Review: Kojima’s Death Stranding is Groundbreaking & Special, Yet Stumbles in its Delivery

Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.

It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.

Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.

The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.

Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.

Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.

Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)

It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).

I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.

Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.

Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.

It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.

There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.

And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.

The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.

Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.

A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.

Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.

Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.

It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.

I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.

After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).

Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.

Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.

To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.

There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)

It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.

Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.

The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.

Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).

All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.

Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.

Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.

This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.

In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.

It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.

Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.

If not, play at your own risk.

Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.

-Dom

Call of Duty Leads October U.S. Video Game Sales Chart to a Near Record Month

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the latest commercial juggernaut in the long-gunning franchise, as it fought to the top of the domestic software chart last month in what was the second best October this decade on overall consumer spending across the U.S. games industry.

This year’s installment in Activision Blizzard’s first-person shooter series became the 12th consecutive title in the series to achieve top-seller status during its launch month, according to a recent report from industry tracking firm The NPD Group. The last time a Call of Duty game didn’t lead at launch was October 2007, when another Activision property rocked the industry to the top of the chart: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

As a result of its domination in October, Modern Warfare is immediately the best-selling game of the entire year. Even with only a single month of tracking. This feat displays how truly massive it is, especially this year after generally positive critical reception plus the always present casual audience it attracts.

Activision’s internal development team Infinity Ward returned to its Modern Warfare sub-series for the first time since last generation’s Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011. This year’s title is essentially a re-imagining of its classic formula, this time on a rebuilt game engine with a more gritty campaign alongside its traditional multi-player offerings.

It’s paid off. Quite literally. Call of Duty retained its distinction as the highest selling series of all time across the history of tracking, which dates back to 1995.

The success of Modern Warfare, among other strong software debuts I’ll mention in a bit, drove overall games industry spending to $1.034 billion in October. This the second best October month this decade, trailing only last year when both Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2 released. Which means the 34% decline since last year is up against a most impossible comparable.

When looking at 2019 to date, total consumer spending on all segments is at $9.3 billion. 10% lower than the same time frame in 2018.

I’ll point this out right away. This October’s growth figures appear to be much worse than they are. In fact, they are really freaking good for where we are in the console cycle. Namely considering this time last year we saw the best October of the entire decade, when total spending reached upwards of a whopping $1.57 billion. That was a monumental month, and an outlier.

On the software spend side, this figure dipped 37% in October to $620 million as displayed in the earlier chart. “Despite this decline, October 2019 tracked software sales represent the third highest total ever achieved for an October month, trailing only October 2008 and October 2018,” said NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella on Twitter, proving additional historical context on why last month is still a standout.

Year-to-date software sales hit $4.5 billion, a decline of 7% since prior year. Nintendo Switch game sales are in fact growing, though competitors are not. Hence the notable dip on the aggregate.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the latest commercial juggernaut in the long-gunning franchise, as it fought to the top of the domestic software chart last month in what was the second best October this decade..”

Let’s now drill down into individual title performance, starting with the full rankings for both October 2019 and the year through last month.

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. The Outer Worlds
  3. Luigi’s Mansion 3*
  4. Madden NFL 20
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  7. WWE 2K20
  8. FIFA 20
  9. Borderlands 3
  10. Ring Fit Adventure
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening*
  12. Mario Kart 8*
  13. Minecraft#
  14. Grand Theft Auto V
  15. Mortal Kombat 11
  16. Overwatch
  17. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  18. Code Vein
  19. Red Dead Redemption 2
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. NBA 2K20
  3. Madden NFL 20
  4. Borderlands 3
  5. Mortal Kombat 11
  6. Kingdom Hearts 3
  7. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  8. Anthem
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. Grand Theft Auto V

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

In the most surprising result of the month, Take-Two’s Private Division label and Obsidian Entertainment’s space role-playing game The Outer Worlds lands at the second spot on the overall software chart. It starts at number two on PlayStation 4, and number five on Xbox One. Keep in mind that this is even more impressive considering the game is also available as part of Microsoft’s monthly subscription service Xbox Game Pass, which isn’t factored into these metrics.

This is one of the best five launch month debuts for a game made by Obsidian Entertainment, a studio now owned by Microsoft which has titles under its belt such as Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Fallout: New Vegas. As a comparison, Fallout: New Vegas also hit number two during its launch in October 2010. One caveat being that back then, the ranks were based on copies as opposed to dollar sales.

It’s a.. stellar commercial result for a game that’s also receiving widespread critical praise.

Rounding out the Top 3 in a busy month is, ironically, Luigi’s Mansion 3 from Nintendo. The company’s latest major Switch exclusive is the third installment in the spooky, 2D ghost-catching saga featuring Mario’s taller and more timid brother. The month’s best-selling Switch title also sets a new series record for the series, previously held by 2001’s original Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube.

It was finally time for Luigi to get some shine. Good for him!

A couple chart regulars in Madden NFL 20 and NBA 2K20 secured spots in the Top 5, as they often do. Ubisoft’s under-performing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint retains the sixth spot in October, the same as the prior month during which it launched. While not an overall poor performance, it’s certainly not living up to its potential within the Tom Clancy brand.

Quick notable move is NBA 2K20 charting below Madden NFL 20 last month, while still occupying a higher position on the year-to-date list. Which implies that NBA 2K’s launch month was better, and is carrying it to more success when taken as a whole. I’d imagine the gap in dollar sales during October between the two sports games was small, even if we won’t ever know for sure publicly.

I must say that Nintendo’s experimental Ring Fit Adventure squeezing into the Top 10 is an impressive feat for the exercise game, and reveals a couple things. First, Nintendo Switch software is doing well by virtue of its hardware popularity. Then, the casual market often responds positively to its innovative projects (see: Wii Sports, Pokémon Go). While not every single experimental Nintendo product does well in the market, I always love and appreciate when its teams get creative like they did with Ring Fit Adventure. Especially a health-conscious product.

Final observation on software, when looking at a longer time frame for 2019 overall, the only Switch title on the best-sellers list is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate which released nearly a year ago. It’s natural for multi-platform games to outsell exclusives. However given Switch’s hardware success this year, it really doesn’t have that blockbuster software seller. Yet. I’d wager a major sum that this will change in November after today’s release of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, which appeal to a massive audience of children leading into the holidays.

While not every single experimental Nintendo product does well in the market, I always love and appreciate when its teams get creative like they did with Ring Fit Adventure.

Hm, Switching to the hardware side, unfortunately it’s not nearly as interesting as software. Spending on consoles in the U.S. was down 41% compared to last year, to only $182 million. This contributes to the current year-to-date figure of $2.1 billion on hardware, which is off 23% compared to the months leading up to October 2018.

Unsurprisingly, Nintendo Switch was top-selling for the month, it’s the top-selling for the year and the only platform showing growth at this stage due to its competitors treading water ahead of next year’s announcements. A similar theme as I’ve discussed in the recent past, not much to see here.

To talk about a positive for something other than Nintendo, I’ll point out a great observation from NPD Group in the following quote from Piscatella: “With six years in the market, the PlayStation 4 ranks as the third fastest unit-selling home console in history, trailing only the six-year sales totals of the Wii and the PlayStation 2.” Just last month, I wrote about how Sony’s PlayStation 4 became the second best-selling console of all time as measured by global units shipped.

Final set of data is on accessories and game pads. This segment totaled $231 million last month, which is down 16% compared to October 2018. For the year as a whole through last month, accessories and game pad spending is $2.7 billion. 3% lower than this same time last year.

That (finally) wraps up an eventful month on the software side, given that the year’s biggest launch hit plus we saw a handful of noteworthy surprises. November will be a good one too, with the release of two major brands with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and the aforementioned Pokémon games, all of which are out today.

Note that The NPD Group ranks software based on dollar sales. For an even more complete data rundown, including individual platform charts and commentary on the fighting game genre in particular, go check out Piscatella’s informative thread.

It’s been real fun. Thanks for stopping by. November will also be a spicy one. Until then!

Sources: The NPD Group, Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, Take-Two Interactive, Venture Beat.

-Dom

Sony’s PlayStation 4 Becomes Second Best-Selling Home Console of All Time

Passionate PlayStation fans have driven Sony Corp to yet another impressive, hm.. milestone in its storied history as a game console manufacturer.

Announced in a supplemental sheet as part of its quarterly earnings report today, the Japanese technology conglomerate shared that it shipped 2.8 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the three months ending September 2019. Which means that to date, the PlayStation 4 has now passed 102.8 million consoles sold.

While at first it doesn’t sound as noteworthy as the PS4 surpassing the 100 million threshold last quarter, it’s super impressive in the context of all-time sellers in the home market. That’s because PS4 formally passed both Nintendo’s 2006 system Wii (101.63 million) and Sony’s own original PlayStation from 1994 (102.49 million) to land as the second best-selling console ever.

Only Sony’s PlayStation 2 system has shipped more units, at a whopping 155 million at last count.

Sensing a theme?

This marks yet another major accomplishment for the team. Led by Sony’s focus on appealing to core gamers with both its marketing and software lineup plus launching at a lower initial price than its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has cemented itself as a legendary couch gaming experience with exceptional commercial success.

Obviously question is: Can it pass its most accomplished ancestor, the PlayStation 2?

My simple answer is: Unlikely. Sony has already announced the PlayStation 5 is due out in late 2020. The company has consistently reduced its forecast of PS4 shipments for its full 2019 fiscal year from 16 million back in April to 15 million in July, then 13.5 million in this latest report. Assuming it does hit 13.5 million, that equates to roughly 110 million in the wild overall by March 2020.

Even taking into account another fiscal year during the transition to a new generation, I can see under 125 million before PS5 appeals to a broader audience than just early adopters. Depends of course on how later generation software exclusives fare plus discount trend over time.

Well. It will have to settle for second place at the moment.

Beyond the eye-catching headline, Sony’s latest financial quarter was mixed at best especially within its gaming division. Check below for highlights and, might I say, lively commentary. The company’s presentation is here. Note that dollar amounts used are estimates, converted from local currency.

As displayed above for the company’s overall second quarter, sales and operating revenue dipped 3% since last year to around $19.5 billion while operating income surpassed $2.57 billion, an increase of 16%. Both revenue and earnings-per-share results actually beat analyst consensus, though Sony lowered its forecast for both metrics when considering the full fiscal year ending in March 2020.

Within its Game & Network Services (G&NS) unit, which includes PlayStation hardware, software and related services, quarterly sales slipped 17% to $4.5 billion while operating profit dropped 28% to just under $600 million. Sony pointed out that an increase in PlayStation Plus subscription revenue was not enough to offset a dip in both hardware and software dollar sales, thus the lowered performance.

Now, it’s always worth considering these reports in a broader context. Comparing quarters is only part of the equation. When pushing the dollar sales trend out to a trailing 12-month period then mapping over time, we certainly see a recent decline. Thing is, it’s above this time last year. Which means that even as it approaches the reveal and launch of the PlayStation 5, gaming is maintaining decent momentum. Profit is down slightly when looking at a similar trailing time frame, though well above where it’s been in prior years.

Note that similar to the company’s overall forecast, Sony also lowered its G&NS division forecast for both sales and profit for the full year, plus the PlayStation 4 hardware target as I noted previously.

Let’s chat a few specifics within its gaming business, then wrap with a couple observations and future thoughts.

While PlayStation 4 eclipsed sales of most of its historical competitors this quarter, it’s obvious that hardware and software are both slowing ahead of a new console cycle. The full game software sales total of 61.3 million copies is down from last year’s 75.1 million, likely due to the massively popular Marvel’s Spider-Man releasing in the corresponding quarter of 2018.

In terms of physical and digital split, 37% of software sales in Q2 were downloads. Compare this to around 28% this time last year, and it’s clear the trend is inching towards digital even for a traditional platform holder. Combine this with the popularity of PlayStation Plus, which rose to 36.9 million subscribers compared to last year’s 34.3 million, and we see how much digital and services matter when hardware sales are tapering off due to the natural cycle. It’s especially true this generation, as prior generations skewed much more towards retail consumption.

Speaking of business split, above charts out individual product categories within the gaming division over recent quarters. Which shows a handful of notable trends.

First, hardware sales are among the lowest this generation. Expected now that PS5 is official. Software remains the most prominent part of the PlayStation business other than occasionally during the holiday quarter, so it’s natural that growth ebbs and flows with it. Take a look at the green Network Services bar. This burgeoning segment has shown double-digit year-on-year growth every single quarter. Services are the talk of the industry lately, and for good reason. Sony is seeing tangible contribution from providing customers with things like PlayStation Plus, PlayStation Now and others to where I anticipate this to continue smoothly in both the near and long term.

So. What does this all mean and where’s Sony going in the future within its most important business segment?

It’s obviously a mixed quarter both overall and within G&NS, most notably because of its lowered guidance for annual revenue, profit and PlayStation 4 hardware sales. Though when smoothing this quarter’s performance over time, the PlayStation business is showing legs before entering into a new chapter. Most noteworthy being the digital and services slices.

Still, software is key and that will dictate the remainder of this year. What I anticipated to be the year’s top console seller, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, achieved a $600 million opening weekend according to an Activision Blizzard press release today. It has an exclusive marketing deal with Sony plus PlayStation exclusive content, which means the console will benefit greatly from this rejuvenation of Call of Duty annual sales.

Death Stranding is the major console exclusive during this holiday quarter, releasing on November 8th. It’s produced by Kojima Productions, led by all-time-great director Hideo Kojima, and I’m upbeat on its sales potential despite being a new intellectual property.

The downside is that 2018 saw major releases in the God of War reboot and the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man, which makes for a difficult comparison. Combine that with the delay of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II into the first quarter of 2020 fiscal and we can understand why Sony adjusted its estimates downward.

Based on the above, I’m intrigued to see how software sales compare during the back half of the year, since I already anticipate lower dollar sales from PlayStation 4 hardware due to market saturation and discounted pricing.

Sony boasts one of the most impressive achievements in its company history with PlayStation 4 joining its PlayStation 2 brethren as one of the best-selling pieces of hardware ever, though the company will face short-term pressure as it gears up production and marketing for PlayStation 5 its corresponding software lineup.

Hope you all have a good one!

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Kojima Productions, Nintendo, Sony Corp., Wired.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Back again. Earlier in the week it was sales, now it’s all about earnings.

‘Tis the season. For company reporting and executive conference calls, of course. Lots of numbers and some jargon on top. Plus, reactions from yours truly as I plan to write in depth about select events.

To help us navigate this latest quarterly earnings season, I’ve gathered up notable reporting dates for companies across the gaming, technology and media sectors.

Above in the image, below in Google Docs. Then some quick hitters on three notable names I’m watching in the next few weeks. Let’s a go.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Oct & Nov 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Microsoft (MSFT): Wednesday, October 23rd

Last month, Microsoft announced a handful of updates to its investor reporting standards. The most noteworthy of these is the introduction of “year-over year percentage revenue growth for Xbox content and services” as opposed to the inclusion of dollar sales from its gaming segment within its earnings press release and presentation slides. As noted in the excerpt above, content and services includes Xbox Live, software sales and third-party game royalties.

The unfortunate part is the new metric is merely growth as opposed to a raw amount, the latter of which is always preferable. Upside is that Microsoft will still report overall gaming revenue, it’s just that it will only be included in its quarterly or annual filings with U.S. regulators. Which are usually published a day or so after its earnings press release. So we won’t know the dollar amount from content and services, though we’ll still see the revenue figure. After a bit of patience.

Capcom (9697): Tuesday, October 29th

Capcom’s rejuvenation continues with its recent announcement that Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, the latest expansion for its best-selling game ever, moved an impressive 2.5 million copies within a week of its release back in September. In its integrated report for 2019, the Japanese developer and publisher also expressed an intent to utilize dormant IP and remakes after successful launches of titles in the Resident Evil and Devil May Cry franchises.

While the company has been.. hm, beasting over the past couple years, the main notable game in its upcoming slate is the spin-off multiplayer title within the Resident Evil universe dubbed Project Resistance. How will its forecasting look this quarter? Does it indicate a new mainline entry in one of its properties, maybe at the launch of next generation? My guess is Capcom will look towards the fighting game genre next, a segment in which it used to excel, since both Street Fighter V and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite were underwhelming at best.

Activision Blizzard (ATVI): Thursday, November 7th

Blizzard, one half of major domestic publisher Activision Blizzard, has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons after suspending a professional Hearthstone player for speaking out in support of Hong Kong protesters then fumbling through the aftermath. It’s been a public relations nightmare for the developer of Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch.

Its annual Blizzcon event will be over by the time the earnings call happens, though I’ve got a feeling it won’t be the last of this latest news cycle and I expect at least a couple analysts to ask executives to address this situation. Especially with rumors swirling that Diablo 4 and a sequel to 2016’s hero shooter Overwatch could be revealed at the event.

On the Activision side, the obvious subject of interest will be any indication of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare forecasting with its release happening later this week. I anticipate the game will be the best-selling console title of 2019, plus has a chance to set a record for launch dollar sales in the franchise (which would be anything above a $550 million opening weekend). Expect management to be extremely bullish on its prospects, because anything else would be newsworthy on its own.

Thanks friends for stopping by, though check back often in the coming weeks. I look forward to writing more about individual companies during this season plus chatting about it on Twitter like usual!

Sources: Company Investor Websites, Kotaku, GameSpot.

-Dom

NBA 2K20 & Borderlands 3 Heat Up the U.S. Video Game Charts in September

Shoot. It’s October already!

Which can mean only one thing. Obviously.

No, not that Halloween is around the corner. It’s that sports and shooters once again score big in the commercial video game landscape here in the States, as proven by the stellar sales performance of new titles in the NBA 2K and Borderlands franchises last month!

This is all according to a recent report from The NPD Group, the main tracking firm for U.S. game market sales. (September’s tracking period ran from September 1st to October 5th, which means it included five weeks.)

NBA 2K20 released back on September 6th, and since then it’s been an unprecedented success. Similar to recent entries in the long-running franchise, which is on a real hot streak. This time though it’s at its most impressive.

2K Games’ latest basketball entry scored the number one spot during September’s monthly tracking period. Not only that, it’s instantly the top-selling game of the entire year so far, already outpacing the prior leader Mortal Kombat 11 which held the spot since back in May.

Going further, NBA 2K20 achieved the highest launch month dollar sales of any sports game. Ever. Like, as in the history of NPD tracking the U.S. market. The series overall, published by Take-Two Interactive, moves past RedOctane & Activision’s Guitar Hero to become the 6th best-selling franchise of all time domestically as measured by dollar sales.

Essentially, it’s another a slam dunk for Take-Two.

Speaking of Take-Two, not only did the company have the top seller of September, it also produced the 2nd best-selling title in Borderlands 3.

Gearbox Software’s first-person shlooter (yes that’s a shooter and a looter combined into one word because it’s easier to write, however now that I’ve explained it, I’ve taken up way more of your time than writing it out) shot up the chart to land in the same #2 spot as its predecessor did back in September 2012.

This time, Borderlands 3 set a launch month record for its series. Plus it’s already the 3rd best-seller of the full year, which means it’s collected more dollar sales than any 2019 release except for the aforementioned NBA 2K20 and Mortal Kombat 11.

Congratulations to the studio, though I admittedly say this with one slight caveat. Borderlands 2 had less time in its respective September month than did this year’s installment, so it’s natural Borderlands 3 should overtake it. It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment at all. The game sold 5 million units in less than a week’s time. It’s just the type of thing we have to acknowledge when talking records and the like.

NBA 2K20 achieved the highest launch month dollar sales of any sports game. Ever. Like, as in the history of NPD tracking the U.S. market.

Rounding out the Top 5 best sellers last month are two new releases then one August title: The September releases being Electronic Arts’ FIFA 20 at #3 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening from Nintendo at #4. Then Madden NFL 20 at the #5 spot, another Electronic Arts joint that was August’s leading game.

I’d argue the remainder of the Top 10 is just as intriguing as everything prior, even with all the record-setting happening. As you’ll see above, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint quietly achieved the sixth spot with only two days of tracking. I remain bullish on Ubisoft’s latest Tom Clancy project even if on brand alone, and can see it becoming a mainstay of the chart for the next couple months despite major competition. These games have a knack for being persistent, especially as Ubisoft’s focus on ongoing support.

Then there’s Gears 5 from Xbox Game Studios. The only flagship Xbox One console exclusive of 2019, and the first truly major game that hit both traditional retail and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service simultaneously (I know Forza Horizon 4 was similar, though it’s part of the more niche racing genre).

It’s difficult to make a true comparison without underlying sales vs subscription figures, though Gears 5 debuts a few spots lower than the 3rd place launch of Gears of War 4 back in October 2016. However when talking overall engagement, Microsoft said Gears 5 was the biggest launch this generation for Xbox Game Studios attracting 3 million players during its opening weekend. Which is twice the amount of the prior installment.

To me, this indicates that players are getting into Gears 5 using Xbox Game Pass just as much as they are purchasing at stores or digitally, plus competition this September was more challenging than the same month in 2016. Which means that the 7th spot isn’t a poor result for Gears. It’s more indicative that Microsoft is enticing consumers with a subscription rather than relying on traditional sales avenues.

Now that we’ve talked on a select group of individual titles, here’s the full list of September sellers and 2019 year-to-date rankings.

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

  1. NBA 2K20
  2. Borderlands 3
  3. FIFA 20
  4. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening*
  5. Madden NFL 20
  6. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
  7. Gears 5^
  8. Code Vein
  9. NHL 20
  10. Mario Kart 8*
  11. Minecraft#
  12. Grand Theft Auto V
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Spyro Reignited Trilogy
  15. Red Dead Redemption 2
  16. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  17. Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville
  18. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  19. Catherine
  20. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*

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

  1. NBA 2K20
  2. Mortal Kombat 11
  3. Borderlands 3
  4. Madden NFL 20
  5. Kingdom Hearts 3
  6. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
  7. Anthem
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
  9. Resident Evil 2 Remake
  10. Grand Theft Auto V

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

I remain bullish on Ubisoft’s latest Tom Clancy project even if on brand alone, and can see it becoming a mainstay of the chart for the next couple months despite major competition. These games have a knack for being persistent, especially as Ubisoft’s focus on ongoing support.

Bouncing over to the industry at large, overall consumer spending hit $1.278 billion in September. Off 8% compared to the same month in 2018. All three major categories saw year-over-year dips, with hardware experiencing the most precipitous decline (22%) as the console cycle matures.

When taking the year as a whole, total spending is down 6% to $8.3 billion on lower console sales.

Nintendo Switch was again the best-selling piece of gaming hardware in the States, which it’s been each of the past 10 months, plus it’s still the top dog for 2019 as a whole. Which makes sense. It’s the only hardware showing momentum when it comes to the domestic market, as Nintendo of America revealed it’s sold 15 million Switch units in North America alone since launch in March 2017. Not only that, Switch sales year-to-date are up an impressive 20% compared to the same time frame last year.

Though even the launch of Switch Lite couldn’t offset declines in competitor consoles, as September hardware spend in the U.S. totaled $306 million compared to last year’s $328 million. This is more of a decline than I anticipated, with Lite providing less of a boost. Or perhaps its counterparts dipped more than I thought. Either way, these things combined to show that hardware needs more than a dedicated handheld Switch iteration to grow again.

For 2019 to date, hardware is off 21% to $1.9 billion. Expect this trend to continue and even worsen with next generation slated for holiday 2020.

On the software side, domestic spend was down 4% in September to $732 million. Driven by the launches of Gears 5 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening respectively, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch software sales actually rose during September. Though not enough to counteract weakness in PlayStation 4 game purchasing.

A bit of a bright spot is that for the year so far, dollar spending on software is actually flat at $3.9 billion. Nintendo Switch is showing enough strength to completely offset declines elsewhere.

Finally, accessories and game pad dollar spend dipped 7% compared to this time in 2018, to $306 million. Spending in this last category for 2018 through September is $2.6 billion, which is down a slight 2%.

That said, it’s time for the buzzer. All the super intriguing monthly stats are courtesy of The NPD Group, namely friend of the site Mat Piscatella. Check out his detailed post on Twitter or EEDAR and be sure to give a like on his YouTube video, which has even more information.

Tomorrow we’ll be getting back into earnings season with my latest calendar post, so the fun never stops! Talk again then.

Sources: The NPD Group, Take-Two Interactive, Electronic Arts, Nintendo.

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep: Day 2 & 3 Recap: Power to the Players

In my initial piece after Destiny 2: Shadowkeep launched on Tuesday, I spoke generally about my impressions of Bungie’s latest update plus the studio’s general direction shift for the franchise going into the third year of this sequel. Today, I’ll provide an update of where I’m at as a player gearing up for today’s Garden of Salvation raid and Vex Offensive mode as part of the Season of the Undying, plus praise new quality of life initiatives while also critiquing the new armor and modification system.

It’s a little later than usual, since I’ve been on the grind.

For those that have played since the original in 2014, the general cadence of a Destiny expansion for those looking to gear up quickly for endgame activities is to blast through early story content and quests until hitting what’s called the “soft cap,” a point at which the player needs more powerful sources to drive one’s Light/Power level towards the maximum. In this case, all players begin at 750 Power then naturally work upwards to the soft cap of 900. Powerful sources are then required to climb towards 950, at which time Bungie has now introduced “pinnacle” sources that go up to 960. The development team describes this trajectory in more detail in a recent weekly post.

This means powering up takes some strategy. Plus, having two or three characters doesn’t hurt as gear can be transferred between them. I’ve been in the middle of this power trip, and loving it, while at the same time admitting that it’s certainly not for everyone. At least not on a shortened timeline.

Thing is, I firmly believe that even the most casual of player can have a great time with Shadowkeep as long as they are able to tolerate some familiar enemy designs. Its base story of the mysterious pyramid on the Moon and Eris morn’s guidance through a treacherous set of nightmare enemy encounters culminates in what I think is a really cool finale, and if one stops there then it can certainly be a satisfying conclusion. Especially if this happens over days or weeks rather than hours.

One item I’d like to clarify is that while Shadowkeep certainly has a “campaign,” this is far from the end of its story. With Bungie’s new ongoing approach, activities will now start up across the entirety of the Season of the Undying, beginning with today’s raid and event. While in the past the narrative was more contained in the initial expansion, now it unfolds over time. Which is awesome for those of us that want more, though it’s difficult to do a formal review and many players won’t stick around for the best of its content.

Back to where I’m at, then let’s chat on where we’re going.

Once the base campaign ends, the Moon opens up to a plethora of activities that reward powerful and even exotic gear. This includes a replay of the introduction Shadowkeep mission, going on more “Nightmare Hunts,” the three-player mini-strikes against spooky versions of familiar bosses like the knight Crota and wizare Omnigul.

Eris also asks you to help track down the Memory of Sai Mota, one of her deceased fireteam members. This particular quest has players engaging in quick forays into Lost Sectors strewn about the moon, crafted areas in unique sub-locations with a boss encounter. There’s also a curious exotic quest that has players tracking down a very unique and expertly-designed rocket launcher.

Spending more time on the Moon reveals hidden lore and random enemy encounters that help build out the game’s environment storytelling is welcome after the main missions conclude. Plus, I’ll take any chance I can to enjoy the nostalgia.

Across the solar system, there are now plenty of powerful loot opportunities. Many vendors at the Tower social space now offer weekly bounties, plus one of the game’s most amazing quality of life updates in the ability to generate daily bounties that can help level up both the seasonal pass and work towards achieving these weekly powerful drops. It’s legitimately one of the biggest game changers in the Destiny grind, in that rather than having to wait for the game to reset bounties daily like it’s done in the past, players can ask a vendor to create a bounty for 3,000 glimmer. I can’t oversell how important this is.

Another quality of life feature that changes the game is the new quest and bounty tracking screen. Even if I wish we had more slots to hold quests and bounties with an ability to filter them, splitting them into their own categories on the menu screen makes for much easier tracking. It feels like this system, one that’s so integral to the endgame progression, is close to being absolutely stellar.

One area fans have been vocal about in the past is wanting to pick which kinds of gear to chase rather than relying on random drops, which can result in a situation where you have one piece under-powered compared to everything else. Bungie briefly offered this in the original game, then more recently within the Season of Opulence with the Menagerie activity. This continues on the Moon, with an artifact called the Lectern of Enchantment. Players can purchase bounties specific to an exact piece of gear, then set out to earn it knowing full well how to accomplish it. A very helpful tool, especially since the weapon design here is top-notch.

While Shadowkeep certainly has a “campaign,” this is far from the end of its story. With Bungie’s new ongoing approach, activities will now start up across the entirety of the Season of the Undying, beginning with today’s raid and event. While in the past the narrative was more contained in the initial expansion, now it unfolds over time.

While many powerful sources are tied to activities that have been in Destiny 2 for a while now, namely the Crucible PvP mode plus strike playlist that rotates bespoke missions, I intriguingly found it refreshing to complete these with friends because I hadn’t played much of the game in a couple months. And now that the game’s main Director page clearly shows the rewards from every activity type, this time is much more streamlined.

Once I was done with everything, I had achieved 935 Power level and am geared up for today’s endeavors. I strongly urge any lapsed or new players to at least give this powerful chase a try after hitting 900 Power, since it gives a great taste of everything Destiny 2 has to offer. This game is nowhere near what it was back in 2017, with the introduction of things like raid lairs, Gambit and new competitive modes, that there’s plenty fun to have even after the initial ramp ends.

So, what to do now?

I know the above might sound overwhelming, though Destiny 2 is slowly turning into an action multiplayer online game with more role playing elements than ever before. This is clearly shown by the new armor system, one that I now have more experience with though won’t fully appreciate its depths until the meta-game is established.

“Armor 2.0” is a major move, so I’ll try to recap as best I can. First, it brings statistics related to melee, grenade and super ability cool downs in the form of Strength, Discipline and Intellect respectively much more the the forefront. A throwback to the original game. Players see exactly how long each cool down lasts, and every piece of gear comes with its own levels that can be adjusted through modifications.

Speaking of modifications, Armor 2.0 scraps the fixed attributes of earlier gear and introduces a system of modifiers whereby players can pick where to focus based on how much “Energy” they apply to that piece. Want more ammunition for a certain weapon class? Slap that modifier on your armor. Play more of a long game with snipers and need better target acquisition? There’s a mod for that. Do you have the desire for every finisher to regenerate your health? You get the idea.

The difficulty here is that it’s obvious this system is in its infancy, because the implementation is off in multiple ways. Put plainly: It’s unclear how to earn mods and the interface is messy. Instead of revealing each modification type, what it does and how to earn it, Bungie only shows players the ones we’ve earned so far. It then limits the modification types that can be applied to armor, yet doesn’t communicate that explicitly.

I’d prefer the menu show all mods available, then list out where we can find the ones we’re missing rather than being vague about it. I know it takes away from the mystery, but it’s so much better from a usability standpoint and that’s what’s key for an intricate new system. I appreciate the flexibility offered by this updated setup. It’s still got a long way to go before I can call it user-friendly. We’ll need to check back in there down the line, as I’d wager the team will take feedback and work towards cleaning this up.

This game is nowhere near what it was back in 2017, with the introduction of things like raid lairs, Gambit and new competitive modes, that there’s plenty fun to have even after the initial ramp ends.

This brings us to today. It’s one of the most exciting days in the history of Destiny, with the launch of two major activities within the broader Season of the Undying: the Garden of Salvation raid and the mysterious Vex Offensive activity. Both of which sound like they expand on Shadowkeep and its narrative, hopefully in meaningful ways.

Garden of Salvation is the latest six-person raid. Guardians will traverse to what’s called the Black Garden, a place out of time that is actually where the first game’s base campaign ends. It kicks off this afternoon in a World First race that pros and streamers alike compete to decipher its puzzles and beat down its bosses.

Raids are my favorite part of Destiny by a wide margin. Each is set in a distinctly crafted, unique and beautiful setting with individual lore elements that tie back to the main universe. They take coordination, teamwork and skill due to the complexity of puzzles and combat encounters. These epic missions also offer some of the highest level and coolest looking gear possible, which is crucial in a loot game. Our team will be there at the start, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experience here and on Twitter after we get a lot of time there this weekend.

The second event is a newer style one for Season Pass owners, dubbed Vex Offensive. Apparently the time-manipulating robot race of the Vex are amassing on the Moon (in addition to the other aliens, as it seems a popular destination for invasion these days) and Warlock Vanguard leader Ikora Ray has tasked Guardians with pushing them back. It’s a six-member, match-made activity that sounds a lot like last season’s Menagerie. There are currently nodes on the Moon’s map that allude to this activity, though beyond this we don’t know too much more just yet.

It’s currently a bit.. Vexing!

Before concluding, I wanted to give a shout out to the entire team at Bungie for hitting a player count milestone this week. According to Destiny Tracker, the game boasts more than 15 million registered players. While less than the 30 million of the original game, which was notably available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in addition to current generation consoles, this is still a feat that we should celebrate as a fan base. The more Guardians, the better!

Alas, I could write for hours about the world of Destiny, its evolving mechanics and its bright future. I’d say I’m somewhere between an enthusiast and hardcore fan, since there’s still plenty for me to do and learn within this evolving title even if I’ve sunk many hours into playing.

Today is historic for the franchise and Bungie’s independence, and I’m mostly upbeat with where Shadowkeep is going despite the handful of noted hesitations above. I’m excited at the prospects for folks that stick around, it sounds like we’ll even be a part of the story that shapes this game going forward.

Good luck, and eyes up!

Sources: Bungie, Destiny Fandom, Destiny Tracker, Screenshots on Xbox One X.

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Day 1 Recap: Serving Up Nostalgia

We’re going back to the Moon!

Yesterday saw the launch of the latest expansion for 2017’s first-person sci-fi shooter Destiny 2, entitled Shadowkeep, which is part of a re-imagining of sorts for the franchise that saw its start way back in 2014. The now independent studio Bungie, splitting from Activision Blizzard this summer, launches its latest expansion alongside a free-to-play version of the base game called Destiny 2: New Light. Not only that, it’s moved the PC version from Activision’s Battle.net to the more universal digital platform Steam from Valve Corporation.

This isn’t even to mention the myriad of changes coming to the shared world online multiplayer title itself. Notably this includes quality of life updates, the roll-out of a brand new armor customization system plus the introduction of a seasonal type pass offering rewards for ranking one’s character up.

As you’d imagine from the above, the team at Bungie’s vision for Destiny as a franchise is beyond ambitious. Game Director Luke Smith provided fans with a three part Director’s Cut manifesto back in August that described how the game is changing to an action multiplayer game with an evolving world where everyone can play together.

Being a long-time fan, I will acknowledge that I start from a place of nostalgia and appreciation. This also makes me more hyper-critical than most. You’re probably wondering how it went during Shadowkeep’s kick-off yesterday. I’d like to keep a running documentation here on my experience, with context provided when I can, so let’s Keep it moving.

Playing since the original game’s early days, I’ve grown accustom to long waiting times every time a new influx of players hits during expansions. This time was no different, though even more pronounced due to Bungie launching the aforemention paid expansion, free-to-play version and a Steam version all on the same day. I understand wanting to align these for consistency, but man that’s a lot to ask of the tech teams.

The benefit of this is it obviously attracts people to the game. On PC alone, Steam concurrent players neared 220K at its peak. The digital deluxe version of Shadowkeep and the underlying game achieved the best-selling titles yesterday on its store. Which means that it’s not only enticing for new players, it’s that existing and lapsed players alike are jumping back in to see the new story lines and updates.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

With one, potentially major, caveat..

It was this good because I love Destiny.

For newer players and those with more of a passing interest? I don’t know if Shadowkeep will hit as hard. I especially question whether it will keep them coming back after this initial wave, which is the most difficult part of an ongoing, live service title. This carries forward throughout the actual story content of the expansion, as we face against all too familiar foes that appeal to us as fans though could very well feel redundant to everyone else.

Let’s step back momentarily. At its core, Destiny 2 is an online multiplayer game where we team up with buddies to eradicate hostile aliens from our solar system. It’s segmented into different planetary locations where various missions and activities take place. It’s much more a loot game than competitors in the first-person shooter genre, where players seen the best guns and armor to tackle even more difficult quests then progress towards an endgame that features raids, dungeons, competitive multiplayer and more.

One of these locations from 2014’s original Destiny was Earth’s Moon. A fan favorite, really, with its spooky vibe and opportunities for exploration. Sparing the details of its extensive back-story and lore, alien races called the Hive and Fallen now inhabit the moon and the player, called a Guardian, is tasked with clearing them out and defeating their leaders.

With Shadowkeep, players return to a modified version of the Moon. Most of it is the same layout as the original, offering familiarity and nostalgia for diehard players though I could see it drawing ire from lapsed players as a “been there, done that” vibe. I’ll note that the Moon has changed since our time here years ago, the Hive have erected a massive “Red Keep” structure towering over the lunar surface with a mysterious new enemy at its core.

Our guide on this journey is Eris Morn, a returning character in the game’s universe. She spent years hiding among the sinister Hive beings, which are essentially evil incarnate, after a mission gone bad. She’s learned their intricacies and knows that they post a serious threat to whatever is left of humanity.

Turning to missions themselves, the start has Guardians fighting in a more social type of environment against waves of Hive in an attempt to storm the Red Keep. It’s an epic return to this familiar setting, since it takes place in a brand new sub-area where the team’s stellar art direction really shines. The shooting is as good as ever, since not much has changed there other than weapon balancing, and Bungie is one of the best in the business when it comes to game mechanics.

Despite some emergency server maintenance lasting a couple hours, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep luckily stabilized early enough for me to play through the entirety of its new campaign and experiment with its new systems and more endgame content. And it was really good.

As is customary for a Destiny expansion, this amazing opening kicks off a new mini-campaign in which we take on quests all across the Moon plus can play in open, public spaces to tackle public “events,” clear out enemy enclaves called Lost Sectors and generally explore for items and secrets.

Without getting into spoiler territory, Bungie weaves older enemies into the mix here as Nightmares, fearsome shadowy versions of former foes which Guardians have to hunt down in order to help Eris learn more about the core threat. It’s great from an art and atmosphere perspective, and very much a setup that favors those who love the game. We recognize these enemies and their tactics. We’ve faced them all before. While I think this is smart from a nostalgia perspective, it really only appeals to those that don’t mind retreading old fights.

I can see the argument from lapsed players that Shadowkeep is repetitive. A rehashing. It might even feel old, which is the opposite of what an expansion should be. I wouldn’t have a great rebuttal, other than to say that I love it because it makes me remember all the fun I’ve had in years past when it makes someone else feel like it’s more of the same.

Now, I’ve argued for years that Destiny isn’t a traditional shooter and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s a loot game that you play with friends. The whole point is to earn new weapons and armor, to find materials and modifiers that help you level this gear with the end goal of looking the coolest, feeling the most bad-ass and beating the highest level challenges it has to offer.

Shadowkeep initially looks great from this angle. Everyone begins at the same Power level (Or Light level, for veterans) and the game is generous in the flow of new, cool stuff. By the time I finished the campaign, I had a beefy exotic hand cannon, an awesome heavy machine gun and a full set of new legendary armor, hitting a point in my Power that I could now move into later game activities. There’s also the opportunity to pick up bounties that offer specific types of gear, rather than relying on the usually random drops to level up.

If we’re talking loot, this latest expansion is excellent. Though collecting every piece of gear isn’t a priority for most players, which goes back to the retention question. If lapsed players feel like they’ve seen this all before, and don’t see the appeal of hording stuff, what’s the point in sticking around?

Well, part of Bungie’s strategy towards player retention is making changes to the overall universe then the more nitty gritty systems and quality of life, which we’ll chat a bit on here before wrapping for the day.

First, Shadowkeep kicks off what’s dubbed Season of the Undying in which Bungie shifts to a more “evolving world” approach. This isn’t meant to be a one-time, traditional update. There are events planned, new missions to run and powerful gear to chase in the weeks to come. Powering up to tackle the Garden of Salvation raid this weekend or new Vex Offensive activity (“Vex” are another enemy race) are key to keeping player’s attention amidst a busy fall release schedule.

Still, this again targets the hardcore less than the general player base. It’s a delicate balance. I love the strategy, though am still skeptical of its implementation and overall appeal to many people returning for Shadowkeep. I do want to make sure to say that offering a free version in New Light is an excellent decision, allowing a taste of every activity and location without much barrier to entry.

One new major feature that does target everyone is the Battle Pass-type roadmap where everyone can unlock seasonal rewards just by playing the game. This includes actual weapons and armor, in addition to materials and cosmetic items. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this approach at first, though admittedly am warming up to this as it’s yet another carrot-on-the-stick. And this time, it appeals to all players since rank-ups happen organically. Kudos here to the studio for intelligently adopting this model that can be rampant with pay-to-win tactics.

Flipping to more focused changes, I haven’t dabbled much with the new “Armor 2.0” system which offers much more flexibility in how gear is customized. I did like how specific gameplay customization options are now split up from appearance, though will have more on this topic in the days to come.

Long-time fans will debate how weapon and ability changes impact the Destiny “meta” game longer term, though again this is something I won’t get into this much since I want this to be more of a general recap.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

Finally, the introduction of Finishers is pure and utter genius. Most enemies can be “finished” with a flashy melee kill when at low health, and it never gets old no matter how many times I do it. The best part is that players can earn new finishers later in the game, or through the seasonal pass, and can assign modifiers that offer perks like enemies dropping more ammo when killed by a finisher.

I want to know which visionary at Bungie thought of adding the new finisher system, and give them the highest of fives. It’s one of the best parts of this update, and that’s not hyperbole.

This brings us to the end of the first day recap now that Shadowkeep is officially here. As with most live games, there will be hiccups along the way. I’m really enjoying my early time with the latest update to Destiny 2, though still maintain my skepticism that players other than those as crazy as me and my clan will be here for longer than a week or two.

Until tomorrow!

Sources: Steam, Bungie, Screenshots on Xbox One X.

-Dom

Madden NFL 20 Remains Victorious as U.S. Video Game Sales Slow in August

Football season has finally kicked off here in the States, and Madden NFL 20 scores yet another victory on the domestic monthly video games sales charts. An impressive streak for the perennial best seller, even if overall software sales hit a slump in August.

This year’s installment in the Madden franchise was the top-selling game last month between August 4th and August 31st, according to industry research firm The NPD Group. Based on this solid momentum, Madden NFL 20 has moved up the standings to become the 3rd best-selling title of 2019 to date.

It’s a recurring theme. This is the seventh year in a row that an Madden game has led August. In fact, the annualized series itself is the number one selling sports franchise of all time in the country. It’s the most consistent in this segment for good reason, reiterating that football is the most popular sport in America.

Publisher Electronic Arts recently shared that this year’s title welcomed the most players ever for a National Football League (NFL) opening weekend. While the figures are definitely padded by a free trial effort, combining this with its two consecutive months atop the monthly sales chart and vaulting to #3 on the year-to-date shows not only how much of a sales giant it is but also how it’s still part of both sports and casual gaming culture.

The best part is Madden serves as the metaphorical first whistle signalling the start of the Fall sales season, which really picks up next month then culminates during the holidays. Speaking of sales, let’s get into the numbers.

In terms of overall spending on the games industry last month, consumers racked up $666 million across hardware, software and accessories/game cards. A figure which is down 18% compared to this time last year. For 2019 to date, industry spend is $7 billion in total. Six percent lower than the comparable period leading up to August 2018.

Each of the three main segments saw declines, though the eye-catching statistic resides within software. Consumer spend on games totaled $257 million, a decline of 22% year-on-year. This is the lowest figure for an August month in 20 years when spend on software totaled $234 million back in 1998. The summer is a notoriously slower time for games, even more pronounced this year due to where we are in the general console cycle.

Here’s the thing. The data is clear, August was way slow. However, when broadening the scope to look at the full year, software spending in the U.S. is actually up since last year. Overall software sales rose slightly to $3.1 billion, boosting up 1% compared to the same time frame during 2018.

Strength in Nintendo Switch output is obviously fueling this growth amidst long-in-the-tooth competitors, though I’d argue legacy multi-platform games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V still appeal to folks capitalizing on console discounts and buying the half-step PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X hardware iterations.

There you have it, I’ve found the silver lining in a somewhat dreary report. Context is important. It’s not just about each month, it’s about how that month impacts the aggregate.

Moving over to hardware, this segment dipped 22% to $167 million. Switch was the only console to see growth since last August. For the year so far, hardware is sitting at $1.6 billion which is a decline of 21%.

In case the trend isn’t obvious, Nintendo Switch yet again earned the top hardware spot as measured by dollar sales and units sold. The same as it’s done since the holiday season in 2018. Because of this, it retains its position as the best-selling console of 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised if this holds through November and beyond. Can discounts on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can do anything to stymie Switch’s run?

Accessories and game pads round out the three main segments, generating $242 million in August and totaling $2.3 billion for 2019 to date. These figures are down 6% and 2%, respectfully.

Here’s the thing. The data is clear, August was way slow. However, when broadening the scope to look at the full year, software spending in the U.S. is actually up since last year. Overall software sales rose slightly to $3.1 billion, boosting up 1% compared to the same time frame during 2018.

On to the rankings!

Let’s see the software list then delve into it. First we’ve got the August monthly game chart, then the year-to-date best sellers. This is based on dollar sales when combining physical and digital for those companies that participate in The NPD Group’s data gathering effort.

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

  1. Madden NFL 20^
  2. Minecraft#
  3. Grand Theft Auto V
  4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses*
  5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  6. Super Mario Maker 2*
  7. Mario Kart 8*
  8. Mortal Kombat 11
  9. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  10. Astral Chain*
  11. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  12. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  13. Red Dead Redemption 2
  14. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
  15. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
  16. Super Mario Party*
  17. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order*
  18. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  19. The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan
  20. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

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

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

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

Beyond Madden in the lead, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V round up the top two spots. Nope, this isn’t 2014. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Both are still selling, especially during a slower month for new releases other than a major sports franchise. My ongoing theory is every new console buy means a copy of at least one of these games, if not both. Especially Grand Theft Auto V. Following these mainstay legacy titles were Fire Emblem: Three Houses at the 4th spot then Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fighting to #5.

In fact, the list is a whole bunch of Nintendo. Half of the top ten is comprised of games published by the Japanese gaming giant exclusively for Switch. This includes the only brand new release squeezing into the Top 10: Astral Chain. The third-person action game developed by PlatinumGames debuted at #10 during August. Considering Nintendo doesn’t share the digital portion of software sales, this is an even more impressive start. Especially knowing the game isn’t part of an established franchise, albeit made by a popular developer.

Quick note on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, this is its second month within the Top 5 overall list as last month it occupied the #2 spot. Its second month sales were the best ever for a game within the Fire Emblem series, and it’s approaching lifetime sales of the franchise top-seller 2012’s Fire Emblem: Awakening. A testament to both Nintendo’s software direction plus the global appeal of the brand now.

Another new title which is much deserving of a shout out is Age of Wonders: Planetfall from developer Triumph Studios and publisher Paradox Interactive. This fifth iteration within the Age of Wonders strategy series released early in the month and landed at #15. Most impressively, it generated the best initial month ever for an Age of Wonders game in dollar sales terms. For a release within a more niche genre usually targeting the PC crowd, grabbing a Top 15 spot is excellent.

On the other hand, a couple other major August releases didn’t fare as well. The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, the first installment in a new horror franchise from Supermassive Games, cracked the Top 20 with its start at #19. Considering the multi-platform title’s late August release window plus its lower price point, this actually isn’t too bad of a result.

Remedy Entertainment’s Control on the other hand didn’t make it into the Top 20. While critically acclaimed, including in a review from your boy, the combination of releasing within days of the month end plus no digital sales here means it’s not part of the top-sellers. That caveat of publisher 505 Games not contributing digital sales is important, so really this ranking isn’t telling the entire story. A full story which, unfortunately, we likely won’t hear without the publisher sharing anything official.

That about wraps it up for this monthly report. Regular visitors will already know, but in case it’s your first time: friend of the site Mat Piscatella is an essential follow on Twitter as an analyst representing the NPD Group. Check out his video for further details on last month’s data, including individual platform rankings and all that fun stuff.

Till next time. Stay safe.

Source: The NPD Group, Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Paradox Entertainment, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Review: It’s Worth Taking a Plunge into the Pinball-Themed Creature in the Well

Amidst the pantheon of pinball-inspired video games like Sonic Spinball, Devil’s Crush and more recently Yoku’s Island Express, Creature in the Well cements its position right from launch then makes a definitive case to be considered among the very best. Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly. Even with minor quality-of-life omissions, late game pacing hiccups and tricky boss encounters, I can’t recommend it enough.

Noticeable right after, hm.. launching the game is its eye-catching artwork. Almost paper-mâché in its aesthetic. A wide-ranging color palette featuring bright oranges and subtle blues creates a world in which a massive sandstorm has forced survivors to retreat within a camp called Mirage, guarded by the ever-present, titular “Creature.” Its minimalist approach is ideal in this setting, in that it acts to enhance the game’s focus on mechanics rather than causing any distraction.

General premise is the player hacks and slashes through the world as the last “BOT-C” robot engineer, trying to power up a massive weather device built into a mountain that can allegedly dissipate the storm. “How?,” one might ask. Well. By plunging into abandoned areas of the mountain to smack balls of light at objects to create energy, naturally! Individual goals come down to powering up a number of areas within the apparatus, each with a distinct color arrangement and theme like Power Reserves or the Archives. The ultimate end being to overcome the Creature then switch on the machine.

Characters such as a friendly amphibian Roger T. Frog, a descendant of one of the original weather device project leads, plus half alligator, part alien Danielle are the sole non-playable characters (NPCs) present in this world. The Creature lurks literally down in a well on the outskirts of Mirage, taunting throughout the journey. Villagers hint they are hiding in their homes while you approach. A clever way to instill mystery, even if I’d prefer it be more interactive. It’s low key a funny game, between intimate dialogue sequences with Roger and Danielle in addition to documents or world items found at the end of each section.

Boasting beautiful art and snappy mechanics plus a mysterious plot line, Flight School’s creative indie blends mechanics in the most unique of ways. It’s a seamless mix of traditional pinball elements, dungeon-crawling and sword combat that rewards the player constantly.

It’s remarkable to remember that Creature in the Well is the work of mainly two developers from Flight School’s studio, Adam Volker and Bohdon Sayre, with bits of support from additional teammates. There’s more content and lore than I anticipated. Throughout my upwards of eight hours with the game it becomes increasingly clear that every section is hand-crafted with obvious reverence for the game’s inspirations.

Presentation is via an isometric view, though its camera is much more dynamic than traditional games using this perspective. Shifting in angle while following the protagonist winding through corridors. Moving vertically while confronting the Creature in a boss fight. I’m openly not a huge fan of games using this type of vantage. It’s essential here to maximize the viewing angle and effectively simulate a virtual playfield, so I applaud the design choice over a more third-person action or static top-down like say The Legend of Zelda.

Each room is a self-contained puzzle, the source of the game’s real joy. Progression is achieved by absorbing energy through slashing orbs with one’s weapon to bounce them off bumpers, slingshots and related pinball accoutrements. BOT-C then opens doors with said energy, proceeding on to the next. Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

Game feel is top-notch, and it has to be here in order for it to work, with responsive controls and quick movement capabilities. Hit feedback is punchy, causing weapons to feel powerful when smacking around orbs. It’s worth saying Creature in the Well is far from an easy game, though I’d argue it’s accessible to all gamers. Certain rooms where enemies, hostile orbs and obstructions surround the player are tough. The nice part is other places offer no resistance whatsoever, they exist purely to build up energy while enjoying bright lights and flashy sounds. Like being able to control the flippers when a machine is stuck in attract mode.

Now, this might all end up feeling stale or overstaying its welcome if it wasn’t for nearly two dozen items and upgrades available. These are found strewn throughout both Mirage and the mountain, in secret areas. Which always provide a sense of accomplishment. While a few are cosmetic, the two main categories that drastically impact play are Strike Tools, which facilitate ball striking, and Charge Tools that impact how BOT-C takes hold of orbs then aims accordingly. Reminiscent of catching that coveted silver ball at the base of one’s flipper, in hopes to gain better aim.

I’ll admit when I first picked up a baseball bat or frying pan, I wasn’t quite sure how these would help. Or if they were only there to be visual and auditory pleasures. It then builds momentum by offering tools relevant to each section, like a magnetic fork or electrifying wand. Which are hugely important the more puzzle elements are thrown at the player. A personal favorite is the Fan Blade, which slows time to a crawl and opens potential for pinpoint precision. Later on, finding a weapon with a laser sight is, pun intended, a literal game-changer.

There are also cores around the world that allow Danielle to upgrade BOT-C’s health back at camp. This is essential for later stages, I highly recommend seeking these hidden areas. Oh, I almost forgot, your character wears a cape! So it’s only natural to have some fancy patterns available to find. My first standout was a regal shade of purple, then I finished the game with a scarlet ensemble. Fellow Hunters in Destiny or Castlevania enthusiasts will know just how cool it feels to dash around adorned with a beautiful, flowing cloak.

This all proves the duo of developers has crafted a title which embodies the “one more try” attraction of great pinball machines and dungeon crawlers alike. I’d even love the addition of challenge modes or high score trials. The mechanics are so tight that I’d welcome these if the team offers them in the future, albeit likely not realistic since they might be moving onto other things (bring that on, too!).

Gameplay is furious and fluid, with obstacles to dodge and barriers to consider. In its most obvious tribute to its pinball roots, the best sequences require a level of precise shot-making that’s instantly gratifying. Volker and Sayre succeed in layering mechanics even late into the expedition, like exploding energy pillars or switches that cause pathways to emerge. It’s familiar enough without being predictable.

While the loop of cutting through puzzles then returning to Danielle for upgrades is addictive, I do wish the town was more dynamic. Allowing me to hear stories from survivors or showing more reaction to my efforts. It feels drab once exploring it the first time. There’s one notable change that happens towards the third act, which highlights how much of a missed opportunity this is. I didn’t experience an urge to be in the hub world for any longer than I had to be.

Before ending this round, we’ve got to talk boss fights and difficulty. The antagonizing Creature chucks barbs at BOT-C throughout the game. Like an annoying skeleton with glowing eyes. It brags about how it’s controlling the town. Stalks from the shadows. Though curiously, it never actually destroys you. Instead it thrives on failure, plucking you from a dungeon and resetting your progress, which makes it all the sweeter when given the opportunity to stop it.

Most Creature fights are well-designed, challenging yet manageable. The type of balance that’s necessary in this context. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Two later bosses in particular are severely frustrating, totally killing both my character and the steady momentum the game had up until then. Because of later game pacing interruptions, Creature in the Well suffers a similar fate as many games in that its conclusion requires multiple attempts. Each one more exasperating than the last. Problem is, it’s less a culmination of skills and more the game throwing all of its myriad of tactics at once, leaning on that for difficulty rather than more advanced mechanics.

It was moving at such a consistent clip that I was struck by how devastating it felt. Somehow the very last gauntlet is much better, though breaking through the two Creature fights that almost stymied my motivation was an endeavor. While I felt like quitting, the gameplay was still so spirited that I’m glad I stuck through it. Fair warning is all.

Turning to quality of life features and other options, these are somewhat limited which is unsurprising. There’s no brightness setting, minimal visual flexibility. No colorblind mode. Due to its higher difficulty late game, any sort of assist mode would be welcome to increase accessibility. A mini-map displays in the bottom right corner with no quick way to expand it. As I noticed multiple unused buttons, ideally one of them could bring up the map rather than having to tab through the start menu.

Nintendo Switch performance is solid running on Unreal Engine, no complaints in docked mode. It’s especially great to move and fight with a Pro Controller. Handheld mode is fine though not preferred, unless you’re looking for artificial challenge. Joystick and button positioning means it’s trickier to be precise with shots and evasion. And oddly it’s noticeably dark when using Switch’s auto-brightness setting. As noted before, there’s limited in-game visual settings. Pushing the system-level brightness up remedies this, colors popping even on the smaller screen though this will of course impact battery life.

Minor complaints on a couple boss encounters and quality-of-life items aside, Volker and Sayre have created something special with this project. A unique take within a hybrid sub-genre. It’s especially telling that I’m praising it this much, considering that isometric hack-and-slash games are not my choice style.

Similar to a classic pinball table or timeless arcade cabinet, Creature in the Well is the type of game that’s both addictive in short bursts plus fulfilling over marathon sessions. The concept is straightforward enough: grab a sword, launch a ball toward the objects in order to clear the room. Which means mastery is the true goal. While a difficulty jump in the final areas are startling compared to everything prior, a rousing finale catapults it into the upper echelon of indie games in general released this year.

Amidst the chaos in a new room or boss fight, there’s that moment of zen within a game’s mechanics that we’re all chasing. Not unlike being razor-focused on an arcade game or entering the zone while flipping on a pinball table. Where onlookers stare, dazzled by the bright lights and nostalgic accents. This is the feeling that Creature in the Well evokes at its best. Which is great, because it’s at its best almost the entire time.

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC (Windows 10 & Steam)

Recommendation: For anyone that even remotely likes pinball or dungeon crawlers, Creature in the Well is a must-play indie game this year. Honestly, even if these genres don’t often interest you, I still bet you’ll end up thinking it’s well worth the price of admission. I certainly did!

Sources: Popagenda, Flight School, Nintendo, Screenshots from Nintendo Switch.

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom

Review: Remedy’s Latest is Good, Though I Still Wanted More Out of Control

“It feels sane. Or, just the right kind of insane.”

These are the words of Jesse Faden, main protagonist of Control, musing during a particularly trippy stretch of Remedy Entertainment’s latest video game.

It’s an apt encapsulation of the mind-bending science fiction adventure. It’s way out there, and there’s a lot Remedy gets right. Even if it’s certainly not all right.

Out last week, Control is the latest title from Remedy, the Finnish developer best known for early Max Payne installments, Alan Wake and most recently Quantum Break. (Main writer Sam Lake is one of gaming’s most recognized narrators.) All third person action games, the latter two being plenty wacky in story and presentation. Control keeps in the tradition as an over-the-shoulder single-player adventure where shooting is a key element, plus expands to include abilities of the telekinetic and traversal variety. It’s much more an exploration into the metaphysical and paranormal realms than even Quantum Break, and its mechanics reflect this.

The player takes (I won’t say it, I won’t say it..) hold of the aforementioned Jesse, a woman with a mysterious past, a precious secret and a singular goal: To find her brother Dylan. After an otherworldly event in their hometown, her younger sibling was taken 17 years earlier by a secretive government agency called the Federal Bureau of Control (“FBC”) which investigates paranormal activities and unexplained occurrences using a near unlimited budget. It’s a setup reminiscent of the Men in Black or The X-Files, less common in games than in other media which allows an ideal backdrop for Remedy’s unique brand of storytelling.

Jesse arrives at FBC headquarters, dubbed The Oldest House, a nondescript and unrealistically massive structure in New York City to search for Dylan. Upon entering, she meets a wise, friendly janitor then enters the Director’s Office only to discover the former Bureau leader has been murdered. She picks up his old Service Weapon, which of course means that she’s now the Director. (Naturally. Talk about fast-tracking a career.) This begins a wandering tale of searching for answers in a game world that seems to offer only unending questions.

World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign.

Unfortunately, The Oldest House’s variety of areas like Research divisions and Executive suites are overrun by a transdimensional virus Jesse names the Hiss. It infects human bodies to transform them into either floating, blabbering shells or creepy, hostile entities. There’s also a kind of mold spreading, which transforms folks into stumbling “hosts,” apparently unrelated to the Hiss though equally as troubling. These groups are the main opposition, the implication being there are deeper forces behind them unbeknownst to even the smartest in the Bureau.

It’s a great foundation, which allows the team to flex its incredible art directing, atmosphere setting and world-building talents. The unsettling vibe results from blending a cookie-cutter corporate aesthetic with spooky lighting and empty spaces, transforming areas that should be bustling with activity into Hiss-infested territory. Because of its alignment with paranormal experiments, the building takes on a life of its own. Shape-shifting and changing form. Almost a character in itself. While unfortunate for employees, this benefits gameplay in application since it allows Jesse to traverse across more varied and vertical areas.

To put it plainly, Control is out there. And that weirdness is obviously intentional, in true Remedy fashion. Its eerie atmosphere grabs attention immediately, then permeates throughout its near 12-15 hour playtime. The team’s focused, absolutely amazing art direction somehow transcends plain corporate spaces into uneasy environments, giving a spectral feel to what should be comfortable. Abandoned laboratories are riddled with scrawled post-it notes and scattered paperwork, where idle research instruments sit unused as researchers float above, chanting in tongues due to the Hiss virus taking hold of their being. It’s unnerving, and beyond effective.

And my, how exquisite is the sound design. It’s impossible to oversell how much it contributes to the experience. When the player enters a new area, an audio cue blares to announce one’s arrival. Sound accentuates action, namely as Jesse deftly wields her abilities. Flinging pieces of the environment here and there while dodging income fire, bullets blazing past with a terrifying “WHIZZ.” Remedy even uses a lack of sound to its advantage, then sprinkles delicate notes or haunting strings in the background depending on the theme of each area. Everyone from the team involved with audio design deserves a raise for this grand achievement.

Turning to story and pacing, describing the main path as a slow burn is an understatement. Once Jesse gets her bearings and encounters the Hiss, she begins seeking out survivors. This begins with Emily Pope, a perky research assistant that’s amassing the few sane people left within a sort of hub space in the Executive sector. Pope advises to track down the remainder of the former Director’s management team, not understanding the urgency of her new Director’s visit because Jesse has not revealed her true intention.

The cast of characters Jesse chases is a laundry list of archetypes. The “mad scientist” Head of Research Dr. Casper Darling, “foreboding former Director” Zachariah Trench and “tough-as-nails” Head of Operations Helen Marshall to name a few. There is one stand-out individual in the oddly prescient janitor Ahti, who makes his premonitions in a sort of endearing garbled English. He seems to know the building, and its secrets, better than anyone else. While many of these are stereotypical, I did find it intriguing to track down their whereabouts and learn about each through context clues and environmental pieces (more on this later!).

Overall, it’s a cryptic, borderline incoherent narrative until the third act when Remedy at least attempts to bring everything together. It’s a lot of “go here, do this and I’ll tell you something later” framework. I know this is a common tactic, I just felt Remedy could devise more intermittent story payoffs rather than saving everything for the end. Or perhaps a radio system that gradually fills in the blanks during missions. Control uses a more of a self-reflective approach, Jesse constantly converses with herself, which adds to the suspense though hurts its structure. Then when Remedy attempts to reconcile the narrative, it remains abstract. Even if by design, it’s still dissatisfying after investing so much time.

Pacing is extremely difficult in non-linear and exploratory experiences. Control blocks off certain areas for endgame using either locked doors or entrances out-of-reach without certain abilities. Plus, Remedy delves into side quests not featured in its earlier endeavors. These are erratic in quality, plus make the game feel bloated. Especially a sort of randomized fetch quest type. Constantly distracting and mostly unnecessary.

A couple of these mini-quests do offer memorable experiences in super cool areas of The Oldest House (maybe even outside of it). One in particular has Jesse cleansing “Altered Items,”everyday objects possessed by unknown forces, for the contact that runs a Containment wing. It seems like busywork at first, then surprises when certain items transport to a multidimensional “Astral Plane” with its own terrors awaiting. If Remedy focused only on these quests, skipped the others, the experience would feel much tighter.

World items and collectibles in Control are among the best in gaming. Legitimately. Hundreds of pick-ups are strewn about the world. It seems excessive, I know, but it isn’t! In an impossible accomplishment, Remedy crafts each of them to offer bits of lore or tidbits of information that supplement the main campaign. These can be corporate forms filled out by sarcastic researchers or personal journals describing a company book club. Or live action video of Dr. Darling’s instructional videos, then his slow descent into madness as he learns more about the risks of paranormal research. Then there’s the disturbing educational puppet show made by employees, for children to learn more about the FBC. This word-building approach through in-game lore is a staple of Remedy games, and is the most consistent part of Control.

Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese.

I’ll also compliment the heck out of the studio’s creativity in going beyond abstract concepts to illustrate them using concrete examples. “Objects of Power” are collected by Bureau, basically everyday things like a phone or refrigerator that exhibit special powers due to exposure to parallel realities. Then there’s “Altered World Events,” supernatural occurrences. Jesse even occasionally traverses the Astral Plane when learning new powers, showing her special connection to the supernatural and offering a welcome divergence from the corporate backdrop.

Now I’m likely in the minority, however I think combat is one of Control’s weaker aspects. It’s severely underwhelming in the first half, namely due to average shooting mechanics, a feeble melee attack and a noticeable lack of powers. Abilities are then doled out too slowly. There’s just Launch in the early game, which allows Jesse to control objects and throw them at enemies. Finally the game introduces powers like Evade, Shield and my personal favorite Seize, where Jesse can recruit Hiss allies. These spice up combat later, and destroying parts of the environment under its flexible physics engine feels great. I was hoping to get a base level of each power from jump, then expand from there to learn combinations and synergies. There are at least upgrade paths that offer enhancements, because it’s a video game in 2019.

The Service Weapon is both a novel concept and pretty cool in application. It’s a singular firearm that switches forms, each offering a different mechanism like automatic fire or shotgun blasts. Jesse can have two forms equipped at once, and Remedy uses animation cues to distinguish between them. A nice touch. Still, Service Weapon upgrades don’t make much of a difference until the most rare drops start appearing. Offering additional damage against enemy shields or increasing zoom for the precision weapon type are hyper-specific, though admittedly helped against certain enemy archetypes.

Beyond combat, navigating through the many halls of The Oldest House proves frustratingly difficult. Mainly because of how vertical the level design is combined with how poor the map is at displaying direction. There’s no mini-map or compass available. Limited visual indicators, other than in-world signage. The map screen itself often doesn’t even function properly, only halfway loading the names of sections without showing any details or outlines. This is less annoying early, though increasingly insufferable as Jesse visits new areas. Luckily, there’s fast travel. Though again its effectiveness depends on how many “Control Points” one has unlocked.

One much-discussed topic surrounding Control is its inconsistent performance, namely on base consoles released earlier this generation. Digital Foundry goes into much more detail in its great piece, with the verdict being that the game is tuned for PC play though Xbox One X is the best console option. I played on this platform and still experienced issues with frame-rate, texture pop-in and sound drops. Especially during hectic fights, which combine frame-rate dips with a low health effect where the screen turns red. I’m one of the more forgiving you’ll find when it comes to performance, so you know it’s an issue when I point it out.

I also experienced random difficulty spikes, even later game when I was supposed to be at my most powerful. Moving around during combat is integral, the Evade ability crucial. Which eats up chunks of Jesse’s energy bar. Unexpectedly, there’s a couple intensely frustrating boss fights as much due to mechanics as performance. Dying multiple times when you have the mechanics down is agonizing. Had to take a break then return when I wasn’t as ticked off. An instant derailment to general flow, which is much more important in action games than other genres.

Before wrapping, a quick minor spoiler warning for the more sensitive to general plot developments. It’d be a mistake to ignore story progression and the abruptness with with its resolution occurs. Without going too much into detail, Jesse does (eventually) get around to investigating what happened to Dylan. The payoff of her investigation and the ultimate conclusion were underwhelming, not to mention much of the exposition is conveyed via dialogue sequences rather than fluid storytelling. I get this is a byproduct of a lonesome protagonist, though even the content of the narrative was convoluted separate of its delivery.

All in all, whew. This is a long piece. Because there truly is a lot to like in Control. Its chilling sci-fi vibe. Art design of its environments. Incredible, genius world-building through collectibles and in-game videos. Perfect implementation of sound and audio cues. A physics engine that allows for destruction of environments. Select meaningful side quests that go in unexpected directions. Those late game instances where shooting and abilities coalesce into a dazzling display of combat proficiency proves there are plenty of special moments to experience. If you make it that far. Not to mention I dig any game with thought-provoking subject matter, namely what happens when humans experiment with things not of this world and how it impacts those involved.

Control is solid. Shoot, it’s good. But I still can’t shake the fact that, despite its positives, it doesn’t meet its potential. Like a masterful piece of music degraded by poor recording quality or a fine wine served alongside moldy cheese. Average shooting that isn’t up to par with rivals. Awkward navigation resulting from a disconnect between level, map and in-game indicator design. An intentionally opaque story with limited twists and turns or intermittent payoffs. Too many performance issues across platforms. Superfluous side missions and randomized fetch quests that pop up even during tense story moments or monumental boss fights.

Remedy is certainly the type of larger independent studio that I love in theory. Unafraid to take chances amidst competitors intent on churning out annualized franchises or attempting to mimic the success of other games within a given genre. Control is the byproduct of this ingenuity, though for reasons of budget, timing or personnel decisions, doesn’t quite levitate above the realm of perfectly good games with untapped potential.

I’ll certainly remember it when all is said and done this year. For its ambition as much as its failures.

Title: Control

Release Date: August 27, 2019

Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Recommendation: Control is unique within the third-person action-adventure genre in its unconventional subject matter and strange storytelling approach, so it’s worth experiencing if you enjoy Remedy’s earlier efforts. Just keep in mind frustrations are still present, and I believe they will impact your enjoyment. Oh, and it sounds like you shouldn’t play it on the original PlayStation 4 or Xbox One at least until a patch hits (if ever) due to performance hiccups.

Sources: 505 Games, GamesPress, Remedy Entertainment, Digital Foundry, Screenshots from Xbox One X.

-Dom