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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what to do now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s currently a bit.. Vexing!

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

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

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

Good luck, and eyes up!

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

-Dom

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Day 1 Recap: Serving Up Nostalgia

We’re going back to the Moon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With one, potentially major, caveat..

It was this good because I love Destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow!

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the rankings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time. Stay safe.

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Creature in the Well

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Developer: Flight School

Publisher: Flight School

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

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

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

Disclaimer: Review code provided on behalf of Flight School.

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Control

Release Date: August 27, 2019

Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: 505 Games

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

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

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

-Dom

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

Madden is a perennial sales Giant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

No more funny business!

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

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

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

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

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

Sony Corp (SNE): Tuesday, July 30th

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

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

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

Super League Gaming (SLGG): Mid August

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Outer Wilds

Release Date: May 29, 2019

Developer: Mobius Digital

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PC

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

Sources: Annapurna Interactive, Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Judgment (Judge Eyes in Japan)

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

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 4

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

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

-Dom

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

“Charity begins at home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom