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James Vogel
Sinistar is my patronus.
Sinistar is my patronus.
James's posts

ME4 would be so much more acceptable if I hadn't just played HZD and NieR, because wow does it suffer by comparison.

Yeah, the animation stuff is annoying, particularly since I did not spend all that time in the character creator to be constantly subjected to Frowny Chipmunk Face. The control bugs are even less forgivable - occasionally something goes haywire and my camera decides to ignore inputs for 20 seconds then do a minute-long pirouette.

But those are just bugs. They're bad and I hope they get fixed but they're not what's really putting me off about the game.

(Spoilers for the first 40 minutes of the game but come on if you didn't see this coming, welcome to 2017 from your cryogenic vault and I have some bad news for you about America.)

There might be a twist or subversion or something down the line that recontextualizes this, but at least in my game so far, I feel like instead of this being my story, it's my dad's story. My dad did all the cool stuff, my dad's mysteeeeeeerious seeeeeecrets are A Whole Big Thing, half the NPCs start out by talking about my dad.

I can't tell if this is really lazy storytelling to tapdance around having a blank slate protagonist, or if they're actually trying to do a thing about fatherhood and legacy. (I hope it's the latter but if I can't tell, that's a problem.)

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I was "supposed" to be writing a long-ish post about Horizon and themes, but I've back-burnered it for a while. It's still coming because I have a lot more to say about Horizon. Hopefully by the time I get to it more people will have finished the game so we can have some good discussion.

My self-imposed waiting period on Andromeda expired so I'll be starting in on that tonight. I've cultivated some… lowered expectations. I've also decided to not really care about spoilers, so I'll be up for multiplayer from hour 1. (Well, hour 2. Hour 1 will be spent in the character creator.)

I discovered over the weekend I owned a copy of Drakengard 3 I don't remember buying. It's very… Yoko Taro. It's certainly more conventional than NieR: Automata so far, and also much more """mature""" (ie, juvenile, ie there's a lot of shock-gore and sex jokes, though to its credit it's also actually funny as opposed to merely cringe-inducing). Frustratingly, it suffers from some serious technical problems, the worst being single-digit framerate during some fights. It's fun enough that I want to see where it goes though (and also I want to see the ending that connects it to NieR).

Also also, it has this screenshot, which pops up during a cutscene after a boss fight during which, judging from the sound effects, protagonist Zero is working off some serious anger issues. Anyway, I laughed.

Horizon Zero
Dawn of the Planet of the Mechs
Part One of N

On Spoilers: There's some spoiler space after the intro paragraph; below that is spoilertown. If you're especially cautious, consider muting this post because comments may also have spoiler-y loglines.

This is the first of what has turned into (at least) a two-part analysis of the creative elements of Horizon Zero Dawn, by which I mean the story narrative, characters, and themes. I'll touch on ludonarrative elements as they apply, but my previous post covered most of my thoughts on the gameplay itself. This post is on the overall structure and presentation of the story and maybe a bit on the plot and writing. The follow-up, which I'm still working on, will be a deeper dive on the specific ideological themes of the game and how they're explored.
Alright, welcome to the spoiler zone.

I'm focusing on the narrative as it's revealed to the player through the main story quests and on the assumption of a "natural order" playthrough, with no major sequence breaking. Depending on how much exploration the player does at various stages of the game, some of these things can be revealed out of order but there are choke points in the main quest sequence that gate the major events.

I feel comfortable doing this with HZD because it aligns the story narrative and ludonarrative pretty closely. Our viewpoint sticks hard with Aloy the entire game (except for the post-credit teaser) without ever cutting away, hence every reveal is done diegetically. Aloy and the player know the same things and have similar stakes in the main tensions of the game, which are "find out what is going on" and "shoot and/or stab fools and robots".

It shouldn't surprise anyone who's read some of my previous posts that the latter especially resonates for me. A particular example is the game's inciting incident, the massacre at the Proving. I am certain that in a worse game, the death of Rost[1] would have been the focus. Aloy would set out because "Vengeance!" and the plot reveals would have centered on Rost's conspicuously mysterious backstory. Instead, although his background gives some insight into his motivations, it's completely irrelevant to the game's plot. In fact, my first playthrough I entirely missed the dialogue branch where you learn it. The narrative remains centered throughout on Aloy, not Rost. I think both the game and the characters are much stronger for that.

So absent sequence breaks, HZD has two primary story arcs running in parallel. Aloy's search for answers forms the backbone of the gameplay and drives the player forward; the story of Faro, Zero Dawn, and GAIA is doled out piecemeal to resolve tensions in Aloy's story. Since it's revealed mostly in temporal order it also acts as a narrative itself against which Aloy's discoveries and hence the gameplay can be seen as a framing mechanism.

The fulcrum of the narrative comes in the main story quest "The Heart of Nora", where Aloy enters All-Mother's Mountain, aka the ELEUTHIA-9 cradle facility. This is the only quest where major backstory reveals happen out of order, as it jumps ahead to the first generation of Cradle-born humans to show that all did not go as planned and set up the tension of what happened (we learn at the climax of the following quest that Ted happened; fuck Ted). At the end of this quest, Aloy finds the emergency message where GAIA explains the mystery signal, her detonation of the GAIA Prime reactor, and her creation of Aloy from Elisabet Sobeck's genetic material[2]. This message acts as a coda to the Zero Dawn story and the prologue to Aloy's. It resolves the game's main tension by definitively answering the question of her origin and shifts the focus to the new tension of stopping HADES.

The message and the quest's finale are also major character beats for Aloy. She has to come to terms with her artificial origin, the mantle of responsibility placed on her, and her abrupt shift in the eyes of the Nora from outcast to divine savior. She accepts her new task but rejects the adoration of the Nora, and she does this not because she feels unworthy or unequal to that role but because it is a role. She sees it as another attempt by the Nora to define her down to a title rather than a person and is just as unhappy about being cast as "Anointed" as she was about "outcast".

Okay, maybe slightly less unhappy since nobody likes being shunned, but that's not the point. And just to gush for a moment: Aloy is great, y'all. She's one of my favorite protagonist characters in years, and watching her tell off the Nora in that scene brought something resembling joy to my heart-emulation-circuit[3].

This transmission also has what might be the most thematically interesting line in the game. GAIA, a powerful benevolent entity who literally created all life on Earth, tells Aloy/Elisabet "In you, all things are possible." There's a lot to unpack there, and believe me, I'll be coming back to that in the next post.

Finally it introduces the dangling thread of the source of the transmission, a question the game does not currently answer. On the one hand, it seems a bit of clumsily dangled sequel-bait; on the other, I think relating it to the Sobeck plot would have felt contrived, and answering it in this game if it's unrelated would have felt inconsistent[4].

It's a very efficient cutscene, is what I'm getting at. Most of the other narrative segments aren't quite that dense, but most of them do manage to get across a lot to the player without cutting away from gameplay for too long. Striking that balance is one of the hardest things in game narratives and even a lot of games I otherwise like a lot get it wrong from time to time.

Something I noted above was that the game never leaves Aloy's side, and this is something I didn't notice at all in my first playthrough. In fact it's the reason I started a second one, specifically to watch for this, and I had a brief Twitter convo with some other video game veterans on the topic. It's not something I've noticed specifically with other games unless their play aesthetic specifically calls for a feeling of isolation, like survival horror games. I'm not sure why it struck me this time. Maybe I've just been watching a lot more discussion of film editing techniques and am starting to pay more attention to cuts and sequence, or maybe it's because of that close alignment of player & protagonist goals I also mentioned above. But it's something I think players do notice at least on a subconscious level and builds a strong sense of immersion and identification.

OK, I'm going to wrap this article up here with a few dangling threads I thought were interesting and would like to see explored in future DLC/expansions/sequels. Next post (coming… sometime) will be a deeper dive into Horizon's specific narrative themes: what I think they are, how the game expresses them, and how they impacted my reading of it.

- Yeah okay the signal came from somewhere. BUT WHERE?
- The Odyssey is the biggest unfired Chekhov's gun in the game. We learn it failed and blew up… but there's really no reason to mention it at all, except we also learn it had an alpha build of APOLLO - one without the safeguards and guidance protocols of the final Zero Dawn version that Ted wiped because Ted is the worst human being alive who is wrong about everything.
- Possibly related: the game is called "Horizon Zero Dawn". We know what "Zero Dawn" is - is the "Horizon" part just poetic/metaphorical? Because the organization that was trying to re-launch the Odyssey colony mission was called "Far Horizon". Just gonna put that out there. EDIT: I was wrong about this, it was called "Far Zenith". My bad.
- The "metal flowers" look a LOT like communication antennae and started appearing around the same time as Aloy's birth and the machine derangement - ie, the same time the mystery signal woke up the subordinate functions and HADES freed them from GAIA. They do not contain random fragments – many of them contain actual famous poems you can actually look up. Poems that might have been stored in APOLLO. They are also surrounded by very noticeable triangles of purple flowers – something we also see around Elisabet's body when Aloy finds it in the epilogue.
- Did the other subordinate functions go rogue and what are they up to? None are likely to be as threatening as HADES - that was the only one that had both a specific purpose antithetical to GAIA's and the capability to seize command function from her (per a datapoint from Travis Tate). But that doesn't mean they aren't potentially trouble.
- I don't know what the deal with Sylens is, but even the final post-credit scene notwithstanding, I don't think he's evil or even especially misguided. On the other hand, I'm 87% sure he modified his lance before he gave it to you specifically to cause whatever happened in his teaser to happen. I'd like to see more Sylens, and not just because Lance Reddick is awesome (although he definitely is).
- GAIA might have a "killswitch", per a recorded conversation between Ted and Elisabet. Ted suggests one is necessary, GAIA agrees, and Elisabet appears to assent to it. But remember Ted is wrong about everything so if this comes up it will probably end badly. Or it could just be related to how he built the "Omega access" he used to ruin everything again. Fuck Ted, is what I'm getting at.

- Seriously, GAIA, you probably should have gestated more than one clone. Survival rates for infants in a pre-industrial, pre-antibiotics society aren't great. That was a hell of a dice roll.

OK. To be continued.

PS: I consider the comments to this post to be a free-fire spoiler zone. Go nuts.

[1] Yes, the names "Aloy" and "Rost" are pretty obviously taken from the words "alloy" and "rust". I haven't decided how much symbolism to read into this.

[2] Tangential discussion question: compare & contrast the story elements and ludonarratives of Aloy, Sobeck, and GAIA in Horizon Zero Dawn vs Jack, Andrew Ryan, and Frank Fontain in Bioshock.

[3] I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that the supporting cast in this game is phenomenal. I'm particularly fond of Blameless Marad and Nil. In fact, if they're taking suggestions for DLC, I want an Aloy and Nil bandit-murdering buddy-cop road trip.

[4] The worst of both worlds would be if it turns out to be a hook for a DLC add-on that also shoehorns it into the Aloy/Sobeck plot. Hopefully we'll be spared that.

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This… bodes ill. =(

Quick roundup on Nier: Automata.

I find myself unable to talk about the most interesting things in this game without major spoilers, but since I still have a second HZD article I'm writing, I'll just hit the high points.

- Super fun combat.
- The level of fine-grained control you have over the camera behavior should be in every game. Hell, it should be implemented at the platform level.
- I officially have open world fatigue. After I finish this, I'm going on a first-person corridor murder marathon.
- Someone needs to get poor Ms. NieR some pants and sensible combat boots [1].
- I can't decide what level of metatext the extreme tonal whiplash in this game is operating at, but it does reliably generate at least two "what the actual fuck" double take moments per play session, which has to count for something.

[1] That said: while neither is… good, precisely, I find creator Yoko Taro's explanation for her character design ("because I like it") at least less disingenuous than something like Kojima's "No, Quiet's not wearing a bikini in a combat zone because I'm a pervert, it's because she breathes through her skin." Because give me a fucking break, man.

[Public] Horizon No Colon Zero Dawn
(Spoiler-free review)

Horizon Zero Dawn revealed to me two important lessons about game design. The first: many of my complaints about "open world" pacing and narrative structure are, indeed, endemic to that structure[1] despite open world apologists. The second: my cheap shot at those same apologists notwithstanding, it is possible for an excellent game to reduce them to the level of mere quibbles.

Preamble: This review is going to focus on gameplay and broad generalities. There's at least as much to say about the game's story and creative themes, but they're hard to talk about without getting into spoilers and I also want to do some more thinking before I put pen to paper on that topic. Expect another post later that's more about the writing.

Horizon Zero Dawn is fun as hell.

It reminds me of the best parts of the 2013 Tomb Raider while improving on them in almost every respect. Aloy is an archetypal Campbellian zero-to-hero protagonist, but she has a genuine personality, drawn consistently for the player by both her dialogue and animations. Her arc is solid, I was charmed and delighted by several of her reactions, and while there were a few character beats I wasn't in love with, in context they worked out pretty well anyway.

The core combat gameplay is tightly tuned and addictive. Most encounters support a variety of approaches: luring and assassinating enemies one at a time, turning them against each other, sniping from stealth, stacking debilitating conditions, or even just charging in with a howl on your lips and murder in your heart. Admittedly, the melee options are significantly more limited than the ranged ones, so trying to beat everything to death with your spear may not always end well. Most of the time you'll rely on a bow, with your spear better suited for delivering critical hits to disabled targets or dealing the final blow to targets with only a sliver of health left. Battles against other humans are unimpressive but over quickly; they serve mostly to pace out the killer robot encounters that are the real meat of the game. And those are some great damn fights.

Each "species" of machine has weak points, behaviors, and vulnerabilities to exploit. Some you can take down quickly, some you have to whittle away at one component at a time. Many change their behavior in different contexts: calling for help, attacking as a pack, or becoming more physically aggressive as you disable ranged combat components. Preparation and awareness are rewarded. You can seed a battleground with tripwires and proximity traps before and even (if you're fast) during combat, but there's no faster way to get wrecked than forgetting to check what else might be patrolling and having an unexpected challenger enter the arena. Except occasionally when that newcomer has a giant cannon – one you can blast off their back, pick up, and lay fiery waste with. The Thunderjaw, in particular, is an absolute joy to fight, an intimidating multi-phase boss battle that never gets old.

Of course, it's not quite perfect[2]. There are a few control and animation glitches: these occur most frequently at shorelines, where both Aloy and various giant robots seem to interact awkwardly with the boundary between land and water, which the game resolved in at least one memorable instance by teleporting an alligator-esque mechakaiju six feet straight up then letting gravity take over. There's some inconsistency while climbing too: sometimes Aloy will automatically climb a ledge or jump to the next handhold just by tilting the directional stick, sometimes she won't commit to it until you actually press the jump button, and I'll be damned if I can figure out which is which. On the topic of climbing: like a lot of games of this type, sometimes you get to play an unfun mini-game called "Guess Which Terrain Is Climbable" where first place is you get to keep playing and second place is an ignoble death to falling damage. There are a few consistent visual cues but they can be hard to spot, especially in the snowy areas.

Inventory management is an ash-spewing garbage volcano. Fortunately you don't need to deal with it too much.

One place it does crop up is weapon selection: while I praised the game for supporting a variety of combat approaches, the way this is implemented leaves a bit to be desired. Do I really need three bows? I have the fast short-range bow, the slow long-range bow, and… the other fast short-range bow that has different status conditions than the first one. Oh joy. I have a sling that lobs three different elemental bombs, and another sling that lobs three different non-elemental bombs. It feels like they locked themselves into the ammo selection UI before they finalized how many kinds of ammo you'd have. Then when they realized they'd designed nine kinds of arrows for a UI that really only supports three, decided "fuck it, we'll make three bows!". It really disrupts the flow of combat when you're in the middle of a fight and suddenly a monster you want Freeze Arrows for sees how much fun you're having and decides to come by for tea, biscuits, and an asskicking. Then you realize you only put two bows on your weapon selection wheel, so you pause, go to the inventory screen, equip the Bow That Shoots Freeze Arrows, unpause, and resume carving a path of destruction. As any late night infomercial will tell you: "there has to be a better way!"

Also HZD has Cliff Racers and they're called Glinthawks and they suck.

I want to emphasize though, none of those criticisms significantly diminished my enjoyment of the game. They're mostly nitpicks. (Seriously though, fuck Glinthawks.)

More significant than minor technical stumbles, there's a discussion to be had about cultural appropriation and language both within and around the game. Bluntly, it uses a lot of Native American visual coding and a lot of loaded terms, both explicitly pejorative (characters often dismiss Aloy and her people, the Nora, as "primitives" or "savages") and more neutrally descriptive (the "Nora tribe", whose warriors are called "braves"). Rather than restate the whole discussion here, I'll put a few links down below[3]. Now, the pejorative elements do not go unquestioned in the game itself. But it's something that… well, that I definitely noticed and thought about and intend to go on thinking about. Make of that what you will.

In other respects, HZD does score well above average in diversity and representation, which is nice.

More discussion on that topic starts to get into territory I want to save for my story/theme post, so I'm going to leave off on it for the moment, but I didn't want to leave it unmentioned.

Less seriously: how do you have all these machines to fight and leave off giant mechanical spiders. Come on! Now that is a tragic missed opportunity. We'd better get them in DLC or a sequel, that's all I'm saying.

Then, to bring this full circle, there's the definitely not at all controversial point I started this post with: HZD as an "open world" game.

Yeah, disclaimer time: I make no bones about my bias against "open world" as a game framework. Some people really like them and either do not experience the same complaints I've had with them or do not consider them to be flaws.

I think this game handles it about as well as I've ever seen it done: there's a lot of variety in terrain, it never feels monotonous or bloated, there are enough plot-tangential "points of interest" to get you out and exploring but not so many it becomes a tedious collectathon. It also does two things I really appreciate: focuses side-quests on a relatively small number of memorable locations and NPCs, and acknowledges their outcomes in all the places where you'd hope they'd be acknowledged. They're small acknowledgements, but it helps it feel like a coherent experience, not just a collection of non-intersecting lists of checkboxes where to choose a completely random example, you can save the whole continent then have Mage Guild guy begrudgingly accept you as a novice apprentice immediately after you shout a dragon to death literally right in front of him.

Not that I'm bitter.

It does have a few places where my other complaint about open world games rears up: the complete evaporation of pacing or tension since at almost any point you can say "eh, fuck this plot thread" and hoof it for the middle of nowhere while whatever impending doom you were fighting against will wait patiently for you to return. For the most part it does a better than average job of letting events be protagonist-driven, and on a couple of occasions when it needs to "lock in" progression it does, but… it's still there, manufactured urgency contradicted by easy fast travel and no consequences for noodling around the hinterlands while existential threats bear down.

It's as strong an open world experience as I've ever played, and yet that issue still sticks out for me, an unpleasant barb on a game that I otherwise love.

But, in the end: Horizon Zero Dawn is still fun as hell.

(Oh, for review completeness purpose: the story is good and gave me FEELS. More on that… next time.)

[1] Nomenclature complaint: I almost said "genre" here, because gaming crit really needs to come up with better separation of terms between mechanical genre and creative genre. I'm going to print out and start carrying it around.

[2] Because it's not Super Metroid or Star Control 2.


Nioh, or The Last Samurai (is a White Guy): The Videogame.

(OK, yes, I know the protagonist of Nioh is based on an actual historical figure I stand by my joke though.)

This is a game that starts with a strong core then almost ruins everything by piling on bells, whistles, and gongs. It's an uneasy blend of Koei-Tecmo's stylish and flashy Ninja Gaiden combat with design elements seen in From Software's Souls/borne games, whose central gameplay aesthetic tends toward the austere – and by contrast, it demonstrates the strengths of that austerity.

(This is of course a more polite way of saying "and here's why From didn't shit up their game with the loot system from Diablo", but I'll get there.)

But let's start with what works, because I don't want to give the impression I dislike Nioh. I like it… well enough.

The biggest strength of the game is that the central murderstabbing parts are really fun almost all the time. The actual number of melee weapons is pretty low: big sword, two smaller swords, spear, big fuckin' axe (or occasionally hammer, but it's the same moveset), and kusarigama (chain-sickle). They all play differently, and you also have access to three different stances: high, mid, and low. That's a pretty decent amount of variety. It'd be nice if high stance had more uses than cutting down easy or winded/debuffed enemies; its slow wind-ups will get you killed as fuck against anything that can actually hit back, and for the most part unloading on those enemies is easy enough and doesn't require a stance swap. Still, there are some boss fights where finding the right moment to really go HAM for a few seconds is rewarded.

Controls are solid, which is important because combat is on the fast side. I'd say individual attacks are even faster than Bloodborne, but the lack of the parry/visceral attack mechanic means encounters tend to be bursty: rapid exchanges interchanged with slower recharge periods. I like this - it feels different from other games of this style without tipping over into the button-mashing hackfest of your Devils May Cry and Gods of War. With some of the best-designed enemies this can go on for a while and starts to feel like a very authentic sort of fencing match.

The camera's a little twitchy at first but I eventually managed to tweak it into behaving itself.

The mission areas are well done. There are a good variety of maps and combined with lighting and environmental changes see plenty of re-use in ways that never feel lazy. If I have a complaint about the mission maps, it's that I wish they'd apply those options more often, especially on the main missions. While the side-quests have a broad range, almost all the main missions are "a generic Japanese village, most of which is on fire, at night". This mutes the color palette and adds a layer of difficulty that comes down to "I literally could not see that guy and now I'm dead", which is frustrating at times. The muted palette & occasionally repetitive architecture can also make the maps easy to get lost in, to the point where I could occasionally only tell where I'd been because the areas were suspiciously devoid of things trying to kill me.

The snow level is gorgeous.

My opinion of the encounter design is mixed but mostly on the positive side. I like that they avoid relying on the "easy gotchas" that are a trademark of the Souls/borne games and their most tedious imitators. You know the ones I mean - where you walk through a door to fight one dude and whoops there's another dude behind you! There are a variety of different encounter layouts and the game often offers you ways to thin them out without trivializing the fights, which adds some strategic elements I appreciate, especially when it often relies on your relatively small pool of ranged ammo. The humanoid enemies are nothing special but the wide variety of yokai are visually distinct and interesting, and often do a great job of mixing things up.

Where the encounters struggle is often about placement and routing. Nioh's mission maps try to split the difference between open exploration and linear levels. Each one is a mini-world with several shrines that you explore non-linearly, often unlocking shortcuts as you go. This is a very delicate balance between designing a level and designing a map, and while it has some advantages, I think it really hurts their encounter design that they can't make assumptions about the direction and route the player will take into each fight. It's somewhere that I think the game would have benefited from a little more linearity. This might also have helped the pacing of each mission, which occasionally bogged down into wandering about instead of having a proper interest curve ramping into the boss.

Minor aside: I'd really like it if the game was friendlier about letting you continue exploring each map after you killed the boss instead of almost all of them forcing you out and if you want to go back, you have to replay the map, including fighting the boss again. Not a big deal, but kind of annoying.

A few other minor things I liked: ranged weapons are really easy to use, especially compared to the awkwardness in Dark Souls; the obligatory checkbox-y collectables (which for the most part are only in main quest maps) are endearingly animated kodama and the game is civilized about letting you know how many are left on the map and when you've found the last of them; the animation overall is fluid and the enemy ragdolling is less prone to inappropriately comedic side effects than some games I've seen; and one of the main NPCs tells time by pulling a kitten out of his vest, which is pretty much the best pocketwatch replacement ever.

Oh, also it has a really nice healing system. You have Elixirs, which are a lot like Bloodborne's Blood Vials: you can carry a limited number, any more you pick up go to your storage box, every time you pray at a shine your inventory is refilled to max from your storage. However, unlike Blood Vials, there is also a minimum number of Elixirs you can start with if you run completely out, which is great for repeated boss attempts where you spend a lot without having a chance to pick many up. They're also much easier to acquire in ways other than grinding them out of trivial foes. Big plus there.

Now for the complaints.

A few minor ones: inventory management is a bit iffy. Everything has a color according to its rarity, which matters somewhat for equipment but basically not at all for consumables and is just something to distract you and that you can sort by if you like sorting things in unhelpful ways. There are way too many different consumables cluttering up your list: the game showers you in them, and most of them are garbage. You also have a limited carrying capacity and items other than Elixirs do not automatically go to your storage box. So especially after clearing most of a map and backtracking for kodama, I was constantly walking past loot on the ground, thinking "I should pick that up", then finding out it was something I was maxed out on. You'd think eventually I'd learn. Or that it would go to my storage box like a civilized game.

Or that the game would stop dropping so much useless crap. And I never go through enough of my consumables to make a dent, because (a) they're bad, and (b) I only have eight quick-slots for item use and they're mostly full of useful things. Eventually I end up selling them off en masse for piddling amounts of gold and the cycle begins anew.

Speaking of useless crap: the skill trees. As you advance, besides levels increasing your stats, you also unlock skill points you spend in trees to unlock various abilities. There's a tree for each weapon type, plus one for ninjutsu and one for onmyo magic; the latter two mostly give you access to various utility effects. There's a lot of repetition in these. For example, every weapon has, for each of three stances, an attack you can use while blocking. You unlock all fifteen of these separately. Which is dumb. Not just because it's a layer of pointless accounting, but also because it results in me wondering why I'm not doing anything for several seconds before realizing oh, I didn't unlock that for high-stance spears, just mid and low, and also all three sword stances and maybe something else I don't remember?

It's fake complexity that doesn't do much besides pad out skill acquisition. Just give me the goddamned moveset, game, I promise I'll figure it out from there.

On top of that, a lot of the utility effects from the ninja and onmyo trees take the form of talismans that act like inventory items, which means, yes, more inventory stuff to keep track of and map to your fairly limited number of quickslots.

But let's move on to the real beef I have with the game: the weapon and armor systems.

There is so much going on with equipment in this game. Every item is the output of like eight different randomizers. It's not enough to generate, say, a Big Murder Axe. It gets a rarity, a numerical level, some number of bonus slots, each of those slots gets a random bonus, and the numeric values of those bonuses are also random. (I think? Not sure. Stopped caring.)

First off, that's way too much shit.

You can forge new equipment, where all that shit is randomized on the new item. You can reforge equipment, which re-rolls some or all of the bonus slots (but does not re-roll rarity or level). You can "soul match" equipment, which can raise its numeric level, which affects its damage or defense but not the numeric values of its bonuses. And some bonuses can be transferred to another item by soul-matching, but some transferable bonuses have certain banned combinations that prevent them from transferring (usually to prevent some kind of double-stacking).

I stopped paying attention to the majority of that almost immediately just to prevent information overload, and settled for picking weapons based on their Aggregated Murderability Index (a thing I made up to stay sane) and armor based on what looks cool.

You can also modify equipment to look like another piece of equipment if you're torn between The Fanciest Pants and The Most Stabby Pants, but I looked around for a fuck to give & couldn't find one.

The problem is that the further I got in the game, the less feasible this becomes. What you have here is a classic balance issue: are you designing for players with average gear, or with the best possible gear? And larger the delta is between those two lines, the worse this problem is. In a game with pretty simple gear progression, you can aim for maybe the 80% mark, and players above or below that line get a boss fight that's a little easier or harder but it's not fundamentally broken.

In a game with complex asymmetric gear progression, your "average" character is a line drawn through a very noisy graph, and your "best" is a synergy-stacking loophole-finding engine of destruction. Designing a boss that's a fair challenge to both of them is borderline impossible. Nioh goes with the higher end of the curve, aiming as it does at fairly hardcore players looking for a challenge, and that makes equipment selection matter and bonus-fiddling hard to ignore, to the point where it just made me feel… tired. Tired and unmotivated to continue, knowing I every mission entails picking up another zillion pieces of gear and have to sort through their interminable lists of bonuses hunting for the most plusses.

Will I finish the game? Probably. Notwithstanding its flaws, I'd even recommend it to those who enjoy this style of challenging, highly technical gameplay. But if you're looking for why "Dark Souls but Diablo" isn't exactly two great tastes tasting great together, Nioh is a very teachable moment.

(Final note: I award the obligatory giant spider level a very strong rating of 4 Shelobs out of 5 and a bonus point for their "landing on your head out of nowhere" attack animation. Those who are not friends to spiders, be ye warned.)

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[Public] Before I post some video game thoughts where I talk about my opinion as though it's a universally true statement about the platonic ideal of fun as experienced by all functioning sentient brains:


Given a game in the action-rpg genre, assuming an inventory system designed by a reasonable person having ordinary skill in the art, do you find the specific experience of evaluating non-directly-comparable gear selection[1] an enjoyable element of gameplay in itself, assuming the occasion to do so does not occur so often as to become (subjectively) tedious?

[1] For example, pants that give you a bonus to parry and money drops vs pants that give you a bonus to heavy attacks and stamina recovery, such that the bonuses are large enough that you'd notice but not so large they create a strictly dominant strategy.
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Yes, that's super fun.
It's not fun but it's tolerable.
Fuck that noise.
I don't play action-rpgs.
Video games are stupid.

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