Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved

I was mostly interested in Enslaved because of its loose correlation to the Chinese fable, Journey to the West, but the similarities are very loose. Other than the idea of one character forcing another character to help her via a “headband of pain,” the game is its own, separate thing. Various renditions of the original Journey to the West story really play up the contentious relationship that Monkey has with his “master,” but the Monkey character in Enslaved is too quick to accept his fate and too quick to develop feelings for Trip. Their dynamic—and the story overall—just feels kind of rushed, particularly in the second half of the game. That’s also when we meet Pigsy. I love that Pigsy is a character here, but he brings a little too much comic relief to the table.

Since the story starts to fall apart near the end, that makes it harder to ignore how repetitive the gameplay is. Chapters are broken up into two types of gameplay: climbing stuff and fighting mechs. The climbing sections are neat, but you have very limited control over where Monkey can go. Mashing the A button is usually enough to get him to jump to the next highlighted point. Combat is a little more involved and can be somewhat rewarding. It’s just a shame that there are only, like, three different robots you ever fight for the entirety of the game. I get the sense that Enslaved was intended to be so much more, but then the studio ran out of money. What we’re left with is a great-looking game that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

I’ve put so much time into past Harvest Moon games and even Harvest Moon clones that you’d think I wouldn’t need to raise a digital cow ever again. But here we are, 30 hours into yet another farming simulator. The thing is, Stardew Valley is pretty much the Harvest Moon that PC gamers have been wanting for years. It nails the same sense of accomplishment, the same sense of progression, the same sense of wonder and exploration perfectly. If anything, Stardew Valley does it all better. Maybe the only thing that is lacking are the festivals. In Harvest Moon, festivals were always a chance to curry favor with the locals, but most of the festivals in Stardew Valley can be skipped without much consequence.

I really like how alive the world feels otherwise, though. The characters actually have personalities, and if you catch them at the right time, various sub-stories will unfold. It makes the act of befriending them all the more important. It’s also a nice touch that “quests” will occasionally pop up, asking you to run errands for the townspeople in exchange for a little extra money and friend points. Alas, some of these quests involve catching a particular fish, and it can be a pain to not only know where that fish is but to perform the fishing mini-game correctly. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to complete all of the fishing tasks, but I’m definitely motivated to find, grow, buy, and sell everything else this beautifully charming and relaxing game has to offer.

Manual Samuel

Manual Samuel

I’m annoyed by the potential that’s been squandered here. The game starts out with Samuel getting smacked so hard in the head by his girlfriend that he has to start doing everything manually. What a great way to setup an otherwise gimmicky premise. But just a few minutes later, Samuel gets hit by a truck, dies, meets an obnoxious rendition of Death, and then has to agree to a day of “manual labor” to get his life back. Why did we need the Death angle, though? Not only is Death an incredibly annoying character, but his presence cheapens the opening sequence and makes the overall game feel… well… gamey.

That gamey feel couldn’t be more present than in the last two chapters, where Samuel “manually” takes over another souped-up body to do battle against robots first and then friggin’ demons. By then, it’s not really Manual Samuel anymore but a really bad hack ‘n slash with awful controls. The final boss battle—yes, there’s a final boss—is so wrought with quick time events that’s it’s like the ultimate “eff you.” There’s a lot of humor and cleverness in Manual Samuel, and I do like that it can be played co-op by divvying up Sam’s bodily functions, so it saddens me to see the game go the direction it did.

Submerged

Submerged

I can’t say much about this game without spoiling the ending, so reader beware. And, frankly, it’s the disappointing ending that’s got me so riled up. The actual gameplay is pretty straightforward and repetitive. Once you’ve scouted your third building to find medical supplies, you’ve seen everything the game has to offer. From then on, you’re just going through the motions—climbing more buildings—to see how it ends. Once the protagonist started showing “sores” on her body, though, I was genuinely interested in where the story was going. Would she turn into a monster, similar to the strange creatures lurking out of reach? Would she even be able to save her brother? What would happen to him if she did become a monster?

It isn’t often I stick with a game for the story, so that’s saying something about the build-up here. Because, again, the gameplay alone just wasn’t selling it. While I like the idea of exploring a flooded city free of combat, that sense of exploration boiled down to a series of the same rudimentary, Tomb Raider-like ledge hopping. And what was the payoff for shimmying across 100 ledges? Nothing. The boy is saved. The girl’s sores are magically waved away, and she and her brother sail off having learned nothing. Submerged had the chance to pull a really gut-wrenching ending, but then they went with the safest, most bland choice possible. Missed opportunity…

Little King’s Story

Little King's Story

I’m trying to make the best of a bad port. I really am. But Little King’s Story on Steam is troubled by all kinds of issues, from wonky controller dead zones to the sound cutting out to the game freezing or crashing at the worst possible moments. At times, these bugs are so frustrating that I want to just uninstall the game and be done with it. The next day, however, I’m at it again, hoping I can make it past the crash this go-round, because I don’t want to stop exploring the game’s world. When it works, Little King’s Story is a very fun and charming experience. It’s like a mix of Pikmin and Harvest Moon and is equally addictive. I can play for several hours straight and not be bored.

Well… that is, until the game crashes, a rude reminder that I am, in fact, simply playing a game and could probably make better use of my free time doing something that’s not going to periodically wipe out 20 minutes of work while alerting, “Oops, I stopped responding.” I’m at a point in the game now where I don’t think I can progress any further. Because the current crash condition takes place right after a somewhat annoying boss trial, I’ve run out of patience. No more attempts. The bugs have won. That’s hard for me to accept, though. I was really enjoying this half-casual, half-punishing adventure/strategy/sim game. How often are you even able to say sentences like that? Not often enough, my friend. Not often enough…

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dragon's Dogma

I expected this game to be a lot bigger than it actually was. I know people who have put 100+ hours into it, and the size of the map suggests that’s entirely justifiable. The map is deceiving, though. Most of it is purposefully unreachable with the game taking place on just a handful of the same roads. This isn’t like Breath of the Wild where you’ll travel from a desert to a jungle to a snowy mountain. Everything stays consistently “rocks ‘n trees” here, and you’ll get sick of fighting the same flying harpies over and over regardless of which mission you’re currently on.

The combat can be pretty fun, though, when you’re up against bigger monsters. Taking down a chimera or cyclops is always a rewarding experience. In fact, I think my favorite part of Dragon’s Dogma was the final chapter where you are sent to explore a dungeon full of harder monsters. There’s also a superfluous bonus dungeon called Bitterblack Isle that’s probably pretty similar, and I’m guessing that’s where players are racking up these 100+ hours of gameplay. But I never bothered to visit Bitterblack Isle, because, frankly, the main game didn’t captivate me enough to warrant staying after that really weird ending.

The story of Dragon’s Dogma isn’t very memorable, anyway, but it does hit some rather strange beats. For instance, there’s a mission that ends with the duke throwing you in prison, but when you escape, everyone’s friends with you again. The game tries to make you think your choices matter, but they ultimately don’t. And all of the story-related missions are just as fetch-questy as the actual side quests, which cheapens their impact. I feel like they could have scrapped the story entirely and just focused on designing a better variety of monsters and dungeons. Maybe that’s the whole point of Bitterblack Isle, and I’m missing out on the best the game has to offer. But then why wasn’t the main story the best?