123 Reviews liked by DolorousWthVines
Lies of P
The student becomes the master overnight.
Lies of P is a game that came completely out of nowhere, left no impression on me beyond "why would someone make a dark, moody game about Pinocchio", and then managed to completely eclipse every expectation I had. I got back on Game Pass for Starfield and PAYDAY 3, and decided to give this a crack solely as a might-as-well-try-it; not only is this the better of those, it's one of the finest games I've ever played. I mean this honestly and heretically: it is better than all three mainline entries of the Dark Souls series.
Yes, Lies of P is derivative. No, this does not detract from its quality. The obsession with "newness", both as an inherent virtue and as something all creators ought to strive for, is an ideal forced to take root almost exclusively at the behest of European bourgeois Romantics all looking to (ironically enough) copy what Rousseau was telling them to do in the 1700s. Art as a whole has spent centuries upon centuries cribbing from other pieces to put itself together, and it's a fairly recent development that doing shit that someone else did but in your own way is seen as a failure of the artist. I, personally, do not care about this in the slightest. If you do, I would ask only that you examine why you believe this to be so; do you have a legitimate grievance against derivative works for any reason other than because others have told you that they're some synonym for "bad"?
Round8 Studio has come almost completely out of nowhere to deliver something that's immensely fun to play, narratively engaging, and utterly gorgeous in just about every area you can find yourself in. Any developer that can come out swinging this hard and connect with just about every blow deserves to be celebrated. There's a lot to talk about, and certainly a lot of it is in regards to the way that people are talking about it. I'll get my core thesis out of the way, first:
If you like Dark Souls, you'll probably like this game.
If you've made liking Dark Souls into a defining personality trait of yours, you're going to fucking hate this game.
Lies of P rides a fine line of being distinct, but not different. The overlap between FromSoft's PS3-and-onward output is broad, borrowing bits and pieces and rearranging them around; something similar to Sekiro parries, something similar to a Bloodborne dodge, something similar to the Dark Souls 3 enemy ambushes. But Lies of P is distinct enough in its execution of these elements that long-time Souls players will unilaterally be chin-checked when they try bringing over their muscle memory from these other titles.
Perfect guards are a guard, not a parry, and tapping the block button Sekiro-style will make you eat a hit. The dodge offers fast, generous invincibility, but it's never as safe as the one in Bloodborne is; enemies using their big red attacks will cut through your i-frames by design, encouraging you to either parry or move well out of the way. Enemies will usually come in ones and be very obvious, but many will hide just out of sight in the hopes of clipping players who haven't yet been trained to look around before charging past a blind corner. The game is uncompromising in demanding the player to meet it on its terms, rather than copying wholesale from the games that obviously inspired it and allowing the skills you learned there to completely carry over.
If you try playing this exactly like every other FromSoft Souls game you've played up to this point, you will lose, and hard. If you can not (or will not) adapt, you will probably get filtered out by the Archbishop and start publicly wondering why anyone likes this game.
There's a very strange — and frankly, it feels borderline dishonest — set of complaints I've seen where people are just outright wrong about the way the game functions, and they then use their incorrect assumptions as a base from which to knock on the game. I've seen complaints that large weapons aren't viable because you don't get poise/super armor on heavy attacks; this is blatantly untrue, and charge attacks with heavy weapons will regularly blow straight through an enemy hit. People say the dodge is unreliable, but it really isn't; if you're getting caught, you're either messing up a (fairly generous) timing or you're getting hit by red fury attacks, which the game clearly tells you cannot be rolled through. People say it's an aesthetic rip-off of Bloodborne, and this really only applies to a couple of the eldritch enemies; Parisian streets, circus theming, and fantastical automatons lend to a pretty distinct visual identity from any of the other heavy-hitters in the genre.
People say the voice acting is bad, but most of the cast is made up of established, talented stage and screen actors returning from other games like Elden Ring and Xenoblade Chronicles 3, where their performances were lauded; they sound borderline identical to what they've done since just last year, so what makes it acceptable there, and laughable here? People say the translation is bad, but I only noticed a single grammar mistake and typo in my entire playthrough, and they were both buried in the flavor text of a gesture; the rest of the writing offered some evocative lines that managed to bounce between introspective, beautiful, and the coolest fucking thing I've ever read in my life. Where are these complaints coming from? Did we play the same game? It makes no sense. I'm losing my mind trying to figure out how anyone even came to most of these conclusions. It really feels like the most vocal naysayers only played enough of Lies of P to come up with a few surface observations and then made up the rest wholesale.
None of this is to imply that the game is without fault, because it isn't. Boss runs are still present in all of their vestigial glory, consistently adding a mandatory and boring twenty seconds before you can retry a failed boss attempt. Elite enemies — especially in the late game — are often such massive damage sponges that it's a complete waste of time and resources to actually bother fighting the ones that respawn. The breakpoint at which an enemy gets staggered is a hidden value, so you're always just hoping that the next perfect guard will be enough to trip it; we've already got visible enemy health bars here, so I can't see why we don't get enemy stamina bars, too. (Stranger of Paradise continues to be the most mechanically-complete game in this sub-genre.)
For these faults, though, there are at least as many quality-of-life changes that I'm astounded haven't been adopted elsewhere already. Emptying your pulse cells (your refillable healing item) allows you the opportunity to get one back for free if you can dish out enough damage. Theoretically, as long as you can keep up both your offense and defense, you have access to unlimited healing. It's such a natural extension of the Rally system, where you can heal chip damage by hitting foes; Bloodborne's implementation of blood vials looks completely misguided next to this. If you have enough Ergo to level up, the number in the top right corner of the screen will turn blue, no longer requiring you to manually check if you've got enough at a save point. When a side quest updates, the warp screen will let you know that something has happened, and where to start looking for the NPC that it happened to.
It's a challenging game, but it really isn't that hard. I do agree with the general consensus that it would be nice if the perfect guards could be granted a few extra frames of leniency. I managed to start hitting them fairly consistently around halfway through the game, but it's going to be a large hurdle that'll shoo off a lot of players who don't like such tight timings. Tuning it just a little bit would help to make it feel a bit more fair without completely compromising on the difficulty. Everything else, I feel, is pretty strongly balanced in the player's favor; I got through just about every boss in the game without summoning specters and without spending consumables, but they were all there for me if I really needed them. I'd like to go back and play through it again, knowing what I know now, and really lean into the item usage. It's not like you won't wind up with a surplus, considering how easy everything is to farm.
I understand that Bloodborne is something of a sacred cow, especially on this website — it's currently two of the top five highest-ranked games — so anything that seems like it's trying to encroach on its territory is going to be met with hostility before all else. I understand. It's a special game for a lot of people. That said, I'd suggest going into Lies of P with an open mind and a willingness to engage with the game on its own terms; you might manage to find it as impressive of a work as I do.
Quartz is stored in the P-Organ.
A Circle of Charity
A Circle of Charity
Tales of the Abyss
Let me set the stage: you’re me, it’s, like, mid-2012. The only 3DS games you have are Kid Icarus Uprising and Fire Emblem: Awakening because you got the 3DS early because you thought the next Pokémon game after ‘HeartGold and SoulSilver Versions’ was gonna be on the new console. It wasn’t, and you should’ve learned back then there would never be any use trying to predict what the next Pokémon game would be. You’re also into anime, and your interest in JRPGs is skyrocketing, especially after said ‘Fire Emblem’ game and you’re looking for your next fix. Enter Tales of the Abyss. It’s a port of a PS2 game but you don’t know that. It’s part of a hugely successful series but it’s only hugely successful in Japan and only one game comes out in the west about twice a decade. You also don’t know that. You buy it pre-owned from GameStop because that’s how you buy every fucking game ever. But you knew that. This game would activate something in your brain that would never turn off, but it’s also something that wouldn’t click for a while, too.
I have a bit of a soft spot for this one because it was what got me into the ‘Tales’ series in the first place. This series would soon become monumental for me, both as an enjoyer of games and a writer of stories, as some of my biggest original fiction projects are very plainly inspired by some of the stories that make up the titular tales. However, I did get this game in a time where I was very bad at games. Especially JRPGs, I was undisciplined in properly leveling and growing characters, and really impatient about discovering where to even go. It wouldn’t be until years later, while struggling with Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, that I would finally rewire my brain in a way that would allow me to conquer any RPG I set my mind to. Back in the day, after getting stuck on one of the fairly early bosses in this game, I discovered that this game has a full anime adaptation. “Oh, well, I’m playing this game only for its story, so…” I’ve watched that anime a few times, and still regard its opening and ending songs as top brass. I have a real soft spot for this one.
Though, I haven’t experienced Tales of the Abyss in either game or anime form for quite a while. After beating Tales of Berseria earlier this year, I was really into the groove, and wanted to not only try new installments in this series that intrigued me, but also finally roll the credits on a couple of a others that sat on the shelf for a long time. After getting back into ‘Abyss’ and meeting all of the characters once again, I absolutely fell back in love.
Before I get into anything else, let’s talk about how weird it is that this is on the 3DS. It wouldn’t be the last PS2 game to get a 3DS port but in a time where Nintendo was putting only their flagship N64 games onto this little engine that could, it’s kind of wild that Namco Bandai would spring ahead a generation and put this game on this console in 2011. I’ve often regarded the 3DS as a bad piece of hardware in my reviews, because it is! Some of its best titles run like dog-shit-ass and this game is no different. It utilizes the touch screen extremely well (every JRPG should have a second screen with the world map on it, lol), and being able to set abilities to the touch screen in battles is also a very good idea! It’s a good port because it utilizes its new home well, but there were more than a couple moments of slow-down, textures acting oddly, etc. Battles run smoothly, and only when intense artes are constantly being cast during late game bosses does it ever get rickety. During cutscenes and story moments, there are only some moments of text boxes appearing in the wrong areas every now and then.
At the end of the day, they are just minor technical flaws that most don’t account for in their rating of a video game, and I only do because I like to think about all of the factors that make a version of a game perfect. In this medium where games are constantly updated, ported, remade, and remastered, I often find that the technical aspects of every version of a game are pretty important to consider. If a new version of this game comes out (extremely possible after ‘Vesperia’ and ‘Symphonia’ recently got the treatment), I’d buy it in an instant (and even a new console if I needed to).
However, while this 3DS port is touchy, technically, this game’s design is hit after hit. Combat is really fun in this game. After Tales of Berseria’s absolutely lightning-smooth combat blew me away, I was still excited to go back to something simpler, and I did end up appreciating it a lot. Having simple neutral moves streamlines the combat without making it feel any less intense, and while I can really appreciate the fully-customizable move strings in ‘Berseria’, this game’s combat had a real easy rhythm that made it always feel satisfying within its own bounds. Leveling felt really well-plotted and balanced, and I never encountered an area with oddly-high monsters or a boss that felt unfair or impossible. Some great scenario-plotting by the designers here, really.
A big improvement from other titles is the dungeon design, which was a huge weak point in ‘Berseria’ in particular. While some dungeons had very middlinh puzzles that just were not tantalizing, ‘Tales’ dungeons never really felt like they were about the puzzles, and a lot of the times they feel almost like a formality. Because then you have dungeons in this game like the Absorption Gate, which at one point during it splits your party into three groups, having you switch between them to let each group progress through the dungeon, testing to see if you’ve been splitting your play-time between different characters up until this point (I did! For the first time in this series). It really felt well in-tune of other aspects of the series’ overall design ideas and it was a real high point for me, gameplay-wise.
Something I will say was, coming fresh off a different ‘Tales’ playthrough, I attempted this game’s Hard Mode, thinking myself up to the challenge. Unfortunately it was absolutely miserable. It not only makes battles difficult but it also affects how much gold and experience you collect with each fight, so you’ll be grinding more just to buy more items to get through the tougher battles. Absolutely struggled with it, and once I switched to Normal I was having a fun time, finally. Less of a Hard Mode or more of a ‘Not Fun’ Mode, in my opinion and I cannot imagine a fan of this game finding it an enjoyable challenge in the slightest.
One of the best thing this game does, though, is respect the player’s time. You know those moments in RPG games where they’re like “ah, shit we gotta go back to this location we’ve been before!” and they make you walk back through all that square footage of game to where the characters want to go? Well, this game just puts you where it wants you to be sometimes. I know. There were multiple times where a string of story events would take you back and forth between familiar towns and the game’s scenario just has a really good sense what to breeze over. Sometimes it worried me, especially when it gives you those “do you want to just go back now?” prompts. I usually decline those in games in order to grind along the way, but I would just let the game streamline things for me and still I never fell behind, level-wise. Just gives you the juicy morsels, so this isn’t anywhere near becoming those walking simulators that 3D RPGs risk becoming during similar moments. Tales of the Abyss’ world is small, with about only a dozen cities and towns that make up the entire planet, and you’ll go to each town about a dozen times or more, and before (and even after) they introduce fast travel, the game will very often transport you themselves and it was such a breath of fresh air, let me tell you.
The story picks up fast and thanks to what I’ve mentioned so far, it very rarely slows down. I found myself giving long play sessions to this title because I was just constantly engaged in the story and never bored of the gameplay. A story that really stands out, starring Luke fon Fabre, the son of a duke with only twelve years worth of memories, devoted to his sword teacher, Vandesdelca Grants (cool ass fucking name). Luke fawns over Van so much and it’s the crux of the entite protagonist/antagonist relationship, and while the game picks up fast, I wish we did get a little more prologue where we really see how Van grooms Luke to eventually obey him when the time would come. Luke, still, is an insanely good protagonist. A unique one, too, because while most anime protagonists are scruffy, talented, chosen ones, Luke is literally a huge brat, insufferable and unsympathetic for hours of game time, and is quite literally the opposite of a chosen one.
I just find it really ballsy and worthwhile to make your main character a gullible, pathetic moron, and then also make him have a panic attack when he kills someone for the first time. A moment that the game does not breeze over, because something this game handles very well is the weight of death and violence. Besides all the guilt that we watch Luke bear, I’ve never seen a fantasy game (outside of the actual war sims like Fire Emblem (though, even then, only the best Fire Emblem titles do this correctly)) handle and translate the violence of war like this one. There’s a certain fully-animated cutscene that depicts just a battle between two countries that involves zero characters that we know, but it feels so real, and the game makes you witness all the violence that the humans of this world inflict on each other in a gutteral fight for survival and for country. Eventually, every character has a heavy weight they have to carry, usually revolving around a death (or countless deaths, plural) that they were somewhat responsible for.
The growth that Luke goes through, and the bonds that he forms with people who didn’t believe in him at all upon interacting with him for the first time, is worth it enough for me. Couple that with an amazing story and a battle system that is in depth, but not overbearing in the slightest, and you have one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played. One that conquers a hardware that holds it back slightly. This is easily one of the best games on this system and I will definitely be trying the PS2 version to see how it differs, and if there ends up being enough quality-of-life changes in this port to make up for its slight technical stutters. Though, despite it all, this is one of my greatests.
King's Field IV
Fallout: New Vegas
In twenty or thirty years, if the world's still around by then, I strongly suspect that Bethesda RPGs will exist in that particular space where those of us who lived through them insist to a skeptical audience of video game history enthusiasts how important they were. "You have to understand," we'll say, "I know they're unbelievably glitchy and they play like a bicycle with hexagonal wheels, but these were huge. EVERYONE played these." For all their flaws, these games defined a particular ideal of gaming experience not so much by what they were as by what they aspired (and inevitably failed) to be.
Of course, New Vegas isn't a Bethesda game. It was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and it has a distinctly different design sensibility. At the same time, it clearly is a Bethesda game: the expectations created by Fallout 3 and the constraints imposed by the engine itself make the moment-to-moment experience of playing much more alike its siblings than it is different. And so it exists in the liminal space of the cover artist, stuck with a song but still given the freedom to put their own spin on it.
New Vegas's spin is grand political struggle. Although other Bethesda games have their obligatory world-altering main quests, none extend so deeply through the vast game world or make it seem so much like a real place where real people are struggling with and against one another to make the best of a bad situation. The way it seeks to breathe life into the Mojave Wasteland is the heart of what sets New Vegas apart. Proper Bethesda games grasp desperately at an ideal of "realism" defined by interactive stuff: in the real world you go anywhere, talk to anyone, and touch anything you see, so the most realistic games must be huge maps littered with stuff you can pick up and people who will talk to you about arrows and knees.
My friend Bret and I call this approach "lumpy realism", after the mountain of discrete objects it engenders. And while New Vegas is beholden to lumpiness, it's mostly a trapping of its ancestry. It's more interested in what I'll call "decisive realism", the promise that the choices you make as a player matter in some deep sense. This is still an ideal whose shortcomings will always show the seams of artificiality, but it's also one that makes space for writing and plotting, the unsung heroes of the RPG genre.
For my money though, the most interesting thing about New Vegas is less what it tries to do and more the negative space left behind by what it doesn't try to do. Because it's less interested in leaving interactive stuff all over the place (and possibly because of development time constraints), it has a number of places that just exist. They're not part of a quest, they don't have lore, they're not meaningfully interactive in any way. They're just spaces and models and textures that exist for you to be near and look at. That's a sort of realism too, even if it's not intentional. After all, even though I could interact with anything in the world, in reality, I usually choose to just take it in.
Game that makes you wish big budget games did stuff like using all their fancy 3D models for some good old musical numbers!!! I feel like a lot of JRPG stuff is kind of deliberately pulpy in a way that musical stuff would fit. Fun cast and I appreciate the work that went into the Switch ports with the dubbed singing too.
The only downside is the game part of this feels like an afterthought. To an extent I'm thankful that the dungeons/battles are trivial, but I'd almost rather not have them at all because the strategy RPG gameplay here and dungeon design doesn't engage with that genre in a particularly meaningful way
I really like it! It's charming and sweet and has absolutely gorgeous music and the crafting system is a ton of fun and Nora is just really easy to root for. As a first crack at trying something like Atelier, it's really excellent and I'm super glad that the fan translation let me check it out after all this time.
That said it is HARD at times and doesn't really have the firm grasp on how to make difficulty feel fair that the Etrian Odyssey games (made by much of the same team) do, so some fights legitimately feel kinda unfair. With one particularly rough encounter taking place in one of the game's major towns, blocking you from using it until you can beat it, which can lock you out of a lot of valuable facilities.
But it's earnest and pleasant throughout, and it's really hard to not love it in spite of its missteps. It's a shame it never got any sequels or re-releases that could've cleaned up those issues, but if it ever does, I'll be there day one. For now, I'm just really happy that a game I've wanted to play for years is finally accessible in English.
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by TimAlien |