You can’t really call souls games an acquired taste as it’s not like you can train yourself to like them. No they have to speak to you on some level, tickling a competitive part of your brain that urges you to go on despite the unrelenting challenge that lies before you. It took me a good while to understand that and I’ve come to enjoy the challenge that they provide ever since I got started with Bloodborne. I’ve even enjoyed some of the more off-brand souls experiences like The Surge which, I heard, had many a souls veteran throwing their hands up in frustration. So I feel somewhat odd saying that my experience with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been…less than stellar. To be sure the essence of the souls series is there but there’s just something missing from the experience; that little thing that keeps me playing despite my numerous failures. It’s a shame because I was kind of looking forward to this one, if only because it was another From Software title.
Set in 16th century Japan Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice puts you in charge of Wolf, an orphan who was trained in the ways of the shinobi by his master, Owl. The Ashina clan is on the brink of collapse due to a combination of the now elderly Isshin having fallen ill and the clan’s enemies steadily closing in from all sides. Desperate to save his clan, Isshin’s grandson Genichiro sought the Divine Heir Kuro, who you have sworn to protect, so he can use the boy’s “Dragon Heritage” to create an immortal army. In the ensuing showdown you lose your left arm while failing to stop Genichiro. However instead of perishing in the field where you were struck down you awake in an abandoned temple, an aging sculptor watching over you. Your purpose remains unchanged however, you are driven once again to seek out the divine heir and protect them.
I had never really understood why the souls games always looked like a generation behind but, as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for this. Under the hood it’s powered by the Sony Phyre engine, something that was developed originally for the PlayStation 3 and was only given a revamp for the PlayStation 4 in 2013. Sekiro certainly has its moments though, making the very most of what that engine is able to deliver, but there’s no denying that most current gen games have looked a lot better for a long time. Still the one benefit that comes along with somewhat dated graphics is the buttery smooth game play that you’re going to enjoy regardless of how busy things get on screen. As with any souls game that’s going to be key to ensuring that the game is challenging without being frustrating, something that a lot of the souls clones typically don’t get right.
The essence of the souls franchise is strong in Sekiro with many familiar mechanics remaining but a lot more being thrown into the mix to shake up the formula. It feels a lot closer to the traditional souls game than Bloodborne did, however. The biggest change is the lack of a stamina bar and enemies health bars not being as meaningful as they once were. No instead the posture bar is what counts now and if you wear that down, whether by attacking, countering or doing other special moves, you can then perform a one hit kill on them. Stealth also plays a larger part with enemies having a detection bar rather than simply knowing/not knowing that you’re there. Movement is also a bit more varied thanks to the grappling hook, meaning you’ll spend a lot more time maneuvering around than you would have in previous souls games. The traditional upgrade systems are also gone, replaced instead with a more regimented progression based around collecting specific items to increase your various attributes. There’s also a bunch of other minor systems around, as there always is, but given I didn’t spend as long in Sekiro as I usually do with a souls game I couldn’t tell you what they are. So overall it’s very much the format that we’ve all come to know and love, for better and for worse.
Without a stamina bar to hold you back combat is a lot more fast paced than you’d first expect, allowing you to really go ham on enemies should you so desire. Of course any mechanic in a souls game that invites you to be reckless is likely to cause you issues and Sekiro does a great job of lulling you into thinking this could be a beat ’em up title before ratcheting up the difficulty significantly. After then it’s back to the usual routine of figuring out how to pull the smallest number of enemies, deal with them, and then keep moving forward. There’s a greater variety of enemies earlier on than I remember in other souls games which initially threw me a bit, especially when I hadn’t picked up the requisite special moves to deal with a particular enemy that I was coming up. There also doesn’t appear to be any delineation between normal areas and boss areas like there are in previous games, something that kind of throw you off when you encounter what looks like a regular enemy but then turns out to be a boss. It does help keep the pace of the game up though.
A particularly large deviation from previous souls games is the heavy defocus on gear and stats. Whilst the souls games were never particularly loot bound to begin with there was always certain combinations or particular pieces of gear which could make your life a lot easier for certain encounters. Instead you’ve now got various shinobi implements which you can swap around giving you a bunch of different abilities. Some of them are a necessity for certain enemies, like the axe for the shield enemies, but others are your run of the mill damage/status modifiers like the gun that lets you set oil covered enemies on fire. This certainly one of the parts of Sekiro which I think I didn’t enjoy as much as whilst I’m a huge fan of loot fests (The Division 2 felt exhausting at times) I did like the min/maxing or cheese builds you could do in the souls games that made you feel stupidly powerful, right up until you got pummelled by something of course.
The game loop plays out much the same as it does in other souls games: follow the path, usually die, optimise the path you follow until you either find a shortcut or fast travel point, repeat until end of game. With the ability to come back after death though you have some options available to you, like legging it through a bunch of enemies, dying, and then waiting for them all to wander off before you continue on. Given that you’ve got a few more movement options at your disposal this can be quite a viable strategy some times, indeed that’s how I found my way to a second boss after failing hard at the first one I came across. Sekiro is pretty open in comparison to other souls games from memory although there are a few hard and fast blockers which you’ll need to do in a particular order to keep on progressing. Indeed it was one such blocker that made me put Sekiro down for good as I just didn’t have the will to keep on with it.
Honestly I couldn’t pinpoint one thing which led up to that feeling. To be sure it’s probably the hardest souls game I’ve played, partly because it’s different to the others but also because there’s a much, much higher reliance on player skill rather than items or levels. But mostly it was that I just wasn’t getting that same rush I used to get from souls games when I’d found a shortcut or beaten a boss. Even the boss battles didn’t feel as engaging as they used to. I used to feel like they tempted you in initially, usually soft balling you with some easily dodged moves and whatnot, before changing it up with a second boss phase or something that’d then dash your confidence all over again. This time around I just felt woefully underprepared for the boss fights when they finally did come along. I did eventually get around to beating one of them but only by cheesing it. Whilst I usually wouldn’t feel too bad about that, this is a souls game after all, this time around it just felt really hollow and I think that’s what killed it for me for good.
Layered on top of that is the story which, whilst being far more direct in its telling than any other souls game I’ve previously played, just wasn’t particularly engaging. There are some cool elements to it, ones I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed exploring further, but it just didn’t hook me in enough to make me want to keep playing. Reading a few wiki articles shows that it’s as deep as any souls game that’s come before it so I’m sure fans of the genre will find a lot to love there. It just wasn’t there for me.
It’s a right shame that I haven’t found joy in FromSoftware’s latest title as I figured that, given the numerous souls games I’ve played before, it’d be a shoe in for something I’d enjoy. All the right ingredients are there and whilst I don’t like some of the new changes I don’t think they’re all to blame for my lack of engagement with Sekiro. Whatever it was it means that Sekiro: Shadows Die twice will go down as one of the more average games of me for this year, being neither terrible nor one that I’ll recommend. It’ll be interesting to compare and contrast this to The Surge 2, due out later this year, as if I find myself enjoying that one I’ll really not know what to think.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours play time and 3% of the achievements unlocked.
The Souls series of games require a certain kind of mindset if you are to enjoy them. It’s simply not about being a good gamer as many of my highly skilled gamer friends find little joy in this series. No it’s more about overcoming the numerous, overly punishing barriers that the game throws at you. That moment when you take down the boss that’s been blocking you for hours, where you can scream obscenities and flip off your TV, is a feeling few games are able to evoke. Dark Souls III doesn’t differ much from its proven formula and, as my first true Souls game, managed to evoke that same “fuck you” attitude that drew me deep into its predecessor Bloodborne.
The age of fire is coming to an end, a time where all are able to rise from death within the flames of a bonfire. It is time for the 5 lords of cinder to come back to their thrones and link the first flame, which will prolong the age once again. However many of the lords have abandoned their posts, seeing the endless cycle of rebirth in the flames as a curse. Ashen One, you have arisen once again and have been chosen to bring the lords back to their thrones and prevent the age of dark.
Details of Dark Souls III’s graphical engine are scarce but it’s clear that there’s been a significant overhaul of the underlying engine from previous series. Whilst the graphics are no where near the cutting edge (completely maxed out settings still ran at 100+ fps on my machine) the environments are more expansive, the number of enemies on screen increased and they’ve been far more generous with the lighting effects. The greater graphical horsepower at their disposal then has been used to amplify, rather than refine, the Dark Souls experience. The aesthetic remains largely the same as it has, with the exception being the ash and ember effects that have been lavished across everything. All this being said Dark Souls III does have many screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ll show off here.
The Souls formula hasn’t changed much in Dark Souls III with the majority of the mechanics being familiar to fans of the series. If you can only play one Dark Souls game, get the best one and enjoy it to the fullest. Whilst the changes are no where near as drastic as they were in Bloodborne many of the ideas have made their way across. The combat retains the Souls series essence, bringing back the shield but also making it more action oriented than previous instalments. The estus flask makes a return with a twist, it’s charges are split between HP restoration and FP (mana) restoration. Armour however has been played down somewhat with the focus now on your sword and shields as the main upgradeable items. The humanity mechanic remains however now it’s being “embered”, giving the same benefits and nice fiery glow to your character. So overall Dark Souls III is likely to feel like much of the same with a few small tweaks that were most certainly Bloodborne inspired.
Combat is, as it always in the Souls games, incredibly challenging and unabashedly unforgiving. To me Dark Souls III felt a lot easier than Bloodborne did however I’m not sure if that’s because I’m now used to the Souls’ series quirks. This is not to say I breezed through the game, far from it, indeed Dark Souls III quickly evoked the same levels of rage that Bloodborne did before. The shield mechanic certainly took some getting used to however I found it much easier to understand than Bloodborne’s gun/riposte mechanic. What was interesting to me was the sheer amount of variety, both in terms of the weapons and potential ways to build out your character. As someone who likes to min/max everything this was initially quite frustrating but after a while it became a fun little quest in developing the best character for me.
In the end I settled on a very similar build to what I used in Bloodborne: straight STR whilst focusing on the other attributes which had low soft caps. For the first quarter of the game this was pretty great however it quickly became apparent I’d have to seek out some very specific gear to make it work long term. Thankfully, after hours of farming darkwraiths, I had the required Dark Sword and a heavy gem that gave me a great scaling sword that lasted me for the rest of the game. I still had various weapons and armour to cheese some fights but I never invested much into them. Indeed I was a little annoyed that armour didn’t have as much of an impact as it did in Bloodborne however that did make it easier to switch up and adapt to fights as I needed to. If it’s not clear already the depth and breadth of Dark Souls III’s combat and gearing system is streets ahead of many similar action RPGs and should provide countless hours of replayability.
Progression comes in much the same format as it always has: you farm souls, take them back to the shrine and then spend them on attribute points. What each point will get you has been tweaked a little bit so it’s worthwhile looking up the stat curves and figuring out what you’ll need. The secondary upgrade system is your armour and shields which will use a varying array of upgrade materials found throughout the game. I rarely found myself wanting for either, especially after long item farming runs that netted me a truckload of souls. There’s also a couple tertiary upgrade items in the form of estus shards (gives you more charges) and undead bone shards (make your flasks more effective). If you do a modicum of exploring you’re not likely to miss any of these but, even if you do, they’re usually not more than a few minutes of running to find anyway. Suffice to say you won’t find yourself wanting for progression in Dark Souls III, something which helps when you’re stuck on a boss for a long period of time.
The boss fights are as challenging as they always are and for the most part are linearly scaled up in difficulty. There are, of course, a few gear/level check bosses that will likely hand your ass to you if you’re not sufficiently progressed. However you’re likely to run up against a few that are strongest where you’re weakest and vice versa, something which can provide challenge and frustration in equal amounts. These bosses will likely require you to adapt your playstyle to suit them, something which can take quite some time. Pontiff Sulyvahn and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley for instance are both bosses that can be relatively easily defeated with proper use of shield. As someone who’s used to rolling when he’s in trouble shifting my playstyle to these bosses was probably one of the most challenging things I had to do.
I chose to play my game online and I have to say that the multiplayer experience, at least at launch, was a little lacklustre. I spent hours in embered form and only got invaded once and I’m guessing they simply timed out as I never saw them. When I attempted to recruit others to help with a boss I’d often get the dreaded “Unable to summon phantom” message until I logged out and back in again. Even then I often had phantoms unable to join me in the fight, instead having them running up against the fog wall helplessly. I’m all for the lack of hand holding in the core game however when it comes to issues like this I’d like a bit more info than what was provided.
From a core game perspective Dark Souls III is well polished although like its predecessors there are some rough edges. Hit detection is fine about 95% of the time however there are a bunch of edge cases where things get really squirrelly. Enemies have retained the ability to hit through walls, even when they should be unable to see you. Walls have varying ability to stop your swing, sometimes allowing you to swing right through them and other times stopping you on a wispy branch. There’s also the whole debacle about poise working or not working something which could be easily clarified by FROM if they’d just take the time. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can end an otherwise productive session, especially if these raise their ugly heads at the end of a boss fight.
Dark Souls III does a good job of setting the scene early on however, like all Souls games, it rapidly descends into vague allusions and tiny nuggets of lore hidden in all manner of places. This does make for good discussion and speculation but it does little to help drive the game forward. Dark Souls III thankfully is so strong mechanically that this doesn’t matter but I can’t help but feel it would be that much better with a little more meat in the story elements. This is probably my biggest issue with the Souls series games overall as someone who tends to favour a good story over mechanics, if given the choice. Still at the very least Dark Souls III doesn’t extol itself as a deep, story first game so it’s hard to lay criticism on it for that.
Dark Souls III brings with it much of the same with a twist of the new, much to the delight of long time fans of the series. It is as unforgiving as its predecessors were, punishing you heavily even before you begin to overextend yourself. The combat, upgrade and progression systems are all deep, complex and rewarding, gifting those who spend time to unlock their secrets with power will beyond their station. The graphics might not win any awards but they are definite steps up for the series, both in terms of quality and scale. It’s not without faults, many of which have been present in previous incarnations, and the vague story isn’t likely to be the one feature that wins you over. Despite those flaws however Dark Souls III is a challenging and rewarding title that does not care if you play it, but you should.
Dark Souls III is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 for $59.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total play time and 49% of the achievements unlocked.
The Souls series never really appealed to me as it seems its target audience was a certain subsection of gamers who craved games that gave their player nothing and took from them everything. I didn’t really fit into that mould and despite the raving reviews from my friends I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time to see if there really was something to them. For some reason though Bloodborne held a mild level of intrigue for me, probably because I didn’t know it was made by the same developer. After many weeks of being told I needed to play this game I eventually relented and began my journey into the world of a genre that I’d held at arms length for many years. Now here I am, some 35 hours of game time later, and I’m wondering why I held out for so long.
It is the night of the hunt, a time when beasts and monsters roam the streets of Yharnam and terrorized the populace to no end. You are a hunter, well at least you’re told you are, sworn ally of the healing church whose duty it is to rid the streets of these foul creatures and bring about the morning. However the plague that has befallen Yharnam is not all that it first seems and it citizens ruthlessly attack you on site, saying that you’re cursed. Oh dear hunter, the challenges that lie ahead are sure to break you but do not fear; death is just another part of life here, one you will become intimately familiar with.
I’m not sure if it’s the drab colour pallette or gothic aesthetic but Bloodborne doesn’t really look like a current generation game on first pass. The combination of muted colours and strategic use of specularity certainly feel like a lot of previous generation games that came before it although there are the moments where Bloodborne does provide a visual experience I have come to expect. I think partly this is for performance reasons as Bloodborne is the first PS4 game I’ve played that’s visibly chugged during several very intense action scenes. Overall it doesn’t look bad, maybe just a little on the dated side, something which could almost be wholly attributed to its visual style which is reminiscent of previous generation games.
Bloodborne is being called an action RPG, which would put it in the same category as games like Dragon Age, but it feels like these kinds of games need their own sub-genre to more accurately define the game experience. The base elements of an action RPG are there: real time combat, levelling system and item progression, but the way the game actually plays is so far removed from other titles in the genre means the experience is vastly different. The combat relies on precise timings, reactions and understanding your enemy at a much deeper level than traditional RPGs would ask you to. Player skill plays just as much of a role as items and levels do as you can have all the gear and in the world yet still find yourself pinned to a wall by a couple choice enemies. It’s a genre that, to be frank, is actively hostile towards the player which is what makes it so rewarding when you finally get to say fuck you and beat it.
At first the combat seems relatively straightforward: enemies telegraph their moves widely and it’s up to you to figure out if you can interrupt them with your own or if you need to get out of the way before they hit you. The challenge then comes from knowing what moves an enemy can do, what the timings of those are and, should there be more than one of them, which one you should deal with first before trying to move onto another. This means that every new area you come into is a minefield of new movesets, abilities and strengths/weaknesses which have to be learnt, understood and exploited in order for you to be able to progress. It’s not so much of a learning curve as it is a learning brick wall, one the game is specifically designed around to make your life hell for the first couple hours.
Indeed the very first section of the game, the one where you need to complete a loop to unlock your first shortcut and start making meaningful progress in the game, took me a grand total of 3 hours to complete. That section. played properly, can be done in approximately 10 minutes and so I spent much of my time dying in numerous stupid and, what seemed at the time, unpredictable ways. Of course the more I died the more I began to understand the mechanics I was playing with, what I could get away with and how I should approach everything to make sure I had the best chances of surviving. Eventually, after butting my head against what felt like an impenetrable wall for far too long, I finally made it through to my first shortcut and that’s when the game started getting interesting.
You see Bloodborne, and all games that preceded it, revel in the idea of not holding your hand at all with the only tutorial coming in the form of a few notes scattered across the ground in your overworld area. How levels work, what the currencies are and what they mean, how you upgrade your weapons and how you can unlock other ways to improve your character are all things you have to discover incidentally or, like I did, Google furiously. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t count this as a negative of Bloodborne as many games I’ve played take a similar approach and the flip side to it seems to be that great communities are born out of sharing details like this. Once I had gotten to my first “safe” point I started to become intrigued about where I should go next and all roads pointed towards the first boss: The Cleric beast.
The boss battles are the ultimate goal for any hunter in Bloodborne both for their challenge and progression that they will provide you. They are, put simply, a terrifying thing to behold as they’re often several times your size and have attack patterns unlikely anything else you’ve seen before. For the most part you’ll be able to figure out what approach best suits you after a couple runs however there are some fights which will either require you to up your skill significantly or, and this can be heartbreaking, leave the fight and go and level up some more before you face them. Indeed after throwing my body at Martyr Logarius for hours on end I was forced to leave the battle to replenish my stocks of blood vials, something that made me feel so defeated that I considered just giving up then and there. I didn’t come back to that fight for a very long time but when I did the satisfaction I got from handing his ass to him is something few games have been able to give me.
The level system, whilst retaining the obtuse nature of the rest of the game, is one that requires you to balance all your requirements against each other. Being a jack of all trades will make the game incredibly difficult and will ultimately net you no benefits so you have to choose a few stats you want to excel in and then seek out the items that best suits that. Reading through some guides will help you make the right decisions early on to support the kind of playstyle you want to pursue, especially when it comes to points of diminishing returns, soft caps and hard caps on benefits that each point gives you. My Strength/Skill build seemed to work out quite well for the way I wanted to play the game and after I finished my initial playthrough I was able to start looking at dumping points into other stats to unlock certain choice weapons that I wanted to experiment with.
Bloodborne is mechanically sound for the most part however the hit detection they use does have its limits and sometimes its behaviour can be completely out of line with what you expect. I had numerous times when my sword went right through an enemy and failed to connect (no blood, sound nor enemy taking damage) and other times when enemies appeared to be able to hit me when their models were no where near me. Whilst death is an integral part of the game when they’re not the result of you getting greedy or stupid it does little to endear the game to you and indeed I stopped playing when these sorts of things happened too often. There was also the few performance slow downs I mentioned previously which were thankfully rare however in a game where timing and precision are key these sorts of things can be devastating if they happen at the wrong moment.
Bloodborne’s story is interesting although the way it’s presented, through various small bits of dialogue and vague allusions to things, makes it hard to discern whether or not it’s actually a good story. Sure you have enough to understand the motivations of certain characters but much of the lore behind the beasts, bosses and other NPCs are mostly built up out of conjecture. Sure this provides a healthy amount of discussion among the community however after reading the 100th fan theory about why the Great Ones can’t have kids you start to want a little bit more than just what everyone thinks it might be. Unfortunately it seems like closure isn’t something the developers of Bloodborne are interested in giving us so I’ll just have to say that the story is serviceable but far too vague to be much more than that.
Bloodborne is a game I honestly didn’t want to like when I started out playing it and indeed I was willing to give up very early on in the piece just so I could be done with it. However once Bloodborne got its hooks into me I couldn’t help but be intrigued as the game taunted me with ever greater challenges and the prospect of even better loot. I can remember clearly the point at which I transitioned from the terrified hunter, one who would walk around every corner, to the slayer of the night, one who feared no beast and laid waste to anyone who dared cross him. There are few games that can take you on a journey like that and make your progress feel meaningful but Bloodborne does it beautifully, all the while gnawing away in the back of your head that it could all come to a crashing end if you let your hubris get the better of you. If you’ve been putting off playing this style of game because it seems too harsh then I’d encourage you to give Bloodborne a few hours of your time as that frustration could soon turn into obsession, one that will be rewarded handsomely.
Bloodborne is available on PlayStation4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 35 hours reaching NG+.
If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.
Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.
For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.
However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.
The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.
Ah Mass Effect, a game that inspired so much fanboyism and geek lust within me that I’ve gladly parted with embarrassingly large sums of money in order to play it. My relationship with it started with an excited friend of mine breathlessly singing its praises before sending me a short video clip of it. The second the clip finished I knew this game had to be mine, no matter what the cost. This was the only reason why a Xbox360 graced my home in the first place and was so again when I upgraded to one of the new slim models to play through the final instalment. Today I will review the last chapter in Mass Effect trilogy; a review that’s been 5 years in the making.
Mass Effect 3 puts you right back into control of Commander Shepard of the Normandy. Returning back to the Alliance Navy after the events of Mass Effect 2 Shepard is placed under house arrest due to his work with Cerberus. His warnings of an impending Reaper attack have gone unnoticed and it’s not until a full Reaper invasion starts that they look back to him for help. Earth succumbs to the Reaper invasion rapidly but Shepard reluctantly escapes, only leaving so he can gather support to retake Earth back from the Reapers and hopefully drive them back for good.
First impressions of Mass Effect 3 were quite good. For Xbox360 players you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the graphics updates as there’s a noticeable improvement over Mass Effect 2. Whilst it’s not up to the same level as say Deus Ex: Humand Revolution or Skyrim they’re still quite impressive, especially if you’re playing the game on a massive TV like I was. PS3 owners won’t notice much of a difference however as Mass Effect 3 on the PS3 uses the same engine as 2 on that plaform. PC players will also be somewhat disappointed as the code for the Xbox360 version is basically the same and is unable to take advantage of any additional grunt your PC might have. It’s clear that Bioware’s target platform for this game was definitely the Xbox360 first above all others which is great for people like me, but I can understand the frustration levelled at Mass Effect 3 by gamers on other platforms.
The combat of Mass Effect 3 is just as exciting, fluid and challenging as it was back in Mass Effect 2. I was very tempted to try out yet another class as my switch from Soldier to Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 made the game that much more interesting but discussing it with my friends showed that the Vanguard was probably the most fun class out of the lot of them. With the new weapon/upgrade system the Vanguard could easily be made into an incredible weapon of destruction, one that didn’t actually need to carry any guns with him if you played your cards right.
So unlike its predecessors Mass Effect 3 gives you the choice of what weapons to equip, allowing you to carry around up to 5 different weapons. The downside is that the more weapons you carry the slower your powers will regenerate. So for weapons based classes like the Soldier you’ll probably still walk around armed with every single weapon you can carry but my Vanguard spent most of his time with only 2 weapons (later I carried 3 once I had the right upgrades), favouring the 200% buff to power recharges instead. This meant that past a certain point I was basically invulnerable as no enemy could wear down my shields before I could charge again, recharging them back to full.
Still though there were several fights that I found challenging to the point of frustration. Now I’m willing to blame this on the fact that I’m not a console gamer, the PC is my usual platform, and the many deaths I experienced early on where a combination of me not being able to aim properly and a bad talent build. However for most of the really difficult fights there was usually a heavy weapon hidden somewhere which I wouldn’t find until my 4th or 5th time attempting that particular combat scene which made the fight trivial. There are also some particular enemies that will 1 shot you from full health and shields with no way to get out of it (even with upgraded health that left me with 1 bar afterwards, I’d still die). It’s a real shame as apart from these 2 faux pas the combat is really quite enjoyable (the latter making the last couple hours annoyingly torturous).
The talent tree system received a massive revamp since Mass Effect 2 and the improvements are quite nice. Whilst it still retains the base idea of adding points into a certain ability to make it better once you get past the first 3 stages you’re then presented with choices as to how to improve the ability. In doing so you’re able to craft your character along very specific lines, much more so than you were in the previous 2 games. With a little bit of looking around its very possible to create a character that is nigh on unstoppable, but it’s the improvements that Bioware made around the talent system that are most welcome.
The inclusion of a respec system in Mass Effect 3 is probably the most welcome addition. When you start off many of your talent points are allocated for you. Whilst this is a great way to introduce you to the character class it does mean that your character might not play the way you want it to. Thankfully the first respec is free and that will allow you to craft your character in the way you want. Additionally you’re able to choose 1 ability from your companions to include in your talent tree for a small sum. Yet again this allows you to augment away any of your character’s weaknesses or push them further into unstoppable territory.
The Galaxy Map remains basically unchanged from Mass Effect 2, keeping the same navigation elements whilst changing up the mini-game aspect of it significantly. Instead of going to every planet and scanning them for 5 minutes just to find the resources contained within there you instead scan around the current solar system, looking for little pockets of treasure. If one of the assets happens to be on a planet you then do the familiar scanning mini-game again but at least now it has a pointer to where it is, saving you countless pointless minutes scanning around. There’s also an indicator as to how many assets you’ve recovered so you don’t waste time looking for that one last thing.
You can’t scan around indefinitely though as scanning alerts the Reapers to your presence there. It’s supposed to make you scan smartly around, using the minimum number in order to recover all the assets. If you do alert the Reapers they’ll invade the system and try to hunt you down but they can’t really catch you unless you stay still for more than a couple seconds. Realistically you can just scan to your hearts content then exit/enter the system repeatedly to get the assets, which is what I ended up doing after alerting the Reapers for the 20th time.
WARNING: Mild plot spoilers follow. (There’s a second warning about the MASSIVE ones if you want to keep reading).
Of course where Mass Effect 3 really shines is the grand story that they’ve crafted over the past 5 years. Ever since the first Mass Effect there’s been a terrible sense of foreboding about the coming Reaper invasion and whilst there are some major plot holes (why did the Council ignore Shepards warnings after a GODDAMN REAPER ATTACKED THEM is beyond me) they’ve managed to keep the story moving through 3 games, even with the wild amount of control that the player has over the plot elements.
As always I decided to play Shepard as a Paragorn and whilst I’d agree with the way he acted about 90% of the time there were some definite moments when he’d go off the rails completely. This is mostly due to the paraphrasing that’s done in order to make the dialog wheel work, making it hard to accurately judge what he’s going say, but when the tough-as-nails by-the-book Shepard I spent the last 5 years crafting started acting out of character it really dumped me out of the game. Thankfully those moments were few and far between, but happened often enough to cause me frustration.
Now I don’t know if this was due to the choices that I had made in the previous games or not but the romantic relationships in Mass Effect 3 felt kind of…weird. In Mass Effect 1 I romanced Ashley who makes no appearance in 2 at all. In 2 I romanced Miranda and when I came face to face with both of them again I set my eyes on Ashley, her being Shepard’s first love. What got me however was the fact that Ashley seemed wholly unresponsive to my advances even though, as far as I was aware, there was no way of her knowing what I got up to during Mass Effect 2. Indeed she never confronted me on the fact, instead just giving me the cold shoulder. Miranda on the other hand was extremely responsive to the point where I basically fell into the romance scene which was a total cop out (when did Mass Effect become PG?). I mean I did feel something for Miranda but it felt kind of odd that Ashley would shut Shepard out like that, especially after the first few deep conversations.
It gets even more interesting as the token gay NPC, Steve Cortez (who’s done brilliantly by the way), ended up in a rather deep relationship with Shepard without me really trying. It could just be because it wasn’t possible to have that kind of relationship before Mass Effect 3, thus having to accelerate the emotional attachment, but it still made me think that Ashley’s behaviour was odd in comparison to everyone else. Not odd as in “Why doesn’t she like me”, more like there was something either unfinished or broken in the story line that I was playing through. I could’ve just stuffed up a critical dialogue option and not realised it, but I’m usually pretty good at noticing those kinds of things.
The rest of my relationships with the crew were just as good as the one with Cortez. Whilst towards the end there are many scenes that are pretty much “This is the last time you’ll get to see them here, better make the most of it” kinds of deals they do feel genuine. I personally found the scenes with Liara, Garrus and Legion to be especially touching, giving me the feeling of a true bond between comrades who had been through heaven and hell together.
WARNING: I’m going to spoil the ending here like crazy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I’m not going to pretend that this review exists in a vacuum but I did my absolute best to avoid all the articles about Mass Effect 3’s ending prior to finishing the game for myself. All I knew before going into this is that there were people who weren’t happy with it and thanks to my information black out I figured it was just a minority. However after playing through to the ending myself, being able to get the good (read: Green) ending and choosing the Synthesis option I can unequivocally say that Bioware completely and utterly bollocks the ending up, and not just for the reasons that many others have cited already.
For starters whilst the story introduced the deus ex machina ending early on that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a deus ex machina. Granted there are few ways that such an epic story could come to an ending without resorting to this kind of plot device but it’s obvious that the entire plot wasn’t created back when Mass Effect was originally created. Indeed accounts from Bioware employees corroborate this meaning the true ending wasn’t created until just recently. This then feeds into the larger problem, the actual ending itself.
The whole idea of the Star Child, the devices to control/destroy the Reapers and the requirement of Shepard to sacrifice himself are things that don’t line up with the Mass Effect world or the characters within them. Shepard is not a tragic hero and indeed should you have been a tragic hero in Mass Effect 2 (where not enough of your team members survive) you in fact can not import that game into Mass Effect 3 as Bioware has deemed that ending non-canon. The idea then of Shepard making the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the universe is completely out of character, as well as being completely non-sensical in terms of the Star Child’s solution. Indeed, whilst the Star Child is ostensibly of synthetic origins and thus can be assumed to be completely rational it acts in ridiculously irrational ways. I would go on but many people have dissected it better than I ever could and my sentiments echo theirs closely.
Now I wrestled with the ending for a couple days before talking to my friends about it but the conclusion I came to was always the same. I really do hate the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because it’s the ending or because its tragic (indeed I hated the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but it was good because I was grieving for the loss) but because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the Mass Effect universe. Instead of the ending being driven heavily by your choices made throughout the game you’re instead treated to different coloured explosions with 1 of 3 endings based on your choice right at the end. For a universe that managed to incorporate so many of your choices into every aspect of the game this ending feels like it was done absent any thought for the rest of the universe and it really shows.
As a game Mass Effect 3 was almost everything I had come to expect from the series. The combat was fun and engaging with just enough challenge to make sure that I wasn’t powering through the game. The characters were (apart from one) believable and relatable and I felt a real connection with them. Right up until the final couple hours the plot and pacing of Mass Effect 3 was magnificent and it makes me very ashamed to say that the ending just simply didn’t stack up with the rest of the game, and the rest of the series for that matter. Still I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, even if the ending left a sour taste in my mouth.
Mass Effect 3 is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78. $78 and $99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the Xbox360 on the Hard difficulty with around 24 hours of total play time and 80% of the achievements unlocked.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t a game I thought that I would be playing. Out of all my gaming friends only one of them had played it (and didn’t care for it) and I, as always, avoided the hype for it just in case I did end up wanting to play it. However after reading the AMA on Reddit from the writer behind it there seemed to be an awful lot of fans of his work so I figured the title would be worth the look, even if I hadn’t heard of the developers or writer behind it.
Kingdoms of Amalur starts with your unceremonious death on what appears to be a battle field, felled by a race of corrupted immortal elves called the Tuatha. You’re then taken to a mass grave to be dumped and forgotten along with all the other soldiers that have fallen in the war. However despite your apparent death you come back to life shortly after being dumped amongst the dead. It is soon revealed that you were used in part of an experiment to duplicate the immortality of the elves with the mortal races of the world and you are the first one to succeed. Your resurrection also granted you freedom from fate, a power that you’ll make great use of throughout the entire game.
Despite the heavy stylization that Kingdoms of Amalur makes use of the graphics are still heavily dated, being far more appropriate for something like a MMORPG than a single player game. As far as I can tell there are 2 reasons for this: the first being the obvious point that this is a dual release on Xbox and PC and we’re limited by its dated graphics potential. The second is that this particular engine is more than likely going to end up being used for an upcoming MMORPG based in the same universe. I can understand that this makes sense from a business point of view but in comparison to all the other titles that have been released recently Kingdoms of Amalur won’t win any prizes for cutting edge graphics. There are several “ooooh pretty” moments (like the one below) but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does have going for it though is its unique approach to the traditional elements of a RPG. Whilst it’s a RPG at heart with all the levelling systems, talent trees, loot and so on it’s the unique take on each of these aspects that makes Kingdoms of Amalur stand out from its counterparts.
For the vast majority of RPGs, including Kingdoms of Amalur, you’ll begin by choosing your race and what your character looks like. Usually then you’ll also pick your character class which will determine how you do combat (and various other things) throughout the game. Kingdoms of Amalur has a much more flexible system: you put points into one of three talent trees which determines what kind of class you’ll play as. The 3 trees are your typical archetypes (warrior, rogue, mage) but you can mix and match between them and once you reach a certain number of points in a tree (or several of them) you’ll get a buff that corresponds to your choice. Should you not like the choices you’ve made there’s NPCs who can reset your talents everywhere, an absolute godsend in a game where the freedom to choose your class can have you making some decidedly bad choices early on.
Combat in Kingdoms of Amalur is a strange mix of hack ‘n’ slash mouse mashing with elements of strategy chucked in so the game didn’t get thrown in the same bucket as other titles like God of War. Initially, when you have very few other abilities, you’re pretty much stuck with clicking the left mouse repeatedly and attempting to dodge any incoming blows. As you progress further though your options become much more open, leading you to be able to execute long combos on enemies that end with devastating force. After a while though it gets to the point where the only challenge comes from times when the game deliberately throws multitudes of enemies at you and even that is mitigated by Diablo-esque potion swilling. I think the main issue here is one aspect of the combat that’s simply assumed that you’ll use whenever something difficult comes across: reckoning mode.
As you defeat enemies you’ll fill up the Fate bar, the purple looking one in the screenshot above. When that hits full you can enter Reckoning Mode. What this does is slow down time for everyone else but you and also sends your damage output through the roof, making you nigh on invincible. This doesn’t last forever though, about 30 seconds at my count, but that’s usually enough for you to dispatch most enemies (and bosses) before the timer runs out. Should you not have the fate meter full at a critical point though you’ll have to struggle through the fight, chugging potions and trying to stay alive long enough to fill the bar up. Once you understand this it’s quite easy to judge when you’ll need it but the one fight where I didn’t have it and it was obvious that the encounter was designed to for me to use it there wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does get right is the inventory system. Whilst you don’t have an unlimited inventory with which to stash the incredible amount of loot that drops they have taken out the laborious inventory management that usually plagues RPGs. Your main inventory of potions, usable items, weapons and armor are limited to a certain number of slots. However you have 3 unlimited crafting bags that hold components for you. What this means is you’ll never have to worry about having to clear out your inventory to pick up that reagent and you can keep carrying those reagents with you everywhere. What this means is that you’ll actually want to pursue the crafting options in Kingdoms of Amalur rather than ignoring them and then power levelling them when its worth it.
The crafting system also deserves praise as it’s a worthwhile pursuit in Kingdoms of Amalur. Blacksmithing for instance can break down all the items you pick up into their various components which you can then use to build better armour and weapons for yourself. Alchemy has the awesome mechanic of experimentation where potion recipes can be discovered by randomly mashing ingredients together and seeing what comes out the other end. Sagecrafting, in essence making gems for socketed equipment, has a similar mechanic but you’re able to see the outcome before you commit the ingredients. High levels of blacksmithing allow you to combine gems into your crafted equipment, making it on par with many of the best drops you’ll find whilst questing. Overall I was very pleased with the way the crafting system was implemented, much more than I have been with other RPG/MMORPGs.
Now I have to say that for the first few hours, indeed probably the first 6~8 hours, I was incredibly bored with Kingdoms of Amalur. At the beginning there’s really no feeling of tension, nothing that’s really driving you forward. Your resurrection as the Fateless One has stripped you of your memory and whilst there are several characters that recognise you it’s not until you’re near the end of the main quest that they’ll tell you anything about your past. The open world doesn’t do anything to alleviate this lack of drive either as you’re completely free to ignore the main quest and just simply do whatever the hell you want to. This is one of the times where the possibility of reviewing the game kept me going, that was until after I passed the 8 hour mark.
After that many of the stories that I was following started to develop and began to become interesting rather than just an impediment to me levelling my character. Even some of the side quests, ones that you could simply pass by and never do, had interesting stories to them that spanned over the course of an hour or more. Thankfully the quest log is unlimited so that you can pick up pretty much every quest in sight and then complete them at your own leisure. Doing so would put your total play time somewhere north of 100 hours however, something which I’ve never really done outside of MMORPGs.
So taking that all into consideration how does Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning stack up as a game? It definitely has its fun moments, especially towards the end when you can take out legions of enemies without breaking too much of a sweat. The story, whilst lacking at the start, is incredibly detailed and the multitude of side quests reveals a depth much greater than its appearance would lead you believe. They also got the loot system right as whilst I was drenched in epics and set pieces by the end I still got a thrill every time I saw a purple drop and an even bigger one when it was an upgrade for me. There are however some issues that can’t be overlooked despite the rational explanations for their choices. The graphics aren’t that great even when compared to other stylized games like World of Warcraft. The barrier to the meat of the game is incredibly high, rivalling the lengths of many AAA titles.
Thinking about it more I feel the same way as I do about Skyrim. All the elements of the game work well together, as long as you give them enough time, but the sheer size of the game means that eventually you’ll get to a point where everything starts to feel the same and there’s really no getting passed that. Indeed just as I did in Skyrim before I did in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I got to a certain point where my character was pretty much unstoppable and then just powered through the main quest line. After that the lack of motivation sets in again since there’s nothing driving you and it’s best to leave the game as is.
With all that in mind however I still feel that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid game and I look forward to the upcoming MMORPG version.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $59.99 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Hard difficulty with 21 hours of total play time and 39% of the achievements unlocked. If you have any questions about my reviewing process please feel free to leave a comment or consult this guide.