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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Judgment (Judge Eyes in Japan)

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

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 4

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

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

-Dom

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

“Charity begins at home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

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

Developer: ArtPlay

Publisher: 505 Games

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

Okay. Moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

12 Minutes

Developer: Luis Antonio

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Release Date: 2020

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

Creature in the Well

Developer: Flight School Studio

Publisher: Flight School Studio

Release Date: Summer 2019

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

Fall Guys

Developer: Mediatonic Games

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Release Date: 2020

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

Hollow Knight: Silksong

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Release Date: TBA

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

John Wick Hex

Developer: Bithell Games

Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment & Lionsgate Games

Release Date: TBA

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

Journey to the Savage Planet

Developer: Typhoon Studios

Publisher: 505 Games

Release Date: Early 2020

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

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: February 11, 2020

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

Psychonauts 2

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: 2020

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

Spiritfarer

Developer: Thunder Lotus Games

Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games

Release Date: 2020

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

The Sinking City

Developer: Frogwares

Publisher: Bigben Interactive

Release Date: June 27, 2019

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

Honorable Mention:

Afterparty

Developer: Night School Studio

Publisher: Night School Studio

Release Date: 2019

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

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

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

-Dom

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

While I wasn’t one of the 66,100 folks in attendance at this year’s Electronics Entertainment Expo gaming convention last week, I was able to follow along with all the E3 festivities because it’s 2019 and the internet exists. (For better or worse. The whole internet part.)

General hype was subdued after companies like Sony and Activision Blizzard said they wouldn’t be at this year’s showcase, though I won’t let that sentiment impact my enjoyment. So many talented teams are out there showing a number of seemingly awesome games, how could I possibly not be excited?

We heard of some projects ahead of time, due to teases or rumors. Though there were plenty of others that not even the internet leakers could ruin. For real, a new Zelda?!

Now that the company press conferences are over, the show floor is closed and everyone is recovering, I’ve mapped out three posts to celebrate the biggest gaming event of the year. This is the first one. The other two are here and here.

First up is the Top 10 “Bigger” Games of E3 2019! (In alphabetical order. Because rankings are hard.)

Cyberpunk 2077

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Publisher: CD Projekt Red

Release Date: April 16, 2020

Keanu Reeves became the talk of the show with his appearance at the Microsoft press briefing, revealing he’s playing a character named Johnny Silverhand within Cyberpunk’s futuristic open world. The game itself received widespread praise from media, privy to a stunning, lengthy behind-closed-doors demo, namely for its blend of narrative excellence combined with player choice in approaching situations within its dense and dangerous Night City setting. CD Projekt Red is taking home a ton of awards to its homeland of Poland, including one of my coveted Top 10 spots here!

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Bungie (Finally free!)

Release Date: September 17, 2019

It wouldn’t truly be a post from me if I didn’t at least mention my beloved Destiny 2, especially now that Bungie is fully independent from Activision Blizzard. Not only does the Shadowkeep expansion center on a host of new nightmarish enemies inhabiting the Moon, one of the best locations from 2014’s original, the studio is implementing tons of smart changes in its space shooter in September. These include the introduction of cross-save across multiple platforms, a release on the Google Stadia streaming service and a base game rebrand to a free-to-play offering called Destiny 2: New Light. Eyes up, Guardians!

DOOM Eternal

Developer: id Software

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: November 22, 2019

The next installment in the groundbreaking DOOM franchise ripped and teared its way to being the highlight of Bethesda’s showcase, featuring both a story teaser trailer and a sizeable gameplay demo showing off its classic frenzied combat alongside new movement capabilities plus a myriad of added enemy types. Between this and hearing from E3 attendees how amazing it felt, late autumn 2019 is the one time when I’ll welcome someone telling me to “go to Hell.”

Dying Light 2

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Techland Publishing & Square Enix

Release Date: Spring 2020

Among all the sequels featured at E3, the follow-up to 2015’s surprise gem Dying Light is the one for which I’m most excited. Especially after seeing more from the open world action title, where choices now have drastic impact on the world plus the main character Aiden Caldwell has expanded parkour abilities compared to his predecessor Kyle Crane. I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive reactions from those that witnessed it during the show, further solidifying its spot on my Top 10 award list.

Elden Ring

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Release Date: TBA

Despite its title and dark fantasy action role-playing premise leaking before E3 began, the reveal of Elden Ring was still a major highlight of Microsoft’s briefing. There’s still so much we don’t know about it, other than it being a collaboration between Hidetaka Miyazaki’s From Software team and A Song of Ice and Fire creator George R.R. Martin. Which, honestly, is enough in itself to land it among my favorite big games from last week.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Developer: Square Enix

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: March 3, 2020

The remake to 1997’s Japanese role-playing epic Final Fantasy VII has been in development for so long that cracking jokes about it became old a while ago. Its tardiness can almost be forgiven now that Square Enix has solidified a March 2020 release date. We saw more from the project’s modernized aesthetic, awesome character models and revamped action-style battle system that maintains elements from the original’s turn-based approach. Want to know how good it looks? I have zero nostalgia for the franchise, and it’s vaulted to being one of my most-anticipated of next year after this showing.

Ghostwire: Tokyo

Developer: Tango Gameworks

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: TBA

I’m not sure which was better: Creative Director Ikumi Nakamura talking about this “spooky” cinematic adventure, helmed by masterful producer Shinji Mikami, or the lonesome trailer that teased just enough for me to be totally intrigued. It’s a brand new game, a rare sight lately, where folks from Japan’s largest city are disappearing and the player will need to navigate paranormal events while interacting with ghosts that could be friend or foe. This was probably the best surprise reveal of the entire week.

Halo Infinite

Developer: 343 Industries

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios

Release Date: Late 2020

Halo is Microsoft’s flagship, which means that the team had to nail its more formal reveal after last year’s vague teaser. And it delivered. The trailer hits in the feels harder than a rocket launcher on Blood Gulch, following a stranded pilot viewing a hologram of his family then stumbling across a suspended-in-space Master Chief. While only cinematic, there are hidden details suggesting where and when this new game takes place (Zeta Halo a couple years after Halo 5 Guardians), plus we learned it’s a launch title for Xbox’s next generation hardware. “We need to fight,” says the Chief. I’m so ready.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Sequel

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Release Date: TBA

Sure, it’s cheating to give it an award. Yes, we don’t know its name. Indeed, its trailer was short. No doubt, it has no release window. All of that can’t stop the sequel to my 2nd favorite game of 2017 and an amazing entry in the storied franchise instantly making this list on hype alone. Zelda aficionados have dissected its teaser, speculating that it’s a darker iteration using the same art style of modern masterpiece Breath of the Wild. A la Majora’s Mask to Ocarina of Time. Plus, there’s the renewed speculation that Zelda herself may finally be a playable character based on her prominence in this teaser. Who knows when we’ll hear more. I’m just super pumped it actually exists.

Watch Dogs Legion

Developer: Ubisoft Toronto

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 6, 2020

There’s no doubt in my mind that Ubisoft introduced what might be the most ambitious title in the history of gaming with this third Watch Dogs installment. Set in London after Brexit, rather than a singular main character like the first couple of third-person open world hackathons, the player now recruits any civilian to be part of a crew trying to overthrow a regime. Yes, this includes an older woman that used to be an assassin and really knows her way around a spider drone, as shown quite hilariously in its extended gameplay demo. I don’t know how Ubi will pull it off, though I’m confident it will be truly epic if it does.

Honorable Mention:

Deathloop

Developer: Arkane Lyon

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: TBA

Apparently Bethesda had a pretty good showing, receiving two awards on my coveted list in addition to an honorable mention. I’m not quite sure what the actual end result will be, or if it will be single-player or multi-player, however the premise of Deathloop immediately caught my attention. Two skilled assassins stranded on an island while stuck in a seemingly endless loop of hunting down one another. If.. executed properly, Arkane Lyon’s new IP could be one of the more unique hits this generation.

Very much appreciate you swinging by! Up next will be the Top 10 Best “Smaller” Games of E3!

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Dom

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

Shuntaro Furukawa, Nintendo’s President.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

One additional point before we wrap up:

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

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

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

-Dom