Hyper Light Drifter Review

Hyper Light Drifter, for all of its clear influences, offers a world and experience that feels truly different and alien. It’s like a game, a concept album, and an experimental short film all rolled into one. Inspired by creator and Heart Machine founder Alex Preston’s life-threatening health condition, Hyper Light Drifter is an achingly beautiful, psychedelic, and weirdly personal creation that demands your attention, at least for a while.

Hyper Light Drifter is an action game in a pixel-art world set to a woozy, moody score from electronic musician Disasterpiece. The Drifter, whom the player controls, must pick through the broken land in search of a cure for their mysterious illness.

As the Drifter, you’re equipped with a thrumming energy blade to carve through foes and charge your pistol (and any other gun you find in your quest). You can also dash in any direction (an animation that’s stunningly realised with smear techniques that perfectly emphasise your snappy momentum) to avoid incoming enemy attacks and projectiles. Most attacks landed upon you by enemies deal one point of damage from your health pool of 5. You can recover lost health, however, using medical kits- although you can only initially carry 3 of these, and they’re sparingly scattered throughout levels to encourage caution.

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The map of Hyper Light Drifter is, at first glance, fairly simple. Branching out from the central hub town are paths to four main areas, each with their own theme, enemies, and boss. Beating each area takes you one step closer to unlocking whatever lies in the centre. You’ll need to uncover a number of purple crystals to progress through each area; some progress-critical doors require you to have found a number of these, however to “complete” an area you’ll need 4 crystals as well as to activate a special large crystal guarded by the local boss. None of this is explicitly spelled out for you; it’s simply an intuitive conclusion gleaned from your environment. A more thorough completion of the game, however, calls for the acquisition of all 8 crystals in each zone.

Travelling through each area involves a mix of combat and exploration-driven puzzle solving in a manner that’s not dissimilar to Zelda games, although considerably more freeform. The paths you’ll walk are riddled with secret passages and invisible secrets to uncover; sometimes you’ll find Gearbits (currency tied into the game’s upgrade system), sometimes you’ll find a hidden purple crystal, and occasionally you’ll find a secret room that you need to return to later on. Hyper Light Drifter’s secret-ridden levels lend even more mystery and depth to an enigmatic and enthralling world, and this sedate exploration and platforming gives the player ample time to recuperate between fierce fights.

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You’ll need caution and wits to make it through Hyper Light Drifter’s enemy encounters. Not only are you required to carefully observe each new encountered enemy, it’s imperative to make use of your environment to survive. Level geometry can be used to divide and conquer your sometimes-overwhelming adversaries, take cover from projectile attacks, and deadly traps can be turned to the advantage of the wily.

Even so, there are some pretty deviously laid-out challenges to overcome that will almost certainly lead to repeat deaths. Fatality can come swiftly and frequently in this game, however you’re never dropped in too far away from the offending encounter with a checkpointing system that rarely frustrated in the 6-and-a-half hours it took me to reach the end credits. I could often see exactly what my fatal mistakes were, and was for the most part able to jump in and try again almost immediately.

Hyper Light Drifter could definitely be labelled a hard game. With the action as intense and punishing as it is, there’s definitely a ramp for starting players to climb before competence is achieved. This is especially true of the area most players are likely to tackle first, which is home to frog ninja-esque enemies that are devilishly difficult to read and dodge. But when you start to read the game’s rhythms, use the environment to your advantage and keep a calm head through it all, you’ll tackle each fresh hurdle with a smile on your face. You’ll learn to be adaptable and, importantly, precise. This game is reminiscent of Dark Souls and bullet hell roguelikes like Enter the Gungeon in that way, perhaps owing as much to them as it does to the more obvious inspirations from the 8- and 16-bit eras.

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There’s an upgrade system in place to buff your abilities and unlock new skills. What’s impressive is how some of these options can impact gameplay. The deflecting skill allows you to slash enemy projectiles with your sword, redirecting them back at your foes and allowing for a much more proactive, aggressive approach to ranged assailants. Chain dashes allows you to, well, chain dashes together much more quickly, an invaluable trait for zipping smoothly out of danger (if you can keep cool enough to pull off the timing). Alongside these more interesting power-ups are simple upgrades for improved survivability such as an increased carrying capacity for medical kits.

Whether you’re trudging up the worn steps to a mountaintop temple or engaged in savage combat, it’s hard to deny the sheer beauty of the game. The attractive pixel art visuals are rendered in an attractive autumnal palette that giddily bleeds neon for a unique cyberpunk style that’s unlike anything I’ve seen. The enthralling visuals aren’t just for show, either; there’s a great deal of narrative duty resting on their shoulders. There’s not a single uttered word in Hyper Light Drifter: all characters chirp out some gobbledygook while pictured speech bubbles convey the meaning behind their words and stories. Zones are rife with environmental clues to the backstory of both that area and the world at large. Hyper Light Drifter might be light on explanations, but its scenes and atmosphere are pregnant with meaning.

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Those bewitching visuals don’t do all the work, though. Hyper Light Drifter’s atmosphere lends as much of its personality to its music as it does its looks, and Disasterpiece’s heady electronic score is just as unique as every other aspect of the game’s presentation. In the same way that I can’t imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive without its soundtrack, Hyper Light Drifter’s score manages to perfectly synergise with every other aspect of the game to cement the identity of the whole. I highly, highly recommend playing through the game with headphones if you’re aiming for a bloody transcendental experience.

The game’s impenetrable story and early difficulty barrier might turn away some players early on, but with a little bit of persistence Hyper Light Drifter is a game that deserves to be played by anyone willing to give as much as they take. It’s a pulse-pounding, precise action game with an atmosphere to die for again and again. This outstandingly alien world is worth diving into.


Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom Pretty Much Nails the Action

Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, simply referred to as Attack on Titan in Japan, is a third-person action game that has been out in its home country since February. Us Europeans won’t get the anime adaptation game until August 26th, though- meaning most will have to wait a bit longer to get their mitts on the thing. Luckily for MCM London attendees, though, a demo of the game was available to members of the public over the past weekend. I was one such participant, and I’m glad to say that the property has been executed quite well.

If you’ve watched or read the excellent anime or manga (or both, if you’re me), you’ll understand that perhaps the main pull of a playable Attack on Titan lies in the realisation of the 3D Manoeuvring Gear. If you haven’t followed the anime, this gear is essentially a harness that soldiers don to fire dual grappling hooks and zoom around vertical environments assisted by gas-powered thrusters. They need this hyper-mobility to outmanoeuvre titans- giant, carnivorous humanoids- to protect humanity’s last walled city.

I must admit that I doubted the translatability of the 3D Manoeuvring Gear to games. Spider-Man 2 showed us how to do swinging mechanics back in 2004, but there are several caveats to Attack on Titan’s setting that might’ve hindered the fulfilment of swinging in this game. Firstly, the buildings of Attack on Titan’s walled city aren’t exactly skyscrapers. The majority of the architecture doesn’t exceed three or four stories, meaning there’s less of a vertical buffer in the environment. Furthermore, the speed at which soldiers zip about is much faster than established swinging mechanics have exhibited. The need to accurately swing around and target weak points on titans at such velocity means there’s a slew of challenges to realising this mechanic.

The demo that I played was set during a battle to defend a portion of the city of Trost that’s been breached by the titans, in line with early episodes of the anime. The controls were a little bit bizarre to start out with, but I soon got the knack of controlling Eren on the PS4 controller. The X button is, as ever, the jump button. Pressing square launches you in the whichever direction you’re moving, and much like in Spider-Man 2 you’ve got to time your grappling hooks with for maximum speed of traversal through the environment.

When you do close in on a titan, it’s time to lock on to them using R1. At this point you can use the right stick to flick between several parts of the titan’s body- knees, elbows, and neck. A press of square in this mode attaches a grappling hook to the highlighted area, allowing you to circle around the anchor point for a short time. Pulling the L2 trigger at this moment causes the grappling hook to reel in, and a well-timed push of the triangle button launches Eren into a spinning sword slash to sever the appropriate area.

Much like in the anime, titans are a varied bunch. This means you’ll have to tackle individuals differently: more docile specimens can be dispatched quickly and easily by going straight for the kill-spot at the back of the neck, but more alert creatures won’t go down so easily. One might track your movements with their face, meaning you need to sever a leg to trip them up without risking the chomp. Some are unusually grabby, and require an amputation at the elbow before you’re able to zero in on their neck.

I must say that I’m very impressed at the execution of these mechanics. Rocket-powered swinging could’ve easily devolved to a nightmare train wreck of uncontrollable fumbling, or slowed down to the point of losing that characteristic dynamism. As it is, the system deftly juggles speed and precision to really capture the essence of the show’s fight scenes. It remains to be seen whether the game’s length is supported by varied and interesting scenarios to facilitate this action, but colour me very interested for now.

Image credits: koeitecmoeurope.com

Enter the Gungeon Review

The most recent game to get the Devolver Digital publishing treatment, Enter the Gungeon is a top-down bullet hell shooter with roguelike trappings in the manner of Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne. Developers Dodge Roll have created a game that’s worthy of those comparisons; Enter the Gungeon oozes quality, personality, and moment-to-moment excitement in a package that’s likely to hook you in for just-one-more-go for ages after you meant to stop playing.

You’ll control one of four protagonists that seek the Gun That Can Kill The Past, a legendary weapon found in the Gungeon- an ancient subterranean complex where pretty much everyone is obsessed with guns.

The four characters that you control all come with different starting weapons and items. The Marine starts out with a helmet that grants extra armour, an ammo drop, and the starting pistol with the most rounds. The Pilot starts with a lock pick that allows him to try to open loot chests without expending precious keys and a small discount at the Gungeon store. The Convict starts with an extra weapon, the sawed-off shotgun, and briefly deals extra damage if hurt. Finally, the Hunter has a (adorable) dog that increases her chances of finding items like health, ammo and keys on clearing rooms, as well as a crossbow alongside her starting sidearm.

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The Marine is clearly intended as the starting character with his large pistol clip and extra armour, so I spent much of my time playing as him. When I got more used to the game, though, I started to gravitate towards playing as the Pilot and the Hunter for their increased item-finding capabilities. I think that the four characters are different enough to subtly cater to different play styles, while similar enough that it’s never too jarring to swap between them multiple times per session as the fancy takes you.

Gameplay-wise, Enter the Gungeon functions like a faster Binding of Isaac with more degrees of freedom. Your character can be moved in eight directions, however you can fire your guns with the full range of circular freedom, making navigating enemy bullets while returning fire yourself feel smooth and responsive.

A major mechanic to master is the dodge roll; Gungeon takes a leaf from Dark Souls’ book by featuring a dodge roll with invincibility for the first half of the manoeuvre. This means you can leap right through enemy fire and you won’t take damage if you don’t land in a spot occupied by bullets. The game makes sure that you understand these basic mechanics early on with a quick and clear tutorial segment, pointing out that the invincible portion of your dodge roll is when your character is diving through the air. This is more important as one might initially think because you’ll be rolling around often enough that you’ll instinctively know the length of space that you’ll be able to dive through without taking damage.

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Another important method of staving off foes’ bullets is Blanks. You’ll start out each level with two of these, and activating them clears every hostile bullet in the room while knocking enemies back. These can be crucial when you encounter new enemies or bosses with unfamiliar or difficult-to-dodge attack patterns, and are very useful if you find yourself in a pinch. Enter the Gungeon certainly understands the need to ease players into its bullet hell.

Setting foot into the Gungeon itself, you’ll crash through doors to reveal new rooms in Binding of Isaac style. You’ll flip up tables to provide temporary cover, roll explosive barrels to catch would-be ambushers in powerful explosions, and drop chandeliers onto unwitting enemies’ heads. The snappy, fast-paced combat paired with the gung-ho nature of turning the environments to your advantage gives the game the feel of a John Woo movie mashed with a quirky, Sci-Fi/ Guns-and-Sorcery aesthetic. The balletic chaos is empowered by environments packed with incidental and destructible details- tables are stacked with books and plates that scatter across the floor when flipped, along with any other obliterated objects caught in the crossfire.

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There are five levels of the Gungeon, each with their own general look and feel. The first level is the newest and most well-kept, with lots of libraries, lavish halls and walls alive with lively paintings and portraits. But as you descend levels become more decrepit and complex, and your foes more sinister.

You’re likely to repeat each level- especially the first two or three- a lot; Enter the Gungeon is a roguelike, after all, and death is always a silly mistake away. The game retains a feeling of progression, though. Beating bosses awards you with Hedgemony Credits, a persistent currency that allows you to “buy” guns from the Hub World to unlock their possibility of being dropped in the Gungeon. You’ll also stumble across and help out NPCs on your travels, who range from vendors of new guns to providers of side quests.

It helps to have this meta-progression because, like most roguelikes, you can have both good runs and bad runs. Sometimes you won’t drop enough keys to open precious loot-bearing chests, forcing you to take on bosses with your weak starting weapon. Sometimes the loot that you do get just isn’t the right tool for the job. You’ll often find yourself scrambling for money, just short of the few coins needed to buy some crucial power-up. Progression is always within reach, though, even when luck isn’t on your side. The strength of the roguelike style of play is that you’re forced to make do with what you’ve got, and while your potency is stunted on unlucky runs, you’re still very capable of dealing decent damage and battling through the hardship.

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Enter the Gungeon is characterised by its chaos, but the way the game’s designed makes that bedlam manageable to learning players. The visual design of the game is key here- enemy bullets are bright red, and pop against the enemies and environmental details within the screen’s real estate. Your fired rounds are varied in design depending on the specific gun you’re using, but they’re always distinct in their own way, too. This means you’re immediately aware of where the danger is onscreen even when you’re facing down up to a dozen targets attempting to hose you down. Even with tens, even hundreds, of individual objects onscreen, you should instinctively know where you need to dodge and weave given a bit of experience.

The gameplay is well designed, responsive and inherently gratifying, but Enter the Gungeon isn’t content to stop there. The world and its Gungeon are obsessed with guns, and the sheer dedication to laying on brilliant puns over the dungeon-crawling aesthetic is impressive. Your standard enemies are large bullets that fire guns at you, and they’re so adorable that I’m seriously considering hunting down their likeness in plush form. Most enemies are a twist on classic fantasy genre characters, though. There’s a boss based on the Beholder creature from Dungeons and Dragons, except here it carries guns and is called the Beholster. There’s a sentient, skull-faced cannon ball called the Cannonbalrog. Ghost versions of the normal bullet enemies are named Hollow Points. It’s sheer genius, and the game just keeps coming out with this originality with such aplomb that I can’t help to be endeared to the world and characters.

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The commitment to variety doesn’t stop there, though. The list of unlockable and lootable guns in this game is long and filled with weapons both classic and bizarre. You’ll pick up AK-47s and shotguns, yes, but a surprising amount of the available death-dealers are either clever references to all manner of pop culture (from James Bond to Mega Man to Ghostbusters), or wacky original ideas like the Huntsman (a shotgun with an attacked axe that swings about to block bullets when you reload), The Silencer (you throw high velocity pillows at enemies) and the Pitchfork (shoots fireballs). It’s always exciting to find a new gun and relish whatever novelties it might bring.

If I could level any criticisms at Enter the Gungeon, it’d be that there’s a bit of a slump when you move towards the level where you’re trying to unlock shortcuts to complete the game. You’re required to deliver items to an NPC to repair lifts so that you can start a new run in a specific level of the Gungeon, but the requirements are quite a tall order and you’re sometimes held back by successive unlucky runs that don’t provide enough of the needed items or currency. It’s needlessly frustrating in a game that otherwise mitigates irritation so ably.

Enter the Gungeon is a goddamn party. It’s big, silly, guns-blazing Hong Kong action movie set in a detailed world that knows how not to take itself seriously. It’s one of the hardest games out yet this year, yet it’s designed to train and inform you so that you’re always aware of just how you faltered when you succumb to the challenges of the Gungeon. And when you do, you’ll hit Quick Restart and leap right back into the action again.

What’s The Next Big Trend?

Sometimes, a slew of games all adhere to a common theme or mechanic. You only need to look at the flood of third-person cover shooters that followed Gears of War, or more recently, 2013: The Year Of The Bow, heralded by Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3, and Crysis 3. I’ve been thinking about what might be the next trend to emerge, and I think there’s a pretty strong case for the Stone Age.

Since Fallout 3, the post-apocalyptic setting has been pretty much omnipresent, represented in Darksiders, Stalker, Metro 2033, The Last of Us, Mad Max, and dozens more series. I think that it’s such a popular scene because, apart from appealing aesthetics and what-if fantasies, it’s kind of a blank slate for humanity. The complexities and stresses of modern society are stripped away, forcing people to revert to more primal needs- fighting for survival.

A game set in the Stone Age, or a similarly early stage of human advancement, is this stripping-away of modern life taken as far as possible. You get to experience a simulation of humans being about as “Step 1” as humans get.

Not to mention that this kind of setting is largely unused outside of strategy games like Age of Empires and Sid Meier’s Civilization. There’s a lot of potential here for vibrant character designs to differentiate between different tribes or clans. It also makes sense to make use of hunting and crafting mechanics which are so in vogue right now.

What would be really interesting would be if these games weren’t presented in English, but were forced to communicate meaning to the player through context and character actions, with a good use of emphasis in the primal tongue used by the characters to impart meaning. This would be quite the task, of course; requiring a delicate balance of writing, acting, and presentation to tell a satisfying story without a language familiar to the player. Still, I think it’s a worthy challenge, and certainly a better option than halting “ME CLUB STUFF” speak.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest an upcoming trend without some concrete evidence. Sony’s E3 conference showcased the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn, which the developers Guerrilla Games are touting as a “post-post apocalyptic”. The idea is that following the near-death of humanity, survivors’ ancestors have formed a Stone Age- like society in a world reclaimed by nature, but populated by mechanical wildlife. Part of Horizon’s charm is that it blends primitive human society with futuristic technology; the game turned heads pretty much immediately.

A couple of days ago, the teaser for the new Far Cry game was released, along with the game’s title- Far Cry: Primal. This game seems like it’s going to more closely depict the Stone Age than Horizon; the trailer sees characters hunting a herd of mammoths and fending off rival tribes in a rugged, wild landscape. Interestingly, no characters in the trailer are shown to speak English.

Finally, Rust devs Facepunch Studios have accounted that they’re working on a Stone Age survival sim called Before. Sporting a charmingly simplistic art style, Before is a game about guiding your tribe through a “harsh and unforgivingly pre-historic world”, and features shifting beliefs and rituals as your numbers grow and you settle into more land. While not much about the game is known apart from the art style, we could have a nice, ambitious game on our hands.

I think there are lots of time periods ripe for use. I’d like to see more games focusing on Feudal Japan, or the Celtic clans of Britain, or the ancient Egyptians. More than anything, though, I want some variety. Even Assassin’s Creed, once a shining example of scenic variety, has failed to evoke interesting new environments of late. In an age overpopulated by bland near-futuristic war games and drab urban locales, I’d like to shake things up, and it’s nice to see an underused setting utilised.

Image credits: pcgamer.com

Destiny: The Taken King’s Raid Is The Game’s Crowning Achievement

As you can surmise from my first impressions here, I think that Destiny: The Taken King is an invaluable evolution of Destiny, offering up hours upon hours of new content along with some much-needed late game direction through the new quest system. The Taken King’s crown, however, is the King’s Fall raid, which players are able to play at light level 290.

It’s quite the crawl, levelling your character’s gear up to 290 light. Luckily, armour and weapon drops are now modified by your current gear, meaning you should steadily gain better gear. Once you finally exceed 290, you’re good to start finding raiding buddies.

It’s obviously best to play the raid with friends, but for people who don’t have Destiny players at your level on your friends list, the Destiny LFGs (Looking For Groups/Games) let you either search for groups needing extra bodies, or put out your own LFG message, inviting players to message and join your fireteam.

As someone with a couple of friends at raiding level, the LFGs has been a valuable resource for finding players. Messages tend to come in very quickly, and for the most part, players have been polite and communicative.

Speaking of communication, you’ll need to talk to each other in order to coordinate your team and solve the puzzles in King’s Fall. If you’re uncomfortable speaking too much, you can nominate yourself for positions where you’re not going to have to speak too frequently, but a certain amount of chat is needed no matter which role you’re occupying.

I’d recommend that the first time you raid, you do so with a group of players who have not played the raid yet. A big part of the fun is working out just how to beat each encounter, with most of the raid revolving around interacting with the environment, gaining and passing on buffs in order to damage enemies. There are some devilishly hard fights, and some real head-scratchers, but with some trial and error your team should manage to work out how to beat each fight. There are very fiddly sections where a small mistake of a single player can cause a wipe, but in my experience people are understanding and patient.

Breaking up the puzzle fights are some pleasingly challenging platforming sections, which make use of a mix of narrow ledges, invisible platforms, and mobile platforms. While I found these sections a fun change of pace, a couple members of the team really struggled, which somewhat harmed the pace of the raid as the majority of the team waited for stragglers to catch up. We were only waiting for a few minutes, but the stragglers did start to get frustrated. While I personally don’t mind first person platforming, the inherent failure of the camera to accurately portray your exact spatial position probably means that precise platforming isn’t the best inclusion to the raid. I really can’t blame some people for struggling.

Another issue that a lot of people might run into is that, on the lower end of level 290 gear, players’ DPS output might not be up to scratch. There are certain sections of the raid where you either have a limited number of attack windows on a boss, or you need to deal enough damage to a critical area of a boss in order to stagger their “everything dies now” attack. We found in these sections that weapons alone weren’t always quite enough, so we had to rely on some team members’ supers, like weapons of light from titans or the hunters’ tether or golden gun in order to reach the needed DPS. This means you’ll probably need players of a certain class or sub-class to avoid struggling in these sections, but thankfully LFG lets you specify what classes you need.

All in all, I think that King’s Fall is an excellent endgame activity with real legs. It’s varied, long, and above all, fun. While some may have issues with platforming sections and some mechanics are a little bit overused, it’s well worth getting together a team and throwing yourself up against Destiny’s greatest challenge. You’ll work hard for each step, but I think that’s what makes it so rewarding.

Image Credits- segmentnext.com

What Makes A Good Boss Battle?

Boss battles are about as deeply entrenched in video game DNA as life bars; it’s hard to think of a series that doesn’t feature some kind of boss battle. Even in games like Top Spin and Fifa 20XX, there are the big events like Wimbledon and the Cup Final that the game builds up to, where you’ll compete against harder opponents. In conventional story-driven series, boss battles help to break up the action; you’ll progress through a level, build up to the boss, overcome the boss, then move on to the next area. It’s a well-trodden and comfortable rhythm, and a perfectly sound way to pace a game. So, this begs the question: what makes a good boss fight?

Firstly, let’s look at some examples of bad boss fights. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, an otherwise solidly crafted game emphasising player choice, is marred with boss encounters that essentially force you to take down the bosses with good old fashioned murder bullets. Not only are these encounters particularly dissonant in pacifist playthroughs, they also betray the game’s tenet of freedom of approach. You can’t sneak past them without a trace, you can’t really hack stuff to your advantage; if you haven’t geared up with offensive gear in favour of a stealthy playthrough, you’re going to have much more frustrating time, and it’s not your fault because apart from boss battles, the game has been selling player choice.

Another frequently-touted example of a poor boss is the fight with the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker is beefed up on a more-potent variation of venom, Titan. While the fight doesn’t break gameplay consistency, since brawls with large Titan-enhanced enemies were already in previous encounters, the boss is egregious because it doesn’t make narrative sense. The Joker is a thinker; he’s dangerous because of his genius, not his physical prowess. He’s only a threat to opponents in combat because of his sheer unpredictability. Batman shouldn’t beat him in a battle of brawn, but a battle of brains, and the final boss fight with the Joker just broke the narrative and character consistency that the game had been wonderfully building up to that point.

So, then, a boss battle should be consistent with the game, both in terms of mechanical design and narrative design. Dishonored is a good example of a counter to Deus Ex, since both games encourage exploration and flexible approach to the levels. Dishonored has the protagonist Corvo Attano chasing down targets in a corrupt government, most of whom are related to his fall from grace as the Lord Protector of the Emperess. Dispatching these targets are essentially the main objective of each mission, so they’re acting as bosses in this game. Rather than requiring you to eliminate your targets through murder, Dishonored allowed attentive players to dispatch targets in non-lethal ways. For example, you can mark one target with a heretic’s brand, which leads to him being kicked out of his high office, effectively removing the threat he imposed. This approach to design allowed players to make choices which suited the narrative consistency of their play style, and none of the choices of approaching targets betrays the narrative themes of the game up to that point.

Setting aside narrative concerns, a commonly held belief is that a good boss battle tests what you’ve learned about the game so far. Bloodborne boss Father Gascoigne is one such boss that epitomises this philosophy. The second (or first, if you take a certain route) boss in Bloodborne, the Gascoigne fight takes place in a cemetery and is more or less a trial by fire; relentlessly charging you with formidable speed and power, players that haven’t yet learned to dodge and parry attacks will have a hard time beating him. You can also make use of the grave stones in the area to give yourself some breathing room to heal and time your attacks, which emphasises the use of environment that’s so important in Souls/Borne games. Lastly, there’s an item you can acquire before the Gascoigne fight that allows you to render him immobile for a short period of time, which let you get in some much-needed hits. This teaches you the importance of preparation and the rewards of exploration, as well as providing a narrative gut-punch once you understand the circumstances surrounding Gascoigne.

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Conversely, games have made use of boss fights as ways to expand the player’s mind beyond what they may have learned in the preceding sections of the game. Forced to adapt new strategies to deal with the boss, the fight often plays out more like a puzzle until you work out the right method of dealing with the enemy. The Metal Gear Solid series is famous for this approach; while much of the games focus on stealth, most of the bosses require unique strategies. The Psycho Mantis fight in MGS is well known for its genius, making the player plug their controller into the player 2 slot so that Mantis can’t read the Snake’s mind, rendering him beatable. In fact, each boss battle in MGS embraces a completely different play style; a prolonged sniper battle with Sniper Wolf, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Vulcan Raven, a simple fist fight with Liquid Snake… each encounter distinct and memorable as the last, and very little to resemble the core gameplay of the game.

I think that Shadow of the Colossus may be the purest example of this style. While your mechanical options are the same in each instance, each colossus requires a different approach; sometimes you need to bait a certain attack to be able to climb up onto them, sometimes you need to sue the environment cleverly, and sometimes you need to hit a weak spot. Climbing each colossus is a puzzle in itself, as you navigate their massive bodies in search of weak points where you can damage the creature. I think that game which use this approach to boss design tend to be more successful in creating more memorable and varied encounters.

All in all, I think that the best boss fights are those that are memorable. They should be hard, but fair, and most importantly, true to the game. It’s clear from Dishonored and Metal Gear that we can have varied, interesting and unforgettable bosses that improve the game rather than acting as a barrier to the player.

Image credits: alphacoders.com, gbhbl.com

Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s Magic Systems Differ To Suit Their Respective Worlds

Among world-building aspects that grab my imagination, a good magic system is always high on my list. I can remember the moments that I got into series like Fullmetal Alchemist, The Inheritance Cycle, and Harry Potter– they’re all series that have strong, interesting magic systems. Brandon Sanderson, writer of the Mistborn trilogy and living magic system machine, has described his personal rules for magic, starting with this wonderful article. He proposes that there are two main types of magic in fiction- hard magic and soft magic, a classification I think is tremendously useful.

Hard magic is more easily categorisable- it’s a magic system that’s very well-defined in-world, and should be well-understood by the audience. Fullmetal Alchemist uses hard magic in its alchemic transmutations- there are very clearly defined rules, such as equivalent exchange (a transmutation’s output equals the cost of the input, usually in terms of mass), and the need for transmutation circles, a kind of equation contained within a drawn circle to direct the outcome of the magic. Most games use this kind of magic, especially when the player character is a magic user. This is because the player has to understand the outcomes of magic, and produce consistent effects within the game. In other words, “press x to shoot a fireball”.

Soft magic, however, is of the more murky, less well-defined kind. Classic examples of soft magic are in Lord of the Rings, where the reader/audience doesn’t have a clear idea of what magic is capable of in the world. It’s hard to find examples in games where magic is completely soft, because there tends to be a clearly observable and repeatable consequence of magic when it happens. A close-an example as I can think of in games is the use of “tears” in Bioshock: Infinite. Plasmids and tonics are fairly well-defined: mutations lead to specific magic powers, fuelled by EVE/salts. Tears, however, make use of Elizabeth’s mysterious powers to pull objects from alternate dimensions into your world. We don’t really know the source of Elizabeth’s powers, or their extent, meaning they draw from a more arcane magic system than your other powers in the game. There is some predictability in the outcome of tear use, but by my estimations it’s closer to the soft end of the magic spectrum.

What I find interesting about this classification of magic is how it’s used to influence and enhance stories and worlds. A friend recently said to me that he liked Bloodborne, but they thought it was a shame that the magic was different to Dark Souls, in that it was a) less prevalent and b) less well-defined. And that made me realise that, while both games are linked spiritually as From Software games (especially mechanically), their different magic systems are reflective of their different worlds.

Dark Souls, occupying a somewhat conventional Western fantasy world (albiet Miyazaki’s twisted version of tropes therein), has a hard magic system. The mystical forces in the world are well established in fantasy: Gods, dragons, castles. The magic system has you casting spells using magic staves (or a holy trinket if it’s faith-based magic), and the spells by and large fantasy staples; fireballs, energy projectiles, barriers, and the like. These relatively simple-to-understand, easily defined spells are reflective of the high fantasy world they inhabit.

Bloodborne’s world, however, is less high fantasy and more Gothic and Lovecraft-esque cosmic horror. Rather than learning spells and casting them from a magic channeling weapon like in conventional fantasy, you’re using strange relics to channel your magic in less conventional ways, often affecting your physical abilities or attributes rather than blasting enemies with ranged spells. It’s tied to your quicksilver bullet reserve, which means it’s a kind of blood magic. It’s a far more arcane system, and reflects the world of Bloodborne far more effectively than if you were throwing about fireballs and bolts of lightning. You’re twisting your body through blood magic to better combat the evils of the night- a common theme in the game. This darker, murkier twist on magic is indicative of the mystical forces behind the curtain in Bloodborne. In Lovecraft’s work, the unknowable, the indescribable, and the incomprehensible are common and important aspects of the horror- the protagonists are faced with forces far beyond their ken, and the sheer, primal terror that awakens within them is the driving force of the fiction. Bloodborne owes much of its world and ideas to Lovecraft’s work, and the softer, less conventional magic system mirrors this more mysterious world.

Of course, almost no hard magic system is 100% hard, because the fiction should work to expand the audience’s idea of what magic can do; and no magic system is 100% soft, since once a consequence of magic is observed, you start to understand at least a part of its nature. However, I think that Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s respective approaches to magic mechanics are great examples of expressing the worlds the games respectively evoke.

The Two Main Groups of Action Combat Mechanics and Their Uses

Like any self respecting obsessive, I like to plonk stuff into categories. I’ve been thinking lately about action games, and how I think most fit into one of two main groups, which I like to call “Loose” and “Solid”. Most people will have a preference of one over another, myself included, but they both have their place.

First, we have the “Loose” action games. These are your more arcade-y hack-and-slashers: your Dynasty Warriors and Bayonettas and God of Wars. I call them “loose” because they interpret your button presses loosely; inputting X, X, Y or some other simple combo will have your character flipping and pirouetting through enemies in a ballet of violence.

“Solid” action games, however, are more precisely controlled. Your attacks are more reserved, slashing once per button press. This is the mechanic type used by Assassin’s Creed, Dark Souls, and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Controlling your character is more slash-by-slash, hit-by-hit. It’s often a more precise and grounded method of control, hence “Solid”.

Loose action games are more useful when you want a game to be easy to pick up, but hard to master. They tend to have a floaty, fast and furious tempo, and it’s often possible to get through with button mashing and a little bit of forethought. It’s a more immediately gratifying play style, because you can often hack your way through swathes of enemies in just a few seconds. However, for me the dissonance between input and action often leads to disconnection from the action, so the game has to grab my attention using other means to keep me engaged. Dynasty Warriors- style games don’t grab me enough with their story or objectives to make me care about playing them for much more than maybe an hour at a time, tops. God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, however, had strong enough stories and environments, as well as varied enough objectives, to keep me invested.

Two main types of action games 2

Solid action games are more my cup of tea. I enjoy carefully parrying and side-stepping attacks, pressing the assault blow-by-blow when the enemy leaves an opening. It’s a much more effective way of letting me engage with my character, because I’m more intimately controlling their actions. As much as the parkour, world and mission design of the Assassin’s Creed series was greatly improved since the first game, I think Assassin’s Creed Uno has a really good combat system for creating engaging, difficult, thoughtful battles. As much as I like the kill chaining mechanics that the series introduced later on, the foundation of the combat has always been cerebral and effective.

My favourite game, Dark Souls, is a logical progression of this style of play. Your position, the arc of your weapon in space, and the positioning of enemies are all very precisely represented by the game’s engine. It really feels like you’re controlling a character in that space on screen, and the way that your attacks connect with enemies gives the world a very tangible presence, which I think is the most impressive hallmark of From Software’s Souls/Borne series.

I think the reason why the Arkham games’ combat style has become to ubiquitous of late is because it’s a balancing of the solid and loose aspects of action game combat. Combat retains the blow-by-blow nature of solid action games, while offering smart target lock-on and combo moves from loose action games. This leads to an interesting system in which you have the tactile solidity from one side, with the accessibility and spectacle from the other. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor built on this foundation rather nicely with the addition of your wraith powers and bow, seamlessly adding a potent ranged option to the mix.

Perhaps, then, we need to add a third classification to the mix- games that fuse together elements from the two different camps. Like “Fusion”, that sounds cool. Of course, this means that the title lied to you. Well, welcome to the real world, tiger.