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Blog & Cultural Criticism

Cleaning up before OGAT 2019

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I’ve got a huge piece in the pipe for Red Dead Redemption 2 but there’s a lot in there to unpack and I’m not ready to give it my full attention yet. Short version: It’s the game of this console generation, for better and worse, and a towering achievement.

THIS piece is not about that. After slipping out of my self-imposed One Game At A Time restriction in the fall, I’m going to try and get back in the habit of limiting myself to a single game. As I’ve mentioned before this is as much to diversify my off-time as it is to allow me to soak up a particular experience. First up is Resident Evil 2, which releases this Friday, January 25. In the lead up to that, I’ll run through some quick thoughts on what I’ve been playing.


Dragon Age XI

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I was always an arms-length fan of JRPGs. Nobody made JRPGs for the PC in the 90s. I watched my friend Matt play all of Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger but never actually played them myself. Even my first console, the Xbox, had very few JRPGs and my association with RPGs was limited anyway. I think the first CRPG I played was Fallout, which I still think is the best game in the series, and I remember reading about Daggerfall in PC Gamer and thinking it was probably too adult for me. The game that really cracked open RPGs for me was Daggerfall’s sequel Morrowind, which was sold to me by my friendly neighbourhood EB Games manager by comparing it to Thief. I didn’t play another RPG until Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox.

The first JRPG I played on my own was Eternal Sonata: a turn-based JRPG in the old style with gorgeous art and a bonkers story: you play as French composer Chopin as he retreats into his own subconscious while he lays dying in his sickbed. I have extremely fond memories of this game due to the state I was in when I came to it: after getting kicked out of theatre school, breaking up with my girlfriend, and, crucially, buying my own weed for the first time. I don’t remember the actual game so much as being in my bachelor apartment, nicely day-stoned, the sun streaming in through the window.

I’ve since played the major JRPGs for myself: FF6, 7, 9, & 15, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Fire Emblem, FF: Tactics. The usual. Dragon Age XI is probably going to be the first one of those I actually finish.

Credit must be given to Kotaku’s Tim Rogers, whose nearly-40-minute video review of XI completely sold me on it. Specifically, his insistence that the game is “Chill as heck.” Video games are an exercise in increasing tension. As the player becomes more accustomed to the controls and systems of a game, it will grow increasingly complex and loud. Dragon Quest XI doesn’t really do this. Sure, you start with basic physical and magic attacks, slowly gain party members, and some of those party members are support specialists rather than damage-dealers, but you also gain a spell well past the halfway point that does an insane amount of damage to every enemy on screen and never misses.

The thing that keeps sticking with me about Tim’s review is this: by his experience, most Japanese people (Dragon Quest is HUGE in Japan; XI sold over 3 million copies there) play Dragon Quest on weeknights between having a bath and going to bed. He calls Dragon Quest games “bedtime stories” and that is a fantastic way to play a video game.

There’s a lot to say about DQXI but I’ll leave it at this: It is a fantastic, maybe the best, “baby’s first JRPG” because it is proudly old school. There is no subversion of tropes or surprising mechanics. No one at Square Enix thought “How can we make a Dragon Quest game for a 2018 audience?” The game is as old school as it gets (The “battle victory” musical sting is in MIDI, for chrissakes!) and it’s all the better for it. This is the video game equivalent of the book on your nightstand: comforting, slow, long, and unsurprising.


God Of War

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The absolute FLOOD of Game of the Year awards bestowed on God of War motivated me to pick it up again. I tried to play the New Game+ mode but, eh, NG+ modes just don’t do anything for me. Starting God of War maxxed out strips away a lot of the narrative tension that is the game’s best element.

It’s still very good, the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus is the best since Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, and the combat is very fun and chunky. I still like exploring and finding chests and it is still ludicrously pretty.


Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

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AC: Odyssey is like the girl you convince yourself you don’t have a crush on until you realize, oh no, I do have a huge crush on her! I was so burned out by Origins that I convinced myself I could skip Odyssey. Then the game got so much press I literally couldn’t ignore it. The best thing I can say about Odyssey is how I sold my Dad on it: Did you like The Witcher 3? Does the idea of The Witcher 3 set in Ancient Greece intrigue you even a little bit? Get this game.

Odyssey has all the Ubisoft problems that it’s fashionable to harp on: it feels like a structure cobbled together by thousands of different people, like the houses in Ready Player One, because that’s exactly what it is. For all the things it borrows from other games, its best addition to the open-world RPG structure is baked into its setting: each island you sail to has its own storyline, characters, and explorable areas. The game calls the story “Your Odyssey” but that’s not an eye-rolling marketing gimmick: it does feel like you’re set off on this sprawling, epic story. Whoever is working on the inevitable new Mass Effect game should take note: This is what Andromeda should have been! A sci-fi RPG, trading this game’s island hopping for planet-hopping, sells itself.


Golf Story

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I don’t have much to say about this game except that it’s super cute and exactly what I wanted: an RPG where you play golf instead of fighting monsters. If that sounds at all appealing to you, you should get it. It’s on everything, but it is especially on the Switch.


Celeste
Smarter people than me have written plenty about Celeste—the surprising/unsurprising indie darling Game of the Year winner that brings the peanut butter & chocolate marriage of Super Meat Boy’s pixel-perfect platforming with “Grown Up Video Game Storytelling.” GUVGS is what I call games that are praised for their more nuanced approach to characters, which usually means they’re about mental health, by telling stories that are big steps for the industry but are still a long way from, say, The Favourite.

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Celeste is one of those great games whose story could only be told properly as a video game. Taken just as a story, it’s a sweet but shallow examination of depression and milliennial anxiety: You play as a young woman dead set on climbing a mountain despite what her (very real) dark side tells her about herself. Playing the game though, persevering with Madeline as she climbs this mountain while struggling with panic attacks, oppressive parental figures, gatekeeping, two different kinds of “nice guys”, and her own demons. It really is great and, like the Souls games, its difficulty should be seen as a feature and not a barrier to entry.


Spider-man

Only in a year like 2018 would Spider-man not be a shoo-in for Game of the Year. Hamish Black of the Writing on Games YouTube channel said it “Brings joy back to videogames” and that is wonderfully accurate. I take back what I said about not liking New Game+ modes, because playing through Spider-man’s story with all abilities unlocked is a total blast. After seeing Into the Spider-Verse I downloaded the soundtrack and played this game for hours. I haven’t done something like that since I was a kid. That Spider-man also manages to tell a GUVGS (For a Spider-man game packed with supervillains, the tensest moment is Peter and MJ having a misunderstanding over text) in between moments of the absolute best traversal system ever implemented in a game is masterful. This thing drips fun.