Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC (PC, 2016)

From Software have a reputation for some of the best DLC in the business. Artorias of the Abyss set a high bar and the Dark Souls II DLC matched it (I particularly loved Crown of the Old Iron King). But it’s Bloodborne‘s The Old Hunters that takes the crown as a condensed bundle of tricky atmospheric joy.

After all that I had high hopes for Ashes of Ariandel, the first of two DLCs for Dark Souls III. And yet… I came away pretty disappointed.

Much of that is because, for some inexplicable reason, my PC shat the bed when playing it. Dark Souls III proper didn’t run great, but I got through it without too many problems. But despite having a computer way more powerful than the recommended specs, Ashes of Ariandel frequently devolved in a slideshow – even ay 720p on ‘Low’ settings. Fiddling with various options didn’t do much and by the time I was fruitlessly tweaking how Windows 10 allocates RAM I had to accept defeat.

But I soldiered through, despite fights devolving into jerky messes apparently at random. Maybe it was the technical glitches getting me down, but Ashes of Ariandel felt a bit Dark Souls-by-numbers.

Dilapidated village full of mutated townsfolk? Check. Giant armored warriors? Check. A snowscape full of spooky snowy warriors? Check. A melancholy boss fight where you’re the cruel intruder? Big check.

I’ve this stuff many times before across the Souls games – a lot of it even in Dark Souls III.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great game (or at least it would be if it weren’t running at 10fps most of the time), but I love the twisted grandeur that this series offers at its best. This just didn’t have much of that.

Fortunately a peek at the starting area of The Ringed City, the other Dark Souls III DLC, indicates that weirdness is very much on the menu next time. I hope it runs better…

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2, 2001)

Metal Gear Solid 2 is the best. I still remember seeing that jaw-dropping E3 2000 trailer for the first time and marvelling at a quantum leap in graphics that I don’t think will ever be matched. I also vividly remember being a first-year student on a game design course, picking it up on the day of its EU launch, playing through the whole thing in a single sitting and experiencing the bizarre finale in a 4am daze.

It’s gone on to influence my tastes in other media, sending me spiralling off to read Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon. I’ve played it many, many times over the years and each time I find new things to love.

But here’s the thing, as one of the first explicitly postmodern video games this has had thousands of articles written about its themes, storytelling and politics. The last thing the world needs is yet another dude writing a cod-philosophical article about how Kojima smartly interrogates the idea of a sequel, explores the relationship between player and character or was creepily prescient about the way the internet would warp the concept of truth. It’s been done. To death.

What I want to talk about is how good Metal Gear Solid 2 is as a game. This is a little trickier to dig into than you might think, as it’s totally possible to reach the credits without ever properly experiencing the meat n’ potatoes of what makes it tick.

yes. yessssssssss

See, on normal (and every difficulty below that), you’re given a silenced tranquilliser pistol. A single head-shot knocks guards out, it’s very easy to aim, guards stand still for long periods and there’s no penalty for other guards finding sleeping friends. If you just want to see the credits the optimal way through the game is just to tranquillise every enemy from a distance then casually stroll through the levels.

There’s nothing wrong with playing like that, but Metal Gear Solid 2 is bristling with fun AI quirks, cool toys and fun movement mechanics that the tranq gun all but erases.

This (and Metal Gear Solid 3) often get criticised for their complex control systems but that very complexity makes Snake and Raiden feel like human Swiss Army Knives – I mean, in what other game can you make your character stand on tip-toes? I’m also a fan of the way the game uses pressure-sensitive buttons, making handling and aiming a weapon feel dangerous. A video game cannot truly make you sweat when pointing a gun at a person, but at least here there’s a lethal tension to the act.

All of that comes to life in the VR Missions. Added in the 2002 Substance release, these comprise 511 missions that will require you to master every facet of the game’s byzantine systems. I have beaten every single one and it remains one of the toughest but most rewarding things I’ve ever done in a game.

Yes, Snake, VR.

As they get tougher and tougher you have to exploit the tiny wrinkles in the enemy AI, puzzle out creative ways to use obscure items and pull off some ludicrous stealth stunts. They’re all ranked, giving you a benchmark to match your performance against, which in turn clues you in that there’s always a speedy way to thread through the ‘Sneaking’ levels that leaves you feeling like an absolute badass.

My favorites are the later ‘Zako Survival’ missions, which task you with fighting off ever fiercer waves of enemies before a Godzilla-sized boss. The MGS1 Snake Zako battle is truly intense and, in a bizarre twist, requires you to grasp the combat potential of coolant spray. The bomb disposal missions are a backhanded way of making you appreciate the depth and intricacy of the level design (and the bombs are very smartly hidden). Then there’s the ‘Streaking’ mission, in which a butt-naked Raiden must run through five consecutive levels without being spotted.

The VR Missions aren’t all smiles and sunshine though. It’s… uh, probably best not to dwell on the MGS1 Snake sniping mission *shudder*.

Playing through so much Metal Gear Solid 2 without cutscenes and CODECs interrupting you cements how goddamn good this is as a game. It’s part of the reason why those dull comments about how Hideo Kojima should just become a film director are way off the mark. The guy has a thirty year track record of producing damn fun games with approachable yet deep mechanics and this is a prime example of Kojima at his best.

If you haven’t played through Metal Gear Solid 2 then the main campaign is a treat, especially if you don’t know much going in. If you have but have merely dabbled in the VR Missions then I recommend getting stuck in. Sure they get tough, but none of them are impossible.

Maybe it’s nostalgia speaking, but even close to two decades after it hit PS2 Metal Gear Solid 2 still brings the goods. It looks great (especially in the HD Collection), plays like a dream and the story is light years ahead of most video games simply by dint of having some actual insight about the world (even if it communicates that in a very eccentric way).

I love this screenshot.

The only downside is that this remains trapped on PS3. A game this momentous deserves to be ported to modern consoles so more people can get their teeth stuck into it.

Next up in my chronological Metal Gear playthrough: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Eep.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color, 2001)

I was really looking forward to The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. It’s a Zelda game I’ve never played a single minute of, is developed by Capcom rather than Nintendo and seems to be thought of very highly by the community. Insofar as a Zelda game could ever be considered ‘a hidden gem’, this is it.

Plus, I really enjoy that this 2001 game lifts a lot from 1993’s Link’s Awakening, and it coming out at the very tail-end of the Game Boy Color means it’s one of the very last ‘true’ 8-bit games (as in, officially released on an 8-bit console during its original lifespan).

All of which makes it disappointing that my experience with Oracle of Seasons was defined by teeth-grinding frustration. It’s an odd feeling, especially as this game lifts the engine and a lot of art from Link’s Awakening, which I absolutely adored on a recently playthrough.

So what’s up? Well, I try to play through Zelda games without walkthroughs and as they were originally meant to be played. This means no save states and I will bash my head against a wall for hours when I get stuck before giving up and looking online. And boy is my head sore.

It’s a common refrain that modern Zelda is too easy, with Skyward Sword in particular coddling players throughout. Oracle of Seasons leans in the other direction. It withholds key information about how to progress, is very stingy with hearts, ditches the life-saving bottle system and has fiddly bosses that can drain your health in a matter of seconds (not helped by reduced i-frames that mean if you get hit once, you’re probably getting hit again).

Die against one of the bosses and you’re tossed back to the start of the dungeon with reduced hearts, and there’s a long run back to the boss room each time you want to fight them. Right now I want to make the video game comparison that dare not speak its name, but you all know what I’m talking about.

But I persisted. I mean, I beat Zelda II so I’m not about to let some goddamn Game Boy Color game come out on top. But the more I played the less I cared and by the last few dungeons I was tired of the endless backtracking to get to bosses and just wanted it to be over.

I don’t want to bag on Capcom too much – they stick like glue to the Nintendo template laid down in Link’s Awakening. But its undeniable that some of the weird charm of that game has been left by the wayside and various small design choices feel like choices Nintendo wouldn’t have made. It’s a bit like a technically impressive cover version of a song – the aesthetics have been captured but not the soul.

Looming over all this is that I have Oracle of Ages to get through next – and I’ve read that Oracle of Seasons is the easier one of the pair. I’m just hoping that the linked items I’ll be carrying over will smooth out the rest of my journey. But right now I’m looking forward to the relative tranquillity of The Wind Waker

Wolfenstein: Youngblood (PC, 2019)

I’ve shot, stabbed and exploded thousands of Nazis across Machine Games’ Wolfenstein series and it’s never gotten boring. But Wolfenstein: Youngblood almost got there.

Descriptions of it as a Wolfenstein-themed looter-shooter put me off it on launch, but earlier this year I was looking for a new co-op game to play with a friend after we exhausted Vermintide 2. I picked this up, sent over my buddy code and we settled down to play.

I mean, it still looks really nice, so there’s that.

We quickly hit some speedbumps: she was frustrated by bullet-sponge enemies and I didn’t get on with the mission-based hub design. We struggled through a few missions at the start, but neither of us were having a good time. Back to Vermintide.

But it leaving its short campaign finished was gnawing away at me, especially as (after Cyberpilot) it was the only game in the series I hadn’t beaten. So I went back with some random online partners and found myself getting frustrated in much the same ways as before.

The mission structure is repetitive, the guns don’t feel powerful and the entire idea behind the game feels like a developer trying to shove the round peg of co-op mechanics, weapon upgrades and light RPG stuff into the square-shaped hole of a single-player narrative campaign.

Then, more out of frustration than anything else, I took the game offline and dropped the difficulty to easy. In a perverse twist, the multiplayer focused Youngblood was way more fun in single-player with an AI partner.

One of my favorite things about the Wolfenstein series is exploring the screwed up alternative Nazi-controlled world that Machine Games have created. For me this means hoovering up the optional documents, listening to the collectable cassettes, admiring the scenery and taking my time to appreciate the subtle gags the level designers weave into the world.

In multiplayer I simply couldn’t do that, as I was constantly conscious of wasting the other player’s time by stopping to smell the roses. Besides, it’s difficult not to feel pressured when you have a popup reminding you that your partner is patiently waiting for you to push a button.

Youngblood never got close to the heights of The New Order, but it at least went down a hell of a lot smoother when I didn’t have to worry about someone else’s enjoyment. My experience with it never approached actual fun, but at least offline I wasn’t actively being annoyed by it.

There’s some decent ideas here, but nakedly chasing trends to make a buck is never a good look. Wolfenstein: Youngblood isn’t comfortable in its own skin and can be safely shoved in the ‘failed experiments’ box.

Underhero (PC, 2018)

After a bunch of short art projects and hour-long ‘experiences’, it was interesting for the Itch.io bundle to throw up something that’s a little more traditionally game-y. Enter Underhero, a 2018 platformer/RPG from Paper Castle Games.

The first five minutes are a decent mission statement. A hero turns up at the evil castle, they’ve collected the four magical MacGuffins and are ready to take on the final boss. Only a few low-level goons stand in the way of his victory. But then… *splat* one of them crushes him under a chandelier.

This random henchman becomes the hero of a pleasantly askew adventure that combines fantasy and office comedy. Your enemies are also your co-workers and can be bribed to look the other way if you don’t want to fight, they hang out at bars when they’re off shift and the most serious offence against humanity is the cancellation of Taco Tuesday. The atmosphere is not dissimilar to Undertale, though its personality isn’t quite as distinctive.

The gameplay is an interesting Paper Mario style fusion of platformer and RPG. As you approach an enemy you move into a combat system in which you must manage your stamina as you attack and dodge. Each enemy has tells about what they’re going to do and when entering a new area you have to learn what’s up.

It’s all competently done… but about halfway through I got bored and gave up. Pinpointing exactly why is tricky, but I lay quite a lot at the door of each individual battle taking a long time and there being so many of them. There are only so many times I can sit there playing through the exact same battle before things feel repetitive.

There’s a lot I respect here: the sprite art in particular is excellent and the few bosses I played nicely expanded on the combat systems. But it just ground me down and eventually I realised I just wasn’t having fun anymore.

Ruya (PC, 2017)

Back to the ginormous Itch.io bundle, and yet another spin of the big randomiser wheel to see what pops up. This time it’s Ruya, a 2017 puzzle game from Miracle Tea Studios.

Originally released on mobile, this is an extremely chill match-gems puzzle game with a folk aesthetic. There’s a very bare bones plot about a newly single mother battling her own insecurities as she tries to provide for her adopted children. Oh, and sometimes she has antlers that her children must decorate with flowers. I dunno what the symbolism is, but it looks pretty enough.

The story doesn’t really develop after the opening animation, though you do get nice interstitial snippets from time to time and honestly it’s just nice to play a mum rather than a dad in a video game.

This game is extremely chill, to the point where it becomes soporific. After playing for an hour or so I gradually realised that there appears to be no way to fail. You have a set number of moves, but it appears impossible to exhaust them. If you put yourself in a position where you can’t match any gems, the game simply reshuffles them to give you the pattern you need.

I’ve often cursed other puzzle games for putting me in unwinnable situations, but this swings too far the other way. All too soon the absence of any stakes or consequences for what I was doing meant things rapidly got very dull.

Maybe Ruya would work well as something to just relax by matching colours and listen to calming relaxing audio. But as a puzzle game it just doesn’t have the goods.

Mortal Kombat (PC, 2011)

Mortal Kombat 11 is extremely fun. I played a bunch of it at a games bar and it seems very much my jam. But I always feel guilty about buying the latest title when I already own older, unplayed iterations of the series.

Enter Mortal Kombat (aka Mortal Kombat 9). This series reboot is generally considered the beginning of NetherRealm’s fighting game renaissance and its 2D gameplay with 3D graphics (combined with extensive single-player, multiplayer and unlockable content) still provides the template for what’s being released today.

As the online multiplayer is stone cold dead I ended up playing through the extensive single-player story campaign. This retells the stories of the first three Mortal Kombat games from the 90s, spinning a Saturday morning cartoon tale of interdimensional conflict, albeit with more screaming corpses and torn off arms.

While this fully-voiced story was above and beyond what was expected of a fighting game in 2011, it’s a bit dull now (especially in comparison to Injustice 2). Matters aren’t helped by the pre-rendered FMVs looking and sounding absolutely terrible. The audio sounds like it was recorded at a really low bit-rate and a look online reveals that players have been moaning about this for about a decade.

Another disappointment about in this mode is that you won’t see the game’s fatalities. I guess the justification is that if you see someone getting gorily exploded it doesn’t make much sense when they’re intact in the next cutscene. Honestly though, the X-ray moves show you busting pelvises and shattering skulls – so c’mon, belief is already suspended!

Also, the soft-porn costuming of the women in the game feels insanely outdated. I know NetherRealms have gone a long way towards fixing this over the years, but the game’s teenage boy gaze of big boobs, micro-bikinis and thongs is pretty cringe.

Fortunately the core fighting mechanics are indeed pretty fun. I like the rhythm, the weight of the punches and the reactions needed to counter your opponents. Playing against the AI means they’re pretty predictable, but they’ll pull some surprises out of their hats once in a while (sometimes literally).

About the only really annoying thing is that about half the cast have annoying teleportation moves are difficult to counter or react to. Diving on and off screen at random just feels clunky, especially in comparison to the cleaner and way more readable combat of a modern Street Fighter game.

Oh well, it’s done and dusted. Now to move on to the apparently much better Mortal Kombat XL… eventually.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PS4, 2019)

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a major title by a respected developer, released by one of the biggest publishers in the world and boasting the most lucrative entertainment license of all time. So why on Earth is it so damn buggy?

Over the course of my playthrough (on PS4 Pro) I had to put up with *deep breath*: NPCs loading in T-poses and snapping into position, the player character falling through the floor, the cutscene audio always being more than a second out of sync, enemies randomly shooting into the air, enemies suddenly materialising in front of me, 40 second loading times on death, weird rope physics sending me shooting into the air, enemies AI turning off and them just standing there, an arena fight ending in me standing around as the next phase failed to initiate (necessitating a full reload) and random full game crashes that dragged me back to the PS4 menu.

….and that’s just the bugs I can remember.

I didn’t mind this bug, this guy is my buddy now after his AI turned off.

It feels like a game that could have used another few months in the oven. Even so, you’d assume that eight months after it launched some of this stuff would have been patched out by now.

It doesn’t feel too tinfoil hat to look at the game’s November 2019 release, glance over at the December 2019 release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and imagine some executive insisting that the game ships during that movie’s global publicity campaign or else.

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of neat stuff here. The labyrinthine level are a masterclass in mapping and whoever designed them out must be some kind of genius. They whirl, wind and connect in unexpected ways and have a variety of different biomes within them. Getting from A-B is just plain old fun. (It’d be even more fun if the rewards were more enticing than dull-ass ponchos.)

Combat is also a good time. The influence of Sekiro is obvious and though this game can’t match From Software’s precision, you’ve got play smartly and efficiently. I played through on Jedi Knight difficulty and while the game never got particularly tricky when dealing with run-of-the-mill baddies, I appreciated that some of the later bosses put me through my paces.

But then there’s other stuff dragging it down a bit. One is the story, which starts slowly and is very strangely structured. For the vast majority of the game your character is basically a blank slate. Then, 15 hours in, you finally get his backstory and realise his motivations and psychology. Put this stuff at the beginning of the game and I might have been more invested!

There’s also the simple fact that the heroes’ mission to resurrect the Jedi Order in the period after the prequels obviously isn’t going to happen. I mean, we’ve all seen the movies.

Plus there’s some very odd pacing. Most games tend to front load the exciting stuff, as at least they can assume that all players will see the first few levels. Jedi: Fallen Order does have a whizzy train level to kick things off, but then you’re dumped on a bland-looking planet and not much happens for a long time.

Even if you want to spice things up by taking on the ‘hard’ planet early, you quickly run into a brick wall as you don’t have a movement skill you need from the early levels. Why even offer me a choice if I don’t actually have one?

I’m probably sounding too negative, but there’s an obviously good game struggling to get out from under a blizzard of bugs and a decent story being badly told. This is inevitably going to get a sequel – let’s hope Respawn can iron out these problems.

Project Kat (PC, 2020)

Anime high-school girl games don’t do much for me, but if I guess if I have to play one I’d rather it be horror-themed. Contrasting upbeat cuteness with disturbing psychological creepiness works well, as best demonstrated by the excellent Doki Doki Literature Club. And now, drawing from a similar well, comes Project Kat.

Randomly plucked from the Itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, this is a 45 minute 2D adventure by Leef 6010 in which you play a high-school girl conducting an occult ritual. You must gather the key items, arrange the room, conduct the ritual and deal with whatever manifests.

Project Kat‘s first lesson is that there’s always another way to solve a puzzle, which is something I tried to take to heart. There are multiple ways to obtain some of the key items you need, as well as minor decisions to make in how you interact with other characters. I figured that the game was secretly making notes on my behaviour, Chrono Trigger market scene-style, so tried to follow the rules as much as possible.

But Project Kat ends very abruptly, and I couldn’t really tell what impact any of my choices had on the ending (if they even mattered at all). After I’d put thought into how I acted in the game I felt a bit let-down as the credits rolled with nothing resolved.

However, further reading reveals that Project Kat is intended as a playable prologue rather than a full experience, with the creators gauging reactions to it before diving headlong into making a full game. Fair enough. And honestly, the fact that I was disappointed at the abrupt ending at least proves I want to see more!

Project Kat is a cut above most games of this Yume Nikki-style ilk. Both pixel and anime art both look great, the dialogue is witty and it is actually kinda spooky in a fun way.

Whenever this does become a full title, sign me up. As it stands, Project Kat is an interesting 45 minutes that shows a hell of a lot of promise.

Metal Gear Solid (PSOne, 1998)

I know exactly when and where I was when I first saw Metal Gear Solid. It was November 5th, 1998, I was at a family friends’ house for a bonfire night party and their son was playing an imported video game with a weird, clunky name. He was stuck in a prison cell and couldn’t get out, the only tool the character had to work with was a bottle of ketchup.

I jokingly said, “Why not smear ketchup on the floor and lay down in it, that way the guard will think you’re dead?”. Holy shit… it worked! A single shard of moonlight pierced the window to illuminate me. Trumpets played, angelic choirs sang.

I had discovered Metal Gear Solid.

I accidentally shot Baker this time through…

That Christmas I begged for a PSOne, though had to wait until late February for the official PAL release of the game. As you can probably guess, I thought it was well worth the wait. I combed through every inch of the game, completing it multiple times, argued endlessly about it on GameFAQs forums, tried for the best code-ranking and thrilled at the innumerable tiny moments that no other developer would ever think of.

Since that first burst of passion I’ve replayed the game many times, most recently in 2015 in the run-up to The Phantom Pain. But now I’m back on Shadow Moses Island, via a pristine JP copy of Metal Gear Solid: Integral I picked up in a Hiroshima games shop (buying it there felt appropriate to the game’s themes yes I over think this stuff).

Maybe it’s nostalgia speaking, or maybe it’s that I can slide into this game’s rhythms like I’m putting on a comfy pair of slippers, but Metal Gear Solid still kicks ass.

just a box?

What impressed me this time around is how much Hideo Kojima and his team get out of the PSOne and how well they understand its limitations. This is most obviously evident in the graphics and presentation, in which a lot of extremely smart decisions have been made.

First up, the low-lit industrial environments are a nice match for what the PSOne can do. Many of them are subterranean (presumably carved straight into the rock of the island), which makes them plausible as boxes. In addition, the chunky designs of the assets within them are naturally low-polygon without looking too abstract.

That’s offset by a lot of extremely granular detail, like individual maggots feasting on a corpse, individualised desk layouts in offices, subtle transparency effects to communicate that there is a ceiling between player and character, or just scuff marks and cracks in the scenery.

I also dig the motion blur, fake depth-of-field and general direction of the cutscenes.

Plus major props to Yoji Shinkawa’s character designs and the staff that sculpted and textured them. Models from this era are notoriously wonky looking, but Metal Gear Solid finds just the fight balance of realism and stylisation. The characters faces are blurry and static and commit a cardinal sin of character design by foregoing eyes in favor of an expressionless smear of shadow. And yet somehow it works.

The Metal Gear Solid series would go on to ever greater levels of graphical fidelity, but I don’t think they ever captured a mood better than they did with Shadow Moses Island. Strangely enough, that’s because of the tech limitations than in spite of them: the blurry textures, gloomy lighting and fixed camera mean you actively interpret what you’re seeing rather than passively observe it.

All the above adds up to a persuasive argument to play Metal Gear Solid at its original resolution on original hardware (ideally on a good CRT). Modern emulation means that you can play the game in 4K if you want, but at least in this case clarity does not equal quality. Let yourself wallow in those chunky boy pixels and learn to appreciate those jagged, saw-toothed unaliased edges. It’s a video game, deal with it.

And the gameplay? Well, obviously things have moved light-years beyond this as far as stealth goes but it’s still mechanically satisfying to sneak around. If you begin thinking about what you can’t do you’re going to have a bad time. And anyway, the gameplay is tightly designed around the control limitations, so it never asks you to do anything particularly mechanically complex.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. This time I realised that while the first half of the game is a tightly choreographed, extremely well-paced and suspenseful rollercoaster, the second half (beginning roughly when you escape the torture cell) is a lot looser than the first.

It’s not exactly bad, but the busywork of changing the temperature of the PAL card is obviously padding out the run-time (Twin Snakes recognised this and let you skip it) and the environments simply aren’t as dense as before and lived-in as before. For the most part, Metal Gear Solid feels like a streamlined, deeply focused experience – but I wonder whether there was much left on the cutting room floor from the second disc.

It’s also rad that every wall has a bespoke hand-crafted camera angle.

But, however you slice it, Metal Gear Solid is a stone-cold classic – arguably the best game on an amazing console (or definitely in the top three at least). While its lustre has been dulled by the passing years it’s still a jaw-dropping technical feat and tells a damn good story.

I could spend hours waffling on about this game: Jeremy Blaustein’s translation is incredible and I wish he and Kojima hadn’t fallen out), the voice-acting is cheesy but really effective and the score is to die for. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I play through it though, so I’ll write about that stuff then.

Next up: my favorite in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.