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Competitive ‘Overwatch’ Needs to Rank Up

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The doors to Dorado opened and I flew out like an angry hornet ready to pester whatever defense attempted to halt the payloads progress, avoiding the sight-lines of the upper platforms where I could be picked off by enemies with range.  The only adversary on point was a D.Va that our Zen just hit with a discord orb.  Her defense matrix pointed at the payload, she wasn’t ready for the Tracer fire into her backside, receiving no support from her allies, McCree and Junkrat, who were forced from the high ground by our Genji.  D.Va turned to run, but I promptly de-meched her and finished her with some close-up headshots as my team pressed on.

An ally Moira close behind me made for the rat and cowboy who were forced from their perch by our damage-deflecting cyborg.  She threw her damage orb at the two, probably not enough to finish them off, but enough to push them back.  It might not have been enough if I hadn’t raced ahead of the orb and sprayed some damage into the two enemies before rewinding to safety as the orb easily did the rest of the work.  The remaining enemy supports and tank weren’t enough to stop the tidal wave that was my team from leveling them, demolished by a perfectly synced dive unnatural from a group of solo queuers and admittedly unplanned.  As the team kill bell rang and the payload hit its first checkpoint, the match was promptly canceled.  One of the enemy players had quit within the first minute (the thwarted D.Va) and my team, after one of the best presses I’d ever seen in my life, was rewarded with nothing but disappointment and a waste of time and effort.  C’est la vie of a competitive Overwatch player.  But it shouldn’t be.

Season Ten of Overwatch ranked play just ended and, from what I can glean, was one of the least popular seasons in the two year history of the game.  Perhaps in response or conveniently ready for the next year of Overwatch, Blizzard have implemented some new systems to combat the frustrating game state including an endorsement system, to acknowledge quality players and teamwork, and an in-game LFG (looking for group).  While these outside tools might help, for me, the problem rests within the confines of the Competitive Play mode itself and, unless Competitive Overwatch ranks up and improves with some system adjustments, I don’t have much hope that Season Eleven will be that much better.

Placement Matches

Let’s start where every Competitive season starts: placement matches.  Each season is presented as a fresh start, a new opportunity to climb to new heights in ranked Overwatch play.  The beginning of that new journey involves players undergoing ten placement matches which determine their SR (Skill Rating) and their starting point for the season.  However, as it operates now, these placement matches are, at their best, pointless and, at their worst, infuriatingly restricting.  While presented as a fresh start, placement matches are actually essentially a continuation of the last competitive season based on an invisible ranking rather than the visible SR player ranking which is itself being “reset.”  This, by itself, makes a lot of sense.  As principle designer Scott Mercer explained on a forum post way back after Season Two:

First and foremost, we always want to provide the fairest matches that we can. Fair matches of skill between the teams provide the greatest chance for you to have fun in Overwatch. At the same time, we’d also like every new competitive season to feel like a fresh start. These two goals end up being somewhat contradictory.

To ensure placement matches are fair, Blizzard pairs players based on their invisible MMR, or Matchmaking Rating, essentially tethering them to their respective skill tier so that, for example, a player whose skill equates to Diamond tier level play isn’t matched against a Bronze tier player.  It’s a beneficial bookmark keeping players in a healthy starting space, which is not a bad idea at all.  The frustrating part is how little impact the ensuing placement matches actually have on a player’s SR outcome.  If I am going to end one season in the low Platinum range (around 2600 SR), be tethered to that range by my MMR, end up winning eight out of ten placement matches, only to be placed at low Platinum or even high Gold, what’s the point?  If a win typically nets a player around twenty SR, doesn’t it stand to reason that my SR should be closer to mid Platinum range (2720)?  If not, then why bother with placement matches, which, for me, unfavorably place me lower than where all of my seasons end because of an invisible number I can’t really impact and because of my blatant refusal to game the SR system.  Which, oh yeah, brings us to point two.

Skill Ratings

Despite the controversial system being removed from Diamond tier ranks and above, at lower ranks (Bronze through Platinum) SR is still partially determined by a “Personal Performance Skill Rating.”  In theory, this adjustment to the system should have a positive effect for players who outperform their peers, allowing them to rise through the ranks much quicker.  However, what this Personal Performance system actually tracks punishes players for focusing on team play, flex picking, playing tank and healer roles properly, and objective play and instead inadvertently promotes self-focused play that ultimately resulted in a rampant One-Tricking epidemic.  As many have recorded, the system overemphasizes eliminations and player K/D (kill to death ratio) while underemphasizing other general stats like accuracy, damage blocked, healing done, etc.  Consequently, many players keep out of harms reach, ie. off the point, to protect their K/D, instead opting to focus on getting eliminations from a safe distance with picks like Soldier and McCree or carefully picking off the enemy back line with heroes like Tracer.

Rather than comparing player stats across the team and situationally, PPSR measures a player’s performance up against other player performances on the same hero.  Again, this seems balanced, but ultimately discourages hero swapping when necessary since a player’s performance on one hero for only half a match probably won’t measure up to the stats of someone who remained on one hero for an entire match.  It also means that players who are playing a hero properly are probably reaping fewer benefits than players who are playing the same hero just for kills.  I play a lot of D.Va, and playing her properly means aggressing occasionally, such as removing a threat from the high ground, but always falling back to protect the backline and the objective.  Compared to an angry bee D.Va who is instead using the character’s mobility and large pool of health to net an immense amount of eliminations, I might have a healthier range of stats like objective time, damage denied, etc., but since eliminations and K/D are so heavily favored (despite Overwatch being a team-oriented, objective-based game), it won’t matter at all.

PPSR also has a negative impact on selection as a result of character popularity.  One-tricks (players who only play one hero exclusively regardless of map, mode, or position all in the name of gaming the system) frequently pick niche heroes simply because it’s easier to exceed other player’s stats when fewer players pick the hero.  This results in some abysmal team compositions and situations, like being stuck with a short ranged Symmetra versus a long range team.  Likewise, players who, quite innocently, have some unique preferences are at an advantage over players whose hero choices are more common simply because the stats to beat for less frequently picked heroes are less competitive.  My best friend, Ryan, and I rarely play Competitive without one another.  We play differently, but both excel in our preferred positions, frequently holding down all gold medals for a match between the two of us.  But because Ryan prefers some niche characters, like Zarya, and hit scans, which promote a better K/D, his SR rank has been better than mine since the beginning as he’s been unknowingly working the SR and PPSR system.

The easiest solution would be to remove the system from all tiers of play so that all that matters is whether a team wins or loses.  Alternatively, Blizzard could simply compare all visible stats across the team for a given match, taking all medals and end of game stats into equal account.  I recognize this is reductive and much easier said than done, especially when considering the differences in heroes.  But aren’t there obvious roles and positions across a team regardless of hero choice?  Tracer and McCree operate differently, but they’re both there to eliminate enemy threats.  Supports might support differently, but couldn’t Blizzard discern whether you had supported well?  At the very least, Blizzard could better recognize a wider range of roles.  You earned a gold medal in healing and objective time?   You’re rightfully rewarded.  Or you played a shield tank and blocked damage?  You fulfilled your role and that’s should be recognized.  You played Hog and you healed, hooked, and killed?  You did a wonderful wealth of things, great work!  Doing things this way, medals wouldn’t be meaningless, players could excel regardless of character selection and swapping, players would be incentivized to fulfill their role, and players who carry their team would be aptly rewarded.  But an endorsement is nice too…I guess….  It’s not like I’m playing Competitive to rank up.

Cancelled Matches

My final two points are quality of life issues involving players quitting that frequently make Competitive matches frustrating and futile.  First, the issue I opened with.  If a player leaves a Competitive match within a minute, the game is cancelled, regardless of circumstance.  When a player on your team quits a Competitive match at the start and the match is cancelled, it can honestly come as a relief.  The other side of the coin is that a highly coordinated team, like the one in my opening story, can come out swinging, masterfully take control of the match, take an early lead only for the game to be cancelled when an enemy player quits, all of that work amounting to nothing but a waste of time.

It’s World Cup season, how about a soccer analogy?  In the 2014 World Cup, Clint Dempsey scored a goal in under thirty seconds for the U.S. in a grudge match against Ghana, the team that had eliminated the U.S. from the Cup four years prior.  It remains the fifth fastest goal in World Cup history.  But what if a Ghanan player left the match then and there and FIFA ruled that the match was cancelled, the standings for both teams remained stagnant, and the U.S. wasn’t awarded with advancement and sweet, sweet revenge?  Luckily, soccer doesn’t work that way.   In a game with considerably shorter matches than soccer, where one minute can make up a significant fraction of the match time, why should Overwatch work this way?

There’s no justification for match cancellation in Competitive Overwatch at all, especially after a team’s succeeded in securing the first checkpoint.  It’s understandable that playing a man down at the outset of a match is detrimental to a team, but it’s absolutely unfair to the other team that had such a beautiful beginning to a game to earn absolutely nothing for it because someone on the other side was a poor sport.  Blizzard might theorize that one team dominated early on because it was a bad matchup, but team disorganization is honestly on the head of the players.

Playing Players Down

As it stands, a player that quits or leaves a Competitive match early receives a loss and a penalty.  If this happens within the first minute, the match is cancelled as in the above scenario.  The majority of the time, however, the remaining team is given a message that if they wait until a two minute countdown is complete, they can leave a match safely, receive a loss and not be penalized for quitting early.  Not that they can’t win.  I’ve had some incredible five-person holds.  But for that win at disadvantage, which makes for a more frustrating play experience, players receive no discernible benefit beyond the standard SR gains.  This system is frustrating either way as players are being punished for something completely out of their control and are practically encouraged to quit by the in-game message.  Instead, shouldn’t Blizzard encourage players to see the match through?

Rather than encourage quitting and taking a loss, Blizzard should encourage players to finish a match by implementing a system where players who finish a match with an absent teammate receive no loss to SR but stand to gain a substantial amount more SR for winning.  To ensure grouped players don’t work the system, Blizzard could rule that the increased SR is only awarded to teams who’ve been missing a player for an extended period so that one player can’t leave at the last minute to benefit they’re soon to be victorious team.  They might nullify gains for players who start a match grouped and finish with an absent group member for the same reason.  Further, to avoid “bad leaver behavior” as they’ve termed it, Blizzard could increase penalties for leaving and arrive at substantial bans for players and accounts with a record of leaving far quicker.  Better to punish a few than the multitude of players punished daily because a teammate quit.

The LFG feature may eliminate the ever-present pain of bad team composition and teamwork in Competitive Overwatch, but there’s no reason for the rest of the mode to feel as harsh, frustrating, and punishing as it currently does.  Implementing some of these changes or something similar might be risky or difficult, but if the experience is better for the majority of players and people begin enjoying the game more, isn’t it all worth it?  I’m hopeful Season Eleven will be better than Ten, but without more improvement to the overall Competitive system, I wonder how much more time I’ll be willing to give to the mode.

Tim is not the droids you are looking for. He resides quietly in the Emerald City where he can often be found writing, reading, watching movies, or playing video games. He is the Xbox editor for Goomba Stomp and the site's official Pokémon Master.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joanna Nelius

    July 3, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    You pretty much covered all of the same issues I had with this last season of comp (and more eloquently than I ever could.) It really felt like no matter my personal performance, individually and with my team, I couldn’t get out my tier, regardless if my team won the match or not. There were times I would get three or more gold medals and that wouldn’t matter. Eventually, I stopped playing comp altogether.

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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xo19

Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

xo19

Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

xo19

The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

xo19

Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

xo19

Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

xo19

Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple of days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page-turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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