Nier: Automata and the Joy of Robot Fishers Fishing for Robot Fish

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Chris

It’s been a pretty great year for open worlds. 

We had Horizon Zero Dawn arranging the genres tried and tested hallmarks into a beautiful greatest hits collection, while Breath of the Wild threw a lot of its old tropes in the bin and tried out a fresh sound to thunderous applause.

With Nier: Automata things got a bit weirder. Automata is the alternative artist straddling the line between niche and mainstream. It’ll blow your mind with high-concept, multi-part ballads and then bring a few tropical birds on towards the end of the set and snort lines of coke off their beaks, you know, just to make sure you’re definitely paying attention.

Now if you’d asked the me of late-2016 to guess which of these brilliant open worlds came with a fishing minigame I doubt I would have backed the one where Earth is overthrown by tinker-toy robots quoting Nietzsche and trying to figure out how to properly suck each other off.

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But despite the weirdness of its inclusion,  Automata’s fishing has grabbed me. I’m just struggling to figure out why.

It’s not even a particularly great mini-game. You press a button to cast out your line, hang around for a catch and then press a button to pull out the fish – job done.

On paper it sounds like the dry white toast of fishing minigames but then your line isn’t a line it’s a floating robot…and it’s thrown in the water by an android in a mini-skirt…to catch fish that can also sometimes be robots…and yes, the whole game is kind of like this.

I think one of the joys of the fishing is that it’s just so thematically consistent. Automata revels in the idea of machine lifeforms struggling to wrap their metal heads around humanity’s fleshy quirks. They muddle their way through love, loyalty, fun and family but do so in a very mechanical way and the same is true of the fishing.

There’s really no reason for your android protagonists to do it and judging by their bored poses they seem to know it. Yes, you can make a bit of money as a freelance fishmonger but it’s an odd sideline for someone making both literal and figurative killings on the battlefield. It feels like a deliberate contrast to the fast pace of the action, a calm break that slows down the pace and lets you soak up the ruined scenery.

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But your quiet time can’t last forever.

You’ll inevitably be interrupted by a passing enemy or toddle off to finish some sidequests and suddenly you’ve thrown a spotlight on the problem of Androids trying to escape their intended purpose by aping human behavior. They’re manufactured weapons of war. No matter how hard they try to step away from violence it always tracks them down.     

In truth, I’m a little concerned that my enjoyment might be wrapped up some poorly-suppressed completionist urges.

The Fishing Encyclopedia – a codex that holds information on the all fish you’ve caught – tracks the percentage of everything you’ve pulled out the water and seeing that number rise by even a fraction becomes its own kind of depressing thrill. It’s as if each nudge closer to that sweet 100% climax will somehow make the hours of waiting for a bite seem like a sensible use of my finite time being alive.

I’m no dogmatic completionist but there’s a certain romanticism around finishing something completely that I find it difficult not to flirt with. I know full well that progress for the sake of progress is a winding road to nowhere and yet I can’t help myself. It’s like chewing a stick of gum long after the flavor has melted away. You don’t get much out of it other than a sore jaw and a rubbery blob slowly turning to ashes in your mouth.

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Thankfully, there is a compelling reason to finish the Fishing Encyclopedia outside of just checking off another completionist box.

Whenever you catch a new fish, the encyclopedia is updated with a small text entry. Usually these are just slivers of information on whatever you’ve caught but occasionally they’ll weave in a little intricate world building.

Allusions are cast of a war between mechanical fish and the indigenous wildlife that mirrors the android/machine conflict holding up the story. It brings to mind the famous item descriptions of Dark Souls and its imitators albeit with a lighter tone. Instead of gleaning information from a cursed piece of finger-bling it’s coming from a robotic manta ray that you’ve yanked out of some scummy amusement park pond. With Automata’s world being one of its one greatest assets, discovering more of it is always a joyful prize.

Automata loves mashing together different genres to keep things varied. In its first half hour you’ll have played a vertically-scrolling shoot em’ up, a twin stick shooter, a side-scrolling platformer, and a 3D hack and slasher that, against the odds, all end up complimenting each other.

With this in mind, the fishing runs the risk of feeling like filler. But it sets itself apart by stepping away from action in favour of quiet contemplation. After a particularly gut-wrenching plot-point or the introduction of a stranger concept I often found myself taking a fishing break to tackle my thoughts and feelings. With a game as off the wall as Nier: Automata It’s no surprise that I found myself on the edge of that water more often than a paranoid lifeguard…in a miniskirt…that’s also a robot.

How Abzû taps into the Beautifully Alien Nature of Life Beneath the Waves

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Chris

No trip to the beach is complete without the stench of seaweed squatting in your nose holes. That mass of slowly dying of plant-life might typify the whole experience but it’s not a particularly beautiful sight, is it? It’s smelly, it’s slimy, and it’s usually littered with flies treating themselves to a stinky feast.

It’s hardly the kind of thing to inspire gushing romantic prose like rambling forests or snow-capped mountains, but then, seaweed isn’t particularly designed to be on the beach. In it’s natural habitat it stands tall and dances in the currents, swaying left to right in a floaty hypnotic jig. Beneath the sea its beauty is obvious but then take it to the surface and it all drains away. It doesn’t belong on the land, just like how we wouldn’t look too great if we spent a few days living beneath the sea.

All forms of entertainment have touched on our incompatibility with the ocean. From classic works of literature like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to low-budget Hollywood dumpster-fires like 2006’s Adrift, many have drawn inspiration from our immortal struggle against really big bodies of water. Naturally, video games have tried to get in on that action, too, and like everyone else they’ve mostly focused on the ocean’s dangers.

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In Bioshock, for example, the sea is a constant, looming anxiety, always pressing in and desperately searching for a way to get its icy mitts all over you. In Subnautica the sea is a thing to be conquered, you build and improve until you carve out a small niche for yourself away from all the peril. Abzû (brought to us by Giant Squid) is a little different. Rather than shine a light on the dangers it focuses on the beauty of marine life and revels in the colour and spectacle of it all.

The ocean is a vastly unexplored space. It’s an uncharted alien world that’s right on our doorstep. Abzû channels that idea and delivers a gorgeous sunken ecosystem that’s a delight to explore, whilst constantly reminding you that you probably shouldn’t be there.

The game begins with a mysterious diver floating peacefully on the surface. The pale-blue sky mirrors the calm seas in a serene start that acts as a familiar jumping off point for the player. There’s recognisable clouds and the same old sky we’re used to; it’s the world we know.

It might seem like they start you off here just to force a diving tutorial on the player and, while that’s an important element, I think there’s some interesting narrative implications, too. The surface acts as a barrier. A doorway between our familiar surface world and the alien one beneath the waves. Starting the player above it highlights that contrast. It puts the onus on them to step through that threshold and dive into the adventure.

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One of the key figures in Abzû’s creation was the former art director of Journey and Flower, Matt Nava. While Abzû shares similarities with Nava’s other work, it sets itself apart in a few important ways. There’s a focus on exploration and engaging with your environment that’s just not as present in his other projects. Despite sharing much of Journey’s DNA it still feels different and expects the player to hang around to do a bit sightseeing rather than forging on to the next story beat. Thankfully, it also shares Journey’s penchant for gorgeous worlds that are lovely to spend time in.

The sheer amount of life swimming around on screen is staggering. The quantity and variety of the fish is almost hypnotic, with schools by the hundreds forming dense clusters that dissolve and reform like flocks of playful sparrows. They range from the tiny anchovies to the looming sperm whales but what they all have in common is the sense of detached apathy with which they regard the player. For the most part, you don’t exist to these creatures. They’re perfectly happy to swim around gobbling each other up to ever bother with a weird, limb-having tourist like you.

You can grab onto the side of the larger fish and ride them about like mighty sea steeds but even then they’re not particularly bothered by your worrisome boundary issues. It turns Abzû into a very lonely game despite all the life swimming around you. It often feels like you’re a ghost, invisibly roaming in the world of the living. It all contributes to a lingering sense of isolation that leaves you feeling removed from everything that’s going on. It heightens the notion that you don’t quite belong in this alien space and tickles your curiosity to delve even further.

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With such a beautiful and bizarre world to explore, it’s a shame that navigating through it all can be a test of patience. It’s ‘strongly-recommended’ that you play the game with a controller and even then it puts up a determined fight. I haven’t dared to brave it with a mouse and keyboard yet as I can only imagine it’ll feel like operating a particularly heavy submersible that’s been hooked up to a broken grand piano. The camera struggles to follow the rapid twists and turns a player can make which often leaves traversal feeling slow, sluggish, and ultimately frustrating.

A few rhythmic taps of a button sends you shooting off in a straight line for a limited amount of time, drawing comparisons to the limited flight of Journey’s scarf-touting protagonist. What precedes this joyous burst of speed is an awkward lining up period, where you hope and prey that you got your calculations right or you’ll be overshooting your target and blasting towards a whale’s backside like some sort of Jonah-seeking missile. Speed in Abzû always seems to come at the cost of manoeuvrability.

While the lethargy of the controls rubs the wrong way it does come with the upside of indirectly feeding into the idea of exploring a world you’re not suited to. It’s not your world you’re exploring, after all. It’s supposed to be difficult to get around, much like how a jellyfish might struggle to strut the aisles of your local Tesco. Whether or not all this was deliberate is up for debate, but regardless of intent, it’s an interesting example of fundamental mechanics being used to build on the themes of the narrative.

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Thankfully, the areas you muddle through are a riot of exaggerated colour that helps to set the tone of your exploration. Vivid reds, greens and pinks build a bright and charming backdrop to lighter scenes that shift to darker blues and blacks in parallel to the ebbs and flows of the story. Abzû’s use of colour is a master-stroke as it turns a fairly simple aesthetic into one of the most gorgeous games of 2016. A lot of time can drift away just taking it all in, snapping screenshots and soaking up the atmosphere.

There’s even a special feature included to help you do just that, as hidden away in each environment is a special statue for the player to sit and ruminate on their surroundings. During these ‘meditation’ sections the focus is taken off your avatar and placed on one of the of myriad of fishies gliding around them. The player has no direct control over any of these creatures, you’re just an observer, watching it all play out in front of you like an episode of Blue Planet but somebody’s muted David Attenborough’s narration because apparently they’re a sub-human monster. Not only does this slice of quiet-time give you the opportunity to fawn over the beauty, it also strengthens the feeling of the player as an outsider, gazing from the sidelines at a world that’s not their own.

Observation is clearly a key theme as it’s how Abzû does the bulk of its storytelling. Rather than rely on tightly choreographed cutscenes or reams of flavour text it tells its tale through environmental detail. As the player explores further they come across mysterious, ancient-seeming ruins interwoven with futuristic technology; all evidence of an advanced civilisation that once lived beneath the waves.

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The history and purpose of all this goes mostly unexplained, with a lot of the finer details left up to the player’s interpretation. Hints are dropped in murals daubed on temple walls but they give very little away. Abzû keeps its story cards tightly pressed to its chest and expects the audience to fill in the deliberately wide gaps.

Being a renowned idiot, I struggled to pick up much outside of a vaguely anti-industrial message but I think that’s OK in this case. It feels like a story that’s not meant to be understood straight away. The sense of bewilderment is an important part of the experience. It’s a world you’re not supposed to immediately understand as it’s not a world that you’re meant to be a part of, bolstering the feeling of separation that flows through the experience.

One of gaming’s greatest strengths is the ability to bring the player into a world with a sense of agency over what they do in it. With that in mind, it’s a shame to see so much generic repetition in the worlds on offer. From contemporary cities turned into secluded floating islands, Tolkienesque fantasy realms stuffed with predictable orcs and elves, to the dilapidated urban sprawls riddled with zombies, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve visited a lot these places a million times over.

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It’s the games that inject their worlds with personality and inventiveness that truly stand out in the crowd. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s beautifully barren land of Vvardenfel instantly leaps to mind, as does Dishonored’s grimy city of Dunwall. These are the kind of places that capture your imagination and inspire you to keep playing just to find out more. Abzû (while not quite living up to the likes of Journey) certainly fits into this category.

It’s a slice of marine life that’s a wonder to behold and exploring its gorgeous environments are an utter delight. What’s more impressive, though, is the lonely tone the world fosters. It masterfully captures the conflict of surface and sea and does so without resorting to low-hanging fruit like irritating air timers or gruesome shark attacks. Its a game about beauty, not danger, and even with the occasional gripes it’s well worth diving in.

Perfection, thy name is Downwell

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Haydn

When I booted up Steam to check my hours logged on Downwell I began verging dangerously close to shame territory – 23 hours spent on, as the website describes it ‘A curious game about a young person falling down a well, battling enemies with gun boots, and collecting treasure, and sometimes visiting shops’. That’s about as long as I’ve spent playing Cities: Skyline. Was this a damning indictment of my inability to exercise self-control, or a hearty endorsement of this sublime shoot ’em up? Honestly, it’s a little of both, but mostly the latter.

Downwell comes to us courtesy of Tokyo-based indie developer Ojiro Fumoto, who conceived the game as “Spelunky for your phone”. Much to my shame I’ve never really played Spelunky so the comparison is somewhat lost on me. Furthermore, it never even occurred to me that one might play Downwell on their phone. It requires the sort of pin-point precision that seems entirely at odds with touchscreen controls.  I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to decipher the chaotic stream of bullets and bad guys when played on such a tiny screen.

Downwell is nothing if not a busy game. It’s simple, yes, but there is an awful lot going on. If you, like me, aren’t actually very good at videogames, it may take you some time to crack Downwell. Not a single line of text is wasted on explaining the intricacies of the mechanics, opting instead to encourage a “learn by doing” approach. In this context it works perfectly fine, rewarding players who really pay attention and not overly punishing those who don’t. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with pulling back the curtain and revealing the untold secrets of some apparently innocuous detail.

I’m not going waste anyone’s time with the tedium of explaining Downwell’s mechanics and systems in any great detail. Figuring out the game is half of the fun. It’s a randomly generated arcade style shoot ’em up: you have gun boots, you can jump, get upgrades, build combos, blah, blah, blah. When you die, the run is over and you have to start again. It’s simple, but deceitfully deep.

Blissfully ignorant of Downwell’s central conceit, I used a PS4 controller and a massive screen. I played until my thumb was raw from wrestling the D-pad; I could see the hot flashes of red when I closed my eyes; the musical loops played in my brain as though coming from another room, an echo of a happier time – a time when I was actually playing Downwell. 

It’s a frenetic experience with just enough variety to be found in the upgrades and unlocks to keep each run different. These variables can significantly impact the way you play, and it quickly becomes obvious the importance of making small decisions. Do you switch out to an inferior weapon because the pick-up will give you an energy upgrade? Should you clean out the shop now, or hope that the next one will have better items? Is it worth taking some damage to keep this combo going, or end it now for some free HP?

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I think I may have a weird crush on the shopkeeper

Downwell is a game that requires lightning quick reaction as much as it does long term planning and the ability to make split-second  micro-decisions. It’s a game that just begs to be perfected, for you to hone your skills and master it. It’s a game that requires a level of intimacy with its inner workings that, if it were human, the situation would become rather uncomfortable.

I hesitate to call any game addictive, and certainly don’t consider that a selling point. Whenever I see an advert for Age of Beach Storm Fire Clash (or whatever the latest crystal meth iPad game is) with the tag “Most addictive game ever!” I immediately reel back. That’s less than a single step away from the health warnings they put on cigarettes but done with a smile, rather than a picture of some guy with his throat hanging out.

The unfortunate truth is that Downwell is addictive and for people like me, that’s a problem. I was late for appointments and social engagements, sending text messages like “Just need to take a shower, be 15 minutes late” before promptly not taking a shower and playing Downwell until the last possible moment and then a little further still.

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You won’t be surprised to learn that a heart-shaped balloon is rarely the key to success

The key distinction I’d like to make, however, is that Downwell is addictive for all the right reasons. It’s not dangerously addictive like Runescape was for me at the age of 15 and then, much to my shame, again when I was 19. It’s a far cry from the dreaded Skinner Box, where numbers are your only motive. It’s addictive because it’s basically perfect and you keep playing because you know you can do better.

Downwell is such a finely tuned machine that each moment you spend with it is done so with the goal of improving upon you previous attempt. To, as Daft Punk so eloquently put it, “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger”. The catharsis of descending that mysterious well, with speed and deadly precision, bouncing expertly off the shells of turtles, hovering above a sea of ghosts and spraying them with the latest outlandish upgrade of you gun boots; the momentum of each kill taking you onto the next as your combo number rises… that is bliss in its purest form.

What a Difference a Dog Makes: Some Thoughts on the Dogs of Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas

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Chris

When a prospective owner starts looking for a dog they typically make a choice that reflects their personality. An extroverted person might opt for a bouncy, fun-loving bundle of activity where a more mellow home might prefer a dog that fits a slower pace of life. To be honest, not owning a dog myself means I speak with zero authority on the subject, but with Brexit looming I have been pouring hours into Fallout, recently. You know, just to get a feel for the way things might pan out over the next few years. It turns out it’s not just people that like their dogs to ape their nature, the same is true of the two most recent Fallout games: New Vegas and Fallout 4.

Fallout 4’s ‘Dogmeat’ quickly became the poster-mutt for Fallout’s move to Boston. Standing about like a furry lemon directly outside the starting area means he’s pretty much impossible for the player to miss. He’s a sleek, gorgeous, mysteriously well-groomed German Shepherd that’s immediately obedient and doesn’t poo all over your slippers or shed fur in the wiring of all your energy weapons. Despite the ease of Dogmeat’s companionship you can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, though; a certain spark lacking behind those big, brown eyes of his.

In regards to Dogmeat’s past all we have to go on is the odd mention from non-player characters that don’t really offer anything with any real substance. The optimistic side of me might think his origins are purposely shrouded in mystery but the increasingly dominant cynical side suggests that perhaps not a great deal of thought went into the pooches place in the wider world. But hey, who cares about those finer details when he looks so cute in doggles and munches down bad guy genitals like a hungry professional? Having a dog is cool, right? Surely it’s better that more people are able to find him early and appreciate his company? The less personality and backstory the easier it is for more players to project their ideal onto Dogmeat’s blank canvas. That way everybody’s happy, right?…right?

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*Beep boop* I am a real dog. Please initiate petting protocol #443 *fzzt*

Fallout: New Vegas’ ‘Rex’ is a totally different kettle of fish, though. You won’t be finding him until you hit Freeside, a run-down district walled-off from the bright lights of New Vegas, hours away from starting the game. He’s tucked away in the back room guarded by a goon squad of well-armed Elvis impersonators and you won’t be getting acquainted until you’ve charmed or blasted your way through the gang’s compound. Finding Rex feels like a discovery. It’s unlikely that you’d miss him because a lot of unrelated quests point you in his general direction but it still feels like you’ve tracked down something that could have been glossed over and got a wicked sweet robo-dog as a reward for proper diligence. When you find Dogmeat in Fallout 4 it doesn’t really feel like you’ve earned anything. It’s like beating a toddler at arm wrestling or crushing a mid-sized house plant in a round of 3D chess. It’s a curious freebie in a wasteland supposedly so harsh and unforgiving that drags you out of the whole experience.

Much like Fallout: New Vegas, Rex isn’t likely to win a beauty contest any time soon. After two hundred years and rough work as a police dog, a hound of Ceaser’s Legion, and a companion to a gang boss it’s safe to say that time hasn’t been kind to dear ol’ Rex. Years of degeneration have taken their toll and by the time you find him the poor mutt is knocking on death’s door in desperate need of a new brain. The quest this sets up provides a genuine reason for the two of you to team up and form a bond. Progressing his story further leads to a choice that permanently alters Rex’s stats and, no matter your decision, the player has real impact on the cyber-dog’s life, strengthening the relationship between pooch and player. Unlike Dogmeat, Rex feels like a genuine character that fits with the setting, complete with a history, troubles, and personal development that shine through the more time you spend together. Dogmeat feels more like a tool the player uses than a character they get to know. In many ways the full-flesh dog feels more like a robot than the one with stainless steel legs and visible wiring, a telling irony.

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The heart and soul of a faithful friend fused with the metallic legs of an awesome robot.

Both Rex and Dogmeat make fantastic representations of the games they star in. Like New Vegas, Rex is ass-ugly, a bit kooky, and utterly falling apart but despite all this you can’t help but love him. He’s not a dog for everyone but for those who like him they couldn’t imagine anything better. His character outshines all of his faults and he’s nothing if not memorable, even if he is a bit janky sometimes. Like Fallout 4, Dogmeat is pretty and extremely functional. He’s a dog that’s easy for everyone to like but difficult for anyone to truly love. With such broad appeal he feels lacking in any kind of personality, lest he run the risk of turning anyone away. You can tell that an awful lot of time has been spent working on that glossy coat but underneath there’s not a great deal of substance to sink your teeth into. While it’s true that Rex and New Vegas might both piss all over themselves and fall to pieces every now and then, if it’s a choice between that and Fallout 4’s Dogmeat, I wouldn’t hesitate in backing the cyber-pup every single time. 

Pokémon Go vs History – a compromise between reverence and remembrance

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Haydn

Pokémon Go, as it turns out, is pretty huge. I don’t need to tell you quite how huge because the levels of which Pokémon Go is huge serve as the basis for every opening paragraph ever written on the subject. However, in an attempt to offer you a new barometer for how popular it is, let’s just say that even my parents have heard of it, and they heard about it on the news. The actual news. You know, the one on TV.

I had pretty low expectations for what the app would ultimately be, but the fact that it’s a hit just seemed inevitable. All I really wanted was to see a Scyther clipping through oblivious children in Tesco, or perhaps an Onyx taking a shit on the office doorstep of my local MP.

Of course, the reality is much less graphic, but certainly about as buggy as anticipated. To top it all, I’ve had no success getting the AR to work and, as a resident of Bumfuck Nowhere, the lack of solid data coverage is a real problem. I’ve started spending a worrying amount of time hanging around local points of interest waiting for Pokéstops to load, rebooting the app, giving up, and leaving with Pokéblue-balls.

On the other hand, I’ve walked well over 8km a day since the app was released, and I’ve learnt more about my home town in past few days than since I first moved here. I’ll admit that much of my recently acquired knowledge is particularly niche, and certainly not very exciting, but all of a sudden I am privy to odd little details I never knew existed. There are certainly a lot more churches tucked away around the town than I had ever realised, and I even found a secret clock in an alleyway. I feel like my life is the Da Vinci Code,  but written by someone more competent than Dan Brown. Like a toddler, or a UKIP voter.

Despite its flaws, which are numerous, I’ve really fallen head over heels for Pokémon Go. The last year or so has been a peculiar time for me, and getting out and walking was always a good way to keep from drowning in my own brain soup. But, after a particularly bad slump, I stopped going on walks and that quickly led to a vicious cycle of depression. Pokémon Go has given me the impetuous to go on meandering, erratic walks that don’t follow any rhyme or reason, but have a purpose: to be the very best, like no one ever was.

But of course, it’s not all artisanal bread and olives, and as expected, we’ve been treated to the some very on-brand scaremongering, with Pokémon Go being cited in seemingly every mugging, venomous snake encounter, and unfortunate moment of social unrest. Based on selection bias alone, you’d think that Pokémon Go was responsible for all the world’s ills over the last few weeks. I’m surprised the military coup in Turkey wasn’t blamed on some overzealous tank drivers tracking a wild Dragonite.

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This well intended tweet actually provoked a response from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, asking that players kindly refrain from leaving lures as it creates more problems than it solves.

It didn’t take long for some hack from the Daily Mail to hastily squirt out a few hundred words of half-baked, non-conformist rhetoric about how Pokémon Go is “just one more excuse to gawp at your phone and ignore reality“. The author, Liz Jones, who is clearly more concerned with being snide and contrarian than writing something of worth, suggests ditching the free app and getting a rescue dog if you really want to  more exercise. I can only assume this is because if you’re going to get exercise, you have to do it her way, or not at all. Fuck you, bright-eyed future generations keen to explore the world. Fuck you and you and your newfound love of the outdoors, your sense of adventure and your vibrant community. Get a dog or stay inside like everyone else.

The real crux of the Pokémon Go issue though turned out to be far more surprising than I’d even begun to consider, and unfortunately it’s a complex one. The outrage isn’t born from scores of zombified youngsters breaking into military bases, or whatever ill-advised excursion has consumed the press, but instead it comes from the management teams at memorial sites across the world. Some notable examples are the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Hiroshima Bomb Memorial.

The general feeling is that it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at a holocaust memorial; despite being a reaction I can understand, I feel it’s an unfair one, born from a modest distrust of technology and a blind reverence for the past.

It’s easy to be oblivious to history because, by very definition, it’s not new. History isn’t trending on Twitter and, in this digital age, where apparent moments of significance are forgotten in a flash for the latest hot piece of news, history becomes irrelevant. On top of that, history is depressing. It’s full of horrors we all wish had never happened, and so its hardly surprising that people don’t actively seek it out. Pokémon Go, however, gives people an incentive. The very aim of Pokémon Go is to encourage players to explore the world and, via proxy, engage with it. These memorial sites, which serve as a sombre reminder of how quickly mankind will turn on itself, are perhaps most effective when visited with reverence, but I would argue that awareness of these atrocities is more important than the means by which we pay our respect.

Pokémon Go has a remarkable capacity of drawing hundreds of people to any given location.* To try and close these memorials off from people playing Pokémon Go is to close them off to an entire generation. Yes, perhaps not everyone there is walking around, heads bowed in sullen, mournful silence, but what does that achieve anyway?

As a society, we’ve adopted memorials as a means to enshrine the past in our collective consciousness. We must never forget the horrors of the second world war, because they do not bear repeating. I used to work with someone who didn’t know the first thing about the war, let alone the holocaust; if it takes Pokémon Go for a person like that to accidentally stumble across a site of historical significance, then so be it. Does it really matter how people engage with history, so long as they actually do it?

It may be an unconventional way to explore the world or learn some history, but time moves forward and we move with it. Looking at Pokémon Go as a symptom of a switched-off generation is to look at it all wrong. Whether we like it or not, technology is ever evolving and in 20-years we’ll all look back at this and laugh at how primitive it is. Don’t fear it, don’t fight it, and don’t decry it. Preserve the memory of the past, but don’t put up a barrier.

*Aspiring super villains and despots take note

The worst boss encounters in Dark Souls – Basically, I’m annoyed at Namco again

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Haydn

Dark Souls III is here and, if you know me, you know one thing: I freaking love Dark Souls.  I love playing Dark Souls. I love writing about Dark Souls. I love sitting alone in a windowless room just thinking about Dark Souls.

Given that I am flat-broke and can’t afford to buy Dark Souls III for a few more weeks, I decided to take a look back at some of the best bosses from the series thus far. I’m not joking when I say that I was on the second paragraph of that post when my goodwill towards the series was promptly soured once again by more PR bullshit from Bandai Namco, so I think I’ll take the piss out of the rubbish encounters instead.

For those not in the loop, let me direct your attention to particular offence that changed the nature of this post. In what should have come as a surprise to no-one, Namco have demonstrated an absolute disregard for health of the Dark Souls brand. Instead of seizing the opportunity to provide us with a genuinely nice collectors piece, some cretin in a boardroom signed off on this.

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For only $129.99, you too could own this abstract green lump. By simply harnessing the power of your imagination, it could be anything you want it to be.

The Dark Souls III Prima Official Game Guide was sold for $129.99 with the inclusion of an Estus Flask replica, an item from the game that it is literally impossible to find good replicas of, even on Etsy. So the promise of an official one was enough to peak the interest of everyone with an unhealthy relationship with the series. But Namco, clearly not content with the slow poisoning of the Dark Souls brand, decided to throw a healthy dose of false advertising into the mix, just to really drive home the point of how little they care about Dark Souls and its fans.

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The replica flask as pictured in the promotional material for the guide. It looks like a digitally drawn image rather than a photograph so the fact that it’s not representative is hardly surprising in retrospect.

You could call me petty for turning on the games I love simply because Namco are being terrible again. Surely, you might say, if I were to lambaste the Souls series each time Namco riled me up, I would have little time in life to pursue other interests, such as scouring B&Q car parks for free DIY supplies and waiting in train station cafes for connections I have no intention of taking. You’d be right to call me out like that, but I spend so much time gushing over the Souls games that I feel they deserve a gentle prod. Plus, a disproportionate number of the worst boss encounters are in Dark Souls II which isn’t even that good anyway.

To clarify, I’m looking at just the vanilla Dark Souls Dark Souls II. While I’ll not deny that both Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls have their fair share of less than excellent boss encounters, it only complicates things when you start writing about five different games from three different IPs.

The Bed of Chaos (Dark Souls)

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Totally bodacious, heavy metal tree monster with an interesting place in the lore. Also, a total shit-show from a game design perspective. 

Despite the superb visual design and strong core concept behind the Bed of Chaos, the actual encounter is insufferable. It plays much more like a set piece than a fight, with the player working to destroy barriers around the heart before diving into the writhing mass of flames and branches to slay the tiny but powerful being within.

I love the idea that something so small is responsible for such chaos, both in the room and the wider world, but the actual encounter is a tedious slog through instant death pitfalls and wonky code. Dark Souls was plagued with technical issues due to the sheer scope of the original game and Bed of Chaos is a prime example of where things went wrong.

Executioner’s Chariot (Dark Souls II)

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The screenshot looks like it was taken from Beta because Dark Souls II is ugly as sin. Also, it’s misleading because this fight almost looks interesting. Which it patently is not. 

Upon passing through the boss door, you’re immediately swamped by re-spawning skeletons which you must dispatch while avoiding the actual boss as it rampages continuously around the circular room.

Once you’ve been stun-locked into a corner and died a couple of times, you might make it through to the second phase where, after pulling a leaver, the chariot crashes and you have to fight the horse. The executioner died in the crash presumably but his horse lives on; obviously distressed that it can no longer spend its its days running in circles for seemingly no reason, it’s out for blood.

The actual fight is laughable and amounts to little more than a quick scuffle as you dodge its predicable attacks. The entire experience plays out like you’re committing some urban knife crime towards a horse while riding the London underground during rush hour. The only redeeming feature of this boss is that it’s entirely optional.

The Skeleton Lords (Dark Souls II)

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I was going to make some joke about Motorhead but the actually band had like 100 different members over the years and I figured the only one people would recognise is Lemmy, and then the rest of the joke wouldn’t scan.

Another boss encounter where the most difficult aspect is something other than the boss itself. The Skeleton Lords are three desperately weak and easy mobs that guard the path of progression. However, the skeletons which are summoned on mass upon their death are another question entirely.

With each lord you defeat, a small horde of weaker mobs will spawn and really put the word “cluster” into cluster fuck. The main offenders here are the bonewheel skeletons that zip around the arena at lightning speeds and will instantly pulp you should you not be playing as some sort of uber-tank.

I actually like the bonewheel skeletons as a standard enemy, but what I don’t like is when they appear in my goddamn boss encounters and quickly become the most threatening thing in the room.

The Royal Rat Authority (Dark Souls II)

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It’s like a rat, but it’s also like a dog. The best thing about this boss fight is the environment which reminds me of basalt columns found in places like Iceland. I can say that because I’m a prick and I’ve been to Iceland and I like to make you all think I’m really smart and know things about rocks.

You remember Sif, the Great Grey Wolf from Dark SoulsOf course you do. Well, the best way to describe this shambles is like Sif, if he was a gross rat-thing that destroys all your gear with corrosive sludge, is guarded by two needlessly difficult smaller rat-things, and completely lacked any atmosphere or relevance to the lore.

If you’re lucky enough to dispatch the two smaller mobs before the big fellow gets to you (which, spoiler alert, you won’t) the fight is very straightforward. It’s just a big rat-thing. It jumps, it bites, it pukes on the ground.

Given that you’ll probably fail dealing with the two smaller mobs in a timely fashion, you’ll get stun-locked and destroyed in about two seconds flat. On top of that, the corrosive rat-thing puke will have broken all of your gear so you’ll have to repair it – with the souls you dropped when you died which are… in the room with the rat-thing that just killed you. Do you see the issue here? Ultimately this is a classic example of artificial difficulty but one that is vastly worsened by the chronic item degradation.

The Royal Rat Vanguard (Dark Souls II)

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If you love giant rats, buckle your pants because this room is full of them. In the absence of giant rats, there are even statues of giant rats. 

“But Haydn, this doesn’t look like one of those infamous Dark Souls boss encounters I’ve heard so much about. This looks like a room full of giant rats, the weakest and most boring of all fantasy genre enemies, second only to goblins,” I hear you say.

Firstly, I’d question your ranking system if they’re second to goblins, and secondly I’d say you’re right about pretty much everything else. This boss battle is literally a room full of giant rats. It’s not difficult or cheap like the others on this list (though the sheer volume is quite galling despite being easy to handle), it’s just a room full of giant rats. That’s it.

“Well actually, it’s one giant rat and the others are all decoys-” shut up, you. It’s a room full of giant rats and it’s the second most lazy piece of boss design I’ve ever seen in a Souls game.

Belfry Gargoyles (Dark Souls II)

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I can only presume that this boss was born from over eager copy-pasting. No one realised that Danny the Intern had done it until it was too late. 

The Bell Gargoyle from Dark Souls was a great encounter wasn’t it? You tentatively step out onto the roof, the sky is a dreary grey with gentle spots of blue; it’s beautiful in its own miserable way. The camera pans over to a gargoyle on the ornate bell tower before you, it slowly cracks and moves as it springs into life and descends with frightening speed, smashing onto the tiled roof and letting lose a blood curdling howl.

It’s a pitched battle between you and an opponent with all the advantages; speed, flight, range, fire breathing, an axe for a tail. You get it down to about half health and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself when, all of a sudden, a second gargoyle appears. This one is already weakened and missing its tail but still, you’re outnumbered and things are looking rough. It’s okay though, you have plenty of room to maneuver and the time spent with the first gargoyle has clued you in on what to expect. This encounter is Dark Souls boss design at its finest. It teaches you the ropes, then makes sure you’ve been paying attention.

Such brilliance only makes the mere existence of the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls II all the more baffling. It’s literally just the same from Dark Souls only this time there is six of them and the roof is a little smaller. Once again, difficulty in numbers takes precedent over clever design, a fact which is only made more aggravating by the clear misunderstanding of what made the original incarnation of this encounter so good. Simply adding more gargoyles does not a good boss fight make. It lacks intelligence, purpose, and grace and is the most artificially difficult encounter in the entire series.

Having replayed Dark Souls, Dark Souls II and Bloodborne recently, the absence of game director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, in Dark Souls II couldn’t be more obvious. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are on an entirely different level to Dark Souls II,  and the boss encounters are just the superior dressing on what were already vastly superior salads.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 – You probably don’t want it as much as you think you do

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Haydn

Let’s travel back in time over a decade to the most culturally barren era in living memory – the early 2000’s. The wallet chain is an essential fashion accessory, Pop Idol is still on TV, and my hair is irresponsibly long. For some inexplicable reason, I have one particularly vivid memory from those darker times; I’m sat on the floor of my living room, probably wearing a KoRn t-shirt and wondering why life is so unacceptably awful in every single way when, all of a sudden, this advert pops up on the TV.

Immediately I deemed that Beyond Good and Evil was going to be shit. I can’t say why exactly, but I think it’s because I suspected that the combat would be an unforgivable mess. While time may have proven me right in that respect, the opinions of a 13-year-old boy should never under any circumstances be taken seriously.  It’s been a worryingly long time since those days and I don’t remember much else from those days but this one memory, or at least a broad interpretation of it, has stuck.

Presumably, millions of other people shared my same attitude to Beyond Good and Evil because it was a resounding commercial failure. Since then, however, it’s been blessed with the dubious honour of becoming a cult classic and a sequel was even announced in 2008. However, this second installment never appeared and Ubisoft has spent the last eight years coquettishly flirting with the fanbase as trailers emerge, rumors are denied, and Michel Ancel continues to make allusions to “interesting” projects when asked about the status of the Beyond Good and Evil 2. 

The latest news comes in the form of a trademark for Beyond Good and Evil 2 with the European Union Intellectual Property Office. A quick search fails to bring up any results however. While I’m unsure what the significance of that might be, the news has aroused modest levels of intrigue across the internet.

To me, the real question seems to be less about when Beyond Good and Evil 2 is set to materialise, and more whether we even want it to? Honesty, I don’t think fans of the original want a sequel as much as they think they do which sounds patronising, I know, but I’ll be the first to admit guilt when it comes to letting nostalgia hijack my frontal lobe. Far too often I’ve lost my ability to think rationally as I’m overcome by memories of an idealized past that never truly existed.

I first played Beyond Good and Evil nearly five years ago now. It served as little more than a tool to help my waking hours expire and I made no effort to analyse or critique the game. I simply let it wash over me and it was pretty okay. It also had a camera so bad I got motion sickness and things only got worse as it essentially devolved from a hearty action-adventure romp into Gerudo Fortress from Ocarina of Time stretched out over 10 hours. Y’know, that dreadful bit where you sneak around the visual and gameplay equivalent of cold, gelatinous porridge, questioning why you even still exist, unsure what lies beyond this mortal coil but certain it’s better than what you’re playing in that exact moment.

More recently I took advantage of the free HD remake on PSN. I activated the fondness modules of my brain and gleefully dove in. The bits I remembered liking were still there, but they were fewer than I recalled, and certainly not nearly as good. Spurred on by the few shining moments that did little to compensate for the cringe worthy dialogue and tepid story, I begrudgingly made it all the way up the the shamefully designed final boss.

I know it was 2003, but for a game that is so fondly remembered for it’s likable characters, I find myself at an utter loss as to what is so appealing about Jade, Pey’j and their thoroughly tedious plight. Any sense of intrigue in the world of Beyond Good and Evil melted away before the end of the first act. Any new addition to the series would likely struggle to reclaim what it already cast aside.

What is interesting about Beyond Good and Evil however is the genes that it passed on to other Ubisoft titles. Michel Ancel himself noted that “In many ways, [Beyond Good & Evil] is an inimitable game–it appeals to all generations of gamers and is an inspiration behind many of Ubisoft Montpellier’s past and future games.” You can certainly see the similarities when compared with Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft Brand Videogame Experience. 

This is where we really get to the crux of the issue though (it took me nine paragraphs to get here, but it’s not like you’ve got anything better to do). We’ve seen how Ubisoft treats it’s intellectual properties in recent years; ceaselessly churning out one messy, identikit installment after another. Assassin’s Creed and FarCry have remained practically unchanged with each successive installment and new IPs are little better.

Perhaps you’re a big fan of Ubisoft’s endless stream of functionally identical games, and that’s fine, but the thing that endeared many to Beyond Good and Evil all those years ago was its uniqueness. Much like how AC/DC wrote only one song but kept successfully changing the lyrics , Ubisoft make one game but simply change the aesthetic of the radio tower you will inevitably have to climb.

That’s not to say that these games are bad. I liked Far Cry 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood but later installments in those same series lost any appeal after a few short hours. Why? Because they lost any sense of individuality, a sentiment that I have now extended to effectively all Ubisoft titles, even the Heroes of Might and Magic series; a franchise I adore and one that has been summarily pillaged by Ubisoft as they increasingly fail to understand what made HoMM good with each successive installment.

This isn’t the same studio that made that Beyond Good and Evil all those years ago. It’s the studio that releases a buggy Assassin’s Creed game every year and, when it’s not doing that, its outsourcing the IP to be bastardized by Hollywood. We all know how videogame adaptions turn out so lets not pretend this is going to be any different.

So what’s the appeal in a sequel? Is the story of Beyond Good and Evil so compelling that we need to experience the conclusion? Was the world so full of vigour and intrigue that we need to dive in once more? Was the game itself such an unmitigated delight that we simply must consume every drop we can? No. It was modestly interesting world let down by unlikable characters and a plot development so arbitrary it caused me emit a noise of genuine disdain. What few aspects of the gameplay that were enjoyable or interesting have since be chopped up and recycled in the mundane parade that is triple-A development.

It’s okay if you still want a sequel. It’s totally fine if you think I’m wrong and the original was the greatest game ever made. If anything, I envy your lack of cynicism, but  Beyond Good and Evil has been put on an unworthy pedestal and any sequel will only disappoint. Move on. Let go. Be free.