Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Darkest Dungeon

Release date: January 19th, 2016
Developed by: Red Hook Studios
Published by: Red Hook Studios
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, iOS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 50-60 hours
Completion: Defeated 5 bosses

"There can be no hope in this hell... no hope at all."

Lovecraftian horror is a genre that requires a deep understanding and delicate presentation to accomplish. While traditional horror tends to promote fear and quick scares, Lovecraftian horror uses nuances in storytelling and world-building to convey a lingering and more powerful emotion: dread. In the world of videogames, we have seen the rise of a handful of titles that deliver a faithful homage to the genre, such as Bloodborne, Amnesia: the Dark Descent, and Eternal Darkness. These games typically focus on a handful of the many themes presented in Lovecratian stories, but Darkest Dungeon takes the plunge and attempts to incorporate dozens of genre elements into a single gameplay experience.

Our story begins when you (the player) receive a letter from your ancestor, urging you to defend your heritage. Your family's ancient estate and nearby lands have fallen victim to a horrible curse, and are being consumed by an ever-growing darkness. The ancenstor states that his quest for knowledge led him to accidentally unleash a great evil, and begs you to correct his mistakes. Unable to cope with what he has done, the ancestor ends his life, shortly after sending the letter. More details about the areas and bosses are provided as you progress through the game, but in terms of story, this is the extent of it.

"The cost of preparedness - measured now in gold, later in blood."

Darkest Dungeon, in essence, is a dungeon-crawling, roleplaying game that aims to be combination unpredictable and unforgiving towards the player. The themes of hostility and madness are persistent in the story, in every gameplay mechanic, and in the various settings your heroes will drudge through. There is also a small town-management portion of the game, which exists as the permanence of the player's progress. The goal of the game is to grow a team of heroes strong enough to traverse where the source of all the evil lies: the Darkest Dungeon. At the heart of most of the gameplay mechanics is a system of randomness, meant to simulate the chaos and the uncertainty of the world.

After a couple brief introductory levels, you are free to assemble your own assortment of would-be heroes. You will always start with a full party of more traditional heroes, and will quickly expand your team for additional compositions. At the stage coach in town, you can recruit two additional heroes (before upgrades) per day to bolster your selection. The heroes provided by the stage coach are randomly assigned a character class, four class-specific abilities, and at least two quirks. Since there are fifteen total different character classes (each with several different abilities) there is a large variance from what type of party you will have early on. The personality quirks come in both good and bad flavors, and can range from powerful bonuses, to crippling weaknesses.

"Those who covet injury find it in no short supply."

Once your party is assembled, you will select a quest from one of four different areas: the ruins, the weald, the warrens, or the cove. Each area consists of a different assortment of enemies, traps, and rewards, and some heroes will have an advantage or disadvantage based on this. For example, a hero with a bleed attack will struggle against the skeleton soldiers of the ruins, but will deal high damage against the pig beasts infesting the warrens. These strategies are formed over time as the player completes several quests and gains a better understanding of each area. Unfortunately, the quests themselves offer very little variety, and most of them will be accomplished in the same manner: going room to room, fighting all monsters in your way.

Combat is turn-based and straight forward, but there are two mechanics that stand out when compared to similar games: positioning and stress. Stress is essentially a second health bar for your heroes that starts at zero and goes up when anything remotely negative happens. It goes up when your party steps on traps, when enemies cast an evil spell, if a party member says something that makes everyone uncomfortable, and many other triggers. Since it has so many triggers, stress can climb surprisingly quick, and can often be more difficult to manage than your party's health.

If a hero's stress reaches 100, they have a high chance of gaining an affliction, which causes them to act erractically, and stress out other heroes. When afflicted, a hero may intentionally hurt themselves, refuse healing, attack allies, or waste items. It's a very slippery slope, and once you have one afflicted hero, the others will follow suit shortly. If a hero's stress reaches 200, they will have a heart attack and possibly die. Basically this serves as a ticking clock to get out of the dungeon as fast as possible, because aside from a few brief remedies, stress can only be relieved back in the safety of town.

Your party is arranged into four positions your heroes can stand in: the front, the back, the front-middle, and the back-middle. The enemies also mirror this positioning as well, although some larger enemies can be in two positions at once. Each ability your heroes can use requires them to be in a specific position, and can only target specific positions on the opponents side. As an example, for the Crusader to use his melee attack, he needs to be in the front position, and can only target an enemy in the front or front-middle space. At first this mechanic seems reasonable, but enemies can use abilities to shuffle your team around, making some heroes unusable until they can be correctly arranged again. This same restriction is rarely useable against opponents, causing a one-sided and frustrating hindrance in combat.

"Suffer not the lame horse... nor the broken man."

As mentioned before, Lovecraftian horror requires a delicate presentation, and Darkest Dungeon succeeds in many ways to encapsulate the genre. The game features a narrator, the voice of your deceased ancestor from the introduction, who shares depressing but expertly crafted remarks throughout the entire game. The voice actor, Wayne June, speaks his lines with such powerful delivery that it raises Darkest Dungeon's level of quality as a whole. Fans of the narrator will notice that I used quotes from the game as my subtitles for this review.

Visually, the games 2D art style was the perfect choice for the depressing nature of its setting. Characters have no visible eyes, only dark shadows where eyes should be, which is a nod to the Lovecraftian theme of blindness to the horrible truth of existence. The environments are detailed and succumbing to entropy, while the monsters are grotesque abominations of many shapes and sizes. The distinct style of each area feels fresh when you alternate between areas, but individual rooms begin to repeat too much the more you progress. The musical score ranges from tense and dramatic in combat, to dreary and depressing in the village. Overall, the most successful feature of Darkest Dungeon is in its carefully constructed setting, and only gripes found here are minor.

Perhaps the largest reason I chose to stop playing Darkest Dungeon is how the game randomly and harshly punishes you. I am a huge fan of both Firaxis XCOM games, which similarly punish players for mistakes. In both those games I know my move was a mistake with a better alternative, and therefore I learn and grow as a player. In Darkest Dungeon, I have frequently had heroes killed or my party wiped becaused the enemies scored five critical hits in a row, causing my heroes to become afflicted from stress, and begin killing each other or themselves. There was no better way to approach the fight or compose my team, the only mistake I learned from was trusting the game to treat its player with respect.

- Excellent art style
- Great soundtrack and sound effects
- Fantastic narrator
- Challenging gameplay
- Many unique character classes
- Interesting stress mechanic

- Overabundance of mechanics
- Extreme difficulty spikes
- Many unfair deaths
- Random unpreventable punishment
- Tons of grinding required
- Repetitive gameplay

Verdict: Buy with Caution

Friday, September 15, 2017

Crash Bandicoot
N. Sane Trilogy

Release date: June 30th, 2017
Developed by: Vicarious Visions (orig. Naughty Dog)
Published by: Activision
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Available on: PlayStation 4

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 30-35 hours
Completion: Platinum Trophy (Crash Bandicoot 1)

An overdue remaster to the classic platforming trilogy.

Many will remember Crash Bandicoot as the mascot of the original PlayStation back in the 1990s, much like Mario for Nintendo, or Sonic for Sega (back when Sega made consoles). It was a strange time when most videogames were intentionally difficult to pad their length, and platforming was the most popular genre by far for all the console systems. Crash Bandicoot, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Activision, set itself apart from the competition by featuring 3D environments, immersive camera angles, and characters full of colorful expressions. Soon, Crash would star in two more main games in the series, and his popularity soared in the United States to the point where he was even a mascot at some amusement parks.

Eventually Naughty Dog would end their relationship with Activision to pursue their own path, creating many more successful titles such as the Jak and Daxter series, the Uncharted series, and the universally acclaimed The Last of Us. While we know this turned out to be a great move for Naughty Dog as a company, this effectively put an end to the Crash Bandicoot franchise, as Activision retained ownership over the property. In the end, Mario would go on to star in countless more Nintendo games, Sonic would find himself in a downward spiral, and Crash Bandicoot simply vanished from existence... until now!

Crash has never looked this good.

The Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy consists of the three main Crash games: Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. All titles have been remastered and packaged into a single product for $39.99 USD at launch. Crash Team Racing, the battle racing spin-off game, was sadly not included. The remastered trilogy was developed by the studio Vicarious Visions, a game developer whose catalog consists primarily of titles such as the Bee Movie game for the Nintendo DS. All jokes aside, Vicarious has nailed the remaster, updating all the visuals and audio to high-quality modern standards, and leaving the stage design and mechanics mostly in their original form.

Visually, the games look just like how you remember Crash Bandicoot, but in reality, Crash has never looked this good. The enivornments are lush, the enemies are cartoony and stylized, and even the crates have enough detail to see through their cracks to the other side. Crash himself now has fur you can see, something I wouldn't even think to address. The lighting and fog effects look fantastic, especially on interior levels where glowing green slime and electrical traps litter the stages. In my entire time playing the trilogy so far, I have not found even a minor gripe with any of the visuals, and that's impressive.

Was Crash always this hard?

The stages themselves are largely unchanged in terms of layout or enemies, so for new players who haven't experienced Crash yet, be prepared for some fast-paced and often frustrating platforming. Some of these stages, particularly in the first Crash Bandicoot, are downright despicable creations from hell (you know the ones). The difficulty only intensifies as you attempt to complete the bonus challenges for each stage: collect all boxes, collect all boxes without dying, or complete the level without dying in a ridiculous fast time. As a veteran of Crash, I found myself asking "was Crash always this hard?" since I remember doing quite well back in the day, but turns out there was a seemingly minor change that has caused this interation of Crash to be more challenging than ever before.

Behind the scenes, Crash himself has had more than a visual update. With his sleek new look comes a new rounded collision box, which is a standard feature in modern videogames, but a pretty dramatic change from the squared box of the original games. Jargon aside, this means that players will now need pinpoint accuracy for the platforming sections, because Crash can now slide off edges and needs to be closer to attack or jump on enemies. In most stages, this can be barely noticeable, while a few stages will see a pretty significant spike in difficulty. There were several times when I needed to jump on a turtle enemy and missed by hair, resulting in Crash dying and losing my progress. Despite all this, the stages are still possible to complete, just be prepared for dozens of deaths that may feel unfair.

In addition to the increased difficulty, there are also noticeably long loading times, paired with constant loading screens. Simply getting to the title screen of the game from starting the game can take a solid minute of loading, then the game loads again after you select which game to play, and then the game loads again after you select a level from the hub. The result is a significant amount of downtime, which is completely unacceptable for a remaster of a classic PlayStation title. The long loading times serve as a one-two punch with the difficulty, because there is no quick restart option (outside of time trial mode), so you would need to quit the stage and re-enter it from the hub, with long load times from both quitting and entering the stage. For some challenges, you may need to retry a stage several times, and the frustration from the failure and waiting builds fast.

Make no mistake, the game is an absolute blast.

With everything I've mentioned so far, the game may sound more like a headache than entertaining. But make no mistake, when Crash Bandicoot is firing on all cylinders, the game is an absolute blast. There is so much satisfaction from navigating the twists and turns of an underground labyrinth, narrowly avoiding death by collapsing platform, and hitting that checkpoint box to seal the deal after a difficult section. Completing a bonus challenge and receiving a gem or relic feels like a badge of honor due to the concentrated effort required by the player. The game is a rewarding experience in short burst, and the stages are varied enough and of perfect length to compliment this.

The last thing worth mentioning is the sound and music, both of which have been completely redone for the remaster. I've played many remastered games, and more often than not, it's the music that tends to overstep its bounds in terms of creative liberty. Fans of Final Fantasy X will remember the PS Vita remaster changed the music so much, fans complained until the original unchanged soundtrack was brought back in the eventual PS4 release. I'm happy to report that the soundtrack in the N. Sane Trilogy is neither understated nor overstated - but comfortably where it should be. Whether it is the hissing and whirling of mechanical traps, or the upbeat xylophone tune of N. Sanity Beach, the audio of the game has been lovingly composed to remain as faithful to the original as possible.

- Excellent visuals
- Great soundtrack and sound effects
- Original gameplay mostly unaltered
- Challenging optional content
- Fun in short bursts
- Three games in a single package

- Occasional unfair deaths
- Uneven difficulty spikes
- Unacceptable long loading times
- Needs "quality of life" improvements

Verdict: Buy