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Year in Review: The Winners & Losers For PlayStation in 2017

Let’s cast our minds back across the last twelve months and take a moment to remember the winners and losers for PlayStation in 2017.

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Well, it’s that time of the year again. Christmas is just around the corner. Here at GoombaStomp HQ we bloody love Christmas, and if you don’t, and you don’t have a great excuse like that girl in Gremlins, then frankly we don’t know what to say to you. It’s the one time of year in which it’s socially acceptable to be drunk at all hours of the day and to have a breakfast that consists of nothing but chocolate and miniature pretzels. It’s the season of mulled wine, pigs in blankets, good will to all men, and rewinding and rewatching that bit with the bricks in Home Alone 2 with tears in your eyes. Honestly, if Daniel Stern getting whacked on the head with bricks over and over again doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirit, then damn it, Jim, I don’t know what will.

Still, December isn’t all eggnog, mince pies, and arguments about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie – which it obviously is. It’s also the season for hastily thrown together list articles and year in review pieces. And what a year it’s been. Mm-mhmmm. What a corker. One day in the far flung future, when Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have obliterated the world in atomic fire over an argument about who has the stupidest hair, we’ll be looking back on 2017 with our radioactive mutant children, telling them all about what a great year for video games it was. Sure, everything else in the world might be well and truly fucked, but at least we got some kick ass games this year. And isn’t that what really matters? The answer, of course, is no.

PlayStation in particular has had an incredibly strong year in 2017. While just how well Sony has done this year might have flown under the radar for some since Nintendo and Microsoft had shiny new consoles coming out to steal a little thunder, it’s still been one of Sony’s greatest years ever. The array of games that have hit the PS4 in 2017 has been mind-boggling and wallet busting, while sales for the four year old system show absolutely no signs of slowing down. 2018 looks to be another winner with a plethora of exclusives scheduled to release for PS4 over the next 365 days, but for now, it’s the past we’re concerned about, not the future.

So let’s cast our minds back across the last twelve months and take a moment to remember the winners and losers for PlayStation in 2017.

WINNER: Persona 5 Is One Of The Best JRPGs Ever Made

Not featured in image: The talking cat.

When Persona 5 landed early in the year it somehow managed the semi-impossible task of living up to – and perhaps even exceeding – the ridiculous level of expectation placed upon it by fervent supporters of the long running JRPG series. If you’re not one of us dorks that has been playing these games since back when Hitler was in them, up until the fifth installment your only knowledge of the Persona series likely came from dorks like us constantly harping on about great it is. Well, our perseverance apparently paid off, because Persona 5 was regularly sold out shortly after release as demand for the title was beyond anything Atlus anticipated.

If you’ve managed to completely miss out on one of the year’s best games (or maybe even the best) then allow us to give you the elevator pitch: a bunch of Japanese high schoolers are granted the magical ability to enter the subconscious mind of evil doers in order to steal the malicious intent within, forcing them to confess their crimes. So it’s kinda like Inception in reverse. Only there’s also a talking cat in it.

Persona 5 is the slickest and most stylish game of 2017, with a killer cast, a compelling story, a fantastic battle system, a ludicrously catchy soundtrack, and a talking cat. The cat talks, people.

WINNER: Crash Bandicoot Is Back

Man, the ’90s were so wacky. Just look at how wacky Crash is. He’s so wacky.

Honestly, if I’d had to put a bet on before The N-Sane Trilogy released, I would have gambled my bollocks that Crash Bandicoot was going to crash and burn critically and commercially. Once again, I was spectacularly wrong. The remastered Crash Bandicoot trilogy was greeted with a warm reception from critics and settled at a “generally positive” 80 on Metacritic, but it sold like hot cakes, with the general public’s penchant for nostalgia helping to ensure that the Bandicoot will almost certainly live to fight another day, and all but guaranteeing there’ll be more games in the franchise coming sooner rather than later.

Crash Bandicoot’s return to PlayStation country wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Millions of people around the globe slapped the N-Sane Trilogy into their consoles expecting to be treated to a wonderfully old school platforming experience, only to discover that old school platfomers were harder than a coffin nail, and Crash Bandicoot was absolutely punishing. Not only that, but thanks to the less angular design of the titular Bandicoot in the modern remake, it was actually harder to land some jumps than it was on the already controller-snappingly tough original. Ouch!

Crash Bandicoot’s 2017 return from the vault of forgotten heroes was a surprise hit, and the ludicrous amount of money that the orange marsupial has generated has already got Activision talking about which other dead and buried series’ they can try to resurrect next in order to milk your nostalgia udder dry. Until then, while you’re contemplating smashing your living room to pieces after falling off the bridge on The High Road for the 4,000th time, you can always take solace in the fact that I got the platinum trophy in Crash Bandicoot. Just sayin’.

LOSER: A Disappointing E3

I don’t even think Square Enix arsed themselves to turn up and announce a game that won’t be out for a million years at this E3.

It feels kinda nit-picky to even consider Sony’s E3 presser a negative, since it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. But in the four years prior to E3 2017, Sony unleashed some of the best press conferences the gaming industry has ever seen, including one that is widely regarded as possibly the best of all time. Sony’s games games games mentality has been winning the hearts of gamers around the globe for the last couple of years, and so perhaps expectation for what E3 2017 would deliver was a little too high, and perhaps their own past successes worked against them, but it’s hard to look at this year’s conference as anything other than a disappointment.

The games they showed off looked great, but we already knew about practically all of them with them being announced at previous pressers. At their E3 shows in years gone by they’d made blockbuster announcements for games like the Final Fantasy VII remake, Shenmue III, and the aforementioned return of Crash Bandicoot, but this year was sadly missing the surprise factor, with only a remake of Shadow of the Colossus managing to raise a mildly astonished eyebrow.

The games we saw looked lovely, and 2018 bodes well for PlayStation with God of War, Detroit and Spider-Man all slated to make an appearance, but after a string of stellar press conferences, a merely decent one felt massively insufficient in 2017.

WINNER: PlayStation Sales Are Out of Control

Don’t try this at home, kids. You’ll break your necks.

PlayStation 4 is, again, the best selling console of the year – a statistic that comes with the caveat that the impressively selling Nintendo Switch has faced multiple stock shortages and didn’t release until March. While a lot of people have been gushing over how well the Switch is selling and others are wondering how the bumper-priced Xbox One X will do without much in the way of exclusives, the PS4 has stealthily had its best year since launch. Somehow, incredibly, the sales for the console are up year on year again, with the fourth PlayStation now clocking in at over 65 million units sold. For those of you keeping score, that means that at its current rate of sales it’ll probably overtake the total number of PS3 units sold sometime next year in roughly half the time on sale. Cha-ching!

Where it stops nobody knows. Depending on how long it is before Sony unveils the PlayStation 5, it seems likely that the PS4 will outsell practically every other console barring Sony’s own PlayStation 2, which we all got bored of counting sales for once it hit 150 million. There’s probably no touching that one. But it’s not just PS4 that’s allowing the Sony top brass to swim around in money like Scrooge McDuck. PlayStation VR is selling surprisingly well too, to the point that some at Sony have even begun to lament a lack of serious competition. While Vive and Oculus have the edge in terms of power, the more affordable and user friendly Sony future-goggles have had more mainstream appeal than team PlayStation anticipated, and PSVR now commands over 50% of the market share when it comes to virtual reality hardware. That’s a lot, by the way.

Virtual reality headsets have been adopted more readily than a lot of people imagined, which indicates that Sony were wise to hop aboard the VR train early. VR may very well be the future, and not just for video gaming, with daft goggles perhaps eventually providing those unable to travel because of disability or laziness an avenue to see sights they’d otherwise not be able to, to go to concerts half-way across the globe, and to be in the front row at Wrestlemania without running the risk of being hit by globules of sweat or spittle every time The Rock slaps someone. For now, though, just be content that you can live as an artisan cheesemonger in Skyrim VR if you so wish.

LOSER: Vita is dead. Forever.

I was going to use an image of Kenny from South Park here, but then that would imply that Vita has the chance to come back to life.

While the PS4 and PSVR are doing very well for themselves in terms of sales, profits, and worthwhile games, the PlayStation Vita is, officially, deader than disco. Now, I love disco, and I love my PlayStation Vita, but while as a piece of hardware it’s one of the best handhelds ever made, as a gaming platform it’s a bit of a gigantic failure. A solid build and a gorgeous screen are all well and good, but if there’s sweet Fanny Addams to play on it then it’s just an incredibly good looking paperweight, isn’t it? Console gaming on the go was the initial promise, which obviously sounds like a stupid idea which is why nobody bough- hang on, the Switch is doing what, and is selling how many?

The fundamental problem with Vita – or, at least, one of them – was made abundantly clear to all and sundry the second that Nintendo Switch landed on our very shores. Console gaming on the go is a neat idea, but there actually needs to be console quality games that matter released for it in order for it to work. While Vita was getting Uncharted spin-offs that don’t really count, and appalling Call of Duty games that don’t play anything like their home console bigger brothers, Switch is getting mainline Zelda and Mario games. And sure, as a Switch owner, I think the games control like hot garbage when in handheld mode – although, perhaps that’s just my big sausage fingers – but it doesn’t matter. Those are the main entries in beloved series’, and not spin-offs shat out by third-tier studios. Half-arsing it isn’t good enough, and that is just one of the many reasons that Switch is a hit and Vita will be lucky to outsell the Wii U.

RIP, Vita. Now let’s have Persona 4 Golden ported to PS4 so I can fire my Vita out of a cannon and into the sea, to be forever lost to Davy Jones’ locker.

WINNER: The Lost Legacy Proves The Uncharted Series Can Live On

I wish, just once, that they’d resolve their issues through diplomacy rather than just blowing everything up.

After the Uncharted series was officially finished forever way back in last year, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy came out this year to remind us that if something makes money it will never, ever die. The Lost Legacy started life as a DLC mission for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, but the project grew in scope and ambition until it was considered hefty enough to be released as a standalone game. The only problem is, how do you continue a series without it’s main protagonist, who’s story was wrapped up neatly in the last game? Well, apparently, you promote a couple of side characters to top billing status, and you blow a bunch of shit up real good.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a winner not just because it was another wonderful Uncharted adventure, but because it proves the long-term viability of the franchise even without its star, Nathan Drake. Uncharted is the sort of series that could go on forever, and likely will, as long as it keeps making money. There could be more adventures for Chloe and Nadine, or perhaps we’ll see some starring Sam and Sully. Maybe a future Drake will take over the reigns of the series, or perhaps we can go back into the past and see Sully in his early years fighting the good fight for fortune and glory.

The options are potentially limitless, but whatever they choose, as long as we get to hang out of the back of fast-moving vehicles, explode things dramatically, and occasionally offer a cheeky one liner, the future of Uncharted as a series is looking rosy.

LOSER: Cross-Platform Play PR Blunders

Sony’s Jim Ryan hasn’t been Don Mattrick bad in 2017, but he’s dropped enough clangers for us to be a little worried.

Sony decimated the competition at the beginning of this console generation thanks to a winning combination of listening to their fans, sterling PR work, and all of their competitors simultaneously, and repeatedly, shooting themselves in the foot. As far as console wars go, this one is long since over. Nintendo has already abandoned ship on the Wii U, and Microsoft is hiding sales figures because they *wink wink* don’t matter, and they’re definitely not *wink wink* just treading water until they think they can announce the Xbox Two without facing consumer backlash. Sony’s PR game has largely been strong this gen, but as their sales figures have been rising so have their egos, and they’ve mis-handled a couple of things this year.

Cross-platform play has been a bit of a hot button topic in 2017. Microsoft has said that they want Xbox players to be able to play online games with PlayStation players, because they’re always thinking of you, the gamer, and not because they’re getting obliterated in sales. Weird how they never mentioned any of this stuff back when the Xbox 360 was cleaning house and Sony was actually doing cross-platform play with Final Fantasy XIV. But hey, maybe I’m just being cynical.

Anyway, nefarious intentions or no, Sony’s handling of whether or not to adopt cross-platform play with Microsoft as well as PC has been pretty poor. The reason why they don’t want to makes perfect business sense – players who like online gaming are more likely to buy the console that’s sold more, an advantage that would be negated if you could play with your friends regardless of which console you bought – but for whatever reason they didn’t just say that. They offered numerous cack-handed half-answers that all sounded like bullshit because they were, well, bullshit. Let’s hope that these PR blunders aren’t indicative of a return to the mentality of the old, early PS3-era Sony who thought it was totally okay to tell you to just get a second job if you couldn’t afford their ludicrously overpriced console. Gaming doesn’t need that Sony. Nobody needs that Sony.

WINNER: Horizon Zero Dawn Has Robot Dinosaurs In It

Oh snap!

Oh hey, did you hear that those guys who made Killzone are doing a post-apocalyptic open world game? You mean the guys behind the drabbest shooter in Christendom are mixing the most overexposed genre and the most overplayed setting imaginable? Oh, color me excited. But then you find out it’s got robot dinosaurs in it and suddenly the game sounds one billion times more exciting.

From the moment Horizon Zero Dawn was announced – and looked absolutely fucking incredible – it seemed poised to become Sony’s next, big, post-Uncharted franchise as long as Guerrilla could pull the trigger on the fantastic concept. Well, pull the trigger they did, repeatedly, Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled style, until everybody and their mothers knew that there was a new sheriff in town. Horizon wasn’t perfect – the combat against human enemies was dreadful, for instance – but it ticked enough of the right boxes to be a sure-fire hit, and to set more than solid foundations for an inevitable sequel or three.

The open world is beautiful, the characters are interesting, the protagonist goes on a compelling journey, and fighting robot dinosaurs is seriously fucking awesome. Horizon absolutely delivered, and if it hadn’t had the rotten luck of being released like four minutes before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild it could perhaps have made an even bigger splash. As it is, it still wound up an indisputable winner for Sony in 2017, and the future for Aloy and her robot dinosaur buddies looks very bright.

WINNER: YOU

Awful. Just awful.

Seriously, remember when Time magazine pulled this shit? Ridiculous as that was, if you’re a gamer in 2017 you really are a winner, unless you’ve got no money, in which case you’re like Charlie Bucket at the start of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, watching all of the other kids eating delicious candy bars with burning, murderous rage in his eyes. But let’s say you do have money, which means you’ve been treated to a bunch of amazing games this year. Congratulations, you. Sony’s 2017 line-up has been incredible. Most of the multiplatform games that came out this year will be covered in more detail in the Xbox year in review article presumably, or it’d be like three sentences long, so we’ll just skim past them all, and a couple more exclusives right here, shall we?

Nioh took the Dark Souls formula to feudal Japan, and was awesome no matter what features editor Mike Worby tries to tell you. What Remains of Edith Finch took the walking simulator genre to giddy new heights, while Nier Automata wowed critics and gamers alike with its unique approach to storytelling. The Stormblood expansion for Final Fantasy XIV further cemented its place as one of the best online RPGs on the market, Final Fantasy IX saw itself get a lick of paint and an absolutely awful trophy list as it made the jump to PS4, and Final Fantasy XII looked better than ever (and sold well, too) in the remastered Zodiac Age earlier in the year.

Resident Evil VII was one of the first games to offer players the option to play the entire campaign in virtual reality, while Skyrim VR breathed new life into the five year old RPG via the medium of PSVR. Wolfenstein II caused controversy by suggesting it’s totally okay to fuck up Nazis, which is more of a sad commentary on the state of the world in 2017 than it is of the gaming industry, while The Evil Within 2 improved on the solid foundations of the original game, resulting in a superior sequel. Pillars of Eternity made the jump from PC to PS4 with ease, giving us one of the best role playing games available on console this generation. There was also appearances from Everybody’s Golf, Nex Machina, Injustice 2, Undertale, Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 0, Wipeout, Hatsuna Miku, Danganronpa, Superhot, Tekken 7, Hellblade, Assassin’s Creed, Rime, Gravity Rush 2, South Park, Zero Escape, FIFA, Life Is Strange, Telltale’s Batman, Call of Duty, and… breathe… it’s been a real good year.

LOSERS: The Dregs

Valkyria Revolution is an action RPG in which there’s no action, and the role playing sucks.

Well, they can’t all be zingers, can they? For as good as the year has been in terms of quality games hitting the PS4 at a regular pace, there’s also been some bum notes that have left gamers a little upset. Gran Turismo Sport wasn’t savaged by critics upon release, but it didn’t result in the critical circle jerk that its predecessors did, while Knack II fared well critically, but absolutely bombed in the shops, proving itself to be the video game equivalent of an answer to a question that nobody asked.

Perhaps the biggest dud of the year was EA’s space shooter Mass Effect Andromeda, at least until EA’s space shooter Star Wars Battlefront II came out. The former was besieged by a tortured development cycle and the finished product felt like the husk of a Mass Effect game, gutted of practically everything that made people fall in love with the series in the first place, while the latter was a game ostensibly built as a Trojan Horse for the express purpose of tricking people into paying for micro-transactions on a biblical scale. The Internet booted off about both of them, and rightly so. The biggest disappointment for me personally was the remaster of PaRappa the Rapper – AKA the greatest game of all time – which wasn’t adjusted to take into account for the input lag that comes as standard with high definition television sets that weren’t available when the original game released, resulting in a rhythm game that can’t keep time.

Valkyria Revolution was an action spin-off to the tactical RPG Valkyria Chronicles series that was awful on every conceivable level, and it would have been my pick for the shittest game of the year, hands down, if it wasn’t for Road Rage. That’s a bike combat game like Road Rash, except it’s called Road Rage, and it’s absolutely fucking dreadful. Take my word for it, kids. It wouldn’t be worth playing if it was free. They should pay you to play it. And handsomely, too.

There were probably more rubbish games released in 2017, but let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. It’s been a great year for gaming, and one of the best years in PlayStation history. We hope you’ve got a bunch of these wonderful games sitting under your Christmas tree. Except for you, Kevin Spacey. You’re getting a copy of Road Rage.

How did you like 2017? Raise a glass of sherry in the comments below.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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Game Reviews

‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed

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Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason. 

Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched. 

As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans. 

aria of sorrow

Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.

To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way. 

Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team. 

Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was. 

Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into CastlevaniaAria of Sorrow

Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system which allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore. 

For such an all encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll. 

With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony

While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone. 

aria of sorrow

Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series. 

Of course, the high quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout. 

And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets. 

That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.

Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again. 

Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted. 

They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s. 

Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa. 

Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius. 

aria of sorrow

These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest. 

Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offer a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania

When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened inbetween. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best. 

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Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Best-Video-Game-Soundtracks-2019Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Gordy Haab and Stephen Barton and the London Symphony Orchestra (and London Voices at Abbey Road)
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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