Backloggery Beatdown: Pandemic Roundup

I had to throw in the towel toward the end of 2020. It looks ridiculous posting individual entries from March and April 2021 when it is now going on September 2022. So, in order to catch back up, I have to cheat with this single entry. So lemmie knock these game out before DotA 2 sidetracks me again with the upcoming battlepass. 

DotA 2

Speaking of DotA 2, I did pick it up again after a two-year hiatus. I think DotA 2’s tenth anniversary, culminating with TI10 is what brought me back. Wow, I really have been playing this game since December 2011.

TI10 brought me out of my “retirement,” but I am still playing. What made me stay? Well, after my article, “Where the Black DotA 2 Players At?” I thought I would take the first step towards founding that Black Lives Matter guild by changing my Steam name to Black Lives Matter, in the hopes that I would attract like-minded individuals like a bat signal for Batman. 

Of course, I have had much, and I mean way more negative feedback than positive. Unfortunately, I have been conditioned to expect this, and that kind of response is why I changed my name in the first place. Yet, the DotA 1 days were worse, as we did not have a reporting system for racism. Thus far, I have only encountered one slur that I can remember (though my profanity filter is on), but most memorable is that one time an opponent gave me a high five and tipped me for my name, with a #BLM in all-chat. “Keep hope alive brotha!” they said.

I know I will. I do not have any intention of changing my s/n. 

Diablo 2: Resurrected

The other game that occupied a great deal of my time is Diablo II: Resurrected. I had to have sunk in a few hundred hours into this game, with several hardcore characters invested. In my most infamous HC death, I made the mistake of not over-maxing my resistances in Act 5 and got my Necromancer one-shotted by gloams. In another attempt, I did not realize that the layers within the Act 3 boss dungeon explode when they die, and a few were just a little too close to my Sorceress. Lastly, I lost a sorc because OBS was tripping, and I pressed the power button on my PC, prompting sleep instead of the reset button for hard restart/disconnect. 

I did make a few, and I do mean a scant few dollars on D2JSP. I know that site is controversial, but after hours of haggling, I have found that no discord or other site is more efficient at getting the items that you want or need. After a while, I did get bored, as I do not believe Diablo II was designed with the intent of a human grinding hundreds or thousands of runs for high runes or godly-tier unique and rares, which is why bots were popular back in the game’s heyday. I patiently awaited for ladder season so that I could begin the business of hell rushing new toons, but by the time it arrived, I had moved on. Besides, Vicarious Visions/Blizzard patched the game so that toons will need to build the entire flail rather than just get the Durance of Hate 2 waypoint. (Though, after further research, it is possible to bug the quest by joining a game where someone has just smashed the orb with the flail and the stairs to the Durance are exposed).

The graphics are everything I wanted Diablo III to be, so I’m hoping for an outstanding Diablo IV.

9/10

Valfaris 

After the allure of the 16-bit aesthetics wears off, Valfaris is only a very okay action platformer. I  quit just as the game unveiled some story bits concerning how the protagonist’s father came before him, leaving the planet in ruin. The gameplay did not give me good reason to stay and discover more, as it feels inspired by Contra or Gunstar Heroes without a modern gimmick that distinguishes this game beyond competing generics. Life is too short to finish mediocre games.

5.0/10

Shadowrun Returns

Tabletop folks gonna to be mad when they see this, but Shaworun Returns is another game that I failed to finish. First of all, what is up with the resolution scaling? I spent a significant amount of time trying to configure things in the options menu so I wouldn’t have to break out my magnifying glass to notice details in the game on an 18″ laptop display. Shadowrun Returns is most definitely a remake of an older style of game, right down to the XCOM classic-style combat. I might have stuck with it if the game were less linear. It offers several different builds for the main character, but as someone unfamiliar with the tabletop Shadowrun world, I am lost. I ended up making a “samurai,” which made enemy encounters easy, but boring. I played long enough for the big reveal of my friend’s killer, which was a rather predictable “plot twist.” I wish there were party members or NPCs who intrigued me enough to keep me around for the ending.

6.0/10

XCOM: Chimera Squad

After playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 + War of the Chosen and trying Gears of War Tactics and realizing that I was absolutely fatigued by XCOM-likes, I grit my teeth in order to put away the last modern game in the XCOM franchise anyway. Turns out, no mistakes were made. 

The change from long-form strategy missions across an extensive battlefield into small, multiphase tactical skirmishes is brilliant. At first I interpreted this change as XCOM for dummies, but the breach phase before entering rooms adds a welcome additional strategic element to the game. Enabling players to option-select approaches to clearing rooms Rainbow Six style augments the feeling of being in control, so mission results have less to do with RNG, and more to do with skill. Only once during my playthrough of Chimera Squad did I fail a mission because of a bad RNG roll, while I lost several soldiers in Enemy Unknown and War of the Chosen to unlucky to-hit rolls.

What keeps Chimera Squad fresh is its diversity and OP characters. There are no “tabula rasa” style characters to be found here. The squad leader, Godmother, is an African Francophone ranger/assault class who can manipulate the turn queue, expediting when she’s “got next.” Terminal, the OP field medic who commands the GREMLIN bot, is Asian; as long as she is alive, my squad stays alive. Patchwork is an engineer who does not allow her prosthetic leg to slow her down. While I cannot identify Shelter’s and Claymore’s ethnicities, but they are most certainly brown. If he were not Chimera Squad’s sharpshooter, I would consider Blueblood to be the most unremarkable character, being a regular black dude; I bring him along because he has a weapon that can shoot across the map, and he can proc extra turns.

The reformed ex-ADVENT soldiers are predictably awesome and even more OP. Okay, Cherub is not OP, but his ability to put himself out in the open and shield himself, or shield his allies to prevent damage is underrated. Because he is a default character, I had no choice but to use him. However, Verge, the sectoid, is very OP; he is one of the most tactically complex units I have ever encountered in a turn-based game, up there with the calculator in Final Fantasy Tactics–one of those, “he is not weak; you are just using him wrong” kind of characters. His Neural Network psionic link allows him to turn enemies against themselves while augmenting his own abilities, from healing to accuracy. Torque can change the angular momentum of an object with her tongue pull, binding them so that they cannot take additional actions as she squeezes the life out of whomever she attaches herself. For all intents and purposes, she, too, is disabled along with her prey, though she gains bonuses while…contorted, in case an enemy fires upon her. Because this ability works with almost every enemy in the game, her tongue pull and bind is often the best turn-one action that players can take. Unfortunately, I was unable to experience Axiom (Muton) due to limited slots in the character pool. Chimera Squad‘s most disappointing design element requires multiple playthroughs to experience all of the squad members. This could be considered a positive for those who enjoy multiple playthroughs—not for a one-and-done type like me.

I do wish that the story in XCOM: Chimera Squad felt less like an afterthought, but rather, something that expands the universe. Chimera Squad is a stand-alone game, though it maintains the feel of DLC. Most missed are the between-mission cutscenes that I am accustomed to, and I find appealing the idea of City 31 being a haven for human and alien-kind alike. I am old enough to remember Alien Nation, which inspired movies like Blight, so I have a soft spot for those narratives, including the terrorist cells like the Sacred Coil, the Progeny, and the Gray Phoenix, all of which represent the possibilities of a dysfunctional integrated world just as Chimera Squad represents its potential. I love that XCOM: Chimera Squad exists, but so much story potential was left on the table. 8.5/10

The Medium

Here is a game that was supposed to be a big next-gen release but turned out to be a game developed with the past gen in mind. A jumpscare near the beginning of the game had me shook; I am glad the developers relied more on unsettling atmosphere rather than cheap scares, allowing me and my poor heart to finish the game in a timely fashion.

I like how the game throws players en medias res, not really going through the motions of explaining why the protagonist has The power to transgress between the planes of the living and the restless, exploring the mysteries of what exactly took place at a now-abandoned rehabilitation center in post-communist Poland. Marianne, who had been using her inexplicable powers for an undisclosed number of years. Receives a cryptic phone call from one “Thomas,” who promises to explain the origin of her supernatural powers, should she travel to the abandoned Niwa Workers’ Resort, the site of the “Niwa Massacre” where dozens were mysteriously murdered. 

After an early-game jumpscare that influenced me into not playing the game for a week, The Medium capriciously shifts its tone from unearned terror to unsettling horror. This thematic inconsistency is not unexpected from developer Bloober Team, who had not prior attempted an AA game of this scale; Layers of Fear had been about their speed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the game’s core concepts: unsettling, Resident Evil-style derelict scenes where the paranoia concerning a potential jumpscare persists even when it never comes; the Out of Body Experience mechanic where Marianne can project her soul to explore environments fashioned in the style of purgatory imagined; interacting with objects that retrain traces of souls that once interacted with them; and my favorite, the “send off” of souls trapped within the purgatories of their own minds, where Marianne must first piece together something about them so that they acquiesce to an eternal slumber.

I enjoyed these incantations with Yuna in FFX, and more recently, Spiritfarer; I enjoy them with The Medium as well. For The Medium appeals to my desire for Professor X powers where I can learn and know everyone’s secrets. In this game, there are many such interactions requiring Marianne to metaphysically piece together remnants of the past, which remain reconstructed in the spiritual realm. Most interesting and tragic, is the story of Richard Tarkowski, the Pole who fell in love with a Jewish fugitive during WWII.

I do not care too much for the Maw, the Nemesis-like creature. The ambiguous ending robs of dopamine, but perhaps I would be more accustomed to endings of those types if American fiction embraced them more often. 

6/10

The Wind and Wilting Blossom

Games that fashion themselves as FTL-likes doom themselves to ambitious tasks. Crying Suns is one such success, while The Wind and Wilting Blossom is another. Appealing to my inner Japanophile, it is set during the Heian period of Japan, or Eastern Late Antiquity moving toward the Middle Ages. Its artwork matches the Heian aesthetic of washed pastels and exaggerated heroism. Most unique in this turn-based grided strategy game is that its beastarity primarily consists of yokai. Some of those monsters are so bizarre that I considered purchasing a book of yokai to solidify my disassociation with Western understanding of demons.

Something else I have learned while reading about Japanese history is that fiction is often integrated with fact. The first unlocked character, Oya Taro Mitsukuni, is based upon the hero in the tapestry, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre or Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre Invoked by Princess Takiyasha. The “problem” is, I can find evidence of his lord, Taira no Masakado, but information in regards to  Mitsukuni himself. An entry on Masakado’s daughter, Takiyasha-hime, links to a wiki page written in Japanese referring to her as a sorceress. Now I imagine her to be something akin to a Wicca or Vodu priestess rather than a D&D mage. At any rate, I cannot tell if Mitsukuni was ever a real person.

Even if Mitsukuni is merely a hero from a kabuki play, there are other equally interesting unlockable heroes. Murasaki Shikibu is among my favorties, a woman who is accredited for writing one of the world’s first novels, The Tale of Genji. While Mitsukunis offensive, dealing two damage per turn, Shikibu is defensive, and her base special “weapon” blocks one damage per turn. Pickle Feet games portrays Kajiwara Kagetoki as a ninja, likely because he anachronistically behaved like a shinobi at court, being something of a rabble-rouser. He begins battles in stealth, and deals bonus damage on first strike. Using him to block the enemy’s advance while invisible is a legitimate tactic.

While The Wind and Wilting Blossom does not contain as much depth as FTL: Faster Than Light, as the formula for overcoming the boss encounters and more difficult yokai becomes more formulaic over time in terms of number of units required as well as their tiers, there is plenty in this game that will keep player such as myself occupied for one hundred hours or more. 

8/10

Battletoads

After returning to Streets of Rage 4 for its expansion, Revenger of Mr. X, I decided to try this other beat ‘em up to round out the “return to retro.” Battletoads is nothing like SOR4. The art direction is the only thing worth mentioning due to its vacous level design and uninspired enemy encounters. I would, however, support watching an animated series on Netflix if “they” are interested in reviving the franchise. 

4.0/10

Days Gone

I was mistaken to dismiss Days Gone as yet another zombie apocalypse game. Not to get things twisted, Days Gone is indeed a zombie apocalypse game, but dispense with the “yet another” part. I could care less about the biker gang bromance between Deacon and Boozer; it simply is not as compelling as say, the dysfunctional relationship between Joel and Tess in The Last of Us. But Deacon’s PTSD, or perpetual mourning of his lost wife, Sarah, kept me going. I did not just wonder, I yearned for the improbable, abandoning all (suspension of) disbelief in the hopes that they would be reunited. 

The monster concept of the creeper and their evolutions are as interesting as the infected in TLOU or Left 4 Dead. Deacon’s interactions with the government scientist James O’Brian kept me locked in. I also enjoy post-apoc town-building tasks and odd jobs, as Decon and Boozer are designated “drifters” who specialize in just that.

Then there’s the whole horde killing mechanic, which is no small task. I rendering technology in Days Gone is impressive, as there may be a blob of 100+ enemies running on the screen in pursuit of Deacon after alarming them. Taking down such a horde requires a lot of preparation, and every victory is significant. 

I am not surprised that the big bad ends up being a sanctimonious cliche. There was a time when I would be repulsed by these kinds of critiques of organized religion, especially their cult-like portrayals in post-apoc settings. Today, however, I absolutely believe that someone would try to revert civilization back to the Old Testament if given enough power.  

8.0/10

Horizon Zero Dawn

After some missteps in optimation during its launch, standing in strong contrast with Death Stranding, which used the same engine, Horizon Zero Dawn cleaned up. Years later, HZD is still a feast of gameplay, graphics, and story. I rushed through another playthrough so that one day, I can play and get all the achievements on hard mode because I never platinumed this on the PS4. As a special treat, I have yet to touch the Frozen Wilds, so new adventures await, still!

Was a 9.5/10. At 60 fps, now a 10/10!

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