A Little Winter Gaming: 4 Games I’ve Played Recently

Persona 5

0.3

Atlus doesn’t let you take screenshots of Persona 5, so here are some images of my fur baby instead.

Almost all of the games on this list are ventures outside of my comfort zone, especially this one. I’d never considered getting into JRPGs, but the premise of this game caught my attention straight away: you’re a high school student that infiltrates bad people’s psyches in order to battle metaphorical versions of themselves and offer them redemption in the real world. The idea of jumping between the mundane and the extraordinary, and living this heroic double life, really interested me. It seemed unlike any other narrative in video games. However I was unsure whether I’d like it- or even understand it- because the genre was so unfamiliar to me. I knew that it was a long game, and I feared that the gameplay would be too complex and I just wouldn’t have the patience for it. So I kept backing out whenever I considered buying it on sale.

Thankfully, my friend Aaron (whom longtime readers will remember from such episodes as Making Friends in the USA Part 2 and Lessons in Being American Part 1) made the decision for me and Persona 5 arrived on my doorstep on the morning of my 27th birthday. I was eager to play it but also a little nervous. What if I hated it? I’d look like an ungrateful cunt. And even though Aaron wouldn’t have held it against me if it turned out not to be my taste, I knew that he, like any gift-giver, would have been a little disappointed that it didn’t work out.

0.2

My immediate impressions were very good. I loved the opening cutscene in the casino because it was both visually striking (the use of color in this game is superb) and a masterful example of “in medias res”. There was a real swagger and charm to these mysterious thieves, who were in the middle of conducting a heist in a sort of Inception-style dream universe. I was taken in by the mystery, the outfits, and the overall art style. Obviously the operation goes tits-up and you have to go back in time to where the story truly begins. You’re a teenager with a criminal record that’s traveled from the countryside to study at a prestigious boarding school in the bustling metropolis of modern day Tokyo. You don’t know anyone and you are put under the watchful guardianship of a grouchy host parent, who lets you stay in the dusty attic above his coffee shop. At this point I was fascinated; there were so many story threads and I was wondering how the hell they would all come together. Why was this mysterious app appearing on my phone? Who is that long-nosed hobgoblin that speaks to me in my dreams? What’s the reason for these psychotic breakdowns I keep seeing on the news? Why is almost everyone a complete asshole towards me?

As convoluted and mysterious as this story seemed at the beginning, it all ties together rather cleverly by the end, and nothing is left unresolved or unexplained. Even the things I first suspected were included simply because it’s a video game ended up serving a narrative purpose. I knew going in that this was going to be a very story-driven experience, and I’d seen a comment online to the effect that “No one plays Persona games for the combat. You’re there for the story”. So I figured that the gameplay was going to be something that I’d begrudgingly tolerate. However I ended up getting into it a lot more than I thought I would. It was somewhat daunting at first, but by the end of the first dungeon you realize that it’s not as over-complex as it seems. It was actually a lot like Pokemon. I don’t mind turn-based combat, but I much prefer dynamic, reflex-orientated gameplay systems like you get in shooters or hack-and-slash titles. But the thing about Persona 5 is that it’s no ordinary turn-based game. This system is truly special for two specific reasons: music and artistic design. The soundtrack in this game is nothing short of genius, and by infusing the fights with music, you feel a sense of rhythm that is utterly unique. There’s nothing like facing down a demon hiding inside an Egyptian coffin and calling in your best mate to smack him into orbit with a Louisville slugger as you scream “TAKE THAT YOU CHEATING CUNT!” at the TV screen, all the while shaking with goosepimples from the pure adrenaline-rush that is the musical score. Oh, I’ve strummed many an air guitar to “Will Power” while dressed in nothing but my briefs and Sith Lord dressing-gown, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. What I’m trying to say is this: if stripped to just its mechanics the combat system would be competent but unremarkable. But the music and art style elevate it above other turn-based systems by giving each encounter a visceral, dancelike quality.

0.1

After getting to grips with the gameplay, I really took to this game in a way that surprised me. I figured I would like the world building, admire aspects of the overall experience, but never feel that urge to play it for hours on end. At the time I hadn’t felt that addictive itch since God of War. But sure enough, with the first palace almost complete and the story ramping up in excitement, I found myself hooked. It actually fucked my productivity and sleep cycle into the ground throughout December. I’ve pointed out the game’s excellent soundtrack already, but otherwise I wasn’t sure what it was about the game that made me want to keep playing it. With other games I’ve always been able to pinpoint exactly what it was about them that made me want to reject the opportunity for socializing and Vitamin D- in Red Dead it’s the emotional character development, in Doom it’s the high-octane combat puzzle, and so on and so forth. But with Persona 5, I couldn’t quite organize my feelings toward it into thoughts. The best I could say was that the broad experience- the whole, rather than the sum of its parts- just amounted to something unique; a gameplay loop that felt satisfying to complete.

As the game went on, I began to understand my feelings better, but I’d still contend that it was the broad strokes that made this special, rather than any one component. It works as a unique mélange, put together so well that its components probably wouldn’t work if they were organized in any other way in which they are. There are details about Persona 5 that sound ridiculous on paper, but are executed in such a compelling way that they don’t feel ridiculous when you’re playing the game. If I’d known beforehand that there would be a talking cat that turns into a Scooby Doo campervan, or that all the demons and mythological creatures would be making high school gossip in colloquial, 21st century dialects, I’d have been put off. But when you’re actually playing the game these sorts of things don’t seem silly or out of place. It’s done in a way that just works.

In the game you collect “personas” and deploy them in battle. It’s a lot like Pokemon, but tonally it reminded me even more of Yu Gi Oh. It has the dark, surreal design philosophy of the latter as opposed to the cuddly teddy bear aesthetic of the former. And like Yu Gi Oh, there’s not much visual consistency between the creatures, meaning that I’d always go for the ones that scratched my particular itch and ignore the ones I didn’t like, even if they had better stats. In Yu Gi Oh I was all about that Blue Eyes White Dragon, and I’d pretend that the sentient hamburgers and fucked-up birthday clowns didn’t exist. Same with Persona 5: I always went for the fearsome, serious-looking monsters and ignored the various jack-in-the-boxes, snowmen, and sassy pixies no matter how much they begged me to adopt them. There’s also a giant penis monster, which is actually really tough. I’ll leave a picture below.

001

In conclusion, I’d recommend Persona 5 to people regardless of their preferred genres. It’s true that it is very niche and unique, but that’s exactly why it transcends the JRPG milieu.

 

Jedi: Fallen Order

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200117002628

When I first heard about this game I was determined to hate it. Even though I’ve been crying out for more single player, story-driven Star Wars games for years, I wasn’t about to start celebrating as soon as EA commissioned one on sufferance. I was angry at the premise of the game. It was another story set between episodes 3 and 4, featuring yet another Jedi that had escaped Order 66, and even worse it had a bunch of Dark Jedi apprentices trained by Darth Vader. Any such spinoff during that period undermines the Original Trilogy. The Jedi are extinct- that’s why it’s called “A New Hope”. It’s much more powerful from a narrative point of view to have this once galaxy-spanning, thriving monastic order reborn through a single person. The more heroes you add to a conflict, the less significant each one becomes.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200115231707

Jedi: Fallen Order was conceived as a lightsaber game, and a game centered around lightsaber combat requires both Jedi and Sith. However Disney has no faith that anyone would be interested in a Star Wars story unless it takes place in the same overdone conflict between the Rebels and the Empire. So they force Jedi and Sith into the one time period where it doesn’t make sense for them to be there. It also means that we’re going into this game knowing that whatever happens, it won’t have any greater consequence in the Star Wars universe, because the Empire are doing pretty good for themselves by episode 4. And, without spoiling anything, that’s kind of what happens: you run around having lightsaber fights but it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t change anything, so you don’t feel like the hero or his quest are significant. Disney are also incapable of overseeing an ending that’s bleak and depressing, so the inevitability that a powerful Jedi will be running around the galaxy after the game ends, that we know never gets mentioned in later works, is also jarringly at odds with the established canon.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200115224806

That said, if you’re not a massive Star Wars fan, none of these things will matter to you. Jedi: Fallen Order won me over as a game rather than a Star Wars story. And it is a good game that, despite its story, I’m glad exists. As I said, I wasn’t interested in this game when it was announced and I hated how Youtube money-spinners were hyping it up before we knew anything about it. Disney and EA do not deserve your trust. Considering who they were working for, I think Respawn did a fantastic job developing this game. As the release date came closer and we were actually given some concrete details about the gameplay, I suddenly became interested. I had expected a rehash of The Force Unleashed. But it’s nothing like that at all.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200114001408

Jedi: Fallen Order is deliberately styled on the combat of Soulslike games, the nonlinear exploration of Metroidvania titles, and the cinematic storytelling of Uncharted. And the resulting mix of these 3 genres is both unique and effective. The idea of exploring the Star Wars universe through swashbuckling parkour gameplay made me decide to give this game a chance, and it ended up being the component of the experience that I enjoyed the most. I think sliding down escarpments while dodging debris, jumping in the air and swinging off a rope toward a wall and running across it sideways is a perfect fit for a Jedi game. I liked how the platforming was as big a part of the experience as the combat, and the back-and-forth balance between the two makes for some excellent pacing. However some of the levels did look somewhat unnaturally set up for parkour, which spoiled the immersion somewhat. Bogano in particular looked very “video-game-y”. I really liked the tutorial level, because the junkyard lent itself naturally to being an environment suitable for that kind of jumping and climbing.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200118225255

As for the combat, I thought it was good but lacking in polish. There were moments where I thought the parry system was a little finicky and unrefined, but I otherwise had a lot of fun with it. It’s a completely different experience to previous lightsaber games like Jedi Academy and The Force Unleashed, in that it isn’t built around stimulating your power fantasies. It requires a lot of concentration and patience, whereas those previous titles were more relaxing experiences. In this game a single Stormtrooper can fuck your shit up if you charge in blindly and start mashing the attack button. Jedi: Fallen Order was my first experience of a Soulslike combat system, so it took some getting used to for me. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d be able to beat the game. The Ninth Sister in particular killed me so many times- I’d say that was the toughest fight for me.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200114213701

By the end of the game my enthusiasm for it started to cool off. I liked the game, but not as much as I thought I did at the start of my playthrough. Despite the fun gameplay, the story and its characters came back to ruin it for me. Considering our protagonist had spent the past decade in hiding, I felt that he seemed far too quick to play the heroic savior role. I wanted things to happen more slowly and organically, but he is far too trusting of the people that show up out of nowhere and hinge their entire plan for success upon him. He talks like they’ve known each other for ages. I wanted more dialogue and interplay between these characters. At one point there’s a really contrived conflict between them that the game doesn’t earn, because the relationships hadn’t been built up beforehand.

STAR WARS Jedi: Fallen Order™_20200117220404

Visually, this game confused me. The broad perspective makes it look good, but a finer look makes it seem ugly. I’ll explain what I mean. Wide views, such as planetary vistas, were quite lovely, but close-ups of characters’ faces looked dated- even uncanny. It’s like the graphics for some aspects of the game were left incomplete, and whenever a subject is given a closer focus they always seem to be lacking in texture, depth, and shading. I had a couple buggy moments, like my lightsaber being activated whilst in its hilt and disappearing into the ground, but I think most of the glitches had been patched by the time I started playing.

Overall though I had a good time with this game, and I’d be interested in a follow-up set in a different time period, or a direct sequel where no matter what you do, Cal dies at the end.

 

Titanfall 2

Titanfall™ 2_20200129003224

The monthly games for Playstation Plus have been pretty good recently. Titanfall 2 was a game I’d been interested in playing for a while, as I’d heard good reviews for its story. Given that Jedi: Fallen Order was a very difficult game that required a lot of concentration, I was in the mood for something more relaxing. There’s a catharsis to be had in a run-and-gun FPS that’s fast-paced, allows you to be aggressively carefree, and where the standard enemies serve only to massage your ego as they burst like piñatas full of giblets. It’s not that Titanfall 2 isn’t challenging, or that Fallen Order isn’t fun, I’m just saying that the former was a different kind of fun, with a different emphasis. And it was just what I needed.

Titanfall™ 2_20200126200850

The two games are actually made by the same developer, despite being completely different genres. That’s part of what makes Fallen Order so impressive, and why I overlooked some of its faults, as Respawn went from making multiplayer first-person shooters to trying their hands at replicating a Dark Souls game, a genre that’s much imitated but seldom mastered. The only through line to be found is parkour, and Titanfall 2 has a lot of what was expanded upon in Fallen Order. It more or less works the same, although the platforming in Titanfall 2 seemed more integrated into the overall experience, whereas in Fallen Order it served as a meditative downtime between action sequences. It’s also smoother albeit less complex.

Titanfall™ 2_20200128214734

In fact the game as a whole runs very well, and the adjective that came to mind most often for me when describing the experience was “crisp”. The game seemed both visually and mechanically polished, unlike Fallen Order which had its clunky moments. I think part of this might come down to genre however. Open world RPGs inherently put a greater strain on hardware than a straightforward FPS. And that’s exactly what Titanfall 2 is: a pure shooter that’s focused on the basics. It’s a familiar gameplay loop, but I admire it for refining the fundamentals rather than being overambitiously convoluted. I thought about the genre a lot when playing this. It had been a while since I’d played something structured into linear levels. It plays a lot like the campaigns for Call of Duty, and although the Modern Warfare genre is well-trodden ground, Titanfall 2 mixes it up with wall-running, giant mech combat, and some really clever level design. In short, it’s not that original, but it’s well-executed.

Titanfall™ 2_20200127213142

Given that the campaign is all of 5 hours and the first installment in the series had no campaign at all (despite selling at full price), I could feel that the franchise was, at its heart, designed with a multiplayer sensibility. And yet Respawn have shown that they’re perhaps better at crafting single-player narrative experiences than even they realize. The game was short but it was tight, and it didn’t feel like it was missing anything. I’d rather be left wanting more than see a game padded out for the sake of it. The story at large is about two warring factions, and I wasn’t too invested in that. But the journey you go on as a character is much more compelling, and I liked the picaresque approach to the narrative. Each level sheds a light on the world and feels distinctive in its own way. There’s the level where you’re in a gargantuan factory full of prefab colonial houses, the level where you are constantly traveling back and forth through time periods, and the level where you are hijacking an airship during a high-speed chase sequence. I found the story well-paced and at times absolutely exhilarating, especially when you engage in mech-to-mech combat. I liked that you could switch between different types of Titans too, each with their own specialties, and all of which I had fun with throughout various scenarios.

Titanfall™ 2_20200127213502

I would be very interested in a sequel, especially as the game leaves plenty of room for one. It’s almost like Respawn created the campaign as an experiment and ended up massively overachieving. They crafted a colorful world, and it seems like there is so much more to be explored. I thought going in that this game would be futuristic, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a full-blown militaristic Space Opera. This is Starship Troopers meets the artwork of John Harris and John C. Berkley. There’s robots, space ships, time travel technology, and lush alien worlds full of monsters. And you only see a sliver of it!

 

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200129202311

This game had a spell on me from the very first moment I saw it. I’d never taken an interest in FromSoftware games before- I’d half-heartedly tried Bloodborne but given up the first time I got stuck. I just didn’t have the motivation to continue that comes from a greater interest in the story, world, or characters. I’d seen brief clips of Dark Souls and thought it looked sluggish. I’m not a particularly skilled gamer and I’m also quite impatient, so I just figured it wasn’t for me. I respected it for being a niche and not pandering to satisfy every taste, but I passed it by and didn’t look back to worry if I was missing out.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200207180524

But then Sekiro came along, and I caught a glimpse of a ninja facing down a giant headless macaque swiping blindly with a katana. I couldn’t help but want to see more. I just felt fascinated by the look and mood of this historical fantasy. It was darkly beautiful; sinister yet subtle. But it wasn’t for me, I quickly reminded myself. I haven’t got the coordination or the reflexes. I’m a casual gamer. I just don’t have that competitive drive. I’m not motivated by skill challenges- I’ve always been concerned with games as immersive stories.

So I would try to put the game out of my mind, and yet I kept circling back to it.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200210211903

I can’t play this, can I? I’m the last person that should be playing this…right? I knew that I was interested in the aesthetics more than the actual gameplay- the beautiful Japanese countryside, the pagodas, the flower petals caught in the wind, the rampaging macaque holding his decapitated head in his free hand while blood gushes from his neck stump. The massive, immortal carp that accepts offerings when you sound the gong. The sumo wrestler spitting poison at you, the serpent god whose flicking tongue echoes through the mountains, the ghost girl with an upturned wicker basket on her head playing a shamisen. It brought back memories of the Otogi games, a series I adored when I was younger that had a similar dark take on Japanese mythology. You can almost consider Sekiro a spiritual successor to Otogi…seeing as how it comes from the same developer. WHAT?! I thought to myself. I only discovered recently that Otogi was a FromSoftware game, and had a major influence on Dark Souls. Wow.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200210002626

Anyway, I kept putting off getting this game because I just figured that I couldn’t possibly be capable of completing it. There were reports that this game was even more exclusive and difficult than Dark Souls, in that you can’t summon other players to help you, and you can’t rely on the technique of strafing around enemies and burying your weapon of choice up their anus. I’d seen a lot of Dark Souls fans- including my two favorite reviewers (Yahtzee Croshaw and Jim Sterling) comment on how they didn’t like Sekiro for these departures from the formula. In Sekiro, you have to learn its strict parrying system- you can’t approach the fight with the strategy that works best for you. I’d even seen debates about whether Sekiro’s difficulty was unfair for excluding those that were interested in the story and the world- those like me.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200206233705

One day I just said fuck it and got the game, never expecting to complete it, but unable to resist its charms for much longer. Jedi: Fallen Order gave me a good idea of what to expect, and I’m glad I played that first because it’s probably the closest game from a mechanics point of view to Sekiro that’s out there. But I was still in for a rough ride, as I had struggled with Fallen Order whilst playing on an easy difficulty, whereas Sekiro had no difficulty settings whatsoever. However, Sekiro does a good job of gradually introducing its combat to you, and the parry system is much more intuitive and refined than Fallen Order’s. It’s tough but it’s also fair. I discovered during my time with this game that the key to success isn’t godlike reflexes- but rather patience. I’m living proof that anyone can play Sekiro so long as they have the willpower. A lot of people will give up on this game believing that they just don’t have what it takes, but I promise you that it’s not about being smart or talented or whatever. It’s all about persistence. You die a lot, but that’s actually built into the story. Sekiro is all about the curse of immortality. You’re not meant to walk into a boss fight and know what you’re doing the first time. The game is designed for you to keep trying the boss again and again whilst figuring out the attack patterns a little more each time.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200206233636

There’s also no way to proceed other than through skill. You can’t equip better weapons or armor, or level up your stats the way you can in something like the Elder Scrolls. All you have is your muscle memory, and I found that with this game I had to be concentrated all the time, because even the most basic enemy can kill you if you stray from Sekiro’s uncompromising system. It’s very defense-focused in a way that few games are- the enemy dictates the fight and you have to adapt.

Last night I beat the final boss after trying and failing all week long to beat him. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it before I finished this blog post, and therefore wouldn’t be able to say that I completed it. But somehow I broke through, and by the end I was literally drenched in sweat, my whole body shaking. That cheating fuck was the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced in a game, bar none.

I’m really glad I played Sekiro, despite every voice in my head telling me not to, because it actually ended up being one of my favorite games of all time. I don’t have a fixed ranking, but it’s up there with The Witcher 3 and God of War as my favorite games of this generation. Even when I was dying over and over, I just couldn’t put it down. It was my first thought waking up and my last thought before bed. I loved the story, which is delivered in a very subtle and enigmatic way where you have to fill in the blanks with your imagination. There’s no database in the options menu giving you character and world-building explanations. The NPC’s always talk in an increasingly vague and cryptic manner. There are few cutscenes, and what ones there are leave more questions than answers. I like that FromSoftware aren’t insecure- they don’t care how much you engage with the story or not. There are clues scattered throughout the game, but nothing is ever given a complete overview. Most of the time you have to take to the internet and read the theories. I like how it tells its story through its mood and environment, and engages with your own imagination.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice_20200211002616

This game isn’t for everyone, but not because those that play it have some kind of inborn ability. If you’re tempted but don’t think you’re good enough, then I urge you to give it a chance. You will surprise yourself. I know I did.

One Reply to “A Little Winter Gaming: 4 Games I’ve Played Recently”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s