Why Am I So Weird (When It Comes To Games)

I’ve been thinking about my taste in games recently, mostly spurred on by Skull & Crossbones. The general vibe on the Internet is a negative one, and yet I really enjoy it. If this was a one-off I wouldn’t think much about it but it seems to happen fairly regularly with me. I loved No Man’s Sky when it first launched and was getting pilloried online. I loved Anthem when it seemed to get nothing but hate. Snowrunner is another example to a lesser extent. While it does have a dedicated fanbase it isn’t a widely popular game. In general when “open world” is starting to become a dirty word (or phrase) I still love open world games. All those towers that Ubisoft gets mocked for? I f’ing LOVE climbing those and getting that panorama fed to my eye holes!

I just started to wonder if I just like things to be contrary. Y’know? Like back in high school when you were too cool to like the popular stuff so you liked the other stuff.

But no, I think there’s a more practical reason. I think I just like to travel & explore in games. I loved No Man’s Sky because I enjoyed flying to different planets and seeing the sights, and the fact that I could lift off, fly to another planet and land without any loading screens. I didn’t let a single planet go Unexplored (which is part of why I never made much progress). Anthem I loved because flying around in those suits felt so damned good, and the more you played the better you got at it. Snowrunner is all about driving around, albeit slowly. And Skull & Crossbones? I just ADORE sailing around that world. Some nights I hardly do any fighting. I love trimming the sails way back and gliding silently through a strait between two islands, listening to the sounds of the surrounding jungle and watching the sun set and the moon rise.

The more I think about it, the more this makes sense. I tend NOT to use fast travel options (which is a big part of why it takes me so long to finish a game). I spent like 200 hours in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey just traveling back and forth across the map seeing new things and exploring. It’s almost like actual gameplay is just an excuse for me to travel around these virtual worlds. I am never particularly interested in being challenged by games (as long as they’re not so easy as to feel trivial, I’m fine). If combat is serviceable, that’s OK for me. I do want to be able to take my time. Really fast paced games, like Warframe for example, never last with me. I want to be able to smell the roses and poke around. Back when I played MMOs what drove me was getting strong enough to move into the next zone to see what was there.

I won’t deny I don’t also enjoy seeing numbers go up, but really it is just important to have a new vista to explore over the next hill.

I guess I’ll need to keep this in mind going forward, and before I recommend a game to anyone I’ll have to stop to decide if it is actually a good game, or if it is just an interesting/pretty world that weirdo me enjoys exploring. Because I know many, maybe most, gamers are much more gameplay and goal driven than I am.

February 2024

This month I’m more or less taking a break from doing a proper recap. It has been a crummy month and I haven’t been taking notes or many screenshots so this isn’t going to be much more than an overly verbose list of what I’ve been playing. I just don’t want to skip a recap because if I skip one, I might skip two, or three, or never get back to them.

Playing:

Hardspace: Shipbreaker — I wound up completing this one and even after taking my time, I still kind of wanted more. Very unique game about breaking up old space ships, ideally without breaking up yourself in the process. You’re in zero g in your space suit with various tools of destruction at hand. I even kept playing for a bit after the final credits and it is still installed. I may keep poking at it once in a while.

Shipbreaker screenshot of the termination agreement from Lynx Corporation

Horizon Forbidden West — Still plugging away at Alloy’s latest adventure. Too many distractions though and god this game just goes on forever and ever. I should maybe stop doing side quests and just push the story forward…if I could remember the story.

Snowrunner — I dunno when, or if, this one will leave the list! It is still my go-to “chill” game for when I’m feeling low energy.

No Man’s Sky — The Omega Expedition hit and it was intended as a way to introduce or re-introduce, as the case may be, the various gameplay loops of No Man’s Sky. I started yet another new save and played through it. First time I’ve completed an Expedition, but by the time I was done I’d had enough of No Man’s Sky for the time being.

Persona 3 Reload — I went hard at this for a couple days after the leak debacle, loved it, then got distracted. Really would like to get back to it.

Skull & Bones — Unlike the rest of the Internet, I love this game. Even wrote a post about it.

Helldivers 2 — Unlike the rest of the Internet, I don’t like this game much. Buyer’s remorse over this one. To be fair, the fault here is mine. It isn’t billed as anything other than a co-op game but after seeing a YouTube video on “Tips for playing Helldivers 2 solo” I got it in my head that I could play it solo. And while technically you can, there’s a bit of luck involved in getting a game session to yourself, and then it is NOT balanced for solo play.

Survivalboxes — I bought 3 PC survivalbox games in the past 5 weeks: Palworld, Enshrouded and Nightingale. Then never played any of them much. FOMO was getting at me big time. I need to stop that; I don’t have piles of cash laying around to spend on games I’m not playing. But I do WANT to play all of these so it’s not really a buyer’s remorse situation. Just I need to be more frugal.

The NPC Puck from Nightgale

Dead Island 2 — This hit Game Pass and I figured what the heck, let’s give it a go. And y’know, it was OK. Super gory, super cheesy and often fairly funny. They lean into the fact that it takes place in Hollywood, with all its unique (and wealthy) personalities. And here’s a thing: It has Alexa Voice Commands built in, and they work pretty well. You can say “Select my best weapon” and poof, your best weapon is at hand. The only real issue with Dead Island 2 is that it came to Game Pass right about the time that Dying Light 2 got a big update that added guns to the game which led me to…

Screenshot from Dead Island 2 showing globs of blood in the air from hitting a zombie, which is almost off-screen. Trying to keep the post from being too gross
I’m sure it’s just ketchup!

Dying Light 2 — I wanted to check out the guns update, but couldn’t remember how to play. So I started a new game and it kind of stuck… so now I’m playing Dying Light 2, I guess. I tried to split my time between this and Dead Island 2 but my brain got too confused and I kept trying to use the controls on one game while playing the other game. 🙂

Let me compare and contrast Dead Island 2 and Dying Light 2 for you. DI2 has more of a sense of humor and feels generally “lighter” (at least in the start) than Dying Light 2. (Though both games are incredibly gory so “light” is used relatively here.) DI2 doesn’t have the intense parkour system (which can cause motion sickness in some people, including me if I don’t stay in practice) that DY2 has. DI2 lets you pick from a few pre-made characters with different abilities, while in DL2 you always play a dude named Aidan. DI2 has a shared stash so you can trade gear between characters if you want to run an alt. The parkour stuff is the biggest different. If you wanted to play a zombie bashing game but Dying Light 2 made you queasy due to its first person parkour, Dead Island 2 might be of interest.

Watching

Fall of the House of Usher (Netflix) — We’d started this last month, when I was a bit concerned about how much time was spent on the sexual depravities of the various Usher family members. I said then that I hoped we’d get past that soon, and in fact we did. We liked this series more and more as it went on and the mystery became more clear. It’s only 8 episodes and is a complete story with no loose ends or dangling bits for them to tie a season 2 onto. It was creepy, gory, and overall, a lot of fun.

Bodies (Netflix) — Murder mystery with a time travel twist! This is a mini-series (that’s what we used to call ’em anyway) about a body that keeps showing up in a particular alley in London, about every 51 years, and the various detectives who investigate it. We went into this one pretty much blind and were delighted. We really enjoyed it, but it does mess with your head a good bit. There were points where we were like “I have no idea what is happening, but I love it!”

Halo 2, Season 2 (Paramount+) — This one is still on-going and I sorta wish we’d gone back to re-watch S1 again. But so far, so good.

Ghosts, Season…3? (Paramount+) — We don’t watch a lot of comedy shows, but this one keeps us entertained.

Attack on Titan (Crunchyroll) — I dunno why I got it in my head to watch this show. I’d watched S1 back when it was the hot new thing and found it vaguely disturbing. But with it being finished I went back to S1 and watched all 4 seasons and I guess I’m glad I did…I think? It was this weird situation where I didn’t really like it, but I was curious enough about WTF was happening that I kept pushing forward. But man, it has been a long time since I watched a show with such a large cast of characters, all of whom were completely unlikable to me. Usually if I watch 4 seasons of a show like this I’m a little sad when it ends because there’re a least a couple of characters that I’ll miss. But not here!

I struggled more and more as we got closer to the end. I don’t want to go into why for fear of spoilers. Maybe I’ll do a little post about it. But overall, really glad to be done with it and would never, ever watch it again. I did like the world building and the mystery of the titans quite a bit, but I felt like overall the show moved really slowly and I hated most of the characters. I think maybe we were supposed to hate them. I think the overall message was “Humans are awful and the planet would be better off without them.” Cheerful stuff!

Reading

No Reading to speak of this month.

So that’s February and good riddance. Hoping March will be better. Think it will be, but I don’t want to jinx things!!

I’m Enjoying Skull & Bones

Back in the stone age, Ubisoft announced that they were making a stand-alone pirate game based on the ship-to-ship combat in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. I was ecstatic because I LOVED that part of Black Flag. As time passed the game (Skull & Bones, just to be clear) kept changing focus. There was going to be a single player campaign (yay) and then there was not.  At one point it sounded like it was going to be an esports title. It was going to be open PvP all the time (boo!) and then it was not. It got delayed approximately 5,429,232 times and by the time it started to seem like it was really going to launch I had completely lost track of what it was supposed to be. I did know the single player stuff had been scrapped which killed a lot of my interest.

View from the crows nest

There was an open beta a while back and I downloaded it, fired it up and lasted about 10 minutes because it just didn’t feel good, and I was immediately annoyed by reading all the dumb gamertags/player names. As far as I could tell wind direction had no bearing on sailing my ship and I kept hitting a boundary where I was leaving the mission area. It was just a bad experience. When the game finally launched, I ignored it aside from raising an eyebrow at the generally mediocre reviews it was getting (as I write this it has a score of 64 on Metacritic). Then Ubisoft announced a free trial and for some reason I figured, what the heck, let’s give it one more try. I was surprised to find that the trial was a generous 8 hours long.

There’s a free trial

When I jumped into the trial I was immediately disappointed. For one thing, my open beta character was still there; a character I had spent like 30 seconds customizing because hey, it’s a beta who cares? (In fairness Ubisoft did tell us progress would carry over, I just wasn’t paying that much attention.) There was no way to reset/restart, either. I wound up watching a YouTube video of someone else playing the intro to re-familiarize myself. When I logged in I was on a dock somewhere and I was unimpressed both with how my character looked and how he moved. Then as I was trying to follow the tutorial steps (I hadn’t even made it out of the tutorial in the beta) some bug hit me where I was constantly being told that my death warrant with some faction had been rescinded. I closed the game again and went on social media to tell everyone what a train wreck it was.

Following a bigger ship through a narrow channel
Sunday afternoon traffic. I wish this guy would pull over so I can pass!

But then the next day I tried again and I’m not even sure why. But I played until I actually got to the title screen! And then I played some more. I upgraded to a proper ship with cannons and put out to sea and…

The magic was back. That old wooden ships and iron men magic. Once again I was firing broadsides (OK this little ship has 2 cannons on each side and 2 forward chasers so not sure you can call that a broadside) and having to time things with the heaving of the ship due to the swells. And wind definitely has a huge bearing on battles, thank goodness. The ‘boundary’ that a fight had to take place in was gone, though so far most of my battles have taken place in the straits between islands, but at least it isn’t a big imaginary marker in the sea. Yes there were other players on the seas with me, but that wasn’t so bad and more than once I’d see someone getting pounded and rush in to try to help; something I could do without grouping or communicating. And though the land graphics are definitely dated, I find the at-sea graphics to be very pleasing.

I used up 4-5 of the free trial hours before I said “Heck with it” and bought the game.

I like it, but…

Now all that said, I do agree with the few reviews I’ve read. The game is buggy and the character models are really dated, as is just walking around on land. I can’t comment on the end game, which is also getting some heat. There is no specific narrative and no specifically single player content, but you can definitely just go it alone (I’m sure there are parts that will require a group but I haven’t gotten that far yet). Think of it almost like Destiny. It does not feel like a game that should be $70 and a big part of why I was OK with purchasing is I happened to have enough Sony Reward Points to cash in for a $50 PSN card, which I did. So Skull & Bones cost me $20+tax out of pocket.

Corpses hung for display in a new overlooking the channel
Glad I checked this place out from far away, I don’t think they like pirates there

While there isn’t a campaign per se, there is a story of sorts. In the intro of the game you’re in an unwinnable battle and after it you are rescued by a couple of sailors in a dhow (basically a dingy with a sail). For whatever reason they put you in charge and now you have to make a name for yourself. You wind up in Sainte Anne, a pirate refuge run by John Scurlock, who has a deal with someone back in New York. He sends goods in exchange for weapons. And it just so happens he needs pirate captains to help acquire these goods, but first you have to make a name for yourself. And off you go.

That said though, most of the story is going to be the one you tell in your head and by your actions, supported by quite a bit of lore found in the form of notes and letters left strewn about.

A view from the helm
The view from the helm, though I usually play from a 3rd person viewpoint

I will survive

Surprisingly, there’s a little survivalbox in Skull & Bones. Everything you need to become a famous pirate has to be crafted from materials. Some of these materials you’ll find floating around. Others you’ll get from the wreckage of ships you destroy. But some of it you get by exploring and harvesting. You generally harvest from the ship which is a little odd but there ya go. There’s a mini-game involved which is at least different from typical survivalbox games, but  I can’t decide if this is an improvement or not. There’s also a progression of better tools you need to craft in order to gather better materials in order to make better gear. Having played Palworld and Enshrouded recently this felt very familiar.

It doesn’t take very much time before you’re sailing around, listening to the crew sing shanties, meeting various factions and getting quests from them and generally living the pirate life. I found I could re-customize my character so I could ditch the bad decisions I made in open beta. There’s a lot of emphasis on bling for both you and your ships, and there are a few currencies for this, one of which you can buy for real-world cash. They emphasize this is all just cosmetic but I haven’t really looked into it to see if that is true. I feel like a lot of the game is about earning a cool look for yourself so buying it feels like cheating myself. (A lot of Ubisoft games, including the AC games, have a similar system that I’ve never felt the urge to utilize.)

There’s more on-land content than I expected. I was rewarded for exploring various outposts in terms of finding materials, lore items and quest givers. I don’t think there is any on-land combat. In fact the only personal combat I’ve seen is harpooning things when you’re in the little dhow that you start off in (and even after you get a better ship, at least one mission required using the dhow).

The spectre of death

I was sunk once and found that when you sink everything in your ship’s hold is left at the place of your death and apparently anyone can pick that up. That seemed to be the only death penalty, at least at low levels. You do have a magical warehouse where you can store goods; magical in that many small outposts have a “cache” which is connected to that warehouse so you can store/retrieve things from it. So if you get some really valuable loot you can nip into an outpost and put that loot in your cache, then retrieve it from the warehouse once you are back in town.

There don’t seem to be any difficulty levels or anything of that nature, but I suppose that is to be expected in an always on-line game.

A crew, in the abstract

Shot of the crew with an arrow pointing at me at the helm
See? There I am at the helm!

This is one of those cases where I’m really enjoying a game that most people seem not to like very much and I don’t really blame them for not liking it. But I love pirate lore and I LOVED the ship combat in Black Flag and the combat here feels just as satisfying. I’ve seen people suggest that Sea of Thieves is a better pirate game and it might be if you have a crew to sail with, but I don’t. Sea of Thieves limits me to the smallest ships (unless something has changed since that game launched) since each part of sailing (steering, trimming sales, repairs, anchoring, loading and firing weapons) has to be done by a human and if you’re alone you just can’t do it all on a bigger ship. Anyway in Skull & Bones I am a captain and I command a crew so I have no such limits.

Crafting system showing that we're making grilled hippo
Listen this hippo attacked ME first so it feels OK to eat it

Speaking of the crew, they are basically represented by a stamina bar. Trimming the sails uses stamina, and sailing with full sails drains it constantly (you raise/lower sails by tapping a button and there are several presets between “sails down” and “fly every inch of canvas”). I am not sure yet if firing the guns uses stamina. You can feed the crew to give them a stamina buff (you get food by harvesting/cooking it). I like this mechanic of abstracting the crew to this extent. I don’t have to futz around with hiring a crew, but they still have a bearing on battles. (Slightly disappointing is that boarding another ship is completely a hands-off affair.)

So I like it, but will you?

Anyway this is all based on just 4-5 hours of playing. I would NOT recommend anyone run out and buy Skull & Bones but I do think it’s worth downloading and taking the 8 hour trial for a spin. If you do, play long enough that you get your first proper ship with cannons and do a couple of missions. The prologue/tutorial does NOT do a good job of representing the game; in fact I’d say it actively hurts the game. If you enjoyed the combat in Black Flag, you might find this is actually a Buy for you. Though even then, might be best to wait for a sale or at least until we see how well supported/patched it’ll be. I’m writing this at 9 PM ET and it’s because the servers are down for maintenance which is both a little annoying and maybe a little encouraging. At least they’re working on things!

[UPDATE: After I posted this I read some more reviews/thoughts on the game, and it seems a lot of people are disappointed that Skull & Bones is JUST a ship-to-ship combat game. They wanted sword fighting and burying treasure and such. That’s a 100% valid criticism. For me personally, I have dozens of sword fighting games, but not very many games about age of sail combat. So S&B is offering me something I’m personally very interested in, but I certainly get why this wouldn’t be for everyone.]

Sailing the dhow into the sunset

January 2024

Happy End of January for those who celebrate it. I’m never very happy about any month ending that gets me CLOSER to summer heat. Hell as I’m writing this it’s already warm enough I’m contemplating turning on the A/C. In freakin’ January. [Update: We DID have to turn it on as it was 75F in our bedroom and neither of us can sleep when it’s that warm. Since then it has cooled back down some.]

But before I amble too far down the “humans are destroying the planet” lane, let’s talk about games. I’m still deep in the rebound after finishing a couple of long games in early December. If y’all remember I was trying to stick to a small selection of titles until I finished them all. I made it to finishing two of them, then kind of exploded and that explosion continues. I played way too many games this month to list them all so I’ll just select some of the highlights.

Playing:

Horizon Forbidden West – I loved Horizon Zero Dawn and have played through it twice (replaying a game is something that I very rarely do) but for some reason had bounced off Horizon Forbidden West twice before this new attempt. Well I say “for some reason” but bounce #1 was because when I first started playing I couldn’t remember who any of the returning characters were, which elicited that replay of Horizon Zero Dawn I mentioned. And by the time I’d put 100 hours into that replay I was just kind of tired of bows and mechanical beasts and needed a break. But for bounce #2, I just sort of drifted off.
Alloy crouches in grass while scanning a machine

This time, I’m determined to finish and I’m much farther in than I’ve been before. And while I’m enjoying it, I’m not enjoying it as much as I did the first game. Not sure why…might be a case of more being less. I don’t remember HZD being this expansive and I just tend to lose focus among all the points of interest and side activities. I am also not finding the loot system all that compelling and machines respawn REALLY quickly which can be tedious if you’re trying to explore an area. You barely get the spot to yourself and the darned machines respawn. Last in my grumping, the combat system seems way more focused on matching elemental damage to elemental parts of the machine you’re fighting, which means you need to haul around a truck load of weapons so you have the right kind for each machine you encounter. I refuse to do that, so fights tend to be really lengthy for me.

Like I say, I AM enjoying it but I am not feeling compelled to play every single day in the same way I was for HZD. That in turn kind of dilutes the story since it can be weeks (real time) between story beats and I lose interest in the narrative. Interestingly, I had a very similiar experience with Red Dead Redemption (which I positively ADORED) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (which I bounced off of and never finished). Maybe I should just start avoiding sequels.

Hardlight: Shipbreaker – I talked about this one last month but I’m still trucking along and still enjoying myself. The in-game work shifts last 15 minutes which makes it a good game to play before dinner or something. A long session for me is maybe 3 shifts, then it starts to feel a little repetitive, but by the next day I’m ready for more. I just find it really fun to scan a ship and figure out the most efficient and safest way to get it to break apart. I am not sure I’ll finish it, but I’m still going to keep playing for now.

Here’s a recording of a single shift:

Nobody Saves The World – This is a 2D action game where you roam around an overworld looking for dungeons to clear. The twist is that you start as a very generic hollow-eyed nobody, and as you play you unlock new “forms” that you can morph into. Each form has unique attacks, and they’re very diverse. I’ve been a rat, a knight, a ranger, a slug and a horse (among others). It starts pretty simple but eventually you unlock the ability to mix and match skills and damage types (certain enemies are only vulnerable to specific damage types). It’s a highly rated game and I enjoyed it for a while, but I may be done now.

Combat example from Nobody Saves the World. I am playing as a slug.

This is a case of “It’s not you (the game), it’s me.” I generally am not a fan of 2D cartoony action games so the fact I’ve played as much as I have says something about the quality of the title. Plus the art style, which I don’t know the name of, but it’s that deliberately low-fi style that is popular in adult animation today, is not really my thing. Still for a game I got on PS Plus, I got maybe 7 hours of fun out of it. Not going to force myself to keep playing, though.

Snowrunner – I pulled back a bit from Snowrunner for a while, but towards the end of the month I started getting back into it. Last I looked I was at 125 hours or so and FINALLY finished the first area. Or as much of it as I plan to finish. Each map has 1 or more “Contests” that are time-based and the LAST thing I want to do in Snowrunner is feel rushed. The whole vibe of the game is slow and chill, at least for me. What caused my interest to wane were some logging contracts which just got tedious as I had to haul several loads of heavy logs (which means I was going slow, even by Snowrunner standards) along the same route. I’ve since learned there’s a better way to do this but I just got bored doing those contracts and kind of drifted away. But finally done, I’ve left Michigan behind and have moved on to Alaska where there is actually SNOW!

Palworld – I caught the bug like 7 million other people. I have never played a Pokemon game but so far I’m enjoying Palworld, which seems to me like some twisted parody of Pokemon. There’s a million people talking about this game so I won’t spend a lot of time on it, but just know that this is a game where you bludgeon cute creatures into submission, make them work for you, and maybe decide “Eh, what the hell, I’ll just eat them.”

Enshrouded – About a day after Palworld hit Early Access, Enshrouded did as well. This is another survivalbox game and I need to buy two of these at once like I needed another hole in my head, but the voxel-based building system grabbed me. My immediate reaction to it has been pretty positive and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game evolves as it moves through Early Access.

I haven’t spend a ton of time with either of these last two because, as is typical of me, no sooner did I purchase them than something else grabbed my attention (this time, it was going back to Horizon Forbidden West).

Watching:

Apple TV+: Monarch: Legacy of Monsters S1 and For All Mankind S4 both finished this month and we enjoyed them both. If you’re a Godzilla fan you gotta watch Legacy, and For All Mankind covers the Space Race if it had played out very differently and never ended. In the fiction of For All Mankind we’re now at something like 2010 and we already have a permanent base on Mars.

Disney+: Echo is a ‘street level hero’ Marvel show that we went into with pretty modest expectations but wound up really loving. The main character, Maya, is a member of the Choctaw tribe, and is deaf, and the show kind of explores both those facets or her life in a very interesting way. She was also raised by Wilson Fisk to be one of his main henchpeople, and she is a total badass. It’s short (only 5 episodes) which I think was a good call as every episode feels significant. Really a good show.

Netflix: The Fall of the House of Usher was a show I wanted to watch last Halloween but never got around to it. We’re not very far into it but so far it’s delightfully creepy. My only real complaint is a bit too much emphasis on the sexual appetites of each of the filthy rich Usher family members. Everyone seems to be coercing (seemingly, at least…I suppose some of them may be willing) some underling into being a sex partner. Hopefully now that the show runners have made their point we can move on and focus on the spooky stuff.

Reading:

Slowly making my way through The Sword of Destiny, one of the Witcher books. But really not doing a lot of reading lately.

Other

I dunno where this fits, but I suddenly developed in interest in how videos are made. Maybe it was watching a YouTuber recap a ‘season’ of his videos and talking about all the things he needed to learn to make them. But I’ve been started to noodle around with this in the tinest way. I’ve embedded a couple of clips in the post, just for laughs.

And those are January’s highlights. I’m looking forward to the Persona 3 Remake hitting on February 2nd and plan to jump into that big time. Not far behind that are a few more titles that I’m really interested in: Pacific Drive and Dragon’s Dogma 2. I’ll probably give DD2 some time to age before I jump in, but Pacific Drive might be a day 1 purchase for me. We’ll see. I’m juggling a LOT of games lately!

Hope your January was amazing, and that your February is even better!!

December 2023

Hmm, I just realized that I maybe should be doing an “end of the year” recap but geez that sounds like a lot of work. I did do that ‘year in review‘ post which is more or less the same thing, at least for my gaming, so I’ll just leave it at that and do a regular old monthly recap. Outside of gaming nothing of consequence happened in my life this year, which at my age is a good thing because most consequential changes are bad ones!

Oh, I guess it might be worth noting that I started exercising in VR back in April and though I’ve had some ups and downs I’ve basically stuck with it. Lost some weight but more importantly just feel strongers and more limber. Those old-person groans when getting up off a chair are now a thing of the past. So that’s one good change from this year.

Anyway, Happy New Year to all who happen upon this post! Now on to the December recap!

Playing

I came in hot this month, finishing both Persona 4 (loved it) and Final Fantasy XVI (hated it) in a single weekend. The plan was to then jump back into The Witcher 3 and Starfield but… I didn’t. I just wasn’t ready to hop back into more 100+ hour games. Well, maybe they’re that long. I haven’t finished either so I don’t really know. So I started game grazing…

First, I jumped into playing Weird West on the PS5 because it was a game I was interested in that HAD been on XBox Game Pass but left that service, and then subsequently was added to Playstation Plus Extra. I figured before it left there, too, I should play it.  I really WANT to like this game but I just don’t. I lasted about 8 hours before uninstalling it.

My biggest issue is the difficulty variability. The set up is that you’re a bounty hunter in a version of the old west that is just rotten with supernatural baddies. You have a quest line, side quests, semi-random bounties to pursue, random treasures to find. All of which sounds good. But when you accept one of these activities there’s no way to determine how difficult it is going to be, and many of them have time limits. Frequently I’d take on a side quest only to find I was completely unprepared to finish it, leaving me with the choice to either fail it (when time ran out) or reload an earlier save. If the designer had just given some kind of difficulty rating to activities it would’ve helped an awful lot.

Screenshot from Weird West showing (well, really NOT showing) my character hiding in a bush in an enemy camp

The other issue is on me: the game relies heavily on stealth and as much as I tell myself I enjoy stealth games, in practice I never have the patience for them. I sneaky-sneak into a camp and stealthily take out one, two, three baddies, then I slip up, alert that camp and get gunned down. Reload and try again. Fail. Reload and try again. Ugh. You’re supposed to be able to Quick Save, and sometimes you can which makes things tolerable, but a few hours in both the Save and Quick Save stopped working unless I was in a safe area. I am not sure if that was a bug or a feature, to be honest, but it was super frustrating.

Anyway I gave it 8 hours at which point I decided I have SO many games I really want to play, and I didn’t purchase this one so… I decided to drop it. If there’s a Weird West 2 I’d definitely still give it a try because I loved the setting and the world; I just didn’t have the patience for all the trial and error it required.

I went back to having a blast in Snowrunner (itself now a 100+ hours and counting game for me) but also kind of exploded all over the place onto PC gaming.

Y’see, I’d been having issues with my dual monitors where my PC would stop recognizing one of them and it would take me all kinds of hoop jumping like uninstalling/reinstalling video drivers to get them both back. I finally got fed up and used this as an excuse to get an ultra wide screen while Black Friday deals were still running. I got the Dell S3422DWG, which I cost me about $350 (regularly $500). It isn’t a super fancy model but it was a big upgrade from 24″ 1920 x 1080 to 34″ 3440 x 1440.

Of course I then discovered that one 34″ monitor does NOT have the same real estate as two 24″ monitors (of course) so I STILL have two monitors, with the better of the older 24″ units sitting in a very tall portrait mode off to one side, but happily the old issue hasn’t returned. {knock on wood}

Anyway I’m digressing all over the place. The end result of all of this is oh my goodness this monitor is a beauty and it makes me want to play PC games! Now my problem is… which PC game to play? I had a run at Astroneer, a game I’d once played a good bit of on the Xbox until I got frustrated with the wonky controls while playing with a gamepad. I had it in my Steam library so fired it up and played it for a few days but even with mouse & keyboard the controls still felt wonky to me, and it was just a little too  sandboxy. I’m not sure what my goal even is. So it was fun for a couple evenings but I moved on.

Example of a Train Valley 2 map

Christmas always triggers an interest in trains for me, as when I was a kid model trains and Christmas trees just went hand-in-hand. So I was delighted when I saw that Krikket was giving away a Steam key for Train Valley 2. This is basically a puzzle game with a transport theme. You have a small-ish map with a several hubs and you have to connect them with tracks and then trigger trains to run from one to the other. Each hub either produces a resource, or converts one (or more) resources into something else, or requires one or several finished products. So for example you connect a log-generating resource to a lumber mill to get boards.

It’s a fairly charming little game that can be played pretty casually (at least the early levels). For more challenge, each map offers a variety of goals, some of which get tricky. My only gripe is I found actually laying the track (which is basically the crux of the game) was kind of finicky, particularly when it came to intersecting two sections of track. Too often just as I released the ‘draw a track’ button things would snap into the wrong spot and I’d have to spend $$ to destroy and rebuild it. In the Steam reviews there are lots of calls for an “Undo” button which I think would improve the game a good bit. Still, it is a fun diversion.

View of the ship I'm breaking down. Full wide-screen image

I guess Krikket is my gaming mentor this month because another game I’ve been playing, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is inspired by her posts. Once again I’m not yet very far into it and honestly I haven’t committed myself to finishing it, but what I’ve played so far is quite entertaining. Krikket’s post will give you a fuller understanding of what the game entails, but basically it’s about cutting up and re-cycling space ships (reminds me of the start of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order), and trying to make a profit while doing so. It’s been a while since I played a game that has you maneuvering around in 3D space, which is definitely fun when it isn’t frustrating. Bonus points for this one as it is on Game Pass, both PC and Xbox, and is cross-play so I can work on the same campaign on both PC and Xbox, depending on my mood.

Screenshot of the ship as I'm about to pass through the open hatch into the interior

And this isn’t all! I dabbled in a few other PC games, and started a few more console games, but this recap is becoming boring to write so it MUST be getting boring to read. If I stick with any of these games (many of which I started just in the past couple days) I’ll include them in the January recap. But the header image gives a clue as to one of them!

Watching

Lots of hold-overs from last month. Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and For All Mankind are still running (or if they’re not, we haven’t caught up to their ends yet) and we’re still enjoying both.

New this month is Lessons in Chemistry, a show very different from our normal viewing. It’s about a brilliant chemist (Brie Larson) who, mostly due to the patriarchal snobbery of her time (it takes place in the 50s) leaves her lab coat behind and becomes the star of a cooking show. It’s really good, and it feels like a ‘one season and done’ show that tells a complete story (it’s based on a novel). Very sweet story.

As for my ‘me time’ viewing, I’m still grinding through Attack on Titan but I’ve been watching a LOT of year end and Steam sale gaming recaps, primarily concerning strategy games that I’ll probably never play but think I would enjoy playing if I’d just devote the time to them. It’s always that lack of time that trips me up… maybe if I didn’t watch hour long ‘year in gaming’ YouTube recaps I’d have more time to spend playing, eh? I don’t know what it is about these videos I find so compelling but they are something I look forward to at the end of the year.

Reading

A Christmas Carol because I read it every year at Christmas. 🙂

So I guess it’s time to say farewell to 2023 and brace ourselves for whatever new disaster 2024 has in store for us. Expect the worst and hope for the best, right?

2023 Year in Review: Xbox and PlayStation

Both PlayStation and Xbox sent out links to “Your year on {insert platform name here}” this week. Maybe Nintendo did as well but I can’t even remember the last time I turned on my Switch.

Initially I was just going to paste a couple images into a blog post and call it a day but they’re kind of big and cumbersome so I thought maybe I’d list some of the figures as well. These aren’t like-for-like as each company reports different things.

Playstation

Clip from my Playstation Year End recap showing my top 5 games as listed in the text

My top 5 PlayStation games in terms of hours played:

1) Genshin Impact, 253 hours played
2) Snowrunner, 93 hours played (so far!)
3) Final Fantasy XVI, 49 hours (felt like more)
4) No Man’s Sky, 33 hours (on Playstation, I also played on both Xbox and PC, at least a little)
5) The Walking Dead Saints and Sinners, 21 hours (that’s a PSVR title)

In total I played 36 different games on PlayStation, and played for 495 hours. Sheesh. I earned 163 Trophies but no Platinums. They also claim I spent 6 hours playing “with my squad” but I can’t remember spending a moment in MP unless they’re counting dipping into FF XIV or Elder Scrolls Online or something. Lastly, my gaming style was “Thrill Seeker” whatever that means: “You spent 59% of your game time on the edge of your seat, following your goal no matter the odds.”

Xbox

Clip from my year end recap of Xbox gaming showing my top 3 games as listed in the text

Microsoft only reports my top 3 games:

1) Persona 4 Golden, 126 hours
2) Starfield, 72 hours
3) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, 50 hours

True Achievements also does something similar, though they list Achievements rather than hours. But based on that I’m going to hazard a guess for what would be #4 on the list:
4) Ghostwire Tokyo, 39 Achievements

After that, I’m just not sure what #5 would be.

In total I played 149 different games, but that figure is bloated by chasing Microsoft Rewards points. Every week there’re 2 games that give points and one of them is generally “Just start the game” so if we knock 98 games (104 – 6 still to come) we get 51 different games I played by choice. I spent 486 hours gaming on Xbox. Pretty close to the PlayStation number. I earned 242 Achievements. For a filthy casual I didn’t do too bad. MS says I’m in the top 10% of gamers for hours played and the top 5% by number of Achievemnts earned and Gamerscore, though that last isn’t clear. Do they meant total Gamerscore or Gamerscore this year? Who knows? I’m guessing this year because my total Gamerscore is pretty low (67,722).

Summary

So there ya go, my year of gaming. Sure I played a bit on Steam but not enough as is worth tracking. I did play some Xbox PC games but those, I assume, are counted under the Xbox year in review. Now share your recaps!

Header image generated by https://imagine.meta.com/ using the prompt “Picture of a couple walking hand in hand down a beach at sunset. One of them has an X on their back, as in the Xbox logo, the other the letters PS5, as in the Playstation logo. They are walking away from us.” The logos aren’t perfect but I think I was fighting copyright issues so… I’ll take what I can get.

Final Fantasy XVI Finished

Look at me, finishing two games in a single weekend. Woot! Woot!

So this was such a strange situation. Way back last summer, maybe even late spring, I played the Final Fantasy XVI demo and loved it. I loved it so much I pre-ordered the game at full price, something I very rarely do these days. And when the game launched I… found I didn’t like it. And the more I played, the less I liked it. By the time the credits rolled, I really hated it.

I’m not saying it’s a bad game, just that it was a bad game for me. MOST people seemed to really enjoy it. I’ll get to what I didn’t like, but let’s look at the positive stuff first.

Combat example from Final Fantasy XVI showing how hard it is to see your character.

The Good

1) It is a gorgeous game. The world, the characters, the effects…just amazing to look at.

2) The voice talent did a great job, given what they had to work with.

3) I think the story was pretty good, but I’m not 100% on that. There were definitely some great characters and the lore was really interesting.

4) The skill system was nice once you got the hang of it, and you could refund all your points to try new builds without any cost. I appreciated that.

5) You have a wolf companion throughout almost the entire game. He was my favorite character!

Combat example from Final Fantasy XVI showing how hard it is to see your character.

The Bad

How long ya got? 🙂

The word that springs to mind over and over again is overwrought, in the sense of this definition:

(of a piece of writing or a work of art) too elaborate or complicated in design or construction

It you took the story and boiled it down to a 2 hour movie I think it’d be great. But FFXIV has 20 hours of cut scenes that it uses to tell this story and my god did it ever get SLOW. Twice I literally fell asleep during lengthy cut scenes when some villain slowly enunciated every word of some pretentious monologue (with no way to speed it up other than skipping it completely). Not only was the dialog delivered at a very sedate and deliberate pace, we got constant scenes of someone slowly stepping into frame (the intent, I suppose, was to generate a sense of drama), tons and tons of slow camera pans and dramatic pauses, and it was like I was living in some kind of distorted time pocket. I was constantly muttering “Let’s GO” at the screen. It frustrated the HELL out of me when I wanted to get back to PLAYING THE GAME. Sitting there for half an hour without touching the controller was common. (With the in-game cutscenes you could tap a button to skip to the next line, but not with completely hands-off scenes.) I don’t mind games with a lot of cut scenes but only if they’re interesting. This one made me think the art staff was getting paid by the minute of completed footage or something.

Combat example from Final Fantasy XVI showing how hard it is to see your character.

And the dialogue was so pretentious and ponderous. I don’t mind the style of it (similar to that in Final Fantasy XIV) but every time the villains spoke the prose got so purple; I’d get a headache from doing so much eye-rolling.

Then there was the combat, which I just didn’t enjoy. Fighting ‘trash mobs’ was fine and even fun but the boss battles tended to be extremely tough for me to ‘read.’ Maybe it’s just that my eyes are old and tired but frequently I couldn’t see either my character or the mob I was fighting for all the spell effects. Keep in mind that you’re supposed to be parrying and timing your attacks based on what the baddies are doing. Tough when you can’t actually see the baddies. I’ll scatter some screenshots throughout the post.

Other issues with the combat: a) Breaking it up for mini cut-scenes just as you had a flow going. b) Crazy-assed kaiju battles (actually eidolons or ichons or something) that the rest of the gaming community seemed to think very cool, but that I found infuriating and again, very hard to read. c) Characters having a discussion about something while I’m trying to focus on the combat. d) Melee weapons that did terrible damage unless you used a skill. d) Skills that require holding down a button (ie they take a second or two to fire) in a game where bosses frequently teleport away.

Again, fighting ordinary enemies was pretty fun; it was in the boss and mini-boss fights where most of the above sucked the enjoyment out of combat for me.

I didn’t like the way the world was structured in that it was very segmented so you had to fast travel from place to place. Conversely running back and forth through your base got super tedious. And there is no sprint button. The game decides when you should start running based on you holding down the walk button for a while. As soon as you let up, you’re back to a slow jog until the game decides it’ll let you run again.

Combat example from Final Fantasy XVI showing how hard it is to see your character.

As for the loot system… if they tried they couldn’t come up with a more boring loot system. Finding gear was very rare and most of your loot was “3 pinches of magic ash” or “5 bloody hides”. This would be fine if there was a robust crafting system but there wasn’t. There is a crafting system but it’s very basic and I ended the game with tons of crafting materials that I had no use for. Ditto money rewards. I was walking around will over 100,000 gil and being rewarded with “5 gil”. Thanks!

Anyway, like I said, I could go on and on. But this was one of the least fun gaming experiences I’ve had since back when I reviewed games for a living and had to play stuff I hated. I’m not sure why I forced myself to finish it. Just to say I did, I guess. Now I’m deleting it from my hard drive and will enjoy knowing I’ll never have to play it again!

Sorry if this seems extra-ranty. Ok, let’s rephrase that: sorry this IS extra-ranty. I’ve had this bottled up inside me since summer but I wanted to finish the game before I posted about it, just in case I had an epiphany. There was no epiphany; I just did not like Final Fantasy XVI.

Just because I hate being so negative (honest, I do) here’s what I’d love to see. Take this world and the lore and the art assets and a bunch of the side characters, and make an open world game or an MMO out of them. Give us an enhanced crafting system so all the bits and bobs we collect from monster fights can actually be useful, and make the world one big connected place so we can roam around and explore it. I think THAT would be a first rate title.

Person 4 Golden, Fini!

Well I finally went and finished Persona 4 Golden. Why’d I go and do a thing like that? I’ve started various Persona games (including this one) at least half a dozen times, but this is the first time I’ve ever completed one, and goodness gracious did I ever enjoy it.

What’s odd is that all the times I’ve bounced off a Persona game it was because of all the ‘social stuff.’ If you’re completely unaware of the series, it takes place in a contemporary setting where you, as a student, have to balance things like school work and part time jobs with hanging out with friends to improve “Social Links.” Then there’s another whole facet of the game where you’re doing dungeon crawling. You are staying with an uncle and your young cousin in a small town for a year. When the year is up, the game ends, so there’s a certain amount of time pressure. Each day is broken up into day and night sections and you have to pick, generally, one activity per section. Do you go home and study in order to get your Knowledge attribute up so you can do well on an upcoming test, or do you go hang out with one of your friends to increase your Social Link?

Higher Social Links let you create more powerful Personas. Personas are like facets of your personality that you can draw on while in the dungeons to use skills. You can collect a lot of Personas and fuse them to make even more Personas. While this is fun I found the UI for doing this to be pretty clumsy; one of my few gripes with the game.

Previous to this time playing, I’ve never given the social stuff a chance and found it boring and that’s why I bounced off the games. This time I stuck around and it didn’t take long for things to completely flip. I started LOVING the social stuff and when I had to go do a dungeon and fight I found it almost annoying. I wanted to get back to hanging out with my friends!

I found the main plot in Persona (basically a murder mystery) quite engaging, with some ‘twists’ that I saw coming a mile away, and others that legit surprised me. Even more endearing was the messaging; there’s a lot about facing and accepting the different facets of one’s personality and it was a real ‘feel good’ experience over all. The characters are all very well written and I grew quite fond of them. I played with the English voices and the actors did a superb job. When the game finally ended I had that melancholy feeling you get when you have to say goodbye to an ensemble cast that has become quite real to you. I’ll miss these Persona kids!

The Tzitzimitl Persona. Basically a medusa only with arms instead of snakes coming out of her head.

I’d guessed that I’d finish at 100 hours and I think it was 107. My main team of characters (you can take 3 of your friends with you into a dungeon) were all in their low 90s (with a cap of 99) and I was playing on Normal difficulty. I did pretty well with the Social Links and maxed 11 or 12 of them. I think there were a few I never even touched, and one (Ai Ebihara) which I wanted to max but ran out of time.

There are a few possible endings you can get and thanks to consulting a guide I got the best one, meaning I fought through every dungeon and beat all the bosses. I’d spent a lot of time in dungeons grinding during mid-game and that really cut the difficulty down for me. The Internet says you should be around level 70 to beat the final boss and I was 20 levels past that so… I was grinding not just for levels but to farm Personas because I had this idea of catching them all, but eventually I gave up on that. (The Persona designs are delightfully weird.)

Anyway, that’s it. It’s an old game and most everyone has played a Persona before so I don’t have any great insight to share. But this will NOT be my last Persona game. I’m a little sad, though, that each game stands alone. I’d like to see Yukiko, Yosuke, Naoto and Nannako one more time.

Shot from an in-game dialog segment showing Rise.

Persona 4 Golden: Hollow Forest after action report

Another goal accomplished in my Persona 4 Golden play-through: the Hollow Forest has been cleared. After all my worry about how hard it was going to be and whether I should even do it, it turned out to be fairly easy. It did take me two evenings but that’s more to do with real life getting in the way of the important business of gaming, rather than any difficulties with the dungeon.

Factors that mitigated the difficulty? Well the big one is, I read a guide first. 🙂 Knowing what to expect helped a lot. And just being high level and in particular having Rise high level and with a maxed Social Link. The big issue, you’ll recall, is that your Spell Points are halved after every battle, which seems like a huge hardship. Turns out it really wasn’t since between Invigorate, Rise’s Vigor Song (which replenishes 10% of the party’s SP after each battle) and the various SP restoring accessories that drop in the Hollow Forest (they give some SP back after each turn), each character will have enough SP for a spell or two each battle. That was more than enough to wipe out the enemies throughout most of Hollow Forest.

When it wasn’t, my party was high level enough to take some hits while Guarding for a couple of rounds to build SP back up. My superstar wound up being Yukiko, who was supposed to be my healer but her Burning Petals skill with Fire Amp was just devastating.

Once Hollow Forest was cleared, time moved quickly. It’s like Lord of the Rings after the ring is destroyed (oops, SPOILER WARNING). There is one more semi-hidden dungeon after Hollow Forest and in fact I initially missed it and hit the ending animation and credits. Had to reload an earlier save to rectify that. I’m now a level or two into the last dungeon. Not sure I’ll get back to Persona before the weekend, but I’m pretty confident I’ll have the game wrapped up by Monday. My last save was at 103 hours or so.

While I’m quite ready to enjoy all the other games I’ve been wanting to play, I’m going to miss these Persona kids. I’ve come to be very fond of them all.

Kanji and Naoto doing their special move in Persona 4

Persona 4 Golden: The Hollow Forest

OK here’s something new. Let’s write a blog post about a part of a game I haven’t actually played yet!

I’ve been really focused on Persona 4 Golden since writing the November recap post. At the time I had about 70 hours into the game and estimated I’d be finished with it at around 100 hours and I hoped I could do that by the end of December. Since then (I actually wrote the post a few days before it published) I’ve been playing P4 whenever I had a free moment (thank you, Xbox Quick Resume) and thanks to a dreary, rainy weekend I’m already at 90 hours. I’ll definitely hit 100 hours well before the end of the month; however I’m no longer confident I will have finished the game by the 100 hour mark!

My next challenge is The Hollow Forest. I won’t spoil any story elements but this is a unique dungeon with some added challenges. (When P4 warned me that my choices would start having large consequences I started glancing at guides since I didn’t want to miss anything; I can’t see myself re-playing a 100+ hour game.) When you enter the Hollow Forest, all your gear is lost and you are given starter gear. While you can find better gear in chests to aid you, it remains to be seen how much better. I have pretty epic gear on most of my characters so losing access to it is going to hurt, and my physical attacks are going to be pretty weak.

But what is more concerning is that after every battle, your mana is reduced by half. This is huge. After just a couple of fights against trash mobs you’ll be basically out of mana and with physical attacks nerfed by losing your good gear, I am just really curious how this is going to go. Once again, there are items you can find that will restore mana that can help but still…after basically one-shotting enemies with powerful magic spells in the previous dungeon, this seems really scary.

I’m only on the 2nd level and look at my mana (bottom bar under character portraits)

A few other bits and bobs: you stumble into the Hollow Forest after a fairly long sequence of story events where there’s no opportunity to save, and once you get in there you can’t really leave. So if you are under-leveled I think you’d have a hard time. You CAN save in there but you can’t go back to earlier dungeons to level up. And you only have 1 (in-game) day to beat the dungeon. If you don’t beat it you won’t get to experience certain parts of the game. I’m not too worried about my levels. I have my party member social links maxxed out and my active party is all in the high 80s (99 is cap). If I need to draw on my second stringers, though, they’re much lower level and could struggle. Hopefully I won’t need them.

Anyway I arrived at this point pretty late in the evening and only did a couple of levels of the dungeon. So far the mobs aren’t too tough but the fights can take a while once your mana is gone which, of course, happens very quickly. I guess the trick is to avoid fights, open chests for better gear, and once you find a boss, warp out of the dungeon, get the fox to replenish your mana, then jump back in and do your best to avoid any fights until you find the boss again. The Invigorate skill which replenishes a bit of mana after every turn is going to be super useful, and if you have Rise leveled up and her Social Link maxed she has skills that will help, too. Thankfully I pushed hard to get her social link to max over the winter.

I initially considered just blowing off this dungeon since I’m kind of eager to move on to other games, but after sleeping on it, I’m kind of excited for this challenge.

Looking forward to seeing how it goes tonight!

I’m REALLY glad I finally made the effort to “get into” a Persona game for the first time. It did take a little while to get its hooks in me but now I am LOVING this game and I’m glad to know there are several others waiting to be played!