It’s easy to miss game manuals from the 90s. Previously an essential piece of packaging, physical manuals in 2016 are either thin enough to be invisible or left out entirely.
It’s also easy to see why publishers like to keep costs down, and today’s game case has little room for the lore-stuffed door stoppers of yesteryear. Praise is lavished upon any company that still sees the manual as an indispensable work of art, a guide that not only explains the how to the reader but the deictic why. Why choose this game above others in a store? Why play that hero instead of the rest? Why feel sad for those catchphrase villains when you find them in a tomb surrounded by their cronies?
Whether the manual belongs in collector’s editions or perched next to your home toilet is definite food for thought, but what you’ll find here is an unranked flashback to some great 90s gaming manuals – old favorites to be picked up and discarded at will.
Manuals have been primarily sourced from Replacementdocs.com. If this article piques your interest, you can find full-length manuals over there.
“Not even the sun can banish the phantoms of our land. Nevertheless, we huddle in the darkness and pray for dawn.”
Diablo’s manual is Gothic and wonderfully frightening, its margins packed with lines from Shakespeare and Virgil as well as unattributed quotes made up purely for the hell of it. The words death and fall and fang creep over the sides as the guide helpfully points out the difference between a left and right click.
All joking aside, this isn’t a manual for the faint of heart. The spell entries are less about spells and more about the endless war between Heaven and Hell. And things just get steadily darker and more twisted. Read an entry on Winged Fiends and you’ll get a tale of bat-winged imps that secretly fed on their masters until they were powerful enough to claw the flesh from their faces.
My favorite monster-plus-lore combo is about Overlords, large meaty brutes that clobber enemies to death. Perhaps because the mob is so straightforward, Blizzard treats us to a horrible tale cribbed straight from Greek mythology: Inarius, an angel who thinks he’s more beautiful than anything from Heaven or Hell, lays waste to a temple and finds all those hours spent pouting at the mirror did not quite prepare him for war.
The angel is captured by Mephisto, Lord of Hatred. Chains tear off his wings, and “great barbed hooks” are used to stretch out his once-beautiful skin. “To this day,” reads the Diablo entry, “Inarius is said to be trapped in Hell within a chamber of mirrors, his eyelids torn from his face as he is forced to gaze upon his misshapen form for all eternity.”
And that’s why you don’t mess with the Lord of Hatred.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
“A long time ago… Before life began, before the world had form, three golden goddesses descended upon the chaotic land of Hyrule.”
Putting a character like Link next to the grotesque menagerie of Diablo seems cruel, but the two game manuals provide a nice contrast. Diablo’s guide is chock-full of lore, whereas Ocarina of Time’s is about gameplay. Diablo provides us with every gory detail, but Ocarina of Time lets the game speak for itself. The two manuals are very different when it comes to length, content, and style, but it’s clear both had designers poring over details.
When it debuted in November 1998, reviewers praised Ocarina of Time for its action-adventure elements. IGN said Ocarina of Time was “unmatched when it [came] to the variety and diversity of actions and puzzles.” That’s probably why the manual is devoted to advice about the controller, movement, and targeting – the real nuts and bolts that are essential to master. Ocarina of Time also introduced context-sensitive actions and Z-targeting, a system whereby players can lock on to characters and objects. It’s become ubiquitous in the series but had not been seen before Ocarina.
The little bits of story we do get are sandwiched between gameplay descriptions. So you get an intro to Link and Hyrule on pages 5-6, a peek at other characters from 7-8, but the manual saves its ink for the practical stuff.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)
“I, Cabirus, call upon those of Virtue to join me in a Valorous Quest, one which promises to be rich in Sacrifice and Spirituality.”
Looking Glass Studios has made some fantastic games. Outside of System Shock and Thief, they’re known for the first-person RPG, Ultima Underworld, developed by one of their earlier incarnations, Blue Sky Productions. (For those interested in Looking Glass, I highly recommend Indigo Gaming’s three-part video retrospective.)
Ultima Underworld has the player traipsing through caves in search of a baron’s kidnapped daughter. The plot is questionable, and the voice acting makes Troll 2 seem Oscar-worthy. Still, there’s a lot to love about the first “virtual reality” dungeon game. Instead of being spoon-fed hints while a quest arrow points you in the right direction, Underworld forces you to pay attention and write notes on your map if you ever hope to get anywhere.
For its manual, the developer separated out the fluff (setting) from the crunch (mechanics). So while the technical details are housed in a 32-page player guide, there is the Memoirs of Sir Cabirus for ye olde questing adventurer. Thou hast truly stumbled into another world when thou find a first-person, in-world account of swords, sorcery, and the foul creature known only as the Rotworm. Wouldst thou liketh to keep reading about gelatinous beasts? Then look no further, for here be the entry on Slugs!
“Of the two varieties of Slug found locally, the Flesh Slug — notable for its pale fleshy color — is the most common and least dangerous. We are not certain if these creatures intend to bite their victims, or if their offensive actions are accidents of their constant writhing. Certainly, no warrior of any experience need fear these pitiful beasts.
However, beware the greenish Acid Slug. Though only a little larger than the Flesh Slug, the Acid Slug secretes a noxious vapor which sometimes intoxicates its foes. Despite its fearsome name, this Slug is not poisonous — merely inedible.”
So in short: Flesh is placid, don’t eat the Acid. Thou may thanketh me later for this invaluable counsel.
“Happy Friggin’ New Year. Two days in and I almost blasted my first punk in ‘36 already. That kid musta been smacked out pretty good to kill a cop just to get to his cruiser.”
SiN’s manual spends its first 19 pages on a pitch-perfect diary. Like a teenage boy’s scrapbook, it’s full of sex, swear words, and brains being blown out. Except maybe your average boy doesn’t take Polaroids of his dead colleagues lying face down in pools of their own blood.
The diary paints a grim picture of SiN’s world. The year is 2037. The setting is Freeport, a city with a major junkie problem. Crime is sky high because a cheap drug called U4 is literally turning men into monsters. Private security forces have taken the place of traditional policing, and the commander of one such force, Colonel John Blade, is making it his personal mission to clean up the streets. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but Ritual Entertainment put enough personality into the package to keep things fresh.
SiN is awash with guns, gore, and top-heavy girls. Villainess Elexis Sinclaire – biochemist by day, dominatrix by night – struts around like a catwalk caricature. But if the game works, it’s precisely because it’s exploitative. And if the manual works, it does so because it carries the reader over to that experience.
Just look at how it describes Mancini, an enemy we encounter in the opening bank robbery level.
“Found out Antonio Mancini got off somehow and is back on the streets already. I swear there is so much red tape in this friggin’ city, I can’t believe it. He musta had that scumbag lawyer Johnny Cockroach defend him. How the hell did he afford that crooked bastard? Someone high up on the food chain must be pulling some strings because Mancini has more goddamn lives than an alley cat.”
It sets us up for our first Big Bad. It hints at Freeport’s corruption. And it does so through the voice of Blade, the central protagonist we’ll be playing as.
As a stepping stone to SiN, the manual is wonderful.
“Whatever killed your buddies deserves a couple of pellets in the forehead. Securing your helmet, you exit the landing pod. Hopefully you can find more substantial firepower somewhere within the station.”
Nothing about Doom’s manual is remarkable. Excluding the front and back cover, it’s a brisk 14 pages. There’s something about this efficiency, though, that speaks volumes about the game itself.
Creative director of Doom, Tom Hall, left id Software in August 1993, a mere four months before its release. He wanted Doom to have a real story, and created a 79-page design document, the Doom Bible, fleshing out the cast, maps, and narrative. There were going to be four characters: Lorelei Chen, John “Petro” Pietrovich, Dimitri Paramo, and Thi Barrett. The game, spread out over episodes, would have started with an off-shift game of cards on a military research base in “the Butt End of Space.” Scientific anomalies would result in aliens overrunning the facility.
Lead programmer John Carmack didn’t want any of it.
He’s quoted in David Kushner’s Masters of Doom as saying: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” It was this way of thinking that led to Doom’s explicit focus on combat. The main character didn’t have a name. He didn’t have backstory. The most emotion he showed was the so-called “ouch face” when the player took heavy damage. The code was written incorrectly, which led to the ouch face’s infrequency in the game. Even the gaming gods didn’t want Doom’s hero to emote.
Doom blazed a trail for titles like it. Until the late 90s, the term “Doom clone” was more popular than “first-person shooter” to describe games with the kind of bloody, fast-paced firefights that made Doom so addictive.
It’s silly to attribute the decline of the game manual with the rise of the FPS. And there are games in this list with lauded plots that have manuals focused on gameplay. But to some extent, the nature of a game does dictate the nature of its manual. Have a game light on character and story, and its manual need not fill in the blanks. Instead the manual explains technical details to the player, and when a developer moves this help in-game through tutorials and training missions, the manual becomes a four-page beverage coaster or a digital-only warranty pamphlet.
Again, expect no great debate on the death of game manuals here, but it’s interesting to wonder if they were more essential in an age when RPG and RTS genres dominated the shelves.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
“You’re Solid Snake and you’ve got to single-handedly infiltrate the nuclear weapons disposal facility which is being occupied by a group of terrorists. If the enemy spots Snake, they will call in reinforcements and go after him… try to avoid unnecessary battles whenever you can.”
Few PS1 game manuals came with a prologue. Less still were 62 pages long with eight alone devoted to the cast. It’s testament to Metal Gear Solid’s rich mythology that the manual reels you in rather than pushes you away.
The color scheme, full of cold blues and greens, seems reminiscent of a 90s spy thriller. Sections are clearly signposted, and until the character files near the end, Yoji Shinkawa’s illustrations sink into the background, letting the loud, white text boxes do all the talking. It’s hard not to love the attention to detail: lightly glowing character outlines, tiny FOXHOUND logos, the sparing use of lens flare. It’s like the original Mission Impossible poster had an artwork baby with Ghost in the Shell.
I love the images of Snake in silhouette the most. Snake hidden behind a wall. Snake peeking into a corridor. Snake strangling a man to death. The man’s legs flap about as an arrow hints that you can drag someone while strangling them. “If you repeatedly press the Weapon Button,” says a nearby text box, “you can snap your enemy’s neck.”
Flipping through the pages, you can see the machinations and careful marketing, but since everything’s cool without being desperate it’s difficult to care.
“It has become clear during the past 120 years of driven industrial and technological expansion that Kharak can no longer sustain us. While always harsh and unforgiving, our technological development has stripped the planet of what few vital resources it contained.”
Oh, Homeworld manual. How lovably technical you are. Still to this day, if I need to look up the maximum velocity of a Missile Destroyer, I know you’ll have the answer. Who could resist playing after seeing all those ships?
Of course, the guide does have other things aside from vehicles. In the 90s, it was somewhat expected that a real-time strategy game should give players some background knowledge (hello Age of Empires), and Homeworld’s manual doesn’t disappoint. The reader learns about the quest to abandon Kharak, the desert planet where the game starts. But the quest isn’t merely about trading up – the people at the story’s heart have realized they are aliens to their planet, and through the discovery of a huge spaceship and galactic map they have a shot at getting back to their home world, hence the title.
The opening chapter is devoted to the history and the Mothership: “part carrier, part survey ship, part factory complex, and, most importantly, the temporary home for millions of our people frozen in cryogenic sleep.” This is the vessel that’s going to establish a colony in another world. It’s noted that it takes 20 years just to build the infrastructure needed for construction.
Also included in the manual is a section on clan histories since Homeworld is less about individual characters and more about factions. The developers here have a tendency to throw pronouns at you to see which ones stick, but if you can get through the deluge of peoples and places the clan histories make for enjoyable reading.
One last thing: a lot of stuff from the manual never made it into the game. It’s obvious why – Homeworld is not an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – but it’s nice that Relic Entertainment let their collective imagination run away with them.
“This document, VTB-001, the Vault Dwellers Survival Guide, is for the events following a world-wide nuclear war. In the case of a limited scale nuclear war, or other world ending catastrophe, please refer to the appropriate documentation.”
It’s difficult to write anything after reading Fallout’s manual. To tell you the truth, I’m scared to try. But then you can’t have an article called 10 Classic Game Manuals of the 90s with only nine manuals, now can you?
The Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide treats you like the keynote speaker at a stupid convention. It not only thinks you’ve never played a video game before, it assumes you’ve been dropped on your head at regular intervals since birth. If it’s ballsy to talk down to your audience, Fallout has giant nuts of steel. Let’s go all meta and have a list within a list because some of these lines are gold.
2) THE NO SHIT, SHERLOCK: “Characters are people in the game world.”
3) THE HOW DUMB DO YOU THINK I AM?: “Your actions as the player will control the actions and consequences of the little character on the screen.”
4) THE STOP PATRONIZING ME: “Click on the NAME button and type your character’s name. Press ENTER when you are done or click on the DONE button. If you want to change your name, this is the time to do it. If you don’t, people will call you: “None,” the character with no name.”
5) THE I’M DONE: “Containers are a special kind of item that can store items within themselves. A backpack, or a bag, would be a container.”
Fallout’s manual is 121 pages. It doesn’t need to be 121 pages. It’s 121 pages in length because it spends 121 pages belittling you. Did I mention reading these 121 pages has made me nervous about turning on the tap without instructions?
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994)
“I am Sir Lothar, Armsman to the Brotherhood of the Horse, and a warrior in the King’s service. I feel it necessary to inform you of the events that have led us to this time of conflict. The tale of our battle with the Orcs begins some forty years in the past.”
Blizzard, Blizzard, Blizzard. You set the bar for game manuals in the 90s, didn’t you? I’d include Starcraft if I could, but having three Blizz games on this list would be a bit excessive. I’m already gutted I can’t mention the manuals for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Diablo II (the battle chest! the memories!) or World of Warcraft. But thems the rules.
Warcraft’s manual has a divided heart: half in love with orcs, half with humans. It splits itself in two, devoting equal space to both races. Each sub-manual also shares content with its brother, particularly when it comes to the bestiaries.
What’s surprising is Blizzard changes the monster descriptions depending on whether you’re reading from the orc perspective or the human perspective. You’ll find monsters like ogres and scorpions in both halves of the manual, but Blizzard changed how they’re described based on the POV of the race.
It’s a nice touch by Blizzard that they weren’t lazy enough to go for neutral descriptions which they could’ve repeated verbatim.
Falcon 4.0 (1998)
“The skills and knowledge required to use the F-16’s systems are not easy to learn, and will take time and effort to master. For this reason, I suggest you eat this elephant one bite at a time.”
Finally, we come to the grandaddy of 90s manuals, the jewel in the crown, the pièce de résistance, Mr. Five Hundred and Seventy-Nine Pages. Can a flashback to 90s game manuals be complete without mention of Falcon 4.0? I think not.
This monstrous tome can be used to beat rival pilots to death. Maverick from Top Gun could’ve skipped the volleyball match with Iceman if he’d had this baby. Content-wise, it breaks down basic flying, training missions, dogfights, tactical engagement, and campaigns. Instructions are written by experienced instructor pilots, and there are explanations for why you have to fly the way the guide advises based on factors such as airspeed and altitude.
Because this is more of a technical document, any showboating has been eliminated. Falcon 4.0’s flight manual is easy to read and tries not to bog you down in complex terminology, although at points this is unavoidable. The presentation is crisp, too. The manual doesn’t pretend Falcon 4.0 is a laidback affair, but developer MicroProse gets top marks for not putting on airs.
And so we reach the end of this list of classic game manuals. What are your favorite guides from the 90s? I’d love to know.
From ‘dnd’ to ‘Death Stranding’: Good Old Fashioned Boss Fights
If Death Stranding proves anything, and it does, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.
There’s nothing quite like a good boss fight. With the creation of dnd in 1975– a Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG for the PLATO system– video games would be introduced to bosses. It’s hard to imagine the medium without bosses, those perpetual protectors of progress. For dnd, an incredibly primitive RPG, a boss allowed the game to feature these miniature climaxes — memorable events independent of the core gameplay loop. Bosses demand players pay attention or die, and beating one is a triumph in and of itself. Looking back, dnd’s concept of what a boss is amounts to little more than the average random battle, but video games could now build towards emotional highs like any other medium.
A good boss can make or break a game, but they’re almost always a given. dnd essentially set an inherent basic of game design: video games have bosses. As the seventh generation of gaming ushered in more narrative driven and “cinematic” titles, however, boss design fundamentally changed. Where bosses had evolved from dnd to often serve as explicit rewards or a means to thoughtfully challenge a player’s grasp of the core mechanics, developers started to primarily embrace the “spectacle” of fighting a boss.
Spectacle and boss fights naturally go hand in hand, though. After all, a boss is spectacle in nature. dnd’s spectacle is comparatively primitive, but it’s there and bosses do feel like events. Boss fights have always demanded our attention as an audience, isolating the world of a game into a singular objective. Some of the best bosses in gaming are almost pure spectacle: Baby Bowser in Yoshi’s Island, Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid. None of these bosses are particularly hard, but they make up for their lack of challenge with scale, scope, and gravitas. Spectacle.
At the same time, they engage with the mechanics of the game even if they don’t outright challenge them. Of course, it would be disingenuous to go on without mentioning that all of these bosses appear near the end of their respective games. They’re easier and focus on spectacle as a means of rewarding the audience for coming so far. Anyone who’s played A Link to the Past in full will likely remember Moldorm as vividly as Ganon, but it’s the latter who fans will remember. Ganon is a spectacular duel to the death inside of a pyramid where the environment changes over the course of the fight. The former is just a good old fashioned boss fight. Who wants that?
As it turns out, a good chunk of AAA developers. BioWare director Casey Hudson infamously spoke out about boss fights after the release of Mass Effect 3, criticizing them for being “too video gamey.” While, contextually, Hudson’s comment refers to narratively convenient bosses specifically, it’s a sentiment that clearly rang true with developers throughout the late oughts & teens. This isn’t to say games with amazing bosses didn’t release over the course of the decade -– very far from it -– but boss design has changed, to the point where the Iggy Koopas and Revolver Ocelots of the world seem almost out of place.
That’s just a consequence of consuming only AAA content, though. The indie scene has been thriving, and Japanese game development is the best it’s been in quite a while. In a generation where gaming is more mature and grounded than it’s ever been, the medium needed to end the decade with a reminder of video games in their purest form. Death Stranding is anything but, but its core philosophies play to the strengths of the medium with an evident passion. Death Stranding demands that audiences slow down and play by the game’s rules.
In a generation where holding a player’s hand is the norm, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. It’s not only appropriately old-school, it’s a step back in the right direction. Like any facet of game design, bosses need to be thoughtfully considered. Being “too video gamey” can indeed be a bad thing depending on a titles tone, but swinging in the wrong direction and playing it too safe is never a good idea. Especially since Death Stranding proves mature, grounded AAA titles can absolutely still have the same over the top, pattern-based boss fights of yore — and comfortably, at that.
“No BTs. No Voidouts. No bullshit. Just a good-old fashioned boss fight.”
– Higgs, Death Stranding (2019)
What’s interesting to note about Death Stranding’s boss fights is that they all play up the spectacle. Now, given the context that’s been established, that might seem like a step in the wrong direction, but any medium has to evolve with time. AAA developers haven’t historically used spectacle well, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Not every boss should be Ganon, but they should always be memorable. The problem with modern spectacle is that it doesn’t go beyond the surface level. It often carries little to no weight or context. Players are expected to care for the spectacle of the spectacle, but that’s simply not where the medium shines. Games are inherently about interconnectivity, and nothing demands more interconnection than a boss fight.
From the moment players formally meet Higgs and he floods Port Knot City, it’s clear that Death Stranding’s boss fights are more Snake Eater than they are Peace Walker. They’re all incredibly meaty with tons of health, typical of a modern Hideo Kojima boss, but they’re not bullet sponges, and Sam’s limited inventory means that players will constantly be cycling through different weapons over the course of a fight. Couple this with bosses having identifiable patterns and Death Stranding’s boss loops end up being real highlights.
As expected of a first boss, the Squid BT is on the simple side. At this point in the game, Sam really only has hematic grenades to fight back with. Anyone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to use the grenades are now forced to do so as it becomes the only means of making progress. Since Higgs also ambushes Sam, players won’t be prepared for a fight on their first playthrough, forced to scavenge the flooded environment for gear. Most bosses strip Sam of his gear, but this approach only results in tense, well crafted battles that offer plenty of variety. Should Sam already have grenades on him, players can rush in to fight the Squid. Should they not, however, they’re going to have to search while staying alive.
Starting with the next boss, the first fight against Cliff, Death Stranding begins allowing players to choose exactly how they approach a fight. Much like in Metal Gear, there’s no right or wrong way to tackle a boss. Where bosses in MGS2 onwards could be tackled lethally or non-lethally, Death Stranding’s bosses are more about action versus stealth. Both approaches are totally viable, and they lead into their own isolated boss loops. As Cliff Unger hunts Sam through World War I era trenches, players can stealth their way around him or just dive in guns blazing.
It’s an incredibly tense battle, but it doesn’t let the spectacle of the situation outdo the actual fight. Cliff isn’t a set piece even if he looks it. He’s a genuine boss and players have to play well to beat him. Stealthing around to hit him from behind is safer, but it means players will be fighting Cliff for much longer, requiring more mental stamina. On the flip side, cutting to the chase and unloading the moment he rears his head will end the fight sooner, but only for players who know how to get in & out of combat fast. Otherwise, Cliff’s personal army will slaughter Sam.
Cliff is fought twice more over the course of Death Stranding, and each encounter builds off the last. The World War I trenches provided plenty of cover for players regardless of which approach they chose, so naturally the second fight takes place in a World War II city. There’s still plenty of hiding spots, but Sam is now out in the open. Just as easily as Sam can see Cliff, so can he be seen. Getting to Cliff is harder in general. Stealthing towards him means taking advantage of any and all blind spots, no matter how brief. Starting a gunfight either requires some pre-established course of action or quick reflexes.
By the third and final fight, Sam is taking on Cliff in an open Vietnamese jungle. Stealthing through and fighting back are both harder, but players will have built up the proper skills over their past two fights to adequately stand a chance. The fights against Cliff are the most video gamey Death Stranding ever gets, with each one sharing the same definable patterns, but they’re ultimately a net positive for the game. Having to learn a pattern, finding a way to fight back, and reveling in the scope of a great boss fight makes Death Stranding better on a whole.
Honestly, the final fight against Cliff isn’t going to be a challenge for most players, but it’ll still stand out as a highlight. Each boss fight is a playground in and of itself. If Sam’s not being transported to a secluded battlefield, areas will be flooded with tar so that they can be molded into proper boss arenas. Even Dark Souls, a modern series that rightfully prides itself on its bosses, often won’t give the same level of care toward boss arenas. Good bosses need good level design just as much as they need good patterns.
Perhaps more important than anything else, Death Stranding’s boss fights are long. Even if players know what they’re doing, they still have to endure an endurance match of sorts. Boss fights aren’t just about overcoming a challenge, they’re about surviving and making progress. Cliff’s not particularly difficult, but one mistake can result in Sam getting torn into. The majority of BT boss fights will try to overwhelm the player in the second half, the final one even featuring a nasty one-hit-kill that can easily sneak up on players wading through tar. Bosses should feel like events, from how players can engage mechanically, to how they’re presented narratively.
No discussion of Death Stranding’s good old fashioned boss fights would be complete without mentioning the boss fight: Higgs. After serving as the game’s main villain for dozens upon dozens of hours, Sam finally gets his chance to fight back in a three phase boss fight that could have (very) prematurely ended the game on a high. Unlike the fights against Cliff, Sam really does have nothinghere, no matter what. He’s stripped of his gear, his weapons, and even BB. “Stick versus rope. Gun versus strand.” It’s a great way not only to wrap up Higgs’ arc, but it also challenges a player’s mastery of the most basic mechanics.
Phase 1 of the fight requires players understand not only Sam’s hand to hand combat capabilities, but his ability to throw packages. Throw a package at Higgs, beat him up, rinse, repeat. All the while he’s hunting Sam in one of the most constricted boss arenas in the game. Popping up too early means taking a few shots courtesy of Higgs. Popping up too late means needing to find him all over again.
Phase 2 puts Sam on the offensive, and expects players to fight back with his strand. Higgs needs to be countered, hog-tied, and then kicked into oblivion. On-screen button prompts make the ordeal easier than it would otherwise be, but it’s thrilling to fight a boss who requires players to pull off reflex-based inputs that go beyond the typical QTE flare. Players need to set themselves up accordingly to counter Higgs, actively taking him head on.
By the time fighting game health bars pop up for the third phase, it’s fairly obvious Higgs’ boss fight is a love letter to the very concept of the boss fight. It’s over the top, almost nonsensical, but it has the right narrative and emotional context to stand out as one of the best moments in an already spectacular game. The fight against Higgs is a miniature climax in a massive story that spans half a hundred hours, and is about to keep on keeping on for half a dozen more.
When it really comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong way to conceive a boss fight. Those spectacle bosses have their place, and this generation has seen a lot of amazing ones. What’s important is that developers build and contextualize spectacle accordingly. Boss fights aren’t just an inherent part of gaming, they’re a tool that can make a title better. Opportunities to shine light on the core mechanics, or an interesting aspect of game design. Death Stranding’s penultimate mission essentially pits Sam against a boss gauntlet across the entire UCA, a last chance for players to really indulge in everything at their disposal before the grand finale.
Death Stranding would still be good without its boss fights, but it certainly wouldn’t be great. Each one elevates the game, not only by presenting a visually memorable and mechanically engaging challenge, but by existing as natural consequences of the story. Each boss is contextualized properly with enough weight where each victory has a considerable amount of impact. Boss fights have come a long way since dnd, but they’re recognizable for what they are: a reminder that games are games, and the medium should be embracing those video gamey elements. It’s through this “video gameyness” that the most memorable titles are made. If Death Stranding proves anything, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?
From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.
“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”
The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.
Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.
However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.
At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.
“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”
The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.
On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.
Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.
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