Horizon Zero Dawn: What Dreams Are Made Of

   Sometimes, you buy a game you don’t know, simply because it has a badass title and cool cover art. I had no expectations going into Guerilla Games’ latest work and boy, was it a ride! Horizon Zero Dawn has a way of sucking you right in the heart of its beautifully crafted world and carefully laid out narrative. You will meet plenty of complex characters, each with its own backstory and life lessons to teach you. The more you’ll learn about this world, the more questions you’ll have. Be ready to embark on a journey of the most epic scale alongside on of the coolest protagonists out there.
   First, while Horizon Zero Dawn is solid in every aspect, its greatest strength lies in its storytelling. Characters feel authentic and believable, their motivations, relatable, and every piece of dialogue is either hilarious, thought-provoking, or both. Aloy has to be the most confident, stubborn and sassy female protagonist I have ever seen. Her character development flows smoothly throughout the game, with her becoming progressively more aware of the stakes of her fight. As she explores the world, she uncovers hidden truths about the Old Ones, those beings who left so many relics behind when they disappeared, among which were all the machines. The way their story is brought to the player is so vivid, so gripping, that I found myself eagerly looking for the next piece of audio log. However brilliant were all those dialogues and cutscenes, though, none of it would have been so powerful without the voice actors’ outstanding performance. Brace yourselves, people, because the feels are real!
   Second, Horizon Zero Dawn is a breathtaking game. Every environment is more beautiful than the last, every scenery so vibrant you’ll stop and stare in awe. The world feels alive. There are so many machines and animals to hunt, each with their specific strengths and weaknesses to exploit, that you’ll find yourself constantly going out of your way to see what you’ll encounter next. Although there’s not much to do in them, the cities also feel bustling with activity. The architecture and people’s clothes are genuinely intriguing, making them feel like they truly are a part of this world. Aloy’s weapons and armors are detailed and badass, just like every machine. Guerilla Games made a visual masterpiece. Graphically speaking, the game is outstanding, with gorgeous lightings and particle effects. The artists who worked on it have something they can be very proud of.
   Third is Horizon’s polished gameplay. The mechanics are tight, the movements, fluid, and the control scheme, efficient. The game is very responsive, with no lag or framerate issue, which makes for thrilling battles that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Without ever being unfair or ridiculously tough, enemies are challenging enough that even veteran gamers will enjoy a hard time during some parts. The weapons at your disposal are creative and the machines are varied. This lets you come up with your own way of dealing with every situation. Stealth is also an important part of combat; beware of some enemies that can turn invisible! As for side objectives, they are numerous and diverse, with scenarised side quests that tie in well with the main story, bandit camps where stealth is of the essence and cauldrons where you’ll get to visit ruins of the metal world that build machines. Hunting grounds are also fun, offering some of the hardest challenges in the game. Overall, there are plenty of things to do, supported by a solid crafting system and an intuitive way of leveling up. At least forty hours of good content that will feel like a breeze (I put in fifty-one hours to reach max level).
   In conclusion, Horizon Zero Dawn is an outstanding game in every aspect that falls just short of being a masterpiece. It understands what it does well and plays on its strengths to bring about a world that is complex and beautiful, supported by solid gameplay mechanics and an amazing soundtrack. While resting on well-known, the story manages to avoid most clichés by staying creative. The whole is brought to the player with flawless execution and a technical mastery that is on-par with the industry’s biggest names. For its first foray outside of the FPS genre, Guerilla Games created something incredible. It shows that going outside of your comfort zone and doing things your own way can pay off big time. I am very excited for their next works and I really hope we’ll get to play another Horizon soon!
Final verdict: 90%

Nioh: Masterpiece In Disguise?

I won’t chew my words, Nioh is an odd one, and I mean that in the good sense. Team Ninja can be proud of that one, they really outdid themselves. As a diehard Dark Souls fan, I found everything I love in Nioh and more. For this game, “prepare to die” is an understatement.

   First off, the game is technically flawless. Without being astounding, the graphics are good quality, with no frame drops or graphical artifacts whatsoever, and after about 20 hours, I haven’t encountered a single bug. The gameplay mechanics are tight, fluid and very responsive, making for nerve-wrecking encounters with brutal enemies, that a solid soundtrack supports really well. Even the AI seems polished and carefully thought out.
   Secondly, Nioh is at the very least original and interesting in its artistic design. As a foreigner to Japan, I find it fascinating to learn more about their folklore through just about every aspect of the game. The monsters, the armors and weapons, and even the environments all evoke a typically traditional japanese history. The world of the game and its lore are fun to discover, even though the story itself is pretty predictable – this is probably Nioh’s greatest flaw. The main character, William, gets something stolen from him and chases the bad all the way around the world to get it back. This leads him to meet all manners of strange characters who’ll help him in his quest, people who get few screen time and who we don’t get to know half as much as we should. Unfortunately, this already weak scenario is rendered even worse by the awkward cutscenes and poor storytelling.

Fortunately, Nioh is not a game that should be played for its gripping story and shocking plot twists. No, where it really shines is in the way it handles its difficulty beautifully. Even though its level design isn’t its greatest strength, it is still very efficient, and the developers have succeeded in exploiting it to its full extent. Enemy placement is flawless and traps are subtle, yet easily avoidable. The NPCs and creatures I faced always offered me a good challenge while also remaining fair. The game’s mechanics are deep and complex, giving the player a plethora of options and tactics to choose from in every situation, while at the same time being intuitive enough that more than a few tries are rarely necessary to find the right strategy before a tough opponent – though finding the right strategy and applying it correctly are two different matters. Even the game’s crafting system offers near-limitless possibilities to those patient enough to customize every single aspect of their equipment.

In conclusion, Nioh is a masterpiece held back only by poor storytelling and average level design. With tight gameplay mechanics and a difficulty that is both fair and unforgiving, it stands as the proud successor to the Dark Souls series, yet manages to remain its own, completely separate entity. I am really looking forward to seeing how the multiplayer aspect evolves over time. Fans of difficult games rejoice! Nioh will go down in history as one of those great games that really respects and masters its own mechanics. Now, prepare ro try – hard.

Final Rating: 90%

Old Is Still Gold And What We Can Learn From It

Games can be crude. They can be vulgar and offensive, sometimes overly violent or sexual. The video game industry has tried many-a-thing in order to captivate the audience, with some success at times, and failing miserably at others. There is one company, though, that stepped over every boundary, played with everything wrong and got out of it what I like to call a masterpiece. Yes, you have guessed it, I am talking about Rare and their infamous Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the N64.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a unique game from every point of view. The game’s universe and atmosphere are constantly changing to accommodate whichever franchise it’s parodying at the time, and with a plot that barely holds together but is so completely ridiculous it just adds to the charm of the whole, you can’t help but crack a smile every now and then at the over the top references. The game’s aesthetics are artistically interesting. Since there are so many different areas in the game, we get to see a lot of different art styles, which makes for a visually striking experience through and through. Even the music stands out most of the time, with entertaining, lively, jazzy themes to accompany you on your adventure. Gameplay-wise, the game is a huge melting pot of ideas, with different play styles in different areas as the story progresses.

What truly makes Conker’s Bad Fur Day stand out, though, is its constant depraved humour, its gratuitous violence at every turn and its over sexualization of just about every character and situation imaginable. It can feel immature at times, but when you take a closer look at it, you realize that it is simply another way of telling a story. Much like in a Tarantino movie, just about every aspect of the game is exaggerated and pushed to its limits in order to crank up the ridicule or make a situation way more tense than it needs to be. This way of not taking itself seriously is what lets the player simply hop along for the crazy ride that the game offers. Boy, oh boy, is it a ride. From beginning to end, Conker will surprise you with always more references to pop culture and a, quite frankly, insanely creative way to make those universes come to life on its own terms.

All that being said, and now that it has been established that Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a great game (at least in my opinion), I have to say that what really piqued my interest about this game is the way it handles so many sensible subjects. From dysfunctional relationships to war, to ruling over people and even altruism, it takes a (sometimes not so) clear stance on all of these without being afraid of hurting opinions or going overboard. I think this is what the industry needs the most today. Companies nowadays are afraid to make big commitments or state controversial opinions in their games, because they’re afraid they’ll be crucified on the public place, but this is precisely what we need in order to be able to have meaningful discussions about some of these subjects. We need people who are not afraid to take a stance and hold on to it. Plus, with all these super serious games that are coming out that are all about bringing the feels to their players, where is all the fun? Where do I go to get a good hearty laugh?

I’ll conclude by saying that I don’t think Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game for everyone, and certainly not for children. That being said, it is also a whole lot of fun and I think it really does help think outside the box and be creative about a lot of things, while exploring the extremes about so many subjects. That can be beneficial to opinion formation. In the end, it is simply a game that will leave nobody indifferent. If it teaches you one thing, let it be this: you have to try things out for yourself before forming an opinion.

A New Way to Tell Stories

   There are stories you will appreciate and enjoy, others you will dislike and forget. Then, there are stories that will shake your view of the world and haunt you for years to come. The Dark Souls saga is of the latter, a deep and dark mystery that can be unveiled only through patience and observation. Getting to understand the story behind Hidetaka Miyazaki’s grim universe can often feel like an archeological investigation. Clues and hints are handed to you, but nothing tangible, nothing ever clear-cut. Prepare to experience a tale of uncertainty, where doubt is your greatest enemy.

   First, let me paint you the picture. The story takes place in Lordran, home to the Lords, where long ago ruled an age of fire. When the flame came to fade, though, Lord Gwyn linked it to humanity in order to prolong its life and keep the age of dark at bay, sacrificing himself in the process to feed the fire. The first Dark Souls has us explore Lordran after it has become a land of undead. Over time, we understand that because of the curse, the world is now stuck in a cycle. A Chosen Undead will always rise to link the flame and renew the age of fire. The true order of the world, though, would be for the flame to die out, bringing about an age of darkness, as Dark Souls II tells us. We get to see that moment in Dark Souls III, when the first flame finally fades and the cycle is broken. Throughout the series, we learn of the gods’ motives to curse humanity and witness mankind’s discovery of their true fate and their struggle to break free.

   Then, there is the perfect parallel that can be traced between lore and gameplay, and the beautiful metaphor it all spells out for life. The people inhabiting Lordran and every kingdom that came after can’t die, because they are linked to the flame. If it so happens, they simply awaken anew at the last bonfire where they rested. They lose their hope and sense of purpose over time, which drives them mad through a process called hollowing. The Chosen Undead is thus but a random individual who happens to be more determined than everyone that came before. In the same order of ideas, the players who beat the game are the ones who never gave up, while the ones who quit represent all the people that went hollow. Whether or not you keep pushing through adversity is entirely up to you and depends only on your mindset and willpower. This is where the life metaphor gets so powerful, as the most successful people are the ones who learn from their own mistakes and don’t fear failure. They keep pushing until they reach their goals and “link the fire”. Soon though, the flame fades like the feeling of victory and new challenges appear as darkness starts growing again.

   In the end, what truly makes Dark Souls masterpieces is the way From Software handled storytelling. As you go through the games, everything and everyone gives you fragments of information, stories and legends that hint at a bigger picture when pieced together. Be it through cryptic dialogues, item descriptions or paintings, the things you learn are never complete on their own, rarely clear-cut and sometimes misleading. This all makes for a constant sense of dread and wonder as you slowly uncover the truth about this broken world. Dark Souls being a difficult game in every sense of the word, it makes sense that the story itself would be hard to understand. It makes for a more satisfying tale that is also more prone to personal interpretation. Thus, theories abound as to what’s really going on. This fosters discussion and the exchange of ideas within the community, rendering it one of the most healthy and dedicated out there. The fact that the game’s world is so mysterious also makes your goal ambiguous. What’s the point of all of this? New players ask. Many quickly become desperate or lose interest, joining the ranks of those who went hollow. They lack the mental resilience that is necessary to persist in the face of overwhelming odds and complete uncertainty.

   Finally, Dark Souls’ unique approach to storytelling is what truly sets it apart, as it is what lets your imagination run wild as you explore this beautiful world. You can appose your own feelings and experiences to what the game has to offer. In addition, this way of doing things makes for very interesting character development and shows you that you’re neither the center of this universe, nor the center of this story. Thus, your accomplishments are yours alone and your quest, personal. Hidetaka Miyazaki has brought about a new era of games with the Dark Souls saga, ones that give the player freedom over the very way they interpret them. Game designers have a lot to learn from these masterpieces, as they are part of this select group of games that can truly be considered artworks.