Review: Ghost of Tsushima is a Great, Vibrant Samurai Game That Colors Inside the Lines

TEN PARAGRAPHS I SAID!

An actual open world samurai game set in stunning, gritty and conflicted feudal Japan. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it.

Ghost of Tsushima is most certainly that game, even if not more. Perhaps it doesn’t have to transcend its genre convention since it does it so well. It’s gorgeous, vibrant and visibly pleasing, a solid action game combining sword combat, ranged capability and stealth tactics within a world worth exploring for tangible benefit and aesthetic luster. It’s that beautiful virtual painting where the brush firmly remains within predefined lines.

The newest project from Sony’s Sucker Punch Productions studio, it’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

It Starts With Honor

As suggested in its title, the game centers on the Japanese island of Tsushima in 1274 during the initial Mongolian invasion towards the mainland. Classic setup. The player controls Jin Sakai, a young warrior who might be the only samurai left after an amazing intro sequence fighting back against Mongols making landfall. Jin somehow survives an early duel with big baddie general Khotun Khan, fictional grandson of Genghis Khan, who captures Jin’s uncle and honorable protector Lord Shimura. Naturally, Jin sets out to rescue Lord Shimura, rid his homeland of the foreign threat and restore order to a struggling populace.

Even being as talented a fighter as he is, Jin can’t do it alone. The cast of characters he seeks out is somewhat predictable yet mostly likeable. He’s saved after his fight with Khan by Yuna, that ol’ skilled thief with a heart of gold. Lady Masako is the tough matriarch of a dismantled family. Sensei Ishikawa is a skilled archer dealing with the fallout of a rogue student. Norio the warrior monk strives to uphold a fallen sibling’s legacy and retake his stolen temple. In addition to their involvement in the main campaign, each of these has a set of quests which are some of the highlights of both character moments and mission designs. It’s like a simplified, historical version of Mass Effect 2: Gather a squad to take on the enemy.

And I can’t forget the best of them all. Those adorable sacred foxes!

Really though, the main character is the island of Tsushima itself. It’s hard to describe how stunningly gorgeous this game is with respect to art direction. A photographer’s nirvana. Sucker Punch’s art and environment teams deserve all the credit for what I believe carries the game. It entices people to explore and see what’s over that hill or around that bend. It’s beautiful in its aesthetic and overall direction. An exquisite use of color, shimmering in every regard, that allows for quiet moments on top of a hill writing a haiku to be as memorable as any moment of combat or story climax.

Natural lighting seeps through cracks in the treeline, revealing daybreak across a golden forest scattered with tall grass. Even the dreary areas offer natural beauty, mud soaking up dew from a nearby maple tree. The island and everything in Ghost of Tsushima provides that picturesque backdrop of what someone dreams feudal Japan looked like at its most beautiful and serene.

A key design choice by Sucker Punch that enhances the experience is its minimalist user interface (UI) and experience approach. There aren’t any traditional waypoints or navigation lines, the map isn’t littered with random icons. Instead, players pick a spot in the distance or a collectible type then swipe the touchpad to trigger Guiding Wind, a subtle, self-explanatory assistant that breezes toward the objective. There’s also a myriad of birds that will hint at locations, whether it be healing waters or pillars that hold vanity items. The lack of a UI taking up screen real estate, unless manually triggered or in combat, does well to disguise its true nature as a checklist style open world.

As stunning as its art and aesthetic, the game is nowhere near as dynamic as it seems or even similar games when it comes to secrets, events or pop-up missions. There are shrines to find, lighthouses to fire up, artifacts to read, even haikus to write. (Like, a lot of these things. A few too many.) Then the player will see the same type of Mongol group or bandit patrols lurking throughout each of the game’s three acts, having to save a hostage or clear a graveyard, which I ended up avoiding altogether about halfway through my 60 to 65 or so hours towards getting the Platinum trophy. Combine this with my critiques of mission structure a bit later, this proves Ghost of Tsushima has less character overall than it initially suggests.

It’s a quite enjoyable samurai experience tuned especially for collectible enthusiasts, map-clearing addicts and digital photographers, even if it never reaches the lofty standards of its cinematic inspirations or superior contemporaries.

Come To Know One’s True Nature

It wouldn’t be a major video game in 2020 without multiple types of upgrades and skills. There’s impressive flexibility in building Jin as a character, as he slowly adopts new techniques perhaps not as honorable as the straightforward samurai tactics taught by his uncle. Jin believes they are essential to defeating the Mongols, liable to fight disgracefully themselves.

Various systems combine to define one’s character: Armor selection, upgrade paths and a charm system offering unique spec opportunities. Every combat encounter or zone takeover contributes experience points to growing one’s legend, which signal’s Jin’s reputation as the Ghost.

Upgrade paths fall into a handful of categories: Samurai with multiple battle stances and damage buffs, Ghost with its stealth techniques and assassination tools then one’s gear like Jin’s katana and bow can be strengthened by vendors. This is where the game reveals its alignment most with stealth action titles like Assassin’s Creed or Dishonored because the coolest gear comes from playing as a Ghost with its bombs and poison, even if some on the island frown upon it. A personal favorite is the ability to stealth assassinate multiple foes at a time, like Batman in Arkham Knight or Talion in Shadow of Mordor.

Earning charms ends up being the most impactful of all because it’s how the player builds out Jin’s passive traits. Some are general, increase health or enhance melee ability. Others, especially late game, are much more specific. Arrows have a chance to poison opponents or return when missed. Parries and dodges are easier to perform. Increase the amount of upgrade materials gathered.

Throw in a ton of vanity items including hats, masks and armor dyes to accentuate Jin’s fashion, the downside of all this customization is that I was constantly swapping armor and charms based on my immediate situation. Often mid-activity. The ability to save custom loadouts and assign them via menu wheel would absolutely change the game for the better, saving a ton of downtime fumbling through menus to remember which items paired with a specific build.

Flowing from character options right into combat overview then mission design, this is certainly the core of a game meant to simulate being a samurai warrior. Early combat is far too simple, centered on the blade and fighting one or a handful of enemies at once ranging from Mongols, bandits then rogue “Straw Hat Ronin” swordsmen. As Jin grows his legend, he earns new stances to fight against different enemy classes. Flipping between them is essential. The best fighting happens after the introduction of throwables like kunai and smoke bombs, as it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

The glaring omission is the lack of a lock-on option. There should be one, no question. Not everyone has to use it, it could be something that the player turns off in the option menu. However it’s worth the upside from an accessibility standpoint. The camera in Ghost of Tsushima can be unwieldy, notably for newcomers and when enemies are flanking constantly. I really hope Sucker Punch adds this with a future patch.

Later game, Ghost and ranged attacks end up being more fun than the close quarters forced in the first act. Especially the use of a blowgun, introduced in the second act. Jin can use deadly poison or hallucinatory plants to confuse and enrage, which really creates additional opportunities to surprise attack. As much as the game keeps telling the player that they should fight honorably, there’s too much cool Ghost stuff to ignore.

Mission design even during campaign quests follows a somewhat ordinary trajectory. Talk to someone, go to a place, investigate said place, find tracks or an enemy, follow or trail, clear the area, return to original character. Side quests are the most egregious offenders, which was fine as I was getting my bearings then trended towards laborious the more I played. Sure this is distilling it to its most basic format, and there are some emotional and surprising stories that play out within this framework. It’s hard not to notice how predictable it becomes.

Fair word of warning to those that cringe at the thought of stealth missions: You will be tailing people in Ghost of Tsushima.

I’ll specifically shout out the epic battle sequences that happen a few times, often during major story culminations when going against a sizeable Mongol force. These are excellent as they open up opportunities to fight in a free-form manner, combining tools and ranged tactics with standard swordplay. There’s even some larger artillery that I won’t spoil because it’s a great time to experience firsthand.

The driving conflict behind these missions in Ghost of Tsushima is obviously fighting back against Khotun Khan and his Mongol army. The additional narrative layer is Jin’s ambition to free his people, no matter the cost, versus upholding an honorable samurai code as instilled by Lord Shimura and the militaristic Shogun from the Japanese mainland. As Jin befriends people and adapts his style, he creates a divide between himself and the traditionalists.

Thing is, this is really nothing new in video games or films from which it clearly draws inspiration. It’s unsurprising in both themes and execution. Local Japanese warrior defending the population from an invader. The honor code of the samurai versus trickery of the thief. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to interact with such a story. Sucker Punch wears its inspiration on its sleeve. There’s even a “Kurosawa” mode where one can play in grainy black-and-white in homage to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. While I’m not a samurai film expert, the story here feels more like it’s trying to replicate its inspiration rather than rising above it.

Plus, this struggle of honor actually reveals my main philosophical difficulty with Ghost of Tsushima. It’s constantly telling the player, sometimes blatantly, to not use stealth or trickery to defeat foes while at the same time offering the dopest abilities and gadgets in its Ghost path! The weather even becomes more stormy the more one plays as a Ghost, I mean c’mon. Characters are constantly challenging Jin’s honor, even using his notoriety against him by claiming he’s done thievish acts. Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

There are side stories and mini-quests, true to the open world action philosophy. Most are run-of-the-mill while a select few feature quieter, random emotional stories of people lost in the invasion. Still, the optional Mythic Tales are clearly the standout. There’s a musician in various locales singing stories of legendary techniques or armor sets in animated sequences complete with artwork, lore and storytelling. It’s really something, setting up multi-part quests that don’t actually reveal where the player must go. Instead, they hint using drawings of areas and make them figure it out. These culminate in tough duels with different types of characters, plus are the most rewarding of all secondary missions. They check all the boxes of what makes great content.

Truthfully, I found my absolute favorite part of Ghost of Tsushima was simply exploring the world. Reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild except not nearly as charming or mysterious. Uncovering parts of the map previously untraveled. Stumbling upon a landmark etched into the scenery. Unfortunately, there’s mixed results when it comes to reward structure (you know how much I praise games for rewarding players for their time). Often it’s an excuse for a great screenshot or mindful meditation rather than any tangible keepsake.

Why is the game making me feel guilty for using stealth? It’s a disconnect for the sake of a narrative conflict, one that detracts from the fantasy. Why does the hero always have to be a “good guy?”

Battle Unending

When taking stock of acting, voices and performances, which are so very important in a game where story is conveyed mostly through dialogue and cutscenes, there’s a layer of polish missing in Ghost of Tsushima. Acting is stilted, resulting in rigid story moments especially when it cuts to Jin speaking to non-playable characters (NPCs). It reminds me of older games where the characters just stand across from each other talking, with limited nuance or expression. Jin is stoic as it is, highlighted even more by these interactions.

There’s an unfortunate disconnect when it comes to dialogue depending on the setting. As I do with games of this nature set in Japan, I began using the Japanese vocal track with English subtitles. The lip-syncing was clearly off, bothersome right away. Which meant I had to change to English voiceover, much less authentic. Overall it’s serviceable, with no real standouts within performances or animations, and I wish I experienced the Japanese version.

In what’s thankfully a general push in the industry these days, Sucker Punch provides a decent menu of accessibility options. I noted the lack of a target lock-in during ground combat, though there is an auto-aim feature for using Jin’s bow. There are simplified controls, button hold toggles, visual indicators and controller vibration choices. It’s not the best in class like something along the lines of The Last of Us Part II, still very much appreciated.

The game’s photo mode is the true treat and acts to show off an already beautiful selection of locations. I ended my play session with over 200 shots saved. It features the standard options for color palettes and focus depth, it’s that it offers animated backgrounds, time-of-day changes, wind direction and even background music for the GIF-inclined folks. I spent more time in this mode trying to craft the perfect shot than any other game in recent memory besides Red Dead Redemption 2.

Changing my stance to take a step back, there’s a ton to like in Ghost of Tsushima between its explorable environments, character building and fluidity of combat. Its setting is magnificent. The project echoes Kurusawa movies and respects the historical time period, even if it pays homage without ever going as far as being a great samurai narrative.

In video game terms, there’s just way too much base-clearing and camp liberating. Random encounters that get stale when you’ve seen them all. Mission structure comparable to games of yesteryear. It’s just as much Far Cry as Assassin’s Creed. It’s the type of open world game set in feudal Japan that people have wanted from those kinds of series without challenging conventions established by them.

Sucker Punch’s latest, and I think best, fits nicely within a general modern day open world design mantra, and it’s a great one of those. Especially in its depiction of a 13th century Japanese setting. It’s just never more than that, unlike some of its more spectacular and memorable predecessors. Ghost of Tsushima will be remembered as the game that satisfies that enticing fantasy of being a powerful, vengeful samurai that develops new skills to combat an invading force. It falls just short of being an essential study in the space.

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: It’s a really cool open-world, third-person action game set in a beautiful landscape with some smart features and challenging combat sequences. Exploration is a treat, as is taking screen-grabs of its incredibly artful environments. You won’t find innovation or risk-taking beyond its genre, much of its side content is repetitive and its interactions aren’t as dynamic as it should be. Ghost of Tsushima is still worth a play for collectors, photographers and feudal Japan enthusiasts alike (of which there are at least 2.4 million, as the game is the fastest-selling new property on PlayStation 4 to date.)

Sources: PlayStation Twitter, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Hope all is well everyone. Given the difficult circumstances, especially here in the States.

(WEAR A MASK!)

There’s still not much else to do these days besides talk about gaming, media and tech amirite? Good news is there’s a bevy of information dropping recently and in the near future from companies about the status of their businesses amid the coronavirus landscape.

Helping navigate is my quarterly earnings calendar covering these major sectors. Above is the image for quick reference and below is the usual Google Doc with everything including investor links.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jul & Aug 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

I recommend keeping a close eye in particular on the three companies below as you hopefully stay safe during this time.

Ubisoft Entertainment SA (UBI): Wednesday, July 22

The maker of games in major franchises like Assassin’s Creed and the Tom Clancy lineage actually reported already last week in what was the most significant communication from a PR standpoint in its recent history. As shared by various outlets including an extensive article from Bloomberg, multiple Ubisoft executives are facing ongoing allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct including the main creative officer of the company Serge Hascoët who recently resigned.

The French publisher’s numerical performance was sound, with increases in sales and engagement for catalog titles especially, yet the real topic was the company’s approach to addressing toxicity in its studios. CEO Yves Guillemot claims to be committed to changing its culture. Which desperately needs to happen on a broad scale. It’s way too early to know if he will, at least the company has a plan in place to move towards a more welcoming environment for everyone. Especially women, people of color and LGBTQ employees.

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, August 4

Sony is a sizeable company with a diverse set of ventures, though its gaming division continues to be the feature especially this summer. We’ll notice the impact even more in its latest quarter due to the flagship release of The Last of Us Part II in June. Like many critics, I showered Naughty Dog’s latest with praise in my recent review. This widespread critical admiration is translating to commercial success as the game was the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever, selling-through 4 million copies in three days and the number one grossing title in the United States during the month of June.

The Japanese tech conglomerate should also benefit from growing PlayStation Plus memberships, which reached 41.5 million last quarter up from 36.4 million the prior year, plus higher demand in its other consumer businesses amidst continuing stay-at-home situations globally. Just as intriguing will be its forecasts for future quarters and the upcoming fiscal year, given the significance of its PlayStation 5 release this holiday.

Walt Disney Co (DIS): Tuesday, August 4

Disney is one of those companies that experiences both sides of virus impact. Coronavirus has naturally caused massive disruption in its park and cruise operations, resulting in significant earnings declines last quarter. Though the media leader benefits financially in subscriptions to its Disney+ streaming service, which totaled 54.5 million users as of its last quarterly report. Compare this to the 33.5 million in March and you can see the potential as the virus looms or even returns in areas.

In arguably its biggest get yet, the movie version of Broadway hit play Hamilton launched on the service in early July, surging downloads by 74% over its debut weekend. There’s also the sports angle, as the National Basketball Association (NBA) is set to restart its season this Thursday, July 30 exclusively at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at its Florida location. While these latest developments won’t impact the latest quarter-ending results, Disney’s forecast for future growth will reveal how much they can offset the lower park and vacation revenue near term.

Thank you again to all those on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus, and to those working through the pandemic wherever you are whether it’s helping to deliver packages or working essential retail.

Hopefully chatting about these industries, companies, products and experiences can help during the downtime. Appreciate the visit!

Sources: Bloomberg, Company Investor Relations Websites, NPD Group, PlayStation Blog.

-Dom

Review: The Last of Us Part II is an Unforgiving, Relentless & Painful Masterpiece

Two important notes: First, a general content warning that The Last of Us Part II deals with disturbing, violent subject matter. Second, I’ll be intentionally spoiling two major plot points, one of which happens early then another halfway. I believe it’s impossible to write a full critique without discussing them. There will be no spoilers for events after the second act. Oh, and of course the first game will be spoiled in full.

Please check back later if you’d rather not know about the story. It’s best to experience the game first, unless you are extremely curious in which case I appreciate you trusting me with these topics. On to the review (which now includes a new photo gallery by the end)!

From the Beginning

Just like The Last of Us Part II is a difficult game to play, this was a tough piece to write.

Because even considering its bleak setting, unyielding violence, dark worldview and pacing inconsistencies, the game is a masterpiece backed by premier storytelling, environment, direction, acting and technical achievement. It’s one of the most important releases this generation, if not ever, plus among the most intense, heartbreaking stories ever told in the medium that still has me reeling days after its end.

Part II is the direct sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us, a phenomenal experience in its own right and the first recent new title from Sony’s Naughty Dog studio amidst entries in the Uncharted series. This one is again a third-person action-survival game which picks up five years after main characters Joel and Ellie made their harrowing journey across country. They attempted to find the Fireflies in hopes that Ellie’s immunity from the Cordyceps virus could help with a vaccine, only for Joel to pull Ellie away after finding out she would have to die to uncover a cure.

What begins innocently enough in a settlement in Jackson County, Wyoming in Part II morphs into a savage revenge tale that will forever change characters and relationships to the bitter end.

Gruff, father figure Joel and now 19-year old Ellie have just settled into their respective lives in Jackson, where the bustling of people is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the prior game. Ellie’s grown up with friends, notably a new love interest named Dina and Dina’s former boyfriend Jesse, all of which patrol the surrounding areas hunting for infected to keep the community safe. It feels almost normal, with Jackson home to adults, children and animals doing their parts to survive the post-apocalypse landscape.

The player begins controlling Ellie on a patrol route alongside Dina, as the two exchange flirts and witticisms, ignoring their brutal reality. Even as Ellie inherits Joel’s caution of getting close to someone at the risk of getting hurt, it’s clear to see the beginnings of intimacy. Naturally feeling each other out. Which is part of the masterful setup and a common theme in the game. Characters are real, we get to know them through interactions, dialogue and journal entries.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard. Snow falls gently from tree branches as the player bumps into them. Glass shatters with a smash as pieces fall naturally to the floor. Ellie’s gun silencer visually degrades the more she uses it. Limbs are strewn about when the pair fight their way through infected enemies. Each encounter or exploration section has its own examples, as if someone looked over every inch of the game to enhance it in a very specific way.

I keep thinking: It must take a considerable amount of effort to make animations look this effortless. So nuanced and smooth, approaching lifelike. Each precise movement taken into account. It must be painstaking. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog is a studio criticized for exceedingly tough work conditions with “crunch,” a term used to describe how many folks work long hours right up to release. My fear is that this is why the game’s tech is near unrivaled in the space. Still. I want to acknowledge the supreme talent, and there’s no place more evident than these areas.

Change of Perspective

It’s after Ellie and Dina share these special moments that the game cuts to a brand new character, an immensely important one: Abby. Athletic build and piercing gaze, she’s with a group of travelers right outside of Jackson. Hunting someone in the community. Her friend Owen tries to talk her out of a plan to hit an outpost to collect information, yet of course she departs anyway. The player takes control of this parallel story-line, rather than witnessing it through cutscenes, moving through the area this time as Abby. An early hint that the game isn’t what it seems.

Abby is soon overrun by infected, when suddenly we she meets two faces familiar to fans: Joel and his brother Tommy, out on patrol. The three barely escape, then rendezvous with Abby’s crew. All of which seem to know who Joel is. Before we know it, Abby’s shotgun shatters Joel’s kneecap and she’s picking up a golf club while towering over him. It’s the first of many gut-punches in the story, albeit telegraphed by the game’s marketing, seeing a beloved character on the flip side of torture. (Something he’s done countless times, as alluded in The Last of Us.)

After Ellie hears the shot, she arrives just in time to see Abby’s striking blow on Joel. He’s gone. Screaming and frantic, she vows to hunt them all down. The irony is Abby and friends spare Ellie’s life, along with Tommy’s, because they found their target. They achieved their goal.

Then Ellie’s warpath begins.

Part II moves to follow Ellie and Dina on their attempt to find Tommy, who is also seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, and hunt down each member of Abby’s team. These people are based in Seattle as part of the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), a paramilitary organization controlling the city. The “Wolves.” These enemies are more specific than the generic hunters seen before, they use flanking tactics and are geared up for serious battle. They use dogs to sniff out the player, they call out to each other and scream in agony when a friend is found dead. It’s the kind of touch that somehow works, mainly because it’s used sparingly enough to not be redundant.

In one of the game’s highlights, the pair happen upon an open space area early in Seattle. The point is to find gas in order to kick off a generator that will open a door, yet there’s also optional buildings to find. One has a new weapon. Another an upgrade item. There’s puzzles with ladders or ropes, traversing vertically unlike the first game. It’s authentic because it feels like the characters would do this while stalking their prey, they wouldn’t know where the heck to go without context clues.

This sequence proves how scavenging is as good as ever. One of my favorite parts, scouring for written notes, hidden items or crafting parts. I’ve always said that reward structure is key in gaming. Part II certainly knows how to reward a player for spending time checking side areas and optional spots. Even if it’s not something tangible like an item, which it usually is, Naughty Dog showcases dazzling artwork or environmental design that bolsters the experience. The stories we learn indirectly from world items are just as significant as from dialogue or cut scenes. There’s more reward for exploring than simply the material.

What’s also evident from the start is how ridiculously talented Naughty Dog’s team is still at environmental work, character designs and perfection of subtleties that other studios might disregard.

Beyond this, after run-ins with the Wolves and a new faction called the Seraphites, rendezvousing with Jesse (who sneaked out of Jackson to help Ellie and Dina) and finding shelter in a theater, there comes a point where the game telegraphs a show-down. The culmination of our efforts!

It’s not, of course. The screen goes black, and reveals its master plan.

It begins again, this time playing as Abby.

This here is the game’s main transformation, why its structure is so effective. What starts as a seemingly traditional linear narrative turns into the story of two women, both determined for vengeance, yet unclear which is truly the antagonist. Are both of them? Neither?

What follows is the foundation of Abby’s backstory starting with a flashback that lays the groundwork for why she sought vengeance on Joel. It’s a subversion of the highest degree, that moment where the player steps into the shoes of the exact person we think is the villain. I hate Abby in the first act. In the next, I become her. By the end, I respect her.

While the original game progressed through seasons, the sequel is told mainly only a few days. We see the same segments in time from Abby’s perspective right after Ellie’s. At first, I admittedly didn’t like this. The pacing felt off and I found it jarring. We had seen the climax, then returned to way before that moment.

The more I played as Abby, learned about her motivations and histories, saw her life in the WLF alongside the people she cares about, it’s reinforced that every person has their own reasons. I didn’t have to despise her. There’s never one side to a story, quite literally, despite what the game first presents. Her and lifelong friend Owen are figuring out their feelings. Abby’s family history is tragic. She isn’t only the psychotic torturer as depicted early in the game. Yet the irony is that’s still a part of her, and her friends view her differently from that moment forward.

Here’s another gut-punch: She may even be justified in killing Joel.

Abby’s personality traits are bolstered by the introduction of new characters. The WLF is currently at war with a group called the Seraphites, a religious sect dubbed the Scars by their opposition because of their initiation process whereby they cut the face of new members. These people are tight-knit, devout and prone to violence in the name of their prophet.

At a critical turning point, Abby is captured by the Seraphites then left to hang. She’s saved by young Lev, who is really there for his sister Yara, both of which are former Seraphites themselves. The three escape and move to tend to Yara’s wounds. They can’t do so without help. This is when Abby seeks out Owen at his aquarium sanctuary. The aforementioned Mel, a medic in the WLF and Owen’s current lover, needs supplies to amputate Yara’s arm. Abby is AWOL from the WLF yet still willing to risk everything to travel with Lev to the hospital, an act of selflessness to return the favor for him saving her life.

Reality is Cyclical

It’s here that both ends of her spectrum come into focus: She’s been training for years to get payback, then applies this “by any means” rationale to her friends as well. She will always be both of these things now, and her relationships shift accordingly.

The unending cycle of violence caused by seeking revenge is obviously a strong theme, yet just the beginning in Part II. It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Not just mentally. Tangible sacrifices like friendships and loved ones who may never look at you the same, even if they are part of the reason for the supposed justice. Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Without going too much further on individual story beats, as if it wasn’t obvious, so much of Part II is relationships. Forging new ones and losing others. Characters growing, struggling, fighting, protecting and risking life for each other. Dina and Ellie. Both of them with Jesse and Tommy. Abby and Owen. Owen and another WLF member Mel. Abby, Yara and Lev. Abby’s friends. Humans navigating the ruthless post-apocalyptic world.

There’s also sub-themes on the difficulties of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a character dealing with gender identity and stern religious beliefs infringing on personal choices. The concept that we can’t change what someone else has done. We can only control how we react to it.

Contributing to the effectiveness of the story and character moments is the incredibly talented cast of actors, comparable to a big budget movie. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are back as Joel and Ellie respectively, while newcomer to the series but industry veteran Laura Bailey slays, figuratively and literally, as Abby. Two Westworld alums Shannon Woodward (Dina) and Jeffrey Wright (WLF leader Isaac) plus video game voice actor Ashly Burch (Mel) all star. A truly stand-out role is Lev, acted by Ian Alexander from Netflix’s show The OA.

Combine this casting with Naughty Dog’s technology capabilities, I was awestruck. Dumbfounded that it was even feasible. Facial animations and character interactivity are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer technical mastery displayed is near unrivaled, whether it’s spectacle in the action sequences or specific in the intimate moments. The type of game that should, and will, be studied.

Then there’s the topic of representation, which I’d like to specifically shout out. The audience learned in The Last of Us: Left Behind expansion that Ellie is queer, which obviously continues here and is even more prominent in her blossoming attraction to Dina. Then, one of the new characters here is transgender and refuses to be controlled by a bigoted religion. While it’s part of what drives their motivations, it doesn’t need to be anything more than normal to the characters. The more representation in mainstream games, the better. Especially in this way.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

As tough as it is, since I could talk about narrative and characters all day, I’d like to move past story themes into other topics that round out this memorable experience.

Naturally, Part II builds on the mechanics, systems and enemy variety of the original. It’s not revolutionary in the third-person stealth action space, yet the improvements are meaningful especially when it comes to the dynamics of combat with Ellie and Abby having more rounded skill-sets than the burly Joel.

Weapons are traditional, mostly standard firearm and bow archetypes, plus improvised explosives like stun bombs and molotov cocktails made by characters scraping together supplies in true end-of-the-world fashion. A new favorite of mine is the trap mine, a proximity device which Ellie can place on the ground. I used it to both protect areas from flanking enemies or strategically cover a specific spot in the path of their patrol.

The cadence is familiar. Scavenging for supplies, crafting to gear up for a fight, sneaking around picking off enemies individually then scrambling when it all goes wrong. Both playable women are athletic and maneuverable, they can jump and go prone, which are way more substantial than they first seem. There’s the added element of new companions as well, similar to Ellie supporting Joel in the first. Character AI is helpful and will make their own moves, even help the player out of a jam.

The three main enemies are of course the infected, then human groups WLF and Seraphites. Certain infected have mutated into new types, namely the gas-cloud bursting Shamblers and others that blend more into the environment, which makes even facing a small group more demanding. Both groups of humans use call-outs and attack strategies, the WLF being more militaristic as Seraphites using creepy whistles to communicate. The WLF even uses dogs, which will guide their owners according to the player’s scent. This requires a tactical approach, especially on a harder difficulty. Finally, we even see certain major combat moments that align more with traditional boss fights.

There are spots where these myriad foes are in the same space, so the player can lure one into fighting another. A move of which I took full advantage, if not just to see the results. These are all effective in making encounters feel unique, even if in reality they aren’t. I’ll say there are some stretches where it feels like there’s maybe one or two more fights than needed, which slows pacing especially for those more akin to stealth tactics.

Speaking of, total stealth seems viable throughout the game. Part II provides the tools, like bows, silencers, bottles and improved take down abilities. There isn’t some mandate that each area must be clear before moving on to the next, which is great to have as an option.

For those more interested in fighting it out, combat is way more flexible than the first game even if it’s still not the most memorable feature. Ellie and Abby are more malleable and adaptable to their situations. Scavenging during fights. Dodging, an excellent new mechanic especially in up-close fights. Lying prone. Crawling under vehicles. Jumping over obstacles. Even running away as a last resort.

I’d like to specifically call out the melee combat, which is exceptionally crunchy and brutal in its feedback. Whether hand-to-hand or with melee weapons, it’s among the most effective and viscerally painful close quarters fighting I’ve felt in games. Naughty Dog made it somehow both satisfying and sickening, partially through the sounds of enemies struggling to survive.

Now, this may sound predictable. A lot of it is. Then there’s times where it subverts expectations, even within its more predictable framework. Quiet moments are interrupted by hidden foes. The player must defend oneself when least expected. Scares during seemingly calmer moments. Long stretches without any enemies, a foreboding dread that lingers between character conversations. This heightened the tension, proving that there’s really no safety in this reality.

Since it’s a video game in 2020, Part II features upgrades to be found and skills to be opened. What’s cool is both characters have their own weapon sets and skill trees, not to mention collectibles, all of which operate independently. Workbenches allow for weapon enhancements via parts collected in the world, a callback to The Last of Us. Animations are slick as Ellie attaches a new part then wipes down her rifle, though for the most part, this is all standard.

The system with the smartest implementation is ability upgrades. This time around, it’s all based on training manuals that the player must find throughout the world. Each manual starts a new skill tree, and there are a number of them for each main character: Crafting, Stealth, Precision, Explosives and the like. Every upgrade requires Supplements, a resource found by scouring mainly medical buildings or bathrooms.

This again goes back to my statement on rewarding players for their time and curiosity, an essential part of any great game. I don’t think it’s possible to fully unlock each path in a single play-through, I unlocked most but not all on each character, so it’s a meaningful choice each time. Would you rather be sneaky or guns blazing, if you can’t be both? Between this, supplies and rounding out collectible sets, the game makes exploring every area its own journey.

Look Towards the Light

Consistent with the best stressful horror experience, Part II isn’t all about tense stealth sections or intense combat sequences. What sets it apart is Naughty Dog successfully inserts levity to break up the sheer brutality of it all. Most notably via flashbacks, mini-games and character moments.

Honestly, its best moments are unexpected so I won’t go into much detail. Sprinkled throughout the main campaign are flashbacks to earlier times for both Ellie and Abby, featuring Joel and Abby’s family plus Owen respectively. With a museum and aquarium being the backdrop to some of the best interactions, we learn even more about relationships than we could possibly through dialogue or texts. Many of these lead directly to the present day situation.

There’s also quiet times during the story itself where the world seems to disappear except for those on screen. Ellie and Dina early on, Ellie and Jesse while they look for Tommy, Abby and Owen various times as the writers try to convey their complicated history, then Abby, Yara and Lev settling in after their big escape. The foundation of player knowledge is built just as much on these as during the action, bolstered of course by the sensational performances and design technology.

A common thread is how Joel teaches Ellie to play guitar, which was hinted in the first game towards the end of their trek. In Part II, Ellie is now a proficient strummer so Naughty Dog adds a mini-game with real chords and the ability to practice whenever the instrument is close by. This blends seamlessly with the game’s music again crafted by composer Gustavo Santaolalla, leveraging plucked string melodies, dramatic build-ups and even renditions of one-time popular songs that act as main themes for certain characters.

There’s new puzzle type sections, as opposed to the plodding ladder or dreaded wooden pallet variety in The Last of Us. Many of them center on rope throwing, swinging or climbing which is somehow way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, of the utmost importance: There are multiple times where the player can pet or play with a dog. I counted three, including two where fetch is totally an option. Game of the Year material level of pooch interaction.

This downtime is crucial. A game as bleak and relentless would be totally overwhelming if not for the opportunities to catch one’s breath. It’s also Naughty Dog’s craftsmanship on full showcase, the detail of the guitar strings or the intensity of someone’s stare. I can’t oversell how much detail is present, making these moments as warm and real as possible.

In terms of user experience, I commend the studio for its efforts on options and accessibility innovations. As written as part of its product page, Part II features more than 60 different options related to accessibility. It’s the best set of options I’ve ever seen. This covers areas like color modes, subtitles, full control mapping, button presses, assistance capabilities, visual aids, audio cues, motion sickness and help with navigating the play space. It took me a while to tweak these to my liking, which is how it should be. Anything that allows more people to enjoy it.

One feature in particular that I found useful is High Contrast Display, which simplifies the entire screen and highlights certain items in the world like players and collectibles while the background stays as plain as possible. I swapped to it occasionally to help locate a collectible or see what door I should open, so I can imagine how amazing it must be for someone who is color blind. It’s incredible.

I’m a big fan of minimalism in user interface design, so Part II is generally great in that regard. It has a simple heads-up display (HUD), which blends into the background unless in active combat or the player really wants to see it more. Essential for immersion, though there’s also the flexibility to make it larger and more prominent if that helps one enjoy the game.

On the performance and visual side, the game looks awe-inspiring albeit capped at 30 frames-per-second unfortunately. I never noticed any hitching or slowness playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, as it should be with that sort of restriction. Lighting is mind-blowing, especially as it reacts with foliage and grass. Snowy parts showcase both lighting and environmental reactions. And I’ve already gone on about character models, which are best-in-class. The least impressive part visually is probably the water areas, underwhelming and murky. No one’s perfect, after all.

The sheer number of areas and different environments is staggering. Even though all of them take place in a handful of cities, each is unique enough to stand out. The community feel of Jackson, the civil war torn Seattle plus multiple bespoke flashback sequences.

Oh. And its photo mode is great. In a new feature for this review, I’ve added a photo gallery with select shots. Highly recommend seeing for yourself!

It’s not just about the ridiculous lengths that someone will go to achieve vengeance, it’s how much is that person willing to sacrifice in order to do so? Payback has its costs, many of which are invaluable.

Now, even a masterpiece isn’t perfect. Part II is no different. I’d still argue its imperfections detract less from the final product than other titles.

There’s a couple instances of uneven pacing, namely the shift into Abby’s portion which signals the start of the second act. It comes after that false kind of climax, a restart when the race felt like it was just getting good. Because Naughty Dog is establishing her identity plus the personalities of the ones around her and their way of life, giving insight into the WLF as more than enemies, it takes build-up.

Combine this with the flashbacks and time shifts, it can be confusing at first. Once the game returns to “Seattle Day One,” the same time frame as when Ellie starts to seek out Abby, I found my bearings. This manipulation is a tactic by the designers to dole out information on their terms, slowly revealing not just Abby’s backstory but also how Joel and Ellie progressed once they moved into Jackson, which was anything but a traditional father-daughter dynamic.

It’s not a short game by any means, especially for a single-player narrative experience. My campaign clocked in at nearly 32 hours. I’m a notoriously slow and meticulous player, looking for side areas and collectibles as much as I can. There’s no doubt it can be finished in 20 hours if mainlining the path. I wouldn’t advise that, and instead say deal with the pacing inconsistencies because the exploration is totally worth it.

It Was for Everything

Part II is intentionally dark. It can be disgusting. An unfathomable cycle of violence, notably moments that are forced rather than driven by player choice. I’ve heard criticisms it’s a borderline murder fantasy. I’d combat that by saying while it’s dark, the player has the option for stealth or escape. Plus, there’s the lighter moments I’ve spoken about that balance the persistent misery.

Briefly about the interpretation of key story beats and the ending, I left satisfied. I understand why the characters made their choices during the conclusion, especially Abby after getting to know her. I can only talk about it from my perspective, I thought Naughty Dog’s direction was wholly effective and justified.

The Last of Us Part II is difficult. Not in its challenge, in that way where I want to look away or don’t want to press the button because I know the outcome is brutal. It’s foreboding. Unforgiving. Disturbing. This is exactly what makes it brilliant. It doesn’t have to be fun or a distraction, games should be much more. Seeing someone’s descent, always hoping there’s the possibility of atonement.

Naughty Dog proves yet again why it’s one of the most respected studios in gaming, the level of polish and detail in Part II is near unbelievable. The team improved on weaker aspects of the first game such as combat mechanics while maintaining the survival and scavenging, the side stories and collectibles, the crafting and upgrades plus the narrative strength that defined it.

One of the game’s goals is showing how grief can be all-consuming. It blinds us to logic. Yet people still have the capacity for mercy, regardless of how many times they have sinned before.

Where the first was fighting infected and finding hope in desolation, then doing anything for the ones you love even if it means dooming others, the sequel is about the duality of humanity at its most desperate and broken. Some seek retaliation that they will never find. Others pull together with those closest to them, finding redemption in that togetherness. Many do both.

It can’t all be for nothing. It wasn’t, no matter how much it feels that way. Everything matters, especially the hurt. It’s the only way that we can appreciate the small, fleeting fragments of compassion.

Title: The Last of Us Part II

Release Date: June 19, 2020

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Recommendation: If calling a game a “masterpiece” isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. The Last of Us Part II is an outright essential game, which will be remembered as such in future generations. It’s already hit 4 million copies sold within three days, the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever.

Sources: PlayStation Blog, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Screenshots on PlayStation 4 Pro.

-Dom

Review: Maneater is an Amusing, Fun Shark Game Even in its Shallow Depth

Sometimes, you know exactly what you are going to get after hearing a game’s pitch.

Maneater is that. One of those video games that relishes in being a video game, purely defined by that “ah ha” moment in the brainstorming phase: Play as a shark. Become powerful. Destroy everything. That’s about it.

Billed as an open world shark adventure with role-playing game mechanics by development team Tripwire Interactive, the core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

It’s framed as a ridiculous reality television show, itself dubbed the titular Maneater, that documents battles between humans and sea beasts. Like a deranged Shark Week on steroids. This particular show features the exploits of lifelong bayou shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc and his inexperienced, college-aged son Kyle.

Presentation and design philosophy is akin to a Crackdown or Sunset Overdrive, as over-the-top and exaggerated as possible. It never takes itself seriously. There’s the ever-present, sarcastic narrator voiced expertly by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell. Title splashes and hashtags fill the screen. Personally I enjoy the approach because it provides a parodist tone that perfectly parallels a game solely about munching and destroying everything in sight. I could see some viewing it as more annoying than entertaining, especially towards the end hearing the same lines numerous times.

Initial setup is as straightforward as they come: Scaly Pete captures a mother shark and kills her before trying to throw her newborn pup overboard to survive on its lonesome. Pete maims the baby shark in order to distinguish it when it gets older, then the pup gobbles his arm in the struggle, igniting a feud between the two that becomes the primary narrative driving the game towards its conclusion.

The player then takes control of that small shark. And it’s pissed.

What follows is, plain and simple, utter underwater destruction. Even some above ground. The point is to consume as many creatures and nutrients as possible to evolve from diminutive stature into a massive, legendary beast that’s powerful enough to confront Scaly Pete. There are cutscenes interspersed between each chapter that mostly delve into Pete’s familial relationships and his ambition to rid the sea of a mythical Megalodon because it killed his father. Really there’s not much story to be had, there’s no sub-plots. The backdrop is a standard revenge tale.

Jumping over to gameplay mechanics, I’ve always struggled with the physical act of playing water levels in games. And that’s because, honestly, they usually aren’t very good. Not for lack of trying. Especially for 3D where it’s extremely difficult to balance camera operation with input controls and account for variables of both depth and distance, plus the resistance of water on how a character moves. I don’t envy anyone who has to develop a game with one water area, let alone an entire world. So going into it, I was naturally skeptical.

Results here are mixed, yet I’m happy to report it’s on the positive end of the spectrum. I judge this by evaluating swimming controls and camera maneuverability. Maneater does well enough with swimming and movement, even if it takes longer than it should to get the hang of it. There are multiple options for controller layouts, always a plus. Moving and turning is smooth and manageable. There’s a “chomp” attack button that bites, a burst to gain speed, an evasive dodge and even a tail-whip input. Tripwire Interactive’s designers and animators gave a cool suite of movement tech to the shark, which only improve with future upgrades.

Sadly, camera control is inconsistent and finicky. Moving below the shark to line up jumps to grab collectibles above sea level proves frustrating. When descending into pipes or cave areas, the camera bumps up against geometry making for wonky viewing angles. Perspective is especially difficult when trying to prioritize enemies during fights with multiple foes at once. The game allows a sort of soft lock-on mechanic that snaps to enemies, which is both necessary and disorienting. I tend to weigh camera quality high on my list of priorities because it’s integral to my enjoyment, and I believe the player should feel in control. Especially in a power fantasy.

The core loop of swimming, exploring and devouring as a powerful ocean predator is mostly fun and quite satisfying even if lacking in surrounding areas of narrative, quest design and progression balancing. If the end goal is simply wreaking as much havoc as possible as a vengeful bull shark, then mission accomplished.

Speaking of integral, the whole idea of Maneater is that it includes role-playing game (RPG) elements. Which means customization, skills and upgrade paths to evolve one’s shark “beyond what nature intended.” This is done via an Evolution system, where every kill or collectible provides experience points and nutrients which the player can invest in growing the size and base statistics of the shark then decide on a handful of different ability types.

Traditional stats include mass, health, defense, damage and speed which increase incrementally as the shark matures then can be influenced by equipping gear. There are five body parts on which this gear can be equipped: jaw, head, fin, tail then body. All of these provide buffs or varying abilities. The last of which even provides a unique ultimate ability, which is a pleasant surprise.

Gear falls into one of three sets: Bio-Electric (Lighting), Shadow (Poison) and Bone (Durability). These are all pretty self-explanatory, and it’s fun to play around while adjusting builds. For instance, Bone is uber strong against boats and humans while Shadow provides speed benefits, poison attacks and can heal when biting enemies. Wearing multiple pieces of the same set increase the benefits. There are also upgrade paths for these that require investing nutrients and mutagens, which come from either winning combat encounters or finding stashes throughout the world.

I’m impressed by the attention to detail and the flexibility to mix-and-match items. Plus, these choices actually change how the character looks, the way it dodges plus other movement animations. Each is unique to that set of gear. Which means that your shark can look cool while also having sweet abilities, which is obviously the true endgame of any RPG.

Even beyond the gear slots, there’s three additional “organ” options for further customization. These provide more passive buffs, like acquiring more nutrients and health per enemy eaten or being able to breath out of water for longer. Using this in combination with gear types provided even more opportunities for a particular player build. It gave me a chance to be strong against boats while also gaining health on kill, the latter of which is something I often utilize when given the chance.

Overall it’s really an impressive, ambitious gear and upgrade system with impactful results. Thing is: It’s the implementation where I have qualms.

Unfortunately, Maneater isn’t forthright in explaining how it all works or how to acquire upgrades for these slots. It shows the screen once and provides a brief tutorial. Then it’s on the player to figure out where to find them. Certain upgrades are via side activities or clearing a given area. Others are snagged via the bounty system, which I’ll address soon. Even more are directly tied to collectibles, which is my least favorite because it feels like rewarding the most banal of content. I don’t love the ambiguity or pushing towards busy work, though I understand it in context because the game doesn’t really have too many different tasks to complete.

Subsequently there’s the actual equipping. Swapping between anything at all requires the player to be at a grotto, a sort of home base in each of the game’s seven regions. This means there’s zero flexibility to change tactics on the fly, which is especially frustrating given the free flowing nature of moving through an area and facing different enemies. Having to both leave combat and wait for a loading screen before being able to change gear is way too limiting. Please games, let us change in action!

Alright. I’ve gone this far and haven’t talked about the shark’s favorite part: Combat.

Fighting is for all intents and purposes the point of the game. It’s the means by which all forms of progression happen, it enables most upgrades and provides the core fun factor that all games must have. Not all fish are antagonistic, but those that are can be especially fearsome.

Combat consists of chomping, dodging, tail-whipping and strategically timing attacks when an enemy is vulnerable which is signaled by it changing to a “highlighted” yellow state. When it works well, it’s crunchy and visceral with the most amazing sound design. Fantastic audio effects, noises that fish make while struggling or shaking loose, crunching wood when boats are cleaved in half, loud splashes when breaching the tide and even human screams pleadings for mercy combine to tell the player that they are really doing well as a shark.

There’s some good, smart creature variety in Maneater that really fills out each section. The swampy bayou early on has alligators and catfish. Later game in more wide open oceanic areas, it’s seals, mahi mahi, barracudas, quick species of sharks and even gigantic whales.

What’s tough is again, related to camera and lock-ons which becomes immensely frustrating when being attacked by multiple enemies especially of different types. It’s imprecise and jarring. Bites occasionally don’t land. Enemies look vulnerable then grab you despite their state. It pretends to be more tactical than it is, as in many cases I ended up randomly whipping my tail or attempting chomps until I dealt damage or grabbed a fish to thrash the life out of it. The ambition of combat is well above its execution, most notably against higher level foes and apex predators that guard each region.

Looping back to progression and pacing, the “campaign” in Maneater is dictated by achieving various tasks in a given area. Thing is, those tasks aren’t that various in practice. It’s mostly: Eat things. Chomp some chunky humans or a specific species of fish. Terrorize a region enough so that bounty hunters show up. Complete hunts against nasty apex predators. Reach a certain level of evolution, find the next grotto and move on. There are a couple areas with official boss encounters, mainly used for story progression and with a similar mechanic each time. Even the final boss is an iteration of something the player has already experienced.

Missions and quests aren’t very inspired, if you could even call them as such. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much in the way of variety when you play as a single-minded shark that eats everything in its quest for revenge. I would have liked perhaps some sort of puzzles or more intricate challenges to achieve, as opposed to merely “kill 10 of (insert species)” then “beat this mini-boss.”

It’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

A primary side activity and a way to acquire upgrades is its Bounty System of ten increasingly more difficult shark hunters. Picture a combination of the wanted level from a Grand Theft Auto with the nemesis system Shadow of Mordor, except for the ocean and not nearly as robust. It uses an Infamy rating which ramps up when the shark attacks a certain number of humans then a handful of boats that show up who try to mow down the player with assault weapons, explosives or underwater divers.

Problem is, being hunted is brutal and relentless. It doesn’t stop until the player runs away. And the hunters are powerful, often of a higher level than the shark and there are dozens of them. This is where I’d prefer different levels of difficulty, because even when I had the shark at its most powerful, the bounty hunters would still be overwhelming. Sure there’s no major consequences to dying from what I can tell, it’s just the annoyance of having to respawn after waiting through tiring load times.

Tying into narrative and overall world progression is the process of leveling up. This felt somewhat out of balance. Early game, the next area is gated since I had to evolve to become a “teenager,” which meant grinding for experience points. Then during the second act, it felt way too generous with experience to the point I became over-leveled for base enemies very quickly. Perhaps this is by design in hoping players would like being powerful. For me, this ends up feeling like there’s less incentive then to partake in side activities or go off fighting optional enemies.

With respect to game length, it took around 20 hours to get 100% of everything. Could easily be a 12-15 hour playtime, if not less, depending on one’s proclivity to optional activities and tolerance for collectibles.

Flipping back to tone and world-building, the game’s lighthearted, satirical nature carries through to environmental touches. There are seven regions with names like Fawtick Bayou with its swampy aura, Sapphire Bay resort town and Dead Horse Lake with its radioactive power plant. I really liked the personality of each spot, plus the fun use of each environment.

Golf courses with water where the shark can swim. Underground pipes in the industrial energy sector. Communities with swimming pools that allowed for bouncing around and scaring residents. Everything is built to cater the utmost destruction, and also to make sure that there’s always some body of water within reach. Going further, there’s many destructible items from boats to parts of scenery.

For the explorers and completionists, there’s a fair amount of collectibles: Funny landmarks, license plates, nutrient caches. The good news is completing these earns rewards, as noted before. It’s also fun to see all the clever landmarks throughout the world. There’s an underwater parking lot where the mob hides those with loose lips. Variety of underwater artwork. There’s even a replica of the Titanic, a mysterious UFO and fake Stonehenge. I love when developers put these kinds of touches in their games, it makes collecting reward both tangible and enjoyable.

Briefly touching on performance before I wrap, it’s fairly inconsistent. Frame rate dips during scenes of frantic action, making combat that much more difficult. There’s often loading screens or hitches between areas, even right before a cutscene which totally kills momentum. Loading times overall are way too long and that’s playing off the internal hard drive of the Xbox One X. Experienced a couple hard crashes, even after the day one patch. It’s a small development team and I’m not very strict when it comes to performance, I just have to report this since no one wants to lose progress and I’d prefer not to sit through that many loading screens.

Taking Maneater as a whole, it’s a fun game with a clear intention. It suffers from blemishes and a lack of depth in cases, such as quest design and narrative strength.

The Tripwire Interactive team doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, which is fine for a team of this size however it also limits the potential upside of its game. It’s unfair to compare it with open world RPGs made by larger teams, it’s just I wish there was more to this particular one than its rudimentary mission structure and lack of different types of content.

Truly, it’s best to go with the flow and not expect much more than the tale of a shark on a warpath to avenge the death of its mother. Maneater is hilarious and absurd, its combat is crunchy when it works and the game fulfills a ridiculous fantasy of playing as a shark, even if it’s shallow in a number of areas.

Which is why this game works as a guilty pleasure. Just don’t expect it to be much more.

Title: Maneater

Release Date: May 22, 2020

Developer: Tripwire Interactive LLC

Publisher: Tripwire Interactive LLC, Deep Silver

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch TBA).

Recommendation: Water my final thoughts? I know there aren’t many, so it’s got to be among the best shark games out there. I haven’t played anything quite like it. It’s a fun, shallow and straightforward romp to occupy a weekend or so. Might be best on sale down the line.

Sources: Deep Silver, Tripwire Interactive LLC.

-Dom

Let’s Count Just How Many Records Video Game Sales Set in April 2020

April 2020 will go down forever as a tragic, horrifying month globally for many people enduring the coronavirus outbreak. My condolences to all those impacted, I wish you all the best during these trying times.

One silver lining at least is that video games are able to provide at least some relief from the monotony of social distancing and lock-down orders. And if sales are any indication, tons of people are most certainly getting their money’s worth.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

Just today both U.S. industry tracking firm The NPD Group and global digital data provider SuperData reported their respective figures for April, in what’s one of the single most newsworthy days in the history of gaming sales nerdom.

Rather than a more comprehensive deep dive into the myriad of stats, we’re going to do a rapid-fire recap of all the ridiculous statistics revealed today alongside lists of top-selling games both in the U.S. and globally by digital revenue. Then, I’ll get through a brief bit of commentary before we say goodbye.

Ready? Time to hit record.

Last month was a monumental one for video game industry sales, both domestically in the States and globally across digital marketplaces. It literally might have a record-breaking amount of records broken.

United States Games Industry Sales (April 5th to May 2nd):

Overall games industry spending increased a crazy 73% since this time last year, generating $1.5 billion. This is a record high for an April month, eclipsing that of April 2008’s $1.2 billion.

Monthly game software sales jumped 55% since April 2019, reaching the highest level ever for an April at $662 million. This beats out the previous record-holder again from April 2008, which totaled $642 million.

Within software, the most notable record is for Final Fantasy 7 Remake which led the monthly rankings chart and set a new franchise high for launch month dollar and unit sales, eclipsing that of Final Fantasy XV from 2016. Square Enix’s latest JRPG re-imagining is immediately the 3rd top seller of 2020 so far plus the best-selling PlayStation 4 title on the year.

It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t mention Nintendo’s flagship hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons, even if the only record it set is short-term. The cute simulation and lifestyle game was ranked #2 on both the April and 2020 to date software charts. Its mini-accomplishment is that it’s the top-seller on Nintendo Switch as a platform over the past 12 months.

In terms of commercial successes we talk about every month, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the 2nd top-seller of April and is still the highest ranked game of both the last 12 months and 2020 itself. During its 7th month run since release, it’s the 4th fastest-selling game ever tracked by NPD Group. That fits my description of an “almost” record, so I’ll allow it.

Moving like Jagger to a game that’s the opposite of talked about each month, Just Dance 2020 is the quickest selling game in Ubisoft’s long-running franchise since Just Dance 2014. It improved its ranking on the monthly software chart, now at #11 in April after boogying to the 17th spot in March.

Quickly flipping to the hardware category, overall dollar spend is so close to being a record that it gets like half a point. Console sales reached $420 million during April 2020, up a whopping 163% versus this time last year. April 2008 refused to be dethroned this time, as it maintains the best April month ever when it generated $427 million.

Within the Hardware segment, Nintendo Switch held the #1 spot for the 17th straight month. Here comes the real doozy: During 2020 so far, its sales are the highest of any single platform in the history of domestic tracking for the first 4 months of a year outpacing even the Wii over a decade ago in April 2009. Incredible, especially in a time with supply concerns.

Not only that! Dollar sales of the “Big 3” consoles in the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One all increased more than 160% year-on-year with Xbox One generating the best growth although NPD Group did not reveal an exact figure. From a unit sales standpoint, each of these hit record April amounts according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter:

Switch: 808,000

PlayStation 4: 411,000

Xbox One: 329,000

Last category here is accessories and game pads, which generated $384 million in monthly sales for an increase of 49% since April 2019. Record alert! Consumer spend on game pads reached a high for an April month, clearing almost twice as much as last year’s amount. PlayStation 4’s Dual Shock 4 black controller topped April’s list, while Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller is still the best for 2020.

Want another record? I’ve.. heard we got one for ya. Spending on headsets and headphones achieved the best April month in history, beating out that of April 2018. Last month also boasted record results for Steering Wheels and Game Cards. Note that we didn’t hear exact figures for any of these sub-categories, only that they had their best April months of all time.

I feel like we all need a breather after so many records. Let’s look at the full domestic software charts for both last month and year-to-date before going global.

Top-Selling Games of April 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Grand Theft Auto V
  6. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  7. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  8. MLB: The Show 20
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Red Dead Redemption 2
  11. Just Dance 2020
  12. FIFA 20
  13. Mortal Kombat 11
  14. Borderlands 3
  15. Predator: Hunting Grounds
  16. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  17. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  18. Persona 5: Royal
  19. Need for Speed: Heat
  20. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  6. MLB: The Show 20
  7. Grand Theft Auto V
  8. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  9. Madden NFL 20
  10. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*

Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

Worldwide Digital Games Industry Sales (April 2020)

Expanding to the global games market, let’s check out digital sales estimates from SuperData via its usual monthly report. In general, this only includes digital downloads and additional revenue through in-game transactions thus excludes physical copies sold.

And again to confirm, these are internal estimates as opposed to say publisher data.

Spending on digital games around the globe surpassed a monumental $10.5 billion during April 2020 which is the highest month ever and growth of 17% since last year. Ding ding. Another record!

Driving this figure was a jump in console sales of 42%, mobile growth of 14% then PC sales moving 12% higher. Of course this is temporarily bolstered by lock-down orders, as gaming has become a popular way to defeat the inevitable boredom that sets in from staying home. The question becomes how long can it last?

Diving into more individual game results, usual suspect Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 3.6 million digital copies in April which is down slightly from the record 5 million in its launch month of March. Still, it was the top-selling console game on the worldwide chart. Here’s this month’s record: After only two months on market, it’s already the top-selling Nintendo Switch title as measured by both digital unit sales estimates and dollar revenue from downloads.

The aforementioned Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which was the best-seller in the States during April, achieved the 2nd spot on the global digital rankings. Since we’re certainly counting, its total of 2.2 million digital downloads set multiple records for a launch month. This is the best digital result within the franchise ever, plus it’s the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive to date beating out Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018 by a slim margin. A win is a win!

While not a record, Resident Evil 3 Remake achieved another notable result during April 2020. Capcom’s latest remake in the long-running horror franchise eclipsed 1.3 million digital units sold during this its launch month, slightly below the 1.4 million of its predecessor in 2019’s Resident Evil 2 Remake.

Back to the records. Last month, League of Legends hit its best player count of all time and spending in Grand Theft Auto V on in-game content reached its highest level ever. Ongoing games continue in their appeal, as people gather virtually to either compete or work together collaboratively.

This leads into the full charts from SuperData estimates for global digital sales. Take it away, fancy image.

Top-Grossing Console Games of April 2020, Worldwide, Digital Sales:

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  2. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  3. FIFA 20
  4. Grand Theft Auto V
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. DOOM Eternal
  7. Fortnite
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered
  9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  10. Resident Evil 3 Remake

Alright. I believe I’m fully on record proving how April was a record-breaking month. Counting them up, there are more than a dozen here which is likely some sort all-time high.

My reactions? No one could have predicted this, not even as recently as a couple months ago. This is absolutely unprecedented, even if for the wrong reasons during a tragic time for our world history.

Gaming as much as any other medium is benefiting because of the feeling of connection caused by sharing on social media or gearing up with others online. There’s local play, which helps pass the time with the very few loved ones with which we can spend time. Gaming allows individuals to escape into new, exciting worlds where they don’t have to worry about a pandemic. Or they can at least virtually fight back against one.

It’s not much in the way of analysis to say that April was one of if not the most noteworthy sales months this generation. What’s difficult to say is how long it will last with all the uncertainty surrounding the scary longevity of coronavirus and the potential for a vaccine. I’m thankful that people have games to entertain, especially those on the front lines working hard for our safety, and that for now many have enough disposable income to spend.

As the summer starts here and new PlayStation 4 games like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima release then Nintendo launches Paper Mario: The Origami King, where will the broader economy be, what level of unemployment will we see and how will sales look going into the marketing cycle for next generation consoles?

Let’s celebrate April for what it was, while acknowledging we have a long way to go outside of games.

As always, please check out NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread for many more details plus friend of the site Jeff Grubb’s recap on Venture Beat on the domestic report, then SuperData’s site for the global update. Thanks for reading, be healthy!

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

Sources: Media Play News, NPD Group, Square Enix, SuperData Estimates, Venture Beat.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

I know it may feel like time means nothing these days, so trust me when I say that it’s earnings season once again.

It’s our quarterly ritual of learning more about how companies are doing, in particular those across gaming, technology and media spheres. And it will be an especially eventful one to hear how the global coronavirus pandemic is impacting companies at a more micro level. Many companies are also reporting annual figures, summarizing a full year of business dealings.

Up top is the calendar image, below is a Google Docs sheet with this same information that provides easy access to links. It’s fluid as I’ll be adding either new names or updated dates throughout the next few weeks.

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2020: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

In what’s going to be an unorthodox quarter for many companies, some of which delaying statements or keeping dates fluid, here are three that stand out where we should pay close attention.

Activision Blizzard, Inc. (ATVI): Tue, May 5th

With the introduction of Call of Duty: Warzone in early March, domestic publisher Activision Blizzard blasted into the free-to-play battle royale competition. And made an impact immediately. The game amassed over 6 million players within a day, 15 million in less than a week, 30 million over 10 days then over 50 million users in a month. This trajectory is notably faster than Epic Games’ Fortnite Battle Royale (which admittedly exploded later in its life cycle) and around the same as Apex Legends from Electronic Arts. The question becomes how is the publisher monetizing these users. I expect people are spending a lot in the game, so it should have a significant impact in this first quarter of its new fiscal year which is normally a slower one for new releases.

Nintendo (NTDOY): Thursday, May 7th

No-brainer here. Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons on March 20th, both tragically and opportunistically in the middle of a global lockdown, and it’s the talk of the industry. Everything is pointing to it being one of the Japanese company’s best new launches ever, plus it’s pushing hardware sales despite production shortages. As I wrote recently, it set franchise records here in the States for first month sales and achieved a Top 3 start ever for a new Nintendo game. It’s already over 3.6 million boxed units in Japan per Famitsu. And that’s only physical sales!

SuperData estimated 5 million digital copies sold globally in March alone. I expect its digital split to be 40% even 45% given the world right now, meaning we haven’t yet seen the full extent of its upside. Will likely achieve the biggest debut for a Switch title since launch in 2017. We’re talking 11 to 12 million unit sales in under a couple weeks. It’s the type of silver lining story that helps distract people during times like this, and I expect it to drive one of the best ends to a fiscal year that Nintendo has seen in years.

Square Enix: Mid May

Although its filing date is still up in the air, there’s no question I’m intrigued by what Square Enix will say about a handful of topics during its annual results. Any sort of update on Final Fantasy 7 Remake sales, which surpassed 3.5 million units within three days of release earlier this month, would give an indication of the game’s momentum even if it released after this fiscal year end. Updated financial guidance overall from the Tokyo-based company given its upcoming slate that includes Marvel’s Avengers in September and Outriders during late 2020 would of course be telling. I tend to not expect much in the way of details, but we know changes in estimates can tell a lot even when a company withholds specifics.

Thank you again to all the healthcare and essential workers for your tireless effort in today’s uncertain world. I hope you are able to take time away from the job, and even chat it up here or on Twitter for a fun distraction.

Source: Activision Blizzard, Company Investor Websites, Nintendo of America, Famitsu, Final Fantasy Twitter, SuperData.

-Dom

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Rings in a Rallying of March U.S. Sales Results

In the pantheon of Nintendo’s most popular games, people normally think of franchises like Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Smash Bros.

In 2020, it’s time to officially add Animal Crossing to the list.

The latest entry in the long-running, family-friendly simulation series entitled Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a massive commercial seller since its release last month. It’s the main driver behind a stellar March sales result domestically, undoubtedly boosting both software and hardware gains.

Attribute performance to pent up demand resulting from the last mainline entry being way back in 2012, the transition from its handheld hardware to the big screen on Nintendo Switch plus the tragically convenient timing of launching alongside enormous appetite for design, creation and social collaboration during a global lock down.

These myriad of factors caused New Horizons to achieve the top spot on the March 2020 software rankings in the United States, according to a new report from NPD Group. Easily the best launch ever for the series. It’s immediately the second best-selling game of 2020, leap-frogging everything except Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as Activision’s premier military shooter moves up to number one.

In what’s a staggering statistic, New Horizons generated the 3rd highest launch month sales of any game ever published by Nintendo in the history of domestic tracking behind only Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in late 2018 and 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl. That means it’s above any Mario or Zelda, as storied as they might be.

Keeping with the theme of ridiculous numbers, launch month unit and dollar sales have already exceeded the individual *lifetime* sales of every other entry in the internally-developed Nintendo Animal Crossing franchise. Yes. It took less than a month on market to beat the overall results of those games.

What’s most impressive is NPD Group tracking doesn’t even include digital downloads for Nintendo games. This is strictly based on physical, boxed sales. Considering the stay at home orders across the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if digital contributed upwards of 40% or more overall. (Purely speculation. No quotes.)

A rising tide does lift all boats in this case. And that boat is more than likely used to get to one’s island in Animal Crossing, if sales are any indication.

Changing it up (heh) to another major software release of March, PlayStation 4 exclusive baseball series MLB The Show continues its quiet consistency on the charts. This year’s entry MLB The Show 20 hit third on the March software rankings, sliding in just below Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (which keeps on with its momentum, achieving an all-time high for a March month, might I add).

The Sony Interactive Entertainment San Diego studio creation is the top seller on the PlayStation 4 individual platform chart for March, plus already a Top 5 performer for the year to date overall software list. This year’s game yet again set another launch month franchise record, same as last year’s MLB The Show 19. It’s the definition of consistency, hitting the charts strong every single time.

(Who caught all the puns?)

Plenty of other new games dotted the March overall software chart. Capcom’s zombie remake Resident Evil 3 achieved the fourth spot and reached #7 on the list of 2020 best-sellers to date. DOOM Eternal from Bethesda Softworks went on a tear to #6. Worth noting that Bethesda is another publisher that doesn’t include digital sales, thus performance for DOOM Eternal accounting for downloads could be even better.

Two recent Japanese games charted in the States during March: Persona 5: Royal from Atlus/Sega lands an impressive start at #7 while Koei Tecmo’s Nioh 2 barely misses the top 10, debuting at the 11th spot.

Finally, Nintendo’s Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX achieved a Top 15 start while Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered rounds out the Top 20 even with a surprise, timed limited release solely on PlayStation 4.

Following the above highlights, here are the full overall software rankings for March 2020 then the year to date.

Top-Selling Games of March 2020 (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. MLB: The Show 2020
  4. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  5. NBA 2K20
  6. DOOM Eternal*
  7. Persona 5: Royal
  8. Grand Theft Auto V
  9. Borderlands 3
  10. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  11. Nioh 2
  12. Red Dead Redemption 2
  13. FIFA 20
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX*
  16. Madden NFL 20
  17. Just Dance 2020
  18. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  19. Mortal Kombat 11
  20. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered

Top-Selling Games of 2020 So Far (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  4. NBA 2K20
  5. MLB: The Show 20
  6. Grand Theft Auto V
  7. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  8. Madden NFL 20
  9. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  10. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Last month’s whopping result for Switch came in above this figure, likely upwards of a million or even more units. For a single month in one territory, this is incredible. It reveals how important quality software is to drive hardware sales years after initial launch, something Nintendo has perfected by now.

Let’s put these software starts in context and take a broader look at industry spending in March.

In a busy month, overall domestic consumer spending reached $1.6 billion which is an increase of 35% since this time last year. In fact, it’s the highest result in more than a decade for this particular time frame. The last time a March month generated higher sales was way back in 2008, at $1.8 billion.

Last month, dollar spending on software alone jumped 34% to $739 million in what was the best March month since 2011’s $787 million. Out of the top ten overall titles listed above, all but one of them generated higher sales than those at the same ranks last year.

Hardware spending increased a massive 63% since March 2019. Nintendo Switch was the best performer of course, more than doubling its sales year-over-year. Still, even its major competitors in PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both saw monthly increases above 25% using the same time frame comparison. This shows that it wasn’t just Nintendo’s release slate that provided a bump.

Expanding on Switch console sales, it was the single best month in the history of Nintendo’s hybrid console on the strength of the aforementioned Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s right. Last month was better than even its launch three years ago, the prior record holder. And that’s with supply constraints this year!

Let’s quickly review for context. Unit sales for Switch back during its launch month in March 2017 reached approximately 906K. Which means last month’s whopping result for Switch came in above this figure, likely upwards of a million or even more units. For a single month in one territory, this is incredible. It reveals how important quality software is to drive hardware sales years after initial launch, something Nintendo has perfected by now. Just when you think it can’t top itself, it does.

The final category measuring spending is accessories and game pads, up 12% since last year to $397 in March. This is a record high for a March month for both accessories, previously achieved back in 2008, and game pads as well. The top-selling game pad was the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller last month, while PlayStation 4 hit its best ever combined game pad spending during a March month.

A rising tide does lift all boats in this case. And that boat is more than likely used to get to one’s island in Animal Crossing, if sales are any indication.

Before we wrap, it’s not all great news unfortunately.

Broadening the scope tells somewhat of a different story for the first quarter overall. Year-to-date spending as a whole is down 4% since this same time last year, hitting around $3 billion. This covers the same categories of hardware, software and accessories and game pads.

Two of these categories are lower compared to 2019: software and accessories and game pads. Consumer spend on software titles during 2020 so far dipped 8% to $1.4 billion, while accessories and game pads weakened to $905 million, 3% off year-on-year. Which means that even with the new release boost last month, the earlier months in 2020 are dragging.

Even so, Switch and hardware buck the trend for the quarter. Hardware sales rose nearly 10% to $773 million during 2020 so far. Here’s the main factor: When talking unit sales, Nintendo Switch saw the best quarter for *any* platform, regardless of manufacturer, since a decade ago in 2010 when it was achieved by the Nintendo DS. A major Q1 hit will certainly do that.

To summarize, March ends up being an exciting month for video game sales and the industry for those teams releasing new games especially. Partially a byproduct of those major software launches, somewhat due to the coronavirus impacting buying and playing habits. It’s a sad, tragic situation for the world right now. One of the few bright spots is being able to enjoy video games, which means some staggering statistics for a March month here in the States.

I highly recommend sifting through NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s thread on Twitter where he provides even more detail, notably on individual platforms. He also posted a follow-up piece at the NPD Blog to give more insight into Animal Crossing in particular.

Another month and quarter in the books. And it was a wild one. How did your predictions go? What’s the biggest surprise? Are you somehow one of the few people like me that isn’t playing New Horizons? Swing by in the comments or Twitter to chat.

Lastly, I hope you and your families, friends and loved ones are safe during this difficult time. Shout out to everyone working at essential jobs and healthcare. You are heroes. Thanks for reading!

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

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Go Nintendo, Nintendo of America, NPD Group, Sony Corp.

-Dom

Will PlayStation 5 Launch This Year? Sony Thinks So, But What About Me?

These days, amidst a serious global pandemic with far-reaching economic impact, it’s impossible to be sure of anything in gaming and tech.

Which is why it’s notable that people familiar with Sony’s production pipeline say the company is still on target to launch its upcoming PlayStation 5 (PS5) console by year-end, according to a report today from Bloomberg.

Sources claim that the coronavirus outbreak has affected the company’s promotional roll-out and marketing strategy more than production of the console itself. Which would explain why we still don’t know what it looks like or, most importantly, how much it will cost at its scheduled launch later this year. (At least PlayStation Blog revealed the new DualSense controller last week to sate the rapid appetite for hints as to the aesthetic of Sony’s final product.)

Part of why the Japanese firm will reportedly still meet the late 2020 release window for PS5 is that its roll-out will be more limited than the PlayStation 4 (PS4) back in 2013. Sources say the console maker is informing production partners it intends to ship between 5 and 6 million PS5 hardware units between Q4 launch and March 2021 fiscal year end.

Compare this to the PlayStation 4 console after its November 2013 release: That hit 4.2 million and 3.3 million unit shipments during its first couple quarters respectively, for a total of 7.5 million in the fiscal year ending March 2014. So at best, internal estimates put the PS5 launch down 20% versus the prior generation. At worst, this forecast leads to a 33% dip.

It’s worth noting that this early production would be above 2006’s PlayStation 3 output of 3.5 million consoles during its first half year, as noted in this CNET piece.

On the personal prediction side, I’m expecting closer to the lower range of Sony’s PS5 guidance. 5 million to 5.5 million range. As I’ll expand on later, I’ve decided to remain conservative in today’s landscape.

Estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end.

The other intriguing part of the equation and Bloomberg’s report is the exact topic on which I speculated in a recent article: How much will PS5 cost?

Developers interviewed for the piece imply a launch price of $499 to $549 in US Dollars, which would be a dramatic increase compared to where PS4 started at $399. In my aforementioned article debating about price, one of the most important points is the rumored cost to make PS5 totaling $450. Which leaves little room for margins if priced below that low end of developer speculation.

Main reason for the higher launch price seems to be its beefier specs, higher component costs driven and part scarcity. (I’d wager a costlier marketing campaign plays a factor, too.) Many tech products require the same kinds of components to build, and are sourced from China and related Asian markets, which were generally hit by the coronavirus earlier than the West. It follows that the launch price is most certainly impacted by the pandemic, there’s no avoiding it.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499. It’s just not realistic to expect Sony to take a significant loss per unit in this environment and while forecasting softer sales.

These estimates and speculations reported by Bloomberg are quite revealing about Sony’s overall approach. It shows executives pressing forward to hit market by the holiday season despite anticipating lower output, a move which it hopes to make up for in volume on the back-end. Not only that, its employees are working remotely which makes it more difficult to finalize plans both logistical and financial or meet with the external teams responsible for making the hardware itself.

Another element to the company’s strategy is potential discounts on current PS4 generation console versions plus offering services like PlayStation Plus in order to recoup the loss of hardware sales. If the PS5 is in shorter supply, can Sony entice people to stick around its ecosystem by selling PS4 this late in the generation? I’m skeptical on that play. The market is saturated as it is, with nearly 109 million PS4s in circulation already. If it’s just a couple more months of waiting, people will save that money to put it towards the next generation. Especially given that PS5 is backwards compatible with software on its predecessor.

I was wavering in my personal price estimate after hearing the final technical specs. Now with the developer input plus knowledge of continued component shortages, I’m upping it to a minimum of $449 with the more likely outcome being $499.

Good news for Sony in terms of marketing strategy is it’s much more viable to do a digital-only events these days, even for major product reveals. Normally hardware companies will host a huge in-person media event during a console unveiling. Given where we are at with the coronavirus and government mandates, this is unrealistic for the short to even mid-term and coincides with when Sony would want to ramp up its advertising campaign.

There’s also the question if Sony is still waiting for Microsoft to make its first move on release date and pricing for its Xbox Series X. Tough to know, since competitors monitor each other of course however each have their independent plans. Honestly, I don’t expect Microsoft to commit to a release date or cost soon. So Sony will either have to keep waiting and delaying its formal reveal, or make the first move and risk being beat on price or market date.

These points all lead back to the topic: Will Sony stick to the current schedule to release this year or have to push the PS5 launch date to 2021?

My answer: I believe that’s what Sony wants to do, even if it’s not necessarily what will happen.

Production pipeline estimates from Bloomberg’s sources say that suppliers are already getting parts to those that assemble the console. Broader PS5 production is expected by June. Which indicates that Sony is steadfast in its plan to reach consumers this year during a unified, global launch.

Thing is, it’s difficult to predict the future even without the variable of a pandemic. Components aren’t guaranteed to be in the same supply even weeks from now let alone months. There may be follow-up outbreaks that impact employees at those suppliers and assemblers. Even separate of the virus, production disruptions can happen for any number of reasons.

Once the console is built, there’s the added layer of retailers and their ability to attract customers. Then the economic impact on disposable income in Sony’s key markets. Where will demand be when people are recovering from what could be the worst recession since the Great Depression?

Many parts of the world are still on lock down. So many people aren’t working. Even when the situation turns more positive in a broad sense and worldwide cases dwindle, people start thinking of a return to normalcy, there’s the risk of follow-up outbreaks. I might be the most pessimistic in this context as I’m expecting this will last a lot longer and we shouldn’t expect it to change quickly.

The further Sony goes without revealing the console and its price, the more likely we’ll see the delay to early next year. It also depends on what Microsoft does with its Xbox Series X roll-out of course, however they are experiencing the same exact conditions as Sony when it comes to part suppliers and manufacturing pipelines.

There’s the strong possibility we see one of two things from Sony:

  • Soft initial roll-out of PS5 leading into the holiday season with low shipments and decreased sell-through to consumers until 2021.
  • Broader delay of its global console launch until Q1 of 2021, when retailers and distributors are more secure and demand has recovered.

Right now, I’m predicting the first scenario. Yet most certainly will not rule out the second.

Either way, my estimates parallel with Sony predicting that if the PS5 launches this year, shipments should be down compared to last generation when component costs are impacted by supply. Not to mention the appetite for expensive, new technology is subdued and won’t recover until next year. If the launch happens in 2021, I’m more optimistic on initial shipments and people’s willingness to spend.

What about you? Are you team Late 2020 or Early 2021? Feel free to get back to me here or Twitter on your expectations! Thanks for reading.

Note: Prices quoted here are using US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, CNET, New York Times, PlayStation Blog, Sony Corp.

-Dom

Now That We Know Specs, How Much Will PlayStation 5 & Xbox Series X Cost?

The short answer: We still don’t know. Yet that won’t stop us from speculating!

Even though we’re now a bit closer to seeing the full picture, there are still plenty of variables at play. Right now, no one on the outside actually knows.

That said, it’s time to guess.

After Sony’s “Road to PlayStation 5” video reveal of the technical specifications for its upcoming PlayStation 5 hardware, we know a lot more about components and power expectations for it alongside its main competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. So it’s easier to approximate where they might be at launch, currently scheduled for late this year. Which is great. Because while power is important, I’d argue price drives consumer sentiment more than anything.

For those looking for in-depth breakdowns of specs and numbers for Sony and Microsoft’s hardware, check out Digital Foundry’s work at this link for the PlayStation 5 and this one for the Xbox Series X. The team also compiled a comparison piece across the two consoles, at least based on the information so far.

Then there’s the latest collaboration with Digital Foundry, Austin Evans and Xbox Wire with even more detail into Microsoft’s project, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Blog post summarizing various items on its box. Plenty of places to soak up the technical jargon. It’s impressive coverage, to the point where even someone that follows the business and critical side of games can almost understand.

Here, we’re going to cover mostly the general points and see just what they mean for potential launch pricing. Price drives consumer decisions just as much as power, arguably even more so since it’s an easy comparison point between different products. Don’t worry if some of the tech side goes over your head. You’re not alone.

Based on the reports as you see above, the conclusion is the raw components and feature sets are mostly comparable with some important distinctions. In terms of capabilities, there are common ones. They support high frame rates and 8K resolutions. They’ve got Raytracing (get used to this buzzword for a fancy lighting technique). 3D audio. Custom AMD processors. Solid state drives. Some form of backwards compatibility for legacy software.

It’s looking at the divergences that spark discussion of course. Without getting too much into the weeds, I’ve heard it framed as such: The Xbox Series X is more powerful while the PlayStation 5 is notably speedier. The former has the more capable processing power, while the latter has a tailored solution for delivering the highest speed possible.

Which makes sense when we step back. Microsoft’s general philosophy is now about how it has the most powerful console this generation in the Xbox One X, and the focus remains on the upper end targeting tech enthusiasts this time as well. The upcoming Xbox Series X is twice as powerful as the improved version of its predecessor, the Xbox One X. Microsoft’s goal is to have games looking great and running smoothly plus is going to offer the ability to suspend and resume multiple games at once. Which fits with its ecosystem, software compatibility and catalog approach.

The downside to the raw power of the Xbox Series X is that it requires proprietary expandable storage options, which will add to the cost of keeping the console over time when hard drive space inevitably fills up. This certainly lowers its price tag, yet adds to the overall investment across the full generation. There’s also the question of first party software support, which is a primary concern though less relevant in this context.

Flipping over to Sony’s PlayStation 5, its specs are still impressive. While in raw terms its numbers are notably lower than Xbox, its implementation is slightly different in using what’s termed “variable frequency,” more plainly a type of “boost” to allocate its power budget. Sounds to me like a focus more on optimization rather than sheer strength.

This also fits with its design mantra of placing a major focus on speed. Limiting loading times for players, offering studios the tools to minimize downtime and providing better options on the consumer storage side. This is achieved by leveraging a custom system alongside its 825 GB solid state hard drive plus expandable storage that doesn’t require proprietary equipment. Simply, the real treat is its storage speed and flexibility.

Mark Cerny, Sony’s lead system architect and hypnotic public speaker, described the solid state drive as the single most requested component by software developers. Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

One disappointment of Sony’s messaging so far is its stance on backwards compatibility. The aforementioned PlayStation Blog post alludes to many of the most popular PlayStation 4 games being playable at launch on the new console generation, then comments that there are roughly 4,000 PS4 games on which they will be working on this feature. Does that mean only select games will be available? Or that those will benefit from the PS5 power? We need more clarification of this increasingly more important feature.

Capabilities for the people that make games are just as important as delivering performance output to those that play them. Which is why the PlayStation 5 seems tuned for speed.

This summary of the broader strategies across the two competing hardware makers brings us to the real debate:

How much will people have to pay to move to next gen later this year?

We’ll start with the PlayStation 5, mainly because we already have some insight into its supply chain and pricing decisions from a Bloomberg piece last month.

For context, PlayStation 4 released at $399 back in 2014 while 2016’s more powerful mid-step PlayStation 4 Pro hit that same price later in the cycle, after discounts applied for the original box.

Rumors suggest that the manufacturing cost for the upcoming PlayStation 5 is currently at $450 per console, which is well above the estimated $381 for the base model of its predecessor. And this is strictly speaking about component cost. It doesn’t include the additional marketing and distribution associated with launching a flagship product.

During a conference call with investors earlier this year, Sony’s Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki said “We must keep PlayStation 5’s bill of materials under our control and we need to make the correct number of units in the initial production.”

That certainly sounds like component cost might be approaching levels that Sony didn’t anticipate. Knowing these factors, could we see the same $399 introductory price for the PlayStation 5 this holiday?

I think there’s an argument to be made that we will, and it’s where I predicted it to be when discussing the topic in late 2019. That was without knowledge of the power capabilities and higher-than-expected component cost. Console manufacturers traditionally have slim margins early in a console life cycle, though $399 would be clearly selling at a loss. Companies aren’t in the business of losing money.

I’m leaning towards upping my forecast to $449, with Sony eating those additional expenses in hopes of making it up in volume and software sales. This puts it roughly at what it costs to make, and it’s only 50 bucks more than where it launched PlayStation 4 nearly seven years ago.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years. Even if publishers are finding ways to generate additional revenue via downloadable content and customization options. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

There’s also a chance that Sony’s console starts at $499, especially if supply chain constraints limit the availability of parts. I don’t think it will be this high due to both sticker shock and competitor decisions, yet we can’t rule out the possibility based on what we know of its specs now. Especially if Sony only has the one model at launch, its usual strategy.

Microsoft’s situation is somewhat different. It’s already revealed plenty about the beefy Xbox Series X. While there aren’t yet rumblings of how much it costs to build, we can deduce that it’s likely going to be more than the PlayStation 4.

Thing is, there’s still the unknown of Microsoft potentially offering a more affordable option simultaneously at launch. Allegedly the team is working in parallel on the Xbox Series X and what’s dubbed Project Lockhart, a slimmed down version with less power and a friendlier price. Similar to what phone manufacturers do. Two products, one targeting the enthusiast and the other suited more for a broader, casual audience.

Even this generation, Microsoft has dabbled with offering a variety of console options. Xbox One hit market in late 2013 at $499, a much higher price point than its competition. Problem was, it wasn’t actually more powerful. It was that way because of bundling Kinect.

We then saw the Xbox One S version in 2016, beginning lower at $299. The most powerful family member in the Xbox One X launched a year later, coming in at $499 to appeal to dedicated players that wanted more than the earlier models could produce.

Shoot, Microsoft has been even more experimental later this generation. The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition hit last year for $249, making it the most cost effective in the family. Even if it had little fanfare and we don’t actually know how well the market reacted.

Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, hearkened back to the early days last gen in an interview with Eurogamer by saying “If you remember at the launch of Xbox One, we were $100 more expensive and less powerful. So, I won’t be in that position. There’s no doubt about that. As an industry that’s growing so fast, we do think about price. We do think about performance as well. I’m not going to sacrifice performance for the sake of price.”

Combining this sentiment with now seeing the power potential of Xbox Series X, I’m at a minimum of $499 for launch cost. I just don’t see a way Microsoft can price it lower and not take a serious bath on each unit. $549 is probably a smarter prediction, even $599 contingent upon the existence of the lower-priced Lockhart version of course. I don’t think Microsoft can enter next gen with only one console priced at $599. That’s beyond risky. I think the smart people on the team know that.

There’s ways to make it more enticing even at a higher price than the PlayStation 5. I’ve said bundling Xbox Live and/or Xbox Game Pass would go a long way to incentivizing the undecided audience towards the Xbox ecosystem. Even spreading out the cost with a payment plan, similar to its Xbox All Access program.

Gaming has been largely free from the reality of inflation so far, what with big budget software costs remaining consistent through the years.. With rising costs to build hardware, it’s looking like a higher baseline for console launch cost is approaching.

What makes predicting this generation even more difficult is the increased uncertainty surrounding global economies and the impact of coronavirus. How will it impact component availability and supply chain? Could it even delay the launch to 2021? I’m not calling for that just yet. We have to acknowledge it could happen.

The last question for now is: When will these companies reveal pricing? The Bloomberg piece suggests that Sony is somehow waiting for Microsoft to make the first move. Sony hasn’t even shown the form factor of PlayStation 5 yet. While Microsoft has even let certain media members see Xbox Series X in person and been extremely vocal about sharing details, it’s still quiet on the potential of another model. With the delay of various gaming events globally and the move to a digital format for many presentations, I expect a longer wait than usual for price announcements. Think closer to the summer.

I’m on record with my predictions of $399 for the PlayStation 5 and $499 for the Xbox Series X, while leaving the door open to moving up slightly if component scarcity hits or some other disruption. It’s too early to lock in officially. (Yes, I’m leaving myself an out. Wouldn’t you?)

Anyone confident enough to place bets even when we don’t have all the information and there’s plenty up in the air with current socioeconomic elements? What are your price expectations right now?

Pretty soon, we’ll all have to go on record.

I look forward to hearing here or on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

Note: All pricing discussed above is in US Dollars.

Sources: Bloomberg, Eurogamer, Digital Foundry, Microsoft, PlayStation Blog, Sony, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an Essential, Extraordinary Sequel

It’s impressive when the follow-up to a great game in a new franchise transcends every standard set by the original.

Despite my exceedingly lofty expectations, Ori and the Will of the Wisps did just that.

The sequel to 2015’s Xbox darling Ori and the Blind Forest is a special experience for plenty of the same reasons. Its platforming prowess, beautiful art direction and heartwarming soundtrack. And now, add more to the list: Snappy combat, friendly characters, a better sense of progression and an entire quest system that has both tangible and emotional payoffs. While its overall story is predictable and not every new feature is created equal, Will of the Wisps is the type of memorable, instant classic that defines the last year of a console generation.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio. There’s even elements of town-building and garden growing, allowing for progression outside of any skill tree or upgrade path. All of these enhance the experience without detracting from what made the original special: narrative, movement and aesthetic.

There’s so much new to cover, it’s tough to know where to start.

Let’s begin right after the events of Blind Forest, to set the story in motion. The playable character is again a whimsical forest spirit named Ori, who alongside mother figure Naru and long-legged buddy Gumo nurture an egg then hatch an owlet named Ku. As the young owl grows, she literally wants to spread her wings. With the help of her mother’s feather, Ku takes flight with Ori along for the ride.

All is well until a nasty storm separates the friends in a new land called Niwen. The first act is spent searching for Ku. There’s also a broader narrative about a forest willow perishing due to the spread of decay in this new land, scattering ghostly “wisps” throughout each locale that Ori must collect. It’s really a means by which the development team can show off how beautiful they can make different areas, and build more and more challenging platforming elements as the story progresses. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll leave it here.

Part of what makes Will of the Wisps a broader, epic adventure is the expanded cast of characters. Some are merchants. Others offer quests. A couple are there for comic relief. There’s Tokk the birdlike wanderer. The adorable Moki species, who look like lemurs and talk in cute phrases. Lupo, a map-making insect. Opher, the well-read weapon master baboon. A giant toad guardian named Kwolok. Wise old badger slash gardener Tuley. Grom, the strong, grizzled builder and town leader. Ori has help this time, and it feels more grand when others are at stake.

The standout element of this Xbox Game Studios production is, of course, its mechanics. The movement is familiar. Ori is light and quick, dashing around the forest in search of a lost friend. What stands out immediately is: Combat! Where the original was generally about traversal, Will of the Wisps applies a healthy dose of fighting action akin to a Hollow Knight or Guacamelee!

It totally changes the game.

What starts with a simple torch turns into a selection of “Spirit” weapons, as the player amasses everything from a Spirit Edge sword to the fiery Blaze blast, from a Spirit Arc bow to the Sentry turret. Which is actually *not* a turret. It’s really a butterfly. So that’s right, one might call it bullets with butterfly wings.

These map to the face buttons X, Y and B so one could have up to three equipped at a time. Ori faces various hostile forest creatures on which to use this arsenal, from rambunctious dung beetles to buzzing “skeetos.” Fighting is surprisingly and satisfyingly snappy. There’s even boss fights with bespoke mechanics and damage phases, such as an early game battle against a ravenous, gargantuan wolf.

The genius of these spirit weapons is they aren’t strictly combative. There’s all sorts of applications, from environmental puzzles to advanced movement capabilities. Fire does damage over time and can destroy wooden barriers. Sniping a target will open a new pathway. The team at Moon Studios didn’t just introduce combat for the sake of it, they did so to make the player more capable in Will of the Wisps for platforming too. Thus making it that much more fun.

Speaking of movement, it’s even more of a treat here than in Blind Forest. The player earns abilities much more rapidly in the sequel. Namely, one that I maintain every game should have, and that’s a double jump (which can eventually become a triple jump because who cares just keep giving me jumps). There’s Bash, which allows launching off enemies and projectiles. Dash, which is self-explanatory. Wall climbing. Feather parachuting. Shoot, even a grappling hook! It’s like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Rayman except way cuter. A smorgasbord of sweet movement options.

These combine to make even the most casual players feel like a competent platforming artist if not a novice speed-runner. There’s always a way to move through an area, or bail oneself out of a jam. Not only that, they blend seamlessly with spirit weapons. Light Burst, which is a fireball, combines with Bash to allow nifty traversal options that are only now fully realized with this new level of flexibility. Burrow has Ori cutting through sand then launching out to reach new heights or smash into baddies.

For all its fancy bells and whistles, Will of the Wisps is at its heart still a speedy side-scroller. It has everything a lover of the genre could want. Which is essential, because it ramps up the difficulty as it progresses and throws different scenarios together within increasingly crowded areas. That’s part of the charm.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio.

On the topic of platforming, the team gets creative in how they implement environmental hazards and puzzle applications. Areas have their own aesthetics of course, though with that comes fun variation in individual elements.

One destination has a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Water Temple feel, as Ori must shift sea level to traverse different vertical slices. Another has the player shooting targets with Spirit Arc to create different pathways. There’s a spooky zone requiring lightning bugs to guide in darkness. Fire causes upward wind drafts upon which Ori can soar.

There’s even later areas with enemy types embedded in the scenery. Vines that are really monster tongues. Dangerous Venus fly traps that will chomp away at any bystander slow enough to get caught. These enhance the aesthetic and platforming trickiness, plus prove that Moon Studios was having a good time brainstorming new ways to challenge the player.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the dreaded escape sequences.. Which are SO much better this time. Legitimately. These action-packed scripted moments were among my least favorite parts of the original. Dying constantly during what’s supposed to be a cathartic series of events killed any momentum. Not this time around. These are much less technical while still incorporating much of the game’s fabled movement tech. The result are memorable, epic arrangements that are much more memorable for being exhilarating as opposed to frustrating.

Then, we’ve got quests!

Will of the Wisps is much more structured in this regard, offering a menu of main missions and optional content. There’s the overarching campaign quest then stuff like side objectives, character stories, rumors pointing to areas of interest, combat arenas and even timed races called Spirit Trials. Most of these augment the experience, especially for those that love the feeling of crossing off checklists. The combat areas are particularly worthwhile, unlocking upgrade slots.

While compact, there are super impactful side quests that tell their own stories within the forest world of Niwen. The standout for me is about a family of Moki reuniting, which literally forced me to step away due to the emotional resonance. After the first game, it’s clear that story is part of what makes Moon Studios’ work so memorable. I didn’t expect to be hit so hard by an optional mini mission about a family of lemurs.

To keep everything organized, there’s a robust menu offering. There’s the map, a tab for upgrades and even for inventory. Helps keep quests and items organized. Albeit the menu pages are cumbersome, especially inventory. Luckily it’s solely supplementary.

A byproduct of the quest system combined with its Metroidvania roots means revisiting areas satisfies the crave for exploration. Especially when experimenting with new abilities. It doesn’t feel like padding, either. The map isn’t daunting and there’s multiple fast travel points in each area. The designers make it easy to search the nooks and crannies, then return to base to use materials or currency.

That reminds me I haven’t yet discussed base building. Now that the series has so many characters, it needs a place for everyone to hang! That, friends, is Wellspring Glades.

Town leader Grom is descends from an ancient race of miners and builders. He’s set up shop and requests help from Ori to make Wellspring Glades comfortable enough for people to live there, safe from the decay that’s enveloping the land. It’s nowhere near the level of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet it offers a reason to check out different locations or follow-up on character leads plus provides a sense of camaraderie with the various characters.

As the player helps Grom with building, new areas of the town open up for exploration. It’s quaint, and nowhere near essential, though I welcome this sort of centralized location for merchants. Especially if it means I can buy cool new stuff!

Along with the new combat mechanics and weapon system are, naturally, upgrades. In the form of Spirit Shards, for which Spirit Light is the trading currency. In another homage to a game like Hollow Knight, this system allows for a set number of slots to be filled with various buffs or debuffs. Want to do more damage at the expense of lower health? Do you prefer more ability energy or more health?

There are always trade-offs with this level of customization, which can make for some sweet builds. I opted for a tanky approach, maxing both health and resistence to damage, with one slot dedicated to making sure that enemies dropped more Spirit Light each time so that I could reinvest those earnings. It supports plenty of playstyles, and really makes a difference against later game enemies.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

The backdrop to all of these new elements is a staple of the series: Its art design. Which is truly incredible. Pleasing. Pastoral. Picturesque. Plenty of ways to describe the game’s general aesthetic. Its most striking feature yet again.

What I noticed more in this follow-up is a specific attention to detail in animations and character nuances. Ori’s arms swooping and swinging. Doing a handstand while on top of a vine. Flailing while flinging off a spinning wheel. These subtleties are not insignificant, each of them proves how sound the design philosophy is when it comes to art and animation direction.

All this said, arguably my favorite part of Blind Forest and now Will of the Wisps is the music. It’s as good as ever here. Gareth Coker’s score is dynamic, shifting from haunting pianos to suspenseful strings as effortlessly as Ori traverses early game areas. The title track is especially moving, like a remastered version of the first. It’s a soundtrack that works as well within the context of the game as it does while casually listening. That’s proof of an amazing score.

What I notice all this time while singing the game’s praises, it’s tough to find major complaints with Will of the Wisps. I’d be lying if my upcoming comments didn’t feel like nitpicks.

The introduction of combat mechanics does have its downside, especially depending on difficulty level. There’s just a lot of it, and enemies can be relentless when traversing Niwen since they respawn constantly. It didn’t happen a lot to me, but there were times it messed with pacing and flow of movement. I’d imagine this is exasperated the higher the difficulty. I tried both Easy and Normal. During the latter, I occasionally wished for less foes when trying to get through a daunting platforming section.

While I personally adore introducing quests to the game, there are a good amount of optional ones that might annoy those going for the critical path. I don’t want to criticize a game for offering more content, so it’s less a complaint and more an observation. Spirit Trials in particular, the mini races against the clock scattered around the world, are superfluous and target a slice of the player base. I ran one of them and was uninterested after that.

Experienced random, minor quality of life hiccups. I mentioned the inventory menu before, cumbersome and difficult to follow. During gameplay, item pick ups stop the action a la The Legend of Zelda. Even later in the game. This is a pet peeve of mine. And I know I’m not the only one.

At this point, I’ll briefly address performance and stability by not actually saying much about it temporarily. I played through the entirety of the game on a pre-release build. Which means I’ll update this section after spending time with it now that an early patch is available.

Co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol run a unique outfit at Moon Studios, where the team is mostly worldwide rather than in a centralized location. This is reflected in a game that’s so varied, yet has a cohesive thematic approach. It’s fun to move around, to slash and fight, to reach places previously unattainable, to search behind a wall and be rewarded for trying, to find out a character’s background and help them with a task. To accomplish all this within a world as gorgeous as Niwen is breathtaking.

Blind Forest was great. However, a mostly lonely experience in a world devoid of friendly life. Will of the Wisps is the opposite, their team crafting an artistic masterwork that takes the best kind of inspiration from peers to form an unforgettable game where most everything works in harmony.

The highest praise I could give a game is that I didn’t want it to end. That was the case here, even after 20 plus hours of uptime.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

When it comes to narrative, it’s bold in where it goes with its character arcs. Unafraid. For a game with little dialogue, it says so much. When the world is suffering, rebuilding still has its sacrifices.

As I wrap here on my latest critical piece, I always make it a point to challenge myself on areas that didn’t work for me. I have to be critical. No game is perfect. Even the ones I love.

Knowing this, I stand by my sentiment that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the closest thing to an essential Xbox and PC game this year, even this console generation, and it’s a treat to experience the level of artistic vision that it takes to create such a momentous work.

Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Release Date: March 11, 2020

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios.

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, Windows 10 PC, Steam.

Recommendation: Unequivocally, it’s an essential part of the Xbox catalog and a treat to play for anyone with access to any of its platforms. You, hm.. Will not be disappointed!

Sources: Screenshots and Key Art courtesy of Xbox Wire.

Note: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft.

-Dom