Birb Friends Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the sixth 3D installment of Nintendo‘s beloved Legend of Zelda franchise and a follow up to 2011’s Skyward Sword. Releasing on the Wii U and Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, Breath of the Wild sparked the same kind of joyous fervor that every new Zelda game musters. Heralded as a return to the “open air” design sensibilities of the original Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild is an open world adventure game with environmental puzzle solving elements. Contrasting with its most recent predecessor, Breath of the Wild is almost entirely free of linearity, giving the player the freedom to approach problems however they want. That being said, the story and meaning behind the game seems ambiguous and empty because of it.

To detail my experiences with Breath of the Wild, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Logo
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Zelda site)
Technical Proficiency: 83/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 89.25/100

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  • Style Score: 87/100
  • Animation Score: 90/100
  • Purpose Score : 90/100

Breath of the Wild’s visual style is very reminiscent of Skyward Sword albeit cel shaded and less saturated this time around. Low color saturation coupled with very basic textures and high quality lighting effects causes many areas and materials to appear claylike in game. This is far from a bad thing however, and sets the tone for many of the playful and creative interactions to come. Beyond that, Zelda’s style is faithful to the previous installments with intricate gothic designs flooding the Zora Domain with cool colors, mysterious yet utterly human adobe structures rising from the Gerudo’s sands, primitive and searing stacks of stone radiating beneath the Gorons on Death Mountain, and towering wooden huts spiraling up rock spires for the Rito. Even beyond the four races, each linked to an aspect of Hyrule through both their divine beast and specific stature (water, earth, fire, air), there are many beautiful Hyrulean vistas inspired by real life locales. Marshes, forests, snow capped mountains, plateaus, and more exist in this game. Filled with stunning lighting and particle effects that could only live in a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild receives a 87/100 for visual style.

From leaping Lizalfos to slumping Hinoxes, galloping horses to flying herons, every animation in Breath of the Wild shows an incredible attention to detail that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Many open world experiences of its magnitude have countless animation bugs and glitches but during my playthrough, I not only failed to encounter a single one but also spent far more time watching animations than I ordinarily would have. Guardians in particular entranced me with their multiple legs moving in unison and flailing as they burst in blue flames. Nothing in Breath of the Wild feels stiff or lifeless, and for that it receives a 90/100 in the animation category.

There was never a time while playing Breath of the Wild that I felt the game hadn’t told me what was about to happen. From enemies reeling back to swing, shoot, and lob, to lines of electric energy on the ground, everything the player needs to know is visually related to them. Each collectable item even has a helpful sparkle small enough not to cause frustration but visible enough to help you find every bit of loot at your disposal. Map pins and markers are also available to give extra clarity to the location of places seen easily from a height but impossibly on the ground level. Leaves, cracked rock, the classic red barrels, and lustrous metal clues the player into the options they have when approaching any given situation. For this, Breath of the Wild receives a 90/100 in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 79.33/100

  • Music Score: 79/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 90/100

After the fully orchestrated soundtrack of Skyward Sword, fans of the Legend of Zelda’s memorable and soaring themes might find themselves disappointed with Breath of the Wild’s mostly minimal piano riffs and entirely synth based soundtrack. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild’s music is full of memorable themes such as the swelling and anticipatory main theme, the frantic brass piercings of the Hinox battle theme, and the ponderous and heavy movement of the Talus battle theme. Despite this, Breath of the Wild’s musical strength comes from its sensitivity to the player’s actions. If Link is trying to keep quiet, the music will die down to add tension to the moment. If Link is approaching battle, the music will shift to a thematically appropriate theme for that enemy. Because of Breath of the Wild’s lackluster music (in comparison to previous Zelda titles), it receives a 79/100 in the music category.

Similar to the quality of animation in Breath of the Wild, sound effects abound with such a high attention to detail that I’ve yet to play a game that rivals them. From horses panting and clopping with each clop ringing in your ears at the exact moment a hoof strikes Hyrule, to shattering weapons and ticking guardian lasers, every sound effect you hear lets you know about your surroundings. Breath of the Wild develops a world so realized that each animal has a specific set of sounds as the leaves rustle and fall from the trees. Ambient and gameplay sounds are only one half of the equation though, and the voice acting is monstrous. It seems that a mostly talented voice cast working with less than direct translations received sub-par directing for their lines. Misplaced emphasis, awkward tone qualities, and much more could have been eliminated from the performance with a simple request for another take with different directions. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

In terms of variety in sound, Breath of the Wild is on very stable footing. Short piano riffs coupled with swelling brass movements and airy flute melodies meant that newer digital styles and older traditional Japanese styles could exist side by side. Most tracks present a different theme, from pentatonic desert meanderings for the Gerudo, to ethereal and soothing piano pieces for the Zora, soundtrack variety was not relinquished from the Zelda formula this time around. Coupled with the wide variety of sound effects for any occasion, Breath of the Wild earns a variety score of 90/100.

Overall Controls Score: 80/100

Guardian Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Controller Score: 80/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 68/100

Breath of the Wild is playable with a Wii U Pro controller or the Wii U Gamepad but the Gamepad is required for some gyroscopic gameplay sections within shrines. This fact coupled with the frustration of an odd control scheme and no remapping options gave Breath of the Wild a bit of a learning curve and a pressure for the player to play on the Gamepad exclusively. I played on the Wii U Pro controller for the majority of my game, but I would suggest the Wii U Gamepad if gyroscopic aiming seems beneficial to you and you don’t want to have to switch controllers during play. Despite that, the Wii U Pro controller worked flawlessly after the initial learning curve. Breath of the Wild receives an 80/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Breath of the Wild, though this may differ if you intend to play on the Nintendo Switch with the Joy Cons disconnected from the system. Dodging, firing arrows, jump attacking, and much more all felt smooth in my playthrough. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

Breath of the Wild’s menus are odd to say the least. While most menus use a bumper systems to move between tabs, Breath of the Wild opts to force you through each page within a tab to get to the selection you want. Another frustration with Breath of the Wild’s controllers is the lack of a drop weapon button (this is particularly true for shields and bows, as melee weapons can be thrown), which forces you through the menu any time you want to pick up a new item. Receiving the notice that your inventory is full from a chest and not being given an immediate option to drop items is flabbergasting in this day and age. Another qualm with Breath of the Wild’s functionality comes from its wavering frame rates which drop for unknown reasons in many of the early areas and stutter when fighting Moblins or lighting large fires. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 68/100 in the functionality category.

Promotional Artwork Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
Artistic Proficiency: 74/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 89.67/100

Lizalfos Concept Art - Breath of the Wild
Lizalfos are one of the most common enemies in Hyrule. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Agency Score: 84/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 96/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Breath of the Wild is a game largely about exploration, but that does not necessarily mean it has a lot of choice within it, or that it gives the player agency within its parameters. In this case, the journey is far more important than the destination as “all roads lead to Rome” which for Link is the final boss, Calamity Ganon, inside Hyrule Castle. To take on the many enemies now patrolling Hyrule, Link has a variety of damaging abilities to choose from, but some, such as bombs, quickly become obsolete when enemies have higher resistances in harder areas. Collecting and seeking out the many ingredients that grow in Hyrule allows the player to explore cooking and create dishes and potions to further customize their playstyle. Player agency is at its greatest in the many shrine puzzles that line the landscape and in the four divine beasts that serve as Breath of the Wild’s main dungeons. There the player can think laterally to solve puzzles in ways the designers may not have intended, and are encouraged to do so. Sadly, the most interesting story in Breath of the Wild took place before the events of the game, so the player has little agency or interaction with it. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 84/100 in the agency category.

Breath of the Wild holds within it many separate gameplay loops that can be undertaken at any time during play. The first is the exploratory loop: find the map revealing tower, reveal a region of the map, use the Sheikah Slate sensor to find shrines in the area, find a new map revealing tower, repeat. The second is the main storyline loop: find a city belonging to one of four major races (Rito, Zora, Goron, Gerudo), complete a preliminary quest in which you are introduced to the new champion of that race, go to the divine beast, activate all the terminals in the divine beast by solving puzzles using its unique movement mechanic. There are other loops as well, such as the Great Fairy clothing upgrade loop, the cooking loop, the breakable weapons loop, et cetera, but these two are the most important. The shear scope of these intertwining loops gives Breath of the Wild an inviting, constantly changing, and rewarding gameplay cycle full of reflex/timing driven interactions and thoughtful but intuitive stat assignment. For this Breath of the Wild receives a 96/100 in the core gameplay loop category.

Games typically consist of one central gameplay theme or dabble slightly in many. Breath of the Wild is a perfect balance between those two styles. While it has fully formed puzzles as clearly presented and thoughtfully designed as (but more free than, in terms of possible solutions) those in Valve’s Portal series, it also contains rigorous combat against 18 unique enemy types complete with dodge, parry, knockback, freeze, shock, and burn mechanics that will keep the player on their toes. This is not to mention the horseback riding, gliding, climbing, and much more. Coupled with side quests of all shapes and sizes, from finding the hiding places of the forest Koroks, to recruiting people of all kinds to join together in a new village, Breath of the Wild offers a lot of variety to work with. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 58/100

Champions Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
The former champions of Hyrule stand ready. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Characters Score: 60/100
  • Plot Score: 50/100
  • Coherency Score: 64/100

The characters of Breath of the Wild are archetypal at best and never develop past that base level of nuance. The four previous champions, Revali the Rito, Daruk the Goron, Mipha the Zora, and Urbosa the Gerudo, are all the simple archetype of their race; in the previous order, each Champion’s primary trait would be arrogant (skillful), worried (diligent), selfless (compassionate), and controlling (vengeful). We seldom interact with them and all the meaningful interaction Link has with these characters takes place before the events of the game and out of our control. I would like to say that the defeat of each character at the hands of Calamity Ganon was due to the deficiencies of their archetypes but we are never presented with the events surrounding their demises. As for Link and Zelda, Zelda feels she is incompetent in her destined mode and so seeks her own way to contribute, eventually realizing the constraints she must work within to succeed. Link, alternatively, worked within his constraints and so is the true hero of the story, albeit a mute and blank one. Despite this each have interesting visual designs and many homages to previous games raising the character score to a 60/100.

Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that has seen Ganon rule in a pure calamitous form for 100 years. The Great Calamity, the event in which Ganon rested control of the many mechanical Guardians and the four divine beasts that were meant to defend against him, took the life of Hyrule’s King, the four Champions, and nearly took the life of Link who was put to sleep in a resurrection shrine until he could fight again. Now that he has awakened, Link must complete the shrines dotting the landscapes to increase his power, free the four divine beasts from Ganon, and recover his memories before putting an end to Ganon in a final confrontation. Link’s memories run the pre-Calamity storyline in which the Champions, Zelda, and Link prepare for the return of Ganon. Zelda struggles with envy at Link’s acceptance of his destiny until she gains her own power through protecting Link. I could break down the symbolism behind both storylines but each is a form of the hero’s journey most would be familiar with, either from old heroic tales and myths, or the religions of many cultures. No particularly nuanced or creative statement is made with the story so Breath of the Wild receives a 50/100 for its formulaic offering.

Sadly, there is a major disconnect between the story of the game and the story of Zelda’s memories. Not to say this wasn’t purposeful, but I personally would have preferred if the pre-Calamity storyline took place within a linear progression so that we could see more character progression within the champions and get to know them personally. Then whenever we are truly alone in the open world environment of the game, the feeling of freedom can be a frantic and crushing experience as well as an empowering one. That change, coupled with a less successful Calamity age Hyrule would have greatly improved the game as a coherent product. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild is slightly above par what most would expect in terms of polish and understanding of itself and for that it receives a 64/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild Wii U product page)

Despite a less than perfect storyline, lackluster music given the series’ fame, and some UI and frame rate issues, Breath of the Wild stands out on the merit of its gameplay systems  and attention to detail alone. With gorgeous visuals and sound effects, each romp in Hyrule’s vistas will be a spectacle to behold and lead the player to something new. In the future, I hope that Zelda stories can take on the mechanical and narrative complexities they’ve held in the past while retaining the benefit of the open ended design used in both Breath of the Wild and the original Legend of Zelda. For $60, Breath of the Wild may not be the best game on the market, but at $40 or less it’s a great adventure that puts the player in the role of the Hero of Hyrule as they grow in power to a satisfying end. Open your eyes… adventure awaits.


78/100 – Great!

Birb Friends Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC)

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the third installment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise and a follow up to Daggerfall, marked the first modern Bethesda role-playing experience. When I first encountered the wastes and swamps of Vvardenfell I was enamored, but I was also a very young child. Playing on my original Xbox, I started at the yelps of a man falling from the sky in goofy blue wizard robes speckled with stars and gazed in wonder at the giant fleas that strode the rivers’ silt. It’s been 15 years since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released, and after years of waxing, raving, and procrastinating, I’ve finally completed the base game’s main story. Nowadays there are innumerable ways to purchase Morrowind and its expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, including Steam, GOG.com, and in physical releases of all shapes and sizes. With that in mind and regardless of the content that follows, I strongly recommend purchasing and playing this landmark title and achievement of a game.

To detail my experiences with Morrowind, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

logo
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Logo (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from their official Morrowind page)
Technical Proficiency: 77/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 54/100

  • Style Score: 81/100
  • Animation Score: 35/100
  • Purpose Score: 50/100

While destined to be full of reused assets, similar areas, and bland NPCs, Morrowind succeeds in crafting a simultaneously believable and outrageous dreamscape of an island. A volcano gated by pulsating blue magics, an enormous canal city reminiscent of the Aztec’s Tenochtitlan, mushroom trees of great size and variety, and biomes of every sort make up only a small fraction of Morrowind’s intriguing sites. Coupled with the dreamlike fogging of the game’s short render distance, Morrowind’s ethereal setting springs to life. Enemy design is more inventive in Morrowind than previous Elder Scrolls games and introduces future mainstays of the series such as Hungers and Golden Saints. Armors, clothing, and weapons feature designs inspired by a multitude of cultures and, though they occasionally look silly in practice, allow for a wide amount of customization and differentiation between characters. Morrowind’s skyboxes move through night and day cycles with stunning renditions of Nirn’s moons. As for color design, textures are muted and muddled due to the limitations of the time, but deep jewel tones and a variety of lusters and roughnesses allow for many separate yet unified themes. For its imaginative source material and captivating execution, Morrowind receives an 81/100 in the category of visual style.

Animation is where Morrowind’s visuals fall horribly flat. Awkward and inhuman for every humanoid in the game and animatronic for everything else, nothing breaks the immersion of a role-playing experience like an NPC float/running up a wall with elbows bent at an extreme position and clothing clipping into limbs. Despite their shortcomings, Morrowind’s animations are, at the very least, functional in relating game information to the player and expressive for its menagerie of creatures and special people. Everything considered 35/100 is Morrowind’s animation score.

Morrowind is a first/third person action RPG that intends to immerse the player in a believable world. For this to function there are some concessions made to visual cuing and mechanical clarity. Nonetheless, Morrowind delivers many visual cues to its players through the use of specially marked color coded effects that differ depending on the school of magic from which the effect originated, and telegraphed attacks. A distinct sheen on magical items also relates information to the player in a similar fashion along with unobtrusive pop-up tips that describe items available for pickup. While not perfect and often too cluttered to decipher, Morrowind’s visual purpose is completely functional to earn a 50/100.

Overall Sound Score: 80.44/100

  • Music Score: 92/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 69/100
  • Variety Score: 80/100

Morrowind was the first game in the Elder Scrolls series to enlist the aid of highly lauded composer Jeremy Soule. Contemplative and ambient with memorable melodic movements and an orchestra worth of instrumental variety and intensity, Soule’s soundtrack offers a near perfect complement to the adventurous, beautiful, foreboding, and often bewildering feeling of Vvardenfell. Tracks such as “Peaceful Waters” build slowly from dreamy harp song into emotive string crescendos and continue onward to deep ponderings and choral murmurs that resolve with the plucking at which they began. More conflictive tracks, such as “Bright Spears, Dark Blood”, recapitulate the triumphant movements of the title track “Nerevar Rising” while simultaneously washing the player with sounds of fear and apprehension. My personal favorite track still stands as “The Road Most Traveled” which never fails to conjure images of the watery shantytowns in which I first heard its bustling drum beats and swelling melodies. Where Morrowind’s music fails is in its repetition throughout the game’s potentially hundreds of hours of play time and the general lack of context sensitivity. The game’s music rotates through the selection of tracks and only changes tone to notify the player that they are being attacked. Beyond this minor criticism, the soundtrack of Morrowind is moving, fully realized, and as memorable as any John Williams score ever could be. For those reasons, Morrowind receives a 92/100 in the music category.

Screeching creatures, booming voices, shocking shouts, blustering winds, swishing weapons, clanging metals, and much more adorn Morrowind’s aural presentation at all times. The abrasive noises of Morrowind highlight the feelings of isolation and unease that characterize the entrance into Vvardenfell’s alien world. After hours of playtime, the familiar words of Morrowind’s inhabitants will ring in the players ear and work to build every thematic sense that Morrowind contains. The only noises that Morrowind fails to craft are its magic effect sounds which berate the ears unnecessarily and grow quite repetitive quite quickly. It’s for these reasons that Morrowind receives a 69/100 in the sound effects category.

From the full orchestration of the soundtrack to the diverse sounds that accompany those tracks, Morrowind isn’t afraid to show the player new and interesting things. That being said, a larger soundtrack would have been greatly welcomed and certain creature sounds (I’m looking at you, cliff racers) grow tiresome after many hours in Vvardenfell. Increasing the variety of sounds available to each creature could have alleviated this issue, though this is a relatively minor complaint. For these reasons, 80/100 is Morrowind’s aural variety score.

Overall Controls Score: 97.22/100

Dwemer Spiders
A glass axe stands ready to strike Dwemer Spider Constructs in an aged ruin. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 95/100

The PC edition of Morrowind does not support the use of a controller although I can’t imagine why you would choose to use one as the mouse and keyboard control setup is more than adequate. The Xbox edition’s controller usage works perfectly as well if you choose to play on that console. During my play through, I found the keyboard and mouse fit the needs of the game perfectly and for that reason Morrowind receives a 100/100 as its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Morrowind, though this may differ depending on the hardware and settings you intend to use. Because Morrowind is a 15 year old game, nearly all modern hardware can run the game smoothly with at least 30 fps. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

While criticisms can be made that Morrowind’s draggable menus are detrimental to the user interface’s functionality, I took no issue with them and at some moments even found their flexibility convenient. Beyond this, nearly all control inputs are remappable and don’t conflict in their default positions, allowing the player to control their character with ease. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 95/100 in the functionality category.

Morrowind Steam Banner
(Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
Artistic Proficiency: 72/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 59.44/100

Dwemers Touch The Sky
The Nerevarine stands amidst the ruins of the great Dwemer nation. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Agency Score: 90/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 38/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Morrowind is a game about constraints and how to succeed within them through patience, hard work, and determination. It is a game about consequences and living with those consequences; there are mutually exclusive quest lines that force decisions in interesting ways. Morrowind gives the player the agency to define themselves both at the outset of the adventure and through acting and leveling skills by use within a space that reacts to player agency in novel ways. Oppressive forces like the Ordinators will beat you into line, others will halt your progress until a service has been paid them, and some won’t even notice when their conspirators are murdered miles away. There are many impactful things you can do in Morrowind; kill gods, rise through the political systems of the Dunmer (Dark Elf) Great Houses, pick mushrooms for a fledgling alchemist, but most seem as innocuous, disconnected, and unimportant to the system as our day to day actions in the real world. How wrong that assumption is. The systems of magic within the game also give way to creative agency in terms of problem solving and character building. Alchemy is an incredibly exploitable system to enhance the player character and crafted spells can specifically solve any number of problems in the game. Everything from water walking and levitation to invisibility can be applied not only to the player character but also to NPCs and monsters. With an open world design that allows the player to learn the limitations and impact of their agency and plenty of opportunities to use it, Morrowind receives a 90/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Morrowind is as follows: explore the world and stumble upon a quest bearing NPC, receive quest from that NPC, travel to the appropriate area to complete the task, complete the task or receive an addendum to the task, return to the NPC. Some tasks require dungeon crawling, others require patient talking and item collection, the best require a convoluted mix of both. Morrowind’s gameplay loop is not for the easily bored or illiterate; it requires a respect and dedication for the work and writing that went into crafting it that many other games lack. That being said, Morrowind’s gameplay loop is no better than Diablo’s gameplay loop or any other Elder Scrolls game; it is enhanced and defined solely by the pretense and context given it by the audiovisual experience of the game. For that reason, Morrowind is not a tightly designed game and relies far too heavily on its story as a means to mask its ends. There is no deep combat system here (although the level up system magnifies and builds a narrative for the impact of your decisions in interesting ways), no deep conversation system here, and no slow introduction and intuitive teaching of mechanics. Sadly, Morrowind’s core gameplay loop receives the low score of 38/100.

In terms of variety, Morrowind excels. A large selection of factions and guild allows for hours and hours of content exploration. The wide selection and application of spells, enchanted items, and potions allows for ingenious solutions to combative, social, and environmental scenarios. A small, but dense and hand crafted play world allows adventure in any direction for any reason. This being said, Morrowind’s primary concession is that it’s action will be entirely similar regardless of the new context. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 85.33/100

Urshilaku_Camp
The Nerevarine cult resides in the Urshilaku Ashlander Camp. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Urshilaku Camp page)
  • Characters Score: 90/100
  • Plot Score: 81/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

Morrowind’s central characters are the self-made gods of the Tribunal, their fallen comrade Dagoth Ur, the Daedric Prince Azura, and the long dead champion of the Dunmer people Indoril Nerevar. You play a prisoner with the right characteristics to take on the role of the Nerevarine, Indoril Nerevar’s reincarnated self, after being moved to Vvardenfell and are given your freedom in exchange for orders by the Emperor to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecy. The history that surrounds all these characters and the resulting prophecy is muddled and different in each book and description you are given. No single narrative can take into consideration every aspect of the current events and many of those who had part in the events of the past give conflicting accounts. This creates an intriguing character study of each participant that not only relates to large sociological issues in the real world but also smaller, personal issues. Fantasy is the home of symbolism and analogy, and Morrowind is full of them both. Beyond this, the characters you interact with during the main quest are much less concerned with your actions and instead busy themselves with continuing the current function of their homeland. Each have personal desires and motivations, but they are seldom revealed. Outside the main quest the world comes to live with many hastily realized characters that are endearing for their quirks alone. For this reason, Morrowind receives a 90/100 for its character score.

The plot of Morrowind is intently political in nature and explores the culture and history of Morrowind while the player finds ways to fulfill each step of the Nerevarine prophecy, join together the people of Vvardenfell against the growing diseased army of Dagoth Ur, and end Dagoth Ur’s plan to conquer all of Tamriel. It follows Morrowind’s philosophical discussions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and control and freedom in a way that mirrors the best speculative fiction and, in some cases, directly steals concepts from previous works.  Despite this, Morrowind’s plot is an engaging, interesting whole with a lot to say about the world. For that it receives an 81/100 in the plot category.

Morrowind requires the player to actively engage in seeking out lore and answers, as well as critically analyze the full implications of its design and story decisions to  understand its final product. With that being said, many players, especially those familiar with the other installments in the series, can attest to the enjoyment of experience the smaller distractions and quests can deliver alone. In this way, Morrowind’s main quest is a product reliant on and designed to integrate novel experiences with at least part of the additional game content into itself. This build an understanding of the game’s world as a system and give Morrowind an 85/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Morrowind Cover Art
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Box Art (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Morrowind page)

While Morrowind suffers from a number of constraints based both in failure of design and in designing for the limitations of the hardware at the time, it’s lore, characters, and plot carry a depth and applicable weight that hasn’t faltered even after 15 years. Imbalanced design adds a layer of novel discovery to play, especially in the magic aspect of the gameplay, and the breadth of experiences available increases replay value. An experience more alike to searching a library with the aid of a librarian than to participating in a great cataclysm, Morrowind is not an experience for everyone but if you enjoy deep fantasy lore, exploring an alien world, testing and playing within the limits of a complex system, and philosophical enquiry it is an enjoyable one. It is my hope that future Bethesda RPGs, and especially future Elder Scrolls installments, will take note of the triumphs and the failures of Morrowind. Voice acting in subsequent games decreased the tedium of exposition but also left exposition awkward, truncated, and discordant with purpose more often than not. Combat has not grown mechanically in any way which is an enormous disappointment as gameplay is the weakest component of the series. The creation of a new mythos that mimics real myth instead of directly lifting from it was a triumph of Morrowind that gradually fell out of favor in the recent games. At the price of $15 for Morrowind’s Game of the Year edition, which includes content not covered by this review, Morrowind is more than worth the purchase price (especially with the added value of mods from Morrowind’s vibrant and active modding community). If you’re interested in exploring an alien world, thinking on metaphysical and political issues relevant even today, and meeting and creating a multitude of wacky situations, then Vvardenfell might be your perfect escapist destination. Just be sure to speak quickly, outlander.


75/100 – Great!

The Last Thing I Do Before I Die

When Samuel Coster was diagnosed with stage 4b non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his chance of survival was clocked at around 7%. Part of Butterscotch Shenanigans, a three brothers strong game development studio that had then been working on an infinite runner game, Sam made a decision. If he was going to die, he was done waiting to live how he wanted and he was going to start now. I’m not here to tell you the rest of Crashlands’ story, Mr. Coster does a much better job of that himself, instead I want to reflect on life, games, design, and meaning. How have you designed your life?

In a lot of ways, the society we live in, the animal we are, and the world around us have designed every aspect of our existence. It’s only natural to play within those designs, its how humans learn about their environments and it feels fun, but at some point we’ll also feel the limitations. Some red tape here, a dirty look there, the lull of a salesman’s con, the pain of hunger, the faltering of our fragile shells in sickness; these limitations are real and more real for certain people. To cope with the control our existence exacts upon us, Samuel Coster took responsibility over the autonomy he was given and so should we all. In every way you can, design your life to encourage the things you believe about yourself and the future you want to bring about. Ask yourself the simple question: How would a game designer make me want to do this?

“I don’t want this to be the last game I make before I die.” Its a powerful thing to know you’re going to die, but don’t we all know it? Our mortality seems to be an emboldening aspect of our life, either creating risk aversion that maintains the status quo or dismantling that aversion in a rush towards the inevitable. Acceptance of mortality is the ultimate conquering of human psychology, if it is possible. Somewhere between YOLO and heaven lies a state of acknowledgement and transformation that Camus refers to as “confronting the Absurd” but that others have found in music, literature, and games. A pleasant rebellion from life through the escapism of simulation/reconstruction that draws its power through the separation it exacts, games in particular allow for a life that doesn’t accomplish within the confines of reality but instead wallows in the confines of itself. Artists, idealists, and theorists never design with the intent of their designs being put in place but instead design with the intent of transforming the landscape of practicality entirely. This is not to say that I suggest abandoning real work, but rather that art, literature, and language exist as part of this false creation and that Crashlands is no different.

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Crashlands, a survival RPG like many others but for entirely different reasons. (Image credit to Butterscotch Shenanigans, retrieved from TouchArcade’s review of Crashlands)

Butterscotch Shenanigans set to work on Crashlands because they wanted to change the world, and they knew the best way to do it was not to. Whether they succeeded with this Don’t Starve style RPG is entirely up to you.

Birb Friends Review: Transistor (PC)

Transistor is an isometric tactical action RPG (although this description doesn’t do its systems justice) developed by Supergiant Games and released in May of 2014 for a variety of systems including PS4, Windows, Mac, Linux, and later, in 2015, for iOS. After the success of 2011’s indie darling Bastion, a successor to the game was envisioned and began to be produced with private funds. Bastion’s team of developers, sound designers, and artists all contributed to Transistor making for a equally stunning release. Transistor’s gameplay nearly mirrors Bastion’s, but the focus on restoring a single town and maintaining centrality in that area are gone and instead replaced with a simple linear progression which, while being mildly disappointing, doesn’t detract from the experience and feels more streamlined than Bastion’s loops. Transistor’s greatest achievements lie in its aesthetics; both visually and aurally the game is stunning. That being said, there is a depth to the symbolism present in Transistor’s world, a symbolism that is easily lost amidst the insufficiently exposited narrative of the game.

To detail my experiences with Transistor, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Transistor Logo - Transistor
Transistor Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Technical Proficiency: 82/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 75.75/100

  • Style Score: 69/100
  • Animation Score: 80/100
  • Purpose Score: 77/100

Transistor follows in the tradition of Bastion in its use of highly saturated colors but the application of these colors is just slightly more selective than in Bastion. Reds, oranges, greens, and yellows dominate Transistor’s cyberpunk landscape. Dramatic shifts to warmer colors and brighter surroundings almost always worked to increase tension in dangerous or climactic situations. Loading screens between areas take the form of side scrolling rides on a motorbike full of context cementing buildings and background landscapes. Enemies are all entirely similar in aesthetic which serves narrative excellently but isn’t an interesting or engaging visual choice. Characters, however, have color themed designs expressive of their profession and personality; it’s a necessary expression in the face of an utter lack of interaction or exposition for most characters. For its selective and dynamic color palette, uniform enemies, and replication of a well established style Transistor receives a 69/100 for its style score.

The animations of Transistor are many times cleaner than Bastion’s animations. Cluckers bounce about on the spindles of their feet, Fetches prowl and leap, and Jerks rumble with enraged energy. Shifting perspectives during transitional pieces and areas is also seamless and smooth, displaying a three dimensional space despite the two dimensional engine. Red’s animations, from her deft flourish to her simple hum, are all sleek, expressive, and proper improvements to Bastion’s Kid. All that being said, a larger degree of variation in animation would have been appreciated. Transistor earns a 80/100 in the animation category.

Transistor doesn’t give perfect indications of where the player is in the world and whether their attacks and abilities will work as the player intends. That is to say, Transistor’s isometric view lacks clarity until the turn function is active. Once the player is planning their turn, the game takes on a whole new perspective, rather appropriately, and dots cleanly explain every obstacle in the main character Red’s way and the effect of every possible approach. Indicators for enemy attacks and movements aren’t as telegraphed as they were in Bastion, but the lack of awareness that the turn function’s clarity can bring is interesting in narrative sense and brings Red’s focus to clear relief. For these reasons, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort receives an 77/100 for its visual purpose score.

Overall Sound Score: 77/100

  • Music Score: 80/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 65/100

Transistor’s music almost entirely consists of light, thoughtful guitar and relatively uniform percussive elements that periodically crack into the sound. Thematically melding the humanity and physicality of the guitar’s expression with the digital and rhythmic precision of the percussion directly matches the game’s overarching message on the integration of technology into our very identities. Similarly, the way each area is given a nearly identical arrangement that only receives slight variations dependent on the enemies present in that area mirrors the plot of the game’s Cloudbank city. Vocal pieces, performed by two time collaborator Ashley Barrett, give incredible amounts of foreshadowing and understanding to those that listen as well as being pleasing to the ear. Sadly, they are placed at odd instances in the game that don’t always seem logical in reference to their content. I look forward to seeing more diversity in Barrett’s performance, especially in terms of vocal technique, as she explores artistic territory in the future. Hopefully some of that exploration will be in conjunction with Supergiant Games, but for now Transistor receives a score of 80/100 for its music score.

In my review of Bastion, I bemoaned the massive amount of information being relayed to the user as they try to decipher the plot information given to them aurally by the narrator. In Transistor, this issue seems to be inverted, though not entirely reversed. Not only is the narrator put to little use in relaying pertinent plot information, (more often than not that information comes from the music, text-based terminals, or function ability mechanic) but no resolution was made to resolve the issue of the narrator’s voice becoming drenched in other sound effects to the point of losing recognition. A perfect opportunity to resolve this would have been within the Turn() function, an ability that allows Red to plan out her next moves using the eponymous Transistor that houses the narrator, but instead the narrator’s voice fizzles out with the rest of the background noise when using Turn(). Regardless, sound effects are still functional in relating game happenings to the player and pleasant to hear. In total, Transistor receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

Transistor’s score has variety of a certain kind. It bounces between vocal tracks and instrumentals frequently enough, but the lack of ingenuity in variety is its main failure. While Bastion’s tracks frequently mixed the different styles present in its many inspirations, Transistor is a singularly focused affair that doesn’t incorporate facets of its inspiration, or rather the facets of its inspiration’s inspiration. I would have liked to see wider instrumentation and perhaps some tracks with jazz influence. If anything can be said to be lacking from Transistor’s aural landscape, it is variety. For this reason, Transistor receives a 65/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 92.22/100

Wallpaper - Transistor

  • Controller Score: 95/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 95/100
  • Functionality Score: 90/100

Transistor supports many different controllers across many different platforms. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. Initially, keyboard and mouse controls felt as if they weren’t the intended method of control, but after modifying the key mappings to match the control scheme of League of Legends, they felt right at home. Controllers, especially Xbox 360 controllers, are also usable on the PC platform, but I didn’t use them for my playthrough. Transistor receives a 95/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Transistor. The only issue of responsiveness I had during my playthrough was screen tearing that at times made it difficult to judge motion correctly or generally distracted from the experience. After changing setting in accordance to troubleshooting instruction found online, my screen tearing was greatly diminished but never removed. That being said, Transistor is nearly perfect in responsiveness on almost all counts and for that it receives a 95/100 in the responsiveness category.

While there was ease in action during gameplay, the main issue of functionality comes in the needlessly convoluted function selection system. Consolidating this system to a single screen would have significantly streamlined my experience as most of my time was spent contemplating the uses of Red’s function in the selection system. Despite this, the controls allowed Red to crash, jaunt, shock, mask, flourish, and more with grace. For this it receives a 90/100 in the functionality category.

Process - Transistor
A collection of Process cells glance at an engraved Transistor marking. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Artistic Proficiency: 84/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 85.67/100

Snapshot - Transistor
Red crashes the ground as a Snapshot glares. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Agency Score: 100/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 85/100
  • Variety Score: 46/100

Transistor is ultimately a game about the loss of personal power and, in a large sense, what power is in and of itself. The different ways the game allows, and disallows, you to enact your own will fits these themes. A passive, active, and secondary slot is available to place any function, the game’s term for ability, into. Experimenting with these slots not only allows you to diversify the experiences you’ll have in the game but also allows you to customize your skillset not just to your personal taste, but to the road ahead. These are all very personal effects, they have an impact upon yourself and so, in a very limited way, also have an impact upon the structure that supports the outside world, in this game that structure is exemplified by the robotic enemies known as the Process and further confirmed by the Spine of the World. Furthermore, seeking out information about the practical uses of each ability simultaneously brings understanding of the personal history of those who the ability belonged to. If you fail to use this understanding, the function is lost for a time until the integrity of your authority over it is reestablished. Transistor’s ludic representation and dissection of the interweaving systems we come to know and understand in our own lives is brilliantly spoken with the game itself. For this reason, I give Transistor a perfect score of 100/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Transistor is as follows: prepare to enter area by assigning functions and limiters, sight enemies and enter the ()Turn function to plan, set out a path of functions to use during the turn, allow the functions to take place, dodge and protect yourself during the vulnerable cooldown period after using ()Turn, repeat until the enemies are defeated, continue to the next area, and repeat (probably by swapping functions and limiters in order to receive the interesting exposition contained within usage unlockables). Transistor’s core gameplay loop is much closer to proper alignment than Bastion’s. Transistor never forces you to use a function unless you’ve made a mistake or are attempted a formulated challenge, and its rewards for doing so are much more incentivizing and purposeful. All that being said, ()Turn tended to allow me to dissociate from the actual happenings of the game (which I believe to be intended) in a way that diminished my enjoyment of the active experience, and the formulated challenges of Transistor seemed far more superfluous than those in Bastion. For these reasons I give Transistor an 85/100 as its core gameplay loop score.

In scoring the variety of Transistor, the fact that it only holds two separate modes of play is definitely considered. Transistor is truly a linear and singular experience. Perhaps more prominently, and importantly, is the fact that Transistor seems painfully unfinished. Relationships are told instead of shown and developed (although some of this seems deliberate in light of the story, not all of it does), boss battles are relatively inconsequential or significantly mismatched to their rising action, and a single playthrough left me considerably bewildered and discontent by the lack of closure and information. For those reasons, Transistor receives a 46/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 82/100

Red and Cloudbank - Transistor
The Transistor’s User speaks to Red with a powerful blue glow as Cloudbank hangs in the balance. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Characters Score: 83/100
  • Plot Score: 80/100
  • Coherency Score: 83/100

Where Bastion’s characters wrestled personally with their identities, thoughts, desires, guilts, and actions, Transistor’s characters are devoid of deep thought and moving development. The only epiphany Transistor holds for its characters is the bleakest one imaginable, which is perhaps symbolic of the greater realization Supergiant intends for us to learn about technology, power, and individualism. Regardless, the voice acting and design of the villains of Transistor’s Cloudbank city leaves something to be desired. As with Bastion, I wish a longer amount of time was dedicated to learning about these characters. All this considered, Transistor receives an 83/100 as its character score.

The plot of Transistor is ripe with symbolism of many sorts and pulls out all the stops in terms of exploring its main themes. That being said, many players of Transistor will find it hard to understand just why or how anything is happening within Transistor’s world of Cloudbank. The greatest obstacle to understanding the meaning of Transistor is the self imposed ambiguity that surrounds the game. In Bastion this ambiguity is to a much lesser extent and allows the player to enjoy the game as both a base level experience and as something greater, but Transistor’s ambiguity reduces the experience to its most contemplative and philosophical parts, disallowing the consumption of the game as a traditional, surface level experience. All that being said, the plot of Transistor is interesting, integrated to gameplay, and complete which is why it receives an 80/100 in the plot category.

Transistor never struck me as a powerful experience and, in retrospect, I don’t think it truly was. The coherency of Transistor as an experience came to me in the analysis and thought I devoted to the game after its completion. Plot and characters in Transistor that seemed discordant or out of place at first were revealed to be purposefully so when viewed in light of the experience as a whole. It is my personal hypothesis that Transistor takes on its greatest value in replay sessions and with the real-life application of what can be learned within the game in mind. For these reasons Transistor receives an 83/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Transistor
(Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)

Above the surface, Transistor is a confusing blur of beautiful art accompanied by pleasant music and engaging gameplay. Below the surface, Transistor is a nuanced statement on the modern notions of control, technology, autonomy, power, change, democracy, and the individual. Transistor’s downfalls lie in its presentation of concepts and failure to teach its players about the story they are acting within. What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in thematic perfection, beautiful art, and solid gameplay. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Pyre, are able to present a cohesive story of longer length while maintaining the great attributes of previous endeavors. Diversity in game design would also be a welcome addition to Pyre, as Bastion and Transistor are, in their most basic components, comparable experiences. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Transistor definitely earned its purchase. If you’re interested in strategizing with a variety of self explanatory tools, analyzing deep works of symbolic fiction, seeing beautiful things, and hearing gorgeous performances, Transistor is the right game for you. I’ll see you in the Country.


83/100 – Wonderful!

Down The Donut Hole

Arcane Kids Banner
Garbled, interesting, and glitchy in aesthetic, the Arcane Kids’ site has quite the background image. (Image credit to Arcane Kids, retrieved from their official site)

Arcane Kids is an award winning internet gang based in LA… or at least that’s what it says on their website. I’ve been following the gang ever since I stumbled upon a little known and wildly eccentric musical artist who goes by the name bo en. Bo en, known by birth and in the video game composition world as Calum Bowen, released an album entitled Pale Machine through Maltine Records in September of 2013. With an awkward and laughable style that mixed elements of classical composition, trap beats, MIDI sound bytes, sampled video game effects, and heartfelt albeit inexperienced vocals, Pale Machine made me smile and come back to its oddball tracklist time and time again. When I discovered that bo en had commissioned the creation of music video games for his album, I was elated, not the least bit surprised, and ready to play!

You can visit bo en’s official site and play through all of the games expertly crafted for his debut album by clicking on the following links: (intro , miss you , be okay , every day , friend , winter valentine , pale machine , my time). [Sadly, I can’t seem to find “winter valentine’s” game, so if you click its link you’ll be taken right to the music.] Although the whale riding excitement of “my time’s” little game was my favorite experience of the bunch, I mean it is a rather enjoyable song, “pale machine’s” surreal, fully fledged, and painstakingly polished entry drew my attention the most. The creator of that game and the current developer of a new game entitled Donut County is the talented and humbled Ben Esposito (otherwise known for his hilariously absurd Tweets as @torahhorse).

Ben Esposito has been involved in the production of many indie games. Currently, he is working as part of the Giant Sparrow game development company. These folks were responsible for the mechanically intriguing The Unfinished Swan, on which Esposito contributed level design, and are now working on an narrative game filled with deadly vignettes of remembrance entitled What Remains of Edith Finch (set to release in spring of 2017) on which Esposito contributed prototyping and game design consultation. Individually, Esposito is a part of Arcane Kids and helped bring to life many of their most renowned titles. Without the Torah Horse, Room of 1000 Snakes, Bubsy 3D Revisited, Sonic Dreams Collection, CRAP! No One Loves Me, and Perfect Stride (when they finish it) wouldn’t have ever existed! Ben isn’t the only Arcane Kid though.

Tom Astle - my children are beautiful
my children are beautiful pic.twitter.com/mSmkcBemIV – Tom Astle (@thomasastle) January 19, 2017

My introduction to Arcane Kid Tom Astle was a bunch of glitchy, cartoonish, floppy doggos, and I think that’s how it was meant to be. Tattletail, the survival horror escapade about Furby-esque monstrosities and flashlight batteries, was Tom Astle’s introduction for the majority of the internet. A collaboration between Tom Astle, Ben Esposito, and Geneva Hodgson, Tattletail’s cute-turned-uncanny-valley style captivated YouTube audiences and thrust it into a reigning position in public likability on Steam. Comparisons to Five Nights at Freddy’s, however tenuous, bolstered Tattletail’s reputation and fan art is pouring in. Despite all this, I’m far more interested in Tom’s other pet project, Wobbledogs: a virtual pet game of dog breeding, vacuum tubes, and quirky animal behavior.

According to Astle, and thoroughly detailed on his Twitter and YouTube development logs, the dogs of Wobbledogs will be incredibly varied. Inbreeding to achieve drastic results, such as dogs as tall as giraffes, could have unexpected consequences. A dog that’s too tall might not be able to reach its food forcing the player to personally care for the animal. That being said, Astle encourages players to create the dogs of their dreams and chase interesting aesthetics like a dog would chase its tail. This is exactly what creators like bo en, Ben Esposito, Tom Astle, and all the Arcane Kids are doing for games! From music video games and walking simulators to virtual pet simulations, independent development is taking off with or without the consumer. What will you find down the donut hole?

Add Naseum

After a few hours of playing Undertale and Shovel Knight with my friend Noah, something interesting came up in conversation. “Have Nintendo taken longer to release games recently?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to respond with the information I had, so I made a series of hypotheses. The first and most obvious thought was that yes; if you feel they have slowed down then Occam’s Razor trims our assumptions down to that feeling when no other evidence is present. The second and less obvious solution was that Nintendo have only slowed down their game releases in comparison to the rest of the industry which, through recycled game engines and assets, moves at a breakneck speed. In order to put these theories to the test, I created a spreadsheet that shows all North American release dates within the Legend of Zelda and platforming Mario series in chronological order. If you would like to view this spreadsheet it’s been made available here. A number of intriguing thoughts emerge from these release statistics.

Most prominently, Nintendo has NOT slowed its development of new Mario games and in fact has only increased the pace of its releases since 2005, which marks the beginning of my data for the “modern” Nintendo era. In fact, with staggered releases between consoles and handhelds, Nintendo have released Mario games within 3 to 9 months of each other relatively consistently. Despite their tendency to lag behind other companies in terms of hardware capabilities, Nintendo have picked up the oldest adages in corporate business, “If it ain’t broke, keep selling it.” and more importantly, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” My conservative and outlier free estimates place the increase of pace at about 6 months faster while those estimates that include the outliers place it at a staggering 10 months faster! Either way, there’s more of Mario to go around these days, which may not sound as great to Princess Peach as it does to Nintendo’s core audience. An audience, I might add, who were even happy to purchase what could easily pass as a development tool being used by Nintendo to craft the games they were already buying. The Legend of Zelda game releases are quite a bit different.

Super Mario Maker
To play or to make, that is the question. (Image credit to Nintendo’s official Mario home page)

It’s not surprising that entries into a crafted, artistic series like the Legend of Zelda take longer to make than Mario’s platforming escapades, but how long is too long? The Legend of Zelda poses a problem to this particular analysis because of the exclusion of the Phillips CD-i releases. These exclusions seem to be the cause of anomalously elongated release waits of up to 65 months! Including these outliers, it would appear that the Legend of Zelda games have seen marginally faster releases, only by about 2 months, in the modern era. Without these outliers, the metric I choose to utilize for the sake of this analysis, modern Zelda releases have slowed down by an enormous factor of 6 months. The results in terms of speed are arguable, but either way they fail to support a hypothesis of consistent stagnation in Nintendo releases. The anomalies in the Legend of Zelda series are of much more interest to me.

Both lags in release marked the first Zelda game on a new console and a brand new direction for the series as a whole. A Link to the Past was released on November 21, 1991 and featured a much more centralized story, an alternate world, and many other mainstays in the franchise. It is widely regarded as the best of the 2D Zelda games and perhaps the best game in the series as a whole. The second lagging release, and the longest wait for Zelda game to ever take place, happened before the first groundbreaking 3D Zelda title: Ocarina of Time. Both games released after considerable Zelda dry spells, on the same day, and to thunderous critical and commercial applause. While I’m not suggesting these two games aren’t the masterpieces many claim them to be, it might be wise to consider the environment, marketing, social condition, and fan base at the time of release. Perhaps those dry spells allowed these particular titles to flourish, or perhaps the extra development time truly did go a long way. Either way, Nintendo is still profiting off of titles like these today, and I personally find it doubtful that their newer, swiftly developed Mario titles with discover the same nostalgic power in their own old age.

Ocarina of Time Logo
Widely acclaimed as one of the best Zelda games, and games, of all time! (Image credit to IGN’s board discussion of Ocarina of Time VS A Link to the Past)

What do you think? Is a quicker development pace good for the industry and gamers alike or do the best titles require careful, lengthy, and deliberate planning? Do you enjoy getting hyped for a far off game release, or would you rather have the fun within your reach pronto? Let us know in the comments below!

Birb Friends Review: Bastion (PC)

Bastion is a hack and slash RPG (or isometric brawler) developed by Supergiant Games and released for everything from iOS and the Chrome browser to PlayStation 4. It was developed using private funds over the course of nearly two years by a small seven person team. While Bastion was shown at 2010’s Game Developers Conference, it wasn’t until its playable reveal at that same year’s Penny Arcade Expo that things took off. Since then Bastion has been a commercial success for Supergiant’s debut and paved the way for their second release, Transistor. The developers of Bastion set out to create a game in which you’d build a town similar to those present in modern RPGs. Sadly, the town building features of Bastion are unfulfilling and generally underdeveloped. Thankfully, that allowed the plot and characters of Bastion to take center stage in an intriguing piece about morality, history, race, and environmental protection. Did I mention that all of those components are left up for interpretation and that the characters alone are human enough to relate to? Bastion tells that interesting of a story, with a smooth voice to boot.

To detail my experiences with Bastion, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and the numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Bastion - Logo
Bastion Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
Technical Proficiency: 84/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 67.75/100

  • Style Score: 87/100
  • Animation Score: 70/100
  • Purpose Score: 52/100

Bastion uses hand-drawn backgrounds with saturated, weighty colors and subtle but powerful contrasts. The fact that each locale exists upon a floating island allowed the artist to give a sort of skybox and background to the game, even though that sort of styling is normally impossible using an isometric viewpoint. Enemies and characters all look distinct, new, and interesting despite their diverse inspiration from wild west, fantasy, and eastern aesthetics. Bastion pays attention to every detail of its environments and most details of its characters. That attention does not go unnoticed. For its interesting use of deep colors, merging of familiar aesthetics, and detail oriented craftsmanship Bastion receives an 87/100 for its style score.

In many ways, Bastion’s animations are found lacking. Most if not all of its characters have no idle animation and some of the enemies lack any animation at all. That being said, what animation Bastion does have is full of character and only has fluidity with purpose. Gasfellas reel their pickaxes back with weight and rigid power, Anklegators burst from the ground with raging convulsions, and the Ura shadow across the battlefield with deadly and silent efficiency. There is, however, one huge exception to Bastion’s rule of solid animation: at times the Kid can look about as rough as the Calamity. All in all, Bastion still shows an appreciation for animation greater than what’s to be expected and for that it receives a 70/100 in the animation category.

As visually stunning as Bastion is, it can be frustratingly bad at relating what is happening to the player. From a deceptive isometric view that makes little differentiation between ground and bottomless pit, to monsters whose colored symbolism isn’t consistent throughout the whole experience, there are issues with Bastion’s visual cuing. If it weren’t for the fact that Bastion’s monsters have predictable, well animated telegraphs and the fluid way in which the limits of each weapon are represented, Bastion would score even lower. 52/100 is the final score for Supergiant Games’ debut in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 82.78/100

  • Music Score: 88/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 79/100
  • Variety Score: 77/100

Bastion’s music is full of effective arrangements, memorable songs, and purposeful lyrics. Each area is imbued with new feelings and given context through the score which makes every song necessary to the impact of the whole experience, and impactful moments are plentiful. Instrumental pieces feature a wide variety of instruments and tone qualities, but their structure is similar enough to bring the entire soundtrack together as a single work. Vocal pieces by Ashley Lynn Barrett and Darren Korb give meaning to the personal experiences of certain characters and tie those characters’ experiences to the plot of the game. The only qualm I have about the music of Bastion is that I would have liked to see a larger contrast between the style of songs for different areas. The consistent mix of styles and contrast in terms of density of sound that Darren Korb brings to Bastion’s soundtrack give it an 88/100 for its music score.

From the lighting strike of a perfect hit, to the subtle noises that surround the Kid throughout his journey, Bastion provides ample feedback for the player and does so without assaulting the ears too terribly much. The most interesting component of Bastion’s sound effects is the narrator that constantly provides you with information as you progress through each level. In an awkward turn of events, that component was also the most problematic during my playthrough. The voice, delivery, and writing of the narrator’s speech are not the issue, in fact they’re quite good and contributed to the story of Bastion in a nuanced and interesting way. What I take issue with is the massive amount of information the player is required to take in at once. Fighting enemies, dodging attacks, judging whether I can stand on a dubious piece of the environment, AND listening to a narrator is often too much. It wouldn’t be near as much of a problem if the narrator’s speech wasn’t our only source of information, but many times it is. For that, Bastion’s sound effects score is a 79/100.

Aural variety is a tricky thing for video game scores because of the thematic requirements of the entire experience and of the soundtrack itself. Bastion runs headfirst into these issues by mixing a variety of styles and experiences into almost every instrumental track. Wide instrumentation and varying composition means you won’t exactly get bored with the way the game sounds even if you’re particularly interested in music. That being said, it does mean that Bastion almost always sounds the same. Despite the relief that the vocal tracks provide in this regard, Bastion receives a 77/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 100/100

Bastion - Scumbags Loom Like The Moon
A scumbag and a collection of squirts prepare to assault the Kid. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 100/100

Bastion supports many different controls across a variety of systems. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. The keyboard and mouse controls felt very comfortable and no compromises were made to their functionality. The fast movements required by the game were easily facilitated by the keyboard and mouse set up and I required no changes to the default settings in order to comfortably play through the whole game. For that reason, Bastion receives a 100/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, incorrect responses, and other annoyances with responsiveness were absent from my experience with Bastion. My personal laptop, not a behemoth of a gaming rig at all, ran the whole experience flawlessly and without any sort of stutter or freezing. Bastion’s controls are fluid, quick, and decisive. The Kid does exactly what you tell him to and for that reason Bastion receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

The Kid could roll, dodge, shoot, talk, run, and whack like no other. Supergiant Games presented a very functional set of controls with everything included in set buttons and nothing relegated to a hefty interface. Too often the gaming industry is presented with games that are so complex they require a hefty amount of hotkeys and manual restructuring to be playable. Bastion has the luxury of being simple enough in its design not to merit that. In functionality, Bastion receives a perfect 100/100 score.

Bastion - Springtime In Ura Territory Banner
The Kid plots revenge against the Ura for personal greivances or justice for all that died in the Calamity. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
Artistic Proficiency: 77/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 68.44/100

Bastion - The Wild
Anklegators burrow and strike beneath the floating islands of the Wild. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Agency Score: 77/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 67/100
  • Variety Score: 50/100

Bastion doesn’t give the player very many valuable choices within its core gameplay loop which is disappointing when confronted by the massive value of the narrative choices you are allowed. The weapons, upgrades, and building choices in Bastion have a way of compounding like interest so that most players will make an early choice and never experiment beyond it until they are forced to, a frustration I’ll detail in the variety section of this analysis. Bastion’s narrative choices, while important and impactful to the player, aren’t the bread and butter of its game design, don’t drastically change the player’s experience of the narrative, and fail to weave into the gameplay. These mistakes leave Bastion only a bit of value above the average with an agency score of 77/100.

The core gameplay loop of Bastion goes about like this: enter level, fight monsters with your current equipment until a new piece of equipment is offered to you, accept new equipment, regret your decision, swap back to the leveled up equipment you were already using at the first possible chance, maybe learn a new fighting mechanic against a new enemy, proceed along a linear path until the level is finished, return to the Bastion, upgrade and ponder, repeat. This is, as it stands, a stale, boring, and mundane gameplay loop. MMORPGs and multiplayer experiences like the Diablo series use this sort of design because there’s an inherently dynamic and interesting social aspect to their games that lets them get away with it. Perhaps that social aspect is what the narrator of Bastion was attempting to mimic, but, at least for me, it didn’t suffice. Even the collectible items scattered throughout Bastion’s world are inconsequential because you can retrieve them from a building in the town, making exploration pointless. I assume that the retrieval feature was added in to avoid annoying players, like myself, who missed a collectible because they traveled the wrong path when the story barred the way back. That being said, the gameplay is engaging and challenging, and the new world-building information you receive from the collectibles is rewarding. Rewarding enough to warrant a 67/100 as Bastion’s core gameplay loop score.

Variety has a lot of meanings. To score variety, the depth of each experience is considered and the mechanical difference between each experience is considered as well. In this sense, Bastion doesn’t provide much in the way of variety. What changes it does have to its formula are small… inconsequential even, and the side missions seldom rely on anything besides persistence and reflexes. That’s all not to mention the fact that Bastion feels like a truncated experience, shorter than its base material merited. 50/100 is the score Bastion receives in the Variety category.

Overall Story Score: 86.33/100

Bastion - I Dig My Hole
The Kid en route to meet another survivor of the Calamity. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Characters Score: 86/100
  • Plot Score: 88/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

The characters of Bastion, except the central character, feel like fully realized people despite the far too short period of time the player gets to know them. In fact, the short time in which characterization is allowed to happen is the largest issue with Bastion’s characters. Holding their own grudges, ambitions, desires, pains, and personal connections, they all impact the story in a meaningful and morally ambiguous way. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, not much can be said about the individual characters but suffice it to say that issues as pertinent to the modern day as racial injustice, suicide, grief, bullying, and society are all confronted personally inside each character. That along with memorable character design and interesting albeit incomplete voice acting leaves Bastion with a character score of 86/100.

Bastion’s plot unfolds in a painfully slow and methodical way as the narrator dodges questions, avoiding telling the whole story, and leaves the player in the dark. The farther the player gets in the narrative of Bastion, the more the narrator reveals and the greater the player’s understanding of his motives and their current position becomes. By the end of Bastion, allegories have been made between big real world issues and the fantasy trappings of its world in an impactful, important, and meaningful way. Unlike a novel or film, which are too frequently brought to an authoritative conclusion without the input of the consumer, the player of Bastion is allowed to decide from right and wrong in a cohesive and logical manner. That uniquely settled ambiguity is the power of Bastion’s plot and why it receives the score of 88/100 in the plot category.

For me, Bastion never came together as a brilliant, cohesive product. Its gameplay was too aged and drab, its plot was drip fed to the player over far too long a time, and its climax didn’t seem as impactful as it should have. That being said it’s plot and characters worked to a wonderful harmony, diverting familiar video game tropes and giving the player a reason to continue beyond the joy of the game. In the first few hours, I didn’t like Bastion, but by the conclusion of its eight hour storyline I felt accomplished and more knowledgeable than I began. That’s why Bastion’s coherency score is an 85/100.


FINAL VERDICT

Bastion - PC Box Art
(Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)

Above the surface, Bastion is a run of the mill hack and slash RPG with an odd amount of buzz surrounding it. Below the surface, Bastion is a beehive full of sweet and nonperishable  commentary on nigh unsolvable problems still present in the modern day. What Bastion lacks in interesting and innovative gameplay it makes up for with intriguing storytelling, deep characters, and personal purpose. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Transistor, pay more attention to gameplay design without sparing the critical and artistic attention they give to everything else. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Bastion more than deserved its share of my gaming budget. If you are at all interested in smooth talking narrators, philosophical ethics, fast paced gameplay that isn’t too difficult, and interesting and memorable music, Bastion is the right game for you. The Bastion is where everyone agreed to meet, and the Kid is heading there now.


81/100 – Wonderful!