the Far Cry series. Though Far Cry 4 does away with its predecessor’s setting and shakes up the franchise’s storytelling conventions, there’s no doubt that this game is still pure, unadulterated Far Cry. How so? Well, grab a hang glider and a machete, because it’s time to dive into Far Cry 4.

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Far Cry 4 was the one decent title that Ubisoft released in 2014. Following the ho-hum debut of Watch Dogs that May and the disastrous launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity that November, players were suspicious that Far Cry 4 would be as buggy and unpolished as those titles. Fortunately, Ubisoft stepped up to the plate in the final weeks of 2014, releasing a game that both ran well on PC and was largely bug-free. That was certainly more than could be said for Watch Dogs or Unity.

Far Cry 4 continues its predecessors’ proud tradition of providing a lawless open world for gamers to go stark raving mad in. Players can explore a world teeming with enemies to kill and treasure to discover, with plenty of shooting and crafting to boot. Most of the world is also open to players from the get-go, though it’s probably a good idea to level up before tackling that impenetrable mountain fortress.

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DIEDIEDIEDIEDIE

Though the fundamentals of Far Cry‘s open-world design remain intact in Far Cry 4, the game trades out Far Cry 3‘s tropical island setting for the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat. Players behold this mountain nation through the eyes of Ajay Ghale, a Kyrati-American who journeys to his parents’ homeland to scatter his mother’s ashes. What should’ve been a simple pilgrimage becomes much more complicated when Ajay is captured by Pagan Min, Kyrat’s flamboyant and tyrannical king.

After being shuttled to the world’s most awkward dinner of crab rangoon, Ajay gets rescued by the Golden Path, a rebel movement dedicated to ousting Min from power. Ajay learns that his father was one of the Golden Path’s founders and is offered help scattering those ashes in return for joining the fight. Once again, it’s up to the player to liberate a beautiful albeit lawless land from the clutches of remorseless bad guys.

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Min (pictured left) is not the world’s most empathetic boss.

The Far Cry series teaches that there’s no better way to take care of remorseless bad guys than by remorselessly riddling their bodies with bullets. Far Cry 4 bursts at the seams with weapons, which range from suppressed pistols to powerful rocket launchers. Players can get their hands on all of this hardware pretty quickly. Just like in Far Cry 3Far Cry 4‘s guns feel satisfying and make for some of big-budget gaming’s best first-person shooting. Many of the weapons that were present in Far Cry 3 make a comeback, but Far Cry 4 adds plenty of brand-new rifles, LMGs, and custom signature weapons.

Of course, players who aren’t in the mood to make lots of noise can also sneak around stabbing people. Far Cry 4 has even better stealth gameplay than Far Cry 3, allowing players to slip from cover to cover in quick rounds of cloak’n’dagger. Distract a bad guy, sneak up behind him, and liberate his jugular from the rest of his neck. Players can also access all sorts of suppressed weapons for stealth killing at a distance. Sneaking might not always be as fast as shooting, but hey; better to take an extra five minutes killing five bad guys than to let one hit the alarm and summon 10 more of ’em.

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So much for training honey badgers to be sleeper agents…

Players can pick and choose skills that suit their play style thanks to Far Cry 4‘s RPG system. Ajay can level up by completing missions and killing bad guys, giving players points to put toward such perks as faster healing and better sneak attacks. These abilities are streamlined into two skill trees that generally reflect attack and defense power-ups, and some skills can be upgraded multiple times. It’s fun to experiment with different combinations of perks to nail down that ultimate mountain warrior skill set.

Finally… the animals. Far Cry 4 is overrun with even more hostile wildlife than Far Cry 3. A few animals, like tigers, return from the previous game, but Kyrat is also overrun with new critters like honey badgers, snow leopards, elephants, and rhinos. While it’s fun to encounter these animals out in the wild and their hides make for great ammo bags, one facet of Far Cry 4‘s wildlife design feels gratuitous: the birds. No joke, eagles swoop down and attack the player because logic. The constant bird attacks are as annoying as they are nonsensical, as players frequently get talon’d while trying to scope enemies or just enjoy the view. Someone at Ubisoft is clearly a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

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You cannot be serious.

If all this talk of guns and exploration sounds like Far Cry 3‘s talk of guns and exploration, that’s no coincidence. Far Cry 4 replicates Far Cry 3‘s gameplay nearly wholesale, from finding treasure to shooting baddies to capturing enemy outposts. The setting may have changed, but players can expect Far Cry 4‘s gameplay to be all but identical to that of its predecessor. At this juncture, the point of tonight’s review becomes less about how Far Cry 4 is “pure Far Cry” than about why players shouldn’t just give Far Cry 3 a second playthrough.

To be fair, the claim that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is a mirror-image of Far Cry 3‘s is untrue in at least two respects. Firstly, the game adds a grappling hook so that players can climb cliffsides and mountains like a pro. Given Kyrat’s excess of vertical space, this only makes sense. Secondly, players can now shoot from behind the wheel of a vehicle, which is a welcome change of pace from Far Cry 3‘s much more pacifistic driving. Far Cry 4 also introduces mini-helicopters, but they’re rickety things that can only fly so high before crashing. That thin Himalayan air is a real b****.

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Mayday! Mayday!

Far Cry 4‘s zeal to copy its predecessor seeps into the game’s art department. Though its graphics are sharper than Far Cry 3‘s, Far Cry 4 re-uses nearly all of its predecessor’s character and world animations. Everything from Ajay’s herb-gathering animation to bad guys taking a smoke has been recycled from Far Cry 3. That may not seem like a big deal on paper, but any sequel that reuses animations and assets from previous games has a much harder time establishing its own identity. Such is the case with Far Cry 4.

Players can also expect Far Cry 4‘s missions to be congruent to Far Cry 3‘s. Ajay is faced with the same bout of exotic animal hunts, outpost takedowns, and head honcho headhunts that Jason took on in Far Cry 3. All of these missions are fun, but Far Cry 4‘s reluctance to try new mission types is disappointing. If the point of these past few paragraphs hasn’t been hammered home yet, here’s the skinny: Far Cry 4 feels more like a DLC for Far Cry 3 than its own game.

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MIC DROP

…Or does it? It’s true that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is unambitious, but the same cannot be said of the game’s story. Plot, at least, is where Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 diverge, with the latter having a much more compelling story than the tale of Vaas and the Rook Islands. Though Ajay Ghale is an uninteresting character who speaks almost exclusively in quiet murmurs, he’s far more introspective and believable than Far Cry 3 point man Jason Brody. That the protagonist’s parents are from Kyrat also gives the player an actual connection to the setting.

Meanwhile, Far Cry 4‘s supporting characters provoke both mirth and cringe. Ajay gets some help from some complicated characters, including two British marijuana enthusiasts and an African warlord who found Jesus. Far Cry 4 also dabbles in choice-based narrative, forcing players to side with one of the rebellion’s two constantly feuding leaders. It’s not an easy choice: one is a religious nutjob and the other is an aspiring drug lord. This rift helps keep the story’s tension high and makes it difficult for players to see which leader is better to support in the long run.

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So you’re telling me that I have to pick between legalizing child marriage and getting the locals hooked on heroin? Good Lord.

Far Cry 4 is one of those games in which the villains are more compelling than the protagonists. This is almost certainly a minority opinion, but main antagonist Pagan Min is a funnier, more interesting character than Far Cry 3‘s Vaas. Min’s royal proclamations are darkly hilarious, as he rants about everything from the perils of lighting candles to how he’s a much better Asian despot than Kim Jong Un (“Why doesn’t Dennis Rodman visit me?!?”). Min also possesses an air of deep tragedy that Vaas lacked, which becomes apparent as players discover why the king has taken such a particular interest in Ajay.

Indeed, the whole of Kyrat is rife with much better lore, writing, and storytelling than Far Cry 3 possessed. Ajay can delve into several layers of the land’s history, which add to the fun of exploration just as much as the promise of treasure. Players even have the option to explore Kyrat co-op, so long as P2 is okay being stuck as the eternally unfunny Hurk. Far Cry 4‘s multiplayer mode is much more hit-and-miss, and isn’t really worth delving into now that it’s all but dead. Also… was it mentioned that players can ride elephants into battle?

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Charge, Stampy!

While it’s a shame that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is in near-complete lockstep with that of a preceding title, the game is saved from feeling wholly derivative by providing much better storytelling than Far Cry 3. Players who get into Far Cry solely to shoot things might feel like they’re rerunning Far Cry 3, but other players might also be pleasantly surprised by how good the tale of Ajay Ghale and Pagan Min is. It’s worth it for gamers in both camps to at least try the title, especially since Far Cry 5 is still a few months away.

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You can buy Far Cry 4 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Far Cry 3

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Rescue your friends from the clutches of an insane pirate lord.

PC Release: December 4, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Are there any gamers out there who are ready to feel old? No? Well, too bad, because Far Cry 3 is five years old. It released a half-decade ago as of last month. Crazy, huh? Feels like just yesterday Vaas was torturing McLovin on the pristine beaches of the Rook Islands. With Far Cry 5 only a few months away, now feels like a good time to stroll down that avenue of memory lane.

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Though few would guess it from looking at Far Cry nowadays, the series got its start as a linear sci-fi shooter. The original Far Cry was developed by CryTek, and dealt less with trying to survive in an anarchic open world than battling mutants and stopping mad scientists. After Ubisoft bought the rights to the series, the publisher used Far Cry 2 to reinvent the franchise as an open-world shooter grounded in more realistic enemies and obstacles.

Far Cry 2 succeeded in exploring open-world violence, but the game was a very rough cut of that concept in action. Far Cry 3 heavily refines what Far Cry 2 pioneered, doing away with the focus on ultra-realism in favor of an emphasis on player freedom. Far Cry 3 also focuses a bit more on story and narrative, with larger-than-life characters built to complement its wild world.

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Kitty!

Far Cry 3 begins when a group of rich kids from SoCal decide that it’d be fun to go skydiving in lovely southeast Asia. Unfortunately for them, the island chain they land on is ruled over by a psychopathic pirate named Vaas, who promptly imprisons all of them and plans to sell them into slavery. Player character Jason Brody escapes from Vaas’s camp and finds refuge with the native Rakyat people, who’ve also suffered greatly under Vaas’s reign.

Even though Jason is a rich American kid who’s never wielded a gun in his life, the Rakyat inexplicably believe him to be a hero whose coming was foretold in some ancient prophecy. As Jason, it’s up to players to travel across the Rook Islands, defeating Vaas’s pirates and freeing Jason’s friends one by one. Jason isn’t alone in his quest to liberate his pals, receiving help from such eccentric supporting characters as an expat botanist, a Liberian soldier, a crazed CIA operative, and an obnoxiously sexualized island priestess.

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I don’t have my seat belt on I DON’T HAVE MY SEAT BELT ON

Right off the bat, Far Cry 3‘s premise is difficult to take seriously. The game expects players to believe that a white Cali kid who probably grew up in the same neighborhood as the Bluth family can somehow succeed where dozens of battle-hardened brown people failed. The white savior complex is strong with this game, and it’s a complex that Far Cry 3 expects players to buy hook, line and sinker.

Jason Brody’s evolution as a character is similarly hard to buy without guffawing. Sure, the kid starts out timid and unsure of himself as he makes his first trips around the islands, but the game depicts him gradually tiring of a “civilized” life and becoming enamored with stabbing people in the jungle. It’s not impossible to buy that time in an anarchic hellhole could do that to a person, but Jason’s character change feels painfully forced even when accounting for that notion.

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Genocide is fun!

Fortunately, Far Cry 3‘s supporting characters are much easier to buy than the posh kid-turned-jungle killer. The Rakyat guy who earnestly believes that Jason is the hero is even harder to take seriously than Jason himself, but each of the other characters has his or her own believable air of tragedy. The aforementioned botanist is easy to feel sorry for between his being exiled and his daughter being dead, while the CIA agent stokes laughter with his over-the-top boasts of American greatness.

Far more fascinating than Jason’s allies, though, are his enemies. Vaas is easily one of gaming’s most entertaining villains, conjuring up a blend of laughter and cringe a la the Joker or Reservoir Dogs. Whether it’s pontificating on the nature of insanity or brutally executing a prisoner, Vaas is a fascinating character to watch and is believable as a product of Far Cry 3‘s environment. It’s just a shame that he’s not the primary antagonist; that other guy is way less interesting.

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Vaas is the jungle and the jungle is Vaas.

The narrative binding all of these characters together is much less memorable than the characters themselves. All players have to do is rescue their friends one at a time in a rinse-and-repeat cycle that feels conspicuously like the early Assassin’s Creed games (coincidence, Ubisoft?). Far Cry 3‘s story is built exclusively around prepping for and executing these rescue missions, culminating in one of the dumbest, easiest-to-make story decisions of recent gaming years. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that the choice is built up in apropos of nothing and is therefore easy to make.

Story enthusiasts won’t find much earth to till in Far Cry 3, but that might be because storytelling is not this game’s point. The story missions are meant to serve as beacons between which players engage in hours of adventuring fun around the islands. The true narrative highlights of Far Cry 3 lie not in its cutscenes or writing, but in jumping off of mountains and engaging predatory animals in the jungle. That might be part of the reason why so many critics compared Far Cry 3 to Skyrim.

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Another lovely day in paradise…

Open-world adventuring is what Far Cry 3 does best, and the game still does it better than most of its contemporaries even five years after release. Players are given two massive islands to explore and can search every nook and cranny from the tallest mountain peak to the deepest depths of the ocean. Because this is a Ubisoft game, players can bet that there are plenty of collectibles and treasure chests to find out in the world, with loot that can go toward buying bigger and better guns.

What’s that? Guns? Far Cry 3 is so rife with firearms that players could be forgiven for thinking they’re the national currency of the Rook Islands. Players can wield everything from pistols on up to LMGs; no matter its class, each gun in Far Cry 3 feels powerful and is a pleasure to wield. Players can also go in loud with a variety of grenades or sneak around stabbing people with a cool tribal knife. Far Cry 3 packs light RPG elements, allowing players to level up and obtain upgrades for sneaking or shooting.

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This right here is an example of a “shooty” gameplay style.

Getting around the Rook Islands is a breeze thanks to the Rakyat people’s fondness for cars and boats. The game’s vehicle controls are a bit clunky (especially in rocky terrain), but players can adapt to that beat up old Jeep with some practice. It’s just crazy that Far Cry 3 disallows players from shooting while driving, which is especially inconvenient during high-speed chases. Players who are up for more scenic travel can hop onto a hang glider; just make sure not to crash into a cliff. Oh, also, bring a parachute, because there’s no other safe way off of a hang glider.

In addition to finding guns, treasure, and more guns, players can also explore the Rook Islands for side missions and conquerable outposts. The former comprise survival challenges like killing a set of bad guys with only a knife, while the latter make for some great gun battles. Capturing enemy outposts allows players to obtain gear and see new locations around the islands, as well as encounter fewer pirate patrols. Each of the Rook Islands has its own brand of bad guy, which staves off the feeling of repetition that might otherwise come with constantly capturing outposts.

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Gently does it… gently does it…

The final piece of Far Cry 3‘s gun-toting, jungle-sneaking puzzle is crafting. Players can make bigger and better ammo bags from the hides of the Rook Islands’ various animals… nearly all of which are man-eating carnivores. Seriously, any ecologist who says that tigers are endangered needs to go to the Rook Islands, because there are literal swarms of them prowling the jungle. The idea of tigers, Komodo dragons, wolves, crocodiles, dingoes, sharks, cassowaries and other beasties all coexisting in one ecosystem is laughable, but it also makes Far Cry 3‘s world a thrill to traverse.

Far Cry 3‘s gameplay requires some suspension of disbelief, but it makes for one of gaming’s smoothest open-world packages even though it’s five years old. It’s refreshingly easy for players to get into a Jeep, capture an outpost, switch over to a boat, dive into shark-infested waters, and then hang glide home for lunch with pockets full of doubloons. Couple this ease of exploration with no shortage of fun missions, and the result is a game with an uncommonly acute understanding of the phrase “open world.”

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DOWN, FISH!

The icing on Far Cry 3‘s cake of blood and violence is its presentation. Even a half-decade later, the game still looks pretty good. Players can expect lots of brightly lit, brightly colored tropical environments that are consistent in their quality… sans the occasional floating patch of weeds. This island paradise’s only other drawback is its draw distance, which causes objects to pop in a little close for comfort and can only be adjusted so much in the game’s options menu.

Far Cry 3‘s sound design is also top-notch. Guns go off with satisfying force and the island’s fauna produce no shortage of startling noises. The game’s voice acting, a category that Vaas actor Michael Mando wins handily, is believable and compelling even if the story could be more so. The Rook Islands might be a hellhole, but they make up one of the most beautiful hellholes in recent gaming memory.

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Paradise awaits for the cheap, cheap price of your soul!

Far Cry 3 is an easy title to enjoy as long as players ignore the narrative. This game’s story is a badly paced exercise in forced character development and white savior-ism, despite the admirable efforts of Michael Mando as Vaas. Its gameplay, by contrast, is a smoothly concocted round of open-world adventuring that is guaranteed to provide dozens of hours of fun. Come for Vaas, stay for being able to snipe a tiger from a mountaintop while high on strange herbs. That should be the Rook Islands’ slogan.

Oh, and… Ubisoft? Hurk isn’t funny.

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You can buy Far Cry 3 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

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Witness the rise of the Assassins.

PC Release: October 27, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Well, well, well, look what’s back after two years away! It turns out that Ubisoft has at least a modicum of self-awareness; the publisher decided to give the Assassin’s Creed series a break when it became clear that everyone was all assassin’d out. Indeed, Ubisoft now seems devoted to this revolutionary concept of not releasing annual sequels, and Assassin’s Creed Origins is its first proof of that concept.

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The Assassin’s Creed series made a strong showing with its eponymous 2007 debut. Despite its flaws, millions of fans fell in love with the saga’s tale of freedom-loving Assassins and power-hungry Templars duking it out throughout the course of history. From the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution, there was seemingly no setting that Ubisoft’s new flagship series left untouched. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag released to universal (and well-deserved) acclaim in 2013, the series was at its zenith.

Then… Assassin’s Creed Unity happened. Released in 2014, Unity‘s high-flying tale of French Revolution intrigue was one of Ubisoft’s ugliest displays of hubris. In addition to being released in a broken state across all three platforms, Unity was stuffed with such bizarre design choices as needing a mobile app to unlock certain treasure chests. Unity‘s release made Ubisoft the laughingstock of the gaming world and even slowed the sales of 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

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ARE WE HAVING FUN YET, AMI?

After Syndicate (which was an alright game, by the way) failed to sell anywhere near what Ubisoft wanted, the company realized that rushing these games out year after year was probably a bad idea. As a result, no Assassin’s Creed game was released last year, as Ubisoft elected to take more time on this year’s release: Assassin’s Creed Origins. As implied by its title, the game is a soft reboot of the franchise that seeks to explore the hitherto untold origin story of the series’ hooded killers.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes place in ancient Egypt over a thousand years before the events of even the first game. Players assume the role of Bayek, an Egyptian Medjay (think sheriff), who’s out for revenge after a cabal of masked figures kills his young son. The part about avenging the death of a loved one should sound instantly familiar to any Assassin’s Creed fan, and Origins tows that part to a T.

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Revenge is a dish best served sweltering.

Bayek may not be an Assassin on paper, but few would suspect that after watching him scale a pyramid. Like his many series predecessors, Bayek is an apt gymnast who can cross towering buildings and treacherous chasms in the blink of an eye. Players can put these abilities to good use attacking foes from above, or creep through some conveniently arranged bushes.

Origins also gets rid of the parkour-up and parkour-down system established by Assassin’s Creed Unity in favor of the more free-form system seen in earlier games. The result is a climbing system that feels more organic and allows for more movement (even if that means that players may unintentionally leap to their death every so often). Between the Pyramids of Giza and the numerous citadels and temples throughout ancient Egypt, players will never want for things to climb on.

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The Sphinx, pre-nose job.

Bayek’s sneaking and climbing is nicely complemented by his Eagle Vision. Like all of its predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Origins gives players a sixth sense for detecting bad guys and treasure, and it’s not dissimilar to the Batman: Arkham games’ detective mode. Unlike previous AC games, Bayek’s Eagle Vision is tied to the eyes of his pet eagle Senu, whom players can use to spot bad guys and points of interest just like the drone in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. How Bayek can see through his eagle isn’t ever quite explained… perhaps he’s a descendant of Takkar from Far Cry Primal?

However, neither organic free-climbing nor a telepathic murder-bird can hold a candle to Origins‘ greatest gameplay strength: its combat. Past Assassin’s Creed games tended to make combat too simple or too complicated, but Origins‘ fighting is silky smooth. As Bayek, players can fight foes with a variety of tight maneuvers like dodging and parrying, or snipe from a distance with a deadly longbow. Origins‘ combat makes it one of the most fun third-person melees to come this way in a while, and is a far cry from the tedious fighting of Assassin’s Creed Unity.

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You can also ride a camel. 11/10 would camel again.

Origins‘ preference for straightforward weapons over convoluted stealth tools gives the Assassin’s Creed series a badly needed breath of fresh air. Whereas past Assassin’s Creed games bogged players down with a riot of weird tools, Origins simply hands players a sword and a bow and says go get ’em. Bayek does obtain a few stealth gadgets (like the hidden blade), but most of these are context-specific tools that can be deployed on the fly. All of this comprises the series’ tightest gameplay since that of Black Flag. Naval combat also makes a welcome return, albeit restricted to a handful of linear missions.

Origins‘ neatly stratified gameplay is put to great use in its vast open world. Origins‘ rendition of ancient Egypt is by far the largest map the series has ever produced, comparable to Skyrim in both size and number of locations to explore. Players can sink dozens of hours into raiding Egypt’s tombs or hunting animals that prowl the oases. Origins also has more cities than any other Assassin’s Creed game, allowing players to explore Alexandria, Memphis, Cyrene, and other famous ancient world locales. It’s a rich, seamless realm that offers up no shortage of exploration and fun.

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Whadya mean there are no jazz clubs here? It says Memphis on the sign!

Players can also bet that Origins‘ Egypt is as beautiful as it is deep. The game’s environments comprise a gorgeous quilt of wilderness, towns, and cities; even Assassin’s Creed II‘s Renaissance landmarks can’t compare to the intricacies of Alexandria or the stark color of the desert. Origins make use of strong colors and plentiful object detail to bring its world to life. The game features dozens of environments ranging from dunes to forests (in stark contrast to the notion that Egypt is nothing but desert). Players can traverse this land on a horse, a camel, or in a boat.

Though Origins‘ environments are pretty to look at, its character models are much less impressive. Assassin’s Creed has never done well with its characters, and Origins‘ ancient Egyptian denizens look just as much like mannequins as the NPCs in previous installments. NPCs do look much more detailed during cutscenes, but all that detail quickly fades back into obscurity once the gameplay resumes.

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Would you look at that?

Origins rounds out its detailed level design and varied color palette with some of the series’ best sound design. The music borrows heavily from that of the very first Assassin’s Creed, relying on fast percussion and electronically modified horns to build a novel soundscape. Origins‘ other sounds are similarly rich; everything from Bayek’s footsteps through sand to the unsheathing of his blade sounds satisfying. The voice acting is hit-and-miss, but the characters who matter to the story are all well-voiced.

Yes, though Assassin’s Creed Origins continues the series’ tradition of historical figure cameos, they’re not as obnoxious as those of previous installments. Whereas Assassin’s Creed Syndicate rather pathetically shoehorned a nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle into its Victorian world, Origins presents a few famous faces and leaves the rest of the storytelling to the Assassins. Origins‘ decision to reign in the cameos is a welcome change over stuffing them awkwardly into the story. The game’s storytelling also benefits from the presence of meaty side missions instead of the usual story-free side activities.

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NOBODY MOVE! I dropped a scalpel!

While it’s fun to see Cleopatra and Julius Ceasar on the gaming screen, Origins‘ story is made on its original characters. Bayek is the most likable Assassin yet produced by the series; not even the legendarily affable Ezio Auditore can compete with this character’s wit, charm, and humanity. Bayek’s likability stems from the dichotomy of his infinite compassion for his fellow Egyptians… and his infinite hatred for the ones who killed his son. The character suffers crises of faith and fits of savage rage just as he plays with children and tells genuinely funny jokes.

Bayek is also an altogether different character than the many Assassins before (or after?) him. In stark contrast to most Assassin’s Creed protagonists, he is ardently religious, and it’s fascinating to see him try to reconcile his faith with all the blood on his hands. The game’s writing pulls off that inner conflict beautifully, without all the proverbial detritus that’s slowed the cogs of past Assassin’s Creed games. Aya, Bayek’s wife, is similarly torn between her desire for revenge and for Egypt to reclaim its past glory. Players can switch over to her for a few missions and rather emphatically prove wrong the notion that women can’t fight (or ignite lighthouses).

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Heaven help those who tempt parents’ wrath.

It’s because of its strong characters that Assassin’s Creed Origins sticks the story landing despite using the same premise as other titles. Origins is hardly the first AC game to send a protagonist off to avenge a loved one’s demise, but it is the first since Black Flag to portray characters’ emotions so candidly. Those portrayals go a long way toward encouraging players to once again kill their way through a list of greedy fat cats, and add fresh context to what would otherwise be a tired routine.

Because of its attention to detail, decent writing, and instantly likable characters, Origins‘ story is one of the best Assassin’s Creed tales yet. The story does suffer occasional pacing issues (especially toward the end), but Bayek’s quest for justice in an Egypt being torn apart from within is compelling stuff. The game’s ancient world setting is also the series’ most vibrant since the Renaissance set pieces; hopefully a future AC game sees players off to Greece or the Roman Empire.

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Don’t slip!

Origins has a lot to offer gamers on every platform, but the title has a special present for PC players: great system performance. It seems ridiculous to type onto this page, but even as of launch, Assassin’s Creed Origins suffers almost no performance issues. Occasionally the game may crash, but the title launched bereft of the character pop-in and other problems that have plagued Ubisoft titles for years. Origins comes up with a clean bill of health for PC gamers, and that’s marvelous.

Assassin’s Creed Origins has saved the Assassin’s Creed series, and is second only to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as the best game the franchise has ever produced. Whether it’s delving into the pyramids or igniting one of the most emotionally charged narratives that triple-A gaming has ever produced, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a resounding success that gamers everywhere should try. Origins has broken the shadow cast by Assassin’s Creed Unity and made being an AC fan fun again.

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You can buy Assassin’s Creed Origins here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Destiny 2

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Save humanity’s last, best chance for survival.

PC Release: October 24, 2017

By Ian Coppock

After much hooting and hollering from console fanboys to try this game, try this gameDestiny 2 has landed on PC. Most PC gamers (especially the ones who game only on that platform), have reacted to the launch in ways ranging from mild interest to complete indifference. Those reactions could be chalked up to gaming’s long and sad history of broken PC ports, but it might just be because few PC gamers have ever played a Destiny game. Destiny 2 is out to change that, and to make a big splash in the world of PC gaming.

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Destiny 2 is a massively multiplayer shooter and the second installment in Bungie’s new flagship series. The legendary developer, best known for creating Halo, began work on the first Destiny shortly after escaping Microsoft’s clutches. The game released in 2014 to mixed reviews; critics and gamers praised its gunplay but took everything else (especially its “story”) to task. The game eventually straightened up and flew right, but only after releasing multiple, overpriced expansions that gamers were only too happy to throw money at.

Originally, Destiny was supposed to be a 10-year endeavor, but Bungie’s publisher, Activision, isn’t known for not releasing sequels all the time (cough*Call of Duty*cough). Destiny 2 shot out of the gate barely a year after its predecessor’s last expansion. The title has been hailed by console gamers as a major improvement over the first title, but PC gamers have no such point of reference, so reviews like these will have to suffice.

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HAVE AT THEE, ALIEN-KNAVE!

For those PC gamers who need a quick primer, the Destiny games are sci-fi shooters set in a universe of both spaceships and magic. After enjoying centuries of peace and prosperity across the Solar System, an apocalyptic event called “the Collapse” forces humanity to retreat to Earth ahead of a foe called “the Darkness.” Humanity’s sole hope for survival is the Traveler, a sentient globe that gives certain humans a magic power called Light. These warriors, the Guardians, serve as the Destiny series’ player characters and are the only thing standing between mankind and a myriad of alien threats.

Destiny 2 takes place a year after the last Destiny expansion and opens with the Cabal (one of those aforementioned alien threats), invading humanity’s last city and taking the Traveler for themselves. The player’s Guardian rushes home to help repel the invaders but gets their Light stolen by Ghaul, a Cabal leader who seeks the Traveler’s power for himself. As the Guardian, it’s up to players to get their mojo back, assemble humanity’s scattered forces, and retake the city before the Traveler’s Light is snuffed out forever.

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So I’m guessing that deflector shield didn’t work out…

As a Guardian, players can employ a diverse mix of magic powers and sci-fi weaponry to take the fight to humanity’s foes. Players can find and equip ever better armor, as well as a wide range of pistols, rifles, rocket launchers, and other killing implements. As players regain their Light, they can also unlock special abilities that even the odds on the battlefield. Players can pick from a few different classes that each emphasize guns or magic or a mix of the two, and branch out into sub-classes as the game goes on.

As players level up and gain new abilities, they can also explore dangerous areas all over the Solar System. The Cabal are hardly the only threat to humanity; a wide variety of other alien species are happily squatting in the ruins of mankind’s solar empire. These include four-armed bug pirate things and a race of creepy robots that are basically Geth in all but name. Players can face these threats by playing through the story or teaming up to embark upon MMO-style dungeon raids.

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And here we have a fossilized parkour gym…

Destiny 2‘s first-person gunplay is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built, and boy is it identical to Halo. Anyone who played Halo back in the day will instantly recognize how Destiny 2‘s weapons handle. Grenades float through the air as if borne on the backs of butterflies, while light weapons feel more like Super Soakers than actual firearms. Thankfully, Destiny 2‘s mainline guns pack much more of a kick than the weapons in Halo, which helps players feel like the powerful space warriors that the game wants them to be.

Destiny 2‘s other big gameplay feature is its powers, which players can level up and earn like in most RPGs. Different classes offer different powers; the Titan class, for example, focuses on brute battlefield strength, while the Warlock emphasizes devastating magical powers. As players pick and choose these powers, they can branch out into sub-classes that offer further specialization. These powers are a mixed bag: some, like the Hunter’s double-bladed melee pandemonium, are awesome. Other powers… not so much.

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Oh my God it actually IS a Super Soaker!

Players can use these guns and powers to undertake story missions (most of which are relatively brief) or explore pseudo-open world areas in pursuit of items, quests, and timed events like boss battles. These areas are fun to explore and are also apparently much larger than the ones found in Destiny. Neither of these activities holds a candle, though, to going on Strikes and Raids. Strikes are small-scale dungeon adventures meant to be completed in just a few hours, while Raids (much like their World of Warcraft counterparts) are involved marathons that can support huge fireteams.

Of course, any game involving Bungie also features PvP multiplayer. Destiny 2 introduces a few modes for the multiplayer enthusiast to try, including the time-honored deathmatch and a fun best-of-ten mode called countdown. These bouts are some of the most fun multiplayer shooting to come to PC so far this fall, as teams of four players fight viciously for supremacy. Players can also compete in weekend-long competitions called Trials of the Nine, or in the Iron Banner, a tournament that randomizes each player’s equipment without unbalancing anyone.

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SING, MY ANGEL OF MURDER!

With that rather exhaustive list of shooter features out of the way, it’s time to ask a more fundamental question: is it fun? The answer is that yes, Destiny 2‘s shooting is indeed fun; the caveat is that it’s not shooting that hasn’t already been done a million times. Destiny 2‘s shooting is a very “safe” amalgamation of all the shooter trends popular in the industry these days, so players hoping for something more novel might be disappointed. Destiny 2 also has a vicious appetite for grinding, and players who don’t share that appetite might get bored by gunning down alien waves over and over.

Additionally, while Destiny 2‘s gameplay is polished on the front end, its underpinnings could use some work. The game’s menus are a jumbled mess that juxtapose player powers, maps, locations, and arsenals. For some reason, prompts to start missions on a given world sometimes appear away from that world. Destiny 2‘s menus can be hard to follow, and that assessment is coming from someone with a great deal more patience than the pathologically impatient shooter fans this game is presumably aimed at.

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Does anyone else see a Krogan, Darth Revan, and Garrus?

Destiny 2‘s story is a similarly “safe” space odyssey that doesn’t break any notable ground for the genre. If this game’s narrative is an improvement over the first game’s, that might just be because the first game didn’t really have one (at least the vanilla version). Destiny 2‘s narrative goes through the typical paces of a space opera: a big bad guy appears, someone gets captured, the hero needs to believe in themselves, and an epic battle ensues. There’s even the monologue about saving the galaxy, and a planet-destroying superweapon to boot.

None of these things are bad, per se, but the game’s singular focus on plot comes at the expense of the characters. No one evolves along with the story or changes in a meaningful way; the NPCs are just there to yell missions into the player’s ear. Sorry, but even Destiny 2 poster boy Cayde-6 is funny for only so long. Destiny 2‘s focus on scale instead of narrative is no surprise coming from an Activision studio, but it still represents a missed opportunity to inject some Mass Effect-style nuance back into space adventuring.

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Darth Ghaul, Dark Lord of the Space Hippos.

Then again, perhaps it’s a bit naive to take a game so obviously built for multiplayer to task for having an underwhelming story. Sure, the narrative is what binds Destiny 2 together, but its multiplayer scene is where the game truly comes alive. No, the real stories of Destiny 2 are the ones of friends getting together to take out hellholes full of alien creatures, not a silent Guardian’s fight against an obese space turtle.

What’s more, Destiny 2 runs well on PC, so players seeking those great multiplayer stories can do so without having to worry about crashes and too much lag. It would seem that that extra month or two that Bungie took to port this game was well spent, as Destiny 2 can maintain a consistent framerate and has been praised by many gamers for running well even on subpar rigs. Players might experience occasional lag, but that happens on any multiplayer game with a heavy server load.

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Oh God, a Space Toaster! TAKE COVER

While the Destiny fanboys may have exaggerated how fresh and novel the game’s shooting is, they certainly weren’t kidding about the scenery. Destiny 2 is a gorgeous game that weaves thousands of colors into epic space paintings. The game’s environments are layered with rich colors and object detail, which helps Destiny 2 give off that space opera vibe. Many times, players will also have the opportunity to behold jaw-dropping vistas, especially anytime the Traveler is within view.

While on the subject of art and immersion, it’s also worth pointing out that Destiny 2 has one of the prettiest soundtracks of any 2017 game. Bungie is well-known for its musical chops and gave Destiny 2 a spine-tingling OST driven by strings and deep horns. It’s a set of music that moves at about the same pace as the tracks of the original Halo, but abandons Gregorian chant in favor of a more diverse sound. This is definitely one of those titles whose soundtrack is also worth buying.

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(drool)

In conclusion, Destiny 2 is one of those games that’s built to the scale of everyone’s favorite space epics, but it relies on the players to spin the story instead of a team of writers. The game’s subpar central narrative is not the star of the show; the stars are the great tales of battle that players pass from Discord server to Discord server. While Destiny 2‘s gunplay isn’t anything new, its curious post-apocalyptic excitement adds enough novelty to keep the fun going for a long time.

The bottom line for PC gamers is that Destiny 2 is worth taking more than a glance at. It won’t replace Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Team Fortress 2 in anyone’s library of favorite multiplayer shooters, but it might just be a worthy enough companion for even those vaunted titles. Get some friends together and give the game a try, because while Bungie explores little new ground when it comes to shooting, the stars are the limit in its mesmerizing space fantasy universe.

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You can buy Destiny 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole

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Wage superhero warfare across the town of South Park.

PC Release: October 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

In an age when people take offense more easily than ever before, there’s never been a greater need for South Park. Biting social satire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as long as programs like South Park fearlessly lampoon everything under the sun, then maybe, just maybe, a few people might remember not to take everything under that sun so damn seriously. Video games have also provided a platform for satire and absurdity, and the boys who provided so much of it in South Park: The Stick of Truth are back with another digital jab at the universe in South Park: The Fractured But Whole.

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a role-playing adventure game set in the universe of the eponymous TV show. The game was originally slated to be released in December of 2016 but was delayed by over 10 months. To hear publisher Ubisoft put it, more time was needed to ensure that the game met “the high expectations of fans.” The title was originally going to be called South Park: The Butthole of Time, until South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker learned that retailers wouldn’t sell a product with the word “butthole” in its name. South Park: The Fractured But Whole is their workaround.

Like South Park: The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole was created with the close involvement of Parker and Stone. Television’s edgiest duo did far more than provide the main characters’ voices; they also served as executive producers and writers for the title. Such involvement is the right way to do a licensed game, and it sets The Fractured But Whole apart from so many uninspired tie-in games that also borrowed a license.

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To battle!

South Park: The Fractured But Whole picks up soon after the events of The Stick of Truth and once again casts players as the New Kid, a mute fourth grader who moved to South Park at the start of the previous game. Players can customize the New Kid with a wide variety of accessories and hairstyles. Fantastically, The Fractured But Whole also allows players to play as a female character (Stick of Truth was no-girls-allowed). Parker and Stone didn’t waste any time implementing their biting humor, as the game’s difficulty and skin tone sliders are one and the same.

The Fractured But Whole makes another big shakeup by swapping out The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy role-playing motif for the capes of South Park‘s long-running superhero subplot, Coon And Friends. When Cartman shows up with a missing cat poster promising a $100 reward, the boys quickly embark upon a quest to get that money and launch their cinematic universe. The New Kid decides to join the hunt as well, in a story that simultaneously parodies the film Captain America: Civil War and lampoons the long running Marvel-DC rivalry.

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Don’t forget Coon vs Supercraig: The Return of Tupperware!

Like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole is a class-based RPG. After creating their character, players can also build a superhero persona from a variety of classes and powers. There’s something for every fighting style; players who like brute force can pick superhuman strength, while those who prefer a defter touch can go after psychic or cyborg powers. Players can add more powers to their arsenal as they progress through the game, but choose carefully; with great power comes great responsibility.

Also like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole‘s combat is turn-based. Players can summon allies to their side and engage groups of foes with offensive and defensive moves just like in the last game. They can also make use of items like snacks and potions to restore health and revive fallen comrades. The one big change this system offers over The Stick of Truth is the incorporation of movement squares. Players can now move around the combat space to inflict more damage to foes or dodge attacks that take more than a turn to charge.

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This is super cereal.

The addition of movement to the South Park series’ combat is a mixed bag. While it is fun to be able to move closer to enemies and inflict more damage on them, it’s also easy for players’ teammates to get in each other’s way. Characters can’t unleash superhero moves if an ally is standing in front of them, which is made all the more problematic by the game’s small battle spaces. This also makes it easy for characters to box each other in or funnel foes through debris to pick them off one by one.

To be fair to The Fractured But Whole, the game also makes some refinements to what The Stick of Truth introduced. Just like in the last game, the New Kid can unleash devastatingly powerful farts. These fart move are far better explained and far easier to use than the ones in The Stick of Truth and require holding down only two buttons instead of executing hokey keyboard/mouse maneuvers. The New Kid’s farts are also much more powerful; ripping a big one sometimes means ripping the fabric of time.

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I can smell your fear… and your farts!

The Fractured But Whole lets players manage all this combat and chaos from a wide selection of menus. Using the New Kid’s phone, players can manage everything from their superhero’s appearance to the number of followers on Coonstagram. The Fractured But Whole is a little too eager to throw all of these menus at new players, but they’re reasonably streamlined and do an admirable job of letting players manage their character. Players can also call upon the power of the options menu to tweak the game as needed; this menu is a solid one, with plenty of toggles to play around with.

The Fractured But Whole‘s character management system is deeper and more streamlined than that of The Stick of Truth. Tethering power bonuses to clothing made sense in The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy RPG landscape, but The Fractured But Whole changes things up by chaining buffs to artifacts instead of outfits. These artifacts can be slotted to the New Kid and allow for bonuses like increased attack and hit points. This system allows players to retain a powerful character while also being free to dress them up in whatever superhero garb they find coolest.

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Phone menus! Phone menus everywhere!

When player aren’t busy customizing their character or taking on gangs of Professor Chaos’s goons, they’re busy exploring the town of South Park. Just like in The Stick of Truth, players explore the town from a side-scrolling perspective and can take a glance at everything from the boys’ neighborhood to downtown. Exploring South Park remains as fun as ever (especially for fans), but the town hasn’t changed all that much since The Stick of Truth. Indeed, with the exception of only 4-5 new buildings, the town map looks pretty much identical to that of The Stick of Truth.

Additionally, the side quests around town feel less inspired than those in The Stick of Truth. Their design seems mundane in comparison to something truly novel, like the last game’s Al Gore/Manbearpig story arc. Rather than diving headfirst into prolonged references to the TV show, players typically engage in more ho-hum tasks like finding Jimbo’s wallet. Even the funnier side quests tend to be similarly short and shallow, feeling more like the repeatable radiant quests in Skyrim than anything else.

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(yawn)

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s side quests and world feel a bit stale, its main narrative is one hell of a lot more interesting than that of The Stick of Truth. For all the comedy gold The Stick of Truth struck, its plotline about Nazi zombies felt lazy and outdated. The TV show’s satire is known for its timeliness, so to see a 2014 game adopt a zombie meme that stopped being funny years ago was unusual (the part about Randy being the New Kid’s fart sensei was pretty funny, though).

The Fractured But Whole has a more interesting story that meshes the boys’ Coons And Friends mythos into a narrative about crime, law, and farts (what else could anyone want?). The only issue with this story is that for all its satire and potty mouth, it runs mostly on plot threads recycled from previous South Park episodes. It feels less like an original story and more like a smashup of some of the show’s most popular moments; rarely does it contrive its own comedy. The story that’s there is coherent and funny, but… it’s not very original.

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Yeah, Randy passed out drunk isn’t new story territory.

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s story is by and large cogent, it does face the threat of being undone by one simple foe: bugs. As of writing, The Fractured But Whole suffers a wide-ranging gambit of performance issues and other problems. The game is subject to crashing (especially to the black screen of death) and freezing up on players. Cutscenes have an unfortunate tendency to freeze or stutter.

Players may also experience other bugs that are more trivial but no less frustrating. Sometimes characters’ spoken audio will cut out. Other times, the game’s text boxes contain no text at all. These issues make more sense when remembering that The Fractured But Whole was developed by a branch of Ubisoft, a company whose previous games have also exhibited problems like these. Oh Ubisoft… when will it produce a video game that only has more functions than bugs?

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This must be Ubisoft’s quality control office.

The main takeaway that fans of South Park: The Stick of Truth should bear in mind is that The Fractured But Whole represents the best and worst of video game sequels. The game’s high point is its story, which is funnier and more succinct than that of The Stick of Truth despite being built out of previous South Park story points. Less admirable, though, is the game’s cadre of uninspired side missions and little-changed world. Additionally, while The Fractured But Whole gives players more power than ever to create their own South Park character, that freedom comes at the price of too many menus and the clunky incorporation of movement into combat.

None of that is to say anything of The Fractured But Whole‘s numerous bugs, which mar the game’s core experience and may leave players quite frustrated. These bugs are more than likely a product of the game’s prolonged development. A game being delayed by a few months is one thing, but The Fractured But Whole‘s 10-month delay points to problematic development. That theory is far more believable than Ubisoft’s vague notions of ensuring only the best for South Park fans. Then again, given that all of the games Ubisoft produces these days are buggy, perhaps fandom really was the reason.

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What happened here?

Despite its deeper character customization and improved main plotline, South Park: The Fractured But Whole isn’t as good as The Stick of Truth. Fans should still at least try the title; just be ready to hit that refund button if the aforementioned bugs or the scourge that is Uplay verification prove problematic. Newcomers to the South Park game scene should first try The Stick of Truth before considering this game. Even though The Fractured But Whole provides the satire that’s so dearly needed in today’s hyper-charged climate, its numerous drawbacks preclude getting the full South Park experience.

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You can buy South Park: The Fractured But Whole here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Evil Within 2

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Risk life and limb in a world of nightmares to rescue an innocent girl.

PC Release: October 13, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The 2017 holiday release season is off to a pretty good start. Games are not only being released in working condition; they’re actually optimized for PC! Granted, the Q4 release period still has a ways to go, but so far things are looking okay for players who game on PC. Now that Dishonored: Death of the Outsider has come and gone, Bethesda is taking another swing at gamers’ wallets with The Evil Within 2, the second installment in Shinji Mikami’s newest universe of nightmares.

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The Evil Within 2 is a third-person horror shooter and the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within, a title created and directed by Resident Evil godfather Shinji Mikami. Like the first game, The Evil Within 2 is a big fan of putting players in a scary world and seeing how long they can survive (and go without crying). Mikami elected not to direct the sequel, though; he stuck around as an executive producer but handed directing duties to level designer John Johanas, who directed the first game’s story DLC.

The Evil Within 2 picks up three years after the events of the first game, in which grizzled detective Sebastian Castellanos battled an ethereal world full of nightmarish creatures. Sebastian’s efforts to share his story with the world only resulted in him being labeled a kook and getting fired from the force. Since then, he’s spent his time trying to drown his memories of the evil world of STEM in the bottom of a bottle.

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Sebastian’s had it rough.

Things change when Sebastian gets approached by Juli Kidman, his old police partner and a covert operative for the sinister Mobius organization. Juli reveals that Sebastian’s young daughter Lily, thought to have died in a house fire years ago, is actually still alive and being used as a host for a new STEM world of Mobius’s creation. Lily’s stopped responding to communications from the outside world, though, and Mobius believes that only her father can find out why. Though he’s still traumatized by the events of the first game, Sebastian agrees to dive into another world of nightmares to save his little girl.

Despite Mobius’s assurances to the contrary, Sebastian enters this new STEM and, of course, discovers that it’s every bit as creepy and horrifying as the world he explored in The Evil Within. This realm’s denizens have all devolved into zombie-like creatures and a small cadre of psychopathic inhabitants seems to have run of the asylum. STEM’s newest lineup of psychos includes (among other characters), a psychotic priest with a god complex and a photographer who gets off on filming people as they die. All of them want to use Lily to shape STEM as they see fit.

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Damn hipster artists. Always trying to be so edgy…

The only way for Sebastian to stay alive in STEM is to use his head, and The Evil Within 2 does a good job of letting players do that. As in the first game, Sebastian is often outnumbered by monsters and must rely on tactics to survive. Players can find guns but ammo is pretty limited, so hiding behind corners and using stealth kills is a must-do. Players can gather ammo and medical syringes in the game world, both of which are a bit more plentiful in this title than in The Evil Within.

The Evil Within 2 is perfectly happy to borrow its predecessor’s sneak-and-stab gameplay, but not without a few shakeups. The sequel introduces a crafting system, allowing players to gather materials and use a workbench to make everything from ammo to medicine. Sebastian can also find gun parts and use them to upgrade his equipment. The creepy green gel upgrade system returns from the first game, and thankfully it includes stealth upgrades (for some reason The Evil Within didn’t have those).

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Try not to burp.

It’s good that The Evil Within 2 lets players beef their stealth up, because this game emphasizes sneakiness a lot. The first Evil Within had its occasional stealth encounter but by and large expected players to simply shoot the monsters out of the way. This time there are more, tougher monsters, so sneaking around is much smarter than going down guns blazing. The monsters aren’t necessarily brainier, though. They seem content to use the same patrol patterns as their shambling predecessors.

Additionally, John Johanas seems to have tamed Mikami’s enthusiasm for boss battles. Whereas most levels in the first game ended with a prolonged boss fight, The Evil Within 2 features far fewer such encounters… and that’s a good thing. Horror games are supposed to be about making players feel powerless in the face of an overwhelming force, and giving them the chance to fight that force head-on is a dysfunctional design choice. This time around, Sebastian is challenged to sneak past big baddies instead of deplete their many life bars, which is how a horror game should be.

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CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR

This increased emphasis on stealth and powerlessness makes The Evil Within 2 feel more like a horror game than its predecessor did. Sebastian still has his guns and his abilities, but The Evil Within 2 remembers to reward players for also using his wits. This shift is ironic considering that The Evil Within 2 marketed itself as more of a psychological horror game than a survival horror title… it would seem that the opposite effect was achieved, and what a happy accident that was.

The Evil Within 2 is also made to feel scary by its grotesque monster designs. Like a lot of Japanese horror media, The Evil Within 2 features creatures that could be politely described as creative and bluntly described as horrifying. Sebastian can expect to go up against a rogue’s gallery of ghouls during his second trip to STEM, and the fact that most of them are impossible to confront directly only makes them scarier. What do some of these contorted ghouls look like? Two words: living tripod.

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Nah, I don’t need my photo taken, thank you.

The Evil Within 2 is also scary because of its world, which feels much more cohesive than that of the first title. For all the scariness afforded by The Evil Within‘s individual levels, each was a completely segregated world that disjointed the larger production. Players would go from traipsing through a church to sneaking through a cityscape, often with absolutely no transition. The Evil Within 2‘s levels are each part of a larger, singular landscape. The result is a game whose world feels more focused and less random.

While on the subject of the game world, The Evil Within 2 meddles with the first game’s conventions by offering a mix of open-world and linear levels. Occasionally, Sebastian is forced to sneak around a small town rife with buildings to loot and side missions to complete. Though the open world design feels pedestrian and uninspired, it’s still fun to sneak around a monster-infested town in search of ammo and coffee. The game’s linear levels are much more in line with those of the first game: lots of doors, lots of hiding places, and lots of scares.

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“I’LL TEACH YOU NOT TO FLOSS, HOOMAN!”

The Evil Within 2 makes great strides with its heavier emphasis on stealth and by switching up its level design, but by far the best improvement the game makes over The Evil Within is its narrative. The Evil Within introduced an intriguing universe full of delectable lore, but the story that was supposed to bind it all together achieved no such goal. It was less a cohesive narrative than a tour of Shinji Mikami’s Super-Fun Horror Carnival: a magical place where creativity was abundant but was also recklessly thrown at players like snowballs.

By contrast, The Evil Within 2‘s story has some actual structure. It remembers to tell players why Sebastian is motivated to do what he does instead of just using him as a pair of eyes to purvey horror curios. Whereas the original game never really even explained why this person was in STEM in the first place, this title fleshes out motivations, exposition, and narrative in a thoughtful way. The pacing is nothing to write home about but both the dialogue and the plot are significantly better written. The game still has a few plot holes, but certainly nothing essential to understanding the story.

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There can be beauty in despair.

Sebastian’s exposure to all of these narrative changes is more of a mixed bag. The character gets much more dialogue, but all that’s to be found is the same gravely voiced horror hero present in other games. He’s likable, but part of the fun of The Evil Within was playing as someone who was profoundly unlikable. Side characters also get much more screen time, particularly Juli Kidman, who might just be the most fascinating character of all. Even though he risks being a Rick Grimes clone, Sebastian’s character evolution over the course of the game is both believable and deeply satisfying.

There’s a common theme in all of this talk of streamlined gameplay and a structured narrative: organization. Unlike its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 is more interested in offering a cogent horror experience to the player than just slinging endless spectacles at them. For all the amazing things that Japanese game design has pioneered, masters like Mikami have an unfortunate tendency to focus on creativity so completely that structure gets ignored. John Johanas’s game direction seems to have tempered this tendency, allowing Mikami’s creativity to flourish but not at the expense of structure.

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I am now deathly afraid of hide-and-seek.

It’s also worth pointing out that The Evil Within 2 runs well on PC. True, its system requirements are steep, but the game runs at a fluid framerate for any machine that can meet them. The game wasn’t without its launch day woes (including a bug that prevented Sebastian from walking into the third level), but Tango Gameworks has been rolling patches out at a breakneck pace, squashing most bugs wherever they can be found. Thankfully, The Evil Within 2 also does away with those stupid black bars that the first game paraded around. Get out of here with that “cinematic experience” crap.

The Evil Within 2 has some tired level design here, a plot hole or two there, and certainly isn’t without its occasional instance of hokey dialogue. At one point the game implies that all mentally ill people are destined to become murderous psychopaths. Despite all of that, its effective union of creativity and structure makes it one of the best big-budget horror games since 2014’s Alien: Isolation. The game moves its universe forward in a meaningful way and more effectively adheres to the conventions of good horror design. The result is a thrilling game worth sinking teeth into, and not just because it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor.

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You can buy The Evil Within 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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Liberate Victorian London from an authoritarian cabal.

PC Release: November 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Even in an age of unlimited sequels, Ubisoft’s devotion to churning out Assassin’s Creed games felt particularly gratuitous. Another year, another assassin running around killing people in an exotic locale. It wasn’t until the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, one of the worst big-budget games of the decade, that the studio checked its ego and realized that maybe, just maybe, fans’ patience was not unlimited. Before putting the series on a year-long hiatus, though, Ubisoft had one more card to play: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

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Released in the fall of 2015, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is, like its many predecessors, an open-world, third-person game that’s all about stabbing people. It’s the 10th Assassin’s Creed game released on PC in just eight years, making this series even more sequel-happy than Call of Duty. After the demise of Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014, Ubisoft released Syndicate a year later in the hopes of putting its flagship series back on track. Whether those hopes ever materialized is the subject of tonight’s review.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes the series’ secret war between freedom-loving Assassins and control-obsessed Templars to Victorian London. The game portrays the British capital as having been a bastion of Templar power for centuries, with the Assassin presence in the city all but obliterated. Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins living out in the boonies, decide (quite literally on a whim) to go to London and liberate it from its Templar masters. Whereas most Assassin’s Creed games take place over years or even decades, this title’s narrative takes place just in 1868.

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Time to go to merry old London!

Jacob and Evie unite with London’s last surviving Assassin and realize that the Templars do indeed run everything from banks to bilges. They control a good chunk of the British parliament, have a hand in all of the city’s most powerful industries, and rule the criminal underworld with a gang called the Blighters. In case all that wasn’t enough, the Templars are also searching for a Piece of Eden, one of those prehistoric mind control devices (because of course they are. That’s the premise of, like, every one of these damn games).

Jacob and Evie decide that the only way to liberate London is from the ground up, so they start the Rooks—the game’s titular crime syndicate—as a means of taking back power one city block at a time. Jacob decides to go after the Templar bigwigs running London’s various rackets while Evie looks for the Piece of Eden. Thus begins the latest battle in the millennia-old war between stab-happy freedom fighters and aloof control freaks.

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I think it’s time for a right proper slashing, eh wot?

Like all of its predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a third-person game that encourages players to explore a vast open world. Indeed, some might say that AC games are more about exploring than, y’know, assassinating people, especially considering all the collectibles. Players can pursue main story missions (which thankfully still involve assassination) or run around London gulping down tea and opening treasure chests as they see fit. Being a Ubisoft game, Syndicate is also rife with side activities like taking down enemy fortresses and stealing cartloads of crumpets.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does break away from its predecessors in some regards. It’s the first game in the series with two playable protagonists, allowing players to switch seamlessly between Jacob and Evie a la Grand Theft Auto V. Syndicate‘s marketing made a big noise about Jacob being a bruiser and Evie a sneaker, but both twins are pretty much identical when it comes to abilities (which calls the necessity of multiple protagonists into question). The game also introduces street vehicles and a few new gadgets for players to toy around with.

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‘Ello guv’na! *stab*

What’s that? New gadgets? Yes, Jacob and Evie get toys that scream steampunk. These include electric grenades great for making a “shocking” entrance and a line launcher that lets both twins grapple around London like Batman. That latter tool makes getting around the city both fun and easy, and it gives the series’ aged climbing gameplay a break. Jacob and Evie can also fall back on more conventional weapons like throwing knives and, of course, the hidden blade. Owing to the Victorian era’s open carry restrictions, most of the twins’ weapons are concealed inside canes and under cloaks.

Despite these new weapons, Syndicate‘s core gameplay remains little changed from that of previous AC games. Players can still hop around buildings, sneak along corridors, and stab unsuspecting enemies with speed and style. Syndicate also retains Unity‘s parkour-up and parkour-down utility (perhaps the one thing Unity did well) allowing players to hop up and down surfaces with ease. Unfortunately, Syndicate insists on tying the running and jumping functions to the same button, so inveterate AC players can look forward to more of the same free running snafus. It’s both fun and frustrating.

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Mistakenly grabbing a ledge is just as endemic to AC games as assassinations.

Syndicate‘s combat is much more forgiving than that of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Players have a small window with which to execute counter-attacks or exploit holes in an enemy’s defense, but that window isn’t minuscule like it was in Unity. As in previous games, players go toe-to-toe with several classes of foe, each with his or her own weapons. This system ultimately results in combat little different than the button-mashing of AC games past, but it is one of the series’ smoother instances of this system.

At the end of the day, Syndicate does Assassin’s Creed gameplay better than most of its peers… but it’s still Assassin’s Creed gameplay. The free running is still a bit clunky, the combat is still a bit too reliant on button-mashing, and traveling around the open world is more or less the same. Players can also count on occasionally missing the haystack when they leap off of a building. It’s the same set of core issues that’s been hounding the series for years, buffed to a slightly less problematic shine.

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Slow down slow down slow down SLOW DOWN

One major improvement Syndicate makes over past Assassin’s Creed games is its menus. This game has an even more in-depth options menu than past AC games, no doubt an attempt by Ubisoft to smooth things over with PC gamers after Unity‘s downfall. Players can adjust anti-aliasing and other functions to the tune of their own machine, and the game’s other utilities are easy to find. It’s a sad commentary on Assassin’s Creed when a game gets props just for having a decent menu, but that’s where this series is at.

Syndicate‘s aptitude with menus goes beyond options. Players can easily adjust Jacob and Evie’s appearances and arsenals from the game’s streamlined character menus. Managing the Rooks is also made simple with a one-page menu, which allows players to select upgrades like better weapons and increased revenue. This feature may not sound all that exciting on paper, but anyone who’s put up with Assassin’s Creed III’s economy menu or the mess of menus in Assassin’s Creed Unity will appreciate it.

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Just checking for options, sir, no need to be concerned.

Syndicate is a video game worth taking some time in the options menu for, because when it runs well it offers a gorgeous presentation. Ubisoft did well in bringing Victorian London to life on the small screen; the city is awash with thousands of sharp textures and beautiful lighting effects. The game fluidly combines pristine royal palaces and rotted slums into a single tapestry, one that players will want to explore. The game’s apt use of both dour and bright lighting, as well as the aforementioned textures and object placement, result in a world that feels alive.

Being an Assassin’s Creed game, though, Syndicate‘s character models could stand to gain some… life. NPC movements still look a bit stiff, and it’s sometimes easy to spot a clone-stamped character that was just in another crowd. Thankfully, Syndicate avoids creating huge crowds of people like Unity did, keeping the game safe from all of the performance issues that that decision caused in Syndicate‘s predecessorThough Syndicate‘s NPCs look like wax dummies, the game’s cutscene animations and facial capture are much more impressive.

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Them’s some good shadows.

While on the subject of performance, how well does Syndicate run on PC? The answer is that it runs better than Unity, but that’s not saying much, is it? Though Syndicate benefits from a steady framerate and alright optimization overall, the game is still awash with lots and lots of bugs. No facet of the Syndicate experience is bug-free; sometimes the HUD disappears, other times enemies don’t react to the player’s presence. Some objectives don’t feature an interact prompt. By far the weirdest bug is the one that both causes the audio to short out and the player character to walk around of their own accord.

The list of bugs goes on and on, and that’s a real shame for both Syndicate and the Assassin’s Creed series. After Assassin’s Creed Unity met its demise from an ungodly flood of bugs, Ubisoft had an opportunity to prove that it had a quality assurance department, even a quality assurance guy, somewhere in its corporate apparatus. Syndicate‘s slew of bugs, while not as bad as that of Unity, is still substantial, and indicates that Ubisoft didn’t adequately test for these problems before Syndicate shipped.

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Looks great, but why did the sound just cut out?

The amount of inconsistencies in Syndicate‘s system performance is outdone only by the amount in the main story. The game carries the Assassin’s Creed series’ adorable bastardization of historical figures to new lows, portraying Charles Darwin as a sneaky thief and Alexander Graham Bell as a guy who invented poison bombs when he wasn’t busy inventing the telephone. The game even finds a way to shoehorn a nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle into some side missions, which is just… why?

Not that Syndicate‘s fictional characters are all that great either. Jacob Frye is written as an irritating frat boy who dispenses arrogance at a teeth-grating clip. By contrast, his sister Evie is a far more likable character and the only one who seems to be taking this jaunt into merry old London seriously. Her level-headed demeanor and sarcastic wit contrast painfully with Jacob’s poorly written overconfidence, to the point that players may leave a cutscene having suffered a small stroke.

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These two couldn’t be more different.

The plot that all of these characters pursue is the same plot that almost every other Assassin’s Creed game shares: an assassin kills his or her way to a Piece of Eden. Syndicate‘s narrative suffers from using this same tired premise, but benefits from having a lighter, much more upbeat tone than recent AC games. This helps give Syndicate one of the better Assassin’s Creed narratives and proves that these games are at their best when they don’t take themselves so damn seriously.

Players who were hoping for a grim Victorian tale in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will find it in the game’s Jack the Ripper DLC. Set 20 years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper follows the Frye twins as they pursue history’s most infamous serial killer. The DLC allows players to even play as the Ripper in certain sections, and these are executed with an unexpected affinity for horror. The DLC’s side quests, like liberating prostitutes and protecting innocent suspects from being killed by mobs, are similarly morose. It’s a surprisingly fun DLC, one that demonstrates that horror can work in an AC game.

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Why so serious?

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a mixed bag. It has a decent narrative and a streamlined open world, but its gameplay is badly aged and it has a ton of bugs. Syndicate‘s narrative also doesn’t move the series forward in a meaningful way, continuing recent games’ frustrating habit of hinting at new concepts while ignoring hints introduced in other titles. It’s better than Assassin’s Creed Unity, but again… that’s not saying much. Maybe Assassin’s Creed Origins will provide the reboot that this series needs; might be better just to wait for that game instead.

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You can buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Pyre

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Lead a team of exiles from the brink of collapse to the cusp of victory.

PC Release: July 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Has anyone seen the new Gatorade ad urging viewers to “make defeat your fuel”? As much as bringing that ad up may seem like a cynical attempt to boost this review’s search rankings (and as much as Gatorade is a mediocre beverage), the ad does raise an interesting point about defeat. Setbacks can be crushing, but they can also spur people to make a roaring comeback and surpass their personal demons. Just as that sports drink advertisement is unusual in its examination of defeat, so too is the subject of tonight’s review: Pyre.

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Pyre is the latest creation of Supergiant Games, the indie studio behind universally acclaimed titles Bastion and Transistor. Like its two predecessors, Pyre is a game that puts players in a vibrant world and sets out to tell a compelling story with as much showing and as little telling as possible. Unlike Bastion and TransistorPyre is a party-based role-playing game that challenges players to manage an entire group of novel heroes instead of just one.

Pyre is set in the Downside, a world whose magic, monsters, and audacious battles all make for a much livelier place than the name “the Downside” implies. The downside of the Downside is that it’s a purgatory; a place where a government called the Commonwealth sends those it deems criminals. Players take command of one such band of exiles on a quest to find a way out (if such a thing exists) of the Downside and back to the Commonwealth.

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A round of applause for the hipster, the talking dog, and an angry lady with horns!

Pyre‘s story begins when the aforementioned hipster, talking dog, and angry horned lady fish the player character out of a desert. The character is an anonymous female scholar nicknamed the Reader, so labeled because of her ability to, well… read (from this it can be inferred that the Downside’s literacy rate ain’t all that high). The exiles who rescue her have a bunch of old tomes sitting in their wagon; from them the Reader learns that escape from the Downside might be possible if the exiles participate in the Rites.

The Rites are both the main plot device and the primary gameplay mechanic of Pyre; a series of magical games in which teams of three face off for a chance at escape from the Downside. The exiles agree to form their own squad and set off in their trusty wagon, intent on confronting other triumvirates of castaways and getting the hell out of hell. It’s up to players to manage their team of Rite participants, decide which routes to take between battles, and see their companions through the perils of the Downside.

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For freedom!

Pyre‘s gameplay marks a significant departure from the isometric adventuring of Bastion and Transistor. Players navigate the world of the Downside in a visual novel-style interface where animated action plays out in the background and important info is presented in the foreground. Players can chat up characters and make important decisions regarding their journey, like which path to take through the wilderness. The Reader can also access the wagon’s interior during pit stops or visit the slugmarket (so named for the physiology of its proprietor) to trade goods.

The Rites comprise Pyre‘s other piece of gameplay. Once the exiles have arrived to the next battle site, it’s up to players to select a team of three companions to face off against a triumvirate of opponents. Each team is given a pyre (hey!) to defend. Once the match begins, a magical orb is dropped onto the field for players to jockey for. The goal of the game is to carry that orb past the opponent’s defenses and slam dunk it into their pyre, weakening its flame. Whichever team can extinguish the enemy’s pyre first wins the match. Each round is narrated by a sarcastic, condescending wizard who’s as likely to chide the player for being a screw-up as he is to laud their inventiveness.

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Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Downsiiiiiiide Exiiiiiiiiles!!!

Rites in Pyre play like a combination of Rocket League and Interloper. Characters exude a circular aura that functions like a shield, and when two opponents’ auras overlap, the character with the weaker aura will disintegrate and be banished from the field for a few moments. Characters can also cast a deadly spell that carpet bombs a straight path ahead of them, eliminating any foes that get caught in the blast. Both of these perks are rescinded when a character grabs the orb, making them vulnerable.

Characters in Pyre can roughly be divided into light, medium, and heavy weight classes. Light characters are fleet-footed on the battlefield but only do so much damage to the enemy pyre. By contrast, heavy characters move across the battlefield at a slow lumber, but their attack spell does much more damage to foes and they can take twice as many life points away from the enemy pyre as light characters. Each character also has his or her own abilities useful for getting around faster and dodging enemy attacks.

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It’s time to duel!

Although these magic-ball matches are fun and make for quite a little adrenaline rush, they’re not without their clunkiness. Players can only control one character at a time; sure, it’s not hard to rapidly switch between contestants, but it’s awkward to take one character out onto the field and leave the other ones idling near the pyre. Additionally, some character classes just ain’t all that great at magic-ball. The aforementioned heavy character is a beast at taking out foes, but getting her to the enemy pyre is difficult.

Then again, getting the characters to work as a team is one of the main points of Pyre. Perhaps it’s better to use the heavy character to wipe out enemies and then switch over to the light character to deliver the orb-dunk. Combatants also gain experience after each match whether it ends in victory or defeat, and can learn valuable new abilities with each level-up. Players can also equip their athletes with ability-enhancing trinkets found out in the game world.

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Three points? More like THIRTY POINTS!

Though Pyre‘s gameplay is quite different from that of Bastion or Transistor, the game is in lockstep with its predecessors when it comes to the quality of its writing. Once again, Supergiant has succeeded in creating a vibrant, alluring world with its own original lore. Unlike its two predecessors, though, Pyre comes loaded with exposition. Players can consult the history of the Downside in their tome or by mousing over highlighted words in characters’ dialogue.

The character writing in Pyre is the best that Supergiant has ever penned. Each participant in the Rites is far more than just a magical athlete; they’re people with checkered pasts and their own hopes and dreams for lives outside of the Downside. They evolve in response to the journey and in reaction to the actions of their teammates; as the journey wears on, players’ affection for these characters swell. Pyre starts off with the three characters pictured above but lets players acquire more of them, including a sultry bird lady and a heroic worm clad in armor.

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Players can know their characters as both warriors and people.

Pyre also represents the zenith of Supergiant’s skill with a paint brush, somehow being even more gorgeously colorful and detailed than either of the studio’s previous two games. This isn’t to say that Bastion and Transistor aren’t also lovely; only that Pyre includes more sophisticated object detail, character animations, and a brighter swath of colors. The Downside has a bad rap because of its status as a prison, but that sure doesn’t sour its many beautiful regions, all of which the player travels through on their road to freedom.

Additionally, whereas the musical scores in Bastion and Transistor both followed singular themes (the former being string-driven and the latter being jazzy), Pyre‘s soundtrack is much more eclectic. From R&B keystrokes to acoustic guitars, each track in the game seems to be an ode to each genre of music. This can leave the placement of some songs sounding random, but they’re all so good that that randomness is moot (this is a game whose soundtrack is as much a must-own as the game itself).

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The in-game sound design ain’t too shabby either!

As mentioned earlier, Pyre is a novel study of defeat and how a person comes back from it. All of the game’s visual and written design elements inform that motif. Players can learn why characters were banished to the Downside and see the effects of that banishment made manifest on the land itself. These nods toward a quest for redemption give Pyre a somber, sadly beautiful atmosphere. Everybody, even the smack-talking enemy team captain, is a sympathetic character, as they all just want to get out of this awful place and get home.

It’s that sympathy that makes Pyre such a heart-breaker. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that some characters might get to go home before others. Who goes and who stays? Who will be missed the most? How will one character’s absence affect the rest of the group? No two decisions play out the same way, and Pyre masterfully telegraphs the impact of each choice to the rest of the narrative. The chance at freedom becomes as bittersweet as the backstories of the Downside’s exiles, and that’s what makes Pyre such a masterclass in studying tragic characters.

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What a world.

Although Pyre‘s Rites need some refinement and the magic-ball competitions feel mechanically disjointed from the rest of the game, the title is Supergiant’s best work. The game aptly combines charming writing and gorgeous visuals to produce an unforgettable world. Each character is a fascinating piece of the Downside to whom players quickly become attached, and the world itself is a treasure for any fantasy fan. The icing is that the game runs bug-free (at least in the run for this review) and its options menu is competent. Defeat can be a great teacher, and no game explores that motif in a more eloquent manner than Pyre.

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You can buy Pyre here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.