Monday, May 17, 2021

Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption - Review

Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption is not a good game, really. The characters are boring, the dialogue laughable. The story is cliché and the controls... oh sweet Vukodlak, the controls are way beyond redemption, if you pardon my pun.

I guess VTMR, as I am going to call it, has got to live in the shadow of its, supposedly, better sibling VTM: Bloodlines. I haven't played that one yet so I can't say, but I know the bar is pretty low. Before playing Redemption I had heard very little about it, whereas I seem to come across some Bloodlines reference every here and there. 

You actually start out as a human, Christof. It's the middle ages of Europe and you're a knight of the crusade battling evil. I knew my character was going to become a vampire before long because, A: I was playing a vampire game and B: you can see the character as a vampire on the cover art. You get hurt in battle and nursed back to health by a nun called Anezka at the local monastery. You immediately fall madly in love with this nun, though you are both vowed to celibacy, and this serves as the foundation for the entire story of VTMR. After the first dungeon which serves as a sort of learning experience you get turned into a vampire by one of the many clans in VTM - the brujah. I can't say I am well versed in VTM lore, but I know the clans differ quite a lot. In VTMR you don't get to choose which clan you belong to but you get to fight several of them.

Christof, who only speaks with "thy" and "thee" throughout the entire game, learns that his "beloved Anezka" has been turned into a ghoul by another faction of vampires. They also aim to raise some sort of mega-demon from hell to allow vampires to rule the earth once more. For some reason some vampires are against this. There is quite a lot of dialogue explaining all this in the game but things move around so quickly and the dialogue is quite tiresome it left my brain about as soon as I had read it. I realized it was all really just an excuse to get to slaughter some vampires and demons.

The quest log is ok but the map is absolutely useless.

Through events you will eventually get transported from the middle ages to "modern" times, i.e when the game was made around 2000. The end goal is of course to find and free your Anezka though it is unclear whether she actually wants to, and also to prevent the coming of the Vukodlak. The way to do this is by going through different dungeon-settings and whacking the heck out of the enemies. Even though the settings differ and give some nice variety, very little else does - they all play out exactly the same. Enter, go through a few levels, kill boss at the end. 

Between dungeons you will get the opportunity to sell your loot to buy new loot. There are swords, halberds, shotguns, rocket launchers and everything in-between. They're all pretty much equally bad, you end up either flailing your swords or flailing your pistols. That is if you can even get in position to attack in the first place, but more about that soon. You collect a "coterie" of fellow vampires who decide to join you for one reason or other, most extremely vague and along the lines of "because I feel like it". Some will swap out, and always without any warning and taking every piece of item they had in their inventory with them. I always reloaded at these points to strip them down naked, I've fought hard for those items!

There is a lot of dialogue, little of it interesting.

You also get the chance to skill up your characters. There are plenty of stats to choose from, and even more spells. It's hard to notice that up-ing my stats makes any difference in combat, other than that it allows me to cast new spells. What does having 20 more perception even do? Do I hit harder with 30 more strength? If that is the case I really can't tell. There is a plethora of magic schools to play around with and each school has a handful of different spells. Some seem to be absolutely useless, like subduing animals. There hardly are any animals in the game and they're all bad at fighting anyway. Other spells seemed absolutely mandatory, like having fire spells. Some enemies died from two fire spells or 25 flailings of my sword. I am sure I couldn't have beaten the game at all if I hadn't at least one character with fire spells. 

You gain new schools by leveling up or by finding books around the dungeons. Tough luck if you taught a character a school who then leaves your coterie. After the first time that happened I just ended up teaching my main character every book I came across, unless he knew it already. Spells are cast by using your "blood pool" and when you reach 0 you die. There are many ways to enhance your blood pool though, and many enemies to refill your blood pool from. Overall I think this system is interesting and works, or at least would work if it wasn't for other parts of the combat being broken (more about that soon).

You'll get items like poison and disease antidotes but I never ended up needing them.

The game is extremely linear, but so is Super Mario. It doesn't have to be a problem if other aspects of the game are either built around it or at least fun in their own respect. I often prefer games that offer some linearity since I like the sense of clear progression they often offer. And the dungeons aren't too bad. Like I said they're actually fairly varied, going through sewers, monasteries, caves, the secret Setite temple underneath a night club... Enemies are varied too, within the lore. You'll fight different kinds of vampires who throw a bunch of different skills your way, some way more annoying and devastating than others.

While a lot of aspects about VTMR are weak, they at least work decently. The main issue with VTMR however are the controls, and they are a pretty big issue. You'll spend more time fighting the controls when you enter combat than you will fighting the enemies. The main issue is probably that everything is controlled by clicking. You click where you walk and where you attack. This meant some times accidentally clicking innocent bystanders because I was actually trying to walk past them. That instantly had my entire coterie attack them which in turn had all the guards attack me and... reload. 

I can't even count the times this happened, leading me to target the wrong enemy or executing the wrong attack or just plain running to the wrong place. I can't count the times my coterie members stood in my way or thought I was standing in the way or decided to unload their bullets into a wall because an enemy was slightly obstructed. Sometimes I'd notice one of them was missing and find them way back just standing staring into a wall. I often decided to give my comrades ranged weapons just so they wouldn't get stuck somewhere or stand in my way. Trying to suck blood from an enemy I often accidentally clicked one of my friends standing in the way, leaving us both useless and exposed in the combat until I could cancel the skill. My character often struggled to walk through doorways if I didn't carefully click him around the door. It's a horrible mix of abysmal path-finding and terrible AI.

Even though you get many interesting skills, you can only equip six of them at any given time. I tried going into my spellbook mid-combat for some fights but targeting enemies was difficult enough without a huge inventory screen in the way. 

You can swap between characters at any time, and as soon as you let one of them go back to their AI they go full on stupid-mode again. It often felt like herding a bunch of crazy toddlers and the only reason I kept them around was to not feel so lonely... and also for cannon fodder.

The subject matter means spending a lot of time in the dark. I constantly had trouble seeing what was going on or where I was going.

All this meant I was save-scumming my way through this game and I feel zero shame. I had to reload so many times because my entire party died from standing in a poison cloud in some corner or run straight into sunlight like they've forgotten what they are. Or waste their blood pool on skills that are basically useless. It's fortunate then that it seems like my version was updated with the possibility to save at any time. I saw what seemed to be save spots in the game, hinting at a version where you could only save at certain areas in the game and honestly - the game would've been unplayable that way. You just die to unfair stuff way too often.

So how do I explain that I still spent over 20 hours with this game? I tortured myself all the way to the end after all, so it can't have been all bad, right? I guess even though there are a lot of unnecessary deaths and combat controls are about as smooth as a drunk refrigerator, with the help of save-scumming the game at least manages to have some sort of forward momentum that kept my interest throughout. Even with the horrible controls I can't really say that it's a difficult game and it would've been extremely easy with good combat controls so maybe that's one way to look at it. 

Yet I can't recommend anyone to play Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption. It won't offer you anything that another game doesn't do better, so unless you have an affinity for the VTM lore or a fetish for vampires I'd say it's better to go get some sunlight.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Cyberpunk 2077 - PS4 Review

I've been ambivalent towards Cyberpunk 2077 since the first couple of hours of playing it. My expectations were just about as high as anyone else's, maybe especially since I had just played through the absolutely amazing The Witcher 3. And the more I played Cyberpunk the more I felt there was a lot of good things to be said about it, but also many things that just felt off. Around the 25 hour mark I still wasn't entirely sure if I was having fun or not, which of course isn't the best of grades.

Having finished it though I think I can put the finger on one of the main issues of Cyberpunk 2077 - and no I am actually not talking about the now infamous bugs and glitches, but I'll get to them too. The game suffers from a serious case of fluff-itis, or something I also call the Skyrim-syndrome. I spent over 60 hours in Skyrim before I realized it wasn't going to offer me much more than the same stupid enemies in the same boring locations. Fortunately it only took me about 25 hours to realize I was making the same mistake in Cyberpunk 2077. There is a big difference though, Cyberpunk actually also has a lot of really interesting bits buried within all that fluff. The important thing is to dig those bits out and not be lured off the road by enticing map markers that are just going to end up wasting your time doing the same repetitive stuff.

You can customize your character a lot, but rarely do you get to look at it.

In Cyberpunk 2077 you play as V, a character I had little love for. V isn't a silent protagonist, but also not a fleshed out character like Geralt, but rather something in-between that'll end up mostly annoying you with their own dialogue. While you have some control of what V will say in some situations, I too often ended up not agreeing with their style of saying it. Maybe the dialogue was just badly written, because V is definitely not the only character I felt was way more corny than cool. It's fortunate then that the other main character, Johnny Silverhand famously played by Keanu Reeves, ended up really working for me.

Maybe it was the concept of body-snatching more than Keanu Reeves himself. I don't actually think Reeves is a particularly good actor and I don't think he is in this game either. But he has a certain je ne sais quoi, a unique charm that worked perfectly for this character. The main plot starts a bit meandering, probably mostly because the only people around you are V and Jackie, a guy who although endearing doesn't get fleshed out enough to become interesting. But as Jackie leaves the scene, Johnny enters. Your brain. Literally.

It manages to be atmospheric and lifeless at the same time.

This is where I find Cyberpunk 2077 has one of its strengths. The main story, and many of the bigger side-quests, do some very interesting explorations of cyberpunk and sci-fi themes. It's so frustrating then when they're often only skin-deep and leave you wanting for more. One quest has you looking for the run-away subconscious of a taxi company run by a massive AI. After having rounded up all the different taxi cabs and having to listen to their different reasons for having left, I expected a lot more than the plain "thank you" I got. One side quest with a super popstar who has completely covered herself in chrome and going a bit bonkers also didn't really go anywhere. Or maybe they do, maybe I didn't do many enough of the side quests and these elements pop up again elsewhere?

Either way you're going to play Cyberpunk 2077, side quests or focusing on the main story, there is going to be a lot of combat. And it has potential. You are theoretically given the possibility to stealth, hack, punch or shoot your way through most combat situations. In reality though, the enemies are so boring I didn't want to spend more brainpower thinking about what to do than necessary. In the first half of the game I sprayed and prayed, in the second half of the game I quickhacked everything to death. Even though I could technically hack turrets, cameras and drones to do my bidding or stealth my way around, silently picking enemies off one by one and hiding them - none of these elements were well enough designed for me to want to use any of those paths. 

Finding the stealthy path, or staying out of enemy sight in any meaningful way, was way more hassle than it was fun. I also rarely found it neither necessary nor practical to use any other way than just rushing to get through an area. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, combat was almost never any challenge and thus felt more like a necessary evil to get to the more interesting story points. There were some fights that had me breathing heavy though and that I might remember for a while - a samurai boss somewhere in the middle of story mode and the final boss did prove a bit of a challenge and variety to an otherwise rather stale ordeal.

The game also has an obsession with cars. Anywhere you'll go, some random person will ring you up and offer some car or motorbike for what I considered a ridiculous price. I had no interest in this part of the game, and I have also never had any fondness for games like GTA - cruising around is just not my kind of thing. And maybe that is for the best since it seemed a lot of bugs happened while using vehicles. I almost always chose running from A to B, but some times it would turn out to be too far away. Getting in to a vehicle the first time I notice that the radio station play some absolutely banging tunes. How unfortunate that these are not available outside of vehicles! I would occasionally get into a car just so I could listen to some nice music, but quickly realized internet could serve me better. I do really recommend you check out the radio station music from Cyberpunk if you have an opportunity, because I almost didn't hear a single song I didn't enjoy.

Speaking of getting around - while Night City often feels completely lifeless, in other ways it was absolutely amazing. Often when I had to wait for something to trigger in the game, I chose to just walk around and slowly take in the surroundings. The city itself is meticulously built up, and it many ways it felt real. The people in it not so much. I still loved to just look around, peek in to nooks and walk up and down stairs to see where it would take me. Night City is like a postcard of a real city, it looks real when you look at it but you know you're not really there.

Filling these nooks and alleys are people that some times didn't load in with their faces on or cars that would get stuck in walls if I stood in their way. I won't be too mean about the bugginess though, in fact after 45 hours of game time I didn't encounter any game breaking ones and only a few weird ones. There were a few corpses that died in places where I couldn't loot them properly, and towards the end I had to backtrack a few corridors to shoot off a lost enemy because an item wouldn't trigger otherwise. There were items floating in the air here and there or people interacting with things that weren't there. Quite often audio tracks would play on top of each other, when I was having a conversation with someone and my phone rang for instance. But this was in no way a part of the game that bothered me or ruined my fun at any point.

The game wants to do so much and I wish they would've just focused on half of the stuff and made them really good instead. It's like they started out with a solid idea but just kept adding on top of it until all the good bits where all but buried. As it is now, most of it comes off as either half-baked or just not thought through. There are cars to collect, gangs to murder, psychos to find, fixers to help and a billion other things that scream for your attention. The main story is actually quite good, and worth playing through if you ask me. I probably would've had more fun with combat if it had been more focused and less of it. Now I definitely burned myself out on it in the first 20 hours of the game, and had little interest left for it when it bloomed out a bit towards the end. When you try to cater to everyone, you often end up catering to no one and the developers should've had the guts to stick to one vision or two instead of trying to include so many. Cyberpunk 2077 is proof yet again that most often, less is more.