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Dissecting One of the Biggest Problems with ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’: A Lack of Focus

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Which game is superior — one that delivers a variety of decent experiences, or one that delivers a singular, exceptional experience? In essence, do games benefit from appealing to a wide audience? This largely depends on one’s goals. If a game is meant to maximize its profits and break sales records, then appealing to a broader audience is the obvious choice. However, if a game is meant to masterfully execute a vision born of passion and creativity, tighter focus tends to be more feasible. This article uses Dragon Age: Inquisition as a case study in order to explore this idea. Essentially, Inquisition shows that attempts to incorporate numerous systems in one game, while capable of producing considerable short-term benefits, pose a threat to a game’s longevity and overall quality.

All that said, what are Dragon Age: Inquisition’s gameplay systems? Hoo boy. There’s the hack-’n-slash combat with cool down-based abilities, the top-down tactical layer to combat, the dialogue wheel, the fetch quests, the war table, the shards, the connect-the-dots constellation puzzles, the treasure maps… and more besides. Sadly, many of these systems are largely forgettable, and because time and resources are devoted to them, core gameplay elements suffer.

The two halves of combat are engaging enough, but they never really gel together like they should. Ideally, easier encounters should be an opportunity to focus in on the Inquisitor, to feel like the hero for a bit, tearing through enemy minions with glee. Then, harder encounters would force players to engage with the tactical side, treating each party member like a cog in a well-oiled machine. But the difficulty doesn’t feel fine-tuned enough to marry these two systems. Worse, the controls on the tactical side of things feel unpolished. Characters can be difficult to wrangle, and the camera often has a hard time coping with the quirks of the terrain. This is a shame, considering the fact that strategizing and commanding the party is actually quite fun, especially in moments where one can take advantage of choke points in the environment. Having more adequate control over the tactical side of things would alleviate a considerable amount of frustration.

While flashy and fun, tactical combat feels unpolished

Even more frustrating is the prevalence of bugs in Inquisition. Bugs can lead to minor disappointments–a mini-boss in the Hinterlands was content to do his best training dummy impression as he was riddled with quarrels and frost bolts, leading to his ignoble death. They can also cause greater aggravations–a climactic encounter with an Envy Demon was undercut when a cutscene failed to trigger, forcing a replay of the entire boss fight. So if core gameplay suffers because resources are stretched too thin, why do the stretching in the first place?

The lead writer of the Dragon Age franchise, Patrick Weekes, has an answer. In a 2015 interview with PC Gamer, Weekes had this to say: “When you’re talking about agency, you’re talking about how you’re trying to put yourselves in the shoes of various types of players… the power gamer, the completionist, the guy that wants to search out the story. You’re trying to put yourself into various mindsets at the same time.”

However, the team didn’t seem fully equipped to address each of these player archetypes. After all, if a completionist has to slog through endless, bland fetch quests, there’s little to prevent them from switching to a game with more compelling side content. Former Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw seemed to realize this, at least partially, in the aforementioned interview.  “We underestimated, to some degree, the completionist drive. It was possible, as a completionist, that you could damage your own pacing.” It’s a realization of a somewhat unintuitive lesson: players don’t always act in the interest of their own fun. Many are compelled to find optimal strategies in combat, or to fill out every bar in the game. Even if these optimal strategies or bar-filling activities are boring, some people will be compelled to seek them out nonetheless. Thus, it’s important to avoid giving players the choice to hamstring their own enjoyment, if at all possible.

Amidst all of these negatives, it is important to remember that Dragon Age: Inquisition is a good game. It’s (mostly) well-written, filled with exciting encounters, and it offers compelling dilemmas for the player. Furthermore, Thedas is a remarkably fleshed out world, populated by a diverse, interesting cast of characters. This quality is reflected in the game’s initial reception; its Metacritic scores across different platforms all sit at 85 or above, and commercially speaking, Inquisition is one of BioWare’s most successful launches. However, this success was not particularly enduring, and BioWare seems to have failed to internalize some important lessons.


While being critically praised at the time of release,
Inquisition’s place in the public consciousness has largely been usurped by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt–so much so that BioWare tried to learn from Wild Hunt’s success when developing Mass Effect: Andromeda. They took one step forward by attempting to cut meaningless filler, but took two steps back by failing to narrow their scope or tighten their focus for Andromeda. In fact, there were plans to include hundreds of explorable, procedurally-generated planets in the Mass Effect sequel, an idea which was scrapped late in development and may have contributed to the game’s overall lack of polish. Notably, Andromeda was a considerable setback in terms of critical reception when compared to Inquisition. It’s not hard to see how the mentality of trying to be many things at once persisted past Inquisition and caused major problems for Andromeda.

Overall, BioWare stretched themselves too thin. Too many systems drew resources away from vital tasks: fine-tuning the difficulty to encourage swapping between combat styles, polishing the controls on the tactical layer, and ironing out encounter-ruining bugs. So what should have been done instead? Was the problem really having numerous gameplay systems? Yes and no. Really, the problem was that these various systems didn’t fit together to make a greater whole. There are plenty of games with interconnected systems which are a triumph — the XCOM remakes and the Total War series come to mind. In the latter case, everything from settlement management to diplomacy has a tangible impact on the central gameplay conceit: huge, Lord of the Rings-esque battles played out in real time. Inquisition might have benefited from a similar approach.

But really, the answer is simpler than that. BioWare should have played to their strengths. More specifically, they should have played to the strengths of the Dragon Age series. Dragon Age isn’t about collectibles. It’s not about fetch quests. It’s about story, and world-building, and choice, and character. And to be fair, this series has always had trouble recapturing its identity. Neither Dragon Age II nor Inquisition serves as very effective sequels to their progenitor. But maybe Dragon Age IV will buck the trend. Maybe BioWare will regain their focus and return to their Origins.

Get it?

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Age:_Inquisition
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Effect:_Andromeda
https://www.pcgamer.com/the-making-of-dragon-age-inquisition/

Brandon Curran was born in a damn desert before being spirited away to the arboreal paradise of Portland, Oregon. He likes grey skies, green trees, and a steady mist of rain. When he's not writing articles about game design, he's working on that book he's totally gonna finish. In his spare time, Brandon plays video games, paints miniatures, and mutters to himself

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Let’s Discuss the Revamped Sonic the Hedgehog Design

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The internet has breathed a collective sigh of relief following the release of a new trailer for the upcoming Sonic The Hedgehog movie. Some leaks a few weeks back that turned out to be correct showed the design that we see but the trailer shows a lot more of the new redesign of the world renowned video game character. The movie has been the subject of much attention-mostly negative- after the initial trailer was released six months ago. The first trailer (which initially announced a release date of November 2019) was incredibly poorly received due to the odd design choice for the titular character. With small eyes, a tiny snout and human teeth, the original design was weirdly realistic and resembled an odd humanoid rather than the blue cartoon hedgehog that we all know and love.

The first design for Sonic looked a bit like a child in a Sonic the Hedgehog suit. Creepy to say the least.

The new trailer shows off a brand new look for Sonic which is far more in sync with what we already know for the character. He is definitely an animated character, with the exaggerated features that he has always had in every other iteration. The movie itself still looks cheesy as hell but it looks like a tolerable, even kind of enjoyable sort of cheesy.  The controversy surrounding the terribly received first Sonic design has been so prolific that some even argued that the whole thing has been a marketing ploy and that the character was never meant to look as bad as he originally did. Whatever the case may be in terms of what went down behind the scenes of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, it is clear that even if the film is terrible it will attract a substantial audience of people just curious as to how the whole thing is going to turn out. As a fan of Sonic since the 90’s when I was little, I’m probably going to be one of those people.

Sonic is now appropriately cute, fluffy and more in line with his usual style.

I’m still kind of hoping it can break the curse of the video game movie-like Detective Pikachu did- but alongside the aforementioned cheesiness, it looks like a pretty generic movie aimed at kids rather than diehard fans of the Sonic franchise. Flop or not, at least Sonic is looking far more adorable and less like he might murder you in your sleep. It also shows how the filmmakers were willing to listen to their audience and implement changes following feedback. Incredibly vocal feedback at that.

The comparison between the two designs shows just how much the animators have worked to create a brand new Sonic. Their hard work has certainly paid off.

Sonic the Hedgehog is due for theatrical release on February 14th, 2020.

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Anamanaguchi – [USA] (Album Review)

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Few acts boast such renown amongst uber-nerdy video game enthusiasts as Anamanaguchi. Unveiling their debut EP ‘Power Supply’ in 2009, the Chiptune pioneers have pushed their unique brand of 8-bit powered Rock and Pop across various releases, including 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game soundtrack, and 2013’s Kickstarter funded 22 track LP ‘Endless Fantasy’. And with ‘Endless Fantasy’ being their last LP (excluding their stuffed to the brim ‘Capsule Silence XXIV’ compilations), to say fans have anticipated ‘[USA]’ is an almighty understatement.

Six years is a while, so has Anamanaguchi’s latest batch of tracks been worth the wait? Seasoned fans Harry and Kyle are on the scene to offer their takes, from how ‘[USA]’ stacks up against the band’s other offerings, to its effectiveness as an artistic whole.

Background With Anamanaguchi

I first heard Anamanaguchi around 2010. At the time I was neck deep in my Slipknot phase (a phase I’ve yet to grow out of judging by how much I replayed ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ this year), so their goofy electronic schtick didn’t tick my boxes. But as time passed I developed a stronger fondness of them, so much so that I enthusiastically backed their 2013 LP ‘Endless Fantasy’ on Kickstarter. Now I’ve seen them live twice, followed their progress over the years, and can proudly proclaim my superfan status. – Harry

The late 2000s saw a shift in pop culture: suddenly, geek chic was all the rage. G4 was at the height of its popularity, pixel art infested countless pieces of media, and video games were undeniably cool. Few other pieces of media encapsulate this cultural zeitgeist more than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. Based on the popular comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the Scott Pilgrim game featured Anamanaguchi’s crunchy pixelated Rock sound, which melded perfectly with the colorful 16-bit beat-em’-up gameplay. Older Anamanaguchi albums are more than just music: they’re a trip back in time to a brighter, more innocent era of pop culture and gaming. – Kyle

Introducing [USA]

I was excited for ‘[USA]’, but that’s stating the obvious based on my prior words. The LP kicks off with its titular track, introducing affairs with an amalgamation of predictably glitchy bleeps ‘n’ bloops. It’s straight up Anamanaguchi, their Chiptune flair intact. This is good, as Anamanaguchi sans Chiptune is like spaghetti sans sauce (still awesome, but lacking a key ingredient). “USA” is chanted as instrumentation morphs stylistically, crescendoing in dynamics and tempo, and setting the stage for the lead single.

“Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem)” is an LP highlight. Stepping out the gate with Vocaloid-y singing, an aesthetic of grandiose gorgeousness is speedily cemented. This later juxtaposes with the rapid-fire rhythms of Luke’s drumming and manic synthesizer arpeggios that run around like an 8-bit-ified (Sega Master System) Sonic the Hedgehog. This mental meld of melody, Drum and bass, and all manner of other musical magic finally sinks into a sea of atmospheric spookiness, concluding in an out of left field (yet utterly engaging) way. “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem)” avoids predictability through each and every beat of its journey, but nails catchy accessibility to a tee. A masterclass in creative songwriting, it sets ‘[USA]’s’ bar sky high. – Harry

The weeks to ‘[USA]’ releasing were positive ones, marked by enticing singles like “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem)” and “Air On Line”. Anamanaguchi’s distinct Rock-flavored Chiptune style had undergone a stylistic shift in the band’s 2013 release ‘Endless Fantasy’, where the band shed off some of its punk flair in favor of dreamier synth tones. In the six years between LP releases, Anamanaguchi experimented with singles and EPs featuring sonic palettes characteristic of modern J-Pop (“Pop It”, “Miku”). While the band stretched its legs with poppier beats, it did mark a further departure from the traditional Rock-oriented sound that had defined much of their earlier work.

‘[USA]’ in many respects displays a return to Anamanaguchi’s roots. Tracks like “On My Own (feat. HANA)” and “Air On Line” boast driving guitar riffs, thumping drums, and fluidly complex intricacies. Yet, it’s more than clear that Anamanaguchi has evolved beyond their geeky beginnings to cultivate an airy soundscape of bright pastel colors and crystal clear tones. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but the highs that ‘[USA]’ can reach prove that the guys have still got it. – Kyle

Negative Bits

Unfortunately, said sky high bar is scarcely met again throughout the rest of ‘[USA]’. Plenty of tracks, like “The C R T Woods” and “Overwriting Incorporate”, are serviceable, but fall short of the laser focused compositional direction and melodic magnificence that Anamanaguchi are so super slick at. ‘[USA]’ suffers from banality, with tracks like “Tear” and “We Die” meandering noisily without focus, and big chunks (particularly the interlude-like tracks “Speak To You [Memory Messengers]” and “Apophenia Light [Name Eaters]”) feeling akin to ‘Capsule Silence XXIV’ cuts (i.e. decent demos, but not kickass LP standouts). – Harry

Much like Harry, I found a large chunk of the album rather dull to get through. Admittedly, Anamanaguchi has an undeniable talent for their synth instrumentation. However, what pushes their work beyond generic electronic music is their ability to anchor that instrumentation to a melodic through line built on catchy hooks and unexpected turns. “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem)” is one of the few tracks that manages to pull off this floaty, ethereal sound because it moves forward with purpose and constantly engages your curiosity. The same can’t be said for several of the other synth-heavy tracks, too lost in their own sound to offer anything truly engaging. – Kyle

Positive Bits

Nevertheless, there are flashes of brilliance here. “Sunset By Plane (feat. Caroline Lufkin)” is Anamanaguchi firing on all cylinders, delivering energetic poppy bombast in spades. Porter Robinson’s co production is evident in “Air On Line”, resulting in a smooth stomper of happy hooks. “B S X (feat. Hatsune Miku)” incorporates choppily glitched-out singing from the iconic Vocaloid, serving as a pseudo-sequel to the 2016 single “Miku”. “On My Own (feat. HANA)” sees Anamanaguchi’s Chiptune/Pop/Rock melting pot bubbling away again. And speaking of Chiptune, it’s wonderful to hear mountains of 8-bit eccentricity throughout ‘[USA]’, proving even as their sound matures, Anamanaguchi still celebrate where they came from with beaming pixelated smiles. – Harry

As a whole, ‘[USA]’ still deserves a place worthy of praise in Anamanaguchi’s discography. Porter Robinson only collaborated with the band for “Air On Line”, but his style bleeds wonderfully into tracks like “Up to You (feat. meesh)” and “Sunset By Plane (feat. Caroline Lufkin)”. The kawaii-infused J-Pop rhythms and hooks are infectiously catchy, but don’t let that fool you: Anamanaguchi haven’t lost their edge. “B S X (feat. Hatsune Miku)” and “On My Own (feat. HANA)” show that the band can reach back into their deep musical pockets and bring out their signature hard Chiptune Rock to surprise you with something intimately familiar. – Kyle

Final Thoughts

In typical Anamanaguchi fashion, ‘[USA]’ is ambitious from start to finish. ‘Endless Fantasy’ is bloated, but stylistically spot on, whereas ‘[USA]’ trims the fat, but gets a little lost in its journey. Glistening gold sits alongside stale pies, and that description is a fitting metaphor for elements of ‘[USA]’: it’s odd, and doesn’t make much sense (and perhaps that in itself is a metaphor for the real life USA?).

Still, when Anamanaguchi’s latest is good, it’s really good, and there’s bundles of genius in the 8-bit boys yet!

Check out, stream, buy or consume ‘[USA]’ in your preferred capacity by clicking HERE!

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Star Wars Fan Films Embrace the Essence of A Galaxy Far, Far Away

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There is no doubt that dedicated fans are capable of creating brilliant, fan-made content, but the Star Wars fan base has a habit of going above and beyond in making incredible works of art that often surpass official entries in the franchise. Two relatively recent short fan films — one released last week, the other released in March of this year — are great examples of this.

The first is a 1970s/80s-style cartoon from YouTuber Wilkins Animation called Dark Empire Episode One: The Destiny of a Jedi. This animated short is incredibly reminiscent of classic cartoons — so much so that it is difficult not to feel a pang of nostalgia upon watching it. The style gives off a He-Man vibe due to the quirky animation, stellar voice work, and vibrant colour scheme. The story is set after The Return of The Jedi as Han, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO embark on a mission to save Luke and Lando, who are stranded on war-torn Coruscant. I won’t spoil anything in case you want to check it out for yourself, but the story is engaging, and I couldn’t help but feel that I wanted to see more when it came to an end.

Have a watch below if you want to see more, and to check out Wilkins Animation’s Patreon to support their work, click here.

The second fan made film is a slightly older (from March 2019) one called Battle of the Dreadnoughts, by YouTuber EckhartsLadder. The film is significantly shorter than the 12-minute Dark Empire cartoon, clocking in at about three and a half minutes. It depicts a space battle between the New Republic’s Viscount Class Star Defender and the Empire’s most dangerous of all its weapons, the Eclipse Super Star Destroyer. Battle of the Dreadnoughts may be short, but it is astounding in quality. Upon my first viewing, I was certain I had accidentally clicked on a scene from the movies rather than a fan-made project. The accuracy, attention to detail, and sheer scale blew my mind and — as with the Dark Empire animation — left me wanting more from the content creators involved.

Check out EckhartsLadder’s Patreon here and their Twitch account here.

There is no doubting the talent of the Star Wars fan base, but these two films in particular are incredible works of art both in their own right and as Star Wars fan projects.

For more Star Wars, have a read of our Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer breakdown.

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