Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds

I’ve never been a huge fan of expansion packs, something that I’m going to blame partially on buying too many games and feeling just a little crushed under the resultant backlog. With three or four hundred games sitting on the “play me!” stack, it’s always felt a little silly to go back for more once I’ve seen the end credits.

That changed a bit this year, mostly because I was feeling Souls withdrawal after finishing Dark Souls III. I wound up playing 8 different expansions this year, culminating in Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds, a title which I still think needs an extra colon in it somewhere.

Short version: if you liked the base game and wanted more, this is more. You get a new hunk of map opened up, with a new bandit camp, a new cauldron, a couple of new weapons, a couple of new robots to fight, some new collectibles to chase, and a largely self-contained storyline. You also get some new skills, mostly quality-of-life related, and you can level past the old cap of level 50. I’m not actually sure how far you can level, to be honest – I was at level 55 when I finished the expansion, so it probably stops at either 55 or 60.

Side thought: The inevitable sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn is going to need to address just how much of a walking juggernaut Aloy is at the end of the first game somehow. It’s either going to need to find some way to reset her skills and gear, or it will need to be “and now you are playing a completely different person.”

I half suspect they’ll go with a daughter or granddaughter, something that keeps Aloy around as a mentor figure. But that’s all speculative, really.

Anyway, some more thoughts on the expansion instead of pontificating on the potential issues of a sequel:

Because I’d finished the base game, maxed out all of my skills, and gotten the Super Secret Game Breaking Armor, I expected that the expansion would be a little bit on the easy side, and it was a bit of a surprise when the very first enemy killed me. It turns out that coming back to a fairly complex game nine months after beating it is not terribly easy. (So much for being Super Badass Aloy.)

Apart from the whole needing to relearn how to play thing, the expansion also has some very subtle ways in which it ups the difficulty, even leaving aside the new robots. There are areas where the shield functionality of the Super Secret Game Breaking Armor is disabled, and you are suddenly quite squishy indeed. Most of the enemies are “Daemonic” versions of the familiar robots, which makes them slightly tougher and – more importantly – means that you can’t override them to make them into temporary allies. There also aren’t, as far as I ever found, any Ravager-type robots in the expansion area, which means that there’s no easy access to heavy weapons.

Finally, while there are an awful lot of robots weak to fire weaponry, the component (“blaze”) you need to loot to make new fire ammo and explosives is in short supply in the expansion area. I ran myself completely dry of it fairly quickly, which was quite an unpleasant surprise.

Fortunately, while Aloy may no longer have been Super Badass Aloy, she was still Super Rich Aloy and I was able to restock from a merchant. Money truly is the best super power.

The best thing I can probably say about The Frozen Wilds is that I legitimately did not realize how long it took me to play through. My end-game save from March had a play time of just over 50 hours, and my post-Frozen-Wilds save was at nearly 64 hours. MATH says that I was playing for nearly 14 hours, but it felt so much shorter. That’s a neat trick to pull off, and it gets my strongest recommendation.

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Gravity Rush 2: What the heck.

I absolutely loved the original Gravity Rush, enough to buy it a second time when it got a remastered edition on the PS4 and enough that it’s one of my very few platinum trophies.  It has a winning combination: an amazing art style, fantastic music, and one of the platform’s most charismatic heroines.

The sequel ALSO has amazing art, fantastic music, and the same charismatic heroine.  It’s a pity that it’s an intensely frustrating game, to the point where I would have dropped it long before the end credits if I hadn’t been suffering a severe case of “I pre-ordered this thing and paid full price for it, oh my god” guilt.

One of my pet peeves with Japanese game design is a tendency towards adding just a little bit of extra padding so that it’s difficult for game buyers to finish it quickly and sell it back to the shop.  Some games manage to cover it up better than others, but Gravity Rush 2 is not one of those games.  It’s a perfect storm of rage-inducing stealth missions, map-spanning fetch quests, boss fights that just never END, and a camera that loves to show you the nearest wall instead of your character.

I will give it some credit for having an interesting take on asymmetric multiplayer.  The game has treasure boxes scattered about, some of them hidden in quite ingenious ways.  Their location is randomized, so you can’t look up where they’re going to be, and you’re only likely to find one by chance or by scouring every corner of the map.

On the other hand, if you do find one, you can take a photo of its location and that photo will be sent to another player, which makes the hunt much easier.  This is a way to gather some special currency used for unlocking new items, both cosmetic and quite useful.  Whenever the story parts of the game started to wear thin on me, I’d go and hunt down a treasure box or two, and that would lower my stress levels enough to go back and tackle the next story mission.

That’s still not enough for me to recommend the game to, well, ANYONE, but I’m looking for nice things to say about it here.

If you have never played Gravity Rush, do yourself a favor and check it out.  It’s sublime.  Just pretend it never got a sequel.

Edit: I keep putting the disc back in to do treasure hunts. They’re kind of addictive. I half suspect they were a feature that the texture artists demanded just to show off how many different kinds of floor tiles they have, though.

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Blue Reflection: In which, I manage to play a game wrong.

After Peach Beach Splash, I needed something with a little less bounce, and that brings me to Blue Reflection. Coincidentally, both games were released on the same day, but (apart from a general theme of “cute girls doing cute things”) have absolutely nothing in common.

Well, I bought both of them. So maybe they have the target audience in common.

Blue Reflection is a very relaxed game. It’s a turn-based RPG divided into chapters, and each chapter offers a new set of missions to complete. After you complete enough missions, you have the option to go and talk to an NPC, after which the story advances to the next chapter. There’s no real urgency, no time limits, and you don’t really need to do every mission to hit the “enough” threshold. You would think this would be difficult to get wrong, and yet I managed.

In addition to the chapter missions, there’s an overall mission called “Let’s deepen our bonds”, which has a requirement of, basically, go and talk to your friends 99 times. More on this later, because it turned into a serious gotcha.

In keeping with the generally-relaxed nature of the game, you don’t get levels via combat and there aren’t really many required fights outside of boss fights. Instead, you periodically get given “Growth Points” as the story progresses. You can allocate these to one of your four main stats, and you go up a level every time you do. As your stats increase, you also get new Attack and Support skills.

Anyway, I was happily trucking along, enjoying a very light and fluffy JRPG, and then I hit the chapter 7 boss, who squashed me SO quickly that I assumed that it was simply one of those RPG fights you’re supposed to lose, and I was rather startled when I was sent back to the title screen after the Game Over sequence.

It turned out that I was expected to win, but I DID see another four Game Overs before I managed to pull out a narrow victory.

So, whatever, I beat it and I assumed that it was just a hard fight. Then I hit the next roadblock, which was where I finally realized that I had been super dumb.

The NPC I’d been talking to for chapter progression wouldn’t let me progress, because I wasn’t high enough level yet, and I couldn’t figure out WHY I wasn’t high enough level yet because I’d done every mission offered except for that weird side mission about talking to my friends and…

…and oh. Oh, dear.

What I did NOT realize is that the “Let’s deepen our bonds” mission doesn’t actually need to be completed to get rewards.  Instead, every fifth time you talk to one of your friends nets you a new Growth Point, and every twenty-fifth time you talk to one of your friends gets you a new defensive skill. The level cap for Blue Reflection is fifty, and this one mission gets you twenty of those levels.  It is a Bad Thing to not pay attention to, and the result was that I smacked hard into a boss while dramatically underleveled and with few abilities to mitigate the incoming pain.

But, that was an awful lot of talking about how I managed to play a game wrong and very little about what I thought about it when the credits rolled, so let’s get back to that.

Like I mentioned earlier, Blue Reflection is a very relaxed game and has a similarly low-key main character. You play a former ballerina whose ambitions were cut short by injury – you weren’t permanently crippled, per se, but you will never dance again. For extra angst, you were accepted to your current school because of your ballet talent, but your injury means that you’ve been demoted from the “talented” class to the “normal” class.

A bald space marine, you ain’t.

You spend most of the time running around a very small high school and its grounds, occasionally leaving to explore a very trippy emotion dimension called the Common, beat up the residents, and thereby help people in the real world deal with high-strung emotions. Once you’ve done so, you are rewarded with fragments of their psyche. Occasionally you fight massive bosses on the school’s track, and the boss fights are pretty brilliant affairs even if you are getting repeatedly stomped because you didn’t understand the leveling mechanic.

I can tell I’m not selling this game, and it’s not entirely my fault – the concept is a little out there.

Would it help if I told you that you – and your two mysterious new best friends – are magical girls, and get to wear amazing magical girl outfits?

That one of you uses a weaponized teddy bear in combat?

That going out for parfaits is of world-shattering importance?

OK, if you’re still reading, this is probably the game for you. Everyone else just closed the browser tab and went looking for something a little more manly.

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Fantastic Breasts, and Where to Find Them

One of my goals this year was not to pre-order any games that I wasn’t going to immediately start playing, and I haven’t been great about that.  So, as the year draws to a close, I’ve been trying to at least knock some of the more shameful ones off the backlog.

That brings me to Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash, which came out on September 26th, just as I was deep in the clutches of Valkyria Chronicles.

The Senran Kagura universe revolves around multiple competing Ninja schools, all training to be the Best Ninjas In Japan.  As the series progresses, it’s revealed that the REAL purpose of their training is to become strong enough to fight supernatural beasts called yoma, and the previous Senran Kagura (Estival Versus) revealed the existence of a super-powerful world-destroying yoma named Shin, who is currently sealed but is fixing to bust free any day now.

Peach Beach Splash, then, is all about a water gun competition whose purpose is to build competitive energy in the participants, which somehow strengthens the seal holding Shin back.  All of the usual ninjas (and some guest stars) are shanghaied to a tropical island to participate.

Some take it better than others.

Look, none of this is relevant to the popularity of the series, which largely comes from all of the characters being ridiculously-proportioned young women who hit each other so hard that their clothes explode.  Let’s not pretend it’s Shakespeare, here.

Given this, it’s hard to imagine how a game about these same ridiculously-proportioned young women in bikinis having water gun fights could be a disappointment, and yet it manages.

To give some context, I am a big fan of the series concept and its heroines.  I have bought every game in the series so far – and gotten a platinum trophy in every game released on Playstation platforms – based pretty much entirely on Yomi being the Best Girl, and I will shiv anyone who says otherwise.  Unless you are a Mirai fan.  Mirai is pretty much Second Best Girl, and I’m cool with anyone who happens to swap those two in their list.

(But it will make Yomi cry)

I spent my gaming time over the last four days playing through the game’s single-player main story mode and the “paradise sessions”, which are little side stories, and kept trying to find the fun in it.  There were bright spots, to be sure, in the character interactions that took place between battles…

…but the actual business of running around and spraying opponents never felt particularly good.

Part of that is the ammunition mechanic.  Your character has a certain amount of ammo, different water guns use different amounts of it, and when you run out you need to stop and refill from a water reservoir on your waist.  This same water reservoir has jets built in to allow you to dash around or fly for short periods.  On the face of it, you have a lot of mobility… but, because your ammo and your dashes and your flight all consume the same resource, even a short flight may have you landing and immediately needing to refill before you can try to shoot whatever it was you were flying up to shoot in the first place.  It just turns the act of getting around – which COULD have been a joy – into a rather awkward and stilted thing.

I also had a lot of issues with the game recognizing that I wanted to go from “jump” mode into “fly” mode, and I never quite knew whether I was going to lift majestically into the heavens or just make a sad little hop.

In addition, since the same button is used for reloading your weapon OR reviving a fallen ally, I would frequently walk up to a team member on the ground, be sure that I’d lined up to revive them, and wind up locked into a reload animation for a small but critical amount of time.  This was made more frustrating by the way that, if a disabled ally happened to land on a potted plant or something, the game really didn’t want me to revive them unless I was at the same level, so I’d need to try to get on to the same potted plant.

Then, there are the water guns themselves.  There are 10 varieties, and most of them were pretty awful – either sporting pathetically short ranges or needing to be refilled constantly.  The sniper rifle, in particular, used just over half of my water reservoir every time it was fired, so I needed to reload after every shot.

The constant refilling is made worse by the minions.  Mooks.  Creeps.  Cannon fodder.  Whatever you want to call them, the generically-weak opponents that you traditionally dispatch by the bucketload in Senran Kagura games.  They’re not generically-weak in Peach Beach Splash, especially if you dare raise the game’s difficulty level from the default.  They’re lethal, so you can’t ignore them, but fortunately they’re easily dispatched… which drains your water reservoir, meaning that your target BEHIND the minions has the opportunity to get away while you’re refilling or just attack you while you’re stuck in refill mode.  There are several missions where I just gave up and went down to the one-star difficulty level to avoid getting stun-locked in a corner and beaten down by trash enemies.

So, now that I have vented adequately about the things I didn’t like, some positive thoughts:

First, as mentioned, I liked the interactions between the characters.  This particular entry in the series also brought in characters from some games that aren’t in the main series canon, so you had interactions between, let’s call them the “Earth-1” characters and the “Earth-2” characters and those were fun.

Second, yes, there is much eye candy on display.  If you don’t get eye-diabetes from this, your eye-pancreas is working overtime.

Wow, that was one of the weirder analogies I’ve ever made.  Let’s just leave it at “there are lots of cute girls in bikinis, and you can play dress up.”  Everyone loves playing dress up.

Third, Ayame gets a prominent role! She’s always been stuck minding the store in previous games, and now the shop keeper gets to get out from behind the counter and bust some heads with the rest of the cast.

Plus, you can assign whoever you want to mind the store in her stead, and some of the characters make hilarious store clerks.

Fourth, the final story boss was pretty awesome.  If you had any doubts that the whole game was kind of a send-up of Splatoon, the last fight should pretty well dispel them.

Finally, while I really wasn’t a fan of the card mechanic (everything in the game, from characters to weapons to special attacks, is represented by a trading card, and you need to earn cards through missions to get new attacks or to level cards you already have, it’s really weird), the cards themselves have some fantastic artwork.  I’m not clear whether they’re recycling art from the Japan-only mobile games or whether it’s all new art for the PS4 game, but building up my card collection and flipping through them was pretty neat.

So, to sum up the last 1100 words, this isn’t a very fun game and I can’t recommend it to anyone who’s not already a fan of the series.  If you just want fan service and ninjas in bikinis, Estival Versus is a much better option.  If you want a weird spin-off game involving fan service and ninjas in bikinis, Senran Kagura Bon Appetit is a MUCH better option.  If for some reason you haven’t played any of the games and wonder where you should jump aboard, there’s a PS4 remake of the original 3DS games coming, and that would probably be your best choice in general.

The post-credits bit for Peach Beach Splash DOES have a tease in it for Senran Kagura 7even, and I’m quite looking forward to that.  Presumably we’re finally going to get to fight Shin.

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There are no spoilers for “The Last Jedi” in this post.

If you remember the heady days of 1999, when we were all trying to find some reason to not feel cheated by “The Phantom Menace”, one common justification was “Well, the original movies were for kids, so adult fans shouldn’t be upset just because the new ones are too.”

This didn’t really convince anyone, but at least the two movies that followed were a little better.

A decade after “Revenge of the Sith”, we got “The Force Awakens”, which went a long way towards washing the taste of the prequels out of our collective mouths, and then “Rogue One”, which showed that you could take a classic war movie, put a Star Wars skin on it, and have it turn out pretty well.

I keep collecting these silly IMAX tickets.  I can’t help it.

Still, I went into The Last Jedi this weekend with a little trepidation.  Carrie Fisher’s death last year hit everyone pretty hard, The Force Awakens hadn’t really done much to establish Kylo as a villain to be particularly concerned about, and, well, there were the Porgs.

I have a soft spot for Ewoks, sure, but “cute” has never been a strong point of the Star Wars universe.

What I got was a movie for anyone who was ten years old or younger when they saw Star Wars in the theater, and who is now on the far side of forty and wondering what the hell happened.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of the moment when you find yourself listening to Touch of Grey and it changes from a kind of catchy tune to a song you have a Profound Personal Connection with.

Put shortly, this movie hit me deep in the feels.

I may even buy a small stuffed Porg.  Damnit.


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Elf Abuse

So, I’ve spent the last nine days murdering Link in a variety of ways.   Freezing, drowning, falling into lava, falling off cliffs, electrocution in lightning storms, standing too close to bombs… occasionally even being killed by monsters, because Breath of the Wild does not think twice about putting Big Damn Gotchas in the middle of areas that seemed fairly safe until I suddenly had a red dot centered on my character.

For all that the main story quest line didn’t have a TON of challenge to it, there were a lot of things in Hyrule eager to kill me, and I like that.  It meant that when I geared up and got some health expansions, I was able to go back and give them a hearty hello and a “remember me?”

This is, fundamentally, one of the best bits of any open-world game.

This was the first Zelda game I’ve played to completion, or indeed for any significant length of time, and it joins Metroid, Pokémon and (3D) Mario in the list of Nintendo franchises I finished for the first time this year.  It’s also the 125th game I’ve finished this year, which is a nice milestone, and it definitely ranks in the top handful among those.

Frankly, 2017 has just been a crazy good year for games in general.

One of the things I appreciated about this particular variant on the Big Damn Open-World Fantasy RPG game is that, in most similar games, the end of the world is pretty damn imminent and all of the running around your character does seems a little… silly?  Like, taking Skyrim as an example, I KNOW there’s a big dragon trying to bring about the end of the world and all that, but gosh right now I need to work on my blacksmithing and if these pesky dragons would just stop jumping me every time I fast travel it would be keen.

Link basically wakes up from a hundred years dead for tax reasons, buck naked and weak as a kitten, and the first few NPCs you run in to are all “boy, if you go after Ganon right now, it would not be a good plan.  Go work out some.”

So all of the running around is FINE.  Ganon’s been in the Ominous Evil Castle for a century already, it’s not like a couple of weeks is going to make any difference either way.

Because I’ve spent the last nine days either sleeping, eating, or getting elves killed, I really don’t think I need to do too much gushing about the game in general.  Heck, according to the in-game completion counter, I’ve seen a hair under 18% of what it has to offer.  I only completed 40 of the 120 puzzle rooms you use to level up, and there are something like 900 little collectibles scattered here and there, meaning that I theoretically still have 850 of them to find.  It’s a huge world!

That aside, this is probably good enough.

So, instead of general gushing, a list of things I liked and could have done without.

Liked: Fish Waifu

Like, Mipha is adorbs AND Zelda is more tsun than dere most of the time.  In my head canon, these two right here hooked up and made little fish babies.

Also, this may have been my first Zelda game, but apparently I have absorbed enough by osmosis that actually getting my hands on this thing was a seriously epic moment:

So funny story here, you can’t pull this thing out of the ground unless you are strong enough, which – in game terms – means that you need 13 “hearts” worth of health.

I had 12 3/4ths hearts when I got to the point where I could try my King Arthur impression, it was after 5 in the morning, I’d already been playing all night, and you are damn right that I went immediately to the nearest shrine, looked up a spoiler, and got that critical remaining 1/4th of a heart so I could be in bed by 5:30.

Furthermore, Link exploring his feminine side:

“You need to sneak in to this woman-only place, find a dress” isn’t a terribly unusual gag for JRPGs, but Link really rocks that crop top.

Also Purah, who falls just on the cute side of the cute/annoying divide:

…and who is, of course over a hundred years old and just LOOKS like a little girl, because Japan – even Nintendo – loves its lolis.

Other great things: throwing random things into a cook pot just to see what comes out (if there’s another Zelda game in the same style, though, it needs a damn recipe book and some faster crafting), exploring everywhere by going straight up cliff walls and then jumping off into the void, and in general just careening around the world killing stuff and making stuff out of the bits.

Oh, that’s a second thing a sequel needs: craftable arrows.  I swear I spent more on arrows than I did building and furnishing my house.

Things that were less fun: the shrines, after about the 20th one.  Running around Hyrule, waiting for my shrine radar to beep, and then hunting them down and getting them on my map was way more fun than the actual bits where I had to go in and solve physics puzzles.  There’s a reason I stopped at 40 – I had a good twenty or more on my map that were only ever used as fast travel points, particularly the combat trial and motion-control shrines.

Also: the Divine Beast in the desert was a massive source of frustration, culminating in a fight that was easily the hardest boss fight in the game for me.  I still had a pretty tiny inventory by the time I got to him, so I didn’t have any wooden weapons or shields on me.  I had a ton of food, so he couldn’t kill me too easily, but I couldn’t do any damage to him.  I wound up just letting him kill me so I could leave the dungeon and re-gear.

Finally, if I had to get super nit-picky, I kind of kept waiting for some twist to make the whole “hey, our castle has a bad case of the evil monsters and your girlfriend is trapped in there with them, go fix” plot a little more interesting, but there really wasn’t any of that.  There weren’t any big WOAH STUFF JUST GOT REAL bits in the story, which I guess makes sense since all the stuff getting real happened a long time ago and you are just coming back to try to make it… less real?

To sum up: it was a lot of fun, even for someone who’d never been able to deal with any previous games in the series. I can’t imagine how mind-blowing it must have been if you were a huge fan of the franchise, I think there were probably a ton of little details thrown in as fan service and the majority of them just whizzed right by me.

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Quick Zelda Thoughts

As I mentioned a few days back, I’ve never been able to get into any of Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda” games, despite numerous attempts.

Still, the hype around the most recent has been pretty nuts, and this has been a year where I’ve played my first Pokémon and my first Metroid games, so I figured, you know, what the hell, and I ordered the “Explorer Edition” to give it a go. I wanted to get a physical copy just in case the seventh Zelda game I tried playing suffered the fate of the first six, so I could sell it on.

As an aside, the Explorer Edition Guide is kind of a waste of paper. An awful lot of it is dedicated to pointing out all of the stuff you can get in game if you shell out a lot of money on various amiibo. On the other hand, it did point out that I’d missed the opportunity to get a warm jacket with cold resistance from an NPC, so I went back and got that. So it’s a little more than a glorified catalog for plastic tat, but not much.

Also, the Zelda cart included in the Explorer Edition is still a 1.0.0 cart, so I needed to download an update to bring it to the current (1.3.4) version. A little weird, all things considered.

So minor griping about the package contents aside, I gave the actual game a try and it made three hours vanish in remarkably quick fashion. There’s a LOT of Skyrim in this game, with the extra spice of the survival system to add worrying about freezing to death etc to the list of things that can kill you, and a lot of Just Cause 2 – not just for the infinite magical parachute, but also for the very real delivery of the “if you can see it, you can go there” promise that open-world games make but rarely fully deliver on.

It also solved one of my biggest complaints with previous Zelda games, that there’s never any real reward from fighting anything other than bosses. With no leveling system, enemies are annoyances rather than juicy sacks of XP, and respawning enemies are just there to add tedium.

Breath of the Wild has actual reasons to fight things, and I had a great little mini-story where I chased down a ram, killed it, got raw meat, realized there was a little goblin camp nearby and they had a cooking fire, and murdered them all so I could cook my raw ram meat with some acorns to add flavor.

I should feel bad about that. On the other hand, steak.

The much-maligned weapon durability system was a pain for about the first 30 minutes, but since then I have been drowning in new gear and I don’t really care that swords in Hyrule appear to be made out of very brittle plastic.

Still, two complaints, minor as they are:

First, while the climbing is neat and all, Link must be part gecko with his ability to cling to concave surfaces. It’s a little immersion breaking to see yourself completely ignoring gravity’s harsh-but-loving embrace at times.

Second, while the art style is beautiful and goes a long way to covering this up, there are some really low-resolution textures and some instances of draw-in that just scream “launch title”. Mostly I’ve noticed it when running forward and seeing the engine frantically trying to draw shadows on the ground, so really I should probably just stop looking at my feet.

So, it looks like this may finally be a Zelda game that I can get along with. It’s only taken 30 years. 🙂

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