A few years ago during an online counseling session with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, we discussed how playing video games would serve as a way for me to escape the otherwise constant anxiety that was going on in my brain. I could transport myself to a completely different world and focus on a challenge I knew I could tangibly overcome as I took control of an avatar that didn’t have the worries and neuroses that I did.
Games as escapism isn’t a new concept, but the therapist was clearly not a fan of it – believing that the time I spent shutting down my existential worries to focus on the game was not only time spent away from facing my anxiety, but that it did nothing to stop me being anxious both before and after game time. Once I turned off the game, she asked, did my anxiety come back? It did, of course, but I was still pretty shocked to find a therapist trying to tell me that the precious little time in my day where I was anxiety-free was a bad thing.
The game in question was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I will maintain to this very day that it was a huge help to me in terms of showing me the power of escapism and I will forever cherish it for being my safe place. Being Geralt, hunting monsters, talking to locals and exploring The Continent not only stopped me from thinking too much, but my headaches would go away, my dizziness would subside, the tingling in my limbs would be unnoticeable, and I would feel a sense of enjoyment and adrenaline that meant I no longer felt exhausted. In recent months, I’ve started to feel like my therapist may have seen more of a benefit to me playing games if I’d told her I was playing Dark Souls III instead.
Despite the fact that I’ve completed Dark Souls III already, when I go back and play it now I am still absolutely on edge almost the entire time. Dark Souls III isn’t me escaping my anxiety, it’s a virtual manifestation of it right on my TV.
One of my biggest anxiety issues is to catastrophize almost everything that I can perceive as a potential threat – no matter how miniscule, or even made up, that threat is – until it spells certain doom for me and my existence. From expecting to get kicked off the pitch as a 13 year-old playing football to being trampled in a mosh pit as a 17 year-old punk – I will expect the worst, push through the fear, and be pleasantly surprised when I return home absolutely fine having had a whale of a time. Dark Souls III has already shown me its worst, and yet it still has me thinking that I am going to be scared, defeated and enraged at every turn.
Much like that Chimaira concert in Glasgow (you know, where a weedy English kid like me goes to a metalcore gig in Scotland and gets stabbed because people can smell the England on him) way back when, nothing in Dark Souls III is going to literally kill me. What it will still do is have me edge my character around every corner with cautious trepidation because I know what’s coming and I know that I probably was killed by it the first time round.
You’d think I’d be better prepared and know I can tackle everything it can throw at me, but something about From Software’s game design prevents that mindset from taking over for me. Make no mistake, that is absolutely not a bad thing. Even the most minor of enemies in Dark Souls can make you come unstuck, as can even the most insignificant of problems to an irritable and anxious mind. While speed-runners will tell you that running from those enemies is actually the best tactic, running from things is one of my real life traits that I refuse to employ in Souls.
Anxiety may still dominate my sleepless nights and make me feel physically exhausted, achy and dizzy, but a key thing I’ve learned to cope with it is that submitting to it is not an option. Whether it be strenuous physical exercise, a job interview or even writing an article for a games website, I have to try and live my life in spite of my anxiety, and not wait for it to pass before I feel I can live the life I want.
I will never have played Dark Souls III enough to be at a level where it isn’t going to make me tense and potentially irritated, but I will also never let those feelings diminish the joy I get at the end of a tough boss battle or when cashing in a mound of souls to create a new build with exciting new weapons and gear. I love Dark Souls in spite of the way it keeps me on edge, maybe even because of it.
When I said that Dark Souls III is a virtual manifestation of my anxiety, I wasn’t referring exclusively to the hardships and misery – it also mirrors that feeling I’ve had over and over again that, almost always, nothing is as terrible as I’d made it seem in my head. It’s such a bizarre thing to take pride in, but the feeling of finding a situation that gave me anxiety wasn’t actually all that bad, and was actually enjoyable, almost makes me appreciate the good times that little bit more. They weren’t just good, they were the opposite of what I expected. Think of it as enjoyment multiplied by overwhelming relief.
Stepping outside of an anxious scenario, I can usually find reflective clarity as an additional coping method. Despite me saying that I’ll never be at a level where I’m going to be casually engaging a chat feed while speed-running the game, I have obviously gotten better at Dark Souls III since I first played it, and beating some of the bosses solo – even on my first attempt – will provide that aforementioned sense of overwhelming relief. Not only was that boss nowhere near as bad as I remembered while walking up to its arena, I actually defeated it with relative ease. Reassurance may not be how I go into some scenarios, but it really can work in retrospect as a way to go back to that anxious thought process and debunk it in hindsight – something I’ve done for as long as I remember.
It may be the tool of the noob, but Dark Souls‘ co-op system is another excellent reflection of coping with anxiety. I can actually remember a more naive time when I didn’t even know how the summon system worked, and I assumed that anyone I summoned could, and would, kill me. You can probably imagine the immense comfort I felt when that first bowing phantom showed up to help me kick some ass. Hell, even a lot of the red phantoms will start their invasion by greeting you with a gentlemanly salute before they try and ruin your fun.
It’s the overwhelming sense of empathy that summoning a phantom in Dark Souls gives you that can actually feel sorely missing in real life. Speak to a therapist and, nine times out of ten, they probably won’t have suffered from what you’re going through. Summon a phantom in Dark Souls, and you can bet that poor bastard had to slog their way through that boss at some point. They get it, they know you need help and they know exactly how to help you. A feeling of anxiety – even when speaking to someone qualified and professionally employed to help you – can often still feel like an isolating experience. You can acknowledge a therapist’s sympathy and listen to their advice, but they can’t jump into the boss arena that is your brain and pepper that fucker with Soul Darts alongside you like a Phantom can in Dark Souls.
Some players will tell you that you should feel bad for seeking help with a boss, but for someone like me it really is soothing to see a stranger – someone you may never even speak to – jumping and celebrating with you after you have overcome your shared obstacle. Much like in real life, when you’ve experienced feelings of worry, desperation and despair about something, there are few feelings more rewarding than being able to tell someone else “I’ve been there.”
I regularly play Souls online with a friend of mine, and guiding him seems to help make my trials and tribulations with the game feel all the more redundant. It’s classic drama triangle stuff; no longer am I the lonely victim, I’m the rescuer – the empathizer who’s suffered so that my friend doesn’t have to. I’m calm, I’m Daddy Cool. Even though I’m going through the exact same things in the game that made me tense, the pressure on myself is lifted and my new perspective is the empowerment to help someone in need.
So, as much as Dark Souls III still has me anxious a lot of the time, it’s an anxiety I can beat. It’s an anxiety that people can genuinely help me with, and can be reciprocated to help others. It’s an anxiety with a tangible light at the end of the tunnel and a palpable sense of pride in my success. Real anxiety is definitely not as easy to conquer as the Soul of Cinder, but using Dark Souls as a perspective, warts and all, certainly does feel more rewarding than running away to Novigrad for some sexy times with Triss Merigold. I’m glad that not every game presents itself as such a mirror to my worrisome mind, but when one does, and I come out feeling victorious, I’m all the more grateful for it.
PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’
We’ve already covered a wide variety of the games on display at PAX South this year, from retro revivals to unorthodox romances to everything in between – and we’re not done yet! In this next roundup article, we cover three more ambitious, action-packed games: Ghostrunner, Everspace 2, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.
Ghostrunner was one of the most in-demand games at PAX, and after playing it, it’s easy to see why. This first-person action slasher, developed by One More Level and produced by 3D Realms, lets players dash through the air, run across walls, and slash through enemies at blistering speed all while exploring a dystopian cyberpunk world. It’s gorgeous, lightning fast, and feels amazing to play.
Ghostrunner begins in a broken future, where the remnants of humanity have hidden away in a single condensed tower. Naturally enough, you’re put in the role of the one rebel who dares to rise up against the forces oppressing humanity. As you begin your uprising, you’ll also encounter a grand mystery – why is humanity the way it is now? Just what happened to the rest of the world? And what’s that voice you hear in your head?
My demo didn’t offer much illumination to these mysteries, but the 3D Realms team assured me that the story plays a significant role in the main campaign. What my demo did offer, however, was a look into the fast-paced, brutal gameplay that defines the game. Combat is so dynamic in Ghostrunner. Your arsenal of moves is massive and varied – of course you can run, jump, and slash with your katana, but you can also run along walls, dash over chasms, slow down time to dodge bullets, and more.
When all the moving pieces flow together, Ghostrunner achieves a visceral, almost hypnotic flow of battle. There are a few obstacles to this feeling. The controls took a bit of getting used to on my end, but that would be because, console peasant that I am, I’m not used to playing 3D games on a keyboard instead of a controller. Also, this may be an action game, but at many times it feels more like a puzzle game. With bloodthirsty enemies scattered around each environment, you’ll often need to take a step back and methodically evaluate which abilities to use in each situation. This can take some trial and error – it might have taken me more than a few tries to clear out the final wave of enemies. But when the solution works out, it’s a beautifully exhilarating feeling, and that’s what sets Ghostrunner apart.
Wrath: Aeon of Ruin
PAX featured plenty of retro-styled games, but not many quite like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. This retro-style FPS is a throwback to the simpler, faster days of shooters, built entirely in the same engine as the original Quake. It was even based off the work of Quake community modders. If you’ve played any classic FPS like the original DOOM or Wolfenstein, then you should have a good idea of how Wrath plays: it’s brutal, lightning fast, and action packed.
My demo got straight to the point. After teleporting me to a distant hellscape, I was faced with a horde of demons, ranging from simple skeletons to more aggressive ogre-like enemies and flying laser monsters. Thankfully, I was also given an assortment of weapons to take these creatures down with, including a simple handgun, a powerful blade arm, and my personal favorite, a shotgun. Each one of these felt good to control, and like any good old-fashioned shooter, they gave me a great feeling of power.
Like any good, brutal FPS in the vein of Quake, Wrath features an insane amount of mobility. Movement is extremely fast and fluid, allowing you to zip across and above stages with reckless abandon. This extra speed will be necessary, especially considering that enemies can slaughter on with reckless, overwhelming abandon.
Of course, being built in the original Quake engine, Wrath is a delightfully retro treat to behold. It features all the signature hard polygonal edges of PC shooters from that bygone era, but with the added smoothness and fluidity of modern hardware. The game feels great to play and is a unique treat to behold. Wrath is currently available on Steam Early Access, and there’s plenty of new content that can be expected throughout the year, including new levels, enemies, and even a full online multiplayer mode. Stuffed with violent retro action, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is absolutely worth watching out for.
Space is the final frontier, offering limitless exploration This’s the exact feeling that Everspace 2 captures. This sandbox open world space shooter dumps you in outer space and leaves you to figure out the rest, allowing you to fight, scavenge, and explore as you will, all with an incredible amount of freedom.
It’s a remarkably beautiful game too, boasting of extremely detailed 3D graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a full 3D AAA experience. It’s extremely ambitious, offering a wealth of customization options through parts that can be scavenged from fallen space craft or space debris. There’s alien life to discover and a wealth of locations to explore, with the full game apparently featuring more than 80 unique environments.
These environments will always be interesting to explore thanks to a mix between handcrafted worlds and randomization. The original Everspace was a pure roguelike, and as developer Rockfish Games told me, this constantly changing design has often been fundamental to previous great space shooters. Although Rockfish opted for an intentionally designed open world for the sequel, they want to maintain some of those same roguelike elements. That’s why whenever you venture through the many galaxies of Everspace 2, the galaxies and planets will be the same, but the items you find or enemies you encounter within them may change each time.
It took me some time to get used to Everspace. It immediately offers a great amount of freedom, with the demo simply dumping me in space and only requiring that I take down some enemy units and pick up some loot. Yet once I got the hang of the controls and the environment, it became extremely fluid and natural to zip through space, upgrade different components, and experience all the free-flowing action that it has to offer. Space is the ultimate freedom, and Everspace 2 is set to represent that.
PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’
PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.
Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.
You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.
Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.
Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.
However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.
I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.
KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.
KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.
It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.
PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation
Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.
From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.
Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.
That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.
Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century
The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.
Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.
Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.
Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.
That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.
“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.
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