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PAX West 2019 Spotlight: ‘World of Horror’, ‘N1RV Ann-A’, and Sukeban Games

Monstrous mysteries, cyberpunk bartending, and how to make waifu games: just another year at the Ysbryd Games booth.

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A week after the fact, my PAX roundup will finally be complete! While the last few articles have been a collection of the indie games I found to be the most interesting, I wanted to dedicate an article to Ysbryd Games. The self-described boutique publisher has consistently been one of my most anticipated booths each year at PAX (with good reason).

Ever since I first found out about VA-11 Hall-A a few years back, Ysbryd Games has been on my radar. Their list of published titles, while small, captures a unique brand of innovation and creativity. At PAX West this year I had the opportunity to not only play their upcoming releases, N1RV Ann-A and World of Horror, but to also sit down and talk with Fernando “IronicLark” Damas, the writer and programmer behind VA-11 Hall-A and N1RV Ann-A.

Exploring a Grim and Gruesome World of Horror

It’s been a year since I last tried World of Horror, and this new demo featured at PAX West 2019 truly lives up to the game’s name. Styled as a 1-bit PC adventure game, solo developer Panstaz has imbued World of Horror with a palpable sense of terror. The droning ambient soundtrack, the scratchy eldritch visuals, and bleak text create an aura of unsettling dread that immediately sucks you in.

World of Horror is built as an anthology of horror mysteries taking place in and around rural Japan. Panstaz’s draws heavily from acclaimed horror manga artist, Junji Ito, and it shows. In the developer’s words, the isolation of rural Japan -where Ito sets many of his stories- claws at an underlying fear present in all of us. When you run into trouble, there’s no one there to help you. No one to hear you cry out your last breath.

World of Horror’s grainy 1-bit aesthetic evokes both nostalgia and horror.

This year’s PAX West demo offered two stories: a repeat of the 2018 demo involving a scissor monster roaming school grounds, and a new adventure where you play Mimi, a young woman invited to attend the funeral of a grand-uncle she never knew she had. Mimi’s story eases you into a lonely world that crescendos into a Lovecraftian fever dream where corpses move, dimensions merge, and flesh demons yearn for death. 

Taking control of Mimi, you explore the mansion’s dilapidated halls through a series of maps and menus. Inspecting new locations progresses time forward and opens up new exploration options, unique events, and combat encounters. Like many other survival horror games, combat is tense and harrowing, pitting you against horrific creatures in turn-based battles. Your arsenal includes everything from the mundane to the mystical, depending on what you loot.

Gameplay largely occurs within the context of menus, whether that’s inventory management, exploration, or combat.

Several elements of the game, like pickups and encounters, are randomized, allowing for some degree of replayability. Due to the time mechanic, certain events may get locked out if you fail to complete goals in a specific order, which can lead to one of several possible endings. In my runthrough of Mimi’s story, she failed to properly perform funeral rites, her grand-uncle’s corpse disappeared, and the mansion entered a state of rapid decay. After fighting back shambling horrors with a bloody meat cleaver, Mimi peered into a black abyss that swallowed her whole, only to spit her back out. 

Everything about World of Horror, from its visuals to gameplay, embodies a philosophy of less is more. By providing just enough detail and mechanical depth, developer Panstaz has created a terrifying gameplay experience that will stick with you long after you finish playing.

Welcome to N1RV Ann-A 

Following on the heels of their first game, the massively successful VA-11 Hall-A, Sukeban Games is back with another installment of cyberpunk waifu bartending. The story this time around is about Sam, a cheerily wholesome bartender who works in a high rise lounge on the artificial island paradise of N1RV Ann-A. Like its predecessor, N1RV Ann-A explores deep sociopolitical themes in a stylish package, balancing it out with engaging mechanics, sleek retrofuturism, and cute anime girls.

Sukeban had previously shown off N1RV Ann-A at PAX East, with its expanded game mechanics a welcome change of pace for returning fans. This time around the demo introduces Olivia, an executive at a biotech company who carries more baggage than she lets on. Depending on how you converse with Olivia and what kind of drinks you make for her, she’ll respond differently to Sam. If you act coy with her and play it easy with the alcohol, she maintains a reserved, yet critical attitude of her corporate workplace. If you joke around with her and manage to get her sloshed, she loosens up and has an emotional breakdown over the choices she’s made to move up the ladder.

N1RV Ann-A gives players a new perspective in their return to this anime cyberpunk world.

As a visual novel, the core gameplay revolves around conversing with bar patrons and getting to know both them and the world around you. All of the text is character-driven dialogue, with bits of interactivity thrown in every few minutes. Here in the sequel, however, N1RV Ann-A gives you much greater freedom of choice in how that interactivity creates a relationship with your customers.

There are two core mechanics at play in N1RV Ann-A: bartending and reactions. Fans of VA-11 Hall-A will note the absence of the dangerously chemical-sounding ingredients like karmotrine, adelhyde, and bronson extract. In their place is a massive stock of ingredients; real liquor ranging from tequila to gin to actual factual beer. There’s more nuance built into the bartending mechanics, which in turn creates a greater sense of play. While there are cocktail recipes you can follow, N1RV Ann-A allows you to freestyle your bartending and create a drink you feel would fit a certain customer. 

You can get fairly granular with the drink mixing. Unlike in VA-11 Hall-A, you’re encouraged to mix off the cuff.

The second mechanic, reactions, occurs when you choose how Sam responds to something a customer has said. In the demo, for example, Olivia cracked a joke about the bar you work in being the setting for an old TV show. Sam could then either respond with a joke in turn, act clueless, or be flirty. It’s a small thing, but in a dialogue-heavy genre like visual novels, these bits of gamification greatly improve the gameplay flow.

Fans can rest assured that Sukeban Games haven’t been resting on their laurels. A short snippet of things to come, N1RV Ann-A’s demo proves that Sukeban aim to explore what the visual novel genre is capable of.

Sitting Down with Sukeban games

While the games were my main reason for visiting Ysbryd’s booth, the real highlight was speaking to Sukeban Games’ writer/programmer, Fernando “IronicLark” Damas. The first thing that stood out to me with Damas was his incredibly down-to-earth attitude. A few minutes into conversation with him and it was abundantly clear why: he never expected VA-11 Hall-A to reach even a fraction of the success it’s gotten. A longtime fan of Japanese media, Damas had simply set out with Sukeban’s visual artist, Christopher “kiririn51” Ortiz, to create a game that they would have wanted to play. The result was VA-11 Hall-A, a viral phenomenon that took the internet by storm.

When I asked Damas why Sukeban Games decided to include so many waifus (cute anime girls for the uninitiated), he simply grinned and pointed to his Gundam-adorned hoodie and t-shirt.

While playing N1RV Ann-A, it struck me how different it was from its predecessor. Sam’s cheery, friendly compassion stands in stark contrast to Jill’s dour, moody reticence. The pleasant familiarity of chemical pseudo-ingredients has been replaced with dozens of high class liquors, framed within a bright metallic interface. This was a conscious decision on Sukeban’s part: they didn’t want to trample on VA-11 Hall-A’s legacy. Rather, they wanted an organic opposite for their next game; the opportunity for a new experience in the same world.

This is no small feat for a narrative game, much less a visual novel where most of your playtime is viewed from behind a counter. Yet, as Damas puts it, that stationary perspective is his greatest asset. When writing VA-11 Hall-A and N1RV Ann-A, the Venezuelan writer looks at his cyberpunk anime world through multiple character lenses. 

In VA-11 Hall-A, Sei Asagiri gave us an on-the-ground perspective of Glitch City’s authoritarian police force, while Kira Miki shone a brilliant light on pop culture and music entertainment. N1RV Ann-A aims to accomplish the same level of narrative depth. In the first demo, players met Parka, an erotica author who laments the perception that creative work is inherently politicized. Now Sukeban has introduced us to Olivia, a biotech executive riddled with guilt at the people she’s stepped on to get to the top.

As Damas explained, this writing didn’t develop in a bubble. It shared a symbiotic relationship with game mechanics as the two developed in tandem, something which he feels is sorely lacking with many contemporary visual novels. There’s a distinct absence of context in VNs at large, a dearth of gameplay in what are ostensibly games. 

N1RV Ann-A builds on VA-11 Hall-A in subtle, yet effective ways, from attention to detail in the UI to more engaging mechanics.

Damas hopes that he can continue to push against the boundaries of the visual novel genre by creating consistently engaging mechanics that work with the narrative, rather than in spite of them. There’s a common misconception that streamers don’t play visual novels because they’re boring. Damas disagrees. Streamers don’t get tired of reading; they get tired of no interactivity.

With VA-11 Hall-A under their belt and N1RV Ann-A well on its way to becoming an instant classic, Sukeban Games has earned their meteoric rise in popularity. They’ve shown how visual novels can be more than just words on a screen or dialogue box choices. They’re windows into another world, an experiment in the power of narrative ludology.

Plus, it never hurts to have cute anime girls.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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The Best New Nintendo Characters of 2019

Here is something to believe in!

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Best Nintendo Characters

There are just too many Nintendo characters to choose this year…

When we first started tracking our favourite new Nintendo characters back in 2015, it was during the Wii U era and unfortunately, there weren’t many to choose from since Nintendo wasn’t releasing many games at the time. The opposite can be said for 2019 and now our staff has an even bigger problem which is deciding who to add to this list and who to leave out— which isn’t an easy task if only because Fire Emblem Three Houses features over fifty amazing characters to choose from. We considered including the entire roster, to be honest— back in 2018 our list of best new Nintendo characters included everyone from ARMS, but after much debate, we decided to instead, choose just a few characters from Three Houses.

What follows is a list (in alphabetical order) of the best new characters introduced to the Nintendo universe this past year — and yes Fire Emblem: Three Houses is heavily represented this

Bede Pokemon Sword and Shield

Bede (Pokémon Sword and Shield)

I’ll be honest, when I first saw Bede I questioned why one of my rivals was a granny in a pink coat. Turns out I’m an old man myself and my bias was showing, as Bede isn’t a granny but a young lad that was endorsed by the Chairman to compete in the Champions Cup.

Bede is one of the very few characters in Pokémon Sword and Shield that undergoes some development. He starts out as an arrogant, self-obsessed jerk and ends the game as an arrogant, self-obsessed jerk, just with the experiences of being thrown out of the Champions Cup after undergoing a brutal perfidy by the Chairman and his assistant. He later becomes the understudy for Gym Leader Opal, but his transition from a Champions Cup hopeful to a trainer with purpose is one of few elements of story that Pokémon Sword and Shield offers. (James Baker)

Bernadetta (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Bernadetta is an incredibly shy Black Eagles student who tends to stay in her dorm room whenever she can. She’s reclusive, anti-social and incredibly awkward, and I can say without any doubt that I’ve never related to a character so much before. Bernadetta is a noble teenager of House Varley who was treated terribly by her father as a child. To train her to be an obedient wife, he would tie her up and force her to be still and silent for hours. He also ensured that she didn’t have any companions, having the only friend that she ever had -a commoner boy- beaten almost to death. This instilled a fear of social interaction within Bernadetta. She assumes that she is constantly making errors, afraid to make friends in case they reject her or end up hurt and views herself as generally useless. I myself have suffered similar self-esteem issues (though not due to being tied to a chair for hours!) and I could genuinely relate to some of Bernadetta’s struggles. Her skittish nature and her awkwardness can be pretty funny- such as in various support conversations with the other students where she will freeze, scream or just up and run away from them- but as they progress they can become heart-warming.

Watching Bernadetta slowly open up to the students that she was once too terrified to even talk to is great to see. Finding her outside of her room whilst exploring Garreg Mach is also a lovely surprise. If interest is taken in leveling up her supports, the growth in confidence from her throughout is astonishing. What I really love is that it is realistic growth. As I said, I saw myself in Bernadetta a lot. I know that with these kinds of issues, you can’t move faster than one step at a time. This slow but steady growth is portrayed excellently with Bernadetta. Even if you get her to the maximum support with everyone possible, she still has her moments of fear and dread. She still has days where she wanted to be reclusive in her room. But, just as in real life, it’s okay to have those days. Her growth continues throughout and I remember feeling immensely proud of her after the time-skip due to her newfound battle confidence. She was no longer pleading to go home in her voice lines but instead cheering herself on when she was doing well. Though her shyness is often played for laughs, Bernadetta is a character who can show those with similar issues that it’s alright to take your time when it comes to overcoming your fears. One step at a time is more than enough and Bernadetta helped me realize that. Now if anyone needs me I’ll be locked in my room for the next 48 hours. (Antonia Haynes)

Claude (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

I can’t say enough about Claude von Riegan, the heir of the noble family that leads the Leicester Alliance and the fearless leader of the Golden Deer house. Of the three leaders of the three houses, Claude is by far the best. Don’t get me wrong, I love Edelgard and Dimitri, but Claude is the most charismatic of the bunch— he’s calm, cool and seemingly always in control. Yes, at first he may come across as lazy or irresponsible due to his nonchalant attitude, but we quickly learn he is far more astute than he lets on and always a few steps ahead of his peers. And unlike the other house leaders, Claude refrains from letting his personal feelings or his tragic past get in his way. In other words, there’s little drama to be found when spending time with Claude.

It helps of course that Claude is also strong, capable, intelligent, compassionate, quippy and downright handsome. I love his hair and his big green eyes but beyond his mysterious, sexy and charming demeanor is someone who deeply cares about the people around him. Claude’s support conversations are some of the most entertaining to watch and his voice acting is some of the most expressive in the game. Even Lorenz, who is arguably the most hated character in Three Houses, eventually falls for Claude’s charm –  and towards the end of the game, you can’t help but like Lorenz thanks to Claude who not only accepts him for who he is but helps Lorenz grow to become a powerful ally.

On the battlefield, Claude is an absolute beast. He specializes in the sword, bow and authority and can easily excel as a sniper, a deadly Swordmaster and/or an unstoppable Wyvern Lord. He’s a cunning strategist too, and he possesses a wealth of knowledge about his allies and enemies alike — and if that isn’t enough, Claude pretty much carries his team and leads them to victory in just about every battle.

But what I really love about Claude is that he’s a downright good person and unlike many of his peers, he does not relish in killing unless necessary. He also never once betrays any of his classmates and although he comes across as untrustworthy at the start, Claude ends up being the most loyal person in the entire game. Despite the school setting, Fire Emblem Three Houses is a story of war that tears people apart. Choices must be made. Ideals will be tested. Loyalty must be earned. People die and some kill—but despite the harsh realities of war, Claude never loses his way. He’s not just the best Golden Deer student there is, he’s also the best there was, and the best there ever will be. (Ricky D)

Cyril (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Cyril is one of the most polarizing recruitable characters in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and for good reason. He’s an incredibly hard worker who’s always busy in one way or another, but he can also be rather short with slackers or anyone who tries to keep him from his duties. There’s no place for laziness in Cyril’s world and, though he can be admittedly harsh about it, it’s a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude that’s rarely seen in modern JRPGs.

His hardened personality makes sense in the context of Three Houses, too. The victim of war between Fódlan and Almyra, he was an orphan with nowhere to go until Lady Rhea found him and took him in at Garreg Mach Monastery. Ever since then he’s worked tirelessly to serve Rhea keep Garreg Mach in the best condition possible. Cyril’s rather tragic childhood instilled values similar to Leonie’s: take nothing for granted and only progress through honest hard work.

Of course, Cyril isn’t perfect; his devotion to Rhea can be troubling at times, and it’s clear that he lacks standard social queues (in his defense, though, he is only 14 pre-time skip). Ultimately, however, he excels at being someone you can always rely on to tell it like it is. From chiding Hilda for being a lazy bum to delivering the fantastically relatable line “Why do I gotta talk about stuff I don’t wanna talk about just because you’re bored, Ignatz?” Cyril speaks the truth so many other characters simply mutter under their breaths. His support conversations with Manuela are simply icing on the cake. (Brent Middleton)

Dimitri (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

It’s safe to say that the Blue Lions are juggernauts on the battlefield and have earned a reputation as the strongest house in Fire Emblem Three Houses. Leading these noble warriors who serve the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus is none other than Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, the only surviving royal of the Tragedy of Duscur. Of all the characters in Three Houses, Dimitri’s story of avenging his parent’s death is by far the most compelling. Dimitri suffers from survivor’s guilt and despite growing up to become a sincere young man, the prince just can’t shake the ghosts of his past. Of the three leaders of the three houses, Dimitri’s has by far the best character arc, albeit tragic— as he goes from humble and down to earth pupil to a ferocious one-eyed warrior hellbent on getting revenge on those who wronged him and his family. In combat, Dimitri has incredible strength, the highest of any student at max levels, and has excellent hp, strength, speed, dexterity, and defense. He’s no doubt a great warrior but his journey is dark and twisted making him someone you admire, sympathize with, and fear. While Claude may be my favourite character, Dimitri is a close second. He’s the center of some of the best cutscenes in the entire game, including this scene which is my personal favorite. (Ricky D)

Dorothea

Dorothea (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Dorothea is the songstress of the Black Eagles House with a charming nature, desire for equality and a witty repertoire of quips. Despite her outwardly pleasant nature, it is what is underneath this charismatic exterior that makes her so endearing. As a commoner child, she was thrown out of her home alongside her mother by her father for not having a Crest. Her mother died and so she was left to fend for herself on the streets until she was recruited by an opera company.

As a commoner who was treated with such disdain, Dorothea would have every right to hold a burning grudge against the nobility. But she doesn’t. She holds a dislike to some of her fellow students but only the outwardly arrogant ones who flaunt their nobility such as Lorenz. She also has a dislike of Ferdinand but this is due to a misunderstanding when they were children and she was a street urchin. She has every right to be angry, bitter and callous. But she isn’t. She is reasonable, kind and caring. She usually gets the upper hand in most conversations that she has with her fellow students due to her street smarts, beauty, and intellect. But she is never arrogant about any of it.

Dorothea is flirtatious and flits from one suitor to the next, but this is only because of her crippling fear of being poor and on the streets again once her talent and beauty have faded. She longs for someone to have by her side as both a financial and emotional crutch which is honestly pretty realistic. Despite all her bravado, she is just a young woman with not quite as much self-esteem as you might think. She is a survivor but she is also desperate for love, security and a place to call home. Dorothea has worked her way out of poverty and she will do anything to ensure she doesn’t go back. The depth of her character is superb, with multiple layers to her personality unveiled in each support conversation. Loyal, strong-willed and compassionate, Dorothea is one of the best new Nintendo characters as well as one of the best Fire Emblem characters. (Antonia Haynes)

Felix Fire Emblem Three Houses

Felix (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

In a game loaded with interesting character contradictions, Felix may just be the most fascinating example of a person at odds with himself. While openly and brazenly despising the notions of idealism, knighthood, general likability, and sweets, this haughty swordsman is also a principled defender of the people, a fanatical trainer, a secret protector of his many childhood friends, and a possible fan of cake. The loss of his brother to honor has clearly cut him deep, but beneath the scarred facade of cynicism is a fierce, loyal compatriot who pretends he hates everything, but will die for those he loves.

More than anything, however, Felix is just plain entertaining in his resistance to connection. His standoffish demeanor and arrogance contrasts humorously with the more naive students (Bernadetta and Flayne), who remain oblivious to his insults while wrapped up in their own obsessions, and plays just as good (if not better) off those who call his over-the-top mean bluffs. Whether it’s Dorothea convincing him to drop the act and catch her opera, Ingrid (a reminder of his brother’s sacrifice) scolding him into remembering the amiable boy he used to be, or Lysithea convincing him to eat one of her baked creations, it’s both funny and poignant to watch this wounded young man’s pragmatic outlook be challenged by thrusts he can’t parry. (Patrick Murphy)

Ferdinand Fire Emblem Three Houses

Ferdinand (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

It’s easy to come to Fire Emblem: Three Houses with preconceived notions against the idea of a class of nobles who rule the populace while living in luxury paid for by the toil of their subjects, but damned if Ferdinand doesn’t almost make one want to believe that this system could work. Though his quaintly formal parlance at first comes off as cocky and elitist, and he is certainly is rife with ignorance when it comes to the lives of commoners, one quickly discovers that his belief in his overall purpose to serve and protect the population is completely sincere and utterly selfless. In short, Ferdinand might be the nicest, most honorable, most self-reflective character in the game.

He’s also one of the most endearing. Though his often complete obliviousness to his fellow students’ subtle digs at his idealism (Dorothea comparing him to a bee) provides plenty of comic fodder, and his lack of perspective causes hilariously goofy tripping over his own feet (‘helping’ Bernadetta), Ferdinand unceasingly continues to seek understanding of others in order to become a better person himself. And when tragedy strikes? He considers his own behavior and place in the world with such humility and rational analysis that it’s hard not to root for the guy to one day become the leader he so desires to be. Also, he apparently gives really good hugs. (Patrick Murphy)

Gooigi

Gooigi (Luigi’s Mansion 3)

Does a clone have a mind of its own? Is a facsimile anything more than that which it was copied from? Can a pile of animated snotty goop help a frightened plumber fight ghosts? These are the heavy-hitting questions that Gooigi inspires. It is true, technically Gooigi’s first appearance is in the updated 2018 version of Luigi’s Mansion for the 3DS, but it feels as if it’s here, in 2019’s Luigi’s Mansion 3 that Gooigi has become its own new and wonderful Nintendo character. Is Gooigi simply another ghost-busting trick created by Professor E. Gadd, or does he have a mind of his own? Is he Luigi devoid of all feeling, or is he Luigi bereft of all fear? In the moments when he liquifies through some doorway that Luigi could not go through, is he simply finding a secret treasure, or is he opening doors inside of Luigi himself? Such high-minded philosophy can be debated by sages for ages, but at the end of the haunted hotel, there’s a new fun character to play co-op Luigi games with who adds a unique twist to the gameplay mechanics. This new clone makes Luigi’s Mansion 3 even more fun than it was, to begin with, and that is a spooky goopy triumph. (Marty Allen)

Leonie (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Leonie (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

There’s no student in Fire Emblem: Three Houses that has as direct a connection to Byleth’s family as Leonie. Though her obsession with the player’s father, Jeralt, might be off-putting to some, it all starts to make sense the deeper you dive into her support conversations.

Leonie was only a child when Jeralt visited her village as a traveling mercenary, but he left a major impression on her nonetheless. In the short time he was there he taught her combat techniques and basic strategies, and by the time he left Leonie was so inspired that she decided to devote herself to becoming a mercenary just like Jeralt. Not only is her admiration of him touching, but the fact that she dedicated her entire life to become stronger and capable enough to get into the Officer’s Academy is simply astounding. As one of the commoners in the Golden Deer house, she truly had to fight tooth and nail to gain her spot.

Outside of her impressive backstory, Leonie is simply a great role in her own right. She’s studious, a hard worker, is incredibly frugal, and she never takes her opportunities for granted. Though she comes off as a bit of a tomboy in the first half of the game, Leonie also has one of the better post-time skip designs of the bunch. More than anything, however, her honesty and reliability are never in question for a second. If there’s anyone in Golden Deer that I could legitimately rely on to have my back, it’d be Leonie (with Raphael as a close second, of course). (Brent Middleton)

Best Nintendo Characters

Marianne (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

There’s no character in Fire Emblem: Three Houses that needs a hug more than Marianne. She’s also a character that didn’t appeal to me on her own, but rather how she interacted with others. Her low self-esteem and tendency to put herself down results in some of the most depressing support conversations in the game, and even the franchise as a whole. A classic example of the hedgehog’s dilemma, Marianne avoids getting close to others to avoid hurting them. Yet unlike many other characters in other media that exhibit such a trope, keeping such as distance causes her visible anguish that deeply resonates with the player, much to the credit of her voice actress, Xanthe Huynh.

That makes watching her fellow classmates gradually bond with her and pull her out of her shell all the more beautiful. Lysithea getting mad at her for not speaking for herself, Raphael sincerely trying to understand her hobby, and Hilda teaching her to not let people walk all over her were all pivotal in getting Marianne to accept herself and that manifests in such a pure way in the second act of the story. She exemplifies the stutter-step process of overcoming depression or severe bullying and that’s certainly not something I thought to be explored in a Fire Emblem game. (Matthew Ponthier)

Marie (Astral Chain)

Marie (Astral Chain)

Marie is at the heart of the otherwise underwhelming cast of Astral Chain. She’s unique in that she doesn’t carry weapons and never appears in combat scenarios; instead, she works hard to maintain Neuron Headquarters and keep everyone around her in great spirits.

It’s easy to brush Marie off as a simple gag character. After all, she’s first encountered masquerading around as Lappy, the energetic puppy-like mascot of the Ark Police Force and honorary member of the welcoming committee. Her tour of HQ—while trying to maintain anonymity as Lappy—isn’t just hysterical, but highlights just how hard she tries to make things fun for the officers on duty. For as pristine and beautiful as Neuron HQ is, the world outside those walls is on the brink of collapse thanks to endless attacks from otherworldly beings; keeping morale high is no easy feat.

Aside from learning early on that she’s secretly been rescuing cats around the city, the most endearing glimpses at Marie’s character don’t come into focus until relatively late in the game via several Public Affairs Records. It’s clearer here than ever that she thinks of everyone at Neuron as family, and that she takes the utmost pride in her work to support everyone from the sidelines. Just when the fight to protect the Ark seems futile, Marie’s there to remind you just how important your work really is. (Brent Middleton)

Morty Luigi's Mansion 3

Morty (Luigi’s Mansion 3)

Between the original Luigi’s Mansion to Luigi’s Mansion 3, the series went from slightly creepy to downright goofy. Both concepts work extremely well for Luigi’s Mansion and nothing highlights the hilarity that the series can bring more than Morty and his ghoulish Godzilla production.

All the ghosts have bags of personality but none are less threatening than our humble film producer Morty. Indeed, after helping him film his tragic Godzilla film, Morty just gifts Luigi the elevator button and glides on his merry way to produce his film. Naturally, as a keen ghostbuster, you’ll interrupt his hard work and suck him up regardless of his generosity; besides, it’s the easiest boss battle in the history of gaming, this ghoul struggles less than your standard Goob.

Whether the player decides to attack Morty or not, he remains the friendliest ghost in Luigi’s Mansion. His passion for film comes before any flyer on the walls reminding the ghosts to find Luigi. His reason to exist is his film and it made for some of the most wholesome gameplay in Luigi’s Mansion 3. (James Baker)

Shamir Fire Emblem Three Houses

Shamir (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

In a world with this much drama, it can be amazingly refreshing to run across a character who simply takes everything in calm, measured stride. Life happens, and Shamir is Three Houses‘ level-headed voice of reason, even when she can’t be bothered to utter a single syllable. This mercenary comes from another land, and often seems like a world apart; no one has less at stake in the events that take place, yet no one is as mysteriously compelling as this mercenary archer.

Sure, a few hints are dropped about the tragic fate of a former lover, and an amusing fear of bugs (which she still manages to be cool about) adds nice cracks to her otherwise uniformly steely armor, but so much is left to the imagination. What kind of life has she led until now? Why the distant demeanor? How did she become so skilled? The most telling and entertaining elements of Shamir’s character are garnered through her terse replies (especially the silent ones) to more bombastic characters, which at least indicate who she is, if not how she became so. Interactions with Raphael and Caspar also depict a person of such confidence and fairness that it’s no wonder why she is (sometimes to her annoyance) sought out as the wise teacher.

Battle-tested and pragmatic, Shamir establishes herself as someone who lives in the real world, is utterly reliable, and is a very welcome safe haven for those who need an occasional break from Three Houses‘ soap opera. (Patrick Murphy)

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From ‘dnd’ to ‘Death Stranding’: Good Old Fashioned Boss Fights

If Death Stranding proves anything, and it does, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.

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Death Stranding Higgs Boss Fights

There’s nothing quite like a good boss fight. With the creation of dnd in 1975– a Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG for the PLATO system– video games would be introduced to bosses. It’s hard to imagine the medium without bosses, those perpetual protectors of progress. For dnd, an incredibly primitive RPG, a boss allowed the game to feature these miniature climaxes — memorable events independent of the core gameplay loop. Bosses demand players pay attention or die, and beating one is a triumph in and of itself. Looking back, dnd’s concept of what a boss is amounts to little more than the average random battle, but video games could now build towards emotional highs like any other medium. 

A good boss can make or break a game, but they’re almost always a given. dnd essentially set an inherent basic of game design: video games have bosses. As the seventh generation of gaming ushered in more narrative driven and “cinematic” titles, however, boss design fundamentally changed. Where bosses had evolved from dnd to often serve as explicit rewards or a means to thoughtfully challenge a player’s grasp of the core mechanics, developers started to primarily embrace the “spectacle” of fighting a boss. 

Spectacle and boss fights naturally go hand in hand, though. After all, a boss is spectacle in nature. dnd’s spectacle is comparatively primitive, but it’s there and bosses do feel like events. Boss fights have always demanded our attention as an audience, isolating the world of a game into a singular objective. Some of the best bosses in gaming are almost pure spectacle: Baby Bowser in Yoshi’s Island, Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid. None of these bosses are particularly hard, but they make up for their lack of challenge with scale, scope, and gravitas. Spectacle. 

At the same time, they engage with the mechanics of the game even if they don’t outright challenge them. Of course, it would be disingenuous to go on without mentioning that all of these bosses appear near the end of their respective games. They’re easier and focus on spectacle as a means of rewarding the audience for coming so far. Anyone who’s played A Link to the Past in full will likely remember Moldorm as vividly as Ganon, but it’s the latter who fans will remember. Ganon is a spectacular duel to the death inside of a pyramid where the environment changes over the course of the fight. The former is just a good old fashioned boss fight. Who wants that?

As it turns out, a good chunk of AAA developers. BioWare director Casey Hudson infamously spoke out about boss fights after the release of Mass Effect 3, criticizing them for being “too video gamey.” While, contextually, Hudson’s comment refers to narratively convenient bosses specifically, it’s a sentiment that clearly rang true with developers throughout the late oughts & teens. This isn’t to say games with amazing bosses didn’t release over the course of the decade -– very far from it -– but boss design has changed, to the point where the Iggy Koopas and Revolver Ocelots of the world seem almost out of place. 

That’s just a consequence of consuming only AAA content, though. The indie scene has been thriving, and Japanese game development is the best it’s been in quite a while. In a generation where gaming is more mature and grounded than it’s ever been, the medium needed to end the decade with a reminder of video games in their purest form. Death Stranding is anything but, but its core philosophies play to the strengths of the medium with an evident passion. Death Stranding demands that audiences slow down and play by the game’s rules. 

In a generation where holding a player’s hand is the norm, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. It’s not only appropriately old-school, it’s a step back in the right direction. Like any facet of game design, bosses need to be thoughtfully considered. Being “too video gamey” can indeed be a bad thing depending on a titles tone, but swinging in the wrong direction and playing it too safe is never a good idea. Especially since Death Stranding proves mature, grounded AAA titles can absolutely still have the same over the top, pattern-based boss fights of yore — and comfortably, at that. 

“No BTs. No Voidouts. No bullshit. Just a good-old fashioned boss fight.”
– Higgs, Death Stranding (2019)

What’s interesting to note about Death Stranding’s boss fights is that they all play up the spectacle. Now, given the context that’s been established, that might seem like a step in the wrong direction, but any medium has to evolve with time. AAA developers haven’t historically used spectacle well, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Not every boss should be Ganon, but they should always be memorable. The problem with modern spectacle is that it doesn’t go beyond the surface level. It often carries little to no weight or context. Players are expected to care for the spectacle of the spectacle, but that’s simply not where the medium shines. Games are inherently about interconnectivity, and nothing demands more interconnection than a boss fight. 

From the moment players formally meet Higgs and he floods Port Knot City, it’s clear that Death Stranding’s boss fights are more Snake Eater than they are Peace Walker. They’re all incredibly meaty with tons of health, typical of a modern Hideo Kojima boss, but they’re not bullet sponges, and Sam’s limited inventory means that players will constantly be cycling through different weapons over the course of a fight. Couple this with bosses having identifiable patterns and Death Stranding’s boss loops end up being real highlights. 

As expected of a first boss, the Squid BT is on the simple side. At this point in the game, Sam really only has hematic grenades to fight back with. Anyone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to use the grenades are now forced to do so as it becomes the only means of making progress. Since Higgs also ambushes Sam, players won’t be prepared for a fight on their first playthrough, forced to scavenge the flooded environment for gear. Most bosses strip Sam of his gear, but this approach only results in tense, well crafted battles that offer plenty of variety. Should Sam already have grenades on him, players can rush in to fight the Squid. Should they not, however, they’re going to have to search while staying alive. 

Starting with the next boss, the first fight against Cliff, Death Stranding begins allowing players to choose exactly how they approach a fight. Much like in Metal Gear, there’s no right or wrong way to tackle a boss. Where bosses in MGS2 onwards could be tackled lethally or non-lethally, Death Stranding’s bosses are more about action versus stealth. Both approaches are totally viable, and they lead into their own isolated boss loops. As Cliff Unger hunts Sam through World War I era trenches, players can stealth their way around him or just dive in guns blazing. 

It’s an incredibly tense battle, but it doesn’t let the spectacle of the situation outdo the actual fight. Cliff isn’t a set piece even if he looks it. He’s a genuine boss and players have to play well to beat him. Stealthing around to hit him from behind is safer, but it means players will be fighting Cliff for much longer, requiring more mental stamina. On the flip side, cutting to the chase and unloading the moment he rears his head will end the fight sooner, but only for players who know how to get in & out of combat fast. Otherwise, Cliff’s personal army will slaughter Sam. 

Cliff is fought twice more over the course of Death Stranding, and each encounter builds off the last. The World War I trenches provided plenty of cover for players regardless of which approach they chose, so naturally the second fight takes place in a World War II city. There’s still plenty of hiding spots, but Sam is now out in the open. Just as easily as Sam can see Cliff, so can he be seen. Getting to Cliff is harder in general. Stealthing towards him means taking advantage of any and all blind spots, no matter how brief. Starting a gunfight either requires some pre-established course of action or quick reflexes. 

Death Stranding

By the third and final fight, Sam is taking on Cliff in an open Vietnamese jungle. Stealthing through and fighting back are both harder, but players will have built up the proper skills over their past two fights to adequately stand a chance. The fights against Cliff are the most video gamey Death Stranding ever gets, with each one sharing the same definable patterns, but they’re ultimately a net positive for the game. Having to learn a pattern, finding a way to fight back, and reveling in the scope of a great boss fight makes Death Stranding better on a whole. 

Honestly, the final fight against Cliff isn’t going to be a challenge for most players, but it’ll still stand out as a highlight. Each boss fight is a playground in and of itself. If Sam’s not being transported to a secluded battlefield, areas will be flooded with tar so that they can be molded into proper boss arenas. Even Dark Souls, a modern series that rightfully prides itself on its bosses, often won’t give the same level of care toward boss arenas. Good bosses need good level design just as much as they need good patterns. 

Perhaps more important than anything else, Death Stranding’s boss fights are long. Even if players know what they’re doing, they still have to endure an endurance match of sorts. Boss fights aren’t just about overcoming a challenge, they’re about surviving and making progress. Cliff’s not particularly difficult, but one mistake can result in Sam getting torn into. The majority of BT boss fights will try to overwhelm the player in the second half, the final one even featuring a nasty one-hit-kill that can easily sneak up on players wading through tar. Bosses should feel like events, from how players can engage mechanically, to how they’re presented narratively. 

No discussion of Death Stranding’s good old fashioned boss fights would be complete without mentioning the boss fight: Higgs. After serving as the game’s main villain for dozens upon dozens of hours, Sam finally gets his chance to fight back in a three phase boss fight that could have (very) prematurely ended the game on a high. Unlike the fights against Cliff, Sam really does have nothinghere, no matter what. He’s stripped of his gear, his weapons, and even BB. “Stick versus rope. Gun versus strand.” It’s a great way not only to wrap up Higgs’ arc, but it also challenges a player’s mastery of the most basic mechanics. 

Death Stranding

Phase 1 of the fight requires players understand not only Sam’s hand to hand combat capabilities, but his ability to throw packages. Throw a package at Higgs, beat him up, rinse, repeat. All the while he’s hunting Sam in one of the most constricted boss arenas in the game. Popping up too early means taking a few shots courtesy of Higgs. Popping up too late means needing to find him all over again. 

Phase 2 puts Sam on the offensive, and expects players to fight back with his strand. Higgs needs to be countered, hog-tied, and then kicked into oblivion. On-screen button prompts make the ordeal easier than it would otherwise be, but it’s thrilling to fight a boss who requires players to pull off reflex-based inputs that go beyond the typical QTE flare. Players need to set themselves up accordingly to counter Higgs, actively taking him head on. 

By the time fighting game health bars pop up for the third phase, it’s fairly obvious Higgs’ boss fight is a love letter to the very concept of the boss fight. It’s over the top, almost nonsensical, but it has the right narrative and emotional context to stand out as one of the best moments in an already spectacular game. The fight against Higgs is a miniature climax in a massive story that spans half a hundred hours, and is about to keep on keeping on for half a dozen more. 

Death Stranding

When it really comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong way to conceive a boss fight. Those spectacle bosses have their place, and this generation has seen a lot of amazing ones. What’s important is that developers build and contextualize spectacle accordingly. Boss fights aren’t just an inherent part of gaming, they’re a tool that can make a title better. Opportunities to shine light on the core mechanics, or an interesting aspect of game design. Death Stranding’s penultimate mission essentially pits Sam against a boss gauntlet across the entire UCA, a last chance for players to really indulge in everything at their disposal before the grand finale. 

Death Stranding would still be good without its boss fights, but it certainly wouldn’t be great. Each one elevates the game, not only by presenting a visually memorable and mechanically engaging challenge, but by existing as natural consequences of the story. Each boss is contextualized properly with enough weight where each victory has a considerable amount of impact. Boss fights have come a long way since dnd, but they’re recognizable for what they are: a reminder that games are games, and the medium should be embracing those video gamey elements. It’s through this “video gameyness” that the most memorable titles are made. If Death Stranding proves anything, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.

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Game Reviews

‘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.

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Life is Strange 2

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.

Life is Strange 2

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.

Life is Strange 2

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.

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