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A Eulogy for ‘Dark Souls II’: The Strengths and Shortcomings of One of Gaming’s Most Divisive Sequels

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Dark Souls II

Calling Dark Souls one of the most compelling and influential video games of the past generation would be an unbelievable understatement. Developed by From Software and directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the original Dark Souls itself was the spiritual successor to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and served as a testament to how much a sequel can improve, polish and refine an original game’s core mechanics. Five years later, the franchise has gone on to inspire some of the most creative games in recent memory, has paved the way for the return of overtly difficult games, and has essentially created its own subgenre of challenging games with unconventional narratives. Naturally, any sequel following up what is widely considered to be one of the greatest action role-playing games of all time was going to be judged harshly.

Developed by a separate team and without the complete direction of its creator, Dark Souls II received a fairly positive reception by critics, but a surprisingly mixed reaction from the community. To this day, the game is a contentious topic among Souls fans, many of whom completely disregard its contribution to the franchise as a whole and choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. Although the sequel didn’t recreate the absolute brilliance that was the level design, atmosphere, and lore of Dark Souls, I find that it remains vastly underappreciated.

While Dark Souls II has very defined flaws, such as its problematic online system and inconsistent level design, it does its job as a sequel remarkably well. By no means does it serve as a substitution for the original game, instead, it complements and expands on the themes and systems that were already present. Although there are several lackluster aspects of Dark Souls II, its mechanical improvements, subversion of established themes and exploration of new ideas elevate it to the quality of any other game in the series and, in turn, one of the most interesting RPGs of all time.

One area that has undoubtedly improved in the sequel is its accessibility and general gameplay. As the sequel to a financially successful and critically acclaimed title, Dark Souls II has an extra degree of polish compared to its predecessors, creating subtle, yet effective changes to the series. For starters, nearly every aspect of the user interface was streamlined and simplified to be more intuitive to new players and faster to navigate for veterans. Inventory menus, character stats and upgrade trees that were incomprehensible messes of numbers and abbreviations in the original game were transformed into the easily navigated menu style that the series uses to this day.

The movement system now allowed for the players to dodge roll in eight directions, instead of four, while locked onto an enemy and jumping could be mapped to its own button. These small changes had a profound effect on how well players can maneuver during fights and explore the world. While the combat of the game has noticeably slowed down, this is really a matter of preference rather than superiority, as there are pros and cons to both the originals fast-paced and punishing duels and the sequels more methodical and tactical fights. That being said, the sequel benefits greatly from the inclusion of guard-breaking, power stance weapons and locked-on dead angles.

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Additionally, a wider variety of weapons, spells, and armor (with many being accessible from early in the game) create a larger amount of possible character combinations, making each new character fundamentally different to play. This increased build variety, the ability to respect your character’s stats and the inclusion of content exclusive to New Game+ made Dark Souls II one of the most replayable entries in the series. As much as I enjoy Bloodborne, the sheer quantity of content in this game is what keeps drawing me back to it, even if it’s not as innovative as newer games in the franchise.

As much as I love the gameplay of Dark Souls II, I know that it is completely a matter of preference and is heavily influenced by whichever game you played first. People tend to just pick a side and dedicate themselves to that game, so whether I’m trying to get somebody to join a fight club in Darkroot Garden (DS) or the Iron Keep (DSII), it’s like arguing with a brick wall. The story of Dark Souls II, on the other hand, is both interesting and beneficial to the series, regardless of which game you think plays better.

While it’s absolutely possible to appreciate the Souls games solely for their painful difficulty, meticulously designed levels or imaginative bosses, the world building and lore found in these games are second to none. The amount of information that is conveyed solely through the environment in areas such as Aldia’s Keep, The Shrine of Amana and The Forest of Fallen Giants is staggering. Although Dark Souls II was criticized for having less consistent and interesting lore when it was first released, the Scholar of the First Sin DLC added enough content to the game to put it on par with the first game.

Taken at face value, the stories of both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II boil down to “kill a bunch of monsters for their souls.” But in reality, there is much more going on than just what your character is experiencing, as each game has an extensive history behind every location you visit and every character that you meet.

The original game tells the story of how Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his race of Gods used the power of the First Flame to overthrow the immortal Dragons who ruled the world before them. Over time, the First Flame began to fade and the world started to fall apart, resulting in humans becoming cursed and turning into the zombie-like, undead hollows, which live forever but gradually go insane with each death. Gwyn sacrifices himself to delay the end of the world for a short period of time, but everything goes to hell without him and the world continues to decay.

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You play “The Chosen Undead,” a human hollow who’s destined to collect the souls of the four most important beings in the world (called “Lord Souls”) and rekindle the First Flame. At the end of the game, you can either choose to sacrifice yourself to the First Flame and delay the end of the world a little bit longer (as Gwyn did) or to allow the fire to fade and become the ruler of a world of darkness. The sequel takes place many years after the first game and focuses on your player character facing the same curse as the Chosen Undead in the first game.

Yet again you are tasked with collecting the four Lord Souls then rekindling the first flame, except now there’s a twist: your guide to the First Flame, Queen Nashandra, is actually evil and is manipulating you to bypass the barriers to the flame put in place by her King, Vendrick, when he found out she was evil. Towards the endgame, you learn that this same process of rekindling the flame as it fades has taken place countless times throughout history (called “The Cycle”) and will continue to create and destroy society as long as somebody is willing to fight the curse and sacrifice themselves to the First Flame. Finally, after defeating Nashandra, you are given the option to either accept that the curse is a part of life or walk away from the First Flame entirely, in search of a way to end the cycle for good.

The first game focuses more on building an interesting world and history around the First Flame, while the second is primarily concerned with the protagonist’s struggle against the curse and their fight to understand The Cycle. Both games’ stories work independently of each other, but when they are taken together, they become something truly special. The history of The Cycle provided in the second game retroactively adds a level of mythic importance to the events of the first game and, in turn, experiencing the Chosen Undead’s story in the first game creates a sense of nostalgia and gravitas when repeating the process in the second game. Not only does the sequel expand on the first game’s themes, it actively questions them. Although Dark Souls stands as a cornerstone of gaming, I believe it is grossly misinterpreted.

At a passing glance, Dark Souls is a historically difficult game where you are forced to overcome whatever stands in your way or continuously die trying. But this is only part of the bigger picture. While a lesser game would be content with the simple message of “Try your hardest and you can overcome anything,” Dark Souls takes an unsurprisingly grim step further, and makes the case that this arbitrary choice between a “light” or “dark” ending is just as meaningless as any other choice you’re faced with. No matter what choice you make, the outcome is the same; the game is over, and the player must restart the game or move on.

While both of these interpretations are equally valid, I think it’s remarkably telling that the harshest critic of the black and white “Prepare to Die,” slogan/mentality is the game’s own sequel. What was subtext in the first game directly becomes text in Dark Souls II. As the firekeeper in the sequel’s opening speaks of the last kingdom to rise and fall as a result of The Cycle, she states that “…one day, you will stand before its decrepit gate. Without really knowing why…,” Within the first 130 seconds of the game you are directly told how inconsequential your actions are and the game doesn’t stop there. Countless characters echo this same theme throughout the game.

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“I, too, sought fire, once. With fire, they say, a true king can harness the curse. A lie. But I knew no better…”-King Vendrick

“Many kingdoms rose and fell on this tract of earth; mine was by no means the first. Anything that has a beginning also has an end. No flame, however brilliant, does not one day splutter and fade. But then, from the ashes, the flame reignites, and a new kingdom is born, sporting a new face. It is all a curse! Heh heh heh!”-Straid of Olaphis

“Men are props on the stage of life, and no matter how tender, how exquisite… A LIE will remain A LIE!” –Aldia

While some criticize Dark Souls II for its overt bleakness, I believe it’s done purposefully, to both directly question its predecessor’s message and to interpret this “illusion of control,” in a new light. To further critique itself, the game’s structure initially mirrors the final sequence of the original game (Find the four Lord Souls, then find the King) but then goes on to subvert the player’s expectations in several ways. First, after hours of being told to seek the King, you arrive at Drangleic Castle and are introduced to the Queen.

The “dark” deceitful Nashandra herself juxtaposes the “light” and noble Vendrick and Gwyn. Even when we first meet Vendrick, he is not the proud or fierce Lord we are expecting in the vein of Gwyn. Instead, the player fights their way through the decaying Drangleic Castle, endures the Undead Crypt, and defeats Vendrick’s Royal Guard only to be greeted by a fully hollowed King, aimlessly shuffling around his burial room as an undead. This same subversion is central to the overarching story of the sequel as a whole and is paramount in understanding the game’s climax.

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Before examining the true ending, it’s important to understand Dark Souls II’s change in perspective from a world based narrative to one driven by characters. One fair criticism of this game is that it featured a far less impressive list of supporting characters than Dark Souls. Regardless of what was or was not cut from the final version of Dark Souls II, I can’t really say it provided any characters as iconic as the likes of Solaire and Artorias.

The brief interactions with the majority of NPCs are serviceably engaging but the only real standout among them is Lucatiel’s slow deterioration to a hollow. What the story lacks in scope it more than makes up for in focus, as Vendrick, Nashandra, The Emerald Herald (a mysterious firekeeper who levels you up) and most importantly the player character, are all given ample space to be fleshed out. While the item descriptions of the souls of both the King and Queen serve as small character arcs, posing questions on the nature of “light and dark,” and The Emerald Herald is meant to parallel Nashandra’s manipulation of the King, I believe the driving force of the story comes from its obsession with the main character and the question of what their true motivation is.

The opening cinematic of Dark Souls sets the stage for a story of legendary scale involving Gods, immortal Dragons, wars deciding the fate of the world, eternally cursed humans and the source of life itself. Throughout the game, you seek “Humanity,” the blackened remains of fallen humans, in order to keep the undead curse at bay and remain human. Dark Souls II doesn’t frame itself as some grand epic. There are no wars, Dragons or Gods, only the player character and the curse. Vistas of impossibly large battlefields and kingdoms basking in sunlight are replaced by disturbing, claustrophobic shots of the curse tearing away at our character’s very humanity as their memory fades before their eyes.

Your character’s only tie to reality comes in the form of “Human Effigies,” small replicas of humans that function the same as Humanity. While the sequel is often criticized for being so upfront with the importance of the curse, as opposed to allowing the environment to gradually reveal its intricacies to the player, I think the change in perspective necessitates the change in tone from the past game. Although this story is seemingly more forward than the original, it does so to intentionally misinform the player’s actions so the rug can be pulled out from under them in the endgame.

As I previously mentioned, at face value, the original Dark Souls appears to be the token, soul-crushingly difficult challenge that it has become known for. However, this is actually a very elementary interpretation of the game. As fans of the series have come to learn through each games extensive history of hidden lore, the Souls series is actually just as complex at a narrative level as it is at a gameplay level. The encompassing theme of Dark Souls is that choice itself is an illusion. Light or dark ultimately cap off the game the same way and accomplish the same thing: nothing. The game ends, the credits roll and the player is kicked into NG+ to endlessly repeat the same actions in hopes of a different result. Just as the protagonist of the first game, the player comes to realize they are simply a pawn of forces greater than themselves, the game designers.

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The sequel, on the other hand, offers a slightly more optimistic, albeit vague, conclusion. The subtext of the original game’s ending is presented openly and directly to the player after the final boss has been defeated. There is no good or bad ending, no light or dark path, no choice, the player’s only option is to ascend the throne of want, rekindle the first flame and repeat the cycle anew. That is until Scholar of the First Sin arrived. Without the addition of Aldia (The king’s brother, who was consumed by the First Flame and now exists outside of all worlds) in this DLC, the game’s ending is somewhat unsatisfactory as there were constant hints of “breaking the cycle” throughout the vanilla game. Aldia guides the main character on their path to breaking free of the curse and constantly questions the futility of this process.

From a narrative standpoint, he serves to compare the inconsequentiality of the main character’s acts to the illusion of importance experienced by the player themselves. The new ending, enabling the main character to walk away from The Cycle and the First Flame entirely, arrives at the same nihilistic conclusion as the original story, but takes an unexpected turn:

“There is no path. Beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of Dark…what could possibly await us? And yet, we seek it, insatiable…Such is our fate.” -Aldia, DLC ending

Just as Aldia states, it seems that it is human nature to desire what is intrinsically outside of our reach and to pursue it regardless. Dark Souls II does not shy away from this fact, it embraces it. Even in this ending, the player is encouraged to continue their Sisyphean journey and continue playing, the only true option available.

“For the curse of life, is the curse of want. And so, you peer… Into the fog, in hope of answers.” -Ancient Dragon

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Games

‘Oracle of Seasons’: A Game Boy Color Classic

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Oracle of Seasons

“It is an endless cycle of life… the changing seasons!”

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons are very much two halves of the same grand adventure, but they’re both worth examining on their own merits. Seasons in particular brings with it quite an interesting history. The game that would eventually become Oracle of Seasons began life as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda. This remake would be accompanied by five other games– a remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and four original titles– all developed for the Game Boy Color. These games would not be developed by Nintendo themselves, but by Flagship– a subsidiary of Capcom that was also funded in part by Nintendo and Sega.

These six games would eventually be trimmed into a trilogy slated to release in the summer, autumn, & winter of 2000, before settling as a duology that would launch simultaneously in 2001. Where Oracle of Ages was the sole survivor of the four original games, Oracle of Seasons was a brand new game morphed out of the Zelda 1 remake. Considering director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s own reflection on Flagship’s Zelda proposal, much of what would define Seasons was always present;

 “The core of the game was pretty much decided. That is to say, the fact that it would be on the Game Boy Color, the use of the four seasons, and the decision to retain the feel of the 2D Zelda games. It was also decided that it would be a series.”

Not only was this remake never intended to be a standalone entry, it would kick start its own sub-series while featuring seasons at the forefront of the gameplay. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto likewise asked Fujibayashi to pen a new story for the original Legend of Zelda, suggesting a fairly comprehensive remake as the end goal. With so many inherent changes, however, The Hyrule Fantasy ended up leaving the region altogether. 

“I believe the Zelda series really only started to have scenarios after the hardware specifications improved. The original Zelda was a pure action-RPG and didn’t have much of a story to begin with. I wanted to combine both those aspects (action-RPG and an actual scenario) this time around. At first, we’d only planned on creating a game one-tenth the size of the final version. But it just kept growing as development progressed and gradually turned into an original game.” 
– Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Director/Planner/Scenario Writer

Oracle of Seasons takes after Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask by setting itself away from Hyrule– the kingdom only ever shown during the opening cinematic. Holodrum has one of the densest worlds in a 2D Zelda game, if not the densest after A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds. A kingdom geographically similar to Hyrule as seen in the original Legend of Zelda, Holodrum has its own northern mountainside, a final dungeon in the northwest corner, and dozens of old men hidden amongst the land. This all makes sense since Seasons is rooted in a remake of the first game, but it isn’t as if Holodrum is without its novelties. 

Holodrum is distinct from Hyrule where it counts. The kingdom itself is quite large, sprawling when compared directly to Koholint Island. Progression often feels like a puzzle, especially when working around roadblocks early on. Holodrum’s four seasons are out of order, with the weather changing on the fly between regions. Link has to work around snow banks, overgrown trees, flooded fields, and petrified flora to overcome Holodrum’s chaos. As easy as it is to get side tracked in the vast kingdom, it’s only because there always tends to be something around the corner. Getting lost isn’t a problem when the overworld is so secret heavy. 

Old men are frequently found hiding under trees, actually giving players a reason to burn them on sight now, but new systems are in place to make exploration even more rewarding. Link will come across patches of soft soil throughout Holodrum where he can plant Gasha Seeds. Owing their name to gashapon– Japanese capsule toys not too dissimilar to blind bag toys– Gasha Seeds grow into Gasha Trees which bear Gasha Nuts after Link has defeated 40 enemies. Gasha Nut contents are randomized, but they incentivize players to return to previously explored areas. 

Not everything a Gasha Nut drops is worth the effort of chopping down 40 enemies– the worst being five regular hearts and a sole fairy– but the best rewards make it all worthwhile. While the Heart Piece tied to the Nut is probably the best overall get, Gasha Seeds naturally feed into the Ring system. Rings add an inherent RPG layer to the Oracle duology’s gameplay, offering the earliest instance of genuine player customization in the Zelda franchise. Rings, like Gasha Nuts, are completely random. Link will find many in his travels, but he needs to appraise them at Vasu’s ring shop in Horon Village before they can be used. Except in a few rare instances, Vasu’s appraisals are randomized.

There are 64 rings altogether between Seasons and Ages, all with varying effects. Which rings Link obtains can influence how players go about their game. RNG also ensures that each new playthrough is unique from the last. While this poses an obvious frustration for any completionists, it’s a fantastic way of adding another layer of replay value to an already fairly replayable experience. The Expert’s Ring allows Link to punch enemies if he unequips his weapons, the Charge Ring speeds up the Spin Attack, and the Protection Ring makes it so Link always takes one Heart of damage when attacked.

With so many rings to choose from, the gameplay is kept in balance by Link’s Ring Box. Once appraised, Link can equip his rings into his box. While he can only equip one initially, players can find a Box upgrade on Goron Mountain. With RNG already influencing which rings Link has access to, it’s unlikely two players will have the exact same experience in Oracle of Seasons– rings offering more personalization than is still usual for Zelda. Besides Gasha Nuts, Rings can be found in the overworld and dropped by Maple, a young witch who makes further use of RNG. 

Maple is Syrup’s apprentice, the recurring witch who runs the potion shop in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Riding in on her broomstick, Maple will appear after Link has killed 30 enemies. Should players bump into her, both Link & Maple will drop their treasures, prompting Maple to race the player for them. It’s almost always worthwhile to focus on what Maple’s dropped rather than what Link lost. Not only does Maple drop her own unique set of rings, she’s a convenient way of getting potions early on and will eventually drop a Heart Piece. Maple also gets progressively faster, upgrading her flying broomstick to a vacuum after enough altercations.

So much RNG can be off-putting, but Holodrum is such an extensive overworld that randomness isn’t much of an issue. Gasha Seeds drive exploration and Maple’s appearances reward it. These systems also encourage players to fight enemies head-on rather than avoid them when it’s convenient. If gameplay ever feels more involved in Oracle of Seasons than the average Zelda game, that’s because it is. This goes double when taking the very seasons into account. 

The four seasons influence overworld progression significantly and most non-dungeon puzzles center on Link using the Rod of Seasons to restore seasonal order to whatever region he’s in. Most of these puzzles solve themselves since seasons can only be changed on stumps, but concessions need to be made when an overworld features four unique versions of every region. Incredible use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware helps in this regard as well. The handheld was designed with making in-game colors pop and Oracle of Seasons– as an extremely late-life GBC game– stands out as one of the most vibrant titles in the system’s library. 

Each season has its own defining color palette– blue for winter, red for summer, green for spring, yellow for autumn– but there is always a wide range of colors on-screen. Winter matches its light blue with shades of white & gray; spring features an almost pastel color tone where gold & pink flowers bloom against soft shades of green; summer deepens most colors for a bolder effect; and autumn offsets its yellow with orange, red, and in some instances purple. Oracle of Seasons might very well have the best atmosphere on the Game Boy Color, each season stylized & recognizable with their own distinct tones. It’s a phenomenal presentation that outdoes OoS’ contemporaries. Seasons outright has better art direction than most early GBA games. 

The fact Oracle of Seasons commits to its premise in such a large overworld as strictly as it does is praiseworthy, but it’s even more impressive that there’s another world lurking underneath Holodrum. Subrosia is a bizarre underworld, easily the most eclectic setting in the franchise other than Termina (and in many respects more so.) Subrosians are culturally impolite, bathe in lava, and deal in Ore instead of Rupees. The Subrosian Market undersells a Heart Piece, volcanic eruptions are a welcome norm, and Link will be moving between Holodrum & Subrosia multiple times over the course of his journey. Players can even go on a date with a Subrosian girl, Rosa, that’s a clear play on his date with Marin from Link’s Awakening. Subrosia is so alien that it’s hard not to love every moment beneath Holodrum.

Beyond the four seasons and the dichotomy between Holodrum & Subrosia, what differentiates Oracle of Seasons most from Oracle of Ages is its focus on action. Seasons is a puzzle heavy game, but it lets combat drive the gameplay more often than not with a very action-centric tool kit. The Slingshot makes its 2D debut, replacing the Bow in the process, but its 250 seed capacity outdoes any of Link’s quivers. Its upgraded version, the Hyper Slingshot, even fires in three directions at once. The Roc’s Feather returns from Link’s Awakening to once again make jumping an important part of Link’s mobility. Not only is platforming far more frequent this time around– with the Ancient Ruins featuring quite a bit of jumping for a 2D dungeon– it upgrades into the Roc’s Cape which allows Link to glide.

The Boomerang now upgrades into a guided Magical Boomerang which players can control themselves; the Magnetic Gloves are ostensibly a better version of the Hookshot which can pull Link to & from magnetic sources, along with magnetizing certain baddies; and most enemies are designed with a combination of the sword & shield in mind. Oracle of Ages has its fair share of action as well, but not with quite the same focus as Oracle of Seasons.

In general, Seasons is a focused video game in the best ways possible. OoS always gives players a general direction to go in, but otherwise leaves Link to his own devices. There are little to no interruptions, and the gameplay loop emphasizes freedom in spite of the game’s linearity. There’s always something to do and you’re always making progress, whether that be narratively or checking in on some Gasha Nuts. The pace is perfectly suited for handheld gaming and quick burst play sessions. Only have a few minutes to play? Kill some enemies to trigger Maple. Got some time? Scope out the next dungeon and work towards saving Holodrum. 

There are also a number of side quests to round off gameplay. The main trading sequence ends with Link finding the Noble Sword in Holodrum’s Lost Woods; players can forge an Iron Shield in Subrosia by smelting red and blue ore together & bringing the refined ore to the Subrosian smithy; and Golden Beasts roam Holodrum, each appearing during a different season & in a set region. Once all four are defeated, Link can find an old man north of Horon Village who will give him the Red Ring– a ring which doubles the Sword’s attack at no expense to the player. 

All these side quests are worthwhile, especially since Oracle of Seasons is a bit on the tougher side when it comes to difficulty. Dungeons are very fast-paced, full of puzzles that are often deceptively simple. Dungeon items are used in increasingly clever ways, from traversing over bottomless pits with strategic use of the Magnetic Gloves to using the Hyper Slingshot to activate three statues at once. Notably, most bosses in Seasons are actually remixes of boss fights from the first Legend of Zelda

Aquamentus, Dodongo, Gohma, Digdogger, Manhandla, and Gleeok all return with a vengeance. Gleeok in particular puts up a serious fight, forcing Link on the offensive. Not only do players need to be quick enough to slice off Gleeok’s two heads before they can attack themselves back on, the dragon will persist as a skeleton for round 2. Explorer’s Crypt is a difficult enough dungeon where getting to the boss room with full health isn’t a guarantee, so Gleeok offers a surprising but welcome challenge as a result. 

Oracle of Seasons deserves a bit of credit for having one of the harder final bosses in the series, as well. Onox doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s a tough boss to put down. His second form requires Link to use the Spin Attack to deal damage while making sure he doesn’t hit Din in the process, and Onox’s dragon form is a gauntlet of dodging, jumping, & surviving long enough to finally kill the General of Darkness. Players are bound to die once or twice, but the final dungeon is short enough where getting back to Onox takes no time at all. 

If Oracle of Seasons has one glaring flaw, however, it’s the story. The script reads like a massive step back coming off the heels of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and especially Majora’s Mask. Link is summoned to aid the Oracle Din, already a seasoned hero and implied to be the same Link from A Link to the Past, but very little time is spent fleshing out Din as a character & giving players a reason to care about her. Her role is more akin to Zelda in A Link to the Past than Marin in Link’s Awakening. Similarly, Onox is an undercooked villain who shows up to kidnap Din and does nothing for the rest of the story. Of course, this light story stems from Seasons’ origin as a remake of The Legend of Zelda

Early press of the game– when it was still going by the name Acorn of the Tree of Mystery– indicates that the story was originally set in Hyrule and the seasons went out of order when Ganon kidnapped Princess Zelda, the guardian of both the Triforce of Power & the four seasons. Hyrule was changed to Holodrum, Ganon became Onox, Zelda turned to Din, and the eight fragments of the Triforce presumably became the eight Essences of Nature. While underwhelming, the plot’s structure if nothing else makes sense. 

It’s worth pointing out that Oracle of Seasons seems to recognize that story is its weakness and lets the gameplay drive the experience. Unlike Oracle of Ages which takes its plot seriously and has a clear thematic arc, Seasons really is just a remix of Zelda 1’s plot. Which is perfect for the kind of game OoS ultimately is: a fast-paced, action-packed adventure through an ever-changing world. When played as a precursor to Ages instead of its ending, Seasons’ story comes off comparatively better. The stakes aren’t that high or defined, but that’s more than okay for the first half of an adventure that spans two full-length games. 

In a departure for the franchise, Oracle of Seasons actually features a proper post-game, marking the first time any Zelda acknowledges that the main threat is over. NPCs will comment on how they haven’t seen Link in a while, the weather has stabilized as spring has set in Holodrum, and you’re free to wrap up any side quests left unfinished. This is especially noteworthy because players can link their progress from Seasons over into Ages and transfer any rings they have on hand. 

An epilogue makes for a charming send-off to one of the most charming games on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons underwent a strange development, intended to be little more than a suped-up remake of the original Legend of Zelda. Instead, Flagship ended up developing one of the finest games on the GBC– a vibrant adventure filled with personality and some of the best action on the handheld. Oracle of Seasons isn’t just one half of a greater game; it’s a classic Zelda in its own right.

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PAX Online: ’30XX’ and ‘Cris Tales’

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

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30XX and Cris Tales

Our coverage of PAX Online continues with a Mega Man-inspired roguelike and a charming, time-hopping RPG adventure.

30XX

30XX

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: TBA

I’ve already given some of my thoughts on 30XX back when I took it for a spin at PAX East. To catch those who didn’t see that report up to speed, 30XX is a 2D side-scrolling roguelike with a hi-bit art style and gameplay reminiscent of many Mega Man games. It’s generally more forgiving than Mega Man in the sense that there’s a distinct lack of instant-death spikes and pits, but the tradeoff is that when you do die that’s the end and you have to start the whole game over from the start. Classic roguelike rules for ya.

This PAX Online demo was very similar to the one I played at East. I chose between the blaster Nina or swordsman Ace then I went on my merry way throughout the two levels. One key difference is that I did not start out with any specials this time around and my maximum health was much lower. This is probably in-line with what it would be like to start a new game completely fresh as opposed to some upgrades as the East demo had. As a result, I actually failed my first attempt at this demo.

That’s where the first additional aspect of this build came into play, though, in the form of global character progression. Beating bosses in 30XX not only grants you a new weapon ability but also a currency called Memoria. Memoria can be spent at a shop in-between playthroughs to obtain permanent upgrades for Nina and Ace for every subsequent attempt. The pickings were rather slim for the demo, such as increased health and energy, but a wider variety is promised for the full release, and if anything it’s exceptionally clear how useful they’ll be to fully clear the game’s ten planned stages in one go. I also await the inevitable “no upgrade” runs that will assuredly come out of this, though.

30XX

The other neat addition to this demo is Entropy conditions, which are essentially modifiers. You can make it to where shop items cost more Nut currency to purchase per run, impose a time limit, and/or increase the amount of HP enemies have. Enabling these options also increases rewards gained from runs, adding a nice risk vs. reward factor that will probably keep things engaging even after you master the game’s earlier stages. More Entropy conditions are promised to be added into the full game that will allow you to fine-tune your experience even further.

The one concern I have for 30XX at this point is the number of dead ends I encountered with no reward to show for it. This is probably a result of the procedurally generated nature of the game, but the number of times I thought I was so clever for platforming up to a hard-to-reach area only to be greeted by a wall was more than I cared for. This is the “30XX Very Pre-Alpha Demo”, though, so it’s a flaw that can still be fixed in future development and with everything else that is being done right so far — the tight platforming, varied progression, and delightful aesthetics — it’s not hard to be hopeful for 30XX‘s future.

Cris Tales

Cris Tales

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam, and Stadia
Release: Nov 17th, 2020

I went into the Cris Tales demo after hearing nothing but its name in passing here and there. After finishing the demo, I’d recommend you do the same. If you’re a fan of turn-based RPG’s just download the demo and see it for yourself.

Cris Tales managed to constantly surprise and delight me throughout the entirety of its 45-minute long demo, firstly being the visuals. Playing through the game is like watching stained-glass art come to life with its hyper-stylized character designs that emphasize general shapes rather than specific details and environments chock-full of geometrical sharp edges. I was in awe from the word “Go”.

The story follows Crisbell, a chipper young orphan girl who spends her time happily doing chores for the orphanage and her dearest Mother Superior. After chasing a dapper young frog to a church, Crisbell inadvertently awakens the powers of Time Crystals hosed there and gains the power to see both the past and future at the same time. This manifests as the screen fractures into thirds with the left side showing the past, the middle the present, and the right the future at all times.

It was a trick that took a minute or two to register with me, but once it did I immediately set about traipsing all about the town I had just chased the frog through in order to see how it has and will change. It was a positively fascinating experience that put a big stupid grin on my face the entire time.

Crisbell can use this knowledge of that past and future to make decisions in the present such as locating a missing potion label or creating a concoction that will prevent wood from rotting and leading to dilapidated houses. Choosing which house to restore is also an irreversible choice that will lead to different outcomes depending.

Cris Tales

Time manipulation also plays a major part in Cris Tales‘ turn-based combat in extremely novel and creative ways. Enemies attack Crisbell and co from both the left and the right, and you can attack them with your standard RPG basic attacks and skills. Enemies on the left side, however, can be forcibly sent to the past while enemies on the right to the future by expending Crystal Points. This means reverting a big brawny goblin into a harmless little child or aging it into an elder that can barely move.

That’s not all, though. Douse an armored enemy in water then send them to the future to cause it to rust and shatter their defense. Poison an enemy that has already been sent to the past then brings them back to the present to force them to take all that poison damage at once. Plant a damaging mandragora that would normally take a few turns to sprout then send it to the future to cause it to sprout instantly. These are the examples demonstrated in the demo but it’s abundantly clear that this is only the tip of the creative iceberg. It’s genuinely thrilling to imagine all the possibilities such a system is capable of. The best part is that we won’t have to wait long to find out as Cris Tales launches on all major platforms in just two months.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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