2017: A Year in Review

I played a bunch of video games in 2017. I even finished some of them...

This is what I thought of those.

Final Fantasy XV

Genre: JRPG, realtime action-y combat
Platform: Playstation 4

When I break it down Final Fantasy XV is a mixed bag that somehow ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Taken individually, the components that make up the game are far from perfect. The story is forgettable and the combat system is so-so, with a number of convoluted sub-systems that aren’t easily managed. Difficulty is frustratingly uneven; the main quest is easy to the point that it offers virtually no challenge, but side quests are unpredictable and run the gamut of difficulty from easy to impossible. The monster hunting system is fun and rewarding, although as with the rest of the game, the difficulty needed to be fine-tuned and balanced a little better.

The big change for FFXV is it’s open-world structure, but I don’t think Square Enix succeeded in pulling it off. The bulk of the game takes place in a single open environment, and whereas other Final Fantasy games created off-screen space through locked doors, roads that stretch into the distance, and importantly, transitions between spaces, Final Fantasy XV fails to hint at a bigger world beyond its navigable space - the average town appears to be nothing more than a petrol station, diner, and a generic apartment block. There’s rarely any interaction with the locals, and the towns all feel like a pit stop and nothing more. The result is a game world that feels small, and lacking the sense of “epic” adventure that other games in the series delivered on. Despite its flaws, the open world portion of the game is the best part, and when the late game switches to a linear sequence of vignettes at various locations and times, the game becomes a grind.

Final Fantasy XV features a variety of product placements, and they all feel forced and out-of-place. Products include camping gear, instant noodles, a credit card, and a designer dress. It’s a weird experiment, and feels like the wrong genre or setting for advertising.

The game’s graphics are a strong point, is is usually the case with the Final Fantasy series. The game is gorgeous, although at times, the combat camera is frustratingly in the wrong place, increasing the reliance on button mashing over strategy in combat. A lot of time travelling between locations is spent on-rails as the car drives itself (at least, until the flying car upgrade is unlocked in the end-game), and it’s clear that time and effort has been put into making the view from the road a good one. Unfortunately, just pulling over to explore something interesting is cumbersome, with the car needing to pull over often hundreds of metres from where you want to be.

Despite its many flaws, Final Fantasy XV is an engaging game; one that I managed to spend upwards of 100 hours playing before the difficult and repetitive grind of the post-completion end-game put me off.

Verdict: B+

Mass Effect 4

Genre: Sci-Fi Action RPG
Platform: Playstation 4

Mass Effect 4 is a perfectly serviceable game that disappoints for failing to live up to the standard set by previous games in the series. The game takes a risk by transplanting members of the series' main races to a new galaxy, effectively severing narrative ties with its predecessors. While the intended effect is undoubtedly to put an emphasis on exploration (rather than revisiting old locations), an unfortunate consequence is that the game struggles to deliver a sense of urgency that is needed to motivate the player.

The game is big; Mass Effect 4 features a number of worlds to explore, and moreso than in previous games, each world is an open space with multiple points of interest and objectives to complete. The worlds are varied, and although the archetypical ice world and desert world are present, there is sufficient variety to make each world feel unique. At upwards of 60 hours, the playtime eclipses previous entries in the series. However, while there is a lot to do on each world, a lot of it feels like it has little significance. Generally it's also possible to exhaust all the objectives on one world before moving on to the next, so there is rarely any reason to return to a previously visited world beyond a few tacked-on sidequests. There were definitely times where completing side missions felt more like a chore than a meaningful way to advance the characters in my party.

Nevertheless, Mass Effect 4 is not a bad game. The gameplay mechanics are all solid, and whether it was out of loyalty to the series or simply a desire to see if the story got better, I still invested enough time into the game to finish it. 

Verdict: C+

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Genre: Open World Action (with a touch of RPG)
Platform: Playstation 4
My intial interest in Horizon: Zero Dawn was based on the image of fighting giant robots with a bow and arrow. I had no expectations of this game, is a game, but it proved to be one of the highlights of the year. Set in a world post-robot apocalypse in which people have reverted to medieval-like cultures, the game follows the adventures of Aloy, as she travels accross the continent to learn about her origin and stop the onset of another disaster. Although there's nothing about the game's story that's especially original, it's told well, with some big twists and reveals that carry weight. The quality of the worldbuilding is top-notch, and importantly, (and unlike Mass Effect 4, which I played as an intermission to Horizon) all of the side-quests feel relevant and significant, ultimately helping to develop Aloy's character and abilities.

Graphically, Horizon is gorgeous, with even the most banal NPCs looking carefully designed. In truth, there is some identikit work at play, but the game takes a long while before you start to notice the patterns. The scenery is varied and beautiful, and while the game world is huge, it also feels right. There's been some careful design work done to ensure that the world is big enough to contain what's needed, but not so big as to feel empty or repetetive. The enemies are perhaps the highlight though. Modeled off of animal analogues such as horses and rhinos, and in some cases dinosaurs, the enemies move and behave in ways that seem realistic.

Playing through Horizon: Zero Dawn is a combination of scavenging, stealth, and distance and close combat. Taking on big enemies requires some careful planning: scouting out the environment, setting traps, clearing out the minions, and selecting the right weapons. Once the fight starts, tactics come into play too. One of the things I love about Horizon: Zero Dawn is that at no point does gameplay ever become mindless or repetetive.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a rare game in which every aspect is nearly faultless, and the game comes together incredibly well.

Verdict: A


Genre: First Person Survival Stealth Shooter
Platform: Xbox One

I was initially sceptical of Prey: A System-Shock clone that takes a cue from BioShock by dressing the set in a retro-aesthetic (in this case, a mid-century Modern style). These games have inspired the story too, with a protagonist that wakes up with no memories and begins to take instructions from someone they've never seen. Thankfully, the game successfully (for the most part) recreates the appeal of System Shock and BioShock. There is a big space station to explore, and apart from some obnoxious zero-G tunnels, the environment comes together well. Resources are never quite as scarce as in System Shock, but the player is still required to scavenge for salvage that can be used at stations scattered throughout the station to create items including weapons, ammo, and mods. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game, as having the resources to unlock higher levels of the game's skill trees requires frugal use of weapons and ammunition.

Though there are only a handful of different enemy types, there is a reasonable variety of archetypes represented, from small creepers that can be smashed with a wrench, through to hulking beasts that require multiple shotgun blasts to put down. The first enemy type encountered, the mimic, proves to be the most interesting, as it copies items in the environment. There were plenty of times where I'd forget to keep my guard up while approaching a health pack and suddenly find myself fighting a mimic. The game executes this well so that it never feels like a cheap-shot; sometimes movement gives it away, and sometimes it's the obviousness of two identical items side-by-side, but the game usually gives you the chance to sense that something is awry.

What lets Prey down is its adherence to some of the tropes of the genre, particularly the silent protagonist, an environment virtually bereft of friendly characters, and an insistence on telling a story via personal recordings that are found littered throughout the environment. While these elements all work as well as they have in the past, they feel rote, and more importantly, they make it difficult for the player to empathise with the character. Fortunately, the space station is still fun to explore... until you hit a loading screen. For whatever reason, Prey's environments are cut up into small sections separated by long loading screens, which becomes frustrating in the late game when the player needs to do a lot of travel back and forth (particularly if attempting to complete many of the game's side-missions). A side-effect of loading screens (as with many games) is that they provide an easy escape in a tricky situation, because enemies can't move between zones.

Prey is a polished, if somewhat derivative game, that successfully emulates, but fails to outshine previous games in the genre.

Verdict: C+

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

Genre: Action JRPG
Platform: Playstation 4

With an opening sequence that looks like something from a remastered PS2 game (rather than a PS4 game), I was a bit worried that Ys, purchased on a whim in the midst of a game glut, would turn out to be a dud. It wasn't. After the opening sequence on-board a ship and the subsequent ship-wreck that sets up the game, Ys VIII turns into a game that is a lot of fun to play, and is one of the highlights of the year.

As a JRPG with a combat system akin to an action game, Ys VIII finds the sweet spot between simply picking the right skills for the fight, and having to manage timing and positioning in realtime. This is a game where the combat feels visceral, with every button press delivering a satisfying blow, and yet, as with many JRPGs, there are stretches where the player is able to play more or les on autopilot. This is not necessarily a criticism, as beyond the combat, Ys VII offers a whole island to explore, with a shipful of interesting characters to find and rescue. What I most enjoyed about the game was the touches of Metroidvania-like exploration, with each zone packed with hidden niches that require skills or items unlocked later. Exploring the whole island requires revisiting areas, but it always feels rewarding, and never feels like the developers have simply used this as a way to extend the game. It's satisfying when you finally reach an area that you've seen but haven't been able to access before.

Ys VIII tells a great story, albeit somewhat awkwardly at times due to some questionable translation. For the most part though, the translation adds to the charm. There are plenty of characters that develop in interesting ways as a result of completing side-quests, and the main story is littered with smaller events and diversions that keep things progressing. Ys manages to simultaneously tell an intimate story about shipwreck survivors banding together to escape an island, and an epic story about saving the world. The main voice cast is generally pretty good. The translated dialogue is a bit odd at times, but the voice cast manages to deliver the dialogue in a way that is convincing. The soundtrack is excellent too, with great music both during cut-scenes and in gameplay.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is one of the most enjoyable games I played in 2017.

Verdict: A

Super Mario Odyssey

Genre: 3D Platformer
Platform: Switch

It amazes me that Super Mario games continue to be fun and enjoyable experiences. None of the mainline games have ever told an interesting story, so the drawcard has always been interesting gameplay. The challenge for Nintendo has always been to add a twist to the game that makes for a new and interesting challenge without feeling gimmicky, and in the case of Odyssey, this comes in the form of Cappy, Mario's hat-creature sidekick that can possess creatures to temporarily give Mario their abilities. This creates opportunity for a range of puzzles and challenges not previously encountered in a Mario game. The concept is not entirely new for platformers, with Stacking springing to mind as a prior incarnation of the concept, but its execution in Super Mario Odyssey is spot-on.

For the most part, Super Mario Odyssey sticks to what the series has been good at (both as a 3D platformer, and with occasional 2D sequences as well). Each world Mario visits has a bunch of Moons to collect, and once a number have been collected, and some other goals completed, Mario is free to move on to the next world. There's many more moons to collect in each world than are needed to progress, and once the story is completed, a bunch more are unlocked for those keen to keep platforming. Eventually, the low-hanging fruit is cleared, and collecting, let alone finding the remaining moons becomes an exercise in forensics (or YouTube searching). Luckily, Nintendo have balanced the game well enough to ensure that the story ends while the game is still fun. There's plenty of moons that are just well hidden enough or challenging enough to collect that there's a sense of accomplishment; the game makes the player feel clever for having found a moon even when it was probably obvious (in hindsight) that there had to be something hidden around that corner.

Although the abundance of moons to collect ensures the game keeps the player feeling accomplished and rewarded, there are moments of irritation and anguish to be found in every Mario game, and this one is no different. On a few occasions, the game fails to adequately explain a goal or concept (at others it explains obvious concepts painfully), but the real issue is the controls. There are times when you know exactly what you need to do, but can't because the context-sensitive controls don't always work. There's nothing as frustrating as repeatedly trying to execute a triple jump and failing, or having Mario not move in the direction you want and falling off the map. This is an issue that has plagued all 3D Mario games. Most of the time the level design is forgiving enough so that these issues don't cause harm, but occasionally there's a particularly heinous jump puzzle that breaks the flow of the game.

Verdict: B

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

Genre: Turn-Based JRPG
Platform: 3DS

Initially released some years ago on the PS2, Dragon Quest VIII was ported to the 3DS recently. I started but never finished the game on PS2, and wanted to replay it without having to put up with the blurry low-res look of analogue video on a high-def TV, so the 3DS version appealed. As a port, the game is a mixed bag. The developers have chosen to make almost no use of the 3D screen (only the equipment screen has any 3D elements). The inventory screens have also had the icons removed to make them text only, which is a puzzling move given the two screens of the 3DS provide plenty of room. On the other hand, an extra sidequest has been added that involves finding and photgraphing objects and people across the game world, and this provides an incentive to explore each location a little more carefully (as well as providing clues on how to unlock some of the special monster encounters). The save system has also been enhanced to add a quicksave feature, which was sorely lacking on the PS2 version (and caused me to rage-quit when I lost a couple of hours of progress once after being unable to reach a save point).

In contrast to SquareEnix's other big JRPG series (Final Fantasy), the Dragon Quest games are staunchly old-school, with the combat mechanics remaining more or less unchanged since the NES days. The art style too, though no longer 2D and pixellated, continues the super-deformed anime style of the earlier games. These factors both contribute to the game's charm, which is its biggest drawcard. The game closely adheres to the tropes of the old-school JRPG, with the player travelling from town to dungeon to town, and so on, while battling a variety of enemies along the way. Dragon Quest VIII is an intentionally slow-paced game, with nuggets of story development separated by long stretches of journey and combat. Again, whereas Final Fantasy force-feeds the player what seems like hours of exposition, Dragon Quest emphasises the journey, and makes the player work to progress the story. The slow pace won't be to everyone's liking, but I found it to be a refreshing change of pace.

What keeps Dragon Quest VIII from being a great rather than just a good game is the combat. There are two issues. Firstly, the core makeup of the party rarely changes, and the different characters' abilities don't really stand apart. Yangus hits harder, and Jessica has a weak multi-target attack, while the other two characters feel kind of the same. This is compounded by the second issue, which is that combat rarely ever requires use of much more than the basic attack. In many other JRPGs (even older ones) combat is kept varied through use of status effects and immunities that force players to change their tactics occasionally. This is a missed opportunity for Dragon Quest VIII, and the result is that combat difficulty is proportionate to how much time has been spent level grinding, with strategy playing little part. Even the boss encounters (of which there are only a few) play out like regular encounters with extra HP. However, despite this, the simple charm of the game was engaging enough to keep me playing.

Verdict: B-