Dear lord. Now this is a game right here. You know how sometimes "everyone" is raving about the same game, and so you just kind of assume that you need to ignore the hype because it can't possibly be as good as it's being made out to be? Well, Vampire Survivors seems to be one of the exceptions. It is just completely compelling. It's the sort of game you jump into with the intention of doing a couple of quick runs, only to realize that a couple of hours have slipped by instead.
But let's start by pretending you don't already know what this game is. Vampire Survivors is a rougelike bullet-hell action-adventure kind of deal. Its simple sprites make it look like a mashup of Castlevania and Zelda. But there's no doubt that the constant barrage of enemies on screen are taxing the hardware. On the surface, it might come off looking rather retro, but it's definitely a modern game that feels at home on my Series X. Think of it like how Dwarf Fortress looks simple but has about a thousand complex things going on underneath.
As a roguelike, the progress is perfect. You start the game. You don't know anything, but you start to make sense of it all. There's no buttons to press, by the way. You just walk around with the d-pad. Weapons and skills fire automatically based on a cooldown. So that's all there is to controls. But it's all about learning the enemies and learning what the weapons and upgrades do. And this is a long process, and will take a time investment for sure.
Luckily the pace at which you unlock stuff is so satisfying. After each run you can use your coins to unlock new permanent upgrades as well as new characters. This makes every single you run you do feel like you're progressing somehow. Even runs where I lasted only a few minutes felt like they mattered in the bigger picture.
In some sense, I thought Vampire Survivors would just be a New Year's pallet cleanser. Like, I was just catching up on some cool little indie game I missed out on in 2022 before the first big game of 2023 was announced. Instead, I got totally obsessed. I spent time strategizing, and reading, and thinking about the game when I wasn't actually playing it. I put a lot of hours in in seemingly little time.
My first big win came with beating Stage 1, Mad Forest. My first few attempts saw me beef it in less than ten minutes. I was worried that maybe I was in over my head. And then, after a few tries things started to make sense to me. I started prioritizing my power-ups. I figured I'd do one last run before bed, and it'd last about ten minutes. Instead, all the stars aligned and I got all the power-ups I was looking for. So around the twenty minute mark I was so overpowered that I literally walked away from the game, brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, fed the cat, shut out the lights, and came back to a victory.
Stage 2 (Inlaid Library) was so much harder. This one took me a lot of tries, and it was frustrating. I kept lasting until around 29:40 which was a huge slap in the face. But then I realized that the level was so different. It was a long horizontal hallway instead of wide open space, so my strategy had to be re-evaluated. I focused on intense damage, and avoided the garlic/book strategy I had used in Stage 1, and then victory came easy.
Stage 3 (Dairy Plant) felt like a breeze in comparison. Probably because I had poured hours in at this point, and understood the game way more. And had unlocked a lot more perks. At any rate, I beat this on my first attempt without much fuss. Again, I was able to walk away around the twenty minute mark, and only really grabbed the controller if it looked like things were getting hairy.
Stage 4 (Gallo Tower) was a vertical stage, but a lot like Stage 2 which meant I knew how to approach it. I went in attempting to just grab the relics and see how things looked. Instead, I managed to beat it on my first try. It helped that I leveled up the evolved books and had a pretty much impenetrable barrier by the end of the level. And once more, I could easily step back around the twenty minute mark and just micro-manage. Perhaps that's the true beauty of this game – playing so well and with so much understanding that you can just devise your strategy, then set yourself up to win without even playing.
By this point I had unlocked all perks (minus the Curse) and all characters available to me, and had obtained all relics up to this point. So I was feeling good about my dozen or so hours.
Stage 5 (Capella Magna) is that last "real" level in the game, and it too felt really easy to me. Vampire Survivors has a steep learning curve, but once you wrap your head around the weapons and evolutions and all that, everything just kind of clicks and it becomes pretty easy going. Not to mention that you'll unlock a tons of perks over your playtime. It took me in the neighborhood of around fifteen hours to get through the real base game's five stages, for example. And I had a blast with every one of those minutes.
I will say I'm a little bummed with the lack of an end credits sequence. Call me old fashioned. But there's still a ton to explore going forward. There's bonus levels. I've tackled a few. There's lots of achievements. I've got just under half of them. I think there's a "true last boss," but I don't know if I have the drive to get there. There's DLC, which I'll probably tackle soon enough, with more planned in the future.
The bottom line is that Vampire Survivors is a super compelling game. It's easy to learn, and fun to master. And it's mega cheap. There's a lot of reasons to call Vampire Survivors one of the best games of 2022. And for me, it was a very pleasant surprise.
soul hackers 2
I was certainly thrilled to hear that Persona 5 was coming to Xbox. Atlus had spent a pretty long time overlooking Microsoft consoles. And because I haven't owned a Sony system in over a decade, I'm pretty sure the last Persona I even played was the second one. But while the Persona games have gotten rather huge over the years, and they have the bigger name recognition, I've been at least a casual fan of Shin Megami Tensei as a series for a really long time now. And really, my introduction to the series was pretty strange, having first played Demikids on GBA and Revelations: The Demon Slayer on Game Boy way back in the day. But I was eventually sucked in quite a bit more after playing Catherine on release, which I suppose isn't a true Shin Megami Tensei game but more of a spinoff of a spinoff or something.
Over the years I got more into the series. In the years when I was playing Nintendo consoles more, I got pretty into Shin Megami Tensei III and IV, along with a smattering of portable entries. But through much of the last decade, Xbox has been my platform of choice and I've always lamented the lack of SMT (and Atlus games in general) available there. I mean, we got Persona 4 Arena – if you can even count that as an SMT game. But just recently, it seems as if the tides have maybe changed. Not only was Persona 5 FINALLY released on Xbox this year. But Persona 3 and 4 are also on the way. And perhaps even more interesting to me is an actual new game rather than a port – Soul Hackers 2.
Given that Shin Megami Tensei is a gigantic series with many sub-series in the mix, along with many entries that never even made it to North America, it's easy to be confused here. But Soul Hackers 2 is actually the fifth game in the Devil Summoner sub-series, and a sequel to Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers which was originally released way back in 1997. Of course things get even more confusing because even though Soul Hackers was first released in 1997, it didn't even make its way to the States until it was ported to the 3DS in 2013. So knowing all the history, the interesting thing is this: while the Shin Megami Tensei series on the whole has been largely absent from Xbox over the course of the platform's history, here we are getting a sequel to a game that was originally released 25 years ago. Wow.
It's been a long-standing tradition for me that I take my winter vacation the week after Thanksgiving. It's always been when my wife and I decorate the house and start our Christmas shopping. It's a good week to recharge my batteries before returning to work to finish out the year. And with a toddler in the house, the past few years have also been when we go see Santa and do all the fun stuff like make gingerbread houses. But the other tradition I have is playing a JRPG that week. Maybe it just feels like having downtime with no work in the morning just fits really well for delving into a JRPG. Maybe the slow nature of the games jives well with vacation, or listening to Christmas movies in the background. Whatever it is, it's a tradition now. Last year it was Tales Of Vesperia, the year before was Dragon Quest XI, and so on.
This year I had been intending to play Persona 5. It's a game that has been raved about since it hit these shores in 2017. It's a game I've been hoping would come to Xbox for years now. And yet, I couldn't help but feel completely lured in by the prospect of an actual NEW game in the Shin Megami Tensei series releasing this year. Sure, Soul Hackers has less name recognition than Persona. But dudes, there's a new SMT game released in 2022. Nobody's really talking about it. It doesn't have the same kind of review scores (or budget) as Persona 5. But I love an underdog, and I love a super niche game like this. Heck, as much as I started this year enamored with Elden Ring like many others, I also spent the time earlier this year praising Stranger Of Paradise.
Upon booting up Soul Hackers 2 for the first time, I was instantly greeted with several positives. First off, the anime art style is fantastic. While it's evident that Soul Hackers 2 doesn't have the same budget as Persona 5 did, this certainly doesn't look or feel like a low budget title. The visuals are excellent, and as a dude who loves to see some anime in his JRPG's, this is hitting big time. Likewise, the voice acting is also top-notch. I can't speak of the original Japanese voice work, but the performance by the English cast is great. I have to especially praise the work of Megan Harvey who provides the voice for Ringo. Her delivery is so good, and that's definitely a plus given that she's the main character.
One reason that I've always been drawn to the SMT games is their modern setting – at least in the majority of the entries, not counting Last Bible. Most of the SMT games take place in a near future, and this is no exception. The truth is, while I can enjoy a Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG, I'm always going to appreciate the neon bliss of a cyberpunk-tinged game more. Shin Megami Tensei games have long incorporated electronics into the mix, which makes sense given the original novel they were based on. Soul Hackers 2 combines digital demons with some religious mythologies – namely the souls that our group will be hacking in order to prevent the end of the world. While it might sound convoluted, it's pretty typica fare for an SMT game, and the execution is fantastic.
The opening hours aren't exactly slow, but there is a fair of a lot of dialogue and cut scenes and tutorials to get through before things really start to open up. Luckily, the story is so cool that it really doesn't detract from the experience. Personally, I got sucked in really quickly. While the reviews for Soul Hackers 2 have been just sort of luke-warm, I've got to say that it has pretty much all of the qualities that I look for in an SMT game. During my winter vacation, I spent a solid ten hours or so with it, and got really invested with each boot-up.
The battle system here is a bit different from the mainline SMT games. Instead of exploiting weaknesses to get extra turns, you instead add one "stack" for each weakness you exploit. At the end of your turn, the number of stacks rolls out an extra super-attack from your demons. This system feels admittedly simplified in comparison, but it's certainly still fun. And there are exploits to the exploits. For instance, you can use a special skill that slowly refills over turns to double those stacks. So if you're able to do so and then have each of your party members hit a weakness, you're going be dropping a stack of eight attacks at the end of your turn, which results in a super flashy summon animation and a whole heck of a lot of damage. It's fun stuff.
Outside of the main story beats, there's also the Soul Matrix, which is basically a really big dungeon crawl that you go into to gain all kinds of extra beneficial loot. Going into the Soul Matrix is a good way to unlock new skills and perks, and frankly it's also just super addictive if you enjoy dungeon crawls. Which I do.
That said, I've spent most of the last two weeks just main-lining the story quests. And in doing so, I've had a blast. The story is cool, the performances are solid, and the battle system is excellent. I also enjoy any RPG that doesn't require 100+ hours. It's why I've put off Persona 5, and instead opted to play this one to begin with. But I've done a lot of cool stuff here. I mean demon-fusion is always interesting.
But I've probably rushed things a little too much. Focusing on the main quest (and ignoring the Soul Matrix in the meantime) means that I've overlooked a whole bunch of extra perks and skills. Which means that when I made my way to the final boss in about sixteen hours, I was way under-leveled. To put it context, I believe the max is Level 100 and I'm sitting around 50 for each of my party members. This isn't promising.
So I spent about an hour bashing my head against a wall on the final boss. I really don't have enough demons/skill diversity to keep stacking up Weakness against the final boss' quad of helpers. And this is a problem. And so, I could walk away. I could go spend more hours in the Soul Matrix leveling everything up, or I could admit defeat and enjoy the sixteen hours I've spent with the game and call it a day. And unfortunately, I'm probably leaning toward the latter.
But that's where I am in my life. I have limited gaming time. In average week, I probably put in twelve hours of gaming at most. I just don't have the same basically unlimited time I used to. So nowadays, I tend to just dive into a game and let it hold my attention for as long as it feels satisfactory. And really, to say that I even made it to the end boss of a SMT game is really cool, at least for me right now. I don't have it in me to go grind for who-knows-how-long right now. But I have loved and appreciated every moment of Soul Hackers 2 that I've played.
It's crazy to me that "nobody" is really talking about this game this year. The Persona games get so much buzz. And Soul Hackers 2 is admittedly, way simpler, but still super awesome. I mean, Elden Ring will remain my GOTY for 2022, but Soul Hackers 2 is definitely in my Top 5.
madden nfl 23
Having not played a Madden game in apparently like four years now, two things are certain. First, that I'm very rusty. And second, Mac Jones is no Tom Brady. I mean, let's be honest here. As a Patriots fan, the Madden games were probably made slightly easier to me over the past like... twenty years.
But alas, I felt the need to play Madden NFL 23. I'm not one of those guys who picks up every Madden each year. But rather, I grab ones that feel special. Usually ones that have Patriots players on the cover, or sort of anniversary ones. And this year is a big one, celebrating Madden's history as a sort of eulogy. It definitely felt special.
But the tribute is also kind of bittersweet. Sure, they put Madden on the cover this year. Sure, there's some nice video clips, and a Legacy Game mode. But that's it. Y'know what would have been cool? A documentary about the entire series! Y'know what would have been even cooler? The inclusion of Madden '93, or maybe a retro-Madden updated with the current roster. I'm thinking of something along the lines that EA did with NHL 94's retro re-release. I don't know, just something that makes this package feel like an actual tribute to the man, and the series outside of some basic additions.
Having said all that, I think the Madden series as a whole is all about small incremental upgrades. Each year since it began has been slightly better than the year before. Which is probably why I don't play every year. Instead, I skip years and get really impressed at the progress. I was really into Madden 08, then Madden 12. Then I double-dipped on 17 and 18, but hadn't played one since. Maybe hardcore Madden fans could find some faults in Madden 23, but not me. I haven't played one of these games in four years, and to be honest, this is really something.
Like I said, I started off slow. I was sloppy. I was on a losing streak. And then something clicked, and before I knew it the season was halfway over and I was 4-4. The controls here are buttery smooth. The presentation is phenomenal. As a dude who's into the little things, I was blown away when an announcer said "on their last six attempts – I'm sorry, their last seven attempts." It's these little details that just nail the realism. I know EA has always said that "if it's in the game, it's in the game." But these were the realistic details that John Madden himself strived for when he signed on to work with EA on football games to begin with.
As the season went on, my team continued to be middling. I got a few wins and a few more losses. Eventually, ending on 7-9 if I recall correctly. I can't even remember the last time I played a Madden game without making it to the playoffs. Though, I also can't remember the last time I played a Madden game without Brady as my quarterback. Call that an excuse if you must. But I really had to re-adjust my playstyle. I definitely did way more running plays with Jones, for instance.
That said, I still had a whole lot of fun. Say what you will about Madden as a series. You can certainly say that the revisions are slight from year to year. But there's no denying that the games are constantly fun and well made. Each game of the season plays out like its own little chapter with its own bits of drama. There's an absolute glory to the victories, and a total agony to the defeats. Even though my record was fairly horrible, the harder thing to come to grips with was all the almost-wins. I mean, The Packers and The Raiders totally blew me out. But I'm not sure I was even expecting to win. Other games were so much closer. I beat Miami in overtime. But other games had me thinking I was going to eek out a win until the final moments. That's pure drama, and I love it.
I'm sure it's beyond cliché to be a football fan who's also a gamer and raves about Madden. But it was it is. Madden NFL 23 is a fantastic game. I love it just like I loved my time with 08, 12, 17 and 18. So what else can I really say? It's an incredible take on the sport, and yet the series has a bit of disposability to it. I had a blast, but the chances are so much better that I'll play 24 next rather than replay this one. But I'm glad I played it and enjoyed every second. Not to mention that thanks to Game Pass, I blasted through my season using EA's ten free hours trial.
Pokemon is a series that everyone is aware of. Like, even if you're not a gamer. My dad hasn't played a video game since Superman on the Atari 2600, but he knows what Pokemon is. Digimon is a whole other thing, though. The Digimon series started back in 1999 – three years after Pokemon launched - on PlayStation and WonderSwan, as Bandai's take on Pokemon. Which is to say that Digimon was a total ripoff. But over the years, it's retained its own cult following. A following nowhere near the levels of Pokemon fandom, mind. But still.
Myself, I've never played a Digimon game before. I've never paid the series any attention. Outside of knowing that it existed, I can't even say I had absorbed any details via social osmosis. I mean, I don't think there's any Digimon character as well-known as Pikachu for instance. But over the years I have played my fair share of Pokemon games. I enjoyed Yellow, Sapphire, and Sword just fine. But I also couldn't shake the feeling that were made for a younger audience. I mean, I had fun, but I never felt all that connected.
But when Digimon Survive was announced, something about it really made me take notice. I can't exactly put my finger on it. But for one thing, I like an underdog. Here's a series that's gone on for years trying to compete in the shadow of Pokemon. And here was a new entry coming to modern consoles, and really embracing its Japanese roots. This wasn't going to be a cute story about a kid collecting little monsters in balls. No, this was going to be a rather dark and bleak visual novel – not a genre that mainstream Americans tend to go for. Oh, and the battles would be stripped down turn based tactics a la Fire Emblem. I don't know, it just felt so interesting and bizarre.
One (fair) criticism that will undoubtedly get thrown at this game is that it has a slow start. That's definitely true. The opening act took me a little over an hour to get through, but it felt like two hours easily. I think the feeling of slowness comes from the fact that in that opening hour, you'll see now Digimon. It's basically a by-the-numbers visual novel for the first hour or so. You've got a group of teens (?) investigating a strange wilderness and finding a shrine. They'll talk amongst themselves, search for their missing friends, meet a professor... it's very slow. But as things pick up toward the end of the opening chapter, everything gets pretty weird and creepy. It's a slow burn, but it's solid when it comes to establishing a vibe.
And then it gets slow again for a while. Y'know those games that people will say "get good after X hours"? This is one of those games. And the first few hours can be difficult to slog through. Mind you, the story itself is interesting and unique. But the dialogue can feel very sluggish. Like when you've got these teens, and their friends are missing, and they're meeting demons, and it's snowing out of season, and statues with glowing eyes are confronting them – just all this crazy stuff – and they're just chit-chatting and basically figuring out the longest way to say something, it just feels really tonally off. On top of that you've got bits of tutorial thrown in, and little mechanics like using your phone to scan for Digimon or demons or whatever you want to call them. It feels like there's a lot of time-killing going on early in the game. Maybe the intention is to ease you in. But frankly, this could scare many would-be players away.
Truthfully, it started to push me away as well. Somewhere between four to five hours in, I started to feel extremely conflicted on this game. There's certainly a lot to admire about it. If we're comparing Digimon to Pokemon, I'm really enthusiastic that Digimon Survive went the visual novel route. It's a more niche direction, and frankly more interesting direction than the repetitive nature of the mainline Pokemon games. And using a turn based tactical format for battles appeals to me more than y'know, "catching" Pokemon.
The problem is that even though I like the direction that the game goes in, I don't feel like it's executed all that successfully. As a visual novel, it's gorgeous to look at and the sound design is top notch. And I enjoy the dark tone where it feels like stakes are actually fairly high. While it might be a problem for some, I actually like that they kept the original Japanese voice overs. But my gosh, is the story slow. Even at the fastest text speed setting, scenes go on and on for way too long. There's so much fat in the dialogue that feels like it should have been cut to streamline the experience. Instead, it feels like they left in as much extraneous talking as they could to pad things out. Which is not a good sign when estimates put this game at forty-plus hours to beat.
The actual battles also drop the ball. Again, I love tactical strategy games. But these battles are so over-simplified that it's a bit baffling. Given that the battles are already such a small part of the game, it would have been nice to actually give them some real depth and make them feel like a rewarding break from the story. Instead, they chug along like the sort of shallow take on the formula you might see in a Fire Emblem mobile game, rather than a "real" tactics game. Sure, there's lots of menus to dig into with special skills, items, evolutions, and even talking to other monsters. But at the end of the day, battles come down to positioning your team around one enemy and just pig-piling. It's honestly pretty boring.
It's unfortunate because I had really high hopes for this game. And there's some really good ideas at play. But when these elements come together, none of them are quite good enough to prop up the others. I'd be happy if Bandai Namco uses Digimon Survive as a learning experience, and goes on to craft a sequel that improves things enough to let this blueprint see its full potential. But, my fear is that the review scores will probably lay this one to rest instead.
My fandom for TMNT has never been a secret. Heck, to this day I still have two thirty-something year old posters from my childhood hanging up in the basement. The original cartoon mini-series from 1987 rocked my young world. The Turtles quickly replaced GI Joe as my toy of choice. And in the years following, I remained faithful to that cartoon series. I amassed a gigantic collection of action figures. I saw the original live action trilogy in the theater. I learned to love comic books thanks to a compendium of the first run of issues. And I played a lot of Ninja Turtle video games.
There's definitely some classic Turtles games. There's no denying that the first arcade game, and it's sequel (Turtles In Time) are excellent and still hold up today. Then there's some middling or mildly interesting games. Like, Hyperstone Heist is a kind of neat remix of Turtles In Time for the Genesis. And Fall Of The Foot Clan is a solid Game Boy title, even if it's a total cakewalk. And I thought that the game simply titled "TMNT" was an interesting Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time rip-off. I even think that the original NES game was better than it's remembered.
But there's also a lot of really bad Ninja Turtle games. I suffered through the whole Gamecube trilogy for instance, and barely remember a thing. There were attempts to rip-off Smash Bros. There was an awesome looking cell-shaded Xbox One game by Platinum that just... ugh. And when you start getting into portable games, the library is a real mess.
All of the above is why I'm pleased to announce that in 2022 there's a bonafide great new Ninja Turtles game. That's right, folks. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge is actually worthy of the hype that it's garnered. Thank goodness. When it comes to writing about games, there's a really overused cliche. You just say that something is a "love letter to" (some other game or series). While I might feel tempted to call Shredder's Revenge a love letter to those Konami TMNT beat-em-ups, the truth is it's so much more than that. What it is, is a proper sequel.
Basically, Tribute Games has taken everything good about those old games - everything that you remember fondly - and carried it over while smoothing out the edges with quality of life improvements that would make the genre appeal to modern gamers. They've also done their homework. Shredder's Revenge is based heavily on the old 1987 cartoon series with obscure character cameos and throwbacks. They've also peppered in random bits and pieces from TMNT lore over the years. Did you ever wish there was a game that featured both Bebop & Rocksteady and Tokka and Rahzar? Well, here you go.
Shredder's Revenge also hearkens back to a time when arcades reigned supreme. As such, this is a console game with six-player co-op. On top of the four turtles you can also choose from April O'Neil, Splinter and (after unlocking him) Casey Jones! Each has their own abilities and drawbacks. Yes, this is a beat-em-up that encourages replays without making you feel like it's a tedious chore to see it all. There's also two modes of play - Arcade (preferred) and Story. The latter throws in optional challenges which push you to replay levels to unlock perks. I don't know, this mode feels kind of unnecessary to me, as this is an arcade game through and through. Except it just wasn't released to arcades. But you know what I mean. That said, there's nothing wrong with an extra mode obviously.
Beating the game took me about three hours on my first playthrough and sore hands aside, it was a great time. As a lifelong TMNT fan, I'm thrilled that this game exists. It feels like there's hope for an actual renaissance of good Turtles games. It's amazing to me that in a year that started out with Elden Ring, I'm still able to say that a new Ninja Turtles game will go down as one of my other favorites of 2022.
Although I don't watch horror movies as much as I used to, I still consider myself a lifelong fan of the slasher sub-genre. Truth be told, we just don't watch as many movies as we used to, period. I mean, we have a three year old in the house. We're tired people. But the first time I ever even talked to my wife, we bonded over slashers. I guess you could say they're in our blood. Or whatever ever stupid pun you can think of.
When I was a kid I was pretty scared of horror movies. And everything else really. But I had friends that were into them, so I was kind of forced to watch them. And they ended up growing on me early on. But it was slashers that really grabbed me. Something about the formulaic setup and the cool teen vibe of it all. My earliest exposures to the genre were A Nightmare On Elm Street 5 and 6; Halloween III and that one with Paul Rudd; and Jason Goes To Hell. In hindsight, none of these were high water marks for their respective series, but they grabbed me for sure.
In Junior High I was all about USA Up All Night and other cable runs of horror movies on the weekend. I watched everything I could, both good and bad. Some notable entries that standout from this period are The People Under The Stairs, The Serpent And The Rainbow, Troll, Pumpkinhead, Army Of Darkness, and many others. When I got to high school, I started branching out and investigating the classics. I got my own Blockbuster card and the sky was the limit. The original Nightmare On Elm Street became a serious classic, and I started to recognize Wes Craven as a favorite director. Around this time he put out Scream, and suddenly slashers were cool again. Once I got to college I started working in a store that sold movies, so my education went into the entire Friday The 13th series and the original Evil Dead, which would ultimately become my favorite slasher series, and favorite horror movie, respectively.
Another thing I've always been a pretty big fan of is adventure games. Maniac Mansion was my introduction to the genre, and to this day holds an especially important place in my gaming heart. A few years later I got The Secret Of Monkey Island, so I think it's fair to say that Lucas Arts shaped a lot of my adventure gaming love in my formative gaming years. And while it was easy to say that adventure games were dead for a long time - well, that's was mostly just the classic point and clicks that died off. Over the past decade or so we've seen an impressive renaissance with games and series like The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange. And frankly, I think Telltale holds just as much importance to me as a gamer adult as Lucas Arts did for me as a gamer kid.
This is a lot of personal backstory, I know. But I think it's an important context that's needed to write about The Quarry - a game that I knew I HAD to play as soon as it was announced. The irony being that it launched at the same time as an Evil Dead game (by the same folks who made the Friday The 13th game that I enjoyed) and yet I just had to play The Quarry first. And so when my summer vacation rolled around, I downloaded The Quarry to my Series X and dug in every night.
Oh, all that background up above? It was important because The Quarry is an adventure game that is very obviously inspired by 80's slashers. Just look at the cover or some screen shots and all screams of Friday The 13th, The Burning, The Evil Dead, and so on. And the influences are worn proudly on sleeves. Heck, The Evil Dead is mentioned in-game within the first chapter.
Also there's some pretty horror royalty within the voice cast. Let's run it down quickly...
David Arquette - Scream
Ted Raimi - The Evil Dead
Lance Henrikson - Pumpkinhead
Grace Zabriskie - Twin Peaks
...I mean, my wow.
The Quarry's setup is fairly generic, but that's to be expected when you're paying homage to a genre that has some pretty predefined tropes. You've got a group of camp counselors on the last day of summer who are stranded at the abandoned camp and have to fend themselves from unknown evil within the woods. The form certainly owes much to "And Then There Were None." But what the game does well within its early hours is introduce you to the characters. While many slasher movies were known for their stereotypical characters (at least until Scream came along with its meta commentary), The Quarry likes to scramble up some of these stereotypes. So as our teens scramble to get things ready for a big bonfire party, we get to see (and control) how they act and react. This leaves us with some pretty interesting antagonists, such as Josh - the jock dude who also goes off and cries over the girl who broke up with him. Or Dylan - the jokester... who's also secretly a science nerd but doesn't want his camp co-workers to know so puts on an aloof act as a coping mechanism. It's at least outside-the-box character development.
It also helps that the voice act is top notch. Everyone really nailed their roles. Obviously names like Ted Raimi and David Arquette have been around the block. But even the younger actors crush it here. Justice Smith was perfectly fine in Detective Pikachu, but in this game he has some tremendously impressive range. I also found the deflecting sarcasm of Miles Robbins fantastic. And I've never heard of Siobhan Williams before, but she really stole the show for me. But honestly, the whole cast was perfectly selected.
While there are some quick time events, the action and interactivity is fairly low in this game. There's maybe some light exploring or puzzle solving, but the bulk of the gameplay is about the decisions you make. These are heavy decisions, but you wouldn't know it from the choices. The best way I can describe it is that in The Walking Dead you have a very clear choice to make: which of these two people do you save? That kind of thing. But in The Quarry, your options are far less explicit. In conversations you might have a choice of being aggressive or understanding. Or you might have an option to check a door or search through some bags. You really don't have context to tell you which option will lead to which outcome. Instead, you're doing a lot of thinking with your gut, which I suppose is truly putting yourself in a horrible b-movie situation.
Sadly, I lost Emma very early in the game. It was in one of those decisions, and I agonized over it, and felt like I had made the wrong decision as soon as I hit the button. On the flip, I lost Max late in the game and really, I had no idea which was the right thing to do. Though in hindsight, I can see why I made the wrong choice. But again, if I were actually stuck out there in the woods acting on my feet - would I have the calmness to make those rational choices? I don't know.
OKAY NOW FOR THE PART WHERE SPOILERS HAPPEN, SO IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ SPOILERS THEN STOP READING NOW...
Digging deeper into the plot, that unknown evil in the woods? It's werewolves. Something I wasn't expecting. I wasn't expecting supernatural at all. I just figured it would be a stand-in for Jason or Cropsey. But nope, it turns out it's werewolves. And not the run of the mill Howling type - but rather grotesque humanoids. It's actually pretty cool, and mildly refreshing that they didn't go in such an obvious direction. I actually found the werewolf thing to be pretty cool, and maybe it was in part because I was surprised by the direction given that it wasn't mentioned in any of the promo materials ahead of launch.
A bit later in the game there's a full flashback chapter that focuses on Laura and Max - the two counselors who didn't make it to camp on the first day. They're being locked up by the town's sheriff and it's a pretty riveting chapter. As it turns out the sheriff is related to the guy who runs the summer camp. And later we get to enter the backwoods family's shack-mansion hybrid. It's pretty huge and creepy and reminds me of a cross between Resident Evil and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Oh, and the was more bloodshed. As I approached the later chapters of the game, I started to see more bodies hit the floor. I did my best, you guys. Also, some of these deaths are absolutely brutal. Your game will differ from mine based on your decisions, but I saw an old lady get her head blown off in shocking detail. I also watched a werewolf throw one of my counselors around a room like a chew toy. Yikes.
That mansion also held a pretty brilliant moment. I'm given a shotgun with a silver bullet. I'm in the middle of chaos in a room with two werewolves - one is definitely a bad guy and the other is my friend who has turned. I have seconds to pull the trigger, but in the scuffle I lose track of which werewolf is which. So I play eenie-meenie and get lucky. I let out a huge sigh of relief. It's moments like these that make The Quarry great.
The ending of the story goes maybe slightly off the rails. I mean, I won't get into the whole thing but there's a gypsy and at least a nod to the movie Freaks. But the game and story are fun until the closing moments. There's even a supernatural podcast that plays while the credits roll that recap their theories on the events that happened in the game, which is a pretty brilliant touch. Add to that that there's over a hundred possible endings based on what you do in the game, and you're left with a lot of replayability. I'm sure folks will complain about the length clocking in at under ten hours. For me it was just a great summer vacation game, and one I'd happily revisit in the future.
Final Fantasy VII is a classic JRPG. There's no doubt about that. And for years, fans clamored for a proper modernized remake. And in 2020, that wish finally came true. It looks cool, but I don't know if I'll ever play since I don't have any Sony consoles and I haven't heard any rumblings of it coming to Xbox. But that's not really the end of the world to me, as I've had a love/hate relationship with Final Fantasy VII since it was originally released. So whatever. If it comes to Xbox, I'll play it. If it doesn't, I'll lose no sleep.
The original Final Fantasy is a classic JRPG. Yet it's one that nobody ever asked for a modernized remake. And yet, here we are. Stranger Of Paradise is a kinda sorta remake of Final Fantasy, just without the budget of the Final Fantasy VII remake. And most likely it'll be ignored by most gamers.
Of course, I should really call it a remake in full-on air quotes because Stranger Of Paradise is completely off the rails. Instead of a world map, it basically plays out in glorified episodes. Instead of the blank slate party the original game had, we now have super emo dudes a la Final Fantasy XV. Instead of those glorious chip tunes, we've got Frank Sinatra and nu metal. I'm dead serious. And instead of turn based combat, we've got a crazy complicated and compelling action RPG on our hands.
The story in Stranger Of Paradise is far from faithful. At its best, it's a loose retelling that falls somewhere between fan fiction and prequel. To put it bluntly, this game is a total mess. Yet, for all its misses, I can't help but kind of love it - or at least love that exists. This is the sort of Final Fantasy game that makes me love Square Enix. Not because the game is great, but because they're willing to take such stupid risks on such a beloved franchise all these years later. Look, I've been playing Final Fantasy games for like thirty years now. Good or bad, I'm just happy they're still making Final Fantasy games that are interesting enough to warrant a conversation.
Now real quick, let's try to even define what Stranger Of Paradise even is. When it was originally announced, it was shown off as a straight up modern remake of Final Fantasy - not unlike the Final Fantasy VII Remake. (I still can't believe "Remake" is in the actual title of that one). But upon release, Stranger Of Paradise was referred to as a dark alternate retelling of the original game. But y'know what? Call it whatever you want - a remake, retelling, reimagining, reboot, official fan fiction. Ultimately, it's more a prequel than anything making the "Origins" in its title even more fitting. It kind of doesn't matter, though. The truth is, the original game was pretty light on story, and your party of four characters were just nameless classes. Basically, this game just takes the main quest beats and throws original characters and story on top of it, often while trying to tie it into the rest of the series.
And about those characters... they're pretty awful. But maybe that's part of the charm here. There was a time when Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest felt like sibling rivalries. But in 2022, it feels like Dragon Quest has doubled down on staying true to its early fantasy roots and poetic D&D storytelling and world building, whereas Final Fantasy is fine with going off the rails and featuring insane inaccurisms. To put it bluntly, if you've been following Final Fantasy for the past thirty something years, I don't think you're drawn to the series because of its great characters or incredible stories. So yeah, you're going to see some memes about Jack's inane "Chaos" monologues. But if you're a series fan, then you're not really surprised either.
What Stranger Of Paradise really has going for it is a deeply enthralling job system, and some seriously fun combat courtesy of Team Ninja. Oh yeah, that's the other thing - the Dead Or Alive developer made this Final Fantasy game. Now that's a sentence I never thought I'd type. The systems really started to make sense to me a few hours in, and I've had a blast exploring the job system, unlocking new skills, and mixing and matching them accordingly to make an awesome build for Jack. It's really awesome to tap a button and switch between a heavier melee build and then a red mage who's capable of sending all kinds of elemental magic flying. And Team Ninja obviously knows how to do combat right, so every encounter feels brisk and fun whether I'm parrying oncoming attacks or ending things in a rain of blood via glory kills that finish off weakened foes. While I've always been more drawn to turn-based combat in my JRPG's, I have to admire this flashy take on Dark Souls style combat here.
My main hangup with Stranger Of Paradise is the level design. If you thought Final Fantasy XIII was too linear, then you're not gonna like what this looks like. Though each mission takes place in a different area with its own unique visuals, there's some settings that are just plain ugly. Though there's also some sights to be seen. It's a true mixed bag. But the levels themselves do feel a bit uninspired and backtracking can be a pain because there's no map (unless I'm missing it).
But none of that really matters because against all odds, Stranger Of Paradise has an awful lot going for it. The decision to make this a side-story/prequel means that the stakes are much lower than with Final Fantasy XVI. It means that there's more room for experimentation and expectations are lower. And the game truly benefits from all this. Stranger Of Paradise has a fantastic battle system, a fun job system, awesome boss battles, and - if you stick with it - a story that actually gets pretty dang compelling. I remember years ago pushing through Final Fantasy Type-0 because it was "so bad, it's good." That's not the case here. Stranger Of Paradise is actually a fun reboot (or whatever). And fun is what gaming is all about at the end of the day. It's also always a breath of fresh air to watch the credits roll on an RPG in under twenty hours. Believe it or not, in 2022 there's a Final Fantasy game on shelves that I'd call an honest to goodness hidden gem.
The biggest flaw with Tunic is that it stealth launched a mere three weeks after the release of Elden Ring. As we all know, From Software's epic is a strong contender for Game Of The Year. Some folks are proclaiming it the greatest game ever made. People are talking about Elden Ring. Blogs, podcasts, fans, critics... It's Elden Ring all the time. And because of that hype train, it's a little hard to take notice of a new indie game that looks quite a bit like the Link's Awakening remaster. But here we are.
Although the look and tone of Tunic is nothing like Elden Ring, it's hard to not find comparisons. Especially given that Elden Ring hangs so heavy in the gamer subconscious in 2022. So let's take a look at Tunic for a moment. It's cure, sure. But it's also an action RPG that drops you into a giant world with almost nothing to protect yourself. It gives you no clear direction about what to do or where to go. Combat is brutally difficult. More and more, the comparisons feel apt. I'm only saying this because for those of us who have spent countless hours in Elden Ring, it's sort of hard to just immediately jump into a game like Tunic. I can't help but feel a little fatigued.
That's probably why I felt zero guilt turning on the included easy mode in Tunic. I'd like to experience this game. But I'm not in the mood for masochism. So whatever. As soon as I started to feel overwhelmed by the clunky combat, I knew it was time. You can decide at any moment to turn off death, and to have unlimited stamina. I did both, and Tunic became a different sort of game altogether. I don't care if this means I'm not hardcore. But it's a pretty game and an interesting game, and if these cheats are the only way I'll see it, then so be it.
I'm not going to say the combat is bad, because it's not really. But it does sort of throw you off. This game looks like Zelda, so I can't help but want it to play like Zelda. Instead, the combat strives to be like Dark Souls. And in turn, that makes it feel clunky. Things did start to improve once I found a shield, but far too often I found myself trying to parry or look for openings in defense only to be swarmed by three or five enemies at a time and it just put me into pure panic mode.
I probably would have given up on Tunic after an hour if it weren't for one compelling addition. There's a conceit that you must find pages of a missing game manual throughout the world that serves as your guide forward. This is brilliant. The pages look like they're torn from some lost Famicom game. Most of the text isn't in English (or any real world language) but the pictures can serve up hints if you study them. Slowly the pages become your maps and your explanations of where you need to go, what you need to get, or how you interact with the world. This faux manual is so cool that it makes me wish that Tunic had gotten a physical release with a physical manual, though I guess that would have blown the whole point of needing to collect the pages in game. Oh well.
But if I'm being honest, about three hours into Tunic the game really started to wear out its welcome for me. I don't know that it's anything that game does wrong exactly. But more, my own expectations can't really be satisfied. There's this part of me that looks at the game, and just wishes it was more like Link's Awakening - mainly because of how it looks. That wish just nags at me as I struggle with the combat and roam the world. The thought of firing it back up to continue has a level of tedium to it that bums me out. I keep saying "I should get back to Tunic," but I keep finding excuses to not. So I think that's telling me something and it's time to just accept that this one wasn't really for me.
My first moments with Elden Ring are probably the perfect analogy for the game as a whole. I stumbled out of a chamber and in front of me was a cliff leading to a deep chasm. I hit the Y button to read a note left behind by another player. "Try jumping," it read. So I did, only to be greeted by that classic Dark Souls "You Died" message. That's right – it took me probably less than two minutes to get myself killed in Elden Ring. And yet, I just kind of shook my head and smirked.
I need to tell you that while I totally admire From Software, it's always been from a distance. I find their games fascinating and I respect everything they do. And yet, I've never really been able to get into their games. Mostly because frankly, I'm just not that good at video games I guess? Or probably more accurately, I don't always seem to have the patience to stick with such obtuse games. I did try banging my head against the wall in Dark Souls some years back – and I thought it was really a cool and interesting game. But I just couldn't make much progress in it. I also picked up Dark Souls III on launch for some reason, but found the experience even more off-putting. And yet, I'm glad these games exist because there should be a game for every kind of gamer out there to love.
But my goodness, the hype for Elden Ring has been hard to escape. As a dude who's had trouble making a dent in the Souls games, and as someone who never watched Game Of Thrones, I can't say that the teaming of From and Martin meant all that much to me. But as the reviews starting rolling out and the game was getting near universal acclaim and comparisons to Breath Of The Wild, it became hard to resist this one. The concept is certainly enough to make me perk up – what if the Souls style of gameplay was pushed into a Breath Of The Wild open world? What if instead of hitting a wall you could just turn around and walk in another direction and explore at your own pace? And so I figured why not? Maybe, just maybe this could be the From Software game that finally gets its hooks in me.
My first few hours with Elden Ring were reminiscent of Dark Souls, yet the experience was miles away. I mean, I always knew I was playing the game that might as well be called Dark Souls IV. It had the same style of play, same cryptic systems, same tone. And yet, the actual game was so different in execution. Whereas my attempts at playing Dark Souls I & III were punishing affairs that found me push forward for as long as I could stand it (and that was never very long), Elden Ring just offers some reprice. The difficulty never lets up, mind. Instead, it offers you a whole ridiculously huge world to explore. I mean really big. And any time I feel like I'm in over my head, I have a short list of other threads I can go tug at.
It helps that everyone's talking about Elden Ring right now. So there's always juicy little tidbits that send me off to do something else. Thanks to various podcasts and websites I've kept a document in One Note reminding me of little things I want to do or explore. Case in point, I was a couple hours in before I realized I had missed (the very easy to miss) tutorial section of the game. So I went back to the start and played through it twice, easily farming enough extra Ruins to bump me up a couple levels.
Sometimes I'd boot the game to with some explicit goal in mind – find the witch that gives you summons for instance. Or grind until I could afford a crafting kit and torch to open other things up to me. Other time I'd take note of little areas I wanted to check out, and then I'd just go off exploring hoping for the best. I scraped beaches and jumped into caves with a mix of excitement and trepidation. But one thing is for sure – no Souls game ever hit me like this before. I found myself thinking about Elden Ring while driving home from work. I'd think about what it was I wanted to accomplish tonight after my daughter went to bed and the chores were done. Few games hit me hard enough that I'm constantly mapping out a mental To Do List like this.
Something the game has also offered to me unexpectedly is a social component. While I certainly spend a lot of my free time reading about games, I don't often get to talk about them. My wife is pretty casual in her gaming. Since my daughter was born, I've kind of lost touch with my online gaming buds. And since I don't do the whole social media thing, there's no option for gaming discussion there. I do have one gaming buddy I keep in touch with as best I can, but he's not really into a lot of the games that I am. Maybe that's why I keep this blog in the first place. If I can't talk to anyone about games, at least I can talk to myself.
But something funny happened recently. We were visiting with my family, and my youngest sister's husband was there. He does play games, but he's about a decade younger than me and in all the years that I've known him, I don't think we've ever been into the same game at the same time. Off the cuff, I asked, "have you played Elden Ring yet?" His eyes lit up. His smile widened. "Oh yeah," he said. He went on to tell me that he's never played a From Software game before and he's like twelve or fifteen hours in already, and has barely figured out what he's doing. He told me that it had taken him hours before he even figured out how to level.
We then traded war stories and anecdotes, and it was awesome. He told me about being ripped apart by a bunch of wolves. I recommended that he look out for summon ashes. All I know is that in this day and age of Reddit and whatever – which I'm not a part of – this exchange took me back to a far more innocent time. It reminded me of the playground in elementary school and talking about secrets that we'd all discovered in the original Legend Of Zelda.
Later on that same night, I combed through an IGN article on farming Runes and fought my way to the Bestial Sanctum so I could try my hand at sneaking up on humanoids that give out 1,000+ Runes each. They proved harder than I expected, but instead of giving up I started experimenting with new weapons, and then this became its own little mini-game to me. A place to hang out, and work on my skills and possibly level up quickly. As long as I have a clear goal in mind, each sitting with Elden Ring feels totally productive, even if in actuality I'm making the tiniest bit of progress as possible.
I was able to spend time grinding near the Bestial Sanctum and then going off to explore other areas and then coming back to grind more, striking an excellent balance between just seeing things, and feeling like I'm being productive with leveling. It's a great feeling to return to my rune-farming spot and realize I'm way more powerful, and way more experienced as time goes on. And time goes on quickly in this one. Hours melt away, and I'm bummed when I have to call it a night. It's an honest to goodness breath of fresh air considering my previous experience with From Software titles.
One weird thing that happened during my time playing was a rather large update patch to the game. The bigger things of note were some bug-fixes and expanded quests. But there were also rebalances to certain weapons and skills. This is the norm for online games – think Overwatch or whatever. But because I've treated Elden Ring like an entirely single-player affair up until this point, it was jarring. I say this because the patched nerfed the Hoarfrost Stomp by around 50% of its damage, and increased how long it took to cast. And I had spent the past few hours in the game finding an axe that had that ash attached to it, and leveling up enough to use it effectively. Anyone addicted to the game had read about Hoarfrost Stomp somewhere (for me it was Game Informer) because it was a widely known overpowered skill that could help you wreck some big bosses quickly. And yet the day after I finally obtained this thing... it was gone. Bummer.
The weird thing was that once the whole idea of an "easy mode" was stripped away from me via patch, I realized that truly I was enjoying playing the game far more without it anyway. I mean, sure, I'd love to have a safety net load-out that I could just plow through the game with. But is that what the game is really about? Probably not. Although... I'd be lying if I said that wouldn't be fun for a noob like me. But still – I had been playing with this cool sword I found that allows you to strike pretty fast, and got accustomed to using a shield in my combat. So, whatever.
And after about a dozen hours – which is lot for me and my current dad routine – I've decided I'm probably ready to take a bit of a break from Elden Ring. But honestly, twelve hours is only scraping the surface. I've not even tackled the first Legacy Dungeon yet. Though I have circumvented it and explored all kinds of stuff beyond it. But here's where the Breath Of The Wild comparison comes back into effect. See, I played Breath Of The Wild at launch for exactly twelve hours. I was enamored. And then, I found myself revisiting the game again between other games in 2017. And then I found myself revisiting it further year after year. I expect that to be exactly how I treat Elden Ring from here on out.
I kind of hate comparing it to Breath Of The Wild, because it seems obvious and trite. But still. I can't help it. At this point, I genuinely think that Elden Ring is the better game. And I think it'll go into my pile of favorite open worlds along with the aforementioned Zelda title and Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, and so on. All of these games were ones that I stuck with for years, gradually exploring more over time and ultimately beating at some point. Or in the case of Breath Of The Wild (or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain), I've never beaten. But that's okay. They become comfort games that I can spend time with in bits over years and feel fine with never seeing the end because – well, why would I want such an amazing game to end anyway?
Of course, my so-called hiatus from the game lasted about a week or so. Unexpectedly, I ended up finally getting myself an Xbox Series X as a sort of early birthday present. Basically, I got an email that Gamestop finally had some in stock, and I had to act quick. My wife urged me to just get it so that I'd have a birthday present that I really wanted. I mean, it's expensive. Much more expensive that anything I'd normally ask for for my birthday. But I mean... it's an Xbox Series X!
And what was the first thing I installed? Elden Ring! I had to see how good it looked with the 48GB XBX patch installed. Well, I'll tell you - it looks glorious! And so I went off exploring more. I found realized I was cursed because I hugged that spirit in the Roundtable Hold and rectified that. I found a few caves and cleared them out. Found some new spirit summons. I bought a bow so that I have some ranged attacks. Then I stumbled upon a sleeping (or dying?) dragon and ruthlessly killed him for 75,000 runes and then leveled up a bunch to LVL 40. I killed that ghostly riverman in the lake and felt like a boss. My wife asked me how the XSX was, and I showed her some of the vistas in Elden Ring to which she exclaimed, "wow, that looks so real!"
Elden Ring is a special sort of game. Progress comes slow, sure. But it is so immensely gratifying. I honestly see a pattern developing here where I play the game for a week or so, then play something else and then return to this again. Like I said, that's much the way I treated Breath Of The Wild for the years following its release. And this, well, I can't help but feel is probably the better and more perfected game.
What really blows my mind about Elden Ring is that this is a game released in 2022. Which means that I've been playing games for like 35 years now. It's insane to me to even think that a game can come out that impresses me this much. I mean, don't get me wrong - I find games I love all that time. But my point is, it's very rare that I get a game that makes me feel the same thrill and joy that I had playing Super Mario Bros for the first time, or Tetris for the first time, or Super Mario World World or Sonic The Hedgehog for the first time.
Elden Ring is one of those rare games. It is an important game. It's a defining game. I think about it all the time when I'm not gaming. I spend time researching things and making little notes about what I plan to do next or what I should be exploring. I love so many games, but very few do that to me. Very few.
I had unlocked a fair amount of the map before I finally decided I was brave enough to even take on the first real boss of the game. I was level 42 I believe. I was rocking a katana with bleed that I had also added Hoarfrost Stomp to. I brought along my jellyfish spirit, and summoned an AI helper. On my first attempt, I whittled him down to maybe a fifth of his health or so. I felt really good about that. I then banged my head against the wall while attempting to defeat him a few more times. So I went off and did something else. Again, the Dark Souls games have long been games that I gave up on after a couple of hours. But here we are. I'm now twenty-something hours into Elden Ring and just completely obsessed.
I'd also say at this point that Elden Ring is probably the most difficult game I've ever stuck with this long. I mean, sure you can say that stuff like Spelunky or Slay The Spire are difficult games, but in a different way. I've beaten both (multiple times), but they seem to take a different kind of patience and tenacity. From Software titles are usually ones where I can't wrap my head around most of the systems and just bail. But Elden Ring is a truly different beast.
I was about 27 hours in when I finally tackled Margit The Fell Omen, who is basically the first "real" boss in the game. I mean, that's kind of absurd. He's accessible within the first hour of the game. Maybe the first thirty minutes. But it took me a long time to find the courage to actually give him a go. And then it took me probably upwards of ten attempts to figure him out and take him down.
That victory was certainly sweet, though. I tried all kinds of things - mostly using my jellyfish as a decoy while I laid on Hoarfrost Stomp. Eventually I started to see the patterns in his attacks, and my victory only came when I stepped up and decided that I'd just get up close, and actually block, dodge, and hack the hell out of him. I cannot tell you how triumphant I felt to watch him go down. My heart was beating and I felt like I wanted to shout my victory from the mountaintops. And again, he's an "early" boss. But the game is just that intense.
Back in 2018, Starlink: Battle For Atlas was released. I remember going to pick it up at Best Buy with glee. Even though I wasn't really interested in the whole toys-to-life aspect of it - a gaming fad that was already on its way out at the time - there was something about Starlink that was intriguing to me. Basically, Ubisoft was making their own open-world Star Fox game. The angle was even more obvious when it was announced that the Switch version would feature Fox McCloud himself in the campaign, and basically WAS a new Starfox game in everything but name. The Switch starter set even came with a plastic Arwing.
Starlink itself was... fine. The actual space combat itself was actually pretty cool, but the game was bogged down by planetary exploration and stupid fetch quests. It seemed like Starlink was trying to be too many things to too many people (Star Fox, toys-to-life, No Man's Sky lite, etc) and because of that it failed in many ways. It wasn't a bad game, but it struggled to find an identity when in reality all it had to be was a really big version of Star Fox.
So why am I talking about all this? Because I've stumbled upon the game that I wished that Starlink was three years ago.
Chorvs (or "Chorus," really) is a game that really went under the radar. At least for me. I feel like I remember seeing vague previews of it back before it was released, but somehow I missed that it came out at the end of 2021. Flipping through a recent Game Informer issue I was reminded of Chorvs and checked Amazon to see that apparently the print run was fairly low because they had only one copy left. Luckily for me it was cheap, and I was sitting on some Amazon gift cards post-birthday.
What I'm really enjoying about Chorvs is that the flying and combat is very arcade feeling. This is definitely a niche genre to begin with. And finding space games like this that aren't hardcore sims is even more difficult. But the action here is fast paced and awesome. There's been some truly thrilling battles for me - ones that leave my heart pumping. And that's great. Although I will say that I'm pretty terrible at drifting which is rough. But once I unlocked the skill that lets you teleport BEHIND enemies - well, the combat really started to feel incredible.
You definitely have to pay your dues early on. You have limited weapons and limited skills. But as you play and unlock a bigger arsenal with more tricks up your sleeve, things start to get pretty incredible. And while the grim-dark story can be full of moments of technobabble, it does fit the tone of the game overall. To put it more concisely, you actually pilot a sentient ship named Forsaken, and none of this feels goofy.
I will say that while the controls are rather streamlined to a certain extent, this game plays like an action RPG in space. There's a lot of mechanics to wrap your head around in battle - and pull off rather flawlessly. When you do this correctly, you feel like a gamer god. When you fail, it's as if you've never played a game at all.
I got stuck in a pretty intense battle with a shielded enemy and I just couldn't seem to get my fingers to do what my brain wanted them to. I understood what I needed to do, but I just couldn't do it. I knew I needed to keep warping behind him to avoid his huge shield and evade his deadly blasts. But my reflexes just weren't there. This is where the arcade aspect comes in. And maybe an arcade style shooter like this is a young man's game. And I'm too middle-aged and rusty to get it right, I don't know.
I took a little break from Chorvs to play something else and take a breather. It turns out that this was a mistake. Coming back to the game just left me feeling more disoriented. I was trying to acclimate myself to the controls and I was just straight floundering. It's a bit of a bummer to me, because there's a lot to like about Chorvs, but I feel a sort of fish-out-of-water vibe here. I suspect that if you've played a lot of space shooters then you should do just fine. But if you're a casual acquaintance of the genre (like me), then you're going to find this one pretty damn tough to keep up with. Not that it's Dark Souls In Space, but still.