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‘Secret of Mana’: Understanding one of the “Best Games of All Time”

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did.

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Wikipedia features a rather interesting page titled “List of video games considered the best.” Compiled by cross-referencing different publications’ editorials of the greatest games ever made— typically top 100 articles— said list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most influential and genre-defining video games spanning nearly half a century. Simply skimming the list with some video game knowledge or context, it’s not hard to understand why games like Pong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda are listed. Not only are they important games that helped legitimize the video game medium, they’re also all mechanically refined to the point of still holding their overall quality today. Then there are games like Secret of Mana

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past perfected an action-adventure formula that would be used for years; Super Mario World fine-tuned its platforming to near-perfect precision, essentially forcing Nintendo to have to go 3D with their next mainline entry; and Final Fantasy VI more or less set the foundation for Final Fantasy VII to take the stage all while being a tremendously high-quality RPG in its own right. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, has no real legacy outside of being a good SNES RPG. 

Which is arguably an issue with how the Mana franchise was handled in the west. A sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. More importantly, it’s the game that sets up Seiken Densetsu 3 (now titled Trials of Mana) mechanically. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana was not released outside of Japan until June 2019. As a result, it only makes sense Secret of Mana would lack a legacy of its own. What directly followed Secret of Mana internationally was Legend of Mana, not Trials, a game that didn’t build itself on Secret’s foundation. 

secret of mana

More importantly, Secret of Mana is an interesting case on the “List of video games considered the best” page as general consensus very much deems Trials of Mana not only the better of the two games, but the best entry in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. Where a compelling case could be made for Super Mario World and Final Fantasy VI being better than their 3D successors, Secret of Mana doesn’t afford the same luxury. Not only because its direct, mechanical sequel was never released outside of Japan, but because Trials of Mana is just such a clear improvement all around featuring better gameplay, a better story, and better music

That said, this train of thought ignores a very important aspect of game analysis: video games are more than the sum of their parts. Due to the advancement of technology and the relative infancy of the medium, video games are at a stage where they seemingly benefit most from sequels. After all, a sequel can iron out any mechanical kinks that slipped through the first go around. This is exactly what Trials of Mana does, laterally and logically improving Secret of Mana, but it isn’t Secret of Mana. When it comes down to it, there’s only one Secret of Mana and, for all its flaws, it will forever be considered one of the best games of all time. Why and how, though? 

After all, Secret of Mana isn’t just overshadowed by its direct sequel, but by its sister game as well: Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately for director Koichi Ishii, Secret of Mana was being developed for the Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter, an add-on for the console that would have made use of the “Super Disc.” As the peripheral was being developed by both Nintendo and Sony shortly before they parted ways, Secret of Mana had to be trimmed down considerably with roughly 40% of the game being scrapped. Of note, in “Retro Gamer”’s February 2011, Ashley Day revealed that producer Hiromichi Tanaka not only planned for the story to be much darker, but for there to be multiple routes and endings ala Chrono Trigger

secret of mana on the snes

With 40% of the planned game gutted to fit on a Super Famicom cartridge, Secret of Mana was at a disadvantage at release and it shows. As soon as players gain access to Flammie, any sense of direction or pacing is thrown out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the late-game focus on exploration as a crutch to overcome nearly half a game’s worth of missing content and story. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Secret of Mana was developed in an era where game development was limited in general. The Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter would have certainly helped bolster the game, but true creativity shines when artists need to be mindful of what they can and can’t do. 

In a September 2006 interview Swedish magazine “Level,” Koichi Ishii specified that Secret of Mana was “his game” in the context of his career. Even without 40% of the game’s planned content, Secret of Mana still represents the director’s vision in earnest. Although Ishii would go on to direct Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana, he interestingly left Seiken Densetsu 3’s director role for Hiromichi Tanaka, opting to instead serve as the game’s character and game designer. As a result, even on the Super Nintendo, Secret of Mana feels distinctly unique when compared to its immediate successor. 

When it comes down to it, understanding Secret of Mana’s status as one of the best games of all time necessitates an understanding of Koichi Ishii’s direction. Worth noting, Ishii did direct the original Seiken Densetsu for Game Boy, a title that featured a classically tragic story where death was a natural occurrence alongside Final Fantasy iconography and an almost western cartoon aesthetic. Starting up Secret of Mana, the aesthetic is very much alive, if not more so, thanks to its vibrant color palette and festive score, but there’s a distinct difference in how Secret of Mana presents its narrative. At first, at least. 

Final Fantasy Adventure wastes no time cutting to the chase, opening with a boss battle outright and killing the character who’s meant to be the protagonist’s best friend. The English translation does muddy the impact quite a bit, but the game’s visual style of storytelling does preserve the intent. Secret of Mana, however, kicks off with a fairly middling opener. After a title crawl that explains the game’s backstory and lore, much of the early game is spent dealing with lower stake encounters. No one dies, antagonists aren’t fully identified for quite a while, and the saddest thing that happens is the protagonist Randi being kicked out of his village, something he seems to accept rather quickly. 

It certainly doesn’t help that Final Fantasy Adventure puts its best foot forward while Secret of Mana front-loads its worst content right at the start of the game. Things don’t really start to pick up until the full party is formed, and it isn’t until players can access to magic that the gameplay opens up meaningfully. Until then, players are left running back and forth between Pandora, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace, and the Haunted Forest far longer than they perhaps should. Which is actually an incredibly important detail to consider. 

What Secret of Mana unquestionably has over its predecessor, and arguably even its successor, is the promise of scope. Cannon Travel may just seem like a clever way of tossing the party around the map, but every time players use a cannon, they get a glimpse at the world around them. There’s more to Secret of Mana’s overworld than meets the eye, and spending so much time in the starting area only makes finally leaving it via Cannon Travel all the more impactful. More importantly, this style of pacing allows the game’s scope to grow naturally. 

Although many might argue that an ebb and flow would have ultimately benefited the game’s pacing, much of Secret of Mana’s identity is tied to a sense of escalation. As the story progresses, stakes do raise. Randi’s role in the plot becomes much clearer, Primm’s romance with Dyluck is explored in more detail, and Popoi gradually becomes a more realized character. They’re a rather bland party in the grand scheme of things, no doubt due to a mix of the script’s rushed localization and the missing content, but there are surprising nuances and layers to each character. 

While Tanaka did serve as a writer for Secret of Mana, Ishii’s character direction nonetheless shines through. In many respects, Randi’s arc follows many of the same beats Sumo’s did in the first game while also relegating his growth to the background. Someone simply rushing from point to point likely won’t even recognize that either character grows during the course of their journey, but slower, attentive players will gradually see Randi mature up until the very end. It isn’t a particularly compelling arc, but it’s an interesting one if only because it isn’t on the nose. 

As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, though, Ishii’s creative vision is at its most clear in the moment to moment gameplay. Tanaka may have intended a richer narrative when first drafting Seiken Densetsu 2, but the fact of the matter is that story never would have been the priority with Ishii serving as director. IGN named Koichi Ishii the 97th best game creator of all time in 2009 and rightfully so. Ishii’s gameography places an emphasis on titles that understand the heart of the medium: interactivity. 

No, running in and out of Gaia’s Navel isn’t particularly engaging on a surface level, but learning the area while uncovering a new culture is. There might not be much in the way of party interactivity, but the fact that every character has weapons they can level does mean there’s a constant sense of progression. Doubly so when taking into consideration both Primm and Popoi’s unique magic leveling. The antagonists lack a compelling motivation, but that hardly matters when the game makes an active effort to depict them as a legitimate threat, going so far as destroying the Mana Tree near the end of the game. 

The Mana Tree specifically is an interesting beat to linger on as it’s perhaps the best example of Ishii’s direction in action. Over the course of the entire game, players are told that their only hope is restoring the Mana Sword in order to stop the Mana Fortress’ revival. Closer to the end, the heroes latch onto the idea of using the Mana Tree to power up the sword, a concept that would bare a considerable amount of meaning for anyone who played Final Fantasy Adventure. The journey to the Mana Tree is a grueling one, done entirely through gameplay, and it all ends with a quick scene of the Mana Tree being eviscerated before the heroes can properly arrive. 

In a game where improving one’s weapons is a core mechanic, there’s something very powerful about watching the one thing that could have powered up the strongest weapon in the game being taken away at the last possible moment. Pure Land is the longest dungeon in the game, featuring six bosses and an onslaught of enemies in-between. With barely any dialogue happening in the dungeon, the story plays out through gameplay exclusively up to the point the Mana Tree is burned down. This is a trend that Secret of Mana uses for most of its dungeons, allowing gameplay to take center stage, but it pays off most when the stakes are high and telegraphed clearly through gameplay. 

mana tree

All that said, while Ishii’s gameplay leads to incredible moments, the gameplay itself would need to be quite good to pull off such a feat. Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s core combat isn’t all that intuitive, but it is something better: interesting. What Secret of Mana will always have over its far more fluid successor is the stamina meter. An impatient player will find themselves immediately frustrated with the fact that Randi can’t just wail on enemies that should be dead in a few seconds flat, but that creates an intimacy not just with the combat, but with the enemies inhabiting the overworld. 

Secret of Mana’s combat lives and dies by its natural rhythm. Randi, Primm, and Popoi can attack at any time so long as their stamina meter is full, but they have to wait through a cool-down before they can strike again. Enemies also stagger when hit, meaning that players also have to wait for monsters to regain their composure before they can be attacked again. It can be called padding as it forces the player to spend more time with the game than they’d otherwise need to, but a little bit of patience is hardly a bad thing. Secret of Mana is an adventure, and adventures take time. More importantly, this back and forth adds to the idea that Secret of Mana takes place in a living, breathing world.

Alongside the stamina meter, attacks can be charged up in order to inflict more damage. The higher the weapon level, the longer the weapon can be charged. By the end of the game, charging up one’s weapon is incredibly important when it comes to dealing damage. As the game progresses, how someone plays the game is bound to naturally change, either out of necessity of curiosity. For as interesting as the stamina meter and charge-up system are, it’s the vast variety of weapons that keeps Secret of Mana so fresh. With eight different weapons to choose from, players have full range over how their party controls. 

Randi will need to use the Mana Sword during the final boss fight, but it’s anyone’s game up to that point.This goes double for Primm and Popoi as they have their own sets of magic to level and use. Not every weapon or spell is necessary for completing the game, but they’re not useless either. No two playthroughs need to be the same, and it’s entirely possible to get through Secret of Mana focusing on just about any weapon or spell. Secret of Mana, by its very nature, is a game that gets better the more it’s played. Koishi Ishii’s touch is one that lingers all the way to the very end of his games, and Secret of Mana is the clearest depiction of his vision. 

It’s entirely possible that if Trials of Mana released in the west in the mid-90s, it would have usurped Secret of Mana’s place on Wikipedia’s “List of video games considered the best,” but ideally both RPGs would be featured. Secret of Mana might be as hyper-competent on a mechanical or narrative level, but not every game has to break the mold to be considered a classic. Likewise, Secret of Mana does not need a legacy that extends past itself. It’s an incredibly important entry in the Mana franchise, one that would directly influence what’s considered to be the best game in the series, but it’s also its own game with its own vision. A gripping, charming, and at times even frustrating adventure that understands its medium better than most, Secret of Mana might not be one of the best games ever made, but it is undeniably one of the best games of all time.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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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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‘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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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

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.

Yaga Game Review

“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

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.

Yaga

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.

Yaga Game Review

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.

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