Review: Returnal’s Fresh Take on a Familiar Loop is Mostly a Great Time

Modern run-based games owe a great deal to arcade experiences of yesteryear. They are both traditionally frantic in their gameplay, feature engaging progression mechanics that may go away upon death and can be unapologetically difficult. Returnal is all of these things, flipping a modern spin on the best parts while also retaining others that should be kept in the past.

Housemarque is a Finland-based studio known for its arcade pedigree with beloved titles like Resogun and Nex Machina among others, though this is the first time it’s really flexed muscles in the purely third-person, bigger budget shooter genre. The team smartly borrows traditional roguelike elements where each session is unique in terms of weapons and power-ups, the player loses certain progress when they die and the game world transforms itself so that no playthru looks the same.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect. The player controls Selene Vassos, a Scout for fictional space exploration company Astra Corporation who crash lands on a planet called Atropos. Selene sets out initially to find a signal, learning in the process that she’s trapped within this seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s lonely, and harrowing. She somehow stumbles upon her own house within this world, then upon entering the view shifts to first-person in mini playable sections where the bulk of story is introduced via exploration.

Returnal is single-handedly one of the most engaging time-loop setups in the history of games, a psychological sci-fi thriller that uses infinite spawning on a distant planet expertly while slowly revealing how its story is much closer to home than it first presents. There’s three distinct acts across six biomes, the last of which unveils the “true” ending. While its presentation is staggered and jarring at times, that’s the nature of time-bending tales. I ended up adoring it. This works because its collectibles and cut scenes intrigue all along the way, making it feel like the player is learning about this unfortunate predicament and her own history at the same time as Selene.

Foreign world Atropos features the aforementioned playable areas and a scattering of history from a race Selene dubs Sentients. She lands in the Overgrown Ruins, a dreary yet gorgeous rain forest contrasted with bright flora and angry fauna. The game’s first act starts in this space, moves thru the Crimson Wastes desert then an imposing alien Derelict Citadel. Once the player beats the boss in a particular sub-segment, Returnal allows teleporting to the next biome which makes for better flexibility in subsequent tries. It’s a bit of much-needed restraint in an otherwise punishing ordeal.

Once the first act is complete, players transition to almost a remixed version of the first three locales. For instance, the fourth biome is called the Echoing Ruins, bearing a stark resemblance to the very first crash landing site. What’s great is the second act is essentially its own run entirely, as the player respawns here in the Echoing Ruins as opposed to way back at the beginning. This makes endgame tries feel manageable, significantly less dejecting when one fails.

An aspect I’d like to specifically praise in Returnal is its genius map implementation. It’s best-in-class, displaying a three dimensional mini-map on the heads up display then expanding to a more isometric view full of markers and indicators. It clearly marks optional routes, fast travel spots and certain types such as boss locations or particularly challenging fights. An incredible feature that I now wish to see in every game.

What’s crucial here is that winning should feel triumphant. That moment needs to be special. Worth all the work. Returnal does exactly that, its most glorious success.

In terms of mechanics and arsenal, it’s a familiar feel for quick, over-the-shoulder shooters. Selene begins each run with a low level pistol, then can replace that with guns that spawn from enemies or found in chests. Each has its own set of potential perks, Leech Rounds being my ideal because they can heal, plus an alternate fire mode that could be a number of different attacks. Grenade, powerful sniper shot, proximity mine etc. Weapon variety is solid, ranging from traditional automatic carbine to close-range shotgun that spouts goo all over the place. There’s rocket and grenade launches then more unique designs like the Dreadbound that has projectiles launching then returning automatically to the magazine. The aesthetic here is alien engineering fused with biological organisms, making for peculiar and effective feature sets.

Speaking of, Returnal boasts one of the most satisfying interactions: active reload. Gears of War popularized this tactic, whereby hitting a button within a certain window allows for instant reloading. It’s a little clumsier here, with the right trigger acting as the same button to shoot and reload. Plus the player can’t manually load their weapon, it only happens automatically when ammo runs out. This combined with alternate fire makes for rewarding engagements.

Movement is as important as ever in a game like this, and Returnal is clear that the player is invulnerable when dashing. I coined my mantra “Always Be Dashing,” spamming the circle button to shoot across arenas to avoid enemy fire. Part of the way thru, both a sword unlock and grappling hook really open up fighting and traversal capabilities plus promote more efficient exploration. There’s nothing quite like dodging, launching across a map using a grappling point and slicing an enemy into a spectacular burst of colorful bits.

Progression systems are layered in Returnal, which is what really determines run variety and impacts how much one is able to achieve in a given try. Items, unlocks and upgrades come in a multitude of forms, most tending to disappear when a run is over. Permanent unlocks include key story items, weapon traits, world collectibles plus a powerful material called Ether that cleanses chests or can be used to activate a machine that allows one respawn per area.

The player loses almost everything else upon failure. The currency called Obelites, required for fabrication for various items. Valuable Artifacts that offer benefits, such as increased weapon power or reduced alternate fire cooldown. A favorite of mine is the Phantom Limb, which offers a 10% chance to boost health when killing an enemy.

Its most unique mid-run upgrades are Parasites, squishy insects that visually attach to Selene’s suit. These provide one associated benefit then an associated debuff that makes play more difficult. These trade-offs can make or break a given segment. Does one gain better drops from enemies at the expense of melee damage? What about increasing health repair when long falls cause damage?

Returnal’s Malfunction system also prompts important choices. Chests or pick-up with a glowing purple aura are “Malignant” or “Spoiled,” which mean there’s a chance the player can become infected upon grabbing them. The probability of infection is clearly displayed, from Moderate to Very High. Malfunctions cause some detriment until a criterion is satisfied. These can be brutal, and the player may suffer from more than one at once. Decreased weapon output, lower health, taking damage when collecting items and many more can outright ruin even the best of attempts.

These along with mini-progression systems like Weapon Proficiency, basically increasing weapon drop level, and Adrenaline that builds while racking up kills without being hit are all the ways that the developers keep players on their toes and give that wonderful sensation that every single venture is different. Its systems open an infinite number of opportunities for both success and failure, especially towards endgame in the last two areas which are increasingly devastating. My strategy tended towards health regeneration, though I could see a high damage output or super high proficiency build working as well with the right gun configuration. This is also a good reason for replaying content.

While progressing thru Returnal, Selene encounters enemies of all shapes and brutalities. There’s bio-luminescent animals that can pounce from a distance, stationary turrets scattered about, hard-shelled crustaceans that barrage with missiles, robotic atrocities who snatch up the player and the eternally dreaded flying enemies, whether airborne fish, overgrown bats or incessant drones. These are constantly remixed throughout the biomes, with variants like frozen or malformed in later spots. The most terrible of foes is probably the Severed, a bipedal sentient species that will constantly close the gap, never allowing any respite. Their tactics are clever, unrelenting. Combine these together and that’s part of the reason why the game has a reputation for being difficult.

Boss fights in particular are spectacular, monumental affairs. They all have three phases, making ongoing survivability essential. Most occur in an open area, forcing the player to quickly decipher patterns and figure out the optimal damage parameters. Then there’s Nemesis, one of the most epic, memorable battles I’ve ever played. I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say its scale is tremendous.

Now. To address the elephant in the room. Does all of this make Returnal too difficult? Is it for everyone?

The answer is exceeding complex, and warrants an entirely separate discussion on its own.

No doubt its genre is challenging by nature, which is unavoidable. Losing progress in games is deflating. Starting over is painful. Certain times, Returnal feels unfair. I believe this stems from a handful of reasons: Lack of certain quality of life features, its reliance on luck when it comes to build quality, limited accessibility options and inconsistent stability. It’s not that the game is impossible, it’s that there are too many aspects that make it unfriendly to a subset of players.

In lieu of a traditional save system, Housemarque literally shows a pop up alert after starting the game informing to use PlayStation 5’s famously finicky Rest Mode. Why not just offer a mid-run save system? A way for people to tend to life matters or take a rest? This could even be incorporated into the game world and have lore implications, it doesn’t have to be an auto-save. Even Dark Souls has bonfires. Even Alien Isolation has save stations. There’s usually some example of saving in modern gaming.

There’s no difficulty setting or tuning allowed. Yet hardcore platformer Celeste or even last year’s excellent Hades are perfect examples where player choice in this context can work to everyone’s benefit. The former has an Assist Mode. The latter a God Mode. The rationale is offering these accessibility tweaks doesn’t impact players that don’t use them, it only broadens the audience of those that can play because of them.

The role of luck can’t be understated either. Randomness plays a major part in weapons, Parasites, room locations, enemy types and other temporary situations. Certain times, it just won’t go well. Others will fall into place beautifully. This is a byproduct of the decision to make a roguelike, just depends how well it’s balanced.

I understand the desire is to make a tricky, trying run-based game. There’s tension in knowing it could end at any moment. Yet that’s no longer generally practical, especially since attempts in Returnal last a couple hours on average. I had one go for a half dozen, crossing my fingers that the console wouldn’t update or crash when I stepped away to take a break.

These quality of life and accessibility considerations may not have been as important during the arcade days that inspired this genre, yet they should be accounted for now. It should allow for those that want the badge of honor associated with a marathon session while acknowledging those that balance real life.

Thing is, even with all that, I believe that many people can have a great time with Returnal if they are fine operating within these parameters. There’s the constant progression elements I discussed before, carrying over key abilities. The fast travel and teleporting opened by beating areas. Not to mention how player skill improves with each pass, learning tactics and forming strategies to make headway.

Returnal should absolutely be more flexible in its quality of life and accessibility settings. That doesn’t mean many players can’t build up to the point of victory.

The best of the genre also pitch a riveting narrative within this general framework. Returnal uses this setup for a fascinating if occasionally disjointed time-loop story where its character knows she is caught within, and uses the horror of self-realization to perfect effect.

In terms of technology and performance, the title shows how it’s clearly one of the first developed specifically with the PlayStation 5 in mind. Its best feature is DualSense controller integration, with the best example of haptic feedback use to date. The game pad vibrates with each falling raindrop, or swerve of Selene’s ship upon entry to the atmosphere. It gives perfect directional feedback when items or foes are near. Returnal also uses the adaptive triggers in offering traditional shooting by pulling the left trigger halfway, then an alternative fire mode by squeezing it all the way. It’s way better in concept than execution, causing one to fumble in a tight spot and accidentally use the wrong shooting type. I swapped to a more standard customization within the first hour.

Graphical fidelity and general visual presentation is good, albeit not exceptional even at up-scaled 4K resolution. Art and environment work is superior. Textures can be rough and certain rooms are way too dark despite ray-tracing claims and lighting techniques. Its best moments are when enemy projectiles light up a space, resulting in a dazzling neon light show akin to an electronic music venue. Housemarque is a bunch of wizards when it comes to particle effects and destructibility. Performance is consistent throughout, that 60 frames per second shining in the most heated of battles.

There’s plenty of bottlenecks to deter from giving Returnal a go. The cost of a full price tag, knowing its lack of options, not being able to save, that feeling of desperation after getting this close to a win. I hear that. I still argue it’s worth an honest shot, and it’s one of the most surprising games for me this year because I was a skeptic going into my time with it. I was open to trying, and came away very much impressed.

When it comes to comparisons, I’d say it’s part Metroid, reminiscent of Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells plus plays like a blend of the best third-person action games with bullet hell elements where traversal and strategy are key. Going into a fight unprepared has its ramifications.

After over 35 hours and a couple dozen deaths, I firmly believe that Housemarque’s latest is its best game to date. A most clever take on a genre filled with run-of-the-mill releases, though it suffers some of the same setbacks as well. During a good run, Returnal is sublime. When things go poorly, it’s terribly exhausting. Especially having to spend time in earlier biomes to power up in preparation of later areas.

This is inherent to the genre, in which Returnal is one of the best despite its few flaws. It has the ability to produce both completely stressful play sessions and the most blissful moments of accomplishment. The latter outweighs the former, every single loop of time.

Title: Returnal

Release Date: April 30th, 2021

Developer: Housemarque

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5

Recommendation: It’s an exquisite, well-designed roguelike that’s worth the price tag, though could desperately use a variety of modern options. Especially a save system, its most glaring omission that wouldn’t impact difficulty and would allow for a wider audience. It’s an essential early PlayStation 5 experience.

Sources: Screenshots from PlayStation 5, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

-Dom

Sony & Microsoft Gaming Division Sales Launch To New Record Highs

Two of the biggest gaming console manufacturers and technology companies reported recent financials back-to-back, and both of them set their own impressive new records in the process.

Sony, purveyor of PlayStation among other consumer electronics, reported full annual results earlier today while Microsoft and its Xbox division shared fiscal year 2020 3rd quarter figures yesterday.

(I hope you knew that because you checked out my latest earnings calendar already!)

Each report proves that traditional gaming is as popular as ever, racking up record sales figures and providing other insights into how the biggest players in the industry are reacting to the pandemic in terms of customer demand, part supply for hardware and development activity for software.

For instance, both companies just reported the highest ever revenue from their respective gaming divisions. Sony’s Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) segment, which houses its PlayStation brand, achieved annual sales above $24 billion for the first time ever. Microsoft has a shorter history in games, which means it’s been reporting figures over less time. Even so, it also reached a significant milestone with Xbox gaming revenue for the past 12 months moving past $15 billion for the first time since it began reporting that particular split.

Time to take a look into the reports, highlighting the records and notable figures along with trends that I spotted while reviewing the stats. And get ready for some super fun charts!

Overall for the year ending March 2021, Sony reported nearly 9 trillion yen in consolidated revenue, which equates to roughly $82.8 billion. This is an increase of 9% since 2019, and a beat compared to analyst estimates. Biggest contributors were significant increases in the aforementioned G&NS plus Financial Services unit while Sony Pictures saw declines due to lack of theatrical performance in a tough ongoing environment for films.

Yearly operating income for the firm as a whole rose 15% to 972 billion yen, or just under $9 billion. Driven by performance in PlayStation, Electronics Products & Solutions in addition to Music segments then offset by decline in Imaging & Sensing Solutions. While a double-digit increase, profit actually missed analyst estimates for the year.

(Yup. Sony has a lot of businesses.)

Focusing within G&NS i.e. the PlayStation division, this is the firm’s leading contributor in recent years. Total sales reached 2.66 trillion yen or roughly $24.44 billion, which is up 34% since last year and a record result for this unit during a full year. Operating income jumped 44% to $3.15 billion. This is the first time this particular business moved past $3 billion in annual profit, marking yet another record high.

Of course underlying these results is the PlayStation 5 launch back in November, a console which shipped 3.3 million units during its second fiscal quarter on market. That brings lifetime shipments after two quarters to 7.8 million, Sony’s best console launch ever as it surpasses the 7.6 million of PlayStation 4 back in fiscal 2013. I had estimated between 3.1 and 3.3 million PlayStation 5 shipments for the quarter, so it’s in-line with expectations and honestly an impressive result given the chip shortage and production constraints plaguing console makers right now.

“Supply has not been able to keep up with extremely strong demand for PlayStation 5, although constraints on the supply of components, especially semiconductors, is expected to continue this fiscal year,” said Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki on the Sony conference call.

As presented in the below gallery, the notable part of this particular console transition for PlayStation is how well growth across all sub-categories is contributing to ongoing performance during a time where older hardware isn’t moving as many units and new consoles are constrained on the supply side of the equation despite massive demand. Digital Software and Add-On Content are both up 44% while Hardware jumped 39% in 2020, showing how players are consistently supporting software offerings and additional expansions or downloadable content on both prior and current generation.

Signaling an industry shift that’s been ongoing for a while and accelerating during the pandemic is digital split for PlayStation software, which hit an all-time best 65% compared to 53% in 2019. Implies nearly 2 out of every 3 games purchased for its platforms are now downloads.

Full game software unit sales reached 339 million during fiscal 2020, up from 276 million in 2019. Out of that, first party titles published by Sony contributed 58.4 million compared to 49.2 million last year. Signaling an industry shift that’s been ongoing for a while and accelerating during the pandemic is digital split for PlayStation software, which hit an all-time best 65% compared to 53% in 2019. Implies nearly 2 out of every 3 games purchased for its platforms are now downloads.

Swapping to user engagement, subscribers to Sony’s PlayStation Plus service rose 15% to 47.6 million. Monthly Active Users (MAUs) across all of PlayStation Network dipped a bit, now at 109 million compared to 114 million a year prior. Still, the rise in PlayStation Plus paid memberships is a more significant contributor to the gaming segment, pushing Network Services sales up 14% year-over-year.

Turning back to PlayStation 4 hardware for a moment, Sony shipped 1 million units of this now legacy console in its last fiscal quarter ending March. That brings lifetime sales to just over 116 million, maintaining its second spot on the all-time home console sales list. While this slowing momentum implies that it will never come close to the lofty 155 million lifetime sales of the historic PlayStation 2, it proves that there will be sparse demand for the immediate future and could realistically hit 120 million next fiscal year at this pace.

Looking into the future for Sony overall, the company starts its fiscal year 2021 sales forecast at an 8% increase over 2020 while projecting a 4% decline in annual operating income. The sales increase should be bolstered by a bounce-back for Sony Pictures plus continued performance of PlayStation and electronics categories. Profit will be negatively impacted by higher costs in development of games alongside other divisional declines.

In terms of gaming, Sony guidance shows a similar theme for the PlayStation business in that sales should increase 9% yet profit will show a bit of weakness, dipping 5% year-on-year. Hardware unit sales will naturally increase as supply broadens, as long as the global chip shortage doesn’t get any worse. And manufacturing costs will lighten as the production process is refined. Though consistent with the recent trend of game delays, Sony expects 3rd party games to contribute less in fiscal 2021 and that includes the coveted add-on content revenue stream.

In terms of a hardware unit projection, Sony executives played a bit coy on the conference call. CFO Totoki reiterated the expectation to ship “above 14.8 million” PlayStation 5 units during the fiscal year from April 2021 to March 2022. Which would bring lifetime to 22.6 million, ever so slightly above its predecessor’s 22.4 million during the same time frame. Basically saying to anticipate a slight increase this early in the generation. My first full fiscal year estimate is 15 million, with a tilt towards the downside if supply doesn’t strengthen quickly enough.

On the software front, Sony is intent on investing in its studios plus other partnerships as has been its successful strategy. The way PlayStation creates value and entices people to buy its hardware is by launching high quality games, especially from those talented studios that it owns. Naturally, it’s pumping dollars in order to attract talent.

“In terms of costs, we plan to increase development, personnel and other costs in our in-house studios by approximately 20 billion yen ($184 million) year-on-year as we further strengthen our in-house produced software,” said Totoki. “To enhance our software offering, we intend to continue investing in or partnering with external studios in addition to aggressively investing in our in-house studios.”

And I tend to agree with Sony’s overall and PlayStation guidance, though I remain tentative on the supply side of hardware and on first party launches like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War Ragnarok despite this strong ongoing investment. For example, I don’t project that both of these major titles will be out in the next 12 months. I expect only Horizon to release in fiscal 2021, perhaps even during the January to March time frame as holiday still seems like a tight deadline.

Moving to Sony’s main competitor in the traditional console space at least in Microsoft, it’s obviously a much broader company with enterprise cloud and Azure driving a bulk of its performance. So unfortunately it shares less details on its gaming results. Still, there are significant statistics and executive quote that guide towards where it’s at in its play towards ecosystem and services alongside its Xbox Series X|S console launch.

Note that these are quarterly numbers and compared to a year ago unless otherwise specified, since Microsoft reported its third quarter fiscal year 2021 figures.

In the quarter ending March, the company overall generated nearly $42 billion in revenue which is up 19%. Operating income increased 31% to $17 billion. It beat analyst estimates on both sales and earnings-per-share. Intelligent Cloud revenue reached over $15 billion, as the foundation of Microsoft’s business.

The Xbox division falls under its More Personal Computing (MPC) segment, which itself contributed $13 billion in sales and operating profit hit $4.6 billion. These 9% and 27% increases respectively were bolstered specifically by gaming results.

Drilling down into gaming alone, total revenue was $3.53 billion during January to March. That’s the first time a 3rd fiscal quarter recorded over $3 billion in sales, and a staggering increase of 50%. It accounted for 27% of revenue from MPC segment, a strong moment for a business that’s accelerating especially given the success of Xbox Game Pass and certain first party games like the ever-present Minecraft.

Xbox Content & Services, which basically means software plus subscriptions, alone grew 34% due to strength across the board in third party titles, Xbox Game Pass subscriptions and first party software.

“People are turning to Xbox more than ever to play and chat with friends, and we saw record engagement this quarter, led by strength on and off-console,” Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella noted on its conference call. “With Game Pass, we are redefining how games are distributed, played, and viewed. Just last week, we added cloud gaming via the browser, expanding our reach across PC and mobile.”

What this quote and the results reveal is that Microsoft’s holistic strategy of attracting players to its ecosystem as opposed to a singular device is starting to pay major dividends. The team at Xbox is indifferent as to where someone plays its game or accesses its services. Just as long as they do.

Curiously, Nadella and team didn’t share new figures for Xbox Game Pass subscriptions. Back in January, Microsoft reported that the figure was 18 million. Rumors are that this figure is upwards of 23 million as recently as last week. Which would be consistent with Nadella’s remarks and recent Xbox Content & Services double-digit growth.

On the Hardware side, revenue more than tripled since this time in 2020 due to the start of a new generational cycle. Demand for Xbox Series X|S is vastly outstripped supply, the latter of which seems to be more significantly constrained than even the PlayStation 5.

Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood echoed the sentiment. “In Gaming, we continued to see record engagement and strong monetization across our platform, as well as demand that significantly exceeded supply for our Xbox Series X and S consoles,” she said.

Still, Microsoft isn’t sharing unit sales figures or giving any indication other than growth statistics for its hardware sales. It’s tricky to estimate, though friend of the site and Niko Partners Analyst Daniel Ahmad estimated that the Xbox Series X|S shipment figure was at 3.5 million last quarter. That would be slightly less than its predecessor the Xbox One, which did 3.9 million in its launch quarter.

I won’t put an exact number on it because it would be a complete guess, though wouldn’t be shocked if Microsoft shipped a couple million last quarter given the current inventory environment.

Annual gaming revenue jumped 46% since this time in 2020 plus achieved a record, the first time ever that yearly gaming sales at Microsoft crossed the $15 billion milestone.

Above gallery contains relevant information here, plus a handy chart that I’ll get into now.

Expanding to a longer timeline, gaming sales for Xbox totaled just over $15 billion for the trailing 12 month period ending March 2021. Annual gaming revenue jumped 46% since this time in 2020 plus achieved a record, the first time ever that yearly gaming sales at Microsoft crossed the $15 billion milestone. The recent direction under Head of Xbox Phil Spencer’s leadership of expanding to new audiences and devices isn’t just a concept, it’s proving to be a sound business decision.

One caveat here is that the $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax happened during the quarter, so its contributions began in early March. Which definitely allowed for its record results. And is exactly why Xbox paid handily for it.

In terms of Xbox software, performance of first-party titles came in above expectations. Minecraft in particular, which recently saw MAUs increase 30% to 140 million. That’s an absolutely ridiculous number of people signing in every month on average for a game that’s over a decade old. Microsoft also shared that Minecraft creators have generated $350 million from over a billion downloads of mods, add-ons and experiences on the platform over the years.

Moving towards the future and guidance, Microsoft provides a specific number for its three broad segments then general comments about individual businesses. MPC revenue next quarter will be upwards of $13.6 billion and $14 billion.

“In Gaming, we expect revenue growth in the mid-to-high single digits. Significant demand for the Xbox Series X and S will continue to be constrained by supply,” said CFO Hood. “And on the strong prior year comparable, we expect Xbox content and services revenue to decline in the mid-to-high single digits.”

This is similar across both Microsoft and Sony, in that consumers will be buying as many pieces of hardware as they can produce. I’m most intrigued by software output for Microsoft, which I think will be quite stagnant until Halo Infinite later this year (which I’m fairly confident won’t be delayed again). So the question comes down to first party output combined with third party partnerships for Xbox Game Pass, the latter of which has been strong lately with games like Outriders and MLB The Show 21.

I anticipate Xbox Game Pass partnerships and console demand to drive results into the last quarter of Microsoft’s fiscal year ending June 2021, as opposed to any significant first party output. Minecraft will always be consistent, at least. Additional titles from its owned studios will come later, especially with Bethesda now incorporated into the mix and Halo Infinite looming as the flagship Xbox console exclusive later in calendar 2021.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and checking out this analysis. Company reports have more details if so inclined, and I’m always active on Twitter for conversations around these results or my predictions. Would be interested to hear your perspective as well. Be safe!

Note: Exchange rate used for Japanese Yen to U.S. Dollar is as of today. 0.0092 JPY to 1 USD.

Sources: Daniel Ahmad (Niko Partners), Jez Corden (Windows Central), Microsoft, Newsweek (Image Credit), Sony.

-Dom

Switch & Monster Hunter Give Rise to Record March for U.S. Games Industry

While vaccinations in the United States thankfully continue to increase, so too does the rate at which people around the country spend money on video games.

Industry tracking firm The NPD Group released its March 2021 monthly report on consumer spending across the games industry today. And it’s a significant one for a number of reasons.

First, it marks a full year of tracking since the pandemic began. Comparisons to last year will now be reflective of the spending burst that began during the initial stay-at-home restrictions around March 2020.

On the software side, Activision’s Call of Duty regains top honors while new releases from Japanese publishers Capcom and Square Enix complete the Top 3. Then, one Mario spin-off franchise hits a major milestone within its genre. While Nintendo Switch’s continues its ongoing dominance atop the hardware rankings, PlayStation 5 maintains its quick start since launching back in November. Sony also retains leadership in the accessory space with its latest controller iteration.

While technically this March report does include a handful of days from February and April, continued quarantine efforts drove record levels and a substantial first quarter, with consumers spending nearly $15 billion on games, consoles and accessories during the first three months of the year.

Before diving into the report, I want to express my thanks to everyone working or volunteering during this still very difficult time. Please be safe and well. And hopefully find some downtime during which you can enjoy games!

Now. The numbers, please.

United States Games Industry Sales (February 28th, 2021 – April 3rd, 2021):

The above chart courtesy of NPD Group tracks total spending in the U.S. games industry over time since the beginning of 2020. As you’ll see, March 2021 topped $5.6 billion which is an increase of 18% since the same month last year. Which is a huge figure, considering Nintendo launched its record-breaking Animal Crossing: New Horizons at that time and nearly everyone was home for the entire time.

What this means is that March 2021 set a new record for a March month across the history of tracking, dating back to the 1990s.

When expanding to the first three months of 2021, sales saw an increase of 30% to $14.9 billion. While solid, this first quarter growth actually sounds more impressive than it is considering the first two months last year were early coronavirus days for the country.

Video Game Content i.e. software and related revenue from subscriptions category is the largest contributor, as it rose 12% to $4.6 billion in March. For Q1 as a whole, these sales jumped 25% to $12.8 billion.

After a month in second place, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War retakes the top position on the overall software list. It was the best-selling title for both the first quarter and the prior 12 month time frame.

Meanwhile, Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise captured the second spot after it launched exclusively on Nintendo Switch in late March. The latest launch in the company’s second largest franchise immediately became #4 on the year’s top sellers list. Not to mention it’s already achieved a startling statistic. As measured by dollar sales, with just over a week of tracking, it’s the second best-selling Monster Hunter game in series history behind only 2018’s Monster Hunter World, which is Capcom’s number one seller of all time.

Rounding out the Top 3 on the overall chart is Outriders, for which I’ll shamelessly plug my recent review. The brand new shlooter IP published by Square Enix also debuted at the 3rd spot on both PlayStation and Xbox platform charts, causing it to land as the 10th best-selling title overall during 2021 to date. That’s after only three days on sale plus without the consideration of downloads via Xbox Game Pass, which is only counted in the spending categories rather than allocated to individual releases. This successful start, especially for something that isn’t a sequel or part of a known series, partly proves that games sell just as well when launching into subscription services. If not better, due to word-of-mouth and peer recommendations.

As expected, Nintendo-published projects littered the overall ranks due to the continued pace of Switch sales and amazing attach rates. The most notable being Mario Kart 8, the greenest of evergreen titles. During March 2021, Mario Kart 8 became the best-selling racing game in tracked history. That includes the Deluxe edition, though not any digital portion of that or the base version! The prior record holder was Mario Kart Wii, released back in 2008.

NPD Group Analyst Mat Piscatella commented on the software category in particular. “In content, Nintendo evergreens continue to impress,” he said. “Subscriptions are here to stay, will continue to grow and gain importance. No significant downsides evident, plenty of upside suggested.”

Top-Selling Games of March 2021, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Monster Hunter Rise
  3. Outriders
  4. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  5. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Minecraft
  11. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019
  12. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  13. Pokémon Sword & Pokemon Shield*
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Madden NFL 21
  18. NBA 2K21*
  19. Super Mario Party*
  20. FIFA 21

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S., All Platforms (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Monster Hunter Rise
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. Mario Kart 8*
  7. Minecraft
  8. Madden NFL 21
  9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  10. Outriders

When it comes to the Hardware category in the U.S., Japan rules once again. Accelerated by popular Nintendo and Sony platforms, domestic spending on consoles boosted 47% to $680 million in March 2021. That’s yet another March record, beating out the $552 million from the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 era of March 2008.

For the first quarter this year, sales in this category reached $1.4 billion. Naturally, this is a significant jump since the late generation cycle months of 2020, an increase of 81% year-on-year.

Nintendo Switch earned the top spot as measured by both units sold and dollars generated. This marks the 28th consecutive month that the hybrid platform has led by unit sales, all the more impressive given Nintendo’s anti-discount strategy. Switch also led the first quarter by number of units sold.

Out of its main competitors, PlayStation 5 is faring the best during its early days despite inventory constraints due to chip shortages plus a notable lack of exclusives during its launch window. Sony’s platform is officially the fastest-selling console in the history of NPD Group tracking, as measured by both unit and dollar sales during the first 5 months after launch. While the report wasn’t specific, I believe its predecessor held the spot previously.

There’s no word specifically on Xbox Series X|S performance other than mentioning that new generation boxes are moving off retail shelves as fast as manufacturers can ship them. It sounds like Microsoft’s production has been hit the hardest by the global chip situation, since supply dictates commercial fulfillment at this stage.

Gaming Accessories are the final category here tracked in this monthly report. NPD Group shared that it also boasted a historic month, hitting a March record spending amount of $300 million. That’s up 26% since March 2020.

Across the first three months of the year, accessory revenue climbed 42% to $717 million in total.

During both the month and quarter, the standard PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller variant led all other accessories in parallel to the success of its corresponding hardware.

For those keeping score, that’s a set of March month records for total, hardware and accessory spending during March 2021. It’s a combination of mobile gains, new hardware sell outs, subscription revenues and flagship software launches from major publishers bolstering last month to record levels across these areas.

“[The] market might be more smoothly transitioning to cyclical growth than I’d expected,” Piscatella added. “What happens next depends on the chip situation and content development; supply as or more important than demand.”

I’m anticipating very good if not great momentum in the coming months, as the release schedule picks up especially on the third party and PlayStation side. Even knowing a lot of game delays pushed to later this year or into 2022. April releases include MLB The Show 2021, now multi-platform and always a steady seller, in addition to the revived Pokémon Snap. Combine this with the bulk of Outriders sales plus Monster Hunter Rise momentum and I wouldn’t be surprised to see April generate certain records of its own.

Until then, please wear a mask, wash your hands and be safe everyone. I’m out for now!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Capcom, Microsoft, Nintendo, NPD Group, Square Enix, Zachary Hsieh.

-Dom

Super February 2021 U.S. Game Sales Boosted by Mario & Switch

Can you believe it’s already been a year since lock-downs began due to the pandemic? I could have sworn it was still March 2020.

Up front, I’m forever thankful for everyone who has been working the entire time to keep the broader economy and healthcare system going. You are real-life versions of the heroes in games like these.

As it relates to U.S. game sales, the industry continues to set records almost on a monthly basis as shared by tracking firm The NPD Group in its latest report.

Add February 2021 to that list, as overall consumer spending in the States reached a record high for a February month. Nintendo Switch hardware, a new old Mario game, the evergreen nature of Call of Duty plus the next generation of consoles led to yet another significant, double-digit increase in aggregate monthly sales.

Granted, February 2020 was wholly lackluster. So the comparison is favorable to a month this year when people are still at home a lot. With their families. Desperate for anything to do. Enter video games, a welcome respite even if hardware inventories are currently limited.

It’s a lot of usual suspects this time though with genuine surprise debuts on the software side with Persona 5: Strikers and Little Nightmares II, then a handful of major milestones for Nintendo’s hybrid platform in terms of lifetime results. It was a super month indeed, and not just because of a certain Mario launch.

United States Games Industry Sales (January 31st, 2021 – February 27, 2021):

Per the numbers in the image above, total consumer spending in February 2021 reached $4.6 billion which is an increase of 35% year-on-year. For 2021 to date, spending is up 39% to $9.3 billion. Driving factors being double-digit gains across each category of Content (Software), Hardware and Accessories, with Hardware in particular seeing explosive growth towards its best February in a decade.

Content is naturally the dominant category, rising 29% to contribute $4 billion on its own. Bolstered by the release of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, ongoing updates for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and an impressive debut from Sega’s Persona 5: Strikers, year-to-date spending in this segment is $8.2 billion as compared to $6.1 billion this same time last year.

Atop the software list is yet another Nintendo title in Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, a re-release of a mostly beloved 2013 Wii U game. This time featuring an excellent “bonus” mode in Bowser’s Fury, an open world 3D platformer that’s more standalone than it seems. The game is immediately the 2nd best seller of 2021 to date, and all of this without even considering digital dollars (because Nintendo doesn’t share that portion).

Second is the ever-present Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. This marks the first time since launch in November that it wasn’t top dog. That’s kind of.. ruff. Of course it remains the best-selling of 2021 to date, a position I expect it to retain until the next annual release later this year. Plus, February was yet another month where two Call of Duty games occupy spots in the Top 10.

At #3 on the overall chart was Persona 5: Strikers, an impressive start for Sega and Atlus’ spin-off musou game in the Persona franchise. Not only did it debut in the Top 3, it’s the 9th top-seller of the (admittedly young) year right now. The other supremely remarkable new release is Little Nightmares II at #6. Tarsier Studios’ chilling sequel to 2017’s horror adventure Little Nightmares has already passed 1 million copies sold globally, making it the fastest-selling ever for Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe and propelling the franchise to 5 million units sold. Clearly helped by a great launch in the States.

Otherwise, plenty of familiar titles among the software ranks in February including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales at #4, the 5th-ranked Madden NFL 21 and a couple more Nintendo games naturally among the Top 10. Time to check out the charts!

Top-Selling Games of February 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  3. Persona 5: Strikers
  4. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Little Nightmares II
  7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  11. FIFA 21
  12. NBA 2K21*
  13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  16. Ring Fit Adventure
  17. Just Dance 2021
  18. Minecraft: PlayStation 4 Edition
  19. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  20. Immortals Fenyx Rising

Top-Selling Games, 2021 Year-to-Date, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  7. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  9. Persona 5: Strikers
  10. Ring Fit Adventure

Among the three categories in February 2021, Hardware experienced the most intense growth. Compared to this time last year, spending here more than doubled (rising 121% to be exact) to $406 million. That’s the best dollar result in a decade since February 2011’s $468 million. When reviewing 2021 so far, the Hardware segment achieved $725 million. Up 130% year-over-year.

No doubt a two-tailed reason for this: Nintendo Switch momentum and strong demand for new consoles.

Switch topped all console sales in February, this time by both unit sales and dollar revenue. That marks a staggering 27 consecutive months leading on unit sales, in what must be a record for any single piece of hardware to date. Its February was quite incredible, attaining the highest unit and dollar sales for any platform in a February since Nintendo Wii during 2009, smack in the middle of that craze.

Looking back historically, Switch reached major milestones last month. It’s now the second best-selling Nintendo hardware ever behind only Wii. This also makes it the 7th top-selling single platform ever domestically. That’s out of every console released during NPD Group’s tracked history, back to the 90s. Turns out re-launching a Mario game from the failed Wii U generation a month before games released as part of the franchise’s 35th anniversary won’t be on sale any longer equates to sizeable commercial success.

The other beneficiary of high hardware demand in February 2021 was the PlayStation 5. Sony’s new platform continued its “big” streak by becoming the fastest-selling console in U.S. history as measured by dollar sales during the first four months after launch. In terms of ranking, it was the runner-up in the Hardware segment last month.

While an excellent start for PlayStation 5 itself, this sort of lofty performance isn’t isolated to a single new platform. There are plenty of buyers for both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S at this early point in their life cycles. (Even if some are scalpers, unfortunately.) These manufacturers literally can’t distribute enough to satiate audience appetite right now.

It just so happens that Sony must have stocked more inventory in February domestically, at least that’s my take on the situation. I expect healthy demand throughout the year, for both, then supply should catch up starting solely in the Summer months.

Shifting over to the final category of Accessories, in what’s essentially the unsung portion of the report that’s been as steady as they come. Industry spend on this segment increased 41% since last year to $195 million. Want more February records? Game Pads, Headset/Headphone and Steering Wheel sub-sections all did that, reaching their best levels ever for a February month.

As it’s done all year as the best-selling in 2021 to date, the PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller generated top dollar sales during February 2021. It truly has control over this category, in lockstep with the momentum of its corresponding console. Especially given its substantial price and general availability. Sony is even trying to sell accessories to people who wait in queue for a PlayStation 5 online and aren’t able to order one. Savvy, if a bit icky.

As I alluded to earlier, February 2021 marks the final month before very difficult comparable months start up. March 2020 saw Animal Crossing: New Horizons break out as a cultural phenomenon during the early part of the global coronavirus outbreak, driving all three categories in the U.S. to either record March highs or near that level.

I anticipate consistent results upcoming, even as vaccinations speed up. Spending on video games isn’t going anywhere, especially given it’s the first full year of a new console generation. Though I doubt we’ll see growth like we’ve become accustomed to lately with these reports, given that buying habits shifted when everyone started to stay at home.

For more information on February’s report, visit NPD’s website or check out NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella’s detailed Twitter thread. I’m really here to react and analyze to the stacks of information gathered by their team each month.

Until next time: Thanks for reading, stay safe and be well!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Bandai Namco, Nintendo, NPD Group, Polygon, Sony.

-Dom

Familiar Franchises & New Hardware Lift U.S. Games Industry to a Record January

It’s the first U.S. monthly sales report of the new year, featuring formidable familiar faces topping the charts on the way to a record January for domestic games industry spending.

Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Marvel’s Spider-Man among others drove a solid double-digit increase in content and software sales, while Nintendo Switch alongside PlayStation 5 combined to push hardware results to more than double the amount of this time last year. Even accessories increased over 70% year-on-year in January, bolstered by Sony’s most recent innovative controller.

It’s clear even with vaccine distribution thankfully happening around the globe, the video games industry is a primary beneficiary of continued shelter in place and quarantine orders. Even devoid of flagship releases charting on the software side, inventory constraints on the hardware front and following a major holiday season, January achieved a record.

This proves the strategy of many publishers in the current era providing ongoing content, seasonal events and cosmetic drops to engage an audience that wants to stick around longer than in prior generations. People love a reason to play the games they own, whether solo or with others, and this modern model certainly fulfills that.

Before I dig into the numbers and document my reactions, I want to again eternally thank the front-line, healthcare and retail workers for all the effort during an impossibly difficult time. I hope you are able to find some downtime and enjoy these games as a much-needed distraction.

United States Games Industry Sales (January 3rd, 2021 – January 30th, 2021):

Straight from NPD Group itself, plain and simple: January 2021 was a record January across its tracking history.

Consumer spend in the U.S. during the month reached over $4.71 billion, an increase of 42% since January 2019. Every single category of Content, Hardware and Accessories saw at least double-digit growth year-on-year.

Starting with the biggest contributor, Video Game Content sales exceeded $4.17 billion, comprising nearly 89% of monthly spend. This figure is up 36% when compared to early last year. Big results from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the resilience of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla plus a plethora of strong catalog titles from Nintendo highlight this category’s continued momentum.

As anticipated, Video Game Hardware saw the strongest movement: a staggering 144% gain over the same month in 2019, to upwards of $319 million. This time last year marked the last hurrah of the prior console generation, so naturally 2021 will bring about sizeable increases. I argue it’s slightly more impressive considering the public supply constraint issues admitted by both Sony and Microsoft.

As a knock-on effect of console launches plus Sony’s popular DualSense controller revision, Video Game Accessories bumped up 73% year-over-year to a spending amount of $222 million. A rising tide lifts all boats in this case, as displayed by all sub-categories here reaching all-time January highs last month.

Software is the leading category, which means it’s up first.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War once again led the charge on the overall rankings, a spot its held each month since launching in November. It’s also the best-selling title over the past year. Not only that, the military shooter from Activision broke into the Top 20 best-selling games *of all time* in January, right at that #20 spot.

NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella called it “incredible” and said this particular statistic “made his jaw drop.”

2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is even in the Top 10. Activision Blizzard shared recently that both sales and engagement increased in the quarter ending December, namely how net bookings from the Call of Duty franchise rose over 50% in the quarter. Black Ops Cold War itself drove monthly active franchise users to increase around 70%. Lifetime spending across series history reached $27 billion in 2020, plus it entered this year with its largest user base to date.

In a similar success, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla ranked #2 on January 2021’s chart. It’s now the second fastest-selling game in the open world franchise from Ubisoft Entertainment, as measured by first three months U.S. dollar sales, behind only 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III.

As part of a quarterly report this week from Ubisoft where the company achieved record net bookings of over €1 billion ($1.21 billion), the French publisher noted how Valhalla generated record revenue within the long-running series.

Rounding out the Top 3 was PlayStation exclusive Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s also the 10th best-selling title of the last 12 months. Insomniac Games’ super hero action game achieved global unit shipments of 4.1 million since launch in November alongside the PlayStation 5, no doubt accelerated by Sony’s willingness to put out games simultaneously across both console generations. Smartly capitalizing on the 115 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild.

Another observation when perusing the list is again the sheer number of games from Nintendo even without digital sales reported, snagging 4 of the Top 9 spots. Animal Crossing: New Horizons returned to the Top 5 for the first time since July 2020, after surpassing the 30 million copies sold worldwide milestone. And Ring Fit Adventure among them at 7th overall, a further example of a clever bet from the Japanese company within the fitness sub-genre. Ubisoft’s Immortals Fenyx Rising, a late year gem, maintained a Top 15 finish after its Top 10 showing last month.

You might be wondering about the precipitous drop for CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 from second to 18th, barely making the Top 20. Or perhaps the notable absence of Hitman 3 after excellent reviews from IO Interactive’s latest? Well, it’s the same reason why Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are no longer staples of the charts: No digital sales. While NPD Group has expanded its coverage of publishers sharing downloaded data, there are still a number that opt out.

Top-Selling Games of January 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  3. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  7. Ring Fit Adventure
  8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. NBA 2K21*
  11. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  12. FIFA 21
  13. Immortals Fenyx Rising
  14. Mortal Kombat 11
  15. Just Dance 2021
  16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  17. Minecraft: PlayStation 4 Edition
  18. Cyberpunk 2077*
  19. Super Mario Party*
  20. UFC 4

Top-Selling Games, 12 Months Ending January 2021, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. The Last of Us Part II
  7. Ghost of Tsushima
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Flipping over to Hardware, both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 lifted category sales to well more than double the amount recorded this time last year.

Switch was the leading platform in terms of unit sales during January. This marks the 26th consecutive month atop the rankings by this measure, a record in the history of tracking dating back to the 90s. Switch unit sales reached the best result for a January month since 2010, back when even grandparents purchased the Nintendo Wii at the height of its popularity.

Last week, Nintendo updated its financials and it’s staggering stuff. Switch is approaching 80 million units on market, 79.87 million to be exact, exceeding the almost 76 million of Nintendo 3DS as of December. This means Nintendo exceeded its initial full year target for Switch shipments with a quarter to spare. Shoot, the Switch Lite model alone is approaching the lifetime sales of its predecessor the Wii U, at 13.53 million compared to 13.56 million respectively.

In terms of dollar sales domestically during January 2021, PlayStation 5 once again led hardware. Same as it did last month, when I wrote about how it achieved the best result for PlayStation consoles thru each platform’s first December. Sony said last week that PlayStation 5 shipped 4.5 million units in its first quarter on sale, a number that’s a bit higher now taking into account January sales.

There’s not much in the report about Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S, so it’s hard to know where it lies in relation to its competitors. On a global scale, friend of the site and Niko Partners Analyst Daniel Ahmad estimated the family at around 3.3 to 3.5 million globally to date. Just hard to know how it did in January here in the States.

Lastly, here’s even more records when moving onto the final segment of Accessories. Not only did the category itself jump over 70% to achieve a January historical high on dollar sales, each of its sub-segments did as well. Game pads, headsets and headphones plus steering wheels. January month records for all!

Among the products themselves, Sony’s PlayStation 5 DualSense Wireless Controller (seen above) topped everything to be the best-selling accessory of the month. Another one of Sony’s offerings, the Pulse 3D Wireless Headset, topped headset/headphones.

Taken as a whole, January echoed the ongoing story of games industry sales, reaching a record January month on the back of catalog titles plus new hardware shipments. Individual software franchises from Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft plus both hardware and accessories from Sony were the winners, though many more boasted great results to start 2021.

Highly recommend checking out Twitter accounts for NPD Group and Piscatella for even more general commentary and data within platform rankings. Definitely worth it if you’ve made it this far!

Thanks to all for reading. Let’s regroup in February for more sales talk. Be safe.

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, NPD Group, Ubisoft.

-Dom

2020 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Behind all the numbers and corporate speak, companies are people. And it’s those people that worked hard to design, create, polish, quality check, publish and distribute hardware, games, products and services during a tumultuous year that was 2020.

This category is meant to celebrate the teams of hard-working folks at companies with the most impressive lineups or multitude of successes. Later categories will focus on smaller, indie studios and publishers. This is reserved for the stand-out performers, often publicly-traded. We’ll hit all segments of the industry with the Year-in-Review.

No time to waste, right into the awards!

Activision Blizzard, Inc (United States)

While I don’t always agree with its business practices or monetization strategies, there’s no denying the sheer output of Activision Blizzard during 2020. Between new ventures in owned franchises, integration across Call of Duty titles plus the reintroduction of beloved catalog titles, its teams delivered multiple launches amidst the work-from-home demand of the coronavirus pandemic.

The internal teams Treyarch Studios and Infinity Ward collaborating to integrate last year’s excellent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Warzone free-to-play battle royale with November’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was a massive, if not ludicrous, undertaking. Then, put out continuous free updates with its seasonal content model, delivering new maps, weapons and a battle pass every few months. As of now, there’s both cross-play and cross-progression across these titles, nearly everything accessible to players on various platforms. The franchise overall reached $3 billion in net bookings during the 12 months ending December, proving upside of this adjusted business model.

Not to mention, finally, its Activision unit dug into the vaults of its storied IP library to produce Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a remade collection of two skating classics by Vicarious Visions, then a new entry in a long-running series: Toys for Bob’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Fans have been calling for the company to leverage its back catalog for a long time, so these decisions should satisfy.

Blizzard’s output has been notably lower the past couple years, with Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV in the pipeline. Yet it still released a new expansion in the World of Warcraft legacy called Shadowlands, a release that moved 3.7 million copies in a single day to briefly achieved the fastest-selling PC launch ever back in late November (before CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 broke its record shortly after). Blizzard’s even received positive early impressions for mobile game Diablo Immortal!

Oh, speaking of mobile. There’s King, one of the most consistent labels within the field. It was mainly about consistent output this year across all three sub-divisions of the American publisher, and its teams deserve a shout out for delivering on these tight deadlines.

Microsoft Corp (United States)

As you’ll see here and a bit later, it’s time to celebrate the people behind the start of a new generation. That’s the main reason why Microsoft and its Xbox staff members easily make the cut. Those who worked through a pandemic to design, engineer, produce, market and ultimately distribute the Xbox Series X|S family.

Project Scarlett, as it was once dubbed, had a formal reveal late in 2019 as the Xbox Series X, and then 2020 happened. Team Xbox had to shift to a more virtual campaign for rolling out, plus deal with the delay of its flagship title Halo: Infinite. They successfully completed this effort in November at the launch of not only the higher-end Series X but the entry level, digital-only Series S as well.

Even without something at the scope of Halo, Xbox platforms saw plenty of worthwhile games and allowed smaller projects to shine. Ori and the Will of the Wisps from Moon Studios is one of the year’s most exceptional. Obsidian Entertainment’s Grounded attracted 5 million players to date and introduced clever new ideas in accessibility. Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio reinvigorated a beloved, dormant franchise. It was one of the highest-rated games of 2020, just recently surpassing 2 million players.

Gears Tactics, Call of the Sea, Battletoads, Tell Me Why and Wasteland 3 rounded out the year’s lineup of games on Xbox. Shoot, Microsoft even somehow nabbed the local console launch of Phantasy Star Online 2. While perhaps lacking in triple-A experiences, there was plenty to enjoy.

Shortly before the new consoles, it updated the Project xCloud branding to Xbox Cloud Gaming and launched a formal beta alongside Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in September. It’s now available across 22 countries, with at least four more planned in the future. It’s a compliment to the traditional delivery model, meant to propagate the idea of ecosystem and connection. And it’s a damn fine service from personal experience.

Then there’s the continued growth and appeal of Xbox Game Pass, which snagged a partnership with Electronic Arts’ EA Play membership service as a way to expand its catalog. Recent rumors point to the potential inclusion of Ubisoft games, too. At last count, Game Pass had 15 million paid subscribers, up from 10 million earlier in 2020.

Lastly, in perhaps the biggest news drop of the year for the company and even gaming overall, Microsoft announced the purchase of ZeniMax in September for $7.5 billion. This is the parent company of the historic Bethesda Softworks, home to a number of development teams behind long-running franchises like Fallout, DOOM, Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein, Dishonored among others. The upside of these games being exclusive to Xbox platforms, or at least having content exclusive to them, is massive. Like, industry-changing massive.

Microsoft’s annual gaming revenue exceeded $12 billion for the first time ever as of its quarter ending in September. While 2020 was light in the major exclusive department, it did feature two new consoles, a major studio acquisition and an expansion of its services. It’s laying the foundation for the upcoming decade, heavily investing in ecosystem in a more holistic approach than competitors.

Nintendo Co Ltd (Japan)

Yep. Nintendo is back on the annual list. During a year where its flagship game ended up being an Animal Crossing, not necessarily the biggest of sellers historically, and competitors debuted shiny new consoles, the Japanese developer and publisher was consistent in sales, output and quirky innovation, leading to its Switch hybrid hitting multiple milestones as the year’s most sought after hardware.

Steadfastness and fun, that’s Nintendo.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the headline-grabber here in 2020. The cute, animated life simulator’s launch in March coincided with the start of quarantine, a somewhat bittersweet serendipity that led to it achieving the fastest-selling launch ever for a Switch title at 11 million copies in under two weeks. It exceeded the *lifetime* sales of all other games in the series within 11 days. Then 13 million in 6 weeks.

Since then, it’s moved over a staggering 26 million units to date, already making it the second best seller on Switch behind only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (a game in itself that saw exceptional momentum last year). Beyond the sales stats, it’s the single Nintendo-published game that served as a virtual safe haven for people to meet and hang out while the pandemic kept them physically distant.

It wasn’t the only notable software from Nintendo during 2020, even if the schedule was lighter than past years on big exclusives. Paper Mario: The Origami King is one of the most joyful and heartfelt games of the year, even if overlooked by general consensus. Its Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity collaboration with Koei Tecmo was a surprise critical darling, a musou prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Remakes of older titles like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX and Pikmin 3 Deluxe strengthened its annual lineup.

Then there’s the celebration of Mario’s 35th anniversary, where Nintendo launched a bevy of products related to the plumber’s birthday. Super Mario 3D All-Stars brought three prior gen games to Switch, even if underwhelming in their lack of modernization. Free to download Super Mario Bros. 35 pitted almost three dozen players at a time in a sort of Mario Royale competition. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit continues in the company’s tradition of innovation, as a live version of the cart-racer. Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was the next entry in the collectible type of physical consoles. While I don’t like how some of these are only available for a limited time where the end happens to coincide with Nintendo’s fiscal year end, seeing them acknowledge the anniversary with such fervor was welcome in a difficult year.

Of course there’s the story of how Switch hardware continued to sell gangbusters and set records along the way. It reached 68.3 million units in September, vaulting past Super NES, Xbox One and the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) all during 2020. It was the best-selling in the U.S. by units during the coveted November time slot at 1.3 million units, outpacing the shorter supply of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. This marked a record 24 straight months atop the monthly hardware chart by retail unit sales.

All of this led to another stellar year for Nintendo, commercially and generally critically. Its financial situation hasn’t been this solid since 2009, measured by both revenue and operating profit. While it didn’t reveal much in the way of titles like the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 last year, as long as Switch is in supply and the team consistently produces quality releases in its own special way, it will likely be a repeat in 2021.

NVIDIA Corporation (United States)

As far as higher-end PC gaming goes, NVIDIA was the backbone of 2020.

Its recognition here stems from the introduction of its latest line of graphics cards, the GeForce RTX 3000 series, plus continued success of its GeForce Now streaming service and a monumental acquisition deal.

The difference in its RTX 3000 card series compared to prior generations is real-time ray-tracing, a fancy way of saying “really cool lighting” techniques that happen while playing which make light sources, reflections and shadows pop when implemented correctly.

I won’t get bogged down in the tech nitty gritty here, there are other sites for that. Suffice to say these graphics cards built on its new Ampere architecture set the standard for performance across the mid and top end of the market. The beefy RTX 3090 and 3080 GPUs debuted in September, then RTX 3070 started in October. December brought the more affordable RTX 3060 Ti.

Critical consensus during reviews was outstanding. The series was lauded for advancements in 4K resolution, Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) to boost frame rate performance and general ray-tracing capabilities. The tough part unfortunately was supply to the market, no doubt impacted by manufacturer yield issues, availability of parts and the pandemic at large. Even with the staggered schedule, scalpers and bots were usually first to order leaving regular consumers either without cards or resorting to secondary sources. Good news is sky-high demand. The tough part is the company said stock will increase next year, though it may take a few months, and scalpers will still be there.

In another major launch for NVIDIA, it formally kicked off its public beta for game streaming service GeForce Now back in February across North America and Europe. It’s really cool tech from the sound of things, though I haven’t tried it myself. Supports cloud gaming on laptop, PC, Mac, SHIELD TV and even Android phones or tablets. What’s nice is it connects to existing library on certain storefronts, although certain publishers have blocked using it with their games. Once NVIDIA figures out incentive to get publishers on board and launch in more territories, it could very well be the ideal option for cloud gaming.

Beyond its latest set of graphics cards and streaming offering, NVIDIA’s RTX technology suite is pushing audio, recording and streaming advancements too. Its RTX Voice feature beta started in April 2020, a module used to improve sound quality when using one’s PC for calls. This was then replaced by Broadcast app during the Fall, which featured new functionality for noise removal and virtual background while streaming.

Oh. There’s also the groundbreaking deal where NVIDIA announced its intention to purchase ARM from SoftBank for $40 billion in cash and stock. ARM is a major player in processors and intelligent computing, which would lead to a combined entity pushing research into artificial intelligence and super-computing. It’s expected to close within the next year or so, though certain investors have speculated it might be blocked by regulators in the United Kingdom. If it does go through, it’s a significant deal within the tech and computing industries.

Back in September, NVIDIA said it set records for quarterly revenue and profits. Sales jumped 57% year-on-year. Its share price reflects the ongoing financial success, more than doubling in 2020. If the American graphics card and chip maker can ensure supply of its latest product suite and close on its ARM deal, 2021 could be another historic year.

Sony Corp (Japan)

Our final entry in the list of impressive companies in 2020 is none other than Sony. Of course. PlayStation 4 achieved new sales records. PlayStation 5 became a huge (quite literally), landmark tech product. Its laundry list of exciting new games offerings both book-ended a generation and set the stage for this future one, with advancements in narrative, performance and accessibility options. The gaming teams at Sony continue to set the industry benchmark for both hardware and software, and deserve recognition for doing all of this during one of the most difficult times in modern history.

The Japanese consumer tech conglomerate started the year with the reveal of the PlayStation 5 logo, then dove into more about its new generation box and its brand new DualSense controller throughout the year.

At the same time, PlayStation 4 continued its commercial success. The second best-selling home console ever maintained decent enough momentum in its final year, reaching nearly 114 million in units shipped as of October. Bolstered by third-party exclusives like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Persona 5 Royal and Nioh 2 in addition to flagship first-party titles like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima alike. Many of which are mainstays on year-end award lists and, more importantly, internal teams like Naughty Dog worked to set a new gold standard for accessibility features.

Then comes November, the PlayStation 5 launch. It was a big one, literally and figuratively. Sony’s approach is more towards defining the new generation with a new form factor, revamped controller and select games solely for the latest box as opposed to the fully backwards compatible strategy of its main competitor. Admittedly Sony acknowledges that it can’t ignore the millions and millions of PS4 owners, so there are plenty of cross-gen games. Even if its messaging was murky.

Headlined by Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls from Bluepoint Games/Japan Studio, the PS5 launch lineup was smartly supplemented by joyful surprises like Asobi Team’s Astro’s Playroom and The Pathless by Giant Squid. As part of Sony’s shift towards cross-generational consistency, it also offered a suite of legacy games via the PlayStation Plus Collection to PS5 buyers.

This dedication to exclusive software and new feature sets plus a competitive price led to PS5 being the fastest-selling global launch in brand history, beating out its predecessor. Sony didn’t said by how much at the time. A recent report suggests that the first four weeks reached 3.4 million consoles shipped. (Unofficial for the time being.) Domestically in the States, NPD Group said PS5 achieved the highest launch sales of any console in tracked history during November as measured by both units and dollars, again besting the PS4.

While services like PlayStation Now are somewhat lagging and the future of its virtual reality program is up in the air, Sony’s late PS4 support and movement into the new generation with PS5 marked a transitional year during which it consistently delivered memorable experiences and solid sales results. Out of the five companies on the list, it probably has the most upside for 2021.

Here we are at the end of yet another 2020 Year-in-Review piece. Check back to the megapost for more. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Digitimes, NPD Group.

-Dom

Forget Console Wars: Sony & Microsoft Can Both Win Next Generation

Congratulations, gaming fans. You can do it!

All of you.

After Sony’s somewhat messy reveal yesterday of many things PlayStation 5 plus Microsoft’s announcements last week regarding the Xbox Series X|S platforms, the foundation of gaming’s next console generation are starting to fall into place.

With these announcements and a subsequent trickle of details, both manufacturers are solidifying their individual strategies. Sony with its more direct platform marketing and big-budget exclusive software compared to Microsoft’s two-tiered hardware plan plus service as an ecosystem play.

And I believe that both of these can, and will, work out for them.

Starting with Sony, the Japanese tech giant shared that the PlayStation 5 base version starts at $499 with a Digital Edition set for a quite competitive $399. The only difference being the latter doesn’t have a physical disc drive. Both release on Thursday, November 12th in seven markets, then November 19th in the remainder. Launch lineup includes games like Demon’s Souls and Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales (which now has an Ultimate Edition with a remastered version of 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man), with the most notable point being increased prices compared to last generation. The broad video game price increase is officially underway.

Sony’s showcase also had brand new announcements like Final Fantasy XVI from Square Enix and Warner Bros’ Hogwarts Legacy then capped off teasing a new God of War title in development from its Santa Monica Studio. Overall, it was a tight, informative presentation albeit missing a number of key details for things like software release windows and pre-order timing.

Messaging from Sony has been all over the place in the time since this reveal. First off, Sony allowed retailers to dictate when pre-orders went live despite saying that they would provide “plenty of notice” previously. Also in the past, executives like Sony Interactive Entertainment’s President & CEO Jim Ryan have stressed how the company believes in generations. That is, targeting games for strictly the new console as opposed to cross-generational type releases.

Then yesterday, the garbled communication accelerated. The team said PlayStation 5 games including Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy A Big Adventure and even next year’s flagship graphical powerhouse Horizon Forbidden West will also have PlayStation 4 releases. An inconsistency with seemingly its underlying strategy of established generations. Now, this makes all the sense in the world from a business standpoint. There are 112 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild, most owners of which won’t upgrade for a number of years. A clean-break generational move is antiquated in 2020, when backwards compatibility and maintaining a library is important.

Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

In another twist, Ryan said in a couple interviews with media that the overall catalog of games is less significant than having “new, great” software offerings. Combine this with the massive $100 million or more budgets for its first party projects, Ryan doesn’t think that launching games into a subscription service is sustainable.

The irony is that I believe bridging the gap between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 is one of the reasons why Sony can be successful in the upcoming cycle. Maintaining continuity with its legacy owners and their libraries will allow people to upgrade without fear of losing access to their favorite games, especially with many titles being live services now and not providing clear upgrade paths. Early adopters are going to buy the shiny new box regardless. It’s more about people six months or years from now that will determine the trajectory of sales. These companies have to consider those just as much as the enthusiasts.

Another reason I believe Sony can achieve is competitive pricing, especially the Digital Edition at $399. This model comes without sacrifice in the power department, it’s just that it only allows for digital downloads. Sony apparently had locked in the idea of getting at least a version to the same launch price of PlayStation 4, and they succeeded. The question comes down to availability, and anecdotal evidence says the digital version is much harder to find despite Sony saying that the PlayStation 5 will have more units overall at launch than its predecessor.

Finally, and it’s no secret, Sony’s software prowess is near unparalleled in modern game development. Its studios are among the most talented in the business. With projects like Horizon Forbidden West and God of War 2021 in the pipeline from internal teams, Sony seems to be leveraging a similar software strategy as last generation in quality, single-player experiences.

It’s also making key partnerships with external publishers, such as the aforementioned deal with Square Enix for Final Fantasy XVI console exclusivity plus its work with Bluepoint Games on major remakes, to round out the portfolio. There’s also a new service offering as part of its PlayStation Plus membership: PlayStation Plus Collection, where legacy titles will be available for PS5 owners.

That’s how Sony can win. Solid hardware pricing to sell volume of both editions, new foundational games on console then PlayStation Plus and even PC on the back end down the line. It just needs better and more honest messaging, clean up the pre-order process ahead of November and share information on upgrade paths like it has with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales in that the game moves with players from PS4 to the upcoming generation.

Switching to its main competitor in Microsoft of course, its Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S consoles debut a bit earlier the same week on November 10th in a simultaneous global launch, for $499 and an utterly aggressive $299 respectively. Both are also available via what’s called the Xbox All Access financing program, for $34.99 and $24.99 per month each. This comes with a subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, an immediate library of software. Which is a key part of enticing especially new buyers, not having to drop so much money up front like generations of the past.

As I’ve stated before, the American software and cloud conglomerate’s modus operandi is ecosystem and services. Lowering the barrier to entry, offering games and subscriptions on a variety of devices beyond its consoles, embracing cloud as a complement to traditional gaming plus connecting everything in its Xbox brand. Its Xbox Game Pass catalog of games monthly subscription service is arguably the best value in the industry, considering that all new first party titles launch simultaneously into the service on their retail date.

Then there’s Project xCloud. Microsoft formally launched the cloud streaming offering just earlier this week for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in various countries for use on Android phones and tablets. It’s a play on the future direction of the industry. Despite some critics prognosticating otherwise, I don’t believe it’s a replacement for traditional games. It’s a complement that will offer yet another way to play console and PC quality software. Which means it won’t cannibalize sales, it will be accretive to the business line.

“We really built this strategy around that – play the games you want, with the people you want, on the devices you want or already have,” said Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox. “The high-level goal for us is can we build a platform where more people want to play more games more often?”

What this means is that Microsoft is foregoing one-time purchases up front to make it up in volume, monthly fees and player engagement. It hopes to monetize on an ongoing basis, and keep people in the ecosystem whether using hardware, PC or even mobile via cloud.

So, what does this have to do with winning? Everything.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market: lapsed gamers, those on the fence about an upgrade and even PlayStation owners looking for a way to try games not available on that platform. Sure, the company is chalking up a loss on hardware and even generating less revenue up front with service discounts. It’s still built up a user base of 10 million strong for Xbox Game Pass as of last month, many of which have or will renew even when their discounts expire. And according to various accounts, this leads to people not just playing more games but also buying them, bumping up software sales alongside the subscription.

Xbox has also been much better about messaging and marketing, sending a clear signal with both its pricing and retail packaging. Its social media team is on fire, rolling with the punches during leaks and summarizing perfectly the contrast between its console models. While some argue that offering two models with similar names is confusing, I strongly disagree and think that tech consumers are more knowledgeable than that in the age of multiple iPhone models and countless TV iterations. The pricing alone tells the story: Xbox Series S is for those looking to enter next gen at an affordable price, Xbox Series X is for the enthusiasts that are much less sensitive to cost.

A holistic approach makes Microsoft less dependent on core hardware sales and major, blockbuster exclusives than ever before. Its hyper-competitive pricing tier for Xbox Series S gives the most realistic entry point for various slices of the market

The main question (and it’s a big one, no doubt) surrounding Xbox is its software lineup, at least early in the cycle. Without games like Halo Infinite, Forza Motorsport or Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 at launch, it will lean more on smaller titles like The Medium from Bloober Team and Ebb Software’s Scorn, older first party games like Gears 5 and Gears Tactics plus external, multi-platform releases such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Destiny 2: Beyond Light. With the amount of studio acquisitions and announced games like the aforementioned bunch plus Rare’s Fable and Everwild, I anticipate a more beefed up portfolio within two years of launch. Which is really the time that’s most make-or-break for sales.

Microsoft is one of the world’s largest companies, and while Xbox is a key brand segment, it’s a small portion of the overall business. We’re still talking about an $11.5 billion or more annual revenue generator here, one where Microsoft is clearly investing in parallel to its Cloud offerings. The firm can sustain a hit from discounted Xbox Game Pass and All Access programs, as long as the opportunity is there to keep players over time. These are meant to build up the audience base and benefit over the longer term, even if shorter term it appears to be slower than its competition.

As noted throughout, we now know how both Sony and Microsoft are throwing down aggressive pricing this holiday season for some powerful next generation boxes. Both are investing internally, mapping out marketing, purchasing studios and making partnerships in attempts to win mind-share and, most importantly, dollars.

Sony promises more PlayStation 5 consoles at launch than PlayStation 4, offers an enticing Digital Edition upgrade for PS4 owners while also solidifies a more impressive launch lineup of software even if its messaging has been jumbled. Microsoft’s message has been direct: Its Xbox Series S is the most affordable of the bunch and both consoles are available via a financing option for folks that might not want to pay up front or have been impacted financially by coronavirus.

It’s not quite time yet for my detailed forecasts, though this piece should give an early indication of where I’m at in that I expect both manufacturers to sell out of launch stock then move into the later years of this generation with unique offerings that absolutely will attract buyers. Even some that will overlap. If I had to pick, I’m slightly more bullish on Sony’s prospects especially if they can supply enough Digital Editions to the market at that extremely attractive $400 point.

That doesn’t mean its competition can’t also win. Each has something the other doesn’t, which means victory is attainable for all. Most of which, console gamers. Even if they’ll probably continue to fight among themselves for eternity.

Stay safe all. Thanks for reading!

All prices reference above in U.S. Dollars. Local pricing available at manufacturer websites.

Sources: Fast Company, GamesIndustry.Biz, Microsoft, Sony, TechRadar, Washington Post, Xbox Wire.

-Dom

Ghost of Tsushima & Nintendo Power July 2020 U.S. Games Industry Sales

The results are in for another month, proving most of the games industry is still powering up and seemingly staying at home during what continues to be the most difficult of times. COVID-19 restrictions and major new releases from multiple publishers drove growth, which counteracted a slight dip in console sales during July.

U.S. video game sales tracking firm The NPD Group released its July 2020 domestic report this morning,. Overall movement is impressive from both a dollar sales and individual title standpoint, especially for new games from Sony and Nintendo plus catalog titles from 3rd party teams.

Let’s take a look at the trends and get some commentary going on monthly performance.

Note: NPD Group has adjusted its software tracking metrics, which means its three main categories are now as follows:

Video Game Hardware: Console and hardware sales.

Video Game Content: Previously dubbed Video Game Software. This now includes “total market Physical and Digital Full Game, DLC/MTX and Subscription consumer spending across Console, Cloud, Mobile, Portable, PC and VR platforms.”

Video Game Accessories: Self-explanatory, includes controllers, game pads, headphones and comparable gaming accoutrements.

United States Games Industry Sales (July 5th to August 1st):

Overall industry consumer spending jumped an impressive 32% in July compared to the same month last year, totaling $3.6 billion. When expanding to 2020 as a whole, total spend domestically is up 21% to $26 billion right now.

NPD Group Analyst, and online friend of mine, Mat Piscatella said this about overall performance in July: “Double-digit percentage spending gains in accessories, subscription, mobile and both digital full game as well as post launch spending on console and PC offset a slight decline in hardware.”

The largest contributor to last month’s results by far is Video Game Content, at $3.3 billion in dollar sales. This is an increase of 34% over July 2019. In particular the Digital segment within Content is expanding rapidly, showing growth of 41% year-on-year although no dollar amount or split was shared. I’d imagine physical is also showing resilience as we’ve seen with multiple earnings reports from big publishers around the world, though digital is certainly benefiting most from current conditions due to ease of access and retail closures.

As for individual software releases, PlayStation 4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima solidified the number one spot on the overall chart. The latest action game from internal Sony studio Sucker Punch Productions, which I reviewed recently, is the developer’s fastest-selling to date, outpacing 2014’s inFAMOUS Second Son. Early momentum resulted in Ghost of Tsushima achieving the 4th best Sony-published launch in tracking history, immediately entering the 2020 to date chart as the 5th best-selling title. Sony shared that global unit sales hit 2.4 million within 3 days of release, consistent with my upbeat call on its commercial upside based on where the PS4 install base is at this point in the generation.

The other notable new release is Paper Mario: The Origami King, debuting at #3 on the combined chart plus numero uno on the Switch rankings. It set a new launch high for Nintendo’s Paper Mario franchise, beating the prior record-holder Super Paper Mario in 2007. Additionally, retail launch sales were more than double that of 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Its one of five Nintendo titles within the Top 10 in July, the next highest being the commercial breakout hit Animal Crossing: New Horizons which this quarter became the second top seller ever on Nintendo Switch at an absurd 22.4 million global unit sales as reported earlier this month.

Additional contributors to software growth include another PS4 hit The Last of Us: Part 2, which ranked #4 and has now achieved the 3rd highest lifetime sales ever for a game published by Sony behind Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War both from 2018. Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo’s fitness entry, continues to have legs due to high consumer demand and increased stock as it climbed to the 7th spot. Rounding out the Top 10 was a surprising one to me, Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris from Bandai Namco. It’s the best ever placement for a game in the series to date, since Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet hit #14 in 2018. The game also achieved the 3rd spot on the Xbox One’s individual chart, behind only heavy hitters Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Mortal Kombat 11.

Software and additional content really are carrying the industry with lockdowns still in place around the country, proving a smart way to pass the seemingly endless time. Below are the general charts.

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

  1. Ghost of Tsushima
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Paper Mario: The Origami King*
  4. The Last of Us: Part 2
  5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  6. Ring Fit Adventure
  7. Mortal Kombat 11
  8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe*
  9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  10. Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris
  11. Minecraft: PS4 Edition
  12. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  13. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
  14. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  15. MLB: The Show 20
  16. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
  17. Need for Speed: Heat
  18. Marvel’s Spider-Man
  19. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
  20. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

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

  1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  3. The Last of Us: Part 2
  4. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
  5. Ghost of Tsushima [New]
  6. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  7. MLB: The Show 20
  8. Resident Evil 3 Remake
  9. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
  10. Mortal Kombat 11

In really the only lackluster category result of July, Video Game Hardware saw consumer spend decline 2% to $166 million. This is showing that most people have already purchased the current generation systems, are waiting for more news on discounts going into next generation or even holding off until Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 before making a move. The upside is for 2020 as a whole, spending hit $1.8 billion which is an increase of 22% versus this same time frame last year. Mainly driven by strength in Switch, especially during the height of Animal Crossing: New Horizons buying.

Speaking of, Nintendo Switch was yet again the top-selling piece of hardware during July 2020. Nintendo’s hybrid offering has topped the list every month since November 2018. Which means it remains the best-selling console for 2020 as well, naturally.

Finally, Video Game Accessories accounted for the remaining $170 million in monthly sales which is actually a July month record. This figure is 34% higher than July 2019. Gamepad and headsets in particular set July records, although no specific number was attached. Reminiscent of when Fortnite was at its height of popularity, though not the same type of sizeable dollar amounts.

Stepping back to view July domestic sales overall, it’s not another ridiculous month like we saw during say March or the April. It’s still an exciting result for total industry spend, growing double-digits again for the the fifth consecutive month, plus featuring titles like Ghost of Tsushima and Paper Mario: The Origami King with steady demand to set select, more focused records.

Gaming is the type of entertainment that continues to be a great option for people that perhaps thought the country would be more open than it is due to lingering effects of COVID-19. I’ll take this time again to thank those people working hard to keep the States going, whether in medical, retail or other essential fields, and hope that games are able to lift the burden and provide a brief respite when not on the grind.

Hit up NPD Group’s lists and Mat Piscatella’s thread on Twitter for additional deets on July’s report. Stay safe, all. Thanks for stopping by.

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Nintendo, The NPD Group, PlayStation Twitter.

-Dom

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

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

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

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

It Starts With Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come To Know One’s True Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Unending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: Ghost of Tsushima

Release Date: July 17, 2020

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

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

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

-Dom

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

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

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

From the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change of Perspective

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

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

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

Then Ellie’s warpath begins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It begins again, this time playing as Abby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality is Cyclical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Towards the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was for Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title: The Last of Us Part II

Release Date: June 19, 2020

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 4

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

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

-Dom