When I began the Backloggery Beatdown series so many years ago, I intended on writing an essay in response to every (old) game that I played out of my Steam collection.
How ambitious, how naive!
Things started off well, but I would hit a wall in a game called Aaru’s Awakening. It is not necessarily a bad game, but I could not think of anything significant, profound, or exigent about it. It is a game that is just good enough such that I do not have anything reassuringly positive or glaringly negative to say.
Indifference would not make for an interesting read. So, I took a few years to reflect on how to best tackle my backlog, because in my mind, a video game is not finished when I have seen the true ending, but when I have made an attempt to write something about what I have played. Backloggery Beatdown is now an attempt to bridge the gap between a “reader response” and a critical essay. I will worry about word count when the game I play warrants it.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Inadvertently, I cheated on the OG, by playing Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden before playing XCOM itself. Then again, the OG cheated on me; this version of XCOM is a reboot of the original 1994 version of the game. I am glad for the revision, because while gamers have fond memories of NES-era games, early forays into PC gaming were rough!
As a fan of strategy and tactics, not playing XCOM was a detriment to my reputation. Now that I have experienced it, I can confirm that the memes are blown out of proportion. You’ve seen the ones.
In order to produce those memes, the players were likely using zero-experience rookies with basic equipment to eliminate a mid-tier foe. Even if the fictitious Council of Nations recruited the best of military personnel among sixteen nations, I would still expect performance defects with soldiers who are encountering creatures who look like skin-flayed humanoids for the first time. As I agree with a comment elsewhere, the misses on a 90% chance to hit are glaring because we are unlikely to take the shot on a <40% chance to hit. Admittedly, the above photos are humorous; still, the game has to simulate a difficulty curve somehow.
I enjoy the idea of an “Xtraterrestrial Combat (Unit),” or XCOM, scanning the planet in search of (hostile) aliens who need to be suppressed before the conspiracy theorists of the world discover that their fears and anxieties are true–that we are indeed not alone–resulting in global hysteria. If things reach panic levels, countries withdraw their support of the Council, and with that, funding and other perks. Ultimately, I am tasked with preventing an invasion that would result not in planet terraformation as is usually the case with plots involving aliens, but the other two things: world domination…by mind control.
Reprising my habits from the days of playing Final Fantasy Tactics, I tried to make an “A-team” and “B-team” version of every class, ideally two of each gender; that makes for four of each class. As seen above, I managed to almost max out my support classes, but did not quite make it. In this game, assault does the most damage, but I appreciated not only the heavy’s rocket launcher for BIG DAMAGE, but also its “halo targeting,” which “paints” enemies so that other classes can hit them more easily. Col. Ma likes this, of course. And check out that manly mustache on Valdez!
Unfortunately, as the game advances, the game does not adjust its difficulty with the scaling of the player’s senior soldiers. Missions might may “extremely hard,” but this warning seems to me more of an indication of how the map can go sideways if the player makes a mistake. Othewise, XCOM is a game that can make one feel OP by the end.
When XCOM is spamming missions and other distracting tasks during the earlygame, the feeling of needing to do everything is intense; prioritizing which part of the base to upgrade was so stressful to me that I looked up an optimization guide. However, during the lategame, missions feel like busywork, because with max-level tech and senior soldiers, victory is all but assured. XCOM tries to incentivize players to keep taking on busywork, lest an alien pod might raise panic levels in a Council country. This just results in the endgame dragging along.
As is my custom, I began XCOM: Enemy Unknown vanilla style, with the intent of playing all expansions and DLCs afterward. However, I would learn within the first three hours of my campaign that XCOM: Enemy Within should have been the campaign that I played. I did not make that mistake with XCOM2, and began with War of the Chosen.
Both XCOM games begin with more things to do than I could keep up with. Ping here, mission there, objective here, sidequest there. And with War of the Chosen, just when I grow accustomed to the differences in classes between XCOM and XCOM2, the Hunter, the first Chosen, appears. She presents an interesting challenge, especially during the earlygame when my soldiers still making their progressions toward veterancy. Over time, the Chosen presented to me a novel threat to change things up rather than the game-changing mechanic that I think they were intended to be.
Speaking of character classes, support is about the same; the grenadier’s grenade launcher is a downgrade from the heavy’s rocket launcher, but the important thing is that she retains the all-important halo targeting for increased accuracy; the ranger gains the addition of a sword for melee purposes, but it is mostly for show, where a shotgun blast to the face will suffice in all cases; the sharpshooter begins the game weak because she has yet to benefit from the spider armor that allows her to create elevation for herself almost always, where eventually, she can hit anything in sight. I say “she” because I made female versions of all troops, and only retained a heavy named “Ahnald” for meme purposes.
War of the Chosen adds three special classes to make gameplay interesting between units sitting out due to fatigue or injury—another reason to maintain A and B squads, while sending C squads out to special covert ops missions that take place off-screen. The Skirmisher is novel, being able to shoot multiple times or close the distance between them and their query. They just have the unfortunate pleasure of sharing the screen with the better Reaper and Templar.
The Reaper is a stealthy unit with insane movement range. Her ability to reach an objective, cap it, and then return to the evac zone while eluding detection is game-breaking, allowing me to score perfects on sabotage missions without firing a single shot. Alternatively, the Templar trivializes the ranger’s melee skills with a devastating melee attack, mobility that rivals the Reaper, and the ability to parry any incoming attack or reposition himself. Imagine Wolverine in a spacesuit; they are mutants, after all.
XCOM2 is even worse than XCOM with bombarding players with things to do. This time, there is even a doomsday timer at the top of the map screen to force players to perform missions whilst not sitting on their laurels and researching tech to out-scale the game too quickly. By the last mission, I had suppressed the doomsday timer to such a degree, that I pushed through something like twenty days in a row just to train the necessary Psi Operatives for the final mission. I must have declined at least twelve mission opportunities while waiting for the last unlock. That is a silly amount of busy work.
Tetris Effect (VR)
Tetris Effect is one of the few VR games that a visually impaired friend of mine can play without suffering discomfort (PSVR). He strongly recommended that I try it, but I told him that I would wait for it to arrive on Steam, due to its EGSclusivity. But then it came to Game Pass in November 2020.
I did not think that I would be all that impressed. It is Tetris, after all; I played a few rounds of Tetris 99 when it was a thing, for a hot minute and I was not that impressed. I could not imagine a Tetris game offering more than the usual. I have never been so glad to be so wrong, and I hate being writing.
Tetris Effect combines…effects…with an outstandingly layered OST. As one accumulates points by completing tetrises (four lines), the tetrominoes and stage backgrounds change dynamically, determining the mood and pacing. As simple as any of this sounds, it is the crux of the game, making it one of the best games I have ever played, let alone a Tetris game.
While a video does not replicate the VR experience, it can at least demonstrate to some degree how the game’s soundtrack and graphical work in tandem for the person wearing the headset.
Straight up, I rekt my entire playthrough when, upon the first trip to the Fall of Soliam during the Liberation Rites (LR), I allowed my favorite character, Jodariel, to ascend from the Downside to the Commonwealth. At the time, I had no idea what that meant: permanent removal from my team. No backies.
All these years that Pyre had been in my backlog, I always wondered about the fierce-looking dude with the horns in the game’s key art. Of course, I learned that he is actually a she! Upon this “reveal,” I fell in love with the character at once, fascinated with her androgynous design and lore as a demon. I could not get over the fact that Jodi is a big, and I mean, big gurl. I only wish that the male demons in the game matched her…handsomeness. Instead, they are tropishly monsterous.
As if unknowingly surrendering my favorite character from a design standpoint in the early hours of the game did not sour me enough, I would eventually lose a LR to the Triumverate known as the Withdrawn. By the time won two or three Liberation Rites, the AI would burst in sprint past my team and essentially dunk on my pyre. Of course it did not help that my big goalkeeper, Jodi, was gone.
It was one thing to lose a regular rite (lowercase), but losing a LR felt like I had lost the entire game. But in Pyre, the player’s team, the Nightwings, simply return to the Downside to begin the cycle anew. I never really allowed myself to enjoy the game after that. Because Pyre is a sports game, the loss to the Withdrawn triggered my PTSD from my high school days of football when we did not win a single game my single season. After that, winning was all that mattered, and I did not even bother to read all of the lore in the Book of Rites. Now that I have finished the entire game, and I see that the wikis do not include any substantial references to the lore, I regret not doing the reading.
I would have to play through the entire game all over again to get the opportunity. I imagine there are worse games to play over again. After all, Supergiant Games always offer great aesthetics, great music, great gameplay. I would say that the gameplay in Pyre is only good comparatively. Perhaps the lore that I skipped would have tied everything together for me.
The first time I made an attempt at The Messenger, I could not get my controller to work. The second time, I nearly “retried” this homage to NES/SNES era Ninja Giden games.
And then the MEGA GAMEPLAY TWIST. I was not prepared for the 8-bit to 16-bit upgrade. I love the design on the titular character, straw hat and all. The story involving a loop of sorts is predictable, and its resolution odd.
I will admit that the Shopkeeper had me laughing out loud about how frequently I was tampering with their armoire–compliments to the developers at Sabotage Studios there. However, The Messenger is a ninja game existing in the same universe of games like Sekiro, Mark of the Ninja, and even Aragami. I need the devs to bring more to the table than nostalgia.
Besides, the item granted after collecting all of the McGuffins is not even worth the trouble! The regular gear is better. With that being so disappointing, fat chance trying to get me to play that NG+ content.
I am still waiting on a dev to bring me some Shinobi.