The Last of Us: A Beautiful, Yet Uncomfortable Experience

From its stunning visual fidelity, attention to detail, and cinematic narrative, The Last of Us is a darkly, beautiful game in more ways than one. Although beautiful, The Last of Us depicts humanity at its most desperate, and even in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by infected zombies, humans are still the biggest threat.

If you break military curfew: You are dead. If you trust another person: You are dead. If you have any aversion to killing: You are dead. The only people that survive are those that are willing to do whatever it takes, which often means that these survivors are bad, bad people.

And you play as one of them: Joel.

Initially I, rather naively, thought that Joel was just another ‘good guy’, albeit a bit colder and more selfish than the typical protagonist, but as conversations between himself and Ellie unfolded, I realised that Joel was definitely not ‘good’. Throughout the game Joel literally kills hundreds of people, both infected and uninfected, without a second thought. Often the people that he kills are in the same position as himself; they are just desperate survivors.

As the player, I didn’t think about this until an enemy yelled at Joel, calling him ‘crazy’. After all, killing is just a part of games, it seems normal in context. The normality of killing in games is reflected in the normality of killing in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. Joel kills because he sees it as a normal part of the world now.

Being called ‘crazy’ snapped me back to reality and I began to feel very uncomfortable with some of the decisions that Joel makes: Threatening to murder Henry after having been saved from drowning by him, threatening to leave Ellie with his brother, and, of course, the final decisions that Joel makes. This discomfort with his decisions began to make me feel uncomfortable playing as him, and I actually felt relieved to play as Ellie when it came to winter.

By the end of the game I felt as though I had become just as selfish as Joel.

After being captured by the leader of the fireflies, Marlene, Joel realises that in order for a cure to be found, Ellie will die in the process. Although thousands, maybe millions, of lives will be saved in the process, Joel is relentlessly unwilling to allow this to happen. He will not allow Ellie to die, like his own daughter, Sarah died before. This final decision encapsulated the moral greyness of the game.

I felt extremely conflicted by the ending. Although I felt that the death of one person in order to save thousands, was the ‘right’ decision in this bleak dilemma, it would have been out of character for Joel to think the same. I also found myself secretly praying that Ellie would survive. After having developed a strong relationship with the characters, I felt compelled to defy what I believed to be ‘right’ in favour of saving a character whom I had grown to like. My relationship with Ellie reflected Joel’s relationship with her.

It’s testament to the strength of the story, the relationship between characters, and the relationship between yourself and the characters, that by the end of the story I found myself questioning my own moral compass.

Advertisements

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – Review

Zelda is a series that I have never played, even after having heard so many good things about it. This is somewhat due to never having owned a Nintendo console. The Gamecube flew past me whilst I played Xbox, the Wii flew past me whilst I was on the 360, and the Wii U flew past everyone. So, although I had dipped my toes into a bit of Mariokart here and there, I never played any Zelda.

After recently purchasing a 3DS I finally decided to take the plunge into the Zelda series, starting with A Link Between Worlds.

In ​A Link Between Worlds ​you play as Link, the iconic, green-hat-wearing hero who accidentally becomes central to the plot of – you guessed it – saving the Princess, and the world of Hyrule from the evil sorcerer Yuga; a character who has entrapped Princess Zelda and seven sages in paintings across the world of Lorule. Link must journey through seven treacherous dungeons in order to free the sages and save Hyrule from imminent destruction. The story is a simple one and aside from at the beginning and end, the narrative is sparse but this is not detrimental to the game. Although there are several cliches in A Link Between Worlds, they are done well, and the simplicity of the story is refreshing.

After the initial plot set-up and introductions to characters the game follows a nonlinear structure; there is little indication of which dungeon should be tackled first and no indication of which weapons you’ll need to rent or what they do. It’s quite overwhelming to realise that exploring Hyrule and Lorule involves no hand-holding, especially when the game appears so welcoming with its bright colour pallette, cheerful art-style, and friendly characters.

Luckily I met a mysterious fortune teller who gave me a hint as to where I should go. I tackled a couple of the dungeons and it then became clear why Zelda is such a beloved series.

The sense of reward you receive once you finally work out the solution to a puzzle in A Link Between Worlds is unparalleled. Each dungeon is a labyrinth of puzzles which require you to to think hard about the environment and how you could interact with your surroundings. Maybe you’ll need to throw a bomb with exact timing in order to open a door, or maybe you’ll need to use your equipment in a creative manner, but whatever the answer, it’s always logical and always makes you feel intelligent for having thought of the answer.

A Link Between Worlds​ introduces an interesting feature whereby Link can merge with the surrounding walls and become a moving 2D painting on the wall. As a painting Link can travel between Hyrule and Lorule via psychedelic portals scattered across the land. Not only does merging into a piece of 2D art act as a form of transportation between the two worlds but it’s also crucial to solving many of the puzzles. You’ll be required to slip between the bars of jail cells, scale the walls of dungeons, and hide from bosses as 2D Link in order conquer

Although the majority of the game feels streamlined there were some RPG features which felt somewhat redundant. Upon entering the world of Hyrule I met a witch who kindly offered to make me a few revitalising potions. Initially I thought that this would be crucial to staying alive but it wasn’t until the final encounter of the game that I felt it necessary to use this feature.

Renting weapons can also be a nuisance. Although it opens up the possibility of exploring dungeons in a nonlinear fashion it also somewhat becomes a chore. Once you die you lose your rented equipment. You must then return to Hyrule just to re-rent equipment. It’s a lengthy process that interrupts the pacing, especially when you’re in the depths of a dungeon. Aside from this minor gripe I found the pacing to be spot-on which is testament to the excellent design of A Link Between Worlds seeing as the game is so nonlinear.

Overall I had a lot of fun on my eighteen hour journey across Hyrule and Lorule. I found the puzzle solving rewarding and I was deeply absorbed by the orchestrated music, the charming characters, and the environment design. After my first outing with Link I couldn’t wait to return to Hyrule and so I quickly snapped up both Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D which I’ll be blasting through soon!

My Problem With Souls Games

2300023-2012-08-23_000089nssh

I haven’t always been a Souls fan. In fact, there was a time when I actually disliked Souls games. I knew next to nothing about Dark Souls when I first picked it up back in 2012. All I knew was that it was meant to be good. What I didn’t know was that it’s gruellingly depressing, unashamedly difficult and absolutely refuses to hold your hand like an overtly macho father. I was blissfully naïve and, as a result, I had my spirit crushed.

After about fifteen hours of gameplay I set the controller down and decided that it wasn’t a game for me. I wasn’t used to being thrown into a deadly world with no instructions. I was intimidated by the lack of friendly characters and the grand scale of Lordran. I was also disheartened because I had rather foolishly invested my souls into useless stats. Although I could see that the game was interesting and deeply satisfying, I couldn’t bring myself to start over. And so Dark Souls sat on my shelf for an entire year, gathering dust.

Although I hadn’t heard anything about Dark Souls since, it had left a long-lasting impression. I vividly recalled the adrenaline rush I felt upon defeating the Taurus Demon. I recollected the feeling of relief I felt when I kicked a ladder – creating a short-cut to a bonfire. But what I remembered most was the feeling of disappointment when I put the game down simply because it was too hard. Then one day I woke up with the sudden, sadistic urge to complete Dark Souls.

And I did. And it was one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.

“So why do you resent Souls games then?” I hear you ask.

Well, after finishing Dark Souls I developed a problem.

I was hungry for another game to quench my gaming needs so I picked up Far Cry 3 – another game which I had heard good things about. It was good. But it wasn’t Dark Souls good, so I quickly lost interest. I then picked up Bioshock Infinite. Again, it was good but it wasn’t Dark Souls good.

That was when I realised my problem with Dark Souls.

Dark Souls had become my measuring stick for determining whether a game was good or not. Nothing could live up to it. My standards had been set unrealistically high. This was equivalent to trying cocaine but then having to revert to crack. If you’d never been tempted to try cocaine then crack would probably be pretty good. But after you’ve tried the sweet nectar of cocaine, crack probably seems like a load of shite in comparison.

So beware of the Souls games. Not because they’re tricky but because if you dare to get absorbed into them then your standards will sky-rocket. They’ll sky-rocket to the extent that Bioshock Infinite, GTA V and The Last of Us seem unappealing in comparison.

Games Don’t Have to be Fun

I’ve never bought into the idea that games have to be fun in order for them to be good. With any other form of entertainment, be it watching a movie, reading a book or watching TV, there is no such requirement. They can be entertaining, informative and interesting and still be classed as good but they don’t necessarily have to be “fun”. Schindler’s List is widely regarded as an excellent film but it’s not an easy film to watch and it’s definitely not “fun”.

This occurred to me when I was playing Bloodborne. One of the first bosses, Father Gasgoine, had been killing me over an over again for about half an hour. I was becoming visibly frustrated and may or may not have shouted in exasperation a couple of times. Then my girlfriend said, “Why are you playing that game? It doesn’t look like you’re having fun.” And I was stumped with how to respond.

Bloodborne-Father-Gascoigne-Boss-Fight

She was right. I wasn’t having what you would traditionally class as “fun”. It was fun in the same way that repeatedly whacking your head into a concrete block until it breaks might be fun. Upon breaking that concrete block you’d probably feel a great deal of satisfaction. That’s a lot like Bloodborne in many ways. You’re in a seemingly impossible situation which doesn’t look all that fun and can be quite frustrating, but it is bloody satisfying when you break that metaphorical concrete block. It may not be fun in any light-hearted sense of the word; Yarnham is a depressing, dark and bleak place, but it’s entertaining in it’s own morbid kind of way.

Games don’t have to be light-hearted in order for them to be enjoyable. Games can be sadistically challenging and satisfying. They can be engrossing and immersive in their storytelling. They can conjure interesting and fantastical worlds that beg to be explored. Confining what you class as a good game to “light-hearted fun” is equivalent to believing that a movie can only be good if it’s funny.

The Hidden Gem of Last Gen

bulletstorm-hd-screenshot-3

It would be easy to cast Bulletstorm aside as ‘the game with all the swearing’, (and make no mistake, Bulletstorm is not afraid to throw a few ‘dicks’ around) but it’s similar to calling Dark Souls ‘the game that’s hard’. Arguably both of these statements are true but both overlook what makes the games great. Bulletstorm is more than just a potty-mouthed, first-person-shooter. It’s a game with great pacing, an engaging story and varied combat.

Set in the 26th century, you play as the guilt-ridden, space pirate, Grayson Hunt – once leader of a spec-ops team of mercenaries commanded by the villainous General Sorrano. After discovering that the ‘criminals’ his crew have assassinated were in fact innocent, Gray is hell-bent on exacting revenge on Sorrano. Skip forward ten years and Gray’s a drunken mess with only one goal in mind; vengeance. Gray is so determined to kill the General that he crashes his own ship into Sorrano’s. Both ships collide and hurtle towards the nearby mutant-infested, tourist planet of Stygia. After a near-death crash landing Gray sets off to hunt down the General with nothing but a gun in hand and his razor sharp wit.

The characters are fleshed out not only through the cut scenes but also through the droll conversations they have with one another as they encounter an assortment of enemies. Although the story is largely well done, the ending is somewhat underwhelming due to the developer clearly having aspirations to make a sequel.

In the graphics department the game looks stunning. The art style is bright and colourful as opposed to the typical grim and grey approach many FPS games take (I’m talking to you Metro). Exotic trees line the world, wild beasts roam the land and crumbling theme parks remind the player that this was once a beloved tourist planet. Now the planet is a playground for killing.

And, boy, is the killing fun!

Rather than repetitively aiming for each enemy’s head in order to get the quickest kill possible, you are encouraged (via the points system) to obliterate your enemies in creative and ridiculous ways. That may mean you zap a psychopathic foe with your leash and fling them into the mouth of a Venus flytrap. The more absurd the kill, the more points you’ll receive. The more points you receive, the more upgrades and ammo you can buy. It’s an arcade-like system that is surprisingly engaging and rewarding for the most part. Unfortunately the occasional QTE undermines the creativity established in the combat but fortunately these are few and far between.

Some people may find the language of Bulletstorm ‘immature’ but let’s not forget that this a game that rewards you for kicking a pumpkin-like plant onto an enemy’s head and then throwing them into a cactus.  Clearly this is a game that revels in its own stupidity. A bit of profanity is hardly shocking.

Although the occasional QTE undermines the inventiveness encouraged by the points system, Bulletstorm has creative combat, a captivating story and a breakneck pace that doesn’t let up for a moment. Most importantly Bulletstorm is fun.

Shadow of the Colossus: A Decade Later

382280
Shadow of the Colossus is not for the faint of heart or those who suffer from vertigo. It’s also a refreshing reminder of how adventure games should be done.

You play as Wander, a young man who has travelled to the Forbidden Lands in order to resurrect a recently deceased young woman. A mysterious voice emanating from the walls inside the central-hub shrine strikes a deal with Wander. In exchange for the woman’s life, this haunting voice demands the destruction of all sixteen Colossi. Wander agrees, hopping onto his trusty stead and galloping across vast vistas in search of his mountainous, ancient adversaries.

From the outset the odds are stacked against you. This becomes clear at the first sight of what you’re up against. It’s a five-hundred foot, seemingly impregnable stone creature with arms as thick as buses and it’s heading directly towards you. All you’ve got to combat this creature is a needle-sized sword and a bow and arrow. Gulp.

Of course you do the reasonable thing and charge head on at the beast, sword in hand, dodging its earth-shattering stomps. You jump onto the Colossi and make the monumental climb to the top as it thrashes in attempt to throw you off. All the while the red stamina circle in the corner flashes indicating that you’ll fall to your death if you don’t rest soon. As if all this wasn’t enough the most dramatic music ever to have graced the realms of gaming rises to a crescendo as you scramble up the creature’s body. Eventually you make it to the top and grasp a chunk of the brute’s hair and gouge at the phosphorescent markings on its forehead as it flails in pain. The pinprick of the sword eventually does the trick and the Colossi comes tumbling down.

One down, fifteen to go.

These frantic, puzzle-like battles are contrasted with the tranquil landscapes that you’ll explore as Wander. As you journey across the beautiful lands there’s an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Aside from you and your horse, this is a world bereft of life. Searching for the Colossi is a calming experience but it’s underscored by the constant knowledge that the exploration is just the calm before the storm. Soon you’ll be dancing with death. The contrasts in pacing complement one another and make for a varied experience. After all, if it were just gargantuan boss fights with no separation then it would soon become tedious, just as if it were Christmas every day.

AC1_Altair_Viewpoint_Damascus

The vulnerability of the platforming makes the set pieces of modern games look pathetic in comparison. Take Assassin’s Creed for example; you could be climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and you’d never feel in any danger. The vertical paths are scripted; just hold ‘x’ to climb. Safe falling areas are highlighted by fluttering pigeons. There are invisible walls to prevent you from falling and as a result there’s no sense of danger. Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, is devoid of invisible walls. If you take one wrong step then you will fall. The game is cinematic without relying on quick-time events. The game feels perilous and demands your attention. You’ll fight tooth and nail when you’re a thousand feet above the ground on the wings of a bird-like Colossi knowing that at any moment you may fall.

Unlike many once-great games, Shadow of the Colossus stands the test of time and proves still to be a Colossi in gaming history. From the beautiful landscapes and exceptional enemy design to the heart-pounding tension of combat, the game mesmerises.Ten years later and it still feels as overwhelming as ever.