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‘Bloodborne’: A new moon rises with From Software’s latest

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From Verdite to Boletaria and from Lordran to Drangleic, death and curses have been prevailing themes of the universes created by Japanese developer From Software. From returns to Sony exclusivity with Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to the Souls series; the same series that made it fun to die over and over again.

Bloodborne, follows in its predecessor’s footsteps with its town of Yharnam suffering from a disease that plagues its citizens and has torn everything to shreds with paranoia, hunts, and death. Fire, corpses, beasts, and coffins litter every inch of road and brick. As a foreign hunter struck with this devilish illness, the path to a cure leads right into Yharnam’s plague-ridden roads.

The story is just as ambiguously brilliant as the Souls games with every detail in the environment, in each item description and in the placement of enemies, cleverly placed to tell their grueling tale. From has never forced a story down the audience’s throat like most AAA games. They have found the perfect medium to do so that doesn’t sacrifice gameplay for exposition and they continue to use it with Bloodborne.

While traveling through Yharnam, slaughtering beasts and unraveling all of its secrets, the hunter will travel to The Hunter’s Dream by resting near a lit lantern, Bloodborne‘s version of a bonfire. In this surreal island in the clouds, the hunter can use the blood echoes he gathered from slaughtered beasts to level up, buy items and upgrade weapons. Unlike hub worlds like The Nexus, you’ll be rather lonely here as most NPCs will remain in the waking world.

Despite the rampant wave of death that has totaled the city, there are a few remaining townsfolk who are attempting to wait out the night. Completing their sidequests will access more items, weapons, and optional bosses. While definitely an intriguing aspect to the lore of the game, the amount of townsfolk is limited compared to past games and the sidequests they offer lack in depth of any kind. It’s all meeting a person in a certain area or telling them to go to a certain place. You won’t find anything as in-depth or heart-wrenching as Siegmeyer of Catarina’s tragic tale from Dark Souls.

Bloodborne-Boss

The inhabitants of Yharnam live in their brooding Victorian labyrinth doomed by a curse they’ll never fully understand. Yharnam is appropriately chaotic and unnerving in its architecture. Standing amidst a sea of stone, a feeling of helplessness is difficult to fight away. Looking out over the horizon of Yharnam is like looking into an M.C. Escher painting, everything is beautifully and nonsensically built together.

The hunter will travel to a variety of areas throughout the night, with each new place a maze of twists and turns that seem to expand until forever. The beauty of Bloodborne is in the level design. While Dark Souls 2, felt like a linear, start-at-point-A-end-at-point-B, adventure, Bloodborne will have you explore whichever way the player desires. Each path feels like a step of progression and will lead to something, for better or worse.

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Of course, beasts of all shapes and sizes lurk in every dark alleyway of Yharnam, waiting to spill a hunter’s blood at any moment. But beware, do not go into battle expecting slow moving and attacking enemies like those in Dark Souls. Bloodborne boasts the fastest combat in the series, even faster than Demon’s Souls. It’s an offense-focused game where those who attack quickly and decisively are rewarded over more patient and lingering fighters.

A new gameplay mechanic called rallying has been implemented that further solidifies the highly offensive combat. When an enemy takes damage from the hunter, the missing damage turns yellow and will linger for a few seconds. In this time, the hunter has a choice to make. He can either back off, heal with a blood vial, and think of another plan of attack or attack the beast back and retain the lost health. Rallying balances the attack-heavy combat and lack of shields by giving the player a bit of an incentive to strike madly against the enemies like the beasts to which they are slowly becoming.

There are two types of weapons to master in Bloodborne, trick weapons and firearms. Trick weapons are right handed weapons that have many forms of attack. They all have their hard and regular attacks, same as the other Souls games, but now by pressing the R1 button, they can transform into a variant. The variant of each trick weapon can change it’s range, its strength as well as the kind of damage it inflicts. Knowing a trick weapon inside and out and how to control them is the key to victory especially seeing as each is actually two weapons in one.

The firearms are left-handed weapons that shoot long-ranged projectiles. Most of them don’t pack much of a punch, but they do create vital openings in the enemies’ attack patterns for a devastating visceral attack.  They replace the shields of the Souls games that allowed for a more defensive means of combat. InBloodborne, there’s nothing to hide behind, so the only means of defense is offensively shooting the enemy to prevent their attack or by quickly side-stepping to find an opening.

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All weapons can be embedded with blood gems which give them different attributes like higher overall damage, lightning damage, or arcane damage. While all weapons can be leveled up to +10, blood gems are the only way to allow for different properties. Don’t expect to max out the level of most of your weapons, however, because there is only one item per playthrough that will get any weapon, firearm or trick, to +10.

Arcane takes the place of faith and intelligence this time around. The arcane spells are treated as ordinary items that have unlimited use only if the arcane skill is leveled high enough. Unfortunately, the number of these Hunter’s Tools is embarrassingly limited with only nine found throughout the game. While useful and adding more variety to combat, the limited number discourages arcane builds.

The firearms and trick weapons call for different strategies on the part of the player but it feels like a step backward from Dark Souls. While Bloodborne‘s combat is much quicker, it’s also much more shallow. There’re not nearly as many weapons in this iteration. It is actually possible to attain every weapon rather quickly in one playthrough. Bosses won’t actually give a means to make new weapons but rather defeating certain enemies will unlock badges that will open up more options from the merchant messengers in The Hunter’s Dream, which could also be newer weapons. Souls fans might be disappointed, especially with the fact that attaining every weapon in the past was a major process that took multiple playthroughs and more dedication.

In fact, most of the items, sidequests, and weapons can be achieved in one playthrough. Even covenants are limited in Bloodborne. There is only a total of three and once they’ve been joined there’s not much to do with them. There isn’t much for dedicated covenant areas, either. You won’t see anything to the extent of The Doors of Pharros in Dark Souls 2.

Bloodborne-Reaper

Player versus player, cooperation, and combat return with items called beckoning bells. If you’re having trouble fighting a certain boss or passing through a particularly tough area, beckon a fellow hunter and rid the beasts side by side. If you want to experience some of the most chaotic and skill-testing battling of the series, play online and try invading to see how you stack up against the hunters around the world.

Being a Souls game, dying will no doubt be common. However, because of one glaring technical flaw, death becomes a much bigger annoyance this time around. The load times in Bloodborne wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if dying wasn’t a huge focus on the game. During boss battles, one can expect to die quite a few times. You’ll die and want to get back to the battle as fast as possible to retrieve lost blood echoes. Treading through an entire area while running past enemies is one thing but add the 30 to 50 second load times to the mix and frustration is guaranteed to arise.

The blood vials, which heal the hunter, and the quicksilver bullets used for the firearms will need to be constantly in stock as they will not be replenished upon resting at a lantern like in Dark Souls. This actually feels like a throwback to farming grass in Demon’s Souls. It’s nice to have a little more to lose upon death than just blood echoes seeing as how insight and max health don’t deplete.

While playing through the main game, hunters will come across special chalices that can be used on tombstones in The Hunter’s Dream. By using these chalices along with special sacrificial items, a dungeon will be procedurally created for the player to explore.

If you think the 30-hour main game is short, the chalice dungeons can easily double that time. There are about 30 different chalices that will procedurally generate a dungeon to explore so that every time you place a chalice, the experience is different. If you explore a certain dungeon that is particularly unique, you can even upload it to the Bloodborne servers for others to share or even help you out. There are vastly different enemies and bosses only found here as well so these extra dungeons are vital to gaining the entire Bloodborne experience.

Bloodborne is a bold new direction for the series but fans of the past Souls games will find the experience overall to be underwhelming. With all of the aspects that Bloodborne lacks, it remains a perfectly competent game and one that could hold its own among its peers. The score, enemy design and voice acting are all superb and memorable. This genuinely unnerving world is one that shouldn’t be missed. Don’t be afraid to venture into this hunt, you’ll be sure to walk away bloody and satisfied.

Ryan Espinoza

Gamer, Writer, and a lover of pro-wrestling. Being born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona he took up gaming and writing at a young age to shield himself from the blazing heat. Ever since he first got his hands on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 at the age of 3, gaming has been apart of his life and wishes to revolve his life around the industry and the art of writing. When he's not gaming, he's attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU or watching some pro wrestling!

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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