Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Axiom Verge - Review

What makes a good metroidvania? Axiom Verge sure makes a very good stab at it and gets almost all the way for me.

Axiom Verge starts off promising. Your character handles well and the surroundings are great. It is clear that the Metroid series must've been a huge influence on AV not just in gameplay, but also in aesthetics. You'll run through similar off-world looking spacey half-creature-esque corridors and rooms with similar feeling and looking enemies. 

It doesn't shy away from being colorful.

The gameplay is pretty text-book metroidvania, the map even looks like something taken straight from the handheld Castlevanias. Not a problem for me, those games - like Circle of the Moon - are some of my absolute favorites and I am always on the lookout for something that can scratch the same itch since Konami doesn't seem interested in my money lately.

There is a huge arsenal of different weapons, some definitely more useful than others but there is some impressive inventiveness that's gone in to them. Your character also gains new skills along the way in true metroidvania fashion and I really have to give credit to these skills not always being what you expect. Running around the map you'll find areas where you think you need something like a high jump or flight ability, but in fact you get completely different and very fun to use skills, like a little drone. A lot of these skills also get built upon, where it does one thing when you first acquire it, it does several more things further into the game. 

The game also does an amazing job at blending the game world with your skills in an original way. When you start the game you see areas that look glitched. At first I wasn't sure if I had a wonky copy or if it was supposed to look like that, but I soon found it was part of the level design. Your character gets a world altering gun that doesn't just change the feature of certain areas of the game, but also how most enemies behave. Using the gun to alter the world around you becomes key to getting around and it's used in a way I would love to see further explored in other games.

Acquiring new skills and discovering new things on the map goes at a fairly well balanced pace for most of the game. For the first 80% of the game I am having a blast getting through areas and trying out new skills on places I've had to leave behind before, just as it should be in this genre. There is a point however when I had discovered what I assume is the majority of the map and I start looking for those few points here and there where I might've missed something. While the map isn't huge, getting from one area to the other side of the map still requires a fair time of just running through places you've passed many times before. It is fortunate that there are few enemies that are really annoying or hold you up, but this time sink still puts a massive wet cloth on the enjoyment of exploration. When you die you get teleported back to the last place you saved, and I some times used that as a sort of "fake" teleportation to quickly get me back to an area if it turned out I had gone down a dead end.

Though the bosses are quite easy they are fun and a nice change of pace as you run around. I definitely wish there were more of them and maybe also more to them. While they generally have several phases, most of it is "hit the sweet spot until it dies". These bosses just look like they hold more potential. On the other hand, they're used as story telling devices and not just put in there for the sake of it.

You'll meet things to talk to, but they don't make much sense.

While the story about you being a scientist who, in an experiment gone wrong, gets sent to an alternate reality/dimension/world to kill some mysterious enemy is a bit confusing and almost trying to be unnecessarily deep, it is still interesting and at least doesn't detract from the fun. The aesthetics with pulsating blobs and dead bodies lying around also add to the atmosphere, as does the music which is absolutely amazing. I never once tired of the tracks playing and the entire OST is definitely going into my "Great VGM" playlist.

The reward feedback loop teeters out significantly towards the end for me. This is a balance that all metroidvanias struggle with - what will entice the player to continue when there is little left to discover and a lot more time has to be invested to find it? This is especially true when I have very limited time to play in the first place, and I don't want to spend my precious evening game time on just running around looking for things. Maybe the early game spoils me too much, giving the endgame a hard time to keep the steam going?

The vast majority of the game is really fun though and well worth checking out if you're on the lookout for a metroidvania that manages to blend a classical style with some fresh ideas.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Tales of Symphonia #3 - Everyone Is An Angel

It's been a while since I last mentioned Tales of Symphonia but yes, I am still playing it. What were you expecting? It's an 80 hour JRPG and I have no time to play, this game is going to take me years to complete!

Actually, I thought I was getting close to the end. Story-wise it sort of gave me that feeling, but then I looked at my time played and saw I hadn't even crossed the 40 hour line. Guess I am only about half-way, though it feels crazy that I could expect more than double what I've already been through.

Then I watched a video of the place I am in because one of the puzzles was doing my head in (how unexpected). And in that video they had over 70 hours of game time, though the characters were the same level roughly as mine. How is that even possible? My first thought was that I must've missed a huge chunk of the game. Like is there a hidden continent of content somewhere that just flew under my radar? But how would you then explain the fact that our levels are the same?

I am thinking, hoping, that this particular let's player has just played it extremely slowly. I can't imagine how slow, because I have definitely not been rushing through content. Or at least not been trying to, since it's my first playthrough I have been playing things as they come and as I solve them, which is not very quickly usually. I also don't shy away from combat encounters as they are quite fun and I hate being under-leveled. 

I also don't want to check any other let's player or a walkthrough to see how far I am actually through the game yet. I want to go through this as un-spoiled as possible and have only been watching guides to get me through specific puzzles in the game. The dungeons have started becoming increasingly harsh in this department with some proper tedious puzzle segments. The kind where you go "heh, that was pretty cool. Now I never want to do that again".

I wasn't wrong about the twists and turns though. In true JRPG fashion the story just gets weirder and more convoluted as you go and at some point you start to wonder if they had even thought everything out from the start or just started to make things up half way. I can almost see the pitch meeting where the creators suggest a game with this and that story and the head boss goes "yeah but it needs 80 hours of content". Creator - "But the story is about 20 hours of content". Boss - "Yeah so make something up." Creator - "ok...".

I love the characters though and I also love how they're all well balanced and fun to use in combat (except Sheena, not too keen on her). You also definitely want Raine, the best healer, to be part of any group fighting a boss. There is love and loss and some deep themes but I sometimes feel like they could've been a much bigger part of the story in their own right rather than almost being glossed over or mentioned in the passing. There is a whole thing with Persea and Regal and you don't get to know enough about that at all. Sheena caused a catastrophe at her village of Mizuho which still haunts her and that isn't fully developed either. Maybe there are so many characters and trying to build depth to them all means none of them get enough. But also maybe this is where the other 40 hours of gameplay I presumably haven't gone through yet will come in and sort it.

In my previous post I made some story predictions, so let's see how right or wrong I was;

"Colette is turning less and less human with each seal that we destroy."
Not so much a prediction as an observation, but it turns out Colette was actually slowly turning in to an angel. Not only that, but into a lifeless body-vessel for the goddess Martel who was actually also a regular human (or half-elf turned angel?) at some point. Yeah I don't know either. But we've saved Colette from that fate, for now. Instead Colette has been struck with some sort of cruxis crystal poisoning, slowly turning into a crystal.

"Genis and Raine seem to be hiding the fact that they aren't real elves, for whatever reason."
Turns out they are actually half-elves. I guess they had to hide it because half-elves are the evil ones at the beginning of the game.

"Sheena, the character who started out by attacking us but has now joined forces with us, seems to be hinting that she is actually from another dimension (?)."
Sheena is in fact from Tethe'alla, the sister planet to Sylvarant where Lloyd and Colette come from. We later find out that Genis and Raine are also from Tethe'alla, and so are Zelos, Regal and Presea.

"Kratos the mercenary says he is only in it for the money, but is he really?"
Heh, no. Kratos is a half-elf angel who ventured with Mithos the summoner 4000 years ago and for reasons unknown or just not understood by me he was part of splitting the world in to their two current forms.

"it seems like both my birth parents were something special. I don't know what but I am sure to find out soon."
Nope, still don't have a clue. I know Lloyds father killed his mother because she was possessed by a Cruxis Crystal, but that's about it.

The story isn't a masterpiece that will stick with me forever, but the characters are very endearing. There is just no way not to love Zelos and his caricature womanizing (to the point where he can get items just from talking to random women in towns, very useful skill!). Kratos who is your on-again-off-again frenemy throughout the game and keeps you guessing as to his motivations. I also keep guessing who is my actual enemy in this game because first it was the Desians but then some of them were off-shoot Renegades and they were sort of on our side but then everyone turned out to be angels but they're also half-elves which is nothing like elves and... yeah, it gets really confusing really fast. There is no way I could write a synopsis that doesn't also take 80 hours to read.

The game is fun in all the right places though and I wouldn't mind spending another 40 hours with it. I can't imagine where they could possible take this story in another 40 hours but that just makes it more fun.