Death Stranding Review – Charmingly Innocent

Platform: PC, PS4
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe (PS4) / 505 Games (PC)
Release: PS4 (8th November 2019) / PC (2020)
Price: 59.99

Kojima is one of the most prominent game creators in the current landscape. Marketing himself and being marketed as a master of direction and the father of Metal Gear Solid, he gained a giant fanbase. This isn’t new information at all for many but it helps at grounding Death Stranding in a bigger context: It’s his first game in decades where he had complete creative freedom, probably the first title that offered him this degree of creativity and budget. So, what did Death Stranding turn out to be? A game so soaked in Kojima’s flaws, views and love that I can’t like nor hate it.

The world is barely holding together after being hit by the so-called Death Stranding, a catastrophe that killed nearly all life on earth. Only a few, including the scattered fragments of human civilization, are holding on, relying on so-called Porters to deliver goods and materials they need to survive. Sam Porter Bridges is one of them but his past soon hunts him down in the form of Bridges, an organization trying to reunite America and all the fragmented cities and rebuild humanity.

In theory, Death Stranding has a fascinating setting, full of possible stories and encounters to tell. Well-presented apocalyptic settings are rarer than they should be nowadays and the early trailers established Kojima’s latest title as a mysterious but ultimately fresh place full of things to uncover.

Unfortunately, all of this is quickly brougt down by a staggering amount of factors, however, in order to truly convey why I don’t dislike Death Stranding nor like it, I’m going to focus on two central aspects of the story: The writing and the integration into the game. For one, the dialogue is quite problematic as a whole as many conversations just consist of… characters talking to each other by anaylzing themselves. When I encountered Heartman for example, my interaction with him didn’t consist of a normal conversation but he simply told me what his history is, why he became who he is and why he acts like he does. Compared to the fact Sam and he just know each other since a few weeks (though that was never established since all character just get dropped into the narrative before even encountering Sam), it just looks so artificial. Nearly every single line of dialogue consists of this self characterization without any real context, simply because the plot has very few but very long cutscenes.

Kojima’s trademark were always the cinematic cutscenes but considering the length, but when you only have 3 of those per character and want to tell an entire arc, it often just doesn’t work as the progression between states is just too rushed to make sense. This is also caused by the lacking interaction between everyone in the gameplay. Cutscenes and characters seemingly exist outside it, taking away any posssible development throughout te 40 hours long hiking, making the cutscenes so scarce and short that I don’t actually see a better way to handle it. Nonetheless, the lack of design choices to support its huge character drama.

Either way, when Death Stranding isn’t badly written, it’s cringe-y, so cringe-y I kinda came to love it. Every character being designed and written around a single fucking pun, puns and cutscenes so childish and dumb that you can’t believe Sony spent millions on it and much more. It feels like the truest form of Kojima if you follow his Twitter account, the essence of this man who may be famous but still remained naive and childish throughout his life. I don’t like all of that from a narrative perspective but it tells a fascinating meta-narrative of a man and what he wanted to tell since years. Death Stranding is all about connecting, how connections are necessary to survive and essentially, what Hideo Kojima regards as a big problem in our current society. I don’t blame him.

The thing that sets this game apart from titles with a similar themee like parts of NieR:Automata or movies is this childish, naive writing. Believing a message can carry any actual emotional weight simply by having cliche characters recite cliche phrases may be ultimately a sign of bad writing but shows just how Hideo Kojima actually designs, writes and well, sees games when he isn’t caged by any company or franchise. It shows way more facettes of this man than any of his previous games and ultimately, story-wise, I enjoyed this kinda cringy, awkward and flat story for exactly that, at times.

Gameplay-wise, Death Stranding is a similar case, featuring a feeling similar to Metal Gear Solid 5 in how Sam controls, moves and even how combat feels. This being a game all about carrying cargo from one station to another through vast landscapes without many options to defend yourself though, the whole feel kinda falls apart here. The infamous center of Sam gets influenced even by moving the camera, making him lose balance and forcing you to hold the trigger buttons or his walking/climbing always feels kinda wrong etc. It’s not a game that feels fun to control, it does feel unique, which was the intention I guess. Still, is a unique idea mixed with a uniquely annoying movement worthwhile?

Not really in my opinion. So to compensate Death Stranding does two big things, the action sequences of various sorts and keeping a nice pacing:

In the two big open world segments are various MULE spots, basically human plunderers trying to steal your cargo, and BT areas invisible ghosts you have to avoid by moving slowly and holding your breath from time to time. Honestly, neither are really exciting. MULEs can’t counter the overpowered “running away” or “driving away” tactic I employed, which consists of, well, running or driving away from them. BTs on the other hand just need you to crouch and hold your breath when the game tells you to.

The pacing on the other hand initially showed a lot of promise. Given, the 6-9 hours first real open world chapter features a slow drag through the quite big land accompanied by backtracking and many other initially clunky systems. Still, the constant stream of new little things like bridges, bikes and alike actually kept the whole thing at least a bit interesting until chapter 3. Honestly, the first half of chapter 3 and every chapter in reality, is quite fun as each of them introduces just enough new ideas and things to play around with to keep things entertaining. After that, Death Stranding makes it all the more obvious that ultimately, it’s a game about running from point A to B and gets more and more monotone. Accompanied by bigger and bigger growing backtracking passages, nearly half of the gameplay sections feel like a drag, a boring drag. Maybe doing the side missions leads to unlocking cool new stuff too but the gameplay barely holds the 35 hours campaign together so why do more of it?

Presentation-wise, and probably the best but also last aspect of Death Stranding: It’s a wonderfully well directed game, offering cutscenes on par with movies, where many other games fail, while featuring a beautiful soundtrack full of soothingly great tracks, as expensive as it might have been with all these licensed tracks. While I’m not a big fan of the obviously “feel passages” where one of the licensed pieces is played while, well, walking through monotone terrain, they at least provide an excuse for those boring paths (though delivering a solution to a self-made problem isn’t great design). Looking at any part of Death Stranding, nonetheless, is almost breathtakingly beautiful, from a technical but also simply visual standpoint and at least it deserves the praise in that regard.

Conclusion

Death Stranding is one of the most unique AAA titles of the past years, boasting a gameplay and writing so inheretly Kojima that it’s probably worth it for everyone who wants to experience something that he truly created by himself. For better or worse. Otherwise, it’s an almost childishly naive take on its themes and metaphors, full of bad pacing and design decisions, yet this also makes it such a fascinating video game. Should you play it though? Most likely no?

[A Review Code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe]

Atelier Ryza Review – Relaxing Cuteness

Platform: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4
Developer: GUST
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Release: 29th October 2019 (PC)
Price: 59.99

GUST’s biggest franchise is Atelier, by far. Featuring almost annually entries full of new characters, ideas and cute plotlines, they became a popular niche series for (J)RPG fans from around the world. With Atelier Ryza they didn’t only try to modernize this whole thing quite a bit but also polish it to a wholly new degree so how did it hold up? Very comfily.

Ryza is pretty much living a perfect idle life. Strolling around with her friends Tao and Lent, trying to find an exciting adventure in their quit townlife. After all, Ryza’s only goal is to become a famous alchemist, go on adventures, have fun and live this carefree fantasy life. Unfortunately, while her dream of learning alchemiy soon becomes reality, there are forces she might have to put them to use against sooner than she desires.

More than ever, Atelier Ryza isn’t about fighting a big evil or saving the world, nor about rising to the very top, instead, the true core of this entry is simply having a relaxing, fun time more than ever. Naturally, there’s an overarching plot, Ryza is becoming better and better and all that stuff known from other entries, it just feels a bit more relaxing and wholesome and previously. This is also because of the whole plotline being even more trimmed down to clichés, forseeable but kinda endearingly naive twists and so on. It feels like a love letter to innocent fantasy stories and should be enjoyed as such.

Naturally Atelier Ryza makes many adjustments in the gameplay too, like the kinda real time combat system. Instead of stiff rounds, enemies and you gain points each second, enabling both to cast spells, attack or use items, similar to other more action oriented JRPGs. While this isn’t a giant revolution, it makes the very stiff GUST system surprisingly more engaging and reactive, since the game constantly tries to build pressure through the many available menus, amount of enemies, party members you can control and general speed at which characters can execute moves.

Combat just feels a lot more streamlined and… fresher, which can be applied to many other aspects too. Like the gathering of resources pretty much never requires you to watch animations of Ryza picking stuff up, the ability to teleport to any gathering spot and hub spot or the seemingly more interesting quests, that offer a better pacing to the previous games. While none of those improvements is entirely new to the series, all of them brought together with the new focus and general streamlined experience actually removes many of the tiny bumps I had with Atelier games.

Speaking of bumps, everyone familiar with Atelier Ryza likely already saw the heaps of fanart and anticipation around not only Ryza’s design but many of the female main protagonists but also male ones in general. I think this perfectly summarizes one central appeal of this, maybe even the biggest one: This entry is the visual high point of the franchise so far. Featuring memorable designs that finally find the right spot between the innocent, outgoing spirit of the plot and Ryza but also the typical anime-like sexiness. Naturally, this is all intentional, it wants to invoke the image of being exactly what you expect from it: Kinda naive and fun to hang around with for that exact reason.

On top of that, Atelier Ryza is a generally beautiful game, profiting heavily from its strong lighting which can create some truly stunning sceneries. Combined with the great design work all-around, it definitely became the one title I could recognize without a doubt out of the whole series. Of course, the soundtrack is a relaxing breeze of fluffy air as well.

Conclusion

Atelier Ryza feels like the comfiest and warmest entry in the series since a long time. Featuring some of the best character designs in the whole series, an enchantingly beautiful graphics upgrade, some new comfort features and a whole lot of innocent, relaxing fun. It’s a title anyone who wants some warm place to relax can enjoy to its fullest and honestly, should right now.

[A Review Code was provided by Koei Tecmo Europe]

Dusk Diver Review – Diving into Fun

Platforms: PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Wanin Games, JFI Gams, Jera
Publisher: PQube
Release: 23th October 2019 (PC)
Price: 39.99

Continuing their streak of releasing incredibly promising titles, PQube brought us an anime style RPG… from Taiwan, set in Taiwan? Yes, this doesn’t only sound like an unusual mix but actually makes sense considering Taiwan offers many similar places to the ones often seen in Japanese titles while giving the team the opportunity to infuse it with its own charme.

Yumo is your ordinary high school girl, who just wanted to have some fun with her friend in the Taiwanese Akihabara Ximending, when suddenly, she’s transported into another realm, Youshanding. There she encounters not only phantoms but also so-called guardians and she quickly learns she possesses special powers, enabling her to fight alongside them and free the shadow realm of the evil. So her fight begins of gathering more and more guardians, strengthening her bonds and punching through hundreds of phantoms.

Story-wise it definitely is more on the simple side, relying on its many different guardians and Yumo’s relationships with them and her friends to carry its 10-15 hours long story. Luckily, I like pretty much all of them! Not because theyre super deep characters or more interesting than in other games, but because they’re incredibly entertaining. Every guardian in particular is pretty much just a walking anime cliché and often there isn’t a whole lot of underlying character going on beneath it, instead Dusk Diver focuses more on packaging these stereotypes in a really appealing way. They’re quirky and Yumo often questions their clichéness herself, creating some really nice moments, that are just entertaining.

What’s less entertaining is the core gameplay loop though. Dusk Diver consists of clearing several stages in the shadow realm by musou-like defeating all the enemies in them. The thing is though, before you can do that, every stage requires a certain amount of shards… which are often collected by running through the quite empty and boring world, searching for them and often failing. It’s just a drag that only gets worse the longer the game goes on as the quantity goes up more and more while their spots get harder to find everytime. It’s neither well guided, designed nor fun in any way and especially later on I often found those spots to be the least fun of all of them.

Once this hurdle is overcome though, the combat is pretty damn fun. It plays surprisingly fluid and responds quite well to switching combos or dodging mid combo, unlike many other tinier productions in this genre. Every guardian can assist you in battle, has its own array of special attacks that consume SP meter and the best part: Most of their attacks can chain into your combos and even have different effects depending on them. Combined with the very Dynasty Warriors like combo system of having one main light punch streak you can branch into others through heavy attacks, it’s a surprisingly easy but flashy system. You can even gain more SP and some flashy slowdowns by dodging perfectly, which is a neat option to perfect your playstyle.

Unfortunately, there’s rarely any need to put a lot of thought into the combat, as both the levels and enemy variety is lackluster to say the least. Spawning the same enemies without many variations or unique quirks, especially early on, Dusk Diver doesn’t impress in any regard. Combined with the actually retarded AI it may often feel like a Dynasty Warriors game in those regards but lacks the base capturing or silliness nor offers many characters to make up for it. At the same time it lays a far greater focus on an action game style by locking you into an area until you defeated all enemies, making it feel like a confused mix of many, many approaches.

Luckily, at least the visuals are pretty much always appealing. Featuring a truly wonderfully colourful artstyle with some truly great character designs. Infusing even the mere act of rendering bystanders with a lower model depending on their distance, infusing every move with surprisingly well-fitting anime particle effects and rocking this simply enchanting visual presentation (though to be fair, I can’t exactly pinpoint why I like it so much from the first time I laid eyes on the trailer).

Conclusion

Dusk Diver is a pretty alright action/musou game. It really is. There are some bigger and smaller annoying aspects but all in all, the unique setting and visuals can make up for it by a whole lot so ya, go for it if you felt a bit enchanted by it like I was.

[A Review Code was provided by PQube]

Raging Loop Review

Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4
Developer: KEMCO
Publisher: PQube
Release: 18th October 2019 / 5th December 2019 (PC)
Price: 29.99

Sooner or later, everyone should have experience the quite popular group game “Werewolf” where players are categorized in various two big groups (werewolfs and citizens) as well as multiple roles. These two then have to kill every single one of the opposite group, werewolfs can attack during the night and kill one citizen a time while citizens can vote who they want to hang during daytime. Now developer Kemco brough us a visual novel which makes this game playable in a game… playable!

Haruaki Fusaishi finds himself in the typically cliche setting of being lost in a giant forest and only the smal town Yasumizu promises to offer guidance out of this misery. Unfortunately, he soon realizes its plagued by werewolves, creatures attacking at night, relentlessy killing one village after another. Only Haruaki seems to be able to escape this fate as he reincarnates one day prior to his murdering every time, giving him the chance to learn from his mistakes and one night, beat the werewolves.

Obviously, Raging Loop is pretty much a visual novel set in a round of Werewolf with the slight twist of the main character being able to learn from his mistakes. This isn’t merely a gimmick to relad your save data though since it’s actually necessary to progress through the story. Finding items and knowledge that carry over to the previous day often unlocks previously locked routes, required to progress until the end of the plot. So in that way, dying becomes less of a punishment but more of an end of a side route, giving you info as to how to progress through the actual main route. After all, Raging Loop is a mainly linear experience if you desire to see its actual ending.

Story- and gameplay-wise though, the ability to reincarnate isn’t thematized or used well enough, despite its quite neat integration into the flow. Mainly, because it just offers no real freedom and only serves as a tool to lead you into other linear dead ends, on top of being never an actual focus or well explained enough. It sometimes made me wonder why I’m even given this ability and flow chart when I never have actual control over anything and merely click pre-defined buttons in a pre-defined order.

Enough of the rather slight gameplay elements, the true core of Raging Loop is its writing after all. One of the biggest questions I had about the concept of basically transforming a popular children game into an adult horror visual novel was, whether it actually offers more than just a gimmick. Luckily, it does! During each night Haruaki can visit other people’s homes and check if something is happening to them, which offers at least some degree of freedom and often presents new mysteries depending if they got visited by other people or killed. This is actually the biggest reason why Raging Loop feels like werewolf: It relies on the very same base principle, keeping you guessing whether you can even trust somebody while forcing you to push onwards. Naturally, looping helps in preventing a streak of perma deaths due to getting murdered as a result of your choices too.

On the other hand, Raging Loop offers a simply engaging mystery plot coated in the feeling of an extremely long round werewolf. Especially if you’re a huge fan of the old, creepy town cliché the Yasumizu will hit all the right spots with its mysterious inhabitants, weird cultist rituals and the way it merges classic themes of the real world game with the overall adult atmosphere. Many people will have their respective roles like hunter or lover, which slowly unravel over the course of the story and are infused with sad or melancholic backstories throughout. On top of that, the cast itself establishes itself as a really solid ensemble of protagonists with their own unique talking styles and backgrounds that fit surprisingly well with their respective roles.

Only the overall conclusion came across a bit… lacking? While it’s certainly satisfactory, over the course of the game Raging Loop warps more and more into your typical mystery visual novel with many werewolf traces disappearing with each character’s death, making the whole experience rather unsurprising and incoherent towards the end.

What remains consistent throughout the whole game is the vivid, pretty unique artstyle and mass of adult violence. Featuring a rough, almost old-school style with little similarities to modern visual novels, Raging Loop feels like a thing lost in time, which is probably exactly what they’re aiming for. Naturally, the art itself looks good nonetheless, although often repetitive. Mostly because the deaths and most action sequences aren’t actually shown but merely described while sound effects play in the backgroun. Considering the brutality of them, this may be for the better, it still feels a bit cheap, especially because even crucial ones that are hard to follow through text aren’t shown either.

Conclusion

Raging Loop is a surprisingly well-crafted werewolf gamification with some unique characters and a certainly great atmosphere. While its lacking production values may become obvious in certain moments, there’s nothing truly distracting about this trip into your own childhood or the gripping plot as a whole.

[A Review Code was provided by PQube]

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Complete Edition Review

Platform: PS4, PC (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Marvelous
Release: 17th October 2019
Price: 39.99

While Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes might not have been the third installment many were hoping for, though that one was luckily announced a few months later, the spin-off still set the return for Travis to the big screen. Now, after months of Switch exclusivity, it also made its way onto PC and PS4, so is it worth checking out?

Seeking revenge for the death of his daughter, Badman is sent to kill Travis Touchdown. However, not long after their confrontation, they’re getting sucked into the Death Drive MK 2 and have to cooperate in order to collect the six death balls and escape from this console.

Filled to the brim with retro games, references and nostalgia-inducing ideas, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes isn’t a new entry into the main series but rather an ode to everything it stands for, for Suda51. No More Heroes always was a series created with a deep love for retro games at heart, so this latest entry, while not focused on the series or even its mundane story, puts another, nearly as important aspect in full daylight, more so because it’s the most intuitive approach for this kind of title.

In exchange, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes offers guest appearances from every major Suda51 game, a whole lot of retro jokes and the core No More Heroes elements, like saving in a toilet or the 4th wall breaking Travis Touchdown. Since it’s also a way smaller game, most of these jokes aren’t scattered throughout the game like breadcrumbs but actually carry the whole experience. Additionally, most of them embrace indie culture in particular way more, which was simply not a thing to this extent back when the first two games released. Everything about the story and presentation just feels like the direction Suda51 wants to take No More Heroes in the end, a love letter to past but also up and coming games and classics.

On the other hand, the gameplay itself even is a set-up to the original two games. For me, No More Heroes never quite clicked in that regard, mainly due to the open world without a reason to exist and repetitive mission design. While the repetitive mission design is still present, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes 2D arcade gameplay all about slashing enemies is again, not the most complex one, but works as the short-lived fun this game wants to be.

Featuring snappy controls, responsive movement and a sword that feels quite powerful most of the time, the whole combat worked way better than in the main series, not to say it doesn’t have issues. Naturally, only having a hard and light attack, which rarely one-hit enemies, combined with hundreds of the same ones, makes for a pretty repetitive experience either way, it just feels faster in this new entry. So, don’t worry if you feared of missing out on the over usage of the mediocre combat. On top of that, most puzzles are designed to not be hard but mainly time-consuming, like rotating platforms in slow cutscenes until you found the right spot. The whole thing just feels like its slowing itself down since it doesn’t want to commit to being a fast-paced 2D hack’n slash.

The repetitivity also carries over into the world design itself, since Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes may feature many, varying, retro-inspired worlds but never quite manages to pace them well. Either it shows far too much of its stuff early on, making the mid and ending section a sluggish hell full of the ever-same corridors and ideas.

Unfortunately so, since the presentation is surprisingly great for a No More Heroes game. Featuring many vibrant and cool-looking environments, filled with retro throwbacks… when it works. In most cases, environments are so overused that they rarely are more than generic factories, brown backgrounds or repetitive neon filled ruins. Considering the occasionally great moments, it’s unfortunate to see most of the trip ending in the same repetition the series always fell into due to its production limitations.

Conclusion

All in all, No More Heroes Travis Strikes Back may be a repetitive and overly drawn endeavor but still the best entry into the series from many angles. Sacrificing its even worse components like the open world in exchange for an overall snarkier, tighter and more industry embracing, 4th wall breaking spin-off. So, whenever the third No More Heroes releases, I’m interested in what it will be.

[A Review Code was provided by Marvelous]