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‘Soul Blazer’: A Candid RPG about Life and Death

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“Like good sleep comes after hard work, good rest comes after an honest life.”

At first glance, Soul Blazer doesn’t leave much of an impression. After all, the Super Nintendo was never in shortage of top down action games. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Soul Blazer’s sister game, Illusion of Gaia, catch the eye quicker than Soul Blazer every could. There’s a very isolated quality to Quintet’s sophomore outing. At the same time, it’s exactly this quality which makes Soul Blazer so compelling. On a platform so full of life, in a genre that— at the time— was so intent on creating full worlds, Quintet opted for an RPG completely devoid of life.

Starting up, the world is empty. There are no NPCs littering the overworld, there are no shops, and the only guiding point the player has directs them below the surface to slay monsters. Death has taken its toll on the land and left nothing but nature itself in return. Much of the game’s introduction is slowly spent showing the scope of death. Humans have died, animals have died, and plants have died. It is the onus of the player to reverse death and restore life to the land. For as morbid and twisted as the premise is, an easy to overlook opening actually shines light on the rest of the experience.

Soul Blazer’s frankly casual opening won’t elicit much emotion, but Quintet’s depiction of death and rebirth is not an emotional one. Rather, the introduction serves to showcase death as a natural part of existence. It isn’t so much that death is unavoidable— a fact the story does linger on quite frequently in passing— but that death often occurs without much fanfare. Truly, the opening cinematic grants no fanfare to how the world ends, instead stating it in a matter of fact manner, an approach Soul Blazer is quite fond of.

It can be easy to dismiss Soul Blazer’s casual approach to such a hefty subject as a sign of the times, an indication that developers weren’t quite treating their stories with as much respect as they should or could, but that would be a gross misunderstanding of the narrative’s style. Considering how matter of fact death is depicted, a more sensationalized or romanticized depiction would fly in the face of the core themes at play. The one major death that occurs on screen won’t strike up any tears, but that isn’t its purpose narratively. Soul Blazer is a title that takes the emotion out of death to show it in its purest form.

It’s fitting, then, that players take control of Blazer, a character who cannot die. Divine in nature, Blazer, too, is devoid of emotion, simply existing as an arbiter of life. In order to restore life to the world, Blazer must kill swarms of enemies in order to reclaim lost souls. Appropriately, enemies who breed new life do not respawn, instead remaining dead for the rest of the game. Death’s permanence isn’t shown through the player character, but through enemies.

Which, in turn, is a strange approach for an RPG. In a genre that often features grinding, said approach to game design effectively locks players from progressing further than they’re expected to. While not every enemy stays permanently dead, the ones that do respawn tend to offer the bare minimum in terms of EXP, hammering in the idea that death is omnipresent. If nothing else, the fact that only the loss of life can lead to the restoration of life makes for a powerful frequent concept in the context of Soul Blazer.

Although some NPCs return to life specifically to aid the player on their quest, most simply exist for flavor text. They don’t advance the plot, they don’t bestow the player with newfound power, and they don’t lead the way to a new area. They only exist for their dialogue. Where the majority of NPCs fail to linearly progress the game, they almost always expand the core theme of death. A character may lament about the finality of life. Another might take bliss in the idea that, despite their imminent death, they have no qualms as they live each day to its fullest. Some might just comment on the suffering that goes hand in hand with living.

What makes these moments powerful isn’t an emotional center or character attachment— in truth, even the most unique NPCs are as bland as they get— except in the candidness with which they discuss death. Death is a casual subject, one that almost feels inappropriate when compared to other games from the era. There is a distinctly mature approach to the script. Soul Blazer is comfortable in its subject matter in every respect and wants players to understand the sheer scope of death. Even though much of the game is spent reversing it, there is never a moment that shies away from reminding audiences that they will die.

With that in mind, what does it mean to die in Soul Blazer? As a game about death, it’s only fitting to break down how death is fully represented. Gods clearly exist in the world of Soul Blazer, but there does not seem to be a conventional heaven or hell. Reincarnation exists and is a natural course of life, but one’s memories don’t follow. Death is cyclical in a sense, coming and going like an ebb and a flow. When one’s life dies, another is born (or reborn.) Perhaps the most interesting approach to death comes through the Gnomes.

The wardens of the fourth area Blazer visits, the gnomes are born, live, and die within a single year. Spending time talking to said gnomes shines lights on their struggles, or lack thereof. The recurring thread tying the gnomes together is the fact that their culture openly embraces the idea that they will die within a year. With only one year to live and die, the gnomes choose to live their lives as blissfully as possible, taking comfort in their fate and pursuing their passions. It doesn’t matter that they’ll die in a single year. What does matter is that they choose to live as much as possible.

Life’s fullness isn’t tied to time, at least not in Soul Blazer. More time seems like a natural blessing, but the gnomes are proof that life can be fulfilling regardless of how much time is lived. This is a concept the final boss directly comments on, suggesting that Blazer’s eternal life is nothing short of misery. For as much time is spent reversing death, Soul Blazer wants its audiences to understand that death is by no means bad. It almost seems paradoxical, then, that the premise of the game is more or less a revenge story against death itself, but that’s fitting when taken into account the varied depictions of death.

It only makes sense to rebel against death, and who better to rebel than the person holding the controller? Soul Blazer is not a particularly difficult game, but players will still likely die at least a few times on their journey, another inevitability. When a player dies, loses, or gets a game over, the natural response is to overcome said failure. If the premature death of the world in Soul Blazer is a failure, it only makes sense that the core gameplay premise will resonate with anyone familiar enough with the medium. Soul Blazer’s story could be told in any medium, but only a video game medium showcases the weight and scope of such a premise.

Which more than makes up for the cold approach to storytelling at play. Regardless of how deliberate Soul Blazer’s presentation is, audiences naturally resonate more when they can directly relate to the characters and conflicts at play. Even other RPGs from the time were already playing up more traditionally gripping narratives. Just a year prior, Square released Final Fantasy IV, complete with full character arcs, an emotional center, and more than its fair share of plot twists. Soul Blazer, by comparison, doesn’t come off in the same league.

At the same time, it isn’t trying to and that in itself is important to recognize. Soul Blazer didn’t follow the trend of increasingly dramatic RPGs. Rather, Quintet saw an emphasis on narrative rising and chose to embrace the style and little else. At the end of the day, the plot is hardly the most important aspect of the narrative. What gives Soul Blazer pathos is the casual philosophies NPCs are more than happy to share. Life may be impermanent, but that hardly has to be a bad thing.

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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‘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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‘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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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

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Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

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The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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