“No matter what kind of world people have, if they think they’re happy, they’ll be happy.”
The passage of time is as inherent as it is unrelenting. Man is born only to die, empires rise only to fall, and history is made only to be forgotten. Time, as a concept, is overwhelming, overbearing, and frankly difficult to comprehend in its totality. Time makes no promises. Life will not necessarily get better with time. One’s suffering is not guaranteed to end in time. The only certainty that time brings with it is the promise that life will change. Which is exactly the core premise of Illusion of Gaia.
Time affects everyone and everything, and the only influence someone has over time is deciding what they do with their time. Of course, being the hero of an RPG, protagonist Will’s adventure is a rather rebellious one that sees him actively fighting against the onset of time, but Quintet takes a rather candid approach to how the narrative reflects on the concept of time. Yes, time is often cruel, but time also allows a boy to grow into a man, a girl to find her place in the world, and a world to evolve towards a new era.
Like Soul Blazer before it, Illusion of Gaia takes a rather candid and mature approach to how it addresses its core theme. Although its localization isn’t nearly as good (barely just serviceable,) the central narrative is strong enough where it can make up for any nuances lost in translation. Illusion of Gaia is very visual when it comes to its story. There are quite a few moments when the text dominates the game’s pacing, but, for the most part, Quintet makes smart use of its set pieces to weave a tale that’s centered around time. Quite literally. Unlike most RPGs, time is a constant presence in Illusion of Gaia.
Will never shies away from letting audiences know just how long his adventure is taking. Early in the game, he and co-lead Kara are lost at sea for three weeks with players maintaining control during their voyage. Later on, Will and friends are lost in a cave for days on end. While the sequence isn’t as played out as the former, players do take control of Will during this time, allowing for some reflection on the passage of time. Far too often, RPGs— especially those of the era— simply allow the sun to rise and fall in order to telegraph the passage of time through shorthand, but Illusion of Gaia uses time as a means of character and plot development.
Will and Kara develop a romance not because they’re compatible, but because they spend three weeks alone together (and perhaps due to some light destiny.) Will doesn’t mature because of some crucial moment in his journey or arc, but because traveling the world for months while witnessing tragedy after tragedy will force anyone to grow up fast. It’s this emphasis on time that separates Illusion of Gaia from other coming of age narratives. Just about every member of the main cast grows up in some sense over the course of the game, but almost exclusively because it’s time for them to grow up.
Spending so much time with Lilly, Lance feels himself develop into a more in-tune and responsible young man. Growing up in the story proper thanks to an actual birthday the cast celebrates, Lilly lets go of her insecurities and stops using Will as a shield from the rest of the cast, personified through her relationship with Lance. Neglecting his family and home life for years, Neil laments how he distanced himself from his parents and accepts that it’s time for him to inherit the family business.
In the same way, most NPCs in Soul Blazer philosophically reflected on death, NPCs in Illusion of Gaia make mention of time rather often. Of course, due to the poor translation, said mentions aren’t nearly as insightful as they were in Quintet’s previous action RPG, but the script still manages to convey the importance of time as a theme. When NPCs do mention time, they’re prone to a bit of morbidity. In one of the last towns Will visits, an NPC tells Will that the women in his hut were born to weave carpenters for 40 years. While cruel enough in its own right to be born into decades-long servitude, the NPC twists the knife further by telling Will to remember that not everyone is born into a fortunate life.
Perhaps in another, lesser, RPG, this would result in Will saving the women from their fate outright, but who is he to fight against a culture behind the times? The very nature of Will’s journey likewise pits him against the clock. With a comet on its way to Earth, it’s only a matter of time before it forces mass evolution at a rapid rate, destroying Will’s world as he knows it and ushering in a new age without him or humanity. Humanity’s time has come to an end, but Will refuses to accept his fate.
Even then, fighting against the tide of time doesn’t result in a happy ending for Will or the world. In defeating Dark Gaia, the world nonetheless changes. Humanity remains intact, but time races forward to the late 20th century, leaving the fantastical setting behind. Trees are replaced by buildings, rivers by roads, but humanity remains. Will and his friends are together in this new world, but with none of their memories of the past. Will can fight fate, but he cannot fight the passage of time. One of the last sequences in the game sees Will and Kara witnessing the continents rifting rapidly from outer space, further cementing time’s presence in the overall story.
Just like how Soul Blazer integrated death into its core gameplay mechanics, so does Illusion of Gaia integrate time. Unlike Soul Blazer, however, Illusion of Gaia takes a more abstract approach to its theme. For most of the game, combat and dungeoneering are shared between two playable characters: Will and the Dark Knight, Freedan. A much taller and older character, Freedan, is heavily implied to be an older version of Will himself, willed into the world by Gaia in order to help Will on his quest. It isn’t exactly time travel, but— much like how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would use the same concept on a thematic and gameplay level years later— Freedan’s presence does tie into the overarching theme of time while giving players some much needed gameplay variety.
More importantly, time as a concept through gameplay comes not from the literal passage of time, but from reflections on eras of time. Every major dungeon in the game owes its influence to a different culture in history. Will traverses Incan Ruins, fights his way through the Angkor Wat, scales the Great Wall of China, and solves the riddles of an Egyptian Pyramid. Even the Sky Garden, the game’s most fantastical dungeon, is clearly based on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While most dungeons in the game tie into the theme of time by simply being an area out of time, the Incan Ruins go one step further by having Will interact with the Incas.
Upon completing the dungeon, Will meets the people of the Inca Empire, ready to sail off into the new world. On the ship, multiple NPCs interestingly allude to Will being the lost emperor of the Inca people. Considering Quintet’s heavy usage of reincarnation in their games, playing a key role in both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia’s ending, it can be taken quite literally that Will is the reincarnated Inca emperor, reuniting with his people one last time before continuing on his quest. It’s a moment that gets little to no narrative focus, but it’s an important thematic moment.
Time as a concept isn’t just about the linear or literal passage of time, it’s about looking back on what’s been lost to time. The Inca are gone; the Angkor Wat is littered with zombies and decay; the Pyramid is a testament to what happens when one’s time is up, and the Nazca Desert serves as the only proof that the Sky Garden ever actually existed. Time leaves history, culture, and people behind. The very ending of Illusion of Gaia suggests that Will’s journey, his struggled, and his past have all been lost to time in order to make room for a modern, industrialized age.
So long as people think they’re happy, they will be happy regardless of what time has taken away. But this is the wrong message to take away from Illusion of Gaia. Time marches on, but that doesn’t mean history needs to be forgotten. Before their reincarnation, Will tells Kara that he will find her in their next life. They might not remember each other, but he vows to track her down. After the credits have rolled, after the world has turned over, Will is reunited with those he lost. Time might pass the world by, but there will always be friends finding each other, there will always be couples falling in love, and there will always be a reason to reflect on what’s come and gone. That is the illusion of time Illusion of Gaia wants its audiences to reflect on.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?
From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.
“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”
The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.
Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.
However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.
At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.
“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”
The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.
On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.
Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.
‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror
If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.
RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.
Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.
Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.
The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.
The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.
Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.
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