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The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the JRPG

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The genre of games known as the Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) has been a dominant force within the gaming industry for over 30 years now. While essentially a version of the RPG genre from Japan, it grew to be so much more than that to the thousands of gamers who fell down the metaphorical rabbit-hole into the Japanese imagination. Cue the consistently silent, wild-haired protagonists, tragic romance, and heart-breaking plot developments that have become synonymous with the genre.

Many have differing views on JRPGs, some people seeing them as an awe-inspiring adventure through a series of fantastical lands, while others, a confusing fever-dream. However, it is impossible to deny the impact that this certain type of game has had upon the entire medium. JRPGs have ebbed in their popularity in recent years, and one can’t help but imagine the crescendoing symphonic orchestra accompanying the fall of the front-of-the-shelf titles to the bargain bins.

Persona-5 review

It really seems as if the late 1990s to the early 2000s was the golden age for the genre with classics such as the epic Final Fantasy VII, as well as fantastic titles such as Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. After a period of seemingly slim pickings for JRPG fans in the late 2000s to the early 2010s, 2016 seems to be the promised year for the genre once more, with so many new games being announced. Particular titles of note include Ni No Kuni II, Persona 5, and even Fire Emblem: Fates. Only time will tell if this signifies another burst of JRPG releases in the years to come.

The Good Times

The JRPG genre has its roots in the late 1970s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s when the genre saw a sudden surge in popularity as landmark titles such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy made their way to Western shores. An exotic break-away from classic Western RPGs, companies such as Squaresoft, and Enix, whom would later conglomerate to become Square-Enix, played a massive role in popularizing the medium.

Upon thinking about why these games were so successful, it becomes clear that there are certain similar aspects of these games that can be attributed to their success:

1. The sheer amount of content

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The content poured into each game was incredible and was enough to keep anybody preoccupied for months, if not years. This was the point in the lifetime of JRPGs where it didn’t matter either. It was fully expected for a gamer to pump 100+ hours of their life into pushing a character the size of a couple of pixels around a world that looks like it was created entirely using a two-tone colour palette, and it would not sway them from their purpose. The pacing of the game was reasonable and allowed the player to become well-versed in each aspect of the game before it threw you into something new. The amount of content was acceptable because the design of the games made sense. It never expected the player to suddenly become used to an un-introduced feature.

2. The most crucial component of the genre, fantastic characters

Chrono-Trigger

More often than not, the plot of the games themselves were long-winded and implausible at best. However, the characters are so individual and ‘alive’ in everything they say and do, it’s a struggle to find fault in their design. The characters of early JRPGs were each special unique snowflakes in their art and their motivations. There was a time when each character had such a deep development that their morals, values, attitudes, and beliefs were all identified to the player. The protagonist was usually silent in order to allow the player to impart their own emotions onto the character in order to enrich their involvement within the game. To counter-act this silence, the enhanced development of the supporting characters was essential in developing a close player-character connection. The extent of each game’s success in attempting to achieve this link varies, but the successful games find that their game is not only remembered more fondly but also the morals within the game will have a stronger effect upon the player.

3. Simple, intelligent gameplay

Link-to-the-Past

The gameplay of original JRPGs were fantastic. There was a good understanding of the fact that the gameplay, sensibly, makes the game playable. While a considerable amount of these games were turn-based in their formula such as Pokémon, games like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past express this well in their simple but responsive combat, a factor that makes confronting enemies enjoyable.

It is these aspects that make these older JRPGs so successful. Unfortunately, it is also the attempts of the newer games to emulate and improve upon these factors that has ultimately lead to their failure.

The Bad Times

Then came the late 2000s to the early 2010s. While there were definitely still JRPGs being released into the market, there is a considerable decrease in the amount of games that the community can safely proclaim as being ‘well-loved’ by all. The successful games from this ‘era’ that have attracted ‘cult’ followings largely owe this to their idiosyncrasy from the norm.

This can be attributed to a certain range of factors. When looking at direct contrasts between the ‘90s to the 2000s, it becomes clear what some of these are:

1. A continued effort to produce an over-abundance of content within these games, with little to none of the original charm

The Witcher 3

Unfortunately, these later iterations failed to prevail against the greatest disappointment of all, monotony. Whether it be game systems, or complex mini-games, some JRPGs shove as much content as possible into the game in order to elongate play-time, at great risk of being tedious. Many of these games failed to understand that ‘kill x amount of y monsters’ and ‘Help find my brother/sister/mother/father/pet/lunch quests’ are not enjoyable. They are the bane of the genre that force you to waste your time back-tracking through areas that are lifeless and boring in order to gain a reward that is purchasable in the next town for a small fee anyways.

2. Use of character tropes

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While characters are an essential part of creating an enjoyable JRPG, it is entirely ineffective if every character in the game is a re-hash of an old game character that was successful at the time. The character was successful at the time probably due to the fact that s/he was unique and interesting. By this point, it is almost a given that a JRPG will include an innocent, naïve protagonist, a jaded man wearing glasses, a younger sister figure and a strong, burly man or woman whose intelligence is consistently in question. Each of these characters will have different hair colors, ranging from obnoxious green to hot pink. The villain will have an androgynous tone and will wear such a radical costume that there is never any doubt to his evil. Because fashionable people can never be evil. A questionable message to put forward.

3. The inclusion of hopelessly complex game systems designed to ‘set the game apart from the rest’

Stats

There is nothing worse than being 20 – 30 hours through a game and still being force-fed tutorials about aspects of the game you’re yet unfamiliar with. The idea is to introduce the players to the systems used early on and then allow them to develop their understanding of the nuances of the game. It is NOT to slam forty pages of solid text explaining an alchemical crafting system in front of the player and expect them to have the patience to accept it. A further frustration in this is if the combat system of the game is particularly complex. If a gamer struggles to understand how to play the game, they will also likely struggle to understand how to enjoy the game.

It may be an over-simplification of the times to divide the success of JRPGs into two distinct time periods. After all, many good JRPGs were released in the late 2000s and early 2010s such as Persona 4 and Ni No Kuni. However, there is a clear trend to be observed in the concentration of ‘well-received’ games by the community within these times and the prevalence of annoying factors such as these described here.

The Hopefully Good Times

The next few years seem to be filled with many promising JRPG titles, mostly continuations of well-founded series. The headline act of 2016 is occupied by the next iteration of the most successful JRPG of them all, Final Fantasy XV. Accompanying this is Persona 5, the fifth iteration of a series that in some gamers’ opinion, is superior in its dramatic story-telling and character development. Furthermore, there is the long-awaited Fire Emblem: Fates (for PAL regions anyways), Ni No Kuni II, Bravely Second: End Layer, Dark Souls III, and (perhaps) Kingdom Hearts III to name but a few.

Dark Souls III, in particular is a further continuation of From Software’s ultra-hard frustration-athon. While lacking in heavy character development, it creates such an ominous atmosphere that one can’t ignore the beauty of its design and its rich lore to be discovered. It is exciting times for JRPG fans as developers seek to concrete their game’s own unique style within the continuations of their series.

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While only time will tell as to whether or not these games will fill the void in many gamers’ hearts for a pure JRPG, there will certainly be enough content to be kept busy for a long while.

Japanese role-playing games are to video games, what fantasy is to books. It is clear from the very beginning if it is a good one or not. They are, more often than not, two times as large as the rest. And they will be accompanied by six further iterations to create a lore that even three hours spent poring over the Wiki page won’t help to decipher.

When somebody said a new JRPG was coming out, it used to mean something. It used to signal the coming of an emotional rollercoaster that would leave you physically and mentally drained with an inbox full of emails from concerned friends and family. Recently, it felt like it lost that meaning. There is hope now however, that the coming years will bring that back. For better or for worse.

Marcus Caravella, a self-proclaimed 'gamer' whom is atrocious at any game that requires actual skill. Loves anything turn-based or role-playing. Needless to say, most-loved genre is turn-based RPG. From Perth, Western Australia, he prefers to spell words like favourite and colour exactly how they should be spelt.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Belinda Brock

    December 8, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Simplified but very accurate. I love JRPGs for their stories and characters.

    One more factor that could be considered either good or bad, is that, unlike western RPGs, JRPGs have no replay value. They’re once-off masterpieces that throw our emotions around the room the same way Hulk threw Loki around in Avengers. If the story is weak, finishing the game even once is a mission. So one could criticize the lack of ‘choice’ (a modern western trend, which allows for, essentially, a new game every time you play), or you could praise the fact that a unique story should only be experienced once (I think this is the intention of most JRPGs).

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together

Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.

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Death Stranding

Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death. 

Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.

Death Stranding

This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s. 

Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.

The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.

Death Stranding

The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .

In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.

Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope

One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community. 

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.

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‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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