Monday, March 27, 2017

PS4, XBox1/Scorpio, or WiiU/Switch--Which Console's Right For You?

I know I'm late to the game, as I just started this blog, but for those who have not invested in the current gen systems and are on the fence, I wanted to give an objective view as to which console you should get.

For those who love FPS and sports games, as well as having most of your friends on the XBox ecosystem, the XBox1S is a no-brainer.  The controller, and especially the Elite controller, are best in class.  Reportedly, Microsoft spent $10 million to design the controller to be as ergonomic as possible, and it showed.  Further, the XBox1S has a 4k Blu-ray player.

For me, the stand-out game on the Xbox1S is Ori and the Blind Forest, which is the best platform game I've ever played.  Furthermore, Microsoft is doing a great job with back compatiblity of 360 games.  I took advantage of it, and it does appear that Lost Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption had improved graphics and framerate over the 360 version.

The upcoming Scorpio appears to be a very exciting console, but the issue is why invest in a Scorpio if only multi-plat games are available for the system, with no XBox/PC exclusive games?  With the death of Scalebound and other promised Xbox exclusives, it's unclear if Microsoft has any new IPs in the pipeline.  If only they can resurrect Scalebound in Kamiya's ORIGINAL vision, then I can see Scorpio being a possible worthwhile investment.  But, we'll have to see what new IPs MSFT will bring to the table.

If you tend toward RPGs (especially JRPGs), love Playstation Exclusives, and indie games, Playstation 4 is up your alley.  The issue is the rather bad DS4 controller.  Although it's an improvement over the DS3, that's not really saying much.  The solution is to purchase the XIM4 so you can use the Xbox 1 or Elite controller with it.

Before Bloodborne and this years' PS4 exclusives, and XBox's Ori and back-compatible games, my Wii U got the most usage.  Wii U exclusives Bayonetta 2, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, and Xenoblade Chronicles X are all absolutely fantastic games.  I'm not a fan of the Zelda and Mario series, but they are available and Zelda: BotW has gotten immense acclaim.  If you really love Nintendo's first and second party games, the Wii U is a no-brainer, and you also have the huge Wii and Virtual Console libraries at your disposal.

As for the Switch, if you truly love Zelda and are addicted to BotW (though please try it on a friend's device to make sure), then it is worth it.  The issue I have is that Nintendo is not known to support their consoles.  I'm afraid that due to the irreplaceable batteries that the console will not last.  Nintendo will replace the battery for a fee, but when their new console comes out, will they continue with this program?  If not, eventually your Switch battery will die, and you can never ever use the console again.

The Switch accessories are outrageously overpriced, so in effect, the Switch ends up being even more expensive than a PS4 and XBOX1S bundled package!

Further, due to the underpowered nature of Switch, there is no way third party AAA titles will be on it.  First, the storage is 32 GB (26 GB of free space), and the AAA titles are often well over 40 GB as it is.  I'm not sure how a developer can shrink 40 GB down to 24 GB without spending a lot of time and resources recoding the whole game.

On the other hand, if Nintendo decides that Switch is to replace the 3DS and it now gets the 3DS exclusives, the Switch is a strong recommendation if you love 3DS games.  I might even get one, despite the possible non-permanence of the Switch!


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Horizon: Zero Dawn Review


 PS4 Pro on Ben-Q 2560x1440 monitor.

 Much has been written about Horizon Zero Dawn’s jaw dropping graphics and attention to details--the ants on the trees, Aloy’s eyes reflecting images, and puddles evaporating real time--and its nearly perfect locked 30 FPS with barely any glitches.  Indeed after over 95 hours in completing and platinuming the game, I ran into 1 glitch where the killed machine was floating in the air.  That was only one instance.  This technological achievement was so impressive that Digital Foundry recommended the game, even though they are to comment only on the technical aspects of the game, and not review the game. 

 However, impressive though the graphical and technical accomplishments are, the other elements such as character development, story, gameplay, the lore, all the narrative elements tying into a coherent explanation, are even more impressive.  The story lines of the individual (Aloy), regional (other cultures) and the general world all end up connecting to one another.  Guerrilla Games didn’t just slap things together and call it a day, which they could have, especially as dinosaur/animal robots are universally appealing.  

 The other impressive thing about this game is the pacing.  I often got sidetracked into finding the collectibles, but then once tired of collecting, I can then turn to doing side quests, and once tired of side quests, to continue onto the main quest, and so on and so forth, so I was never bored playing the game.  In fact, I was sad when I got the Platinum trophy, but there is the good excuse of playing the game again once I can afford a 4k OLED HDR television that this game screams out to play on.  

 In terms of gameplay (to me the most important element of a video game), the combat is very tight, fluid and precise, and you have to use tactics to take down the more fearsome machines.  Obviously, I do the R2 heavy attack on the low level Watchers, but the higher level ones, you need strategy, knowledge of their weaknesses, their attack patterns, and have reflexes to dodge.  The negative aspect of gameplay is that melee is a bit limited, and I hope in their sequel, they can add more machines that lend themselves to melee combat as in the Dark Souls and Monster Hunter series.  However, in terms of fluidity of combat, precision and complexity, the ranged attacks are the best I have ever encountered in any game.

 The most awe-inspiring and fun gameplay experience I’ve had in a long time are the Cauldrons, especially the very first one due to the surprise element.  I feel that there are too few in this game, and hoping that in the most likely sequel, that Guerrilla Games will include more Cauldrons that are longer and more complex.  

 Also appreciated is that it is very rewarding to get trophies organically while playing the game.  You can platinum the game without even trying if you’re thorough enough.  If you somehow do not reach Platinum, and even pass the point of no return and finish the game, it dumps you back before that point of no return so you can pick up any remaining trophies, with all of your stats, gears and items intact.  

 The recommendation, then, is to NOT look up anything while playing the game the first time through, so that you can be totally immersed in the world.  If you’re stuck with one of the enemy machines or the hunting trials, I do recommend figuring out the strategy unless it gets frustrating.  I admit that I had to Youtube the hunting trials, as I’m awful with timed trial missions.  

For fear of sounding like a shill, there can be improvements to be made.  More cauldrons, more enemies where it's better to use melee attacks, more cultures and improved water effects are advised--however, I believe this can be expanded upon in Horizon 2.  I would also like to see side quests that are a bit more complex, though I appreciate how all the side quests add to the lore and character building, and that they did not add side quests just to add side quests.  Instead of having too many quests that become overwhelming and boring at the end, I was actually wishing there were more.

There is a lot of quality of life aspects--HUD customizability, intuitive weapon swapping and crafting, creating a job to find an item you need to upgrade so you don't have to break immersion and look the item up; but the item use during battle is quite bad.  Could they not have us assign our own items to the d-pad like Dark Souls or Nioh?  Instead, in mid-battle, one has to toggle the D-Pad down button through ALL the potions that you have on inventory, and then press up button to use.  However, since Guerrilla Games actually listens to its fans and corrects bugs and glitches immediately (though I didn't really see any), I think they will have better item toggles the next sequel.

In fact, I was impressed that GG already improved the bandits' AI as they are now responsive if one of their members are killed near them.  Whereas, before, they had no clue, which is rather ridiculous.  I predict that Horizon 2 will be even more spectacular given the ambitious nature of GG and their passion and commitment to creating the best video game possible.  

 In conclusion, this is the first open world game that I have played where all elements of the genre are superb.  Often, open world games might lack in one area such as combat mechanics, story, character development, world/lore building, and/or have frame-rate issues and glitches and so forth.  Reportedly, the game cost 45 million euro to develop, but in actuality, Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a $200 million game.  The respect and love that Guerrilla Games have in developing this game, and for their fans, are evident throughout.  Because of this game, GG is now one of the top developers along with CDPR, From Software, Naughty Dog, Rockstar Games, and Sony Santa Monica.

 If you have a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play the game.

 Rating:  A+.  Masterpiece. 


James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

Videogamers, if you need to take a break, this is a book to read!

It's been at least five years since I  reread Go Tell it on the Mountain, so I'm fuzzy on some of the specifics, but I can say this is my favorite novel, the greatest novel I've read.  Unfortunately, since I'm not a brilliant critic nor primarily a literary person, I really don't think I can do this novel justice.

Baldwin's writing is (intentionally) of a biblical cast; the book is evocative of psalms and proverbs.  It reads like gospel truth, unsurprisingly paralleling the strong religious themes of the novel.

The characterization and emotions the book evokes are so accurate and compelling, that every time the semi-autobiographical narrator, John, describes his father, Gabriel, I feel myself being suffocated by his oppressive narcissism, and intimidated by his high social status in the community.  Asthma sufferers, have your Albuterol ready as you read.

James Baldwin ingeniously incorporates, or at least intuitively understands,  the Bowen/Minuchin structural family theory, that suggests that counterproductive coping mechanisms often have their roots in the relationship of parents with their children.  There is a powerful scene where John realizes that Gabriel is not the perfect, superior creature he had thought (though I'm not sure I remember or fully understood what triggered this; was it because he found out his father had adulterous affairs?).  Armed with this knowledge, his next encounter changes their relational standing.  Instead of being intimidated and cowed, the narrator stands proud against him, to the point where Gabriel is taken aback, and their relationship shifts to a more appropriate one.  John is then able to move past feeling overshadowed and oppressed, and self-actualize.

The psychology of the characters, and Baldwin's understanding of family dynamics and relationships, is impressive, to say the least, and his prose is masterful.

If I can stop playing video games, I will definitely reread this brilliant novel and write a more comprehensive analysis.


Nioh Review

PS4 Pro on Ben-Q 2560x1440 monitor.

As a huge Dark Souls and Bloodborne fan (my favorite game series so far), after playing the demo (including the Twilight Mission), I preordered Nioh immediately.  The melee combat and fluidity are very similar to the "Soulsborne" series, as well as the analogous shrines (bonfires) and co-op features.  The melee combat may be considered more complex than (albeit not as addictive as) that of the SoulsBorne series, as it includes stylish combination attacks...after upgrading one's skills.

The variety of weapons, armor and accompanying skills, the many stat upgrades, and even the large variety of factions that you can join lend complexity to the RPG elements.  I enjoy minimizing/maximizing stats, but if you find this torturous, then avoid the game by all means.  The stats and upgrades are more varied than those in the SoulsBorne series, lending a rich RPG experience.

The graphics tend to have a muddy/hazy overlay; I can only play shortened sessions before headache and eyestrain set in.  I had to have my monitor one foot away, since I'm extremely myopic, even with corrected vision.  Unfortunately, increasing the monitor's brightness didn't help with the muddiness.  However, those with normal vision might not have a problem with this.  The graphics detract from enjoyment of the game for me, and I don't usually care about graphics--Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII , whose graphics are outdated by present standards, are among my favorite games.

The UI surpasses the SoulsBorne series', as you can set two item sets to your D-Pad, and easily switch between them, and they are equally intuitive. Although you can't individually map every button, Nioh offers five controller settings.  Further, in the PS4 main menu, you can further map the buttons if needed (i.e. set the circle for X and vice verse)

The frame-rate is brilliant, apparently mostly locked at 60fps.  I  had no problems with lag, as Nioh is super smooth.  On the PS4 Pro, I had the setting favoring performance locked at 60fps, with graphics downgrading in favor of fps. This was recommended by Digital Foundry.

Because the enemies are difficult and can often one- or  two-shot you (and even trash mobs can do so), the lack of variety in adversaries is very welcome at the beginning of the game.  It's refreshing and empowering to eventually beat these enemies (after dying so many times earlier).  After the 100th victory over hollows, humans and/or Yokai, defeating them becomes second-nature.  Practice makes perfect.

Toward the middle and end of the game, facing the same enemies for the thousandth time gets tedious.  I would play other games until I got the “Nioh itch”, so I was able to plow through nearly to the endgame, with such breaks. 

Another important issue is that the endgame doesn't seem balanced.  One mission level is 80 and then the next jumps to 100.  These numbers are not exact, but it does jump 20 or so levels in between missions.  Nioh is well-balanced at the beginning and midgame, so that as long as you play through the missions, your level is within range of what is recommended.  However, at endgame, you do not get enough Souls (Amrita) to level up appropriately.  I am a grind queen, and leveled up at least 10 times so I could one-shot those awful “medusa” enemies in Demon’s Souls’ Tower of Latria.  They freak me out so much with the way they move, and how they electrocute and paralyze you (I actually felt the shocks), so I didn’t mind grinding; it was well worth the effort, plus the combat was fun and didn't get old.  I still shudder thinking about them.

As for Nioh, it takes over 200K (90s to 100s I think), and then jumps to 2.5 million just to get from 149 to 150, reportedly, which is the mission level for the epilogue.  The issue is that the enemies, being repetitive, and the combat not having as visceral a feel as the SoulsBorne series', the grinding is tedious and not enjoyable.  Even I can't tolerate grinding for millions of Amrita, just to level up once.

The recommendation here is to NOT update your patch, and keep it at 1.0 version.  Turn off your automatic internet connection as the update loads.  Near the endgame, there is an automatic infinite Amrita glitch that I recommend taking advantage of.

Unfortunately, this glitch was patched out in version 1.4.  I don’t find using the glitch “cheap” or “cheating” because with the best grinding spot in NG, Demon’s Daughter, you only get 80K at best, with Amrita boosting.  To get to 2.5 million Amrita, you need to grind this area at least 30 times for just a one- level upgrade, which is really excessive to say the least.  I feel that if Nioh had better balance, there would be no need for this, so to “correct” the game, by all means, auto-grind to save valuable time.  It doesn’t make sense to me that the developers made level grinding rather easy in NG+ (when you don’t really need to level up as much), but not in NG.

I confess that since I updated to 1.4, I couldn’t possibly finish the last 1.5 areas by myself.  This is where Nioh shines, in coop.  My friend, whose level is 180 plus with all green divine armor/weapons, pushed me through the areas so I ended up completing the game, though that was very unsatisfying, to say the least.  Indeed, if I could only take advantage of the infinite glitch, I would have been able to finish the game solo.

This is a shame, because the boss design is among the best (the bat-woman boss being my favorite), and I missed fighting these epic, end-game bosses due to balance issues.  It is refreshing that the bosses have unique tells, and if you can memorize all the attack patterns (which are consistent), you can defeat them.  One might say that I need to “git gud” but I just don’t have the skill to beat a level 150 mission with a level 90.  This has never been a problem in past RPGs, as I was always able to grind painlessly to the point where I could beat the levels solo.

The mission structure is disconnected as you don’t have a world to explore, so the game is comprised of doing 4 to 5 missions per area.  Your resting area is the main menu of the game, which is rather jarring.  This disjointed feeling definitely breaks immersion and is incoherent.  However, each mission has really good level design, with interconnectivity and interlocking areas akin to a Souls game, albeit not as complex nor elaborate.  It would've been preferable if Nioh was set in one entire world with shrines, so you can travel from region to region in Japan; the shrines serving as places to upgrade weapons, armors and stats.  I hope the sequel will have such an organic world.

As for the story and character development, I didn’t quite follow the plot, but the gameplay is so good that this didn't matter to me.  It appears that William doesn't have much of a personality, but neither does the Chosen Undead (except for being a total jerk, I mean, who kills Sif?!??).  Gameplay in Souls-style games is the emphasis, and Nioh clearly lives up to that, and exceeded its models in some ways, such as with the combination attacks.

The general feel of the mission structure, the muddy graphics, and the balance issues of the game detract from this game being one of my favorites, but Nioh is excellent to superb from beginning to midgame, and I recommend it.

Rating:  B+, very good to almost great.


Breath of the Wild Review


Wii U on BenQ 2560x1440 monitor.

I have played and completed Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, and while they are not my favorite games, this is a matter of taste. I can see why they are considered masterpieces with the extremely thoughtful and intricate level- and puzzle-design of the dungeons, including platforming and opportunities for creative use of items retrieved from dungeons over the course of the game, and the engagingly-designed towns and NPCs. I’m happy to again see the Gorons, the Zoras, Tingle, and other familiar character/s. The musical score is magical.

My hang-up with all the games cited above is the empty over worlds. The passage from town and/or dungeon to the next is unimaginative, and one might as well run away from enemies as there is no incentive to fight them (i.e. no leveling up and only marginal items gained)--a relief as I found the combat mechanics a bit clunky and floaty. The only time I explored the overworld was for any lingering heart-pieces to power up, or to get arrows, bombs and other weapon items from cutting grass. With OoT and MM on the 3DS there were problems of the 3DS analog stick having significant dead space, but that’s not the fault of the games, but of the system.

Upon seeing BotW trailers, I was excited and heartened that this might be the first Zelda that I could truly enjoy as much as its committed fans do. I was enchanted by the footage of Link cooking (which was adorable), by the potential to explore, the many different ways of killing enemies, interacting with the environment (shield surfing! playing baseball!), and the combat mechanics looked absolutely spectacular. Seeing the parry riposte reminded me of Dark Souls, and the back flip at the right time reminded me of Bayonetta’s Witch Time, so I felt certain this game will have all the elements that I’m looking for in an open-world game.

Alas, my heart sank when I learned the review embargo was to be lifted only on the day before the game release, a red flag harkening back to the No Man’s Sky and The Order: 1886 fiascos...and I now see why. By giving the reviewers limited time to play (maybe enough time to complete the Great Plateau), Nintendo hoped they'd give BotW 9’s and 10’s. Indeed, the first few hours of the game, from the opening scene through running out into the world, are absolutely magical, stunning and breathtaking. The mysterious old man who directed me to the shrines spurred me on, so I was compelled to finish the four shrines to obtain the paraglider, as I was dying to find out what will happen next.  However, the old man revealed the ENTIRE story, so there is no mystery left for me to discover and explore.

Further, after eight hours, I noticed that the world is superficially-designed, empty and barren, and the subsequent story quests were uninspiring (i.e. the Laboratory blue flame quest). With the rather pedestrian narrative exposition and lack of character development, I lost interest in completing the main campaign.

This was further hampered by the clumsy UI, where you have to click the D-Pad 4 or 5 times to get from, say, Weapon category to Shield category, as opposed to the usual R1 or L1 (one click of bumper buttons will go to the category directly). The combat mechanics were just as clunky as ever before, worsened by the weapon degradation. It is rather immersion-breaking to need to push the D-Pad right arrow key and then toggle through the various weapons to replace in mid-battle. A weapon will typically be good for up to five enemies at most. Therefore, it makes more sense simply to run away from the enemies, and to put all one's spirit orbs into endurance for efficacy. I tend not to heal as it means having to find more ingredients for healing items. So, I let myself die as this revives me to full health, without wasting resources and saving time (this strategy might not last further into the game).

While the world looks empty (you see mounds and mounds of green), it is actually NOT gameplay-wise, and is full of very neat things to do.  I was surprised that there were fifteen-plus Korok Puzzles in the Great Plateau alone--I think I only found two. However, the problem is that I was not interested in exploring given how monotonous the world looked, as if it was copied-and-pasted for long stretches, with the same green color, or the same white color in the snowy mountain areas. For example, the quest where one has to retrieve memories, the photos looked practically identical and hard to distinguish, so I will need to YouTube if I feel compelled to find them, which is also immersion-breaking.

Further dampening enjoyment is the consistent frame-rate stuttering, and the introduction of game-delaying rainstorms at inopportune times, such as during the blue flame quest or climbing.  The rain prevents any climbing and fighting with metal weapons due to the lightning.

With the same bright green, brown or white color throughout (depending on the region), lack of anti-aliasing, and the frame rate issues, BotW can cause literal headaches. Even if I were not prone to headaches, I do not find this enjoyable gameplay.

Despite the migraines, I pushed and worked through the game.  After additional hours, the game grew on me, and I got used to the rather problematic technical and game design aspects of BotW.  Although exploring is more of a chore, the game can be addictive due to the shrines, the cooking, the amount of freedom in the game, the ability to climb any surfaces in the overworld.  All future open world games should think about making climbing more accessible.

If you can get over the questionable technical and game decision designs, the game can be enjoyable.  My advice is to focus on finding the towers, shrines and korok puzzles, picking up resources along the way.  Shrines are used to increase health and stamina, and the korok puzzles to increase your inventory slots, which are crucial in this game.  Another positive game design decision is that reportedly, resources are unlimited, so I would take advantage of that.

After 76.5 hours total of slogging through, I completed the game.  Since I had to get the master sword, I was very impressed with the Korok forest.  Taking away the aliasing, lack of textures, lighting and shadowing, and frame rate drops, the forest is very lush and full.  It is hoped that the next Zelda will have this fullness, rather than a visually empty and barren world.  It is a shame that the whole world does not have the detail of this forest.

Three out of the four divine beasts are reskins of each other except for different elemental attacks.  I used the same techniques on all 3.  However, Thunderblight Ganon was very unique where I had to learn how to back flip flurry attack (seems to be more consistent than dodging/parrying).  Pulling off a flurry attack is addictive and elevates the gameplay.  Calamity Ganon was also unique and fun to battle, making use of dodging, flurry attacks, and the divine beasts’ powers.

TL:DR.  The outdated graphics that are equivalent to the 1990s, significant framerate drops to the point where I thought the game crashed during a boss battle (Thunderblight Ganon), lack of story and character portrayal, repetitive enemies, visually barren and empty world, weapon degradation, and frequent rain that prevents you from doing anything, all mar what could have been a good game.

If you have a Switch or a Wii U, I would recommend buying BotW given both systems’ limited game selection, but I don’t find it worth buying a whole system, unless you’re a huge Zelda fan.

Final rating:  C+, above average.


Monster Hunter World: Hunting Horn, Regular and Tempered Nergigante Under 15 Minutes With Some Practice

TL/DR: Click on the pictures of the builds below I love the nearly fail-proof defensive (I'll call it "fail-proof" for ...