Madden Scores & Fire Emblem Soars in July’s Monthly U.S. Game Sales Report

Madden is a perennial sales Giant

The summer is cooling off here in the States, which means the video games sales charts are starting to heat up. Each year, Electronic Arts’ football franchise Madden effectively kicks off a packed release schedule for the early Fall leading into the holiday season. As it stands, yes, we’re now in the trenches (my fellow football fans know).

The latest installment Madden NFL 20 released a bit earlier than usual, which means it just quarterback snuck into The NPD Group’s tracking period for July (which ran from July 7th to August 3rd). Its widespread brand recognition led to scoring the top spot in last month’s combined sales rankings, as measured by total dollar sales generated. Amazingly, this is the 20th *consecutive* annual Madden game that’s earned the overall lead in its release month, a staggering accomplishment for the team at the major U.S. publisher.

Keep in mind, its statistics count only a couple days on sale.

Madden NFL 20 laid out its competition to instantly become 8th best-selling game for the entirety of 2019 to date. This speaks to the strength of the franchise amidst a broad national audience, plus the sheer popularity of football as a sport domestically. Electronic Arts recently announced strong final week pre-orders plus that “well over half” of launch sales were digital, marking the first time digital has outpaced retail in the series’ long history. However, what the company didn’t share is even more intriguing. Does this mean that total sales are lower compared to last year? It’s possible this is the case, even if its launch sales are solid compared to non-Madden titles.

Anyone that tracks these things knows the franchise is a perennial winner in the U.S. marker. Early indications prove it will once again likely achieve Top 5 status when 2019 wraps up its final quarter.

All that said, I’d argue the most impressive story of July’s charts and really 2019 as a whole continues to be Nintendo. Six of the Top 10 games last month are available on its Switch hybrid hardware. The standouts being a scorching debut for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which secured the 2nd overall spot, and a somewhat surprise seller in Team Ninja’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order as it assembled enough cash to reach its #4 ranking.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses achieved the best single launch month in Fire Emblem history, as the latest strategy JRPG mash-up outsold the previous leader: 2017’s Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia.

Its fantastic release strength now makes Three Houses the 2nd top-selling title in the series ever domestically, behind only Fire Emblem: Awakening from 2012. Yes. Ever. With only a month of tracking. This is incredible, and a testament to its now global appeal. Which I’ll partly attribute to characters being included in the successful Super Smash Bros. mash-up fighting games, as its latest release from December is still charting.

I know I shouldn’t be shocked a game featuring the Avengers and related superheroes would sell so well. Still, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a Nintendo Switch exclusive which means only a segment of the market can purchase it. And purchase it, that segment did. Which makes its Top 4 position that much more notable. Previously, its predecessor grabbed the #7 spot at launch in September 2009. Knowing the demand for Avengers right now is sky high, I’m curious to know how well the multi-platform Marvel’s Avengers from Square Enix will fare when it’s out in May 2020. (I’d imagine Marvel will still be popular then. This is the expert analysis you’ve come to expect, I know.)

It’s worth noting that Switch results are actually even crazier than it seems initially. Nintendo doesn’t share digital in the context of NPD charts. Which means physical alone boosted these games up the list. Combined sales are even higher! I was quite bullish on Fire Emblem: Three Houses from jump, though admittedly underestimated the strength of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. ure Nintendo’s competitors aren’t producing many exclusives right now due to respective console cycles coming to a close, though it’s still eye-catching just how well the Japanese game maker is doing in the States as both a hardware maker and publishing partner.

One notable absence for July is Wolfenstein: Youngblood, though Bethesda Softworks does not share digital split. And it’s a less expensive title than competitors, which means it naturally generated less dollar sales. I anticipated this would happen, though there still was a slight chance it could slip into the Top 20. Bethesda still has DOOM Eternal upcoming in November as its flagship autumn title.

It only makes, hm.. cents to chat about the overall market now after hitting on individual names.

Spending in the U.S. during July actually increased slightly since this time last year, to $762 million. Though under 1%, so essentially flat. Which I’d argue is a mild surprise, due to the major slowdown in hardware sales off 22% and accessories/controllers dipping 12%. Consumer spending on software made up the difference, accelerating 34%. Though the caveat I’d offer is Madden did move up to the July time frame compared to debuting during the August sales period in 2018.

Nintendo Switch was once again the leading console by dollar sales generated, a spot which it’s held consecutively on a monthly basis since the holiday season. It’s the only piece of hardware to see gains since this time last year, as its competitors declined due to long-in-the-tooth cycles. Same as June, it’s also the #1 seller for 2019 to date.

This portion is the most predictable of all, as Switch continues to churn out major releases on a then legacy titles show solid momentum due to them appealing to a variety of audience slices especially the younger demographic. With a new model boasting improved battery life now hitting shelves and its Switch Lite iteration shipping in September, I can’t see a case where it isn’t the leading seller every month for the foreseeable future.

Quick update on software this year so far. Mortal Kombat 11 continues its dominance atop the chart, making it yet again the best-selling game of 2019. In fact, it’s now behind only Mortal Kombat X (2015) within the franchise overall for lifetime domestic sales. Another impressive stat is that MK11 now occupies the 5th spot on the fighting game genre all-time chart. NetherRealm Studio’s hit likely won’t retain the top spot once next month rolls around, though its legs since April release means it has been on quite a.. hm, run. I anticipate it will remain in the Top 6 through year-end.

Taking the year-to-date chart as a whole, it’s very similar to June. The exceptions being Red Dead Redemption 2 moving up to #7 and Madden NFL 20 slotting in at the 8th spot. These moves pushed Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice out of the Top 10, though From Software’s latest game is still doing extremely well with its 3.8 million units sold globally since February.

Now then. Let’s look at the full multi-platform list itself then the year’s best sellers, before our final whistle.

Top-Selling Games of July 2019 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Madden NFL 20^
  2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses*
  3. Super Mario Maker 2*
  4. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order*
  5. Minecraft#
  6. Grand Theft Auto V
  7. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  8. Mortal Kombat 11
  9. Mario Kart 8*
  10. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  11. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  12. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Siege
  13. Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII^
  14. Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled
  15. Red Dead Redemption 2
  16. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  17. MLB 19 The Show
  18. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  19. NBA 2K 19
  20. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Kingdom Hearts 3
  3. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  4. Anthem^
  5. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Madden NFL 20^
  9. Days Gone
  10. MLB The Show 19

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

If you are interested in individual platform results, I highly recommend perusing NPD Group analyst Mat Piscatella’s Twitter thread and corresponding video coverage. It’s one of the main sources here, plus the never-ending knowledge of yours truly. Humble, I know.

Though in all seriousness thanks for stopping by to look at the charts and hear some context surrounding the month’s results. I’ll be back soon with more reviews and sales talk, it will pick up the pace from here!

Sources: The NPD Group, GamesPress, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

No more funny business!

Alright, maybe just a little. Because it’s that time again. The most fun you’ll have all season. It’s way too hot (at least here in the States) to go outside, so spend the next couple weeks as one should right now: hanging in the air conditioning reading through financial reports and analyzing fancy numbers, of course.

If that’s your type of thing, you’re in the right spot. I’ve compiled the closest thing to a full list anywhere in the world for upcoming earnings dates from major global gaming, tech and media companies. I know you’re busy. Hope this will keep things organized.

You’ll notice something a bit different this time. Select rows are listed as not reporting this quarter. This is the result of trying to document as many names as possible, though not every international company reports quarterly. Some only share numbers semi-annually. I’ll keep them on the list for quick reference or access to the investor site, though we’ll have to be even more patient to see how those in particular are doing.

Full calendar image is above, then there’s the Google Doc link below that has each of them listed individually. A number don’t have set dates yet, though we have a general sense based on trends. Scroll further to see which three companies I’m monitoring closely this quarter. Truly appreciate your visit, please check back for updates!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, July 30th

The Japanese gaming and consumer conglomerate has been bolstered lately by excellent results within its gaming division. While software and services are growth engines this late in the current cycle, I’m actually intrigued by how hardware is holding up since the PlayStation brand is maintaining better momentum than anticipated. Namely, will this be the quarter where Sony’s successful PlayStation 4 console eclipses the 100 million units shipped? If so, it would be only the sixth piece of hardware to ever cross this coveted threshold. two of them being earlier Sony consoles with the original PlayStation at over 102 million and PlayStation 3 achieved a whopping 155 million. Based on the lifetime sales of just under 97 million and the company’s trend of moving approximately 3 million or more PS4 in the past couple quarters ending June, there’s certainly a chance it reaches this milestone. Though I’d bet it happens later in the summer.

Capcom Co Ltd (9697): Thursday, August 1st

The resurgence of Osaka-based Capcom is one of the most uplifting stories of the current generation. Last year’s.. hm, yes I’m doing it. Last year’s monstrous hit Monster Hunter: World continues its momentum as it amazingly hit 13 million units sold just this past week, widening its margin as the company’s best-selling game ever. January’s Resident Evil 2 Remake is the 5th best-selling title of the 1st half of 2019 in the States according to NPD, and has eclipsed 4 million units at last count. March’s Devil May Cry V showed well at launch and is estimated to be nearing the 3 million unit threshold. Continued sales of these should make for solid results in the quarter ending June, though I’m actually more interested in where executives go with guidance. Especially in light of Monster Hunter World’s Iceborne expansion due out September. And where’s the company going with its fighting game approach? Will it factor in a brand new Resident Evil entry, perhaps for early next calendar year? We likely won’t know for sure until later, though any change in guidance can give us enough information to at least speculate!

Super League Gaming (SLGG): Mid August

Yup. This is a new one. eSports community and content platform Super League Gaming is the latest in gaming initial public offerings (IPOs), raising proceeds of nearly $23 million back in Q1. It’s an intriguing, modern business model in a growing industry where the firm operates more as a community platform for amateur players rather than solely competitive games for pros. Effectively highlighting content creators on social media, hosting events and offering a technology platform to organize all of it. Based on its first quarterly filing as a public company back in April, revenues nearly doubled and it’s established multiple partnerships with companies like Best Buy, Logitech and the aforementioned Capcom. With annual revenue estimated at $1 million, I’m curious to see how it continues to monetize this type of community approach especially since it’s aligned with major titles like League of Legends and Minecraft.

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites & Press Releases, Sony PR, Capcom PR, NPD Group, Super League Gaming, Games Press.

-Dom

Review: Outer Wilds is a Bold, Memorable Space Game That’s Flawed to its Core

Launching my rickety rocket ship through my home planet’s atmosphere, I’m filled with a sense of wonder as I adjust to the beautiful calmness of zero gravity and infinite stars. Surrounded by sparkles of light, orbiting planets and complete stillness, I feel as if I can go everywhere and find anything.

Shortly after, I die. For a silly reason, at the worst possible time. Sometimes it’s my fault. More than it should be, it’s the game’s doing. Because I’m caught in a time loop, it’s back to my planet to launch again. Then another time. Rinse and repeat, until I’ve lost count. My once awe-inspiring moment of vaulting into the vast unknown degrades into a minor inconvenience then a frustrating hindrance to my adventure, as I start to worry more about getting back to the place where I died than exploring other parts of the solar system.

This, a constant cycle of curiosity and misery, is Outer Wilds. Allow me to explain.

The latest title from Mobius Digital is a first-person space exploration game, and is often quite good. It broaches topics rarely seen in games, from existentialism, cosmology and quantum physics to the ultimate fate of stars and the universe at large. Heavy, frightening ideas for an otherwise playful medium. I adored its plot, where the player controls a member of a four-eyed alien race called Hearthians who are obsessed with discovering more about their galaxy. In particular, learning more about a super intelligent ancient species called the Nomai.

The player, affectionately called the Hatchling by some, is readying for their (the Hearthians use “they” as their general pronoun) first launch under the Outer Wilds Ventures space program. As the game begins, I wake up confused. Poking around a village on home planet Timber Hearth reveals I’m a new astronaut in the program founded by older Hearthians, most of which are visiting other locations in the solar system. One of them is missing. There’s characters to chat up, a museum to visit and a weird rock that disappears when it’s not in view. Most importantly, there’s a creepy statue that looks like the majestic, three-eyed Nomai ancestors. As I walk past, it stares into my soul and seems to collect memories of everything I had done up until that point.

I searched as much as I could to get an indication of a goal or objective before I left. Outer Wilds offers no such thing. One Hearthian said I could find the other astronauts. All of them indicate that the species as a whole is really interested in the Nomai. Someone else hints that the thrill of space travel is never knowing what you might find! While I understand it’s a game purely about the wonders of exploration, since there’s no combat and barely any conflict, a byproduct of this limited framework is it can feel too meandering, the story is way too difficult to follow and, most importantly, leads to many cases where the player feels like their time is being wasted. More on this later.

It’s now time for liftoff. The glorious moment I described in the intro takes place. It’s really cool. The game does well to capture the beauty of the cosmos, between sound design and visual pizazz. Less than a half hour into my maiden journey, as I was desperately trying to gather anything I could from a character living on Timber Hearth’s moon, the sun explodes. Talk about baptism by fire!

Miraculously, the Hatchling wakes up. Back on Timber Hearth, in the exact spot where the game started. Not on the moon, which would make logical sense and save the time and frustration of having to navigate back, since I wasn’t done trying to coax information from my moon buddy Esker about just what the heck I should do next. Nope. In order to continue what I was doing, I have to spend precious time stumbling my way back.

When this cycle of death and resurrection starts to happen constantly, we gradually discover we’re caught in a time loop. One that lasts 22 minutes to be exact, after which the sun goes supernova. This is the game’s conceit, and it’s the driving force of the story while also being the single most frustrating thing about it. Even the revelation of why it’s happening is overshadowed by the fact that it’s been limiting my enjoyment the whole time. And I’m normally into games that play with the concept of time.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

I wish the respawn location was more flexible. Or at least allow for more fast travel points, via warping technology that already exists in the game world. When small discoveries open doors to much larger ones, missing out on a crucial piece of documentation because of the time loop is unfortunate. What’s even more disheartening is not having an easy way to navigate a return trip.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

Another huge, noticeable flaw right away is infuriating controls. Namely while flying the ship. These are not totally responsive nor intuitive. I found myself going in random directions, flying into the sun for no reason or crash landing to my death. Sure it’s funny once. It’s agonizing the twentieth time. When autopilot is a savior, you know the controls are poor. In terms of the space suit, boosting is useful though rules and functionality change based on gravity. Outside of the suit is the worst, with an abysmal jump button that requires holding the button. Luckily all of these became more tolerable as I learned them, though I still never felt truly in control especially in space.

It’s a case like Shadow of the Colossus or even the original Dark Souls. Games with so much going for them that I never want to play again because of frustrating inputs, whether unresponsive, laggy or inflexible. I often talk “game feel,” and I lump Outer Wilds in this group of titles held back from greatness because interacting with them just doesn’t feel great.

Turning towards narrative and pacing, Outer Wilds is vague, at best, in communicating any sort of goals plus opaque in its trail of breadcrumbs. Story is conveyed through environmental observation, conversations with fellow travelers or translation of Nomai text found throughout the solar system. All of which the Hatchling documents in a jumbled ship log, which is supposed to be used as a reference though ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. A jumbled diagram of pictures, text and connecting lines, it’s borderline unreadable. Reminiscent of the meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie has cue cards behind him connected in every which way. It’s a series of scattered notes seemingly scribbled by a mad person, attempting to offer structure when really it shows just how muddled the story is.

It’s way too inconsistent in its puzzles and progression. Sometimes there’s just enough hints where it makes sense, where it feels great to figure it out. Others are so unclear that it’s near random. Especially as higher level concepts of physics and cosmology are introduced. It induces a feeling of inadequacy, or prompts a quick internet search which immediately breaks any sense of immersion.

Now I’m not one to use guides, especially when writing reviews. I’d like to experience a game and fail on my own, because I believe it speaks to core design. There were multiple points in Outer Wilds where I became exasperated. I wasn’t sure what to do. Sure, it’s the nature of an open exploration game. Though it also reveals how poorly it communicates direction. Especially towards the end. I kept failing to progress when I knew exactly how to do so. Turns out I was doing the right things, just not in the proper order, which I discovered via a walk-through rather than through context clues.

I’d hate for everyone to get the wrong impression, since I’ve been very critical of Outer Wilds throughout this piece. There are actually so many things to love about it, which makes it that much more painful to fumble through its flaws.

It’s hard to describe just how substantial the game feels in its subject matter. Mainly through Nomai writing and their impromptu settlements, we learn much about their background and intentions. They were seeking a place called the Eye of the Universe, for reasons that would be spoilers. The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

The location design and artwork is stellar (get it?). Each planet has its own aesthetic and rules. Brittle Hollow, where its fiery moon is raining down meteorites that break up the exterior to reveal that the center is a foreboding black hole. The Hourglass Twins, a pair of smaller celestial bodies that are named as such because sand flows from one to another which acts as a genius palette for environmental tricks. Then there’s the mysterious Dark Bramble, where dangerous monsters lurk amidst space that isn’t always what it seems. Exploring each of them was breathtaking. The first few visits, at least.

So much of the game is about observation, which is why I’ve dwelt on describing moments of discovery rather than interactions or mechanics. (Well, it’s also that the mechanics aren’t great.) The attention to detail in certain features is exquisite. Take the Nomai script. Adults draw smooth lines, while children have sloppy writing. Kudos to the designer that came up with this and other seemingly minor touches that add up when witnessed consistently. Nomai have distinct names and personalities. Relationships exist between characters I’ll never actually meet.

Though yet again, within this system is another quality of life issue. Written text from the Nomai language has to be learned during each time loop. Why? Especially when the clock is always ticking. Wasting precious moments determining if I’ve read a certain text before is unacceptable in a game where I already feel rushed.

The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

There’s a breakthrough that I’d say starts the “third act,” even though the timeline isn’t clearly delineated. I’m going to spoil part of it because I thought it was clever. It’s related to the game’s interpretation and use of quantum mechanics as part of gameplay, which is so unique that it could be a game in itself. Effectively, the player learns to leverage in-game photography capabilities to solve environmental puzzles. A true moment of clarity, that changes everything from then on out. I love how it’s bold enough to surprise the player, even though getting to that point is taxing.

I’d be remiss to forget that Outer Wilds also features great music, melodically and practically. It’s blended into the world as a means of identifying where other characters are, as each of them play different parts of the theme music and the player has a tool that can detect frequencies through space. There’s even an achievement for finding a spot where all of them coalesce into a beautiful harmony.

A word of warning from a technical standpoint. The game runs mostly well on Xbox One X, except for random staggers when loading into an area. A forgivable, mild annoyance. What’s not acceptable is I’ve heard multiple reports of frame dips on the other models of Xbox One. It also hard crashed on me multiple times in my last couple hours of play. In a game where discovery is essential, losing progress is a gut punch.

It’s obvious that I’m conflicted overall on Outer Wilds, about as much as I have been about any game this year other than BioWare’s Anthem. As a publisher, Annapurna Interactive has been impressive in its partnerships. This game isn’t a misstep, just more of a flawed experience than games of similar caliber and team size.

Mobius Digital went big here, as big as gets really, tackling topics that are more suited for college philosophy courses or quantum physics papers than video games. Which is why it’s so special, yet so disappointing that I didn’t like everything about it. I’m excited that studios are bold enough to try something like Outer Wilds, to propel gaming forward and prove it can ponder the largest of questions, even if I believe this one in particular didn’t completely stick the landing.

Title: Outer Wilds

Release Date: May 29, 2019

Developer: Mobius Digital

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PC

Recommendation: Between its plot and subject matter, it had the potential to be one of my favorite games of 2019 if not the generation. It nearly gets there. I rate it as a mostly good game that will stick with me just as much for its flaws as its amazing, bold efforts. Its failed execution in certain areas is unfortunate, however I still recommend trying it especially if you like space adventure games, subscribe to Xbox Game Pass or both.

Sources: Annapurna Interactive, Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

Review: Sega’s Judgment Is, Beyond Any Doubt, A Great Game About Revenge & Redemption

Please don’t hold me in contempt for that headline. I’m only here to prove why Judgment is so fantastic.

Alright. Turning to the game. Sega’s latest within the robust Yakuza universe is Judgment, a standalone third-person action game with investigative elements plus a genuinely thrilling narrative. It’s effectively a spin-off, developed by the same Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio team. The player experiences Japan’s unsavory underbelly through the eyes of Takayuki Yagami, a former lawyer turned private eye that operates in Kamurocho. The same fictional district of Tokyo as Kazama Kiryu of the Yakuza games.

Fair warning for early story spoilers. The general setup is Yagami-san gained renown for winning a case in which he successfully defended a man accused of murder, which is near impossible under Japan’s judicial system. Shortly after, that same individual is convicted of slaying his girlfriend then setting their apartment ablaze in a drunken stupor. Ashamed, Yagami relinquishes his law career and opens an upstart detective agency.

Three years later is where the tale of Judgment begins. There’s a ruthless serial killer leaving gang members dead and eyeless in Kamurocho. Yagami’s former law office tasks him with investigating the murders, which he does alongside business partner and ex-yakuza Kaito Masaharu. Both have ties to the Matsugane syndicate, in particular its patriarch who acts a father figure to both. The main antagonist is conniving family under-boss Kyohei Hamura, at least that’s how it appears in the beginning until the scope is blown wide open.

What transpires is a truly excellent, layered narrative with well-developed character arcs, surprising twists, hilarious encounters then even moments of debilitating sadness. It’s less about the devilish side of people, though that’s certainly a part of it, and more centered on redemption. Revealing truth in a system that is inherently designed to conceal it.

It’s so much deeper than it leads on, especially given its often humorous or exaggerated tone. Judgment‘s combination of main missions, side cases and playable flashbacks is an effective blueprint. All shed light on interactions between the legal system, police and gangsters then eventually political leaders. The core framework of Kamurocho’s power structure. There’s even commentary later about healthcare, Alzheimer’s disease and the lengths to which people go when they believe they are fighting for what’s right.

A major sign of a good story is triggering empathy for characters, even those that are despicable. Judgment does this by highlighting how everyone rationalizes their actions. It’s immensely rich for a game that appears flippant on the surface, and isn’t afraid to surprise the player with tragedy. This is especially true in its third act, which escalates brilliantly through to its revelations.

Shifting to mechanics, there’s a lot to do in Judgment plus many ways in which to do them. Yagami is somehow part genius investigator, part martial arts savant and all ladies man, though there’s in-game reasons for all of these which means they aren’t entirely unbelievable.

Yakuza protagonist Kiryu and our hero here share many similarities, as Judgment leverages the same “Dragon” game engine as recent titles in the franchise. Which means combat is amazingly fluid, super impactful and progresses all the way until the game’s finale. Encounters are smooth and satisfying, namely when teaming up with non-playable characters. There are tag-team combos and special moves galore, which is welcome due to the sheer amount of fighting.

Naturally, there’s also the investigative angle. Which is featured more prominently than the action side. This includes taking on cases, exploring the world, investigating for clues, chatting with people, chasing suspects and tailing suspicious persons, all of which introduce the element of player choice. Only a handful have fail states, namely the dreaded tailing sequences, though there’s usually a bonus for making the right moves. I found the investigations worthwhile and enjoyable, often times going in hilarious directions.

What transpires is a truly excellent, layered narrative with well-developed character arcs, surprising twists, hilarious encounters then even moments of debilitating sadness. It’s less about the devilish side of people, though that’s certainly a part of it, and more centered on redemption. Revealing truth in a system that is inherently designed to conceal it.

When it comes to main missions and world activities, the Ryu Ga Gotoku staff truly flexed their design muscles. Campaign missions are mostly great, pitting Yagami in battles on the streets and in dialogue. One in particular stands out as masterful, during which the game swaps perspectives between characters to show multiple angles of the same snapshot of time. One character is undercover, while Yagami is handling his business in parallel. It’s subtle in its setup, and subverted expectations by incorporating a character I never thought I’d control.

Not to mention how much optional content there is! In true Yakuza fashion, side activities and mini-games are just as enticing as the campaign. Minor storylines can even tie into the main one or other quests, proving that Judgment is flexible in its structure. “Friend” missions were my favorite, presenting opportunities to help folks out and gain bonuses for doing so. These can develop into friendships and even romances. The player is free to pursue one or more relationships. I was impressed at how well it handled these mini objectives and weaved them into the campaign, a common theme.

Then there’s virtual reality. Batting cages. Japanese board games. Darts. Poker. Black jack. UFO catchers. Arcades. Recreations of titles like Virtua Fighter and Puyo Puyo. A full light gun zombie shooter called Kamuro of the Dead. Too many to list. It reminds me of modern Grand Theft Auto, where even the smallest of side activities is well-crafted. My play time totaled over 50 hours, though I finished with just under 50% completion which proves just how much potential there is for fun in Kamurocho.

Judgment also features one of the best original playable pinball tables in all of gaming. (This alone is worthy of awards.) And there’s an entire drone building and racing portion with online leader boards. This is real smart stuff. Though while I’m.. singing the praises of its variety, there is one notable absence: Karaoke!

Saying this is nearly cliche, however very much true here. The city of Kamurocho feels like a character. Neon signs and pedestrians adorn a world that’s alive, with encounters at every corner. While not massive, it’s all open to be enjoyed at any pace. It’s large enough to have distinct communities though still intimate in its familiarity. There are also opportunities to see more of Japan than just the bright lights of the city, though that’s all I’ll tease.

Luckily, Judgment is never overwhelming which is always a risk in open world games. Grab some health or stamina boosts from a convenience store. Help the owner of a sushi joint improve its menu. Shoot, take a smoke break to catch up on gossip. The attention to detail in the realistic food dishes plus the eavesdropping areas where Yagami can overhear random conversations are just two of the many notable features.

Later in Judgment, it introduces a type of crafting mode in the form of elixirs. The character that creates them has quite a unique background, and consumption offers temporary bonuses that help especially with later game bosses. Crafting materials can be purchased from a pawn shop, gifted by friends or found strewn about the world. Leveraging this capability has its advantages.

Plus, I’ve alluded to it though haven’t addressed it directly. Its humor mostly hits, showing the skills of its creative writing teams. Quests can have ridiculous premises, like a popular Japanese idol who constantly loses his wig (that he calls a “hat”) in the wind then Yagami has to chase it down. Characters are adept in using horrible, amazing puns. Playing the game in Japanese with subtitles made them that much more laughable. (The English localization is well done, it just didn’t feel right.) How could I not love it?

I’d warn against judging immediately based on its lighter tone or over-the-top action. Judgment is a worthy addition to a beloved Japanese series, a piece that stands on its own by presenting first as a ridiculous action game then slowly revealing a strong commentary on the human psyche and our penchant for redemption.

Before we, hm, adjourn. Even a fine game isn’t without fault.

As the narrative spirals and characters develop, combat sequences get redundant in later acts even with Yagami’s improved skills and entourage of friends. Random encounters start as tests of strength then turn tiresome. Thankfully there’s actually an elixir that reduces world events, a welcome advantage when just trying to progress.

From a technical perspective, it looks nice. Especially character animations. Runs smooth enough, loading times are acceptable. It’s a bit janky in spots, perhaps a result of design rather than tech limitations. Especially transitions between dialogue, cut scenes then into live gameplay. Lots of screen transitions that disrupt the flow.

I briefly mentioned completion percentage before. When reviewing, I’ll do my best to see everything. In Judgment, some content is locked behind the player’s social level, which is unfortunate because the side cases are really cool. Even if I had another dozen hours with the game, I likely wouldn’t see all it has to offer. Which speaks to the volume of quality content, though also to the design choice of gating its later optional quests.

There aren’t many visual customization options other than disguises for stakeouts. I’d prefer to change outfits at my leisure. Yagami snagged a sleek looking suit after a friendship quest, then couldn’t even equip it except where the game deemed appropriate. What’s the point in having a fresh outfit if you can’t wear it?

Quickly on a much more serious note. Perhaps it’s a cultural divide, two particular side cases irked me: One involving a man with suicidal thoughts then another centered on a trio of perverts terrorizing civilians. It’s difficult to get into specifics without spoilers, though Judgment treats these extremely delicate topics in a lighter way than I would have liked. Especially suicide. Fair warning that these exist, and I don’t blame anyone for them being a turn-off.

As for my closing remarks, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed spending time in the world of Judgment. Especially witnessing the machinations between personalities in its main crime families then the legal system that tries to maintain order within a city of thousands, many of them hooligans or corrupt or both. Side content is a welcome distraction between heavy story moments and lengthy investigations, and pacing is decent even if combat sequences weigh on it in the back third.

I’m certain I’ve presented an argument sufficient to at least pique your interest, because it’s worthy of everyone’s time. I’d warn against judging immediately based on its lighter tone or over-the-top action. Judgment is a worthy addition to a beloved Japanese series, a piece that stands on its own by presenting first as a ridiculous action game then slowly reveals a strong commentary on the human psyche and our penchant for redemption.

Title: Judgment (Judge Eyes in Japan)

Release Date: December 13, 2018 (Japan), June 25, 2019 (Worldwide)

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s required playing for PS4 owners, even for folks not very familiar with the Yakuza series. It plays similarly, so it might not change the mind of those that aren’t into this style of game.

Sources: Sega, GamesPress, PlayStation, Screenshots from PS4 Pro.

-Dom

Sony Should Focus on Internal Investment & Partnerships Over Acquisitions Ahead of Next PlayStation

“Charity begins at home.”

I believe Sony should focus mostly on this philosophy going into the next generation of consoles, rather than seeking growth through external acquisitions. There’s only so much funding to go around, and I’m betting those precious dollars are used for a combination of internal investment and partnerships with outside teams rather than outright buyouts of major studios.

I’ll now get into why this is such a hot topic, then outline each of my reasons.

Within a mostly innocuous report from the Wall Street Journal on the Japanese gaming giant’s decision to focus on gamers for its next PlayStation gaming console which means building out its portfolio of games (surprise!), the stand-out quote is how its main strategy is bolstering its lineup of games only available on Sony devices.

Then, local site Gematsu got in on the action as it translated a Nikkei report containing somewhat vague comments from Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan about gaming content being of utmost importance and the company considering studio acquisitions as one of its strategies for this reason.

(I’ll note here that every major publisher, shoot every public company, has teams dedicated to merger and acquisition [M&A] research. There have been recent job postings from Sony seeking talent for its M&A team, though I’m not reading into this as much as others.)

Finally, PushSquare published a piece among other media sites on likely targets of Sony’s acquisition bucks. These and more sparked rampant speculation online as to which would be the best fits based on history and existing relationships. I’m here to say the ideal foundation going forward is not built on acquisitions, but rather more investment in what it does best. And that’s its current world class studios, upcoming hardware offerings and productive 3rd party partnerships.

The safer route is absolutely to spend its precious resources in its myriad of internal studios, which have produced modern classics such as The Last of Us by Naughty Dog and God of War from Santa Monica Studio, plus align itself with external companies through partnerships rather than outright acquisitions. The most notable recent example of such a fruitful team-up being Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games, which passed a staggering 10 million copies mere months after release last September.

Similarly, I’ll go as far to say I’m not hoping for or betting on acquisitions of any major developers or self-publishers in the near term. This list includes Bungie, Insomniac Games, Kojima Productions and Remedy Entertainment. Rather, there’s a much higher likelihood of one *maybe* two smaller teams that aren’t as cost prohibitive. If forced to pick, my bet is Housemarque. Known for arcade type shoot-em-ups such as Resogun and Alienation, I think it’s really the only smaller team suited for purchase now based on its proclamation that its style of games purely aren’t selling well, plus its affinity for working with the PlayStation team in the past.

Why? Here we go.

1. Major acquisitions are costly, time-consuming and risky.

I get it. It’s fun to speculate. To dream up scenarios where a favorite game developer gets purchased by a platform of choice. It’s just, in reality, acquisitions are usually not ideal compared to partnerships and are a truly massive undertaking presenting a variety of risks.

Acquisitions aren’t just about a big company throwing money at a smaller one. Both parties must consent, really except in the case of ugly hostile takeovers which should absolutely not be a part of Sony’s strategy. It often happens when a company is in need of a financial injection, its growth prospects have depleted or, in extreme cases, bankruptcy is looming. It’s especially trickier the more closely held a company gets, which is the case with many of the private game studios. Even those with hundreds of employees. The decision lies in the hands of a select few, normally with both financial and emotional investment from years of independent operation.

Then there’s the topics of what kind of premium the target will squeeze out of the acquirer, how well do company cultures mesh plus the whole regulatory side, all of which make this process time-consuming and expensive. M&A activity is inherently risky, blending folks that haven’t worked directly together so there’s no guaranteeing the company works as well as a subsidiary. Or there might be layoffs that happen due to redundancies. What I’m getting at is these involve many other factors than merely dollars and cents.

Let’s take a couple examples. One public, one private.

A team like Remedy Entertainment is publicly-traded. The Finnish developer is valued around $115 million in market capitalization. Not a huge figure in the context of Sony’s war chest, though certainly not pocket change compared to other names in this conversation. Not to mention that comes before any sort of projects even starting. And it has investors already. Lots of them. It doesn’t need to be injected with cash, especially with a new game Control next month and a collaboration with South Korea’s Smilegate on its CrossFire franchise. Every indication is Remedy wants to be independent. Even when Microsoft was publishing games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, it was on its own. Why would execs and investors change their mind now, unless Sony throws some exorbitant amount of dough at it?

Then, our private example is Insomniac Games. Run by industry vet Ted Price, it’s a natural name thrown around due to its history of producing games for PlayStation like the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac is a heck of a studio, it’s been around for decades plus boasts a portfolio of Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and a personal favorite, 2014’s Sunset Overdrive. It’s also dabbling in virtual reality for the Oculus Rift. So, if it’s operated this long alongside PlayStation, why isn’t it a part of Sony? Exactly. As exhibited by its releases on Microsoft and Facebook (Oculus) platforms, Insomniac seems to value its creative independence above all else. And while we don’t know its valuation, to me this clearly shows its decision-makers haven’t seen a reason to become part of Sony Interactive Entertainment yet.

World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.

2. Investment in internal teams is a better use of cash.

At present, Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios features a suite of more than a dozen teams. Guerilla Games. Naughty Dog. San Diego. Santa Monica. Media Molecule. Sucker Punch. And more, with a legit laundry list of projects under their belts that define what PlayStation is more than anything else. These will also be the main contributors to Sony’s launch lineup next generation when the (probably named) PlayStation 5 (likely) releases in late 2020.

This is a dazzling entourage of the most talented, prolific teams in all of gaming. They make games specifically for a single company’s platforms, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR presently. Which means they are experts. If the big focus is appealing to the hardcore audience, that means investing in the personnel that make up these excellent studios is of much more importance than trying to attract external talent. Not to mention, it’s more cost effective to retain individual team members at existing studios than to integrate entire teams.

Sony is known for its first party content. It’s why there are 96 million PlayStation 4 consoles shipped to date, not to mention the absurd numbers for prior generations where Sony has 5 of the top 10 best-selling pieces of hardware ever made. World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.

A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.

3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.

When we talk partnerships in gaming, this includes stuff like marketing deals, exclusive content, pre-order bonuses and similar incentives to attract players towards one platform above another. As much as exclusives are not ideal, especially for those without multiple systems, it’s a reality.

The reason I think Sony should opt for partnerships over purchases is that from a corporate standpoint, these deals allow for the best of both worlds. Development teams benefit from the backing of a major console manufacturer, especially for advertising spend, while they also remain independent to pursue experimental projects or titles for multiple platforms.

Need a concrete example? Well, I already mentioned one in Insomniac Games. This time, I’d like to bring up Square Enix. I don’t hear anyone calling for Sony to scoop it up just because games like NieR: Automata or Final Fantasy VII Remake have an alignment with PlayStation as timed exclusives. A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and a smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.

While a team like Remedy certainly has less output and lower valuation than Square, I view it similarly because of its standing as publicly-traded plus a history with manufacturers other than Sony. Then there’s the case of Kojima Productions. Game design legend Hideo Kojima had an infamous falling out with Konami a few years back, which led to him founding a private studio. When a company is used to being independent, or recently has become so, and it’s not facing financial instability, its asking price goes up plus the attractiveness of being owned by a parent company plummets.

4. Finally, hardware R&D will be the focus of Sony’s gaming budget.

While Sony’s gaming division now leads the overall firm in both sales and operating income, it’s just one of many considerations when budgets are drawn up. All signs point to it being the final year of the PlayStation 4’s life cycle. In the lead-up to a new generation, research and development costs naturally ramp up especially for a console targeting the “core” demographic of gamers, as illustrated above from executive comments. Design and construction aren’t cheap. Not to mention the massive marketing push that will take the better part of next year.

If Sony intends to put out a powerful console in late 2020 with a quality launch lineup, we’re talking a sizeable chunk of its budget dedicated to this endeavor. How much is leftover to use on merger activity? What’s the most effective way for it to balance hardware and software demands? My thought is that most of its budget must be allocated to its next PlayStation and a core offering of exclusive games, which leaves less for M&A prospects at the risk of being spread thin.

To wrap up this admittedly lengthy post, while I’d never entirely rule out the possibility of acquisitions, I think the contingent calling for Sony to dole out cash on multiple studios has unrealistic expectations. Namely because of where the firm is at in the console cycle. It already has so many talented studios in which it should invest to spur growth, then continue to reinforce its relationships with third parties. This is the ideal route to meet its goal of strengthening its software portfolio, plus has added benefits for external companies that have fought hard for self-sufficiency over the years.

It’s flashy to talk about studio acquisitions, almost casually tossing around names. And it’s certainly more boring to hope that a company stays consistent with its current strategy even when it’s doing quite well. In this case, I’m both hoping and betting that Sony keeps it boring like Proposition Joe said (The Wire hear me). Because its business ain’t broke, literally and figuratively, so it doesn’t need fixing.

Sources: Bloomberg, GamesPress, Gematsu, Kazuhiro Nog/AFP/Getty Images, NVIDIA, PushSquare, Road to VR, Sony Corp, Wall Street Journal.

-Dom

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a Good Game That Couldn’t Capture the Magic of its Predecessors

While Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t ashamed to wear its inspiration on its sleeve and execute on the checklist of its “vania” genre, it doesn’t elevate above the shadow of its predecessors. The result is a solid 2D action game from the ArtPlay team, with punchy combat, map exploration, upgrades and unlocks plus a myriad of items to collect, that operates within the confines of its tropes rather than pushing beyond to become something magical.

I’ll start by addressing the genre. There are way too many derivations ending with “vania” in video games. Metroidvania is the original of course, a popular term used for borrowed elements from classic franchises Metroid and Castlevania. Even though it’s tired nomenclature, “Igavania” is one particular description that does carry weight. Named for the distinct personality of Japanese developer Koji Igarashi, famed Castlevania producer, who conceived Bloodstained: ROTN after leaving Konami around five years ago. This final version is the byproduct of a lengthy Kickstarter crowd-funding effort that began all the way back in 2015.

With that out of the way, the game is the definition of solid though not revolutionary. Its core elements are consistent, namely combat, upgrades and map traversal, though there’s too many frustrations and roadblocks hampering it from excellence.

Story setup is typical. A group of alchemists summoned demons through a dangerous ritual, in hopes of maintaining their influence amidst the 19th century Industrial Revolution. (Smart plan.) The main character is Miriam, a “Shardbinder” who the alchemists experimented on as an orphan. Due to those tests, she can absorb crystals which (you guessed it) provide powerful abilities. Her counterpart Gebel feels animosity towards the alchemists for being used in their experiments, so he sets out for revenge by raising an evil castle full of demons. Along the way Miriam slays said baddies plus meets survivors integral to the narrative like an older alchemist, an apprentice, an exorcist and an Eastern demon hunter. The usual crowd.

The result is a solid 2D action game from the ArtPlay team, with punchy combat, map exploration, upgrades and unlocks plus a myriad of items to collect, that operates within the confines of its tropes rather than pushing beyond to become something magical.

Thus the singular goal throughout is to confront Gebel. There are side “quests” given by survivors, though calling them that is generous at best. There are really only three types: kill enemies, return items and make food. Repeat ad nauseam. I’m fine with their inclusion, it’s just these are falsely represented as anything more than errands. I counted only one true side story, involving a gentlemen trying to find his way back home. Though not nearly trying hard enough. It was comical, showing the potential for way more than the other set of monotonous chores.

Back to the main path, it’s finding Gebel that’s equal parts fun and tedious. Fighting demons is as expected, through a blend of upgradeable weapons and spells. Enemy variety is a highlight, even borderline extravagant. Facing off against massive wolf creatures, flying gargoyles, disembodied animal heads and electric jellyfish among others is novel at first, though becomes increasingly more mundane as slight variations are introduced and status effects take front stage. Sure it provides variety. That doesn’t mean it’s all memorable.

The biggest and baddest bosses are mostly good, albeit traditional, with a couple stand-outs that I won’t mention. Even the more cliched are well-executed, like the now standard doppelganger face-off. Boss encounters elicit the sort of down-to-the-wire moments where the player expends all abilities, healing items and strength. Emerging victorious, especially during the final gauntlet, easily pinpoints one of the game’s most remarkable qualities.

Artwork is striking, colorful in spots. Screen shots don’t do it justice. And the presence of the simple mini-map alongside modern visuals is truly awesome. Though there are some funky visual quirks with water and reflections, which stand out even more when so much of the game looks brilliant.

An impressive aspect is how the team uses camera techniques to shift the two dimensional perspective to show that it’s really built in a 3D space. Each area is distinct, as art design blends with functionality. Like the spiraling ascent of a massive tower or the sandy waterfalls of an underground desert. One area features moving machinery and shifting bookshelves, where ArtPlay does a good job incorporating its world design into environmental puzzles. Smartly revealing hidden areas or surprise enemies in the process.

Later areas especially require trickier platforming. Evolving game spaces in flux, like alternating or moving platforms with flying enemies to dodge. There’s that usual Igavania feel, complete with the frustrations of Medusa-like enemies seeking to turn Miriam into stone, and it’s a welcome change from the more combat heavy first couple acts.

The feel of progression is key in this genre, and Bloodstained: ROTN does it well enough with the major exception being swimming which I’ll detail below. Gaining new techniques such as double-jumps that allow further map exploration is a staple of vanias. In the game’s third act, there’s one that turns the game on its head which I found quite useful. Game length could span a few hours to upwards of more than a dozen, depending on approach. Which is maybe a bit too long for players like me that achieved near 100% map completion. Specifically because of pacing issues I’ll get into soon.

Boss encounters elicit the sort of down-to-the-wire moments where the player expends all abilities, healing items and strength. Emerging victorious, especially during the final gauntlet, easily pinpoints one of the game’s most remarkable qualities.

You’re probably thinking: All of this sounds pretty cool. And you’re right. There’s still a lot I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s not nearly as positive.

First, it had a game-breaking bug at launch that still can plague players if not updated to the most recent patch. Absolutely make sure to be on the current version, especially Switch owners that will be playing it this upcoming week.

I also haven’t mentioned how Bloodstained: ROTN has crafting, cooking and transmuting systems in its sort of hub village. That’s because these are only somewhat useful when the real treat is finding stuff through enemies and chests. It is convenient in cases like health and status effect potions. Though these features are under-developed and the menus are convoluted. The cooking menu in particular is.. half-baked.

Let’s talk meat and potatoes. (Yup.) Item drops, namely weapons and gear. Part of what makes something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or more recent titles La Mulana 2 or Dead Cells special is that each drop feels meaningful. See an item pop-up, instantly access the menu and equip it to boost stats ever so slightly yet always importantly. With Bloodstained: ROTN, there’s just too much loot for a lot of it to matter. And so many duplicates! I spent the first half of the game using an accessory that I got from a lowly enemy in the tutorial segment, and made a God-tier weapon within an hour that I used until the game forced me to switch it due to narrative reasons.

Plus, except on the highest difficulty, I don’t see the need for a “build” which renders much of the more specific gear or abilities an afterthought. I tend to go for balanced builds, which worked perfectly. Combine balanced stats with an overpowered weapon, and encounters became more and more trivial. I can count on one hand the amount of items I used in each slot. Experimentation wasn’t rewarded, because I always felt like my prior setup was superior.

It pains me to say in all seriousness that this game has legitimately one of the worst water areas I’ve ever played. This is not hyperbole. It’s up there with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. Not only are the controls absolutely miserable, it can’t even be accessed without a random ability drop from an inconspicuous enemy! We’re not talking an optional area here. This is required to finish the main story. It’s the only time I had to look up a guide to see what the heck I had to do, which was wait until one enemy dropped its corresponding shard ability.

This leads me to my final criticism: When a vania doesn’t have good signposting, as in an effective indication of where to go next, it risks feeling aimless and frustrating. Bloodstained: ROTN is one such game, which ultimately results in uneven pacing. Luckily there are times when it rewards wandering, though doesn’t offer more than a vague reference from a non-playable character on where to go next. Combining a lack of signposting with the requirement of a random ability to drop in order to progress in the main campaign mission is not good design, in my opinion.

After touching on both sides of my experience, I want to acknowledge that I had a good enough time playing it. However while exhilarating in spots, especially its boss fights, Bloodstained: ROTN isn’t a successor to Castlevania: SOTN or even worthy of comparisons to modern marvels like Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight or DrinkBox Studio’s Guacamelee! series. It’s more of a nod to its genre that adheres to its boundaries rather than innovating too much, which is disappointing considering its pedigree. I’m content that I tried it, though am left wanting it to be polished, improved and made much more memorable than it was.

Title: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Release Date: June 18, 2019 (PC, PS4 & XB1), June 25, 2019 (Nintendo Switch)

Developer: ArtPlay

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PC (GoG & Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Recommendation: If you are craving a game in the genre and haven’t already, I’d recommend playing the timeless Castlevania: SOTN which has a version available on Xbox One via backwards compatibility. (In fact, what are you doing? You should be playing that instead of reading this.) If you have, I still mentioned other games above that I’d suggest playing instead. If you do opt to try this one, you’ll probably feel nostalgic in the first few hours then will be somewhat underwhelmed when that feeling wears off. If you can tolerate the issues I cited, enjoy!

Sources: 505 Games, GamesPress, Mana Ikeda (Character Art Image), Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

New U.S. Video Game Sales Last Month Were Slowest May in Over Two Decades

Back again with the sales talk! I’ll do my best to make this piece as riveting as possible, though as expected May was a bit of a snoozer when it comes to the market here in the States. It’s a mid-year month in the year before a new console generation. So it’s more like game stales, amirite.

Okay. Moving on.

The NPD Group produced its latest monthly report this past Tuesday, with the standout statistic being that sales of new video game releases were at their lowest level for a May month since 1998. Mainly because there just weren’t a lot of notable major software releases. Which checks out, because it’s probably the quietest month we’ll see all year. What I’m really saying is, not a lot of publishers abide by the “It’s gonna be May” mantra.

In terms of the overall industry, total consumer spending declined 11% to $641 million as sales across all three of its tracked meta segments either declined or remained flat.

Beginning with hardware, the category saw a dip of 20% to $149 million. Nintendo Switch was the main bright spot, as the only console to show year-over-year growth when compared to May 2018. For this year to date, total hardware sales eclipsed $1.1 billion which is 17% lower than this same period last year.

As alluded to above, Nintendo continues its streak of wins. May was the 6th consecutive month in which the Switch hybrid led hardware sales. As measured by both units sold and dollar sales. Switch also remained the highest selling console of the year to date. Reminder that Nintendo announced during its last earnings report that Switch lifetime sales hit 34.74 million globally. Essentially, the company that people counted out during its flubbed Wii U era is now propping up the industry while competitors Microsoft and Sony see their hardware grow long-in-the-tooth.

Talk about the perfect segue.. Switching briefly to peripherals, at least multiplayer games like Fortnite and now Dauntless entice people to keep buying those headsets and controllers. Accessory sales stayed consistent around $230 million, with Sony’s black DualShock 4 controller as the top-selling within this category for May and 2019 so far. Consumer spend on accessories for year to date is now at $1.4 billion, up approximately 3%.

In terms of games, software sales across console, portable and PC platforms dropped 13% in May to $262 million. When talking overall software sales, it’s the lowest May monthly result since 2013. I mentioned the dearth of new game sales already. This is sluggish for even the usual summer drought.

While total software purchasing was soft, I believe there are individual games worth noting before we get to the full charts.

Mortal Kombat 11 is having a.. killer launch season. NetherRealm Studio’s latest fighting game achieved the number one spot on the overall software chart for a second straight month since its launch in late April. It led the monthly Xbox One and PlayStation 4 individual rankings, too.

Not only that, and most importantly, it moved past Kingdom Hearts 3 to become the best-selling game of the year so far. To put MK11’s fantastic momentum in perspective, its 2nd month sales result is almost twice the amount of any other installment in the classic franchise. Part of the reason is how NetherRealm is adapting the series for modern tastes, offering unlockables in the base game then pushing post-launch content. The game’s latest character addition Shang Tsung released mere days ago. I’m anticipating good momentum even as other big releases hit, due to the appeal of new content over time plus establishing itself as a leading platform in the genre.

I’d also like to highlight results for three other titles: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rage 2 and.. Minecraft. Yup. Mojang’s creation game that released a decade ago, having since attained cultural phenomenon status and sold more units than anything except Tetris, is back in the monthly top ten list. The 9th best-selling overall, to be exact, plus the 7th best-selling game on Xbox One. Honestly, how are there so many people that don’t already own Minecraft?

Sega’s Total War: Three Kingdoms and Bethesda’s Rage 2 were the only new releases achieving top ten status last month, slotting at #3 and #4 respectively. Both of these are impressive accomplishments, considering the past few Total War games didn’t even chart and Rage 2 sales don’t include digital. (Bethesda doesn’t share that portion for its games). In an interesting but ultimately useless tidbit, the original Rage was also the 4th best-selling title in its release month of October 2011. The more you know, ya know.

(Shameless plug: I reviewed Rage 2 here and had a good time with it.)

Finally, PlayStation 4 exclusives like Days Gone and MLB The Show 19 are showing solid legs considering availability on solely one platform. Both games maintain spots in the top ten, plus move up in the year-to-date chart. And the beleaguered multi-platform title Anthem from BioWare is still hanging onto the fourth spot in the 2019 rankings. Both of these are happening in the doldrums of late Spring of course, so keeping an eye over time will tell the full story.

It’s now time to check out the main software rankings for May, which focus on strictly the U.S. market. For individual platform charts and way more information, read this extensive thread from NPD Analyst and, more importantly of course, my buddy Mat Piscatella.

Top-Selling Games of May 2019 (Physical & Digital Sales):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Days Gone
  3. Total War: Three Kingdoms
  4. Rage 2*
  5. Grand Theft Auto V
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. MLB The Show 19
  9. Minecraft#
  10. NBA 2K19
  11. Mario Kart 8*
  12. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  13. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  14. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  15. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Siege
  18. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  19. Team Sonic Racing
  20. Yoshi’s Crafted World*

Top-Selling Games of 2019 (Year to Date):

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Kingdom Hearts 3
  3. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  4. Anthem^
  5. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Days Gone
  9. MLB The Show 19
  10. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

^Digital PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on Consoles Included

I think I did pretty well squeezing as much as I could out of a mostly uneventful time frame. How did your predictions hold up? Surprises? Leave a note here or shoot me a message on Twitter. Hope to see you again next month!

Sources: The NPD Group, Bethesda Softworks, Microsoft, Sega, GamesPress.

-Dom

The Themes & Sounds of Funomena’s Luna Had Me Over the Moon

With its themes of togetherness, creation and rejuvenation commingled with brilliant sound design, Luna is a quick, impactful indie game that transitioned well to console play from its virtual reality roots.

(Plus, and I know you noticed, it gives me a great opportunity to use an amazing pun that I couldn’t if I didn’t enjoy it!)

Funomena, a team of 30 folks based in San Francisco led by noted indie talent Robin Hunicke, originally released the esoteric, interactive story Luna in 2017 on virtual reality and PC platforms. Today marks its PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR debut, and it’s certainly worth trying. Likely via either medium, though this review is of the PS4 version.

It’s a game that’s relaxing without descending into boredom. Slight overtones of loneliness, albeit not dark, that transition into hopefulness. More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.

The tale centers on Bird, a little feathered friend that boasts a mighty song, trying to recover bits of the Moon by uplifting other critters. The other main character is Owl, ever foreboding and mysterious. Funomena’s presentation here is like a virtual picture book, with hand-crafted art and a soothing vocal narrator. The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.

Luna packs a decent variety into its two to three hour playtime, as there are a handful of main “phases” that form its framework. Two of them revolve around light puzzle elements. One that’s semi-rhythmic in nature, as Bird sings to open nuts growing on a tree, while the other has the player forming constellations of different shapes or animals.

It’s necessary to complete these puzzles in order to open each of its level. What I like about the puzzles is they aren’t stagnant. They evolve each time, presenting slightly different challenges. One introduces a rotation element, the next takes away certain visual clues. It’s never too hard, and I appreciate the feeling of progression.

Speaking of its levels, they are mini-worlds each with a distinct animal inhabitant. And these are the true highlight of the game. Each of these spaces is effectively a dreary spot in need of enlightening, both literally and figuratively. Bird is fly enough to help! This is where player choice comes in, though there isn’t a strict set of goals or guidelines. It’s really a sort of free-flowing activity, which offers the player a chance to “cultivate” the scene with different plants, trees or flowers.

The player has to coax out each animal by planting those objects throughout this defined play space. Brighten it all up. Change the size. Sprinkle in color. As the player places trees or bushes, life awakens. Even though it’s simplistic and guided by context clues, it’s still satisfying. Plus, this allows for a level of creative expression. It’s especially fun to see one’s handiwork come to life in the background of the cut scene that ends each segment.

More an experience than a traditional video game. Which seems to be the exact intention. If someone is arguing whether games are art, Luna attempts to prove that no one should even be questioning it.

It’s almost a cliche these days to compare something to thatgamecompany’s Journey, though it’s natural here based on the team’s background of working on the 2012 independent classic. Luna dabbles in similar themes, as Bird tries to communicate using bits of song, though I’d actually align it more with recent titles like Fe and Gris from Zoink Games and Nomada Studio, respectively. Both of which I quite enjoyed, though this here is a much more swift adventure.

Sound plays a major role, especially in the puzzle areas. Since the player interacts with the game using a type of cursor controlled by the joystick, interacting with many of the game’s visual elements will spark a unique sound. Trying to connect a star chart to form a constellation? Guitar strings twang when the cursor crosses over any connections that already exist. It’s a subtle touch, and I found myself messing around to see how many different notes the team programmed.

Expanding on the game’s auditory direction, part of why it works so well is its free form design combined with a smooth, natural soundtrack from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Abzu). His incorporation of chimes and piano chords amidst sounds of flowing water or ambient tones were great on console, and I’d imagine even better when immersed in VR.

The simple yet effective story is told through its environments and player interactions, with bits of narration interspersed that act more as guidance than exposition.

As much as I enjoyed Luna, I have to admit there were small moments of frustration. I think it’s equal parts the game’s fault and my own. Within the first space, as I was planting trees and changing their colors to my heart’s desire, I started to question how I was going to progress. The world seemed complete, or at least my version of it was, which meant I felt stuck. I rotated the camera, poked and prodded though couldn’t complete the instance. It wasn’t readily apparent that I had to keep adding flora until a visual cue popped up and I could conclude the level.

This is a case where the game’s abstract nature works against it. Especially for me, as I tend to be goal-oriented. Luna nudges in directions, lets the player create rather than enforcing strict guidelines. Which started as a confusion, then became much appreciated after I learned I had to form my own path. Perhaps this is the intent.

The other downside is that it ended way too abruptly! It’s not that I assume a game like this would be grandiose in its finale, it’s that I hoped it would be more interactive. Especially after giving the player tools throughout to express individuality. Just when I expected to create my digital masterpiece, Luna took the reigns and ended its story on its own terms. It’s not my ideal conclusion, though it certainly didn’t ruin the overall experience.

My thoughts on the ending are not too damning really, since the real treat is the time spent in the game’s melodic, inspiring world. The puzzles are never too difficult, and ultimately a means to open levels where the player is way more free to tinker. Nothing is overly complex, nor does it need to be.

Funomena achieves a status of interactive art with Luna, in multiple respects. It’s a visual story about unification, overcoming feelings of desertion or guilt and a sense that planting seeds can grow fruitful relationships. This all means that, in the time it takes to watch a film, I’d recommend instead taking a quick virtual trip over the Moon.

Title: Luna

Release Date: October 17, 2017 (VR), November 22, 2017 (PC), June 18, 2019 (PS4, PS VR)

Developer: Funomena

Publisher: Funomena

Platforms: Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR

Recommendation: If you made it this far, you already know I think it’s worth a shot! Really thinking that virtual reality version might be even better, too.

Sources: Funomena, Screenshots from PlayStation 4 Pro.

Disclaimer: Review code provided by Funomena.

-Dom

Working Casual’s E3 2019 Best in Show Awards: Top 3 Best Moments

My third and final post of post-E3 coverage is going to be a quick hitter. You can find the earlier ones by clicking on this link or that link.

Outside of the games themselves, there are major moments at each year’s show that ripple throughout the next year or more in the industry. I’ve gathered up three such moments slash trends, in my Top 3 Best Moments of E3 2019 awards.

Now is the moment when you read them. Thanks!

Microsoft’s Xbox Project Scarlett Reveal.

For my first best moment, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer formally revealed Microsoft’s next generation of gaming console called Project Scarlett during the Xbox briefing last Sunday. Its introduction was reminiscent of the powerful Xbox One iteration Project Scorpio from last year’s event, namely a short video featuring hardware engineers and designers. These folks rattled off buzzwords such as the box will have a custom AMD processor with GDDR6 memory, a solid state drive, 8K resolution support, 120 frames per second capability and more.

Which is kind of general, plus of course there was no actual showing of the box or mention of price. Not even the final name, as it’s still being decided according later interviews with Spencer. We do have a release window at least plus one launch title: Project Scarlett is targeting Holiday 2020 alongside 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite. It’s a major moment for the Xbox brand and console gaming, though there’s still so many details left for future events including next year’s E3 show.

Gaming Services: Google Stadia, Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Ubisoft’s UPlay Plus and probably more.

We can’t go a couple of weeks these days without another company revealing some sort of modern service for gamers, whether it be streaming or access to a digital catalog. The most significant of these started back on June 6th right before E3 weekend, with Google Stadia Connect. In a prepared video that felt more like a corporate presentation than gaming reveal, VP & GM Phil Harrison of the massive tech giant discussed more on its streaming service such as a November release window for early adopters in certain countries, Google Stadia Pro monthly subscription, a lineup of 31 games on sale at launch and that Destiny 2 would be included as part of the Pro tier.

The other streaming offering featured prominently at E3 was Microsoft’s Project xCloud, one of Google Stadia’s main competitors. A quick mention at the Xbox briefing was followed by hands-on demos for media folks. Details here are more vague, as the remote streaming service is in its earlier testing phases among employees with a more public beta period rumored for this Fall. I’m a vocal skeptic on game streaming due to the physical limitations of reducing input lag and the lack of widespread internet infrastructure in a number of areas even in the States, so both of these projects have a lot to prove in my eyes.

Then there’s the other types of services. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which offers console and PC players a library of older games, first party exclusives plus Xbox Live online service for a friendly $15 per month. Ubisoft also shared UPlay Plus, a PC subscription giving access to the publisher’s suite of games for, again, $15 monthly. This has a firm release date of September 3, 2019. Not to mention there’s probably another one announced at the show that I missed, because these are popping up at a rapid pace. Which one will catch on and which will fizzle? I’m confident in the appeal of Xbox Game Pass, then UPlay Plus will carve out its niche, though streaming is the big question mark even though there’s no denying it’s the talk of the industry lately.

Square Enix E3 Showcase Revival.

Let’s be real. Last year’s Square Enix showcase wasn’t very good. The Japanese publisher redeemed itself this year in what I thought was the best of all the major companies, including Nintendo’s strong Direct offering.

The show began with a remarkable portion on the remake to Final Fantasy VII, a game I awarded one of my best in show. It somehow showed both a trailer and gameplay section without feeling overly bloated or boring. Plus, the March 3, 2020 release date reveal was a pleasant surprise.

Towards the end of its showcase, Square finally showed off the mysterious Marvel’s Avengers project. The game looked solid enough, though wasn’t able to capture a top spot on my awards. Presentation itself was good, though dragged towards the end when talking about future content when we don’t even really know that the game proper is. Surprisingly, we do have an exact release date, May 15, 2010. Earlier than I anticipated.

In between, Square boasted a number of games targeting both local and Western audiences. Some of which are internal, others it’s publishing. Dragon Quest XI Definitive, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Dying Light 2, Final Fantasy VIII remastered, Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Kingdom Hearts 3, Oninaki, Outriders, Romancing Saga 3, Square Enix Collective indie titles, The Last Remnant remastered, Trials of Mana collection to name a few. Not all of these are my types of games, though I’m plenty interested in enough of them plus impressed enough with the showcase’s overall pacing that I’m here to award Square Enix with the title of strongest live show.

Sad to say, that about does it for E3 2019. Next year’s is already announced for June 9th to June 11th, 2020. Let’s do it all again then!

Sources: Companies included here, Entertainment Software Association, GamesPress, CNET.

-Dom

Working Casual’s E3 2019 Best in Show Awards: Top 10 Smaller Games

The prior entry in my E3 2019 Best in Show Awards covered what I called the “bigger” titles featured at this year’s event.

Now, let’s highlight “smaller” ones. As in, those made by smaller teams, built with lower budgets or created by independent studios that don’t fit into the traditional AAA mold. Some of the best stuff might not be featured at the major press briefings. It certainly will be here!

Quick note that my final post is now up, and it’s all about the best moments.

In no particular order, other than alphabetical of course, let’s work through my Top 10 “Smaller” Games of E3 2019.

12 Minutes

Developer: Luis Antonio

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Release Date: 2020

I’m always blown away when a game is made predominantly by a single person. The top-down interactive narrative 12 Minutes is such a title, on which creator Luis Antonio has been laboring for years. Its intense trailer starts innocuously enough with two lovers eating dinner. The woman is set to reveal she’s pregnant, when the man says he knows already. It descends into a series of quick cuts that reveal our characters are stuck within a repeating period of time, where the woman’s father is dead and someone is out to get them. Apparently it’s played in 12 minutes increments, hence the name, and it’s totally my type of mystery.

Creature in the Well

Developer: Flight School Studio

Publisher: Flight School Studio

Release Date: Summer 2019

As a known proponent of pinball in video games, Creature in the Well is an easy pick for one of my awards. Made by mostly a duo of two folks from Flight School Studio, which is a broader team of 30 across Texas and Canada, it’s a dungeon-diving, top-down action game where puzzles are achieved using pinball mechanics. Its striking art style plus clever gameplay elements add to its appeal. And the best news is that it’s set for a release sooner than later!

Fall Guys

Developer: Mediatonic Games

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Release Date: 2020

If I had an award for the best trailer of E3, no doubt Fall Guys would be a contender. The colorful, goofy “ultimate knockout” multiplayer title is basically a bizarre gameshow set in a 3D cartoon space. Contestants have to navigate obstacles then fight through the crowd in hopes of being crowned king of the arena. Word is that Mediatonic plans to treat it as a kind of indie live service game, adding events over time. A truly unique take on the somewhat stagnant battle royale genre.

Hollow Knight: Silksong

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Release Date: TBA

Challenging 2D action game Hollow Knight was a sleeper hit for me last year on Nintendo Switch, though technically out in 2017 on PC. Silksong began as an expansion for the original, and has increased in scope to become a full-blown sequel. The player will control the agile Hornet navigating across a new bug-filled kingdom, facing off against at least 150 brand new enemies and a variety of Team Cherry’s notoriously tricky boss fights. Can’t wait to jump back into the world with its subtlety beautiful art and haunting musical score.

John Wick Hex

Developer: Bithell Games

Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment & Lionsgate Games

Release Date: TBA

Here’s how good this game looks: I’m not even a fan of the John Wick movies, I’m a novice tactics gamer and I don’t love isometric perspectives. But whew this looks so innovative in the context of what I’d expect from a John Wick game that I had to award it, if not just for its level of creativity. The coolest part is that once the player reaches the end of a level, they can rewind and see how it would look in real-time. Effectively replicating the frantic combat choreography of the film franchise.

Journey to the Savage Planet

Developer: Typhoon Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Release Date: Early 2020

It’s so difficult for a game to be genuinely funny, as often times they walk a line between flat and cringey. Journey to the Savage Planet is neither of those things, in what looks like a hilarious first-person action-adventure set in a distant world. The player is there to catalog species and see if humans could inhabit the planet. Its creature design stands out immediately. Little round spheres with bulging eyeballs, giant dinosaur looking beasts then long-necked birds that split apart into more squawking birds when damaged. Definitely way into its tone and overall aesthetic.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: February 11, 2020

Set to release five years after Ori and the Blind Forest amazed many with its incredible art, masterful music and imaginative gameplay, this sequel is looking just as good and even larger in scope. Its familiar art direction and precision platforming stand out in its latest trailer, as we see examples of how the cute Ori’s suite of abilities improve this time around, though I’m also intrigued to learn about how its story expands on the events of the first. Plus, how about Moon Studios’ design of those massive enemies!

Psychonauts 2

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: 2020

My next award goes to Double Fine’s long-awaited sequel to cult classic Psychonauts, as the studio revealed its first gameplay trailer. This tease shows off how the quirky 3rd person adventure looks in action, plus its crazy characters and setup that everything exists within someone’s mind. Microsoft announced its acquisition of Double Fine during the former’s press briefing, though folks that don’t own an Xbox shouldn’t fret. It’s still coming to all of the platforms announced during its Fig crowdfunding campaign, including PlayStation 4.

Spiritfarer

Developer: Thunder Lotus Games

Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games

Release Date: 2020

I bet it’s the art style that instantly catches one’s eye when seeing images of this beautiful 2D adventure project. Though what really inspired this award is its premise. Beneath that beautiful design is a game about being a “ferrymaster to the dead,” the titular Spiritfarer, and exploring a game world while chatting with recently deceased spirits before guiding them to the void beyond. It’s meant to be a more upbeat portrayal of mortality, which is super unique within the medium. Not to mention you have a friendly kitty sidekick named Daffodil. (I’m more a dog person, but I ain’t complaining.)

The Sinking City

Developer: Frogwares

Publisher: Bigben Interactive

Release Date: June 27, 2019

There’s plenty of fiction drawn from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, especially when it comes to art direction or enemy design. Frogwares’ latest applies it to a 3rd-person investigative mystery with exploration and light combat elements. Set amidst a whole lot of weird folks living in a New England town being consumed by water and madness, its gameplay looks familiar enough. Searching for clues to solve crimes and even murders. The real intriguing part is the eerie plot and cosmic horror often seen in Lovecraftian settings. Not to mention I’ll be dusting off my investigative skills very soon when it’s out in mere weeks.

Honorable Mention:

Afterparty

Developer: Night School Studio

Publisher: Night School Studio

Release Date: 2019

Main reason for a mention here rather than an actual award is that Night School was present at E3 in a panel, though we didn’t actually see much more from the game in which a pair of friends has to outdrink the devil in order to win their way out of hell. Yes, that’s actually what it is. I really liked the studio’s 2016 title Oxenfree, and this latest project has many of the same trappings including dialogue pop-ups that the player picks. Was really hoping to hear a release date since it’s supposed to be out quite soon.

That concludes this round of awards. The third and final piece will be on the Top 3 Best Moments of E3 2019. Thanks much if you made it this far!

Sources: Companies included here, Entertainment Software Association, GamesPress, CNET.

-Dom