Virtual Odyssey

A Journey Through the Game of the 2010s

March 2020

Jre Best

So how was your March?… Yeah it hasn’t been a great month for anyone really. International pandemic, thousands of deaths, and political incompetence are what these next couple months will be remembered for. As of time of writing millions across the world have locked themselves in their homes engaging in self quarantine and social distancing including myself. Luckily for me writing for Story Arc is a more than good way to keep spirits high in these troubling times.

This month I was planning on making a slight tweak to the rules outlined in our January entry. Ironically this was designed to be more accommodating to the large amount of traveling I did during the week. Despite this rule not being particularly useful given the current state of the world I still feel it is important to disclose for the future.

8. In the case that I roll a mobile/handheld game I will spin again for a console/PC game. This gives me the opportunity to make progress towards finishing any game no matter where I am. This also serves as a way to bring more variety to these articles since if I’m playing a particularly long game it takes more than one month to beat, that doesn’t mean I am solely writing about one game for an entire month. Also in regards to this rule we are counting the Nintendo Switch as a console not a handheld.

Now that I’m under quarantine I probably will not be taking advantage of this rule for the simple fact that I am not traveling and alternating between two games while at home will just slow me down. With all that being said let’s jump into what you came here for.

Project X Zone

Project X Zone was one of the games I was most intrigued by when the list was first constructed. I’ve been aware of the game since it came out. I knew it was a crossover game (though I myself only knew about 30% of the characters that were in it) and I knew that fellow site writer and friend of mine, Skeith considered it “The game that made him who he is today.” So a lot of the fun of me playing it was finally getting to experience and meet so many of the obscure characters, situations and conversations a good friend of mine has been telling me about for years. And I for one had a lot of fun playing it which is why it’s so unfortunate that technical difficulties have obstructed that.

Unfortunately the copy of Project X Zone I am using seems to have an issue with it; it frequently crashes. Over the course of the first 15 levels I experienced six crashes. Now I might be able to soldier through this saving frequently but the issue is the stages aren’t your typical SRPG length. They are long affairs with enemies having an abundance of health and, while the game is not brutally punishing, game overs can come out of very surprising places even if you’re being careful. I’ve gotten game overs in a two-hour level twice only for my most successful run to end in a crash. I spent a collective nine hours in my four attempts on that level. So for the sake of this article series and my own personal sanity I unfortunately need to cease playing Project X Zone. My copy of the game is simply not functional enough for it to be sensible to write about it for this series. But I still do have a lot to say about the time I did spend with the game.

Something I didn’t know when I first picked up the game is that this is actually a sequel to a 2005 title Namco x Capcom, a PS2 title that was never released outside Japan. The game does continue narratively on from that title which might be part of the reason why I found the storyline of the game to be extremely hard to get invested in. The game falls into the trap that many crossovers do of being simultaneously narratively convoluted and astoundingly simplistic. Not only this but the game’s introduction is nearly non-existent with the game’s first five levels bouncing you around between different universes/franchises with little explanation of what the characters are actually doing. The game doesn’t spend much time at all giving you context for who the various crossover characters are and what they do. After the first five levels some characters begin to meet each other and a party starts to form and the game settles into an aimless feeling formula. Meet a new unit, the interdimensional villains accost them and through some means your party shows up, drives off the villains and recruits the newly-introduced unit. And while the character interactions are fun and the villains are particularly entertaining with their hammieness, the monotony of this formula seems more suited to the opening arc of a children’s anime then a 50 hour plus SRPG; it’s just too overbearing. The interactions between different characters are very charming. Even though I criticize the story a lot it’s not egregiously bad, just uninspired which is frustrating when the cutscenes are as long as they are.

As for the gameplay, if your only experience with SRPG’s is Fire Emblem this won’t be too big a jump. Major differences being that the battles aren’t split up into player and enemy phases, instead each unit has an individual turn. The player’s units are composed of two different characters with you being able to assign a third character you can summon to assist you in combat. Within these turns you move your characters around the grid base map and you can attack any enemy units that are within your attack radius. A key difference from Fire Emblem is that you can use multiple items and skills during these turns, with skills costing XP which is a meter you build up during combat. The most unique part of the gameplay is the combat, unlike most SRPGs once you engage an enemy the outcome is not determined by sum calculation of stats but by your timing and button presses. You have a limited number of times you can attack, pressing the A button and a direction lets you do a specific type of attack. If you have a supporting unit equipped you can hit the left trigger to summon them for an attack at no cost, the same is true if you are next to another allied unit, just hit the right trigger to summon them. What’s important here is where these attacks land since each attack will send the enemy flying over the screen so it’s important you know where your attacks are going to land. If your enemy’s airborne and you choose to send out a support unit that only hits close to the ground you just wasted that attack. Nailing the timing on these attacks can also lead two critical combos that massively increase your damage output. If you have more than a hundred XP then at any time during the melee you can activate a special move that will do massive amounts of damage. These attacks can’t miss but they can critically hit so it’s still important to learn the timing of them. It’s an incredibly unique system that makes the combat a lot more engaging.

One of the bigger criticisms I have about the gameplay of Project X Zone is the aforementioned length of the levels. The combat is fun but after a while feels monotonous in long sessions. The arenas of the game are filled with so many enemies, all with a decent amount of health not to mention the frankly bloated feeling bosses. You become numb to the joys of the combat.

It’s upsetting that I can’t continue playing Project X Zone because it’s a really fun and unique game. I would recommend it to anybody who’s interested in any of the franchises that are represented within it or someone who’s looking to get into the more obscure side of Japanese gaming.

The Wolf Among Us

Well if you’re doing a retrospective about gaming in the 2010s you can’t ignore Telltale Games. The adventure game company with humble roots cranking out quirky oddities like Puzzle Agent, Poker Night at the Inventory and Sam & Max, suddenly striking big with the perfectly timed Walking Dead Season One receiving heaps of well-deserved critical praise. Walking Dead’s mixture of emotional storytelling and radical reworking of the traditional adventure game format had people saying that it had single-handedly revived the adventure game genre. And in a sense they did, as since Walking Dead released so many more high-profile adventure games have been released. And while people debate to this day whether or not these games are truly adventure games or not Walking Dead’s impact cannot be denied. This was before Telltale began scraping away their good will by releasing poorly-received buggy game after poorly-received buggy game, coalescing into one of those most public studio closures in recent memory. Yet somehow Telltale lives on even today with the announcement of the long-awaited sequel to this game announced at the 2019 Game Awards.

Serving as a prequel to the Vertigo comic book Fables, The Wolf Among Us is set in the world where the characters in creatures of old fairy tales have left their fantasy home to live in an enclave of New York City known as Fabletown. You play as Bigby Wolf, the former Big Bad Wolf and sheriff of the town, as you try to unravel a mystery behind several recent murders with the assistance of Snow White.

The Wolf Among Us was a game that I played maybe a year after its initial release and had an interesting time replaying for this article. Despite already beating the game I remembered very little of it despite the fact that I liked it. After my replay I I’m not surprised the game did not stick in my memory because, while The Wolf Among Us is not bad, it sits unchallengingly under Walking Dead Season One’s shadow as the follow-up to Telltale’s signature record hit. 

The mystery in Wolf Among Us is fine; it makes sense and doesn’t feel too contrived outside of a few strange character choices. The biggest problem with the mystery in Wolf Among Us is it’s not particularly interesting on a mystery level partly because the episodic nature of the game basically guarantees all the important reveals are going to be in the last two episodes, which they are. Episodes two and three feel particularly meandering, not truly able to progress the story in any interesting ways. Because of that the game spends most of its time just world building which is fine, the game doesn’t have an uninteresting world but so much of it feels underutilized and uncreative. When you have so much interesting folklore you can use, it feels like a bit of a waste when with only a slightly substantial rewrite you could remove most of the supernatural elements from the story of the game and it would work just fine.

But that’s not the biggest problem The Wolf Among Us has with it’s writing and this is where the comparisons to the Walking Dead start seriously exposing it. The reason so much of The Wolf Among Us was so unmemorable to me is because it lacks tonal variation. Despite the games in all honesty very nice-looking colorful cell shaded graphics, this is a very dark game. Fabletown is a terrible place to live and everybody is always complaining about it. Your character Bigby Wolf is hated by his community either for his past actions in the homeland or those who see him as an ineffectual lap dog of a corrupted system. And nearly every scene reminds you of this constantly with no variation. The game just never lets up on this cynical gritty tone and it’s numbing. I didn’t care about most of the characters in this game because 90% of them are shitty people, living shitty lives and being shitty to me. Even characters meant for levity like Bufkin, Toad Jr. and to a degree The Magic Mirror either don’t get enough screen time or still have this unpleasant edge to them. Compare this to a literal tragedy like The Walking Dead which has an embarrassment of riches in terms of emotions it seems can provoke. Characters like Omid, Kenny, Duck and of course Clementine all help to release some of the tension of the game’s drama. And it’s not like all these characters are just comic relief; all of them have their moments of tragedy. Scenes that absolutely break your heart but the reason the scenes hit so hard was because you had those moments of levity the ones Wolf Among Us so desperately needs.

Again The Wolf Among Us is not bad but it lacks the impact it so clearly wants. Even though this game is still certainly a part of the prime era of Telltale their future missteps are still far too visible. But if you want a unique comic noir atmosphere, a comforting yet haunting soundtrack and some truly excellent voice acting Wolf Among Us might be worth a shot.

Nier Automata: Route A

What a fantastic game to roll during a quarantine. The last game for this month was Nier Automata, Platinum Games and Yoko Taro’s dark horse smash hit. And in the short time I’ve had to play it I’ve finished the game’s first route out of three. So with 30% of the game done and only a vague understanding of the broader plot of the peace I’ll be focusing most of my time here talking about the gameplay.

I was heavily critical of Astral Chains and it’s over complication of the Platinum Games combat formula so I approached Nier Automata with some trepidation based on comparisons I had heard between the two. So I’m very happy when I say Automata changes and simplifies the formula in the right ways. While there is significantly less move variation for any individual weapon, this is counterbalanced by the variety of weapons and the ways you can use them. The game has four different weapon types: small swords, large swords, spears, and bare hands. Each weapon you obtain can be assigned to either a light or heavy attack, you have two equipment loadouts that you can switch between on the fly. On top of that there’s the drone assistant that you can equip various powerful attacks to. Depending on the attack you have equipped, you have a persistent projectile that you can use if you hold down the right bumper. And without going into too much detail, the way the game handles stats as being more like equipment also works very well. None of these systems are particularly deep on their own but added together they provide more than enough to keep things engaging.

The actual controls of the game are incredibly nice feeling, smooth and graceful yet still having a tangible sense of weight. The one gripe I have about the movement might be the only way to start running is to dodge. It isn’t truly an issue outside of leading to a lot of silly looking moments and a true hatred of the dodge sound effect. The way the mechanized foes of the game crunch and clatter against the player characters’ weapons is intensely satisfying, almost enough to make you tune out their desperate pleas for mercy. Almost but not quite. Remember, this is a Yoko Taro game. 

Another gripe I have about the game is the way it presents its side quests. Any side quests you have active will have a marker on the mini-map at all times. There is no way to specifically highlight a side quest outside of manually placing a marker over the quest destination on your large map. In general the map icons are all too samie looking, it leads to lots of confusion and wasted time and could’ve been something easily fixed by just a little color variation.

I’ll save if most of my thoughts on the story for next month’s article but to briefly delve into what my thoughts are in route A…well nothing so far has blown me away, the things the game is playing with are very appealing to me. I’m a huge fan of science fiction that handles the idea of the singularity and robots obtaining humanity. And while the main plot of the first route is nothing too special the world that sets up is very intriguing. Making a game all about hypothetical science fiction ethics and then covering it in a bunch of anime excess is a pretty easy way to get me to like your game.

So that was March and while this article certainly was as bloated as the month itself I hope it was a little more fun. Next month I’ll be finishing Nier Automata so look forward to that but more importantly stay safe, wash your hands and stay healthy. It’s been a rough month. I hope this article served as a well-deserved break. Best wishes!

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1 thought on “VIRTUAL ODYSSEY: MARCH 2020”

  1. […] With the massive technological improvement in-game graphics during the 2010s many games chose to focus less on mechanical complexity and more on cinematic storytelling. These games are a sort of nephew to the classic Adventure Games of the ’90s. As both types of games don’t necessarily rely on mastery of a skill but the deduction of how to proceed with the plot. I refer to these as Cinematic Adventure Games. The highest-profile examples of these games being the works of David Cage and Telltale Games, I wrote about another entry in this genre, Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us in a previous Virtual …  […]

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