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.
For me, cars have always just been a tool. They get me from point A to point B. I need a car to do things like go to work or get groceries. So I've never been a "car guy." I don't care about cars. I'm not impressed by cars. I don't know the difference between one model and another or what price range a given made and model might fall into. I can't drive manual, and when I bought my last car the biggest factors were how comfortable it felt to sit in and how good my phone sounded through bluetooth.
I go into all of this detail to point out that because of the above, I've never really been all that into racing games that are super realistic. I have no fetishism for fancy cars, so why would something like Forza appeal to me? Really the majority of my racing game history has revolved around arcade style games. Daytona USA is an absolute classic. So is Outrun. But beyond those, I've probably spent far more time with Mario Kart and Sonic Racing games.
There was one odd and random exception. Back in 2014 I somehow got a free copy of the game The Crew. This was an open world racing game by Ubisoft that got pretty middling reviews. But I did have a good time with it. Mostly, I just ignored the goals of the game and spent my time driving reckless and aimlessly.
But having picked up an Xbox Series X recently, I've been in the mood to play something that really highlights the graphical power of the system. Forza Horizon 5 is a critical darling that certainly checks off all the boxes. On the Series X it's got a performance mode and I think ray tracing, which I'm not even sure what it is but I know is all the rage. It's something to do with light, right? All I know is that it's a gorgeous showpiece for the hardware, with my wife commenting that the game looks like "someone just took a video of driving around the real world."
Anyway, in The Crew I mostly ignored the game itself and just did what I felt like. I'd come up with my own fun, doing things like hopping on a highway going the wrong way and seeing how long I could last at full speed without crashing. It was a fine enough sandbox, but the actual game missions? They never sucked me in.
Forza Horizon 5 on the other hand? Oh man. Now this is a good driving game.
If there's any one word I'd use to describe Forza Horizon 5 it would be freedom. There's so many menus that let you tweak how you want to approach this one. It's not just about a Normal, Easy and Hard difficulty. Nope. There's all kinds of things you can finetune, be it obvious stuff like manual vs automatic shifting to how much brake assist you want, or what you want on the UI or what kind of icons you want on the map or how deep you want the GPS to get. It's almost head-spinning at first, especially as more and more icons start popping up giving you different challenges and diversions. In many ways, this feels like the map of a super deep RPG.
By the way, all those icons popping up all over the map are pretty much the crux of the game. At any given moment, there are about eight million things you could be doing and all of them offer up some XP. That's amazing to me, actually. Not only am I given XP for driving well or drifting or going really fast or performing near misses... I'm even given XP for knocking down street signs or damaging property. It's kind of freeing to feel like however you choose to play, you'll be rewarded on some level.
My first impression of Horizon 5 was mixed. I enjoyed the AAA presentation all the way down to the little things like the game just knowing my first name. I was wowed by the incredible visuals while playing in performance mode on my Series X. But I was also truly terrible at handling the cars. This is a sim racing game at heart so my Mario Kart skills wouldn't really carry over. Luckily, enough tweaking of the menu helped me find a balance of help and challenge and suddenly I went from twelfth place in races to sixth and sometimes even first.
I also started to find the appeal of the open world. Sometimes I want to compete in races. Sometimes I want to seek out hidden garages that hide rare car unlocks. Sometimes, I want to just pick a direction and drive. And thanks to the way XP works, all of these feel like they're productive options in the big picture.
Once I obtained a Bugatti (and dozens of other cars), I started to feel really comfortable cruising around at top speeds. And it became a nightly routine to log in, knock a few icons of the map, and then move on to something else. I think at this point I've like seven or eight hours into Horizon 5, which isn't a lot given the amount of content in the game. But, eight hours in a racing game - a genre that I barely pay any attention to - speaks volumes about the appeal of this one. While I can't see myself focusing solely on Horizon 5 long enough to see the credits roll, I can see this being viable game that I'd come back to from time to time to eek out a bit more progress, or just cruise around with the virtual wind in my hair.
Phoenix Point was one of my most anticipated games of 2021. It's also one of the most frustrating games that I've played this year.
If you're not aware of this one, Phoenix Point is a spiritual successor to XCOM. Developed by Julian Gallop - creator of the original X-COM games - this is basically Gallop's own attempt to make his own new XCOM. There's a whole lot of reasons to be excited about this. Especially if you're a guy like me who discovered Terror From The Deep at a young age, and fell in love with the turn based strategy genre because of it. And definitely if you're a guy like me who spent hundreds of hours playing Enemy Unknown, Enemy Within, XCOM 2, and War Of The Chosen.
The truth is, I wasn't expecting XCOM 3, here. I know that Gallop's studio doesn't have the resources of 2K. But still. For every good idea that's brought into the fold here, there seems to be some other frustrating that negates it.
On the upside, the bones of the game are certainly good. There's definitely a decent game hiding here. But what bugs me is that this has existed on PC for several years now. It's had time to cook. It's had time to work the bugs out. Heck, there's even a bunch of DLC included here. I didn't play it on PC, though. I for sure don't have a capable PC to play it on. But I had to think that when it finally reached Xbox, it'd be ready to make a splash. Not the case. Not by a long shot.
But wait - I'm sorry - I meant to focus on the good first. The good is that the story is cool. The whole pandora pandemic thing? Timely anyway. And the vaguely oceanic aliens? Pretty awesome. And the branching story and factions? I can dig that as a fan of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
The problems, though... the problems are all seemingly technical. There are so many issues here that impede my enjoyment of actually playing the game.
First of all the loading times are just embarrassing. The game loads before and after each mission, and these loading times can stretch into several minutes. Like, legit get up and go get a drink and come back and still wait. It's baffling. It feels like the least optimized game I've ever played on Xbox. Granted, I don't have a Series X (yet) and maybe that would fix it. But in a world of chip shortages, I'm far from alone trying to play this game on an Xbox One. So this is just not a good look.
The controls and UI are also an issue. Not so much in-mission. But on the Geoscape I'm constantly getting mixed up on what buttons do what and how to access what menu. And sometimes button presses don't register, making feel like the game is struggling to keep up with each menu change. It makes EVERYTHING feel like a chore.
Add to all that the random crashes. Yup. Those exist in a commercial Xbox One game in 2021. I can't tell you the fury I've felt having a mission take minutes to load, then only minutes to play, then minutes more to load only to see the game crash and my progress get wiped. This should not be a thing.
And THEN there's the unintuitive UI. My goodness. As said, I've spent hundreds of hours across the XCOM games. So why is it that after spending 15 minutes I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get certain recruits to get on one of my ships? So I'm at a point where I don't even know how to send them on a mission I want to send them on? And how do I intercept this big flying creature? I can click on him. I can send a ship in his path? How do I interact with him? Nothing seems obvious here. It's a lot of work - again - when things take so long to load.
I'm just really disappointed in this one. Even if it had been a pretty competently performing XCOM clone, I'd feel like it was a successful side entry. Instead, it feels undercooked after YEARS of me hyping it up in my head.
It's no secret that I'm a sucker for these kinds of city-building strategy games. Or however you want to define them. I absolutely adored Cities Skylines. I played a ton of Planet Coaster. I just really get hooked on these kinds of games.
After reading some solid reviews of Islanders, I couldn't resist downloading it for $5. But after a week or so of playing, I couldn't shake the feeling that this felt like a mobile game I just happened to be playing on console.
Now that's not a knock, exactly. Earlier this year I played Mini Metro for many hours. And I thought it was great. That game was sort of the epitome of mobile-game-on-console. But it was really, really good.
Meanwhile, Islanders felt pretty shallow to me.
Whereas Mini Metro took the concept of a huge time-sink like Railroad Tycoon and condensed into a satisfying arcade experience, Islanders fails big time. Mini Metro tasked you with starting small and building outward until your train system just couldn't keep up. Islanders on the other hand gives you small goals to achieve, AND the ability to outgrow your island, thus starting with a clean slate.
This sort of breaks the experience for me. I'm not asked to think all that far ahead, because I know that eventually I'll be able to ditch the island I've congested and have a fresh start on a new island. So it becomes a game of just kind of doing good-enough, which doesn't really suck me in.
It's certainly possible that I'd enjoy this game more if I hadn't already played better alternatives. But there's the above-mentioned lack of complexity, along with the fact that the game really doesn't feel all that great to play with a controller. Everything feels really imprecise. It's an odd example where touch controls would truly benefit the experience - made even more glaring when I'm playing it on a tablet via Remote Play.
I will say that the audio is surprisingly good. There's some great atmosphere that comes through with the birds chirping and the low key music. Though, it does - once again - make me think of the soothing white noise that your citizens make in Cities Skylines. So once more, I'm left thinking about another, better game.
A couple weeks ago I realized that I really missed my Xbox One. My wife and I went to this huge neighborhood-wide yard sale, and I kept stumbling across cheap Xbox stuff. So I grabbed some and kind of got the bug. I've been gaming on my Switch for the past couple years since my daughter was born. It's easy, and portable. But I don't know. All of a sudden I really missed my Xbox.
I started thinking about it. The Blu-Ray player in our living room broke. An Xbox One would remedy that. Remote Play has been extended to Android devices, so I could run it on my Chromebook or phone. And games are dirt cheap. I mean, the Nintendo tax is no joke. $60 Switch games are like half the price... or less.
Of course it turns out this global chip shortage doesn't just affect current gen consoles. No. Finding an Xbox One console at Best Buy or Gamestop is impossible right now. So I lurked eBay, threw down some bids and found myself in easy possession of a new (old) Xbox One console, along with eight games. Plus the ones I found at the yard sale.
And yet, I wanted a legitimately new game. Something that would remind me of what I had been missing out on in the couple of years I was without an Xbox. And then I remembered that I'm a HUGE fan of the Alien franchise. And there's a new Aliens game. So here we are.
I've been playing Fireteam Elite all week and I have a lot of thoughts on it. It's not really a good game, honestly. But I have a lot of thoughts.
As a total Alien geek, there was zero chance that I wanted to miss out on this one. The last proper game in the series was Alien Isolation which is a bonafide masterpiece. That game completely nails the vibe of the first film. It's about ONE xenomorph. One unstoppable and perfect killing machine. It's a horrifying experience.
For some strange reason, Fireteam Elite is basically a sequel to Colonial Marines. They're just not going to tell you that because Colonial Marines is a game that lives in infamy. In fairness, I think CM is a way better game than it's given credit for. I mean, it was linear. It treated Xenos like popcorn. It was glitchy as hell. But overall, it was a fun experience.
Fireteam Elite I can't really say the same about.
Oddly, all the complaints about CM apply here. It's as if the developer took nothing from Isolation. It's super linear. Like, it's just "hey, here's a waypoint. Get there. Hold ground. Repeat." And Xenos - my goodness, they are in constant supply. It's wave after wave of shooting these bug-like enemies. This could be any other horde based shooter, be it Left 4 Dead or Killing Floor. It doesn't really matter. They just landed on this license.
There's very little story here. And actually you're just doing a mission then returning to the hub base to up your weapons and perks and cosmetics and going on to the next. It's just a weird setup for an Alien game.
One good thing I'll say as that the settings are legit. I really appreciate the atmosphere and the fan-service of throwing in things from Covenant and Prometheus. I'm one of those obsessives who actually really likes those recent movies. Like, I'll argue that Prometheus is actually one of the top tier Alien movies. So I dig this. And it's one of the only things keeping me interested.
But the biggest hang-up for me about Fireteam Elite is the base of the game itself. This is meant to be played in co-op. More importantly 3-player squads. I have to think that if I had two friends as into Alien as I am, and more importantly friends who could share the same open windows of time to play as I do - then this game would be way better. But I don't.
As a solely single player experience, Fireteam Elite is severely lacking. You're given two faceless/nameless squad-mates. (They're actually just labelled as Alpha and Beta - my gawd). And they're dumb as rocks. They shoot stuff - mostly. But overall they're just there. There's no tactics to speak of. They don't heal you or strategize in any way. They sometimes get you up, slowly, if need be.
This game just feels like kind of a mess. I think it could be good, but not for me. And bear in mind that I'm a huge Alien apologist. I'll go to bat for the Alien franchise all day. I celebrate 4/26. I HAD to own this game. I'm glad I played it. But... it's just not very good, at least for a solo player.