Yakuza 5

I don’t think I’ve written about my love for the Yakuza series much. And I do love it, though it is unlike other games I tend to enjoy or write about here. I have been a fan of the series ever since I picked up the original game way back in 2008 or so. I was initially put off, having read bad reviews, likely from that rag Game Informer, but as the second game was nearing release, I picked up the first game used and has a blast with it. It felt like the distant descendant of River City Ransom, with an RPG’s attention paid to the story. While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the sequel, I did nab Yakuza 3 & 4 when I got a PS3. I only finished the fourth game a little more than a year ago, just before Yakuza 5 finally hit. I purchased and downloaded it right away, but put off playing it for a while since I had just spent so much time with Yakuza 4. I’m glad I did, because Yakuza 5 is probably the best game in the series and it deserves to be played fresh.

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Like its predecessor, Yakuza 5 splits the game into chapters, each with a different protagonist. Each of these chapters could be their own game, though those games would be a little short. It starts with Kazuma Kiryu, the series longtime protagonist, while Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances. While there is no sign of Tanimura, Yakuza 4’s fourth protagonist, he is replaced by Tatsuo Shinada. Also, for the first time in the series Kazuma’s adopted niece/daughter/ward Haruka Sawamura is playable. Each of these chapters has its own setting, storyline, and tone. Yes, they eventually connect, but they also stand on their own right up until their conclusions. Kiryu’s chapter is a very much a traditional Yakuza game, with a city to explore and lots of thugs to fight. Saejima’s chapter features another prison break for him, as well as an extended stay in the mountains. The third chapter is a curve ball, starring Haruka as she gets her start as a pop star. All of the fighting is replaced with dance battles and rhythm game musical numbers. At least, they are until the president of her talent agency turns up dead and in debt to genial lender Akiyama. From there the two split the chapter as they try to win a singing competition and get to the bottom of a murder mystery. The last chapter is back to Yakuza business as usual, but this time with a character completely unfamiliar with the criminal underworld. While their stories are separate, they all lead to the same place, with one mastermind behind the whole thing.

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The most amazing thing about Yakuza 5 is how varied the gameplay is and how satisfying everything it. I have long criticized a lot of open world games, like GTA, for offering the player thousands of things to do, except none of them are fun. While not everything available to player to do in Yakuza 5 is fun or remotely worth doing, the bulk of the central modes are enjoyable. Kiryu starts the game with a job as a taxi driver, and his racing and driving missions are surprisingly fun. That same goes for Haruka’s rhythm games and Shinada’s adventures in the batting cages. The standout is the hunting minigame with Saejima. There you take to the snowy mountains with just a gun and a small pack to hunt bears, as well as host of other woodland creatures. All of these things are different from the main brawling gameplay, but all of them are also worthwhile in their own right. The pool minigame isn’t half bad either, nor is the golf, though you can safely avoid the slot machines.

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The Yakuza series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would like. It is a very violent game. Overtly, obscenely, unnecessarily violent. But that violence tends to stop short of killing. This is not a murder simulator. The dudes you pummel in the streets might not realistically survive the beatings they get put through, but the game dutifully shows them alive, if aching, after every fight. That goes a long way for me. Even though this is a game about criminals, taking a life is not something even they take lightly. It is a game that strikes a tone similar to Metal Gear Solid. That series can ponder the nature of loyalty while at the same time have Snake track down hidden cartoon monkeys in the forest. This is a game where the protagonists can get caught up in all sorts of silliness, like a man getting into multiple fist fights with a bear, but still features long cutscenes where the characters ruminate on what it means to be a man and how to go about keeping their manly honor.

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The tragedy of the Yakuza series is that Kiryu will always be the star, even though it would likely be better for him if he weren’t. By the third game in the series he has retired to Okinawa to run an orphanage, but in each game since he gets drawn back into the action. In the last game worthy successors were created in Saejima and Akiyama, but fans would revolt if Kiryu weren’t in it. Even in the game world he is such a legend that he is deliberately pulled into the action so a character can prove themselves by beating him (they can’t). The trio of non-Kiryu fighters in this game would be more than enough for the game on their own. Akiyama is a personal favorite of mine, with his lackadaisical approach to life, but his deathly serious take on his job. Shinada’s story is the most disconnected from the rest of the game, but it is also the most satisfying. He is a former professional baseball player who was framed for cheating and banned from the sport. More than a decade later he is prompted to investigate the conspiracy that got him banned for life. He is joined by the apparently unscrupulous loan shark Takasugi. While the normally carefree Shinada is forced to confront some darkness he had ignored, Takasugi proves to me much more soft-hearted than he initially appeared. It is an altogether satisfying little story. However enjoyable the other stories may be, the heart of the game is the relationship between Kiryu and Haruka. He gives everything up to let her live her dream, but by the end she realizes that her dream, which began as a way to provide for her surrogate family, will prevent her from being with them.

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Yakuza 5 is a jambalaya of a video game. Everything is thrown into the pot and the flavors meld perfectly. The tone ranges from silly to somber, from awesome to heartbreaking. I have enjoyed each and every game I’ve played in this series, but I don’t think any of them are quite as good as Yakuza 5 is. It is too bad I’ll never get to play the Japan only spin off, but at least we can look forward to Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami over the next year or so. That is almost enough to finally get me to spring for a PS4.

Good night, Konami

It has been a long time since I played Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but I haven’t really stopped thinking about it or trying to write this blog post; I am merely having trouble finding the words to express my thoughts about the game. MGSV is a game that has inspired many thoughts, most, but not all, of them complimentary to the game. Not only is it a massive game, but it is also likely the last game in the series. Or maybe just the last legitimate game in the series. On top of that, it seems to be Konami’s last video game, as they make an inelegant exit from the industry to focus on the actually profitable parts of their business. In many ways, MGSV feels like the last game of an era. Maybe that is because I played on the PS3, but it feels something like a farewell to that generation and a farewell to the last vestige of Japanese influence on the current gaming industry.

Part of me wants to use a post about The Phantom Pain to eulogize Konami; the hardest part of playing this game is having to reconcile its mastery with the loss of that titan. The video game industry without them simply feels wrong. Each console generation has winnowed out companies that were able to adapt to the new technology. They may have been masters at one point, but their times passed and they went away, with new developers rising to take their place. Mid-tier companies like Jaleco and Sunsoft sputtered and failed in the transitions to 16-bit and 3D. Throughout all of that, though, there were some stalwarts, companies like Nintendo, Capcom and Konami. No matter the system, you could expect to see their games among their most well regarded. (With the obvious exception of Nintendo on non-Nintendo systems) For more than two decades Konami developed a great mix of big time titles, like Castlevania, Gradius or Contra, and slightly lesser known fare like Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Suikoden. They pumped out tons of quality titles in all sorts of genres. Since the days of the Playstation, their biggest hit has been inarguably Metal Gear Solid. While Castlevania and Contra withered on the home console side, both series managing to make marks only with frequent and frequently excellent handheld titles, Metal Gear Solid kept the attention of gaming community. It is only fitting that with Konami making a lamented and ungainly exit from the video game business, Metal Gear Solid V is their last hurrah.

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Eulogizing would make more sense if The Phantom Pain was a backward looking game, but it is not. It is still out there on the forefront of the gaming scene, where the series has always been. While it does play in many ways like previous MGS games, it does so much more. The first three MGS games were each one or two missions. Snake starts with a goal and each boss and area is another step in achieving that goal. MGSIV, for better and worse, expanded that, being comprised of several missions. MGSV takes that a step further; it is a full campaign. Snake deploys into two giant sandboxes with a giant list of missions to accomplish. This added scope leads to more gameplay systems added to an already complex game. Now, Snake runs an entire military force. The more he builds his base, the greater the resources available to Snake in the field. The base building plays into the online component. It also plays into the new buddy system, where Snake brings along a companion with a certain set of skills. It turns the whole thing into a very complex web that is surprisingly painless to navigate. The depth is there for players that want to dig into it, but it is also possible to just understand that bigger numbers are better and just play the game.

Where the game falters, at least somewhat, is in the story. The broad strokes are great, but that is all there is; the game is only the broad strokes. It plays as though the story portions weren’t finished, especially knowing how long winded the previous MGS games could be. Since I don’t want to spoil the big reveal that has certainly already been spoiled for everybody, I will say that the somewhat simple tale of revenge and a man slowly becoming the things he hates are done well.

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That is really my problem in examining this game: I am not invested in it is enough. I can’t provide a strong break down of the gameplay because I was that player that barely took the time to understand it and just figured bigger numbers are better. Mind you, I played the game for near on 100 hours, but I never really dug too deep into all of my options. I used the same load out for most missions. I hand a tranq pistol and a tranq sniper rifle. I knocked dudes out and tied balloons to them to take them to my base. I snuck whenever that was an option and tried to avoid killing. And I am not enough expect enough in the story of Metal Gear to get really analyze its themes. I have missed too many chapters, including the opening one to this game. I am rarely an expert on games; I am more of a tourist. I come through and see the sights, but I don’t stop long enough to really dig deep into the details. I am fine with that, I would rather play a lot of different games than learn one completely. But The Phantom Pain is a game that needs to be examined by an expert.

What Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is to me is a last trip through a series and a company that is going away. I don’t know that it is a good farewell to either. It feels like an evolutionary step for Metal Gear, a game the takes the series to a new place just waiting for another game to perfect it, like MGS3 did for the original. And it doesn’t inspire much reflection on Konami, other than that at one point they used to make excellent games like this as a matter of course. I was glad to play this game, but it ends on a bittersweet note because I know that there will not be any more like it.

Every year, video gaming changes further from what it was when I started playing and I am less and less interested in putting forth the effort to track down the stuff I like. The pool of new games I want to play dwindles every year and every year I care a little less. The Phantom Pain is the first game in long while to remind me that there are things that I have never done in a game. If only other games offered similar new experiences.

Mass Effect 3

Right after I finished Mass Effect 2 I jumped right into its sequel, which likely did the game no favors. Mass Effect 3 is a good game, but it is also a disappointing one. It does a lot of things well, but I don’t think it does them better than its predecessor. The story goes for epic, but you can almost feel the game crumbling under the pressure of being the epic conclusion to this series. The fact that it can’t fulfill the expectations placed upon it mostly reflects the overwhelming nature of those expectations and not any great fault in the game. Mass Effect 3 tries to be the biggest and the best, but it really can’t reach the heights that it strives for. I can’t help but admire its ambition, even if the result is just not as much fun as the last game in the series.

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I spent most of my time with Mass Effect 3 trying to figure out why I was enjoying it so much less than Mass Effect 2. I absolutely loved Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 plays largely the same, except for some reason it is much less fun. Maybe it is due to the slight changes to how the sniper rifle works. I relied heavily on that weapon in the previous game and in ME3 it was harder to use and somewhat less effective. While I didn’t actually time it, the missions seemed to go on longer as well. Missions seemed pretty brisk in ME2, playing out fairly quickly. In ME3 they just seem to drag on forever. I end up wanting to move on well before they end. It could also be that Shepard’s allies this time are kind of disappointing this time out. Sure, returning favorites Tali, Garrus, Liara and the survivor of Kaiden and Ashley join up, the new additions are just kind of there. There is nothing wrong with James, but neither is there anything particularly compelling about him. And EDI getting a body to run around is a great idea that isn’t quite as well realized as it could be. The cast here is perfectly fine, but coming off of Mass Effect 2’s truly compelling dirty dozen this group can’t help but be a little disappointing.

The biggest problem Mass Effect 3 has is that it is built as a product to the detriment of the game. Any commercially released video game is a product, I don’t mean to rail against the idea that the people who put this game out want to make money, but the experience of ME3 is hampered at every turn by stuff outside of the game. For example, a DLC pack includes a new squadmate. That is not a bad thing; ME2 included a pair of DLC characters. The difference is that Kasumi and Zayeed, the pair from ME2, were just a pair of normal characters that the player could have encountered in the Mass Effect universe. ME3’s new character, Javik, is a Prothean, the ancient race that existed in the game’s distant past. Finding him alive is a big deal; he is the sole survivor of a race that has been dead for fifty thousand years, it should cause a much greater reaction than it does. There can be no big reaction, though, because he is DLC. He can’t be central to the game because he is technically optional. Then there is the whole Galaxy at War system. It is a great idea, with each of Shepard’s victories increases the military power she and her allies can bring to bear against the Reapers. The problem with it is that it is hampered by being paired with the game’s multiplayer. There is nothing wrong with the multiplayer, but making it essential to the single player is a short sighted move, the multiplayer won’t be viable forever. Yes, nothing is truly locked behind the multiplayer, but it really restricts how the player can play the game and get their desired ending.

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Lastly, the game simply sets the stakes too high too fast. It opens with the Reapers attacking Earth. After seeing that, it is hard to get into the mood for goofing around the galaxy looking for side-quests. It is tonally inconsistent. The previous games had big problems, but they were problems that could wait. Shepard was looking for Saren, a good excuse to tool around the galaxy. In the second, Shepard is assembling a team of highly trained teammates, a good excuse to tool around the galaxy. Now, Shepard is trying to rally all the races of the galaxy to fight the Reaper, jumping at shadows all over the place feels wrong. The other problem is that the Reapers are a hard threat to actually fight. They are fifty foot tall space ticks, not something that the player can confront with machine guns. So with the stakes set very high, the game then forces players to do anything but directly confront the threat. Mostly, you have to fight against Cerberus, a secret organization that is trying to make sure humanity comes out on top when all is said and done. It feels like a lot of time wasting when important things are going on. That is a problem that the game can never recover from.

Still, the game is mostly fun to play and certainly succeeds in one aspect. The Mass Effect games were sold on their connectedness. Each one leads to the next and the player builds their own version of Commander Shepard as they play them. This game truly realizes that. Nearly every mission features the seeds the player has sown sprouting. Important things like who lived and who died matter, of course, but so do things about how the Shepard resolved all sorts of matters. The core of the missions will always remain the same, they must for the game to work at all, but the details and outcomes can change drastically. It makes the player feel like they’ve affected the outcome.

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The characters that were big parts of all three games are all well realized. They have had three games to develop, and Bioware did an excellent job of keeping them true across three games. The Garrus and Tali you meet in ME1 are the same characters in ME3, the changes they have faced are a result of their experiences with the player. Likewise, Shepard’s relationship with them is also informed by three games worth of development. How they interact with Shepard is directly the result of how the player has played. Mass Effect 3, like the rest of the series, does a great job of giving the player the illusion of control of the story.

Mass Effect 3 is a worthy conclusion to the saga, even if it isn’t as good a game as Mass Effect 2. The ending it … what it is, but the rest of the game is largely what I wanted. It ties all the treads of the series together, sometimes too neatly, and is a joy to play.

Next in my Bioware replay: Knights of the Old Republic.

There are Tomb Raiders and there are Tomb Raiders

I recently played two Tomb Raider games, last’s years Tomb Raider reboot and Tomb Raider Underworld. The differences between them are a prime example of why I am feeling increasingly disconnected with so called AAA video games. Tomb Raider 2013 (from here on just called Tomb Raider) is easily the better made game, but I enjoyed Underworld more despite its flaws. There is a fundamental difference to the way they approach things that, even though Underworld’s execution is flawed, I still find it to be the superior experience.

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This is not about Tomb Raider changing what the series is really about; honestly I don’t care much about that. After playing these two games I’ve now played 5 Tomb Raider games and beaten 2 of them. (I have not yet reached the end of Underworld) I spent some time with Tomb Raider 2 way back in the day, but never played it enough to really gain an appreciation for it. I understood the importance of the series; along with Mario 64, Tomb Raider was essential to the development of 3D games. However, while games like Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time built off of that foundation, Tomb Raider never really advanced. For all of the PS1 generation, it was stuck much the same as it started. That sort of design bottomed out early in the PS2 days, and then the series rebounded with Tomb Raider: Legend. I liked that game because it took many cues from the Prince of Persia games from the same time. I beat that game and dabbled with Anniversary before the change in consoles left me out in the cold. So while I do have some experience with the series, it has never really been one of my favorites. While I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the direction that Tomb Raider when in, it has nothing to do with any delusions of it abandoning what came before it, a threat I’ve seen leveled as other popular games from long running series like Resident Evil 4.

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As I’ve already said, Tomb Raider is in most ways a better game than Underworld. The graphics are a big step up. Underworld has some nice environments, but Lara’s character model is grotesquely cartoonish. The environments look real, but Lara simply doesn’t fit in. Underworld also fails at times with its controls. No matter what I liked or disliked about Tomb Raider, I can’t think of a single situation when the controls did not work as intended. Within the first hour of starting Underworld it had already had its context sensitive inputs fail or misinterpret what I was trying to do a half dozen times. There are times where the camera doesn’t cooperate in giving you a useful view to maneuver through the environments, another thing that as not a problem with Tomb Raider.

What I like more about Underworld than Tomb Raider is that Underworld is a game about exploration with some shooting while Tomb Raider is a game about shooting with some exploration in it. The focus of Underworld is in exploring various environments. They are obstacle courses, mazes and treasure maps; the point of the game is to look around and find what’s out there. Sometimes the obstacles in Lara’s do involve shooting, but that is far from the focus. In Tomb Raider, the shooting is the main point. The exploring that is in the game is there for contrast with shooting. It ratchets up the tension with gunfights and set pieces; then lets the player cool down with some relaxing exploration. It is an effective combo, but it mostly succeeds in taking all the importance out of the exploration. The exploration is just the extra stuff.

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By itself Tomb Raider is a fine game, but it is also an example of a trend with big budget games. On the PS2 Ubisoft made Prince of Persia games about navigating a series of complex traps, but those gave way to the Assassin’s Creed series, which have similar, in some ways, gameplay but shift the focus onto killing people. The kind of platform and action games I like have given way to a cavalcade of shooters. Many of them are good games, but they are just not for me. Which is fine. Luckily, despite the myopia of big publishers, we are living in a golden age of new and different types of games. Sure, they might not have the production values and polish that games from big publishers might have, but the variety is astounding. As long as the indie game scene keeps cranking out new and interesting experiences, I don’t mind missing out on the big stuff.