A Plague Tale: Innocence Is Both Pure & Painful To Play, That’s Why It’s So Powerful

Amicia and Hugo tip-toe across cadavers strewn about a now empty battlefield, devoid of life except for them, where men had fought face-to-face and died together.

“Are we hurting them?” the boy Hugo questions honestly, with equal levels concern and naivete in his voice that makes one feel the men might actually be alive when you know they will never be again.

This uniquely harrowing and tender sequence represents the essence of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a game in which small bits of purity often exist amidst total and utter despair. It’s a place where video games seldom have the courage to go, or fail in an attempt to do so.

Asobo Studio’s stealth-adventure isn’t like other games. Incredible, heartbreaking and often downright repulsive, the French team’s creation is a special experience that proves a game doesn’t have to be fun in order to be enjoyable. In fact, I’d argue that the struggle of playing through its jarring environments and painful moments is intentional. And precisely what makes it so memorable.

To confirm, it’s not the mechanics or systems that make it painful to play. In fact, directors David Dedeine and Kevin Choteau create fluid stealth and combat abilities, as I’ll dive into later. It’s because of the setting, its aesthetic and overall tone. Its decaying environments. The ghastly corridors. That sickening feeling of trudging through the of world and its timeline, as children nonetheless. These aspects are chilling, approaching unbearable, that I won’t be able to shake them for a long time. This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.

Set in France during the 14th Century, this interactive narrative published by Focus Home Interactive follows the children of nobles Beatrice and Robert De Rune amidst a blood plague and the Inquisition. The player controls teenager Amicia, often alongside her five year-old brother Hugo, the latter of which starts the story in quarantine at the behest of his mother due to suffering from a mysterious illness.

In the opening scene, Inquisition soldiers storm the De Rune residence looking for young Hugo. It’s here the game introduces its main features: stealth, deception and light combat elements. Amicia boasts a variety of distraction and even lethal techniques, plus can direct her companions to help clear a path or unlock areas. It’s a clever system that peels back deeper and deeper layers throughout the game, even up to its final act, and tailors Amicia’s tools based on who is with her at a particular time.

The siblings escape the estate, though Robert and Beatrice remain behind with their Inquisition captors. Robert is slain and Beatrice appears to be as well. What follows is a narrative normally not attempted in games, focusing on teenagers and children plodding through a war-torn region plagued by a number of atrocities. Albeit still very much a game, speckled with familiar mechanics and tropes within its genre.

This sort of emotional difficulty stands out just as much as the challenging combat of a Dark Souls or pinpoint platforming required in a Kaizo Mario. This struggle, more than anything, is the defining characteristic of A Plague Tale: Innocence.

As the pair crosses through villages, monasteries, farms and chateaus, they face the game’s primary obstacle and most notable piece of technology: Rats. Not just any old vermin. Rabid, swarming groups of rats that devour anything not near fire or light. These are plague rats, as deadly as they are disgusting.

These swarms and Inquisition soldiers become the framework for most of the environmental puzzles. The De Runes must leverage Amicia’s sling to fling rocks and specific concoctions that can put out fires, daze foes or even blast holes through large groups of vermin. This presents all sorts of options, and while the early puzzles are rudimentary, the later game opens multiple paths to allow more elaborate combinations of tactics. Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.

To supplement Amicia’s stealth capabilities, there’s crafting of different rock “formulas” via an alchemy menu. Spells have Harry Potter-esque names like Ignifier or Luminosa. Combining is essential as both human and rodent foes become more varied in later encounters. There’s also upgrade trees for her sling, equipment and ammunition, so scouring areas for supplies is essential. This and the game’s other systems are deeper than initially thought.

It’s also more open than it seems. Branching paths create a sense of wonder, creating the sensation that its spaces are actually larger than they are. Walking with a side character into a nook within a broader room gives an opportunity for private dialogue and world-building through a handful of different collectible types. While it’s linear overall, A Plague Tale: Innocence has its share of intimate, optional moments.

One minor area of frustration for me was facing off against the game’s “bosses.” These battles are so difficult to design in this context, trying to balance stealth and combat. They can feel clunky or out-of-place, as they do here. I understand why they are present, helping to signal climaxes within each act, and I appreciate the effort despite them being my least favorite part of the game.

Since Amicia isn’t durable, it behooves one to take a more delicate approach. That’s not to say the lethal option isn’t effective. It’s impressive how much the game promotes creativity in this regard.

More broadly speaking, art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time. Kudos to the team. It’s hard to even describe: Diseased corpses, decaying animals and dilapidated buildings that were once beautiful litter the game spaces. Sometimes literally under Amicia’s feet. It’s haunting, stomach-turning stuff.

Plus, the narrative. It’s hard to describe how engaging writing lead Sébastien Renard makes it, between superlative character development, a main arc surrounding the plague then to genuine twists during late game. Especially given it centers on a pair of kids and the teenagers they meet while trying to deal with Hugo’s symptoms, finding respite amidst a world that isn’t fit for youngsters.

Amicia and Hugo’s relationship begins as distant, as the latter deals with loss for the first time. It progresses in conjunction with the game’s overarching story, as Amicia decides she’s willing to do just about anything to help her brother. They grow literally alongside one another, holding hands while solving puzzles. Hugo will bravely crawl through crevices or sneakily unlock doors. This highlights his growth, as previously he was cooped up in his bedroom. A victim of his affliction.

The game escalates quickly across 10 to 12 hours, from its more modest beginnings through a robust second act then a grand finale. Grand Inquisitor Vitalis targets Hugo throughout, as we learn how the boy, the rat plague and this twisted man leading the Inquisition are interwoven. While it gets fantastical at times, it’s forever grounded in its character relationships, motivations and determinations. I also respect that there’s equal chance the game serves up beautiful reunions between characters as it does extreme punishment, akin to the style of author George R.R. Martin.

The art direction is masterful in its depiction of what a plague-ridden Europe would look like during this period of history. It’s strikingly beautiful, a direct parallel to how its characters fight against the ugliness of their time.

Even secondary characters shine in their specific roles: The alchemist Lucas, orphan twins Melie and Arthur plus the blacksmith apprentice Rodric. All forced to mature and harden themselves way too early in life, something that children should never have to do. It’s notable how well-paced the game is, too. In that, it does downtime well. Quiet times in a Middle Ages castle that the group adopts as home or branching off to find a collectible with Hugo lull into a sense of respite. Then, that false comfort is shattered.

And I never thought I’d say this about any title: The “rat technology” of how the critters move in big groups and react to environments is impressive. This tech is crucial to so many puzzles that I don’t think it’d be near as effective without Asobo’s extensive animation and artificial intelligence work.

Voice acting and dialogue are also standout. It’s so difficult to feature children in games, which is why there are very few that do it successfully. A special shout out to Hugo’s English voice actor Logan Hannan. His performance is subtle and refreshing, even hopeful.

At one point, Hugo bemoans his torment. “I’m scared of what’s in my head,” he trembles to Amicia.

“Don’t worry.” she comforts. “We’re all scared of what’s in our heads.”

It’s a tender consolation, an understanding between the siblings. A morbid sort of comical relief that draws them closer. The boy never forgets his courtesies during the play-through, throwing in “Thank You’s” and “You’re Welcome’s” in the most charming of ways, as casually as if he was back at the De Rune estate eating dinner.

(Here’s a video featuring the actors alongside their characters.)

And the sound design! Strings escalate the tension as rats rush away from a light source. Lightning snaps across the backdrop of a fortress. The attention to this kind of detail is all the more noteworthy given how small the development team is.

What ultimately makes it special is that, while it certainly has villains, it’s hardly a good against evil cliche. It’s not merely a “surviving against the odds” tale. It’s young people attempting to maintain humanity when the world is chaos. A juxtaposition of purity and destruction. The symbolism of hopefulness while despair is ever-present.

Hugo will often find flowers throughout the world, and offer to put them in Amicia’s hair. Continually reinforcing the theme of contrast. This small, touching moment embodies what it means to stay positive within a decaying world. Characters looking for anything by which to feel a sense of normality. Fighting against those that would steal it away.

As far as historical adventures within the medium, A Plague Tale: Innocence is near a masterpiece of its genre. I’m ecstatic I gave it a legitimate chance despite my reservations about its rodents. I’m still not anywhere near comfortable with the swarms and the game’s many rotten elements, and I’ve learned that’s exactly the point.

Title: A Plague Tale: Innocence

Release Date: May 14, 2019

Developer: Asobo Studio

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Recommendation: Unless you are deathly afraid of rats, or dislike excellent games, this is undoubtedly a must-play.

Sources: Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive, Screenshots from Xbox One X.

-Dom

Mortal Kombat 11 & Nintendo Switch Kombine to Top April’s U.S. Video Game Sales Report

Lots of fighting game fans exclaimed “Get Over Here!” to NetherRealm Studio’s latest installment in the storied franchise, Mortal Kombat 11. The brutal beat-em-down title, published by Warner Bros Interactive and released on April 23rd, was the best-selling game of last month in the States according to The NPD Group’s latest report.

Mortal Kombat is one of the most well-known gaming series ever, partly due to its controversial graphic violence and propensity to upset pearl-clutching government officials. This most recent game’s predecessor Mortal Kombat X (2015) went on to be the biggest commercial success in franchise history, eclipsing more than 11 million units sold per famed co-creator Ed Boon.

While we don’t know global unit sales for Mortal Kombat 11 just yet, we now know that this latest entry is selling well domestically. It not only topped the April monthly chart, it also instantly entered the year-to-date list as the 2nd best-selling of 2019, second to only Square Enix’s Disney mash-up Kingdom Hearts 3.

Interestingly, it was tops on all four of its platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and even the Nintendo Switch. An impressive result all around, and I expect it will continue to chart at least during a slower summer release calendar.

Second place for April went to open world zombie game Days Gone from Sony Bend Studio, a PlayStation 4 exclusive title. I wrote recently that, despite thinking the title itself was mostly mediocre, I prognosticated that it would have broad market appeal and sell quite well. I even thought it might top the list of best-sellers last month.

While I was too bold in my prediction, arriving at #2 is a very good result. Namely since it’s limited to just the one platform. Days Gone also had the 7th best launch month for a Sony-published game in NPD’s tracking history, plus became Bend’s top-selling game ever after being on sale less than a full month.

A quiet success story unfolding as we approach mid-year is the solid momentum of another title only available on PlayStation 4, that being MLB The Show 19 from Sony San Diego. The baseball sim has achieved the #3 spot during the past two months of charts since its release on March 26th. It’s also moved up into the Top 10 of the year so far, hitting exactly #10.

MLB The Show 19 is currently the best-selling sports title of the year to date, and it’s still the fastest launch for a game in the franchise when lining up all the relevant launches. I bet the development team is.. having a ball!

Rounding out the Top 5 respectively are Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the shared world military RPG that was last month’s best-seller, then Nintendo’s ever-present party fighter Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The latter of which recently eclipsed a crazy 13.81 million units sold globally.

And of course, Rockstar Games continues to live up to its moniker by having not one but two of its works present on April’s list. Grand Theft Auto V being the leading one, coming in at #6 despite releasing all the way back in 2013. It’s a theme we’ve seen in most monthly charts, and I’ve continually stated it will be this way until its successor is out.

Below are April’s main software charts, which focus on strictly the U.S. market:

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

  1. Mortal Kombat 11
  2. Days Gone
  3. MLB The Show 19
  4. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  6. Grand Theft Auto V
  7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice^
  8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  9. NBA 2K19
  10. Yoshi’s Crafted World*
  11. Red Dead Redemption 2
  12. Mario Kart 8*
  13. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  14. Minecraft#
  15. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  16. Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Jump Force
  19. Battlefield V*
  20. Borderlands

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

  1. Kingdom Hearts 3
  2. Mortal Kombat 11
  3. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2^
  4. Anthem^
  5. Resident Evil 2 Remake 2019
  6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  7. Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice^
  9. Jump Force
  10. MLB The Show 19

^PC Sales Not Included, *Digital Sales Not Included, #Digital Sales on XB1 & PS4 Included

Flipping over to consoles, Nintendo Switch saw its 5th consecutive month atop the hardware chart as measured by both dollar sales and units. It’s still the best-selling console of the year, as well. The last time it was outpaced by Sony’s PlayStation 4 was during the pre-holiday rush of November. Even then, Switch generated more revenue. PS4 just happened to see higher unit sales because of heavy discounting.

Consumer spending on games in the States crept up 1% in April, to $842 million overall. This was driven by PC and console software, up 15% to $427 million, and the Accessories segment as it bumped 5% to $256 million on the strength of Amiibo and DualShock 4 sales. These two segments offset a 29% decline in hardware, which fell to $160 million.

For 2019 so far, consumer spending in the games market totals $4 billion. A figure that’s down 2% when compared to the same time period last year. Out of that, software has contributed almost half with roughly $1.9 billion in dollar sales.

My read overall on April is that the top three sellers in particular are impressive, even though I was wrong about which would be first. Especially Mortal Kombat 11.. fighting its way to the second spot on the year-to-date list. That indicates to me that early demand is strong. I’m not sure it can reach the lofty heights of its predecessor, though I’m confident it will carve up a good chunk of commercial success before we see what NetherRealm does next.

Another story that I think warrants more attention is BioWare’s Anthem, published by Electronic Arts, maintaining the 4th spot of 2019 so far. Granted, it’s way early. Then EA said during its Q4 earnings call recently that the game’s early sales came in below the company’s targets. It’s worth seeing if it maintains this position as the year progresses, with more major releases scheduled for the late part of the summer into the autumn rush.

Hardware sales are going to be uneventful until, honestly, holiday season at the earliest. If not next year, when I’ve been saying that the next generation of consoles will start during the second half.

Additional details on individual platform results can be found at the linked video above, from NPD Analyst and friend of the site, Mat Piscatella.

So. How did your predictions go? Any big surprises? Please share in the comments or let’s catch up on Twitter! Thanks for stopping by, as always.

Sources: The NPD Group, NetherRealm Studios, Sony Bend Studio, Sony San Diego, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Wikipedia.

-Dom

Stylish & Unabashed, Rage 2 is the John Wick of Video Games in 2019

Within hours of playing through Bethesda Softworks’ new open world action shooter, I found inspiration.

Rage 2 isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road, as many would have us believe. It’s the John Wick of 2019 video games.

As does John Wick, the game knows exactly what it is. It’s pure action, style as substance and unapologetically intense. And certainly not ashamed of it. It even basks in its absurdity. Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.

As I progressed, the comparison solidified. Both begin with a tragedy. In the case of the game released this past week, a collaboration between storied developer id Software (Doom, Quake) and Avalanche Studios (Just Cause, Mad Max), this is a decimation of the protagonist’s stronghold called Vineland and the death of its matriarch at the hands of the cruel General Martin Cross.

What follows is, similarly, a straightforward revenge tale against the villain and his followers, collectively dubbed The Authority. Controllable character Walker dons the armor of the elite Ranger class of soldier, leveraging technology based on “Nanotrites” (yay science!) to power special abilities including a seismic ground pound and quick dash.

Bursts of action coalesce perfectly as the player combines weapons, throwables and abilities, leading to the familiar choreographed feel of watching Keanu Reeves effortlessly come up with tactics on the spot to carve up his myriad of foes.

(I’ll admit momentarily that I don’t have much more than minimal experience with 2011’s Rage, so I’d argue it’s not a requirement. Though there are obviously callbacks and it can enhance the experience.)

Walker, with the help of best bud and mechanic Lily, is tasked with finding three individuals: a grizzled resistance leader named Marshall, Mayor Hagar who runs the game’s major settlement plus ex-Authority scientist Kvasir secluded in the swamp lands. These folks are integral to a project designed to halt General Cross, a maniacal jerk that’s been cloning himself in hopes of “living forever.” Upgrade progression centers around three skill trees, each based on character specialties. For instance, investing experience points into the resistance leader will enhance combat while the scientist will help with gadgets.

Now, I’m a firm believer that a game’s mechanics are of utmost importance. “Game feel,” as I say. If a shooter especially doesn’t feel right, if there isn’t enough feedback when shooting or indicators that the player is getting damaged, it can’t ever elevate above average. Luckily, Rage 2 is centered around its amazing gameplay, rivaling predecessors Doom and Quake which are both on the same game engine.

It feels like an open world Titanfall 2, with cooler combat abilities (minus the Titans, of course). Most of its weapons are distinct, from a standard assault rifle to a unique gravity gun that attaches to foes before swinging them where one’s heart desires. Each one is fully customizable with individual upgrade paths. Plus there are two different “modes” for each, hip-fire and aiming down sights, adding to the tactical possibilities. The standout here is the shotgun, a staple of these kinds of action titles. The punch of this particular shotty is near unrivaled in the history of shooters.

In terms of layout and pacing, this is where the map opens up; Giving freedom to progress any which way, to whittle away the defenses of each enemy faction: Authority, Goons, River Hogs, Mutants and the ominous “Shrouded.” A variety of vehicles, including a fantastic gyro-copter, allow for traversal across the wasteland. There’s noticeable downtime when driving, since hostile convoys are rare, however there’s normally a spot in proximity that catches the eye, enticing a visit. It’s almost like a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild formula, built on distractions that emerge as bespoke endeavors.

We gradually learn about how the game doles out points of interest. Exploring an area yields a question mark on the map and heads-up display, which could be any number of activities: bandit camp, towering turret, roadblock, power plant, fueling station, crashed meteor, resting place of a fallen comrade or the treasured “Arks” that house new weapons and sweet abilities.

While gameplay is essential, I also believe the player needs to be rewarded for their effort. What’s the point of all this spectacle? Rage 2 showers the player with experience points, materials, upgrade points and currency, which means that side activities and poking around the world are absolutely worthwhile. As I’ve said in the past, open world games are inherently repetitive. It’s how a game conceals its repetition that truly matters. Not to mention, opening a crate by punching it never gets old!

One aspect I’ve heard critiqued is its story structure. There aren’t many main missions, granted.

I pose a thought: Why is this necessarily be a bad thing? This actually gives flexibility for different player types. It’s setup in a way that it could be a tight, 8 to 10 hour experience if someone wants only to see the campaign. The alternative is to spend dozens of hours perusing the wasteland and racking up every ability and weapon, finding secrets along the way. In the world of Rage 2, high tech “Arks” are large vessels with goodies inside normally guarded by enemies. I found it tantalizing to seek these out, and felt an adrenaline rush whenever Walker spots a new one.

Even though it’s a plus that the game can be “mainlined,” it’s no doubt a generic action story that left me wishing it had more missions. It’s almost as if the team knew the fun would be in the open world rather than in its narrative, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but more of a mild disappointment.

I’ll point out that the story missions themselves are quite fun, especially for the scientist Kvasir, one of which has the player breaking into a space center to bring a satellite down from orbit. Its scope is particularly notable in a game that’s usually grounded.

Tonally, I noticed early on a disconnect between how the marketing campaign portrayed it versus what it actually is. Absolutely for the better. I was vocally skeptical about its tone being too cringey, with dancing enemies and “wacky” characters amidst bright pink and yellow color splashes. It’s actually more humorous and even can be charming. Item descriptions are creative, as are the names of non-playable characters (NPCs) at outposts. Combine this with a talking vehicle, voiced by Wonder Woman herself Lynda Carter, and the unique personas of the three main helpers, this tonal imprint is more subtle than the advertising proclaimed.

Yes, there’s an enemy type that uses a baseball bat to hit grenades towards Walker. Which means, of course, that Walker can volley them back by pressing the melee button. When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.

From a tech standpoint, it’s a mostly smooth experience on Xbox One X. Super crisp frame rate, even amidst the most frenetic of sequences, without noticeable hitching. Unfortunately there were a few hard crashes in the first third of my 30-hour play through, though luckily none after its latest patch. Really the only sticking point was how slow the menus are, which is ironic since everything else in the game is fast-paced.

When throwing a “Vortex” gravity bomb at enemies, they will bobble the sphere in an attempt to catch it before it sucks them up and launches them into the air. These small touches help to shape the game’s tone just as much as its frantic action does.

I will note its desolate setting means that the world doesn’t feel as “lived-in” as other titles, even those within the genre. The wasteland is technically true to form in this regard, though I’ll reiterate that the spacing between areas is smartly designed in that activities are never too far away.

While I had a blast, it’s certainly not perfect. Driving around is fine, though vehicular combat leaves much to be desired. In fact, I had more fun flying in the mini gyro-copter than any combat encounter on the open road. Additionally, there’s only one upgradeable vehicle. I was hoping for more flexibility here.

There’s also a type of horde mode called Mutant Bash TV, which adds to the world-building however I found it to be underwhelming. Racing, on the other hand, is way more fun even if a temporary distraction. Occasionally, one of the NPC from the game’s racetrack will flag Walker down on the road, trying to coax into an impromptu race.

Ultimately, I went into Rage 2 with minimal expectations, if not expecting to be turned off by its tone and determination to be “cool.” I’m happy to say with certainty that I was wrong about it.

It’s a special thing when a game subverts expectations to leave a more lasting impression than ever thought possible. This is my experience with Bethesda’s latest, a wild ride with quick combat sequences and more subtle world-building than appears at first glance. If John Wick is the movie equivalent of a video game, then Rage 2 is its often thrilling and always unabashed gaming counterpart.

Sources: Bethesda Softworks, Internet Game Database, Rage Wiki, Screenshots captured on Xbox One X (Except Artwork & Enemy Close-Up).

-Dom

Slow, Curious & Tragic, Life is Strange 2 Stands Out on its Own

Impressions are based on the three episodes available for Life is Strange 2 out of its scheduled five. Mild spoilers ahead.

As far as adventures in video games go, Life is Strange 2 is powerful and thoughtful enough to be celebrated on its own. Separate of its predecessor. It’s deliberate, mysterious and often emotional, forcing the player to make critical choices that drive the narrative and have unexpected consequences. Being the one that chooses how the protagonist acts, and what happens to characters as a result, makes it that much more impactful than a traditional linear story.

Even though it’s labeled as if it’s a sequel, the adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment that’s published by Square Enix is not a follow-up in the usual sense. It doesn’t feature characters from 2015’s Life is Strange, which centered on the story of time-manipulating teenager Max Caulfield and her best friend Chloe, and instead shifts its focus to a Mexican-American family of three living in Seattle.

Life is Strange 2 is episodic, while played from a third person perspective. It began in September with Episode 1: Roads then continued with January’s Episode 2: Rules through Episode 3: Wastelands, which released days ago. What separates it from other narrative-focused titles is choice, then repercussion. Decisions don’t just have ramifications, they drive the story forward and force us down one of a various branching paths.

Across these episodes, the game delves into the relationship between Sean and Daniel Diaz, regular brothers from the Northwest that can’t seem to avoid terrible events. The Diaz brothers’ single father Esteban is slain by a police officer after he tries to defend his sons during an altercation, after which younger bro Daniel mysteriously causes a destructive shock-wave that accidentally kills said police officer. It’s an intense, saddening sequence, something that unfortunately turns into a theme for the siblings.

Whether it’s pure panic or fear of being persecuted, the boys flee from the scene then opt to venture to their father’s homeland of Mexico. It’s a rash decision, though somewhat understandable from a teenager and 9-year old. The elder Sean turns into Daniel’s paternal influence, while trying to repair their friendship that became fractured as Sean matriculated through high school.

What follows is both a literal and figurative journey for the pair, plus the player itself. We control Sean, as the two bond and bicker while coping with the desperate feeling of loss. Simultaneously, they work to understand Daniel’s special powers, which seem to be a kind of telekinesis as he can manipulate objects with his mind. Daniel is also curious of his mother, Karen, who Sean resents because she left the family before the game’s story begins.

Pacing is slow. Methodical, even. This approach, which might be a hindrance in other cases, is the opposite here. It allows exploration through the game space. Accentuates the intimate character moments that many other titles don’t even attempt, for fear of disrupting the action. Dontnod challenges players to be mindful in their wandering, frequently rewarding with tidbits of character detail and world-building akin to something like a BioShock.

The initial episode is its most sorrowful, as the brothers move south through the wilderness. Small moments of solace, such as those where Sean patiently teaches Daniel how to skip stones or they race to gather firewood, are quickly interrupted by the ever-present feeling of despair that they can likely never return to a normal existence.

Now, not everything is handled with this level of subtlety. The game is heavy-handed in its portrayal of stereotypes, especially when the brothers encounter a “racist redneck” that kidnaps Sean while throwing slurs as much as fists. This pops up again in a couple spots. Though I understand the game’s writers wanting to convey character prejudices overtly, I found myself hoping for a more delicate approach.

After escaping the racist, the boys receive help from friendly travel blogger Brody then move further towards their intended destination. Episode 2: Rules finds them occupying a winter cabin, alongside a new puppy named Mushroom. One theme that arises here and continues throughout is Daniel’s relationship with those other than Sean, as the latter moves into an authoritative role. Their quiet existence is upended as tragedy strikes again, with Mushroom being attacked by a wildcat. Throughout these moments, the player can decide to encourage Daniel to use his powers or to avoid them at all costs. As with everything, this has its impact on one’s individual story line.

Sean decides the boys should meet their grandparents on their mother’s side, who live in a small Oregon town. This brings a familial element that was noticeably lacking, providing momentary stability. It also stokes Daniel’s curiosity about his mom, which Sean is reluctant to even mention yet alone explore.

During this time, Daniel saves and befriends Chris, the main character from Dontnod’s standalone demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Chris has also faced tremendous loss with the death of his mother and an abusive father, so he escapes into his fantasy of being a super hero. With Daniel at his side controlling objects floating in space, he believes he has actual powers. It’s another example of Daniel’s independent character maturation. The player can either plead with him to reveal his powers to Chris, or keep it a secret. One particular consequence of this choice is shockingly catastrophic.

This is also where we meet key characters for the next episode, while the group is shopping for Christmas trees with Chris’ father. The boys briefly chat with street musician Cassidy and her friend Finn, both of which are “train hoppers” living free from the cares of society. It’s clear that Sean is envious of their more carefree attitude, revealed during this scene that mainly acts as foreshadowing.

As usual, the brothers must bounce when the police stop swing by on a tip. This is especially painful, since their grandparent’s home seemed a fitting spot for them to settle down. Plus, Daniel openly expresses that he’s sick of running away and wants to find his mother.

Episode 3: Wastelands is in my opinion the weakest so far, as it’s the most cliche with a predictable structure. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, because we get to know so many new faces, it has the best character moments yet. It’s just that the story arc is more typical than the prior two episodes. I will say the end is explosive, showing how much their situation is escalating the more they get involved with people out on their own.

The setup here is.. convenient. (As happens in media, to bring characters together and progress stories in parallel.) Sean and Daniel somehow meet up with Cassidy and Finn, then begin working on an illegal weed farm in Northern California to save up cash for Mexico. The campgrounds in the woods is liberating and constrictive at once. These folks are free to do what they please outside of work, but have a rigid regimen when laboring for a dangerous landowner and his goon partner.

A standout sequence of this episode is a fireside gathering, where group members exchange depressing stories. It’s uniquely powerful to hear everyone speak so openly about their lives, and reinforces a general theme that looking towards the future can help alleviate hurt caused by one’s past. Both Sean and Daniel can share memories, depending on player action.

This portion also allows choices related to sexuality. Finn presents as bisexual, while Cassidy is interested in men and flirts with Sean. The player can romance either, which is refreshing and speaks to the freedom theme. Our protagonist is at the age where he’s still exploring his sexuality, so it’s a poignant sequence that shows he’s still so young despite having the responsibility of caring for his brother.

As noted, the episode concludes with an intense sequence that I won’t spoil. Other than to say that Daniel and the player have a lot to learn about how powerful he can be.

At this conclusion, multiple mysteries are still unfolding. There’s the overall trajectory of the boys’ intention to reach Mexico juxtaposed against the allure of settling down. Is that even realistic? Can they ever return to their childhood town? The lingering questions about their mother remain, especially as the Diaz boys disagree: Daniel wishes to track her down while Sean wants nothing to do with her.

One critique is that I wish it had more details on choices and consequences after you finished a sequence, similar to the flow chart approach of Detroit: Become Human. Each episode shows a recap of decision points, though provides less detail than its peer.

Another minor point is that you can circle back in what’s called “Collectible” mode, however these don’t apply to your main save. I wish that any souvenir or backpack customization option found in this mode could be used during my main progression. It’s fun to make Sean’s backpack look unique, but I don’t want to reply entire sections just to get those I’ve missed.

Misery surrounds the Diaz brothers. However, they fight to avoid being defined by it. There’s a youthful hopefulness in their progression, especially Daniel’s innocence amidst great power, that I really would like to carry throughout the remaining installments.

Strangely enough: Despite their dreadful circumstances, I’m continually hopeful.

Sources: Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix, Screenshots captured on Microsoft’s Xbox One X.

-Dom

Days Gone Is Mostly Mediocre, Morbidly Mundane And Will Still Sell Better Than Many PS4 Exclusives

Disclaimer: This is not a review, as I have not completed the game yet. It’s a series of impressions and sales predictions. Minor spoilers follow.

I went into Days Gone, the latest in post-apocalyptic PlayStation 4 exclusives, mostly curious. Minimal expectations, hoping to be surprised. I’ve felt this way since Sony revealed it back during 2016, when it was featured prominently during its E3 stage show.

Turns out that the open world biker game did in fact surprise me. Just, not in a good way.

Made by Sony’s Bend Studio out of Bend, Oregon, a team known for the Syphon Filter series and handheld Uncharted titles, Days Gone checks all the boxes for features in a standard “AAA open world” game, though fails to deliver anything extraordinary with any one of them.

The third-person game opens on the semi-ridiculous premise that the protagonist, Deacon Saint John, leaves his wounded wife Sarah to fly away to a government camp while a mysterious outbreak occurs around him, to stay behind with his best bro Boozer. I appreciate the “no man left behind” mentality, though couldn’t help feel both contempt and indifference towards Deacon after seeing him abandon his helpless lover. A main character doesn’t have to be likeable (see: Joel from The Last of Us, Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV), though I should at least give a damn about him.

Fast forward a couple years, the Pacific Northwest setting is overrun by infected (I refuse to call them Freakers and I’m mad that I just did), scumbags, settlers, wildlife and “drifters” like Deacon, who considers himself honorable because of an ambiguous code which I gather is mostly that he doesn’t kill women. Unless he has to, of course.

What follows is a classic example of bloated modern game design, flooding the player with crafting, skills and systems to satisfy the endorphin rush of seeing an experience bar increase or watching numbers go up.

Within the first half hour, I was forced to smash infected children (who Deacon specifically said would mind their own business if I left them alone), because they were in my way to an objective. The game said I could avoid them then put them right in my path, overwhelming me with enemies. In fact, main missions so far have been overly restrictive to the point of “Leaving Area” signals alerting you incessantly if you stray too far.

Movement is rigid, which means Deacon is occasionally difficult to control, especially when enemies are off-screen and the camera can’t quite catch up to controller inputs.

Driving the bike is mostly competent, though the gas mileage is unforgiving early on. Who wants to stop constantly in a video game to fill up their virtual gas tank, when we do that enough as it is in real life?

Thing is, I’d be mostly forgiving of flaws if the actual content was fun. Turns out, there’s not much to it outside of the campaign. See that infected nest? Throw a molotov cocktail into it. See that outpost? Murder everyone. See that government checkpoint? Cut down the speakers, fill the generator with gas and open its doors. Then do it again. And again. Until you find another one, where you can do it all over again.


Then there’s the camp system. One of the early camps is run by a freedom fighting gun nut, whose worst offense is that he feeds obnoxious radio blasts into your ear. Which you can thankfully skip.

It’s the other camp that bothers me. It’s run by effectively a slaver operating a “labor camp.” You’d think Deacon would want to capture this camp and free its prisoners, based on his apparent moral compass, but I don’t think the game allows for that decision. You can, however, gain access to new guns when you help its leader by doing jobs or sending random survivors to work in the digging fields. And from what I can tell, there’s no consequence of choosing to work with one group over another. So morality be damned, in the name of sweet guns and bike upgrades!

I haven’t even mentioned the technical issues I’ve faced or heard from impressions online. From enemies disappearing, characters and the bike getting stuck on geometry or falling through the world, slow loading times and severe audio glitches, it’s not deal-breaking though can be annoying when considering the game’s other flaws. (Fingers crossed for more patches, since the game was already updated multiple times in classic day-one tradition.)

I’d be remiss to mention that there are certain aspects I’m enjoying, or at least aren’t interfering with my progress. It isn’t all negative, I want to make this absolutely clear.

It’s mostly stunning when it comes to visuals and art design. The setting is picturesque, and the attention to detail in parts of the world is exceptional. The artists and animators at Bend did a heck of a job. Tire treads kick up mud with a slogging sound. Light shines through tree branches before glinting off water. A foreboding sky reveals infinite stars as dusk approaches. For a dreary game, it can be remarkably majestic.

The infected horde tech is impressive, showing dozens upon dozens of distinct enemy bodies all at once that flow together like rainwater down a drainpipe. Bike customization is cool, though I wish there were more stimulating visual options. There’s a good variety of weaponry, throwables and traps for your forays into the wilderness, and shooting is competent enough. Crossbow bolts that cause enemies to turn on one another is an especially fun toy.

Survival elements aren’t overly difficult or constrictive, though it involves searching. A lot of searching. And holding down the search button. Which can break up the pacing of the game, especially when running low on materials. This was one of the main critiques of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s just as bad here.

Excitingly, I finally hit a narrative beat that opened up a level of intrigue. Enough so that I will be playing more to see where it goes and if the game can change my mind at all.

Here’s the thing. I’m fine being an outlier when it comes to my tastes or experiences. This time, I’m far from the only one who feels this way. Consensus on review aggregator OpenCritic is sitting at “Fair,” with less than half of the 90 critics recommending it.

One particular piece that expresses my overall hesitation is authored by Patrick Klepek at Waypoint. He writes:


Days Gone refuses to settle on what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Rather than settling on a direction, it proceeds in all directions, hoping a more-is-better philosophy will prove blinding. This is true of both the clumsy mechanics, which are ever present and impossible to ignore, and its story, following the boring moral compass of biker Deacon St. John, who roams the world in the years after an event turned the whole world to shit, claiming to operate by a “code” but refusing to allow said code to operationally manifest into action.

Marvel’s Spider-Man is currently the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive.

Mine and Patrick’s thoughts aside, where does this leave us in terms of commercial potential?

I’ve joked about it in the past, and said that I started tepid on its sales prospects. The irony is that, despite my impressions and the average critical assessments, I now actually think it will sell relatively well. Better than many games exclusive to the platform, if not becoming one of the three fastest-selling to date.

This distinction currently belongs to 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War, which sold 3.3 million and 3.1 million units respectively during their first three days on market. These are excellent figures, though I wrote last year that I expected a licensed property like Spidey to perform that way.

Next up, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End moved 2.7 million units in a single week during 2016. Ever so slightly behind that was 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn at 2.6 million copies, though it was across two weeks.

Right about here is where I expect Days Gone to settle at launch. Between 2.5 and 3 million units, within say the next two weeks. Which means it will beat out games like Killzone Shadow Fall (2013), Bloodborne (2015), Detroit: Become Human (2017) and Nioh (2017), which all saw a million units near launch except for Killzone, which hit 2.1 million within a couple months on sale. (Detroit and Nioh are no longer platform exclusive, though were near launch.)

Sony has intensified its marketing push lately, not just in retail but also online and traditional media. Big networks like ESPN have been steadily running promos. Plus if there’s one thing that people like these days, it’s post apocalypses and zombies. Early rumblings are positive in terms of shipments from Sony, according to my bud Benji. And I expect demand especially from casual buyers will be enough to purchase most of those inventories going to retailers.

Similarly, I predict it will be the best-selling game of April in the United States, when NPD Group reports sales results next month.

After this mostly successful launch, how will it sell longer term? I can see it maybe settling right at the bottom of 2019’s Top 10 sellers, though as an exclusive it’s already at a disadvantage compared with multi-platform titles. The more titles hit release dates in this year, the tougher it gets. Lifetime units sales of 7-8 million is feasible, especially as the console’s user base approaches 100 million.

It’s always a question if single-player games can maintain strong momentum over time. At least out of the gate, I think Days Gone is more likely to.. accelerate to success than not.

All this said, should you play it? (I know many of you will, just look at my sales prediction.) Well, depends on what you like. The ultimate problem with Days Gone is that it tries to do so many things, then loses any semblance of focus. Maybe it suffered from feature creep, trying to do much more than originally intended. Or it bolted on too much close to launch. Perhaps a lack of decisive leadership during its earlier stages. What’s clear is there are other games that do these things, and do them very well, that I’d rather play.

Do you like a massive, beautiful world to explore? Play Red Dead Redemption 2.

Want stealth action and engaging character arcs? Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Like storming enemy encampments and taking over areas? Pick a Far Cry.

Zombies and crafting with a dynamic night-and-day cycle? Dying Light.

A sprawling world with expertly-written side quests? The Witcher 3.

Ranged combat encounters with unique enemies? Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Cinematic narrative in a post-apocalypse: The Last of Us. (Seriously if you haven’t played it, you should be doing so instead of reading this.)

Technical hiccups, repetitive side content, stiff movement, serviceable shooting, laughable enemy AI plus lots and lots of rifling through cars or houses to find crafting materials? Which are used to get caught in a tailspin of monotonous gameplay loops which serve only to make experience bars fill up, all the while questioning why you should empathize with its characters?

Shoot. Then I’d still probably play something else.

Sources: Sony Interactive Entertainment. Internet Games Database. Bend Studio. Quantic Dream. Insomniac Games. Team Ninja. From Software. Waypoint. Open Critic. Benji-Sales.

-Dom

Sony Reveals Record Gaming Sales But No New PlayStation Release Just Yet

If we learned anything from Sony Corp $SNE earlier today, it’s that it isn’t playing around when it comes to games.

The Japanese megacorp released its 2018 results, where it revealed solid overall stats and especially positive numbers within its Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) division. This includes PlayStation, downloads and related services i.e. PlayStation Plus.

Its PlayStation 4 console, released way back in 2013, has eclipsed 96.8 million in lifetime units shipped. It’s the 6th best-selling gaming platform ever, approaching the 101.63 million of the mighty popular Nintendo Wii. (Yes, the one that your grandparents even bought. To play virtual bowling.)

Quick rundown is that Sony’s total sales moved up slightly to $78 billion, while operating profit boosted 22% to over $8 billion. Sales for the final quarter came in above analyst forecast, while full-year outpaced Sony’s internal guidance.

Chart above focuses in on the gaming division, which generated a whopping $20.8 billion in sales and an increase of 75% in operating profit. This shows growth over time, using quarterly metrics, to put this record result in context.

A decline in hardware sales for the aging PlayStation 4 was offset by growth in software and subscription revenue, as PlayStation Plus members rose 6% to 36.4 million. You’ll see above that this is the best result for the “Network Services” part of this business unit, and that software is still as healthy as it’s ever been. Popular catalog titles like God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man seem to be maintaining momentum, however Sony did not share updated individual stats on its major games.

On the hardware side, PS4 shipments were lower than the prior year however this was expected as we come up on next generation. The 17.8 million units came in above the firm’s estimate, and is helping to drive toward the lifetime 100 million threshold as mentioned before.

However, there’s an important flip side to the stellar numbers that causes me to have some hesitation for its short term prospects. (Despite remaining way optimistic longer term.)

While Sony tends to provide conservative forward-looking guidance, it’s especially the case this time. Even more so than expected, given how late in the console cycle its PlayStation business is plus unevenness in other units such as Xperia mobile phones. Operating income is expected to decline to $7.3 billion, on a 10% reduction in gaming profits. According to Bloomberg, this is below analyst consensus.

Even further, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, executives stated definitively that there will be no new PlayStation hardware released until at least a year from now. Effectively, it will go the entire next fiscal year without a new console. While it’s still projecting modest PlayStation 4 units, 16 million to be exact, this revelation along with weaker-than-expected financial forecasts and uncertainty with its games software lineup, is why I’m tepid on Sony’s short-term prospects.

It does have major games in the pipeline, including The Last of Us: Part II from Naughty Dog, Death Stranding from Hideo Kojima’s new studio and Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch. Though we don’t know when any of these will be out. There’s even the possibility that one or more will be saved for next generation’s launch later in 2020. Combine this with no new console, it’s clear why Sony is being conservative.

Ultimately, while I applaud the absolutely stellar results, I’m somewhat hesitant shorter term. I don’t believe it can meet its gaming unit forecast without at least two of the three aforementioned titles, as the boost from the usual multi-platform games will exist regardless.

Thus, what will be the driving factor without new hardware or multiple flagship games? Which of its major titles will release in the next year? Upside is that we’ll know soon, one way or another.

Sources: Sony Investor Relations. Wall Street Journal. Bloomberg.

-Dom

Nintendo Reports Best Results in Nearly a Decade Despite Missing Switch Target

Shuntaro Furukawa, Nintendo’s President.

Japanese gaming giant Nintendo shared its latest annual results today. I didn’t want to jump (like Mario, get it?) to conclusions, so I’ve read through carefully. The outcome? I’m equal parts impressed and cautious, the former due to the results themselves and the latter due to where executives see the company next year.

The good news is that the games manufacturer hasn’t experienced this sort of financial bump in years. In particular, software is performing incredibly well even compared to its estimates. It broke through the forecast of 110 million to an impressive 118.55 million copies sold during this latest year, on the strength of titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

If the teams working at or with Nintendo are experts at one thing, it’s making compelling games specifically for its platforms. While Switch hardware numbers often grab headlines, it’s the quality of games that support its business. A console can’t succeed without the support of a software lineup.

Diving into some numbers for a moment, I’ve built the above chart to illustrate results over time and expand on my headline. This is net revenue, which is overall sales achieved by Nintendo. Current revenue figure is around $10.8 billion when converted to dollars, though the chart is in local currency.

Similarly the above shows operating profit, which takes into account certain expenses. Another quality result, driven by the higher revenue offsetting slightly increased sales including those from selling and marketing its products.

Downside though is that its current generation Switch console saw sales of 16.95 million units, which means it fell short of the 17 million Nintendo expected to sell during this time frame. In fact, this target was initially upwards of 20 million around this time last year. Turns out that both of these figures were optimistic.

Which leads me back to my point on software sales, and why they are so key to Nintendo’s success. Many individual offerings are maintaining impressive momentum, especially those we’d call “evergreen” which means they are more timeless than others. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe remains the best-selling title on Switch, hitting 16.69 million units compared to just above 15 million last quarter. For a game that technically had its start on Nintendo’s prior generation Wii U device, this is excellent and conveys the power of a fine family-friendly multiplayer game.

Super Mario Odyssey and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate round out the Top 3, with 14.44 million and 13.81 million copies to date respectively. While I expected stellar results from Odyssey, it’s Smash that is the real winner here, fighting its way towards the top of the list.

So. If it’s doing so well financially, and selling software, why might I be cautious?

Well, because of where Nintendo itself expects to go. It’s just as much about guidance as it is results. Guidance which I consider to be conservative, and even timid considering its upcoming prospects.


First, the firm anticipates 18 million Switch units and 125 million software units in the year ending March 2020, which would be up a modest 6% and 5% respectively. On the financial side, execs think both sales and profit will increase 4%. These are.. lackluster, though not entirely unexpected given this past year’s result and considering the new leadership of President Shuntaro Furukawa.

Given the rumors of new Switch models as early as this year, plus key software titles in Super Mario Maker 2 (announced for a late June release), Pokemon Sword & Shield and a new Animal Crossing, I was hoping for more ambitious targets from Nintendo. This is also supported by recent reports of expansion into the world’s largest gaming market of China, which to call a massive opportunity is an understatement.

Still. Maybe some of these drivers are further out that I thought. During the call associated with this earnings release, President Furukawa revealed they won’t be talking new hardware or revisions during June’s major Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) event. We’ll have to wait further to see if the manufacturer will try to bolster sales using either a “mini” iteration or a more powerful version of the Switch. There’s also no timeline for the China expansion, so that could push further into future fiscal periods.

One additional point before we wrap up:

Nintendo’s foray into mobile continues, with the beta for the previously-announced Mario Kart Tour beginning this summer. This past year, mobile titles like Dragalia Lost drove growth of 17% within its mobile segment to just over $400 million in sales. It’s certainly a small portion of the overall business, however it’s the one segment that many cite, including myself, as having the best upside.

All told, Nintendo’s solid financial performance is undeniable. However, I see a disconnect between what I expect for its future prospects and what the company itself thinks. Similar to fans of upcoming games like Bayonetta 3 and Metroid Prime 4, which are currently listed as “To Be Announced” in Nintendo’s pipeline, I’m left both wanting and quite curious about what the future holds.

Sources: Nintendo Investor Relations. Bloomberg. Wall Street Journal. Fortune.

-Dom

Microsoft’s Annual Gaming Revenue Exceeds $11.6 Billion For The First Time

Phil Spencer, Head of Microsoft’s Xbox division.

For Microsoft $MSFT, having one’s head in the Cloud is turning out to be a smart decision.

According to the company’s fiscal 2019 3rd quarter earnings results today, it reported revenue of $30.6 billion. An increase of 14% compared to the prior year, and a figure that comes in above analyst expectations. Operating profit jumped 25% to over $10 billion. Growth is mainly attributed to the firm’s cloud offerings and productivity suite.

Going further, how did the Xbox gaming division fare? The answer is that it broke yet another record.

As you’ll see in the above chart, Xbox gaming revenue exceeded $11.6 billion for the trailing 12-month period for the first time since the company began reporting this specific metric. This breaks the record of $11.5 billion set last quarter. In fact, revenue has been steadily growing for the Xbox business during the later part of the Xbox One generation of hardware, which began in late 2013.

Quarterly gaming sales eclipsed $2.36 billion, up 5% since this time last year. Attributed to 12% increase in Xbox software and services, which offset a drop in hardware likely due to both market saturation and discounting. Microsoft notes that software and service results were boosted by “third party monetization” and “subscriptions growth.”

Edit: While profit metrics aren’t shared for gaming itself, there is a small comment giving a bit of insight:

“Gross margin percentage increased due to sales mix shifts to higher margin businesses in Gaming and Windows.”

Translation: Gaming is shifting to higher margin businesses, which benefits profitability. Unfortunately, I don’t see much else on the profit side.

Allow me to translate that last part for you:

Xbox Live monthly active users totaled 63 million compared to 59 million last year. The more people subscribe, the more they become embedded in the ecosystem and purchase content on the digital store. Each online buy provides a revenue slice for Xbox.

Then, like so many parties involved, it’s making a boatload of cash as its players spend in online battle royale games Fortnite and now Apex Legends. This phenomenon is not only keeping players around, but more importantly attracting new ones. Which is especially key as the current hardware generation ages.

So. How is Xbox achieving milestones when it’s not selling Xboxes?

It’s the renewed focus on expanding player services and reinforcing customer goodwill. Xbox has fully established its Game Pass offering, where players pay a monthly fee for access to a library of digital titles. It’s attracting major publishers to participate, grabbing games like Capcom’s Monster Hunter: World and Square Enix’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While we don’t have statistics on how Game Pass did this quarter, there’s no doubt it’s bolstering the service side.

Another attractive offering is backwards compatibility, where titles from prior generations work on the Xbox One family of devices. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker or a system-seller, though it’s still a distinguishing feature.

Oh. And did I mention battle royale?

Now don’t get me wrong. The hardware decline is a moderate concern. However it’s not uncommon that a downturn happens when a console is approaching its seventh year on market. And revenue growth is still happening despite lackluster hardware results. I fully anticipate middling hardware sales in the foreseeable future, until next generation. The good news is that both battle royale and these various services aren’t going anywhere.

With all-but-confirmed rumors that the firm is building its next generation of gaming hardware for a potential 2020 launch, Microsoft’s gaming division is using services as a way to generate business and maintain its user base for the time being. And based on today’s report, it’s working.


Source: Microsoft Investor Relations & Press Resources. Xbox.com. Windows Central.

-Dom

New Look, Updated Approach. Still Working, Always Casual.

Hi friends!

You’ll notice there’s been a bit of a change here. A new look. I’ve got other visual changes in the works, to make this space more unique, though for now let’s roll with the “minimalist” design.

This fresh look fits with a theme I’m bringing to the site: More activity, an enhanced critical perspective, better research and analysis plus even more writing about previews, impressions and my experiences with games and technology.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s always been very fun. I’d just like it to be lots more fun. Have additional people stop by. Promote even more interactions here and on social media.

In the past, I haven’t been as active as I’d like. I’ve used this space mostly for random posts and earnings calendars. I talk to a lot of you on Twitter about games, business, tech and media however it’s sometimes difficult to expand on thoughts and topics on that type of platform.

Which brings me back to the here and now. I’m expanding my writing from being analytical and commercial to building a better critical voice as well. Stepping into previews and even full reviews. Not just analysis but impressions. Think pieces as a result of research and experience. What do I think of a game or piece of tech, and how can I best share it with you? And how can I best accept you challenging my research and opinions?

As part of this, I’m attempting to get better and earlier access to the things produced by the hard work of very talented people. Being proactive in reaching out to public relations and community managers, trying to build relationships there that will be mutually beneficial. If you are a developer, indie team, PR, social manager or really anyone involved in making games, producing tech or with media experience, please reach out in the comments, at my email address or Twitter.

I can’t promise I’ll post all the time, but I can promise I’ll be here more often and discuss even more topics. Let’s see where it goes. And I know there will be feedback. I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks as always for your time in visiting.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Updated: April 29, 2019

Back again!

Which means, let’s get down to.. business. Here’s the rundown of notable dates for gaming, technology and media results this quarter. Many fiscal periods end in March, so we’ll see a bevy of annual results during the next couple months. Which obviously means extra fun, all around.

See the above calendar image or below for a Google Doc which offers quick access to each investor site.

After that, I’ve highlighted three companies that I’ll be watching closely. What about you? Let me know here or on Twitter. Thanks for swinging by!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Nintendo Co., Ltd (NTDOY): Thursday, April 25th.

It’s true that Nintendo makes this list virtually every quarter, though it’s especially noteworthy as its Switch hybrid console moves into its third year on market. It’s the end of the Japanese company’s 2019 fiscal year, one in which it previously predicted sales of 20 million Switch units. However, it recently backtracked to say this goal would not be reached. I was bullish on the hardware in recent posts, and still am even if it misses this lofty target, namely because of the rumor that two new models may be out soon. Not to mention its stellar software output. Nintendo has undoubtedly the most prolific short-term lineup of the “big three” manufacturers, with Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Luigi’s Mansion 3, a new mainline Animal Crossing plus, most importantly, its flagship Pokemon Sword & Shield due in Q4. In fact, regardless of hardware, I expect software numbers to be above its guidance of 110 million copies from its last report.

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc (TTWO): Monday, May 13th.

Red Dead Redemption 2 from Take-Two Interactive’s Rockstar Games had an amazing launch last October and was the best-selling game last year in the States, wrangling a whopping 23 million copies moved globally to date per last quarter’s results. However, there are questions about how much momentum its Red Dead Online mode can sustain amidst heavy saturation in the online multiplayer space. The good news? One of its main competitors is Grand Theft Auto Online, also owned and published by Take-Two. Separate of Rockstar, I’m anticipating we could see increased guidance from the publisher now that Gearbox Software has announced Borderlands 3 for a September release. A new game in the Borderlands franchise combined with 2K Games’ steady-selling NBA 2K this fall is why I’m predicting the firm could not just boost its forecast going forward, but also then achieve it.

Ubisoft Entertainment (UBI): Wednesday, May 15th.

This will be the French gaming software maker’s annual earnings and the first report after the release of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the successor to 2016’s record-breaking Tom Clancy’s The Division. Early indicators are showing strength, though it will be difficult to eclipse the massive $330 million opening week of the original. We also should hear Ubisoft reiterate its plan for 3 to 4 “AAA” titles through March 2020. Especially important since there’s no Assassin’s Creed game in 2019. (Fans can rest easy knowing that it will return in 2020, in what’s likely going to be a Viking setting.) Many expect the lineup to include the previously announced pirate game Skull & Bones, a third Watch Dogs entry plus potentially a Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell title. I’m not holding my breath on the last one. I’m leaning towards a sequel to 2017’s more action-heavy Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. Even though the publisher will likely save full reveals for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) gaming conference upcoming in June, any juicy tidbit or guidance adjustment would give a better indication of how its pipeline is.. rounding out.

As always, I appreciate you hanging out for discussion on the busy earnings season for companies in these sectors. Check back soon for updates to those that haven’t yet announced firm dates!

-Dom

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites/Press Releases, NPD Group, Internet Game Database (IGDB), Nintendo Life, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Kotaku.