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Monday, July 15, 2019

Transistor

Transistor is the second outing from Supergiant games, an indie company that made their name with the action dungeon crawler Bastion, a game noted for its atmosphere and dynamic narration.  But does Transistor prove to be a worthy followup to their first hit, or is this cyberpunk RPG just one to be left behind?


Supergiant Games has become a bit of a fan favorite among fans of indie games for their distinct style, with storytelling that's often left vague and open to interpretation, but nevertheless kept engaging by having a narrator tell the story, reacting in real-time to decisions the player makes while playing.  This lent a unique edge to their first major release, Bastion, and gets carried over into Transistor, which is a very different style of game in terms of gameplay but is undeniably built on the same paradigm.

Indeed, Transistor couldn't be more different in terms of setting, taking place in a futuristic city rather than a fantasy world.  Things start off even more vague, with the protagonist (Red) seeing someone impaled on a strange weapon, and in the next scene, controls her as she flees from an unseen attacker, said weapon in hand.  This weapon turns out to be sentient and speaks to her throughout the game, offering commentary on events and reminiscing about their past together, hinting that the personality within the weapon is someone she knows, but little else is elaborated on until much later in the game's runtime. Things get stranger still when it's revealed this weapon has the ability to absorb the recently deceased, apparently preserving their consciousness within some kind of virtual world, while also granting them new special moves and profiles on the movers behind the game's events.

Combat in the game is a unique take, too.  While the game is mostly set in real-time, combat offers the player the ability to use "Turn()" to pause the action and plan out several moves in advance, shown at the top of the screen on a time bar.  Movement and actions alike deplete this bar, but once one plans out their moves, they will activate them in quick succession, moving at much greater speed than their enemies, slightly similar to the VATS system from the newer Fallout games.   This proves extremely useful throughout the game, as many foes move faster than Red and cover in fights is often sparse, meaning one's only option to avoid damage in many cases is to spend Turn() wisely.

Some more twists emerge in battles too.  Attacking enemies from behind or while invisible grants a 1.5x "backstab" bonus multiplier, which does prove very useful, especially with programs like "Jaunt" (which lets you quickly zip around the field) and Mask (temporary invisibility) can also grant the player a tactical advantage.  Enemies are also not simply removed from play once defeated; instead, they spawn "Cells" which must be collected within a few seconds after dropping, or the enemies will respawn and fight anew.  Weaker enemies generally only drop one or two, while larger foes can drop many; thankfully, each missed one won't spawn a larger-scale enemy, but instead just turn into "Bad Cells" - weak but annoying foes.

Health is somewhat oddly handled, too.  While you have a health bar, it being depleted is not immediate death - instead, one of your primary Functions will be broken, robbing you of some of yoru combat options until you visit "Access Points" to repair them, with more powerful ones requiring more unique Access Point visits to fully repair.  However, if at any point you have all four slots empty or broken, you will die and be sent back to the last checkpoint.

Functions are a unique mechanic in their own right.  As mentioned, they serve as your attacks in combat, but they have several other uses as well.  Each of your four function slots has a secondary slot (with a second for each being unlockable over the course of the game), and equipping a function there will grant some properties of that function to the primary one.  For example, equipping Crash in the secondary slot of Breach (a piercing attack) will cause the attack to stun and inflict additional damage over time to anything it hits.  Equipping Mask onto Jaunt will make the player briefly invisible after a dash, while equipping Ping (a weak but quick and Turn-efficient attack) to most any action will reduce the amount of Turn() bar it requires to execute.  Each function also can be equipped in one of four Passive slots to grant the player small bonuses, such as spawning copies to distract enemies after sustaining damage, bolstering the amount of Turn() bar they have, dealing extra damage with all Fuctions, or simply taking reduced damage from all sources.  Each Function takes a certain amount of "Mem" to equip, which the player has a limited supply of but which, like most things, can be improved by leveling up.  This system is highly versatile and allows for many different possible combinations of player loadouts and Function setups, encouraging experimentation to see exactly which combinations will prove the most useful against a given challenge.

Another odd turn for this system is the fact that Functions actually provide a large amount of the game's backstory, unlocking profiles for major players in the plot as they get used.  However, one must use each function in each of the three slot types - active, secondary and passive - in at least one battle each to fully unlock a character's profile, which is a subtle but creative way of encouraging more experimentation on the player's part.

Going even further with this theme, leveling up grants the player Limiters.  These are optional disadvantages one can enable during combat to make their enemies more dangerous, but also grant them greater experience rewards should they successfully win a battle.  These can range from doubling enemy damage output to reducing the amount of available Mem for Functions to giving Cells shorter respawn times to doubling the number of Cells that enemies drop, with each granting a varying experience bonus.  Multiple Limiters can also be stacked, furthering rewards but making things substantially harder for the player.  Moreover, each Limiter also unlocks profiles and tips about the various enemy types, adding a further layer to the game's lore and encouraging the risk-versus-reward element in a clever way.

Supergiant is a company known for their beautiful hand-painted visuals, and Transistor certainly doesn't disappoint there.  Transistor's city is a gorgeous one, with neon lights, statues, structures and decals throughout providing a lot of eye-catching detail, and the animation on Red herself is fluid and graceful, really drawing you in to the energy of the scenario.  Music in the game is mostly low-key but effectively moody, adding to the tense but beautiful atmosphere and providing some genuinely heart-rending moments as the story unfolds.  A surprising amount of it comes with lyrics too, which only draws the player deeper into the world and gets them invested in unraveling the game's mysteries.

In the end, Transistor is another success for the minimalist RPG format, taking a small handful of ideas and using them to their fullest.  Its sparse narrative, revealed only in parts, still manages to be captivating as the player slowly pieces everything together, its characters are relatively few but the ones that are there prove complex and captivating, and its gameplay, while one-note compared to many RPGs, is addictive and enjoyable, letting the player experiment freely with a huge variety of attack types and put their skills to the test via challenges and Limiters that unlock more rewards.  The story itself is rather brief (clocking in at around 10 hours), but Transistor stands as proof that a short, highly-polished amount of content can have so much more to offer than a game that's 100+ hours long just for the sake of being so.


Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, tvOS, Playstation 4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch
Released: 2014, 2015, 2018
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be identical, but I have only played the PC version personally.
Tags: Action RPG, Science Fiction, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, ATB-Like, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Adjustable Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Short Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music, New Game Plus

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Announced as a spiritual successor to Castlevania and the "Metroidvania" format in general, Ritual of the Night saw a successful kickstarter campaign and a buggy preview release, followed by WayForward being brought on to lend last-minute quality assurance, before it was finally released in mid-2019.  But was Koji Igarashi's return to a beloved game format a successful one, or is this just another crowd-backed effort to live in infamy along the likes of Mighty No. 9?


Konami's fall from grace is an infamous event to most every long-time gamer, but with the advent of crowd-funding, having its developers leave to do their own things isn't necessarily a bad thing at all.  But of course, there are always risks involved when it comes to crowd-funding, with too many projects to count either proving to be a letdown or just not being completed at all.  Regardless, fan love for the Castlevania series (and disappointment and controversy surrounding Mercurysteam's Lords of Shadow games) pushed many to seek Koji Igarashi's return to the format, resulting in the game getting 5.5 million dollars in donations, proving just how beloved the series and genre really are.

But despite some initial skepticism (primarily brought on by extended development time, a buggy demo and WayForward being brought on late in development to provide assistance), I'm glad to say that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night very much accomplishes what it sets out to do.  While the story obviously no longer involves Dracula or the Belmonts, instead turning to an original plot involving rogue alchemists, the look and feel of Castlevania is very much present in Bloodstained.  ArtPlay has made great effort to carefully re-create the gameplay style of Symphony of the Night, right down to the minute quirks of the mechanics (like the attack-cancel exploit, where one can attack just before touching the ground during a jump, doing so in rapid succession to deal damage faster).  The aesthetics are exceptionally similar too, with hordes of bizarre monsters, gorgeous gothic backdrops and symphonic music lending the game an unsettling, yet gorgeous atmosphere.  In spite of that, though, the game does retain some of the Castlevania franchise's jokier elements too, with enemies like the spirits of giant cats and dogs, and a number of silly accessories Miriam can equip that often break the fourth wall in clever ways (like the "Concave Glasses" that zoom in the camera or the "Eye of Horus" that pulls it further out).

However, Bloodstained does make effort not to copy its predecessors too closely in order to keep itself distinct.  As in the later games, there are a wide variety of weapon types to equip and use, and each requires subtly different tactics - boots and daggers have a high DPS but require the player to be at extremely close range, making them riskier than most, while spears have long reach but a relatively slow startup and awkward hit-boxes at close range, making them more suited to magic-oriented builds but far from ideal for close combat.  Swords are a good balance between power and range, Katanas have slightly shorter range but hit in a small arc in front of Miriam, and whips are somewhat slow and not the most powerful of weapons but have exceptional range.  Unusually for the series, one can also wield guns, which are very long-ranged and relatively powerful but run off of limited ammunition, making them an option best served for particularly dangerous enemies.  Each weapon type has a number of skills associated with it, whether a powerful combination attack or simply a special move with better range and damage, that can be activated with a small MP cost and by inputting a sequence of inputs, giving skilled players some added options for combat.  One can also, through the use of a particular Skill, unlock slots for up to eight character loadouts and swap between them at any time, allowing for advanced players to quickly alter their strategies on-the-fly and have a move set rivaling those of the Devil May Cry games in complexity.

Bloodstained's Shard system is another source of strategy for the game.  Operating similarly to the Soul-absorbing mechanic from Aria of Sorrow, it allows Miriam to unlock new abilities by defeating enemies, each of which has a small chance to drop a "Shard" for her to absorb.  These come in six forms - Conjure, Manipulative, Directional, Passive, Familiar and Skill.  Conjure and Directional serve primarily as offensive skills, letting the player do things like create pillars of fire to damage enemies or project a stream of acid from one's hand (which can be aimed in any direction via the right thumbstick).  Manipulative abilities grant Miriam the power to transform herself, temporarily buff her stats or summon a particular type of creature to protect her for a short time, Passive shards grant Miriam some kind of passive bonus while equipped (like bolstering her Intelligence stat or getting bonus damage from a particular enemy type).  Familiars summon a companion to assist Miriam, whether attacking enemies or healing her automatically while in need, while Skills grant new abilities that let the player to overcome obstacles and reach new areas - being able to travel underwater, double-jump to reach new heights, or grab and manipulate certain objects, for example.

Of course, no modern RPG is complete without a crafting system of some description, and Bloodstained goes all-in by having not one, but two of them.  One can create almost anything found in the game - weapons, potions, accessories, armor and so forth - by collecting dropped items from enemies or found in chests and bring them back to Johannes, which can save the player quite a bit of money at the in-game shop.  One can even spend collected items to power up some Shard abilities, though this won't get them quite as far as defeating enemies and collecting duplicates of that ability to increase its Rank.  Johannes also provides a food-crafting system, which not only serve to restore Miriam's health when used, but each time a new food is eaten Miriam will gain a permanent boost to her stats, making it a venture well worth pursuing in the long run.  Most anything one can find can be bought at the shop once found too, which can help in some instances to cut down on tedious farming.

Side quests are present in the game too, and mostly fall into mundane territory - finding a certain item for a villager, crafting a particular food item, or defeating a certain number of a type of enemy for rewards.  Bloodstained does make efforts to have them still be worth pursuing, though, with a lot of items that can't be acquired elsewhere being awarded, and even giving player clues as to where to find a particular enemy or needed item (placing a green scroll icon on the mini-map, but leaving vague the conditions needed to get them to appear).  Probably the most fun one is finding books of haircuts for Todd, which allows the player to customize Miriam's appearance with new outfit colors, hairstyles and other options, some of which are clever homages to other games (with the NieR: Automata inspired ones in particular being a favorite of mine).

The game doesn't go off completely without a hitch, though.  I have noted a few bugs in my time playing, with the most common ones being some occasional slowdown and frame-rate drops and enemy item bags becoming stuck in walls, rendering me unable to collect them.  The occasional animation glitch has shown too, with one particular moment of Miriam being stuck in an odd pose for a bit when I collected a shard and got hit at the same time.  And while I have not played it firsthand, these problems are apparently far worse on the Switch port, which also features significant input lag and washed-out visuals.  However, the developers do plan to address through a series of patches, so these problems may not persist at the time you are reading this.

So while I had some doubts at first, I am glad to report that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night delivers what it promised, offering an experience very much on the level of quality as any of the well-regarded "Metroidvanias" while providing enough twists and tweaks to keep itself distinct.  Puzzle-solving and exploration in the game is a joy, the story has quite a few creative twists throughout, and the sheer volume of weapons, skills, shards and side-missions to undertake gives it plenty to experience for casual fans and completionists alike.  Koji Igarashi's plan - to bring himself back to the forefront of gamer consciousness using a gameplay style he played a huge role in popularizing - was very much a success.

(And yes, I fully acknowledge the irony of reviewing this before any of the proper Castlevania games)


Developer: ArtPlay
Publisher: 505 Games
Platform: Windows, Playstation 4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch
Released: 2019
Recommended Version: I have only played the PS4 version personally, but all versions other than the Switch version (which suffers from a number of issues, mentioned above) seem to be more or less comparable in quality.
Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Dungeon Crawler, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Deus Ex

An ambitious action-RPG by Warren Spector and arguably the only game from the short-lived studio Ion Storm with any real longevity, Deus Ex is held in high regard among PC gamers as one of the greats.  But is this glimpse into a dark future still worth seeing today, or is Deus Ex another science fiction work that doesn't hold up to scrutiny?


Warren Spector is a name well-known to long time gamers, with nearly everything he's worked on pushing genre boundaries and attempting to create an experience never before seen in the world of gaming.  From Ultima to Wing Commander to Thief to System Shock, all of his games succeed in that to various degress, creating an immersive experience with staggering depth and immersion that even relatively few games today can match.

But even by that already high standard, it takes a lot to get named one of the best games of all time.  Deus Ex certainly made the effort, though.  Built on the groundbreaking Unreal Engine to allow for some truly enormous and realistic environments, Deus Ex also works in numerous RPG elements and multiple ways to complete each objective to create a truly free-form roleplaying experience.  This is evident even in the game's first mission - retaking the Statue of Liberty from a terrorist group that has occupied it.  One can take a stealthy approach to eliminating enemies with silenced weapons, simply march in the front door guns blazing, or traverse almost all combat by finding a hidden back entrance.  Each choice is equally valid, and more surprisingly, one's choices in previous encounters are often referenced in later dialog, letting the player feel like their choices actually have some bearing on events unfolding.

Befitting this, one also has a large variety of skills to interact with the game world.  Boosting weapon proficiency is fairly obvious - giving better accuracy and damage bonuses the more they are raised - but others are a bit more involved.  Hacking skill allows one to bypass password requirements on many consoles and ATMS, giving one extra money and saving some password-hunting.  While one can lockpick/multitool their way through locks and keypads without the skill involved, having levels put into the skill will make doing so much more efficient.  Even the Swimming skill, while very situational, can prove handy at times, letting one take alternate routes into some areas or simply reach secrets hidden deep under the water.  These, plus the fact that one gets bonuses for exploring areas or solving puzzles in unconventional ways, all encourage the player to play Deus Ex as anything but a traditional shooter.

Of course, there are times one will have to fight enemies, even if playing a more peaceable character, and ot that end the game does offer some other options.  One can KO enemies non-lethally (or at least stun them) with things like pepper spray (both canisters and mines), tasers and non-lethal "tranquilizer" crossbow darts, or simply take them out from afar with a sniper rifle.  Robotic enemies are a bit tougher to crack, being all but immune to traditional weaponry, but one also collects weapons like single-use LAW launchers, LAM mines and a GEP gun that fires small explosions, which can also be handy for dealing with stubborn doors.  Almost every weapon one finds can also be upgraded by finding or buying alternate ammo types or "weapon mods" that grant bonuses like added accuracy, bonus damage or a laser sight/scope for more precise aim, which can offset some of the penalties for having a lower skill rating or just let you carry a specific weapon of your choice throughout the whole game.

Adding further to this, one has a wide variety of Augmentations ("Augs") to use to further power up their character and adapt them to whatever playstyle they choose.  Each canister one finds can be applied to a specific part of the body (head, arms, legs, eyes, et cetera) but only one of two choices can be installed on any given location, so the player will often have to make a difficult choice.  The Head upgrade, for instance, can grant "Aggressive Defense" that causes enemy rockets to detonate in mid-air, making encounters with explosive-touting enemies rather hilariously one-sided, or a Spy Drone, which can allow the player to peer around corners and disable electronic devices without exposing themself to harm.  A stealth-oriented player will obviously want to go for the latter, but one versed in combat may wish to go for Aggressive Defense instead.  But regardless of your choices, these prove to be a lot of fun, making you from a relatively average joe at the start into a nearly unstoppable badass cyborg by the end, and are a large factor in the game's overall enjoyment (particularly the Leg upgrades, which let you run at incredible speed and leap over almost any obstacle you may encounter in the game).

Deus Ex's storyline is clearly its greatest respect, though, fully immersing the player in a dystopian future where grand, global conspiracies are real.  Characters, plot points and scenarios one encounters are surprisingly plausible, and have only grown more relevant and striking as time has gone on.  Even the voice acting in the game is surprisingly good for the time; though there are not a lot of big-name actors in the game, the ones that are there, for the most part, do a surprisingly good job, taking their parts seriously and rarely coming across as hammy.

Being a fan favorite PC game, it is also little surprise that numerous fan patches, updates and conversions have been released over the years; some of which have even surfaced on digital storefronts like Steam.  From mods that allow third-party multiplayer servers to be used to ones that overhaul and rebalance some aspects of the default game (like underpowered weapons and underused skills) to graphical reskins to a bizarre total modification called "The Nameless Mod" that presents two entirely original stories using the engine, Deus Ex, like many well-regarded PC games, is as well known for its fan-generated content as for the core experience.

In short, it's not difficult to see why Deus Ex is so well-regarded among PC gamers and RPG players alike.  It was among the earliest games where one's choices actually had a tangible outcome on the narrative, with character reactions and dialog changing accordingly, and though there is ultimately really one story path to follow, the fact that one's choices are a constant factor in how events unfold never makes it feel like they're being railroaded.  Pair that with a choice of three endings and a significant amount of replayability thanks to mods and multiple-choice design, and you have a defining classic.  There is a good reason that the game is still the focus of a well-known gamer meme: "Every time someone mentions Deus Ex, someone installs Deus Ex."  I know I will be again after penning this review.



Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Playstation 2
Released: 2000, 2002
Recommended Version: The computer ports are easily the ones to pick for their moddability and a much-improved interface over the PS2 version.  However, the PS2 version is worth look for a few interesting exclusive elements - the characters are much more smoothly animated (utilizing motion capture to provide more expressiveness) and it contains exclusive FMVs for the intro and ending scenes.
Tags: Action RPG, Science Fiction, Freeform Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Short Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Great Music
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