Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlord Analysis

Overview

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord was released as an early access title on March 30th, 2020. It was developed and published by TaleWorlds Entertainment, an independent game development company based in Turkey. It is a hybrid game that features elements of simulation, role-playing, and strategy.

Formal Elements

Players

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord's main campaign is single player, but there is a multiplayer battle mode available.

The single player campaign sees the player create a character. You must pick a starting culture, gender, name, appearance, and backstory divided into different lifestages. The culture and backstory strongly influence how you will play the game, as your culture provides different bonuses and alters what backstory events will be available. These backstories in turn provide different starting bonuses to your stats, skills, traits, and renown. Since you can more easily level up at lower levels compared to higher ones, it will become more and more difficult to level up skills as your character level increases. You can control your character either from first or third-person perspective, although the campaign map can only be viewed from a top-down view common to many strategy games.

Unlike most other strategy games, the campaign map automatically pauses when your character is not moving or taking another action, such as raiding a village or besieging a castle or city. This mechanic is the same as the original Mount & Blade, but will be familiar to other players from the more recent first-person shooter/puzzle game, SUPERHOT.

Rules

This is going to be a long section. Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord tries to simulate and capture a lot of different aspects in their game, and this leads to a complicated and intertwined rule set.

Combat and Movement

Let's start with the basics. When you are in a town, village, or on a combat map, you use the WASD keys to move around as in most FPS or TPS games. Your mouse will control where you are looking, and space bar can be used to jump. So far, so good, right? In towns and villages, you will not be able to attack anyone, except in special circumstances.

Combat revolves around the title of the game: mounts and blades. You can either use a horse to gallop around the map, or you can run around on your own two feet. Horses provide a huge boost to mobility, but they also penalize your attacks somewhat, and some weapons are not available when mounted. They also make you harder to hit if you remain moving, and you can use them to charge foot soldiers, dealing damage to them just by the impact of the horse's body. The damage of your weapons are also strongly influenced by the speed you are traveling at, so horses can greatly amplify this. Certain polearms can be "couched" when your horse reaches a high enough speed, allowing you to lock it in place and deal a massive amount of damage during a charge.

You can use a large variety of medieval weapons: one- and two-handed swords, maces, and axes, bows, crossbows, daggers, throwing weapons such as knives, axes, and javelins, as well as different polearms. Bows, crossbows, and throwable weapons work much as they do in other games: you must click left mouse button to ready your attack, and then you must take aim, taking into account that gravity will draw your projectile down the further away your shot is. You have a limited amount of time before your arm begins to tire and you must either cancel the shot, or take your chances with a wild one.

The melee combat is based on a 4-axis scheme: up, down, left, and right. You click and hold the left mouse button to initiate an attack, and then you drag the mouse in the direction you wish to attack. Up leads to high attacks, a vertical chop. Left and right lead to slashes, and down triggers a stab or thrust. Releaseing the button triggers the attack animation. Blocking works the same way, although carrying a shield somewhat mitigates the need to match your enemey's attack direction. If you are using a two-handed sword, and your enemy attacks from the top, you need to block using the right mouse button and dragging up. Otherwise, if you are in range, the attack will pass through your guard and deal damage. One caveat is that not every weapon has every attack type. For example, thrusting polearms are never used for slashing, so left/right/up/down all play essentially the same animation. Maces and axes also feature restrictions: they cannot be used for thrusting.

Although dirt simple, this system provides much of the draw for combat in the Mount & Blade series. Complex feints, dodges, and parries are possible when those 4 attacks and 4 blocks are combined with your character's movement. You can also kick or shield bash using F. Some weapons can also be toggled between a one-handed and two-handed mode using X, but this alters their damage and speed profile.

You can fight until you run out of health. There is no stamina system limiting your attacks or your movement, so you can spam the attack button as much as you want, although this will often lead to your death, as enemies take advantage of your recovery to clock you with a mace or rock. Should you die, your fate will be determined by the context of the battle, which will be discussed in the next section.

Battle

Combat in Mount & Blade takes place in set circumstances. It must be triggered by a particular dialogue outcome with an NPC, whether in a town or out on the campaign map. If you have other characters in your party, they will join you in battle. This is where the RTS elements enter. During battle, you can give commands to your party members based on numbered hot keys. By default, companions and infantry are set to 1, archers to 2, cavalry 3, and horse archers 4. There are further categories of skirmishers 5-6, and others, but I personally found I rarely used them. Commands are relatively simple, but powerful. You can indicate that a group of soldiers should advance, retreat, hold/travel to a position, charge, face a direction, take a formation (such as tight, loose, circle, wedge, etc). Mounted troops can be forced to mount or dismount, troops with bows or throwing weapons can be ordered to fire at will or hold their fire. If you prefer not to worry about all the details, you can delegate command to troop sergants, who will issue commands to each category of troop. Again, while simple, these commands add a whole layer of depth to combat, as you could command from the front as Alexander the Great, or stay aloof and issue your commands while staying out of direct combat. You could even do a mix, ordering positions and formations, then entering the fray yourself for a time. Flags indicate the position that troops will take, and which troops are currently selected.

You can only enter a battle if your character's health is 20% or higher.

Any character in battle can be killed or wounded. If the character is wounded, it will eventually heal after the battle and return to full health. If the character is killed, it is removed from the game permanently. You can turn this feature on for companions, but by default companions and named NPCs cannot be killed in battle. If you fall in battle and your troops are all killed, you will be captured by the enemy and you will have to bribe your way out, wait to be ransomed, or wait until your character escapes (after a random time). Most of your inventory will be gone, and your companions might have escaped before you, or they may still be prisoners. If you were attacking a bandit camp, your troops will drag you out and you will be able to heal and try again later.

Inventory and Party

The inventory system is basically a weight based system. All items have a weight and take away from your carrying capacity. Mounts and soldiers increase your carrying capacity, so for example, when you are by yourself and you have one mount, you can usually carry about 30kg, while an army of 150 troops, with about 50 spare mounts might be able to carry 5000-6000kg, depending on the exact type of mounts. You can exceed your carrying capacity, but this drastically reduces your campaign map speed. Why would you need to carry so much, you might ask? Well, there are a lot of reasons. One is that you will probably spend a large amount of time fighting bandits or other lords' armies, from which you will receive a lot of loot. And I mean a lot of loot. So much so that by the mid or late game, you will not be able to sell all your unwanted loot in a single town. You will receive 20,000 or 40,0000 denars, which will clear out the town, and you will have to travel to another because you still have a ton of junk. And you need the money to pay your soldiers.

That carrying capacity will also come in handy to feed your soldiers, and to trade, should you decide to do so. Your soldiers need to eat, and you need to carry enough food to feed them. If they don't get enough food, or if you can't pay them, they will desert and leave your party.

Regarding your own personal inventory, and your companions, you can hold four different weapons at any given time, although bows and arrows are counted as separate, so you need two slots for a bow/crossbow to be effective. Your armor is divided into head, shoulders (no, not knees and toes, fuckwad), chest, hands, and feet. Because these areas are different in terms of hit detection and intrinsic damage resistance, you need to prioritize good armor in vulnerable places. The head, of course, is a smaller target than the body, but it leads to quick fatalities, while the body still offers a lot of damage and a much larger target. The arms and legs can receive fatal wounds, but the probability is much lower. Your personal mount and saddle also occupy their own equipment slots. Lastly, there is a "civilian" tab in your inventory, which allows you to select clothes for when you are walking around towns and villages. As of June, 2020, there is no effect of these civilian clothes, besides their armor ratings, by which I mean that different factions will not respond to you based on what you are wearing, nor will different groups, such as commoners, criminal gangs, and nobles respond to you based on your clothes.

OK, time to dive in to discussing parties. Your party consists of yourself (the party leader), your companions, your troops, and your prisoners. Your companions are special NPCs that you can recruit from taverns around the game world. They have different backstories, cultures, appearances, starting inventories, attributes, and skills. They can contribute to your party/clan in many different ways. You can assign them roles such as engineer, surgeon, quartermaster, etc, which then makes them responsible for sieges, healing troops, and feeding troops, respectively. This means that they will gain experiences points for completing those actions, and also that their skill in that action controls its success and speed. Having a surgeon with 200 skill in medicine, for example, means faster healing compared to a surgeon with 50 skill in medicine. Companions can also be sent out on quests, provided that they meet the requirements. This allows you to take other quests yourself, and expands the rate at which you generate gold, positive relationships with others, and renown. You can also have companions form their own parties or trade caravans. Parties can be called on if you declare war and need additional soldiers for your army, while trade caravans travel from city to city and generate a fluctuating amount of gold. There are two more benefits or uses to mention. First, you can assign them as the governor of fiefs you own, increasing their efficiency and utilizing whatever special governor bonuses the companions have. Second, depending on their combat skills, they can make a powerful addition to your army. Having a master archer with a high tier bow and arrows equipped, or a two-handed weapon master with tier 6 long sword might not turn the tide of battle by themselves, but they can certainly help.

Like your companions, your troops are also recruited, but they will likely come directly from cities and especially from villages. If you have a high positive relationship with the elders of a village or the influential NPCs of a city, you will have access to higher tier troops, but without that leg up, you can only recruit the more basic tiers. Each culture in the game world has a different troop tree, and there are several special troop trees based on unique factions and starting troop types. As they make kills, they will receive experience and level up, increasing their armor and weapon quality, as well as their attributes and skills. Unlike your companions, your troops can be killed in battle, so you need to think carefully before attacking another army or besieging a city.

Lastly there are prisoners. When you wound an enemy in battle, they become available to take prisoner. They can be ransomed at a tavern, or if they are below tier 5, you can wait and you might eventually be able to recruit them. Noble prisoners can either be released or taken prisoner, and once captured, they can be executed or ransomed. Be careful about executions, as this has a massive impact on relationships with their clan and faction.

Skills and Attributes

Nope, we're still not done talking about the rule systems. Bannerlord has six attributes: Vigor, Control, Endurance, Cunning, Social, and Intelligence. Each attribute influences your learning rate for three skills.
  • Vigor: influences One-handed weapons, two-handed-weapons, and polearms.
  • Control: influences bow, crossbow, and throwing weapons.
  • Endurance: influences riding, athletics, and smithing.
  • Cunning: influences scouting, tactics, and roguery.
  • Social: influences charm, leadership, and trade.
  • Intelligence: influences steward, medicine, and engineering.
Each NPC and player character increases these skills in the same way: by engaging in actions linked to the skill. If you want to increase leadership, you need to lead a large army and maintain high morale in your armies. Medicine skill is increased both when troops are wounded and when you heal them, whereas riding is increased by riding a mount at high speeds and doing damage while mounted, in addition to simply having a mount equipped while moving around the campaign map. You get the idea. This is the same system, essentially, as The Elder Scroll Series. Thus, every skill has its own XP gauge, and every 25 skill levels, there is a perk you may unlock. Sometimes these are singular, but for others there are choices. For example, you may have to choose between increasing every party members' XP by a small amount each day, or increasing tier 1-2-3 troops' XP by a medium amount each day. Your character's level is also determined how many skill-ups you receive. To go from level 3 to level 4, you need to receive 15 skill-ups, while going from 13 to 14, you need 65 skill-ups. You receive a focus point every time your character levels up, and every three level ups you receive an attribute point as well. Let's cover focus points first. Each skill has 5 slots for a focus point. Adding a focus point to a skill increases your learning rate and learning limit for that skill. So, effectively, if you receive 50XP in smithing, but you have all 5 focus points invested in it, and have an endurance of 5, your XP might be multiplied by 11, giving you 550XP. Both attributes and focus points have this multiplicative effect, but attribute points have a more pronounced effect. Both attributes and focus points influence your learning limit, and this is an additive operation. You can level up beyond the level limit for any skill, but your leveling will be much slower. It appears that the multiplicative effects are cancelled out beyond the learning limit. Much like other RPGs, the amount of XP needed for each successive level increases. Because of the rarity of attribute points, and the previously mentioned fact that you level your skills more slowly as your character level increases, it is important to pick your character's backstory carefully to get the attribute points you need in skills important for your playthrough. If you plan on being primarily a trader, you need to get a lot of points in social to begin with.


Crafting

Crafting is a new addition to the Mount & Blade series. In the base game, only weapon crafting is allowed. To craft an item, you need to have all the required materials available, and you need to have its parts unlocked. In the beginning, you will have only a few basic parts for each weapon unlocked, and some weapons may be totally out of your reach because of this. As you perform blacksmithing actions, your skill will increase and you will also unlock new parts. These appear to be random. To craft a one-handed sword, you need a blade part, pommel, guard, and handle. These exist in many different forms, and can be mixed and matched freely. Other weapons have different part categories. Each part has different ingredients, and so slightly alters the necessary materials. They also modify the attributes of the weapon, its swing speed, attack damage and type, cost, weight, etc. Once a weapon has been crafted, you can name it anything you want. Blacksmithing actions drain a special resource that you can replenish by resting in a town or village. You can also dismantle unwanted weapons into their parts, which also gives you a chance to unlock new parts.

Questing

With the exception of the main quest, questing in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord works much the same as in Mount & Blade: Warband. There are village elders in each village, shop owners and gang leaders in each city, and hundreds of lords and ladies belonging to each faction to be found wandering the map, in castles, or in cities. These NPCs will randomly generate a problem for the player to solve, which will persist for a certain amount of time whether you accept them or not. Once accepted, you usually have a limited amount of time to complete them. Village quests include training troops, protecting the village from extortionists, giving a village leader access to another village's grazing land, rescuing a village leader's daughter, solving a family feud, delivering a good to a city NPC, and others. City quests include supplying goods to an artisan, selling the artisan's goods somewhere else, escorting a caravan, supplying weapons for a gang leader, attacking a rival gang, rescuing a henchman, removing poachers, and others. Noble quests include tutoring a noble, finding a spy, supplying advanced troops for a garrison, and others. If you fail one of these quests, your relationship with the quest giver will decrease, leading to reduced troop recruitment options and a chance that the NPC might not trust you with another quest in the future. Completing quests allows you to improve your relationships with NPCs, which can lead to better troop recruitment, more quests, money, and renown.

Relationships

As you meet NPCs, you will begin to form relationships with them. Attacking an NPC will cause them to be hostile to you, as will laying siege to one of their fiefs. Completing quests for them and giving them gifts are early ways to increase your relationships, and as a vassal or a lord/lady, you will be able to vote on who receives fiefs and on whether to adopt certain policies. These offer other ways to modify your relationships. You can also court NPCs of the opposite sex, get married, and have children, who will age and one day take your place if you die. As one last point, your relationship status with NPCs will also affect what castles you can enter. If you have a neutral or positive relationship, you will be able to enter, but if your relationship is negative, you will be barred from entry.

Procedures

Completing a quest

Completing a quest could involve a wide range of activities. For sake of illustrating the variety, I will use three examples. First, you might have to make a delivery. The quest giver will give you a number of items, perhaps, wool, horses, cows, or iron, and you have to physically travel to the target NPC and hand them over. Once there, you also have the choice of keeping them instead. Second, to train a noble. The noble who needs training will join your party. You may assign them to different roles just like other companions. They will remain in your party until the time is up or until they have leveled up 60 times. They will join in combat and any other activities you do. Last, to take care of a troublesome company. The company will join your party, and begin stealing things from your baggage train. You must travel to different nobles and find one who is willing to hire them. To do this, you will need to pass different speech checks based on your honor, tactics, etc.

Trading

Trading will get you a lot of money if you are observant and if you invest attribute points into it. You can buy resources from one village and sell to a city at a higher price, you buy a resource which is in excess at one city and sell at another where it is in high demand. This will net you a profit and increase your skill level in trade. You can also simply sell your loot from your battles. This will give you money, but no experience, since you did not pay for the goods.

Leveling up

As mentioned before, leveling up is triggered by getting the required number of skill level ups. You will then have to choose how to invest your focus point, and your attribute point if received.

Talking to an NPC

You will need to speak with an NPC in order to complete most quests, in order to receive quests, and also to barter. Depending on the subject of conversation topic, there may or may not be skill checks. For example, if you are trying to get married, there will be several skill checked conversations with your potential partner which you must pass before they will accept you. Or when you try to convince a noble to join your faction, the same will happen.

Lay siege to a city or castle

Sieging a castle or city is a quite involved process. You will first have to make a siege camp, which might take a few days depending on your engineering skill. Once you have a siege camp established, you could immediately launch an attack, or you might spend more time building siege engines such as ballistas, manganols, battering rams, and trebuchets. Once these are constructed, any siege engines that the city or castle has will attack your siege engines. To avoid this, you can put them in reserve and return them to the active state once more are completed. This way all of them can concetrate their attack. When you begin the attack, you will have the chance to place your troops in different positions before the chaos ensues. You can command your soldiers as normal, and you can interact with the different siege engines you have placed. Climbing the siege ladders, or storming the gates are tense and exciting parts of the game.

Clear a bandit hideout

When you clear a bandit hideout, you will spawn on a small combat map with some of your party members. You must kill all the bandits there, and once you do, a final boss group will spawn in. You can duel them or attack as a group.

Resources

  • Health: Your health always starts at 100 points, and you may invest in certain perks which increase it slightly. If it drops to 0, you will be knocked unconscious.
  • Age: Your character's age will increase in time with the passage of days and years in the game.
  • Character Level: Your character level increases as you get more skill ups.
  • Perks: Perks are unlocked for each skill once you reach the necessary skill level.
  • Attribute Points: Attribute points determine how quickly you level up.
  • Skill Levels: Determined by the amount of XP you have earned in the skill.
  • Focus Points: You receive one each level up. These are used to increase the learning rate and limit for a skill.
  • Skill XP: Determined by the number of times you use the skill.
  • Influence: You only receive this if you are a mercenary, vassal, or a leader of a faction. You can spend this on giving different fiefs to your nobles, instituting policy changes, or summoning armies.
  • Renown: You can this for completing quests, winning battles, and tournaments.
  • Money: This is in units of denars.
  • Inventory Space: This is determined by the number of troops and horses that you have.
  • Companions: As you increase your clan level, you will increase the number of companions you may recruit.
  • Food: You can buy this from various vendors, or pick it up as loot from defeated parties. Having a larger variety increases party morale.
  • Trade Items and Materials: Your parties will not consume these like food. These are items like wood, tools, leather, wool, iron, steel, etc. You can either trade them at cities, or in the case of material, you can get them by dismantling weapons.
  • Weapons: These can be bought at vendors, crafted, or picked up from battle.
  • Armor: These can be bought at vendors, or picked up from battle.
  • Mounts: These can be bought at vendors, or picked up from battle. They increase your travel speed, and allow you to move around the battle field more quickly.
  • Fiefs: Once you become a vassal or a factor leader, you can have fiefs and also assign fiefs to nobles in your faction. You will receive taxes based on the number of fiefs you have, their sizes, and their productivity.
  • Workshops: You may buy workshops in any city that you are friendly with, but if you declare war on that faction, you may lose that workshop. These generate money every day.
  • Parties: Similarly to companions, the number of parties you have will increase based on your clan level. You can assign a companion to lead a party, and in cities you can create a special trade caravan party, which will only travel and engage in trade.
  • Party Morale: The higher your party's morale the more likely they will continue to fight.
  • Clans: Besides your own clan, you can recruit any number of clans into your faction.
  • Clan Level: This is primarily a function of your renown. It will effect your marriage prospects, party size, number of party limit, and number of companion limit.
  • Movement Speed (Campaign): This is a complex calculation based on the number of mounts, troops, prisoners, wounded, and of course your inventory burden.
  • Movement Speed (FPS): This is determined by your athletics skill if on foot, and by your horse speed if mounted.

Conflicts

Leveling

As mentioned before, because of the slow pace of leveling later on in the game, it makes sense to stack your character's social and intelligence attributes as high as you can from the character creation menu. Your combat skills will still increase much more rapidly early on simply because you use them more often in the early game. As you level up, however, you will need to decide how to spend your attribute and focus points. As focus points are more plentiful, and skills only have five focus point slots, it is quite easy to get all five slots filled on the key social and intelligence skills, like steward, leadership, tactics, trade, and charm. Even though they occur more often, you still need to pick carefully. A much more important and impactful choice is that of attribute points. You only get one every 3 levels, and these have a big influence on your playstyle.

Boundaries

Inventory

There are no hard limits to inventory, but inventory weight is limited by the factors mentioned above.

Map

You cannot go outside the map boundaries.

Attributes, skills and focus points

Each attribute can have a maximum of 10 points, while skills can go up to 330. Each skill can have a maximum of 5 focus points.

Companions and Spouses

You can only have 8 companions, and you can only have one spouse at a time.

Outcomes

There is literally no ending for Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord. Like Mount & Blade: Warband, the game can always be continued. In one of my playthroughs for Mount & Blade: Warband, I created my own faction and decided to conquer the world. It took about 70 hours, but I was able to bring every castle and city under my control. In Bannerlord, you can remain as a mercenary forever if that is your wish. You could never join any faction, and instead play as a merchant, buying shops, creating trade caravans, etc. You could become a vassal of a faction and help them paint the map one color, or you could start your own faction and try to do so yourself.

Dynamic Elements

There are many dynamic elements in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord. For starters, the dynamic friction pattern can be found in many design elements of the game. In increasing your skills, you need increasingly more XP for each level up. For each character level up, you require increasing more skill level ups. For each increase in clan level, you need more and more renown.

The slow cycle also appears in many different places. After a tough battle, you may have suffered from losses. You can recruit refresh troops from nearby villages or cities, and begin the long process of engaging in battles to give them experience and leveling them back up to the troops you lost.

Dynamic engines also make their appearance. Cities and castles can be customized with different buildings. These effect the economy, the population, and the stability of the area. If you create buildings which increase the economy, it gives you more money to spend from taxes, allowing you to build more buildings, etc, while if you focus on increasing the population, it gives you more militia and more soldiers to recruit. It also has a negative effect on the amount of food available. The point is, you can see that cities are engines that can be customized in different ways, producing different wide-reaching effects.

Playing style reinforcement is another strong pattern. Because skills improve as you use them, you are encouraged to specialize and focus on skills that you enjoy using.

If you have fiefs, you can optionally assign different companions to them as governors. This allows you to consider whether they would be better placed in a city, leading a caravan, a party, or staying in your own party. This is an example of the worker placement pattern.

Of course, trade is another strong pattern in this game. You can buy and sell many goods, and the economy is roughly simulated, so that as you buy more of a good in one area, the price will increase, whereas selling that same good causes the price to decrease.

The converter engine appears in several forms. Safety or stability leads to increased economic activity, for example, and over time influence will be converted into money.

The stopping mechanism appears in a few places. For example, you cannot enter negotiations with the same NPC too soon after you have already negotiated with them.

 

Dramatic Elements

Characters and Story

As in the previous Mount & Blade game, you start as a nobody. The main difference is that there is a main quest involving either destroying or rebuilding the Empire of Calradia.

There are hundreds of characters in the game, and they start out in the same relationships and factions each time, but they make different decisions each time, which leads to slightly different events.


Conclusion

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is finally out, and it is well worth the wait. You will still encounter many bugs and strange behaviors, but it is such a vast improvement compared to Mount & Blade: Warband. You have a lot more agency, which is saying a lot. You could play in almost any way in the original, and the scope of the game has just increased. The combat still feels awesome, and growing your faction is still really engaging. The options the player is given almost always enhance the experience, and the dev team is hard at work to improve the experience, even now during the height of the covid crisis.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Horizon: Zero Dawn Game Analysis

Overview

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG game developed by Guerrilla Games and published in 2017.

Formal Elements

Players

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a single player game in which you take control of Aloy, an exile from a tribe of people called the Nora. They live a primitive existence, mostly hunting and farming. Soon, it becomes apparent that this place is Earth in the future, and some catastrophe has reduced humans to this level, while sentient, and sometimes aggressive, machines have replaced most of the large fauna. As you play, you will quickly discover that something has gone wrong with the machines in the last 15-20 years, and you will start a game-long quest to find out what happened and how to fix it.

Rules

Combat and Movement

Movement works similarly to many third-person games nowadays. You use the left analog stick on the controller to move around, and the right analog stick to rotate the camera and aim. You can run, jump, swim and dive through the environment; and after reaching a particular moment in the story, you gain the ability to take control of certain types of machines, some of which work as mounts to carry you across the huge map. Following the conventions of other adventure games, such as the God of War series, Uncharted series and others, there are numerous areas in the world for you to climb on. These enable to you scale vertical walls, cross over gaps, slide down zip lines, and rappel from huge heights.

Combat is a mixed bag. Your primary enemies fall into two broad groups: humans and machines. Humans are the least interesting to attack. You can enter melee combat and use a mixture of light and heavy attacks to kill them, but they will enter an invulnerable state if you just spam the light attack button. This state is communicated by a "ting" noise when your attack lands, but not by any change in their or your animation. Animations are somewhat varied, but melee combat does not provide much strategy besides using one or two light attacks followed by a roll or a heavy attack. Further, there is only one melee weapon in the whole game: a spear. Ranged combat gives the player much more options. Your earliest weapon will be a bow, but you will gain access to a sling to launch bombs, a high-power bow that takes time to fully draw, and several other weapons. Almost all ranged weapons can use a variety of different ammo types, from piercing arrows which do more damage, fire arrows, shock arrows, ice bombs, etc. Unfortunately, this variety does not really matter when dealing with humans. Fire attacks eat away at their health over time, while shock attacks put them in stunned state, and ice attacks increase their vulnerability to other attacks, but these reactions are the same for every human, so you can follow the same basic strategy all the time. Human enemies have access to similar weapons as you, with the exception of heavies, which will often use a gun or grenade launcher taken from a machine. As heavies do in all games, they can soak up more damage before dying, and they move much slower.

Luckily, you will spend a lot of time dealing with machines, which are much more interesting than humans. Although there are some packs of roaming human enemies, most of the environmental danger will be different kinds of machines. As detailed in a GDC talk, the developers tried to give each machine a unique personality, with special sounds, and distinct movements and attacks. Each machine has appropriately designed and placed devices and armoring on its body, and these points are all weak to different combinations of elements. For example, the stalker is a combat-class machine that resembles a cross between a leopard and a scorpion: although basically leopard-like, the tail has been elongated and is used in melee combat to whip you. The stalker specializes in stealth and ambushes: it has a cloaking device similar to the predator's, which produces a slight shimmering effect around its body. This makes it difficult to spot unless you know what to look for. It also places mines around its territory, which blow up when you stumble upon them. It's main weapon, however, is a dart gun that it will fire at you from a distance. This deals a large amount of damage, and can one-hit kill you at lower levels. Both the mine launcher and the dart gun are components that you can specifically target and destroy to remove them as threats. If you use an arrow that does high "tear" damage, for example the tear-blast arrow, you can remove the dart gun and prevent the stalker from sniping at you. You could also target the stealth generator to remove its cloaking ability and make it easier to spot. As another strategy, the body of the stalker is exceptionally weak to shock damage, so if you use shock bombs, shock traps, or shock trip wires you can put it in a stunned state and deal a critical melee attack while it is down.

Although you could discover these facts by trial and error, the developers produced a scene during Aloy's childhood where she stumbles on an ancient device called a "focus," which is a kind of wearable smart device that can be used for communication, analyzing the environment, and scanning machines to determine what kind of machine it is, what it is weak to, etc. When you encounter a machine or a group of machines, it often pays to use the focus to remind yourself which components to remove and in what way. The focus conveniently highlights the components for you, so they stand out from the body better.

Stealth

Stealth plays a large role in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy may crouch when moving around in the world, which of course lowers her stance, reduces her visibility, and allows her to hide in specially colored grass as can be found in the Assassin's Creed franchise or the Middle Earth: Shadow series. Stealth is useful both when dealing with human and machine enemies. When clearing out an enemy camp, it helps to approach by stealth, tag enemies with your focus, and silently take them out one by one. Of course, this often fails miserably, forcing you to "go loud," but this can also be fun and thanks to the stealth mechanics, it is possible to rinse and repeat this if you prefer the quiet approach.

For machines, as mentioned before, it is best to scan them before you charge in and start thrusting with your spear or peppering them with arrows. A position of stealth is perfect for this, and if you have the override codes for any of the machines, you can override one of them from stealth either gaining a mount or a potential ally for Aloy in combat. As an interesting twist, some machines have a scanner which can locate you even in hiding. This scanner, of course, can be targeted and removed by using a weapon with an appropriate damage type.

Inventory

Inventory is differentiated into different categories, such as weapons, armor, potions, resources, etc. Although not visible on Aloy's character model, these categories apparently each has a different satchel, which can be upgraded using items you collect in the world. Inventory space in each satchel is initially quite limited, but if you have a few upgraded satchels, this will make it easier to move around the world. You cannot carry more than you are allowed, so you won't suffer from slow walking, rolling, or other issues you might experience in the Dark Souls series or the Elder Scrolls series. When you reach max capacity for a category, you could disassemble the item (provided that you have the skill unlocked), or you just drop an item to make room. Fortunately, many items stack, so if you have five watcher lenses, these will stack to only take up one inventory slot in your resource satchel instead of five.

In terms of equipable items, you can have four weapons equipped at the same time, no matter how many you carry. Armor functions as a complete set, so you cannot mix and match different boots, pants, jackets, gloves, etc. One small annoyance is that all your potential quick items are equipped all the time. So, if you have three different kinds of traps, and six potions, you will need to scroll through all of them to find the one you want. The up button on the d-pad is a hot button for using whatever medicinal herbs you've gathered. These fill a bar below your health bar, and the number of bars you get increases if you unlock certain skills.

Skills

Horizon: Zero Dawn has three built-in skill trees, with the expansion, The Frozen Wilds, adding a fourth. These trees focus on different aspects of gameplay: Prowler focuses on stealth, Brave improves and unlocks combat abilities, and Forager is a grab-bag of health improvements, resource gathering, and ease-of-use improvements. The Frozen Wilds adds Traveler, which focuses on passive abilities that improve resource-gathering/use and your mount.

As you unlock skills in each tree, skills lower down become available. Although initial skills cost only one skill point, the lower skills increase by tier to two, three, and three skill points each. Luckily, the game designers have been quite generous with skill points. Although you cannot quite unlock every skill in the game, you will be awarded a skill point for every level up, and also for completing particular quests.

Crafting

There are many items in the game that you will find useful to have. Although you do not have to eat to stay healthy, because the world map is so large you might want to fast travel between different locations. To do this, you need to purchase or craft Travel Rations. The same goes for all your ammo for your different weapons, potions, and traps. Although you can buy them from vendors, it is often easier to simply carry sufficient resources for your needs around, then craft them as needed.
The devs have included a handy "Create job" feature, which allows you to create a mini-quest or task based on the missing crafting ingredients for an item you want.

Procedures

Defeating a boss

Throughout the game, you will encounter several boss level enemies. These provide you with a challenge over and above the typical battle. Although the human bosses suffer from the same lack of variety as the other human enemies, they exacerbate them to some extent, as they have much more health than a typical human enemy.

The machine bosses, as in so many other areas, are where Horizon: Zero Dawn shines. You might have to take down a Thunderjaw, for example. Let me describe it briefly. It is the size and rough shape of a T-Rex, so it can charge and bite you, stomp you with its feet, or smack you with its tail. It has two disc or missile launchers on its back, and two machine guns mounted on either side of its jaw. If you remove both the machine guns, it has a beam weapon that rakes the ground in front of it. It also has a scanner to detect you in hiding. The disc launchers are weak to tear damage, and if you remove them you can pick them up and use them against the Thunderjaw. It also has two heavily armored ports on either side of its torso which access a "heart." If you can remove the armor, this heart is easily damaged. One of my early strategies was to remove the disc launchers, then use a ropecaster, which is a kind of weapon that fires a harpoon first into the machine, then into the ground. This can be used to immobilize a machine, but a Thunderjaw requires several ropes to do so. Once it was locked in place, I would try to remove the heart covering, and blast away at the heart. Later on I would use tear-blast arrows to remove the disc launchers, use freeze bombs to increase its sensitivity to damage, then hit it with its own disc launchers.
The machine boss battles force you to think on your feet, observe the machine carefully, watch for its tells, and be aware of what its weaknesses and strengths are so that you can best exploit them.

Leveling up

Each time you level up, your health will increase by 10 points, you will be awarded with a skill point. In the beginning, you could spread these points evenly over the initial tier of skills, as these all cost one point. However, the second tier of skills cost two points, requiring you to think about your investment.

Exploring an area

The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is large, and varied. You will find grasslands, forests, mountainous tundras, deserts, and jungles. Everywhere you go, you will find different levels of verticality, from small hills, deep canyons, steep mountains, and dark caves. Although not as peppered with places to explore as The Witcher 3 or an Elder Scrolls game, there is still an impressive array of areas.
You will frequently be tasked with going to an area, and finding a particular person or item, or perhaps clearing that area of enemies. The world looks gorgeous and it is fun to move around it, both on foot and using a mount. And although the devs have been inspired by the climbing systems of Uncharted and God of War, the climbing is fast, fluid, and often offers enough interaction and alternative routes to keep you interested.

Crafting

Crafting can be accomplished by two methods. In the first, primarily used for ammo, you just hold the right trigger button, select the weapon and ammo type using the right analog stick, then hold a button to craft a certain amount of ammo. This can be done at anytime, even in the midst of combat. As long as you have the necessary materials, the item will be created.
The second method is to enter the inventory screen, and go to the appropriate tab there. You can also craft ammo here, this method is mostly used for potions, satchel upgrades, and for installing weapon and armor upgrades.

Talking to an NPC

In the beginning, I called Horizon: Zero Dawn an open world action RPG. Part of the RPG categorization comes from the fact that you are playing as a character that you can make act in different ways in dialogue. Your Aloy might be more sarcastic or more sensitive/empathetic than mine or vice versa. As far as I know, there are no consequences for these choices. If you are consistently gruff, for example, people do not react to you differently, you do not lose access to any content or quests, etc. These choices are there simply to give the player something to do in dialogue.

The other choice that you have in dialogue is over the level of detail and background. If you are really into listening to people without much personality or enthusiasm talking, you can listen to the NPCs go on about the different aspects of their religions, political configurations and histories, and the economic woes they are facing because of reasons. The devs have created a lot of optional dialogue for the player so inclined.

Copying gameplay from Batman: Arkham Assylum or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Besides showing you the level, damagable components, etc for machines, your focus can also be used to enter "detective mode," similarly to the above games. This will be used to highlight the tracks of animals you wish to hunt, the patrol patterns of machines, the route taken by an NPC whose whereabouts you need to tease out, analyzing clues or items to find out more about what went down in an area, etc.

Resources

As is typical with large open world games, there is a plethora of different resources, both physical and intangible.
  • Health: Health increases as you level up by 10 points. When it drops to zero, you will die and come back at the closest save point. If your health is below 25%, it will regenerate up to 25% over time.
  • XP: XP is gathered by killing enemies, animals, and for completing quests.
  • Level: Until around level 50, it takes level * 1000 XP to level up. So, if you are on level 1, it will take 1000 XP to reach level two, 2000 XP to go from level two to level three, etc. Each level up gives you skill point to spend.
  • Skill Points: These are used to purchase skills. You earn them by leveling up and by completing quests.
  • Skills: As mentioned before, there are four skill trees, with the three main ones having 12 skills (3 skills which cost one skill point, 3 skills which cost two skill points, 6 skills which cost three points), while the fourth have 8 skills (2 skills which cost one point, 2 skills which cost two points, and 4 which cost three points).
  • Armor and Weapon Upgrades: You will find different "coils" (upgrades for weapons) or "weaves" (upgrades for armor) throughout the game. These might provide better handling, making it easier to move around with heavy weapon, or make it easier to draw, or they might provide extra damage in shock, fire, freezing, or corruption.
  • Satchel Upgrades: Although these are probably meant to function the same as the different pouches in the Far Cry series, they don't feel exactly the same. In the Far Cry series, there is a diverse range of different animals, and there is usually a special animal species of each genus which is difficult to find and will give you the max upgrade for one pouch or another. It can be quite challenging to find the territory for this animal, and even more difficult to successfully hunt it. In Horizon: Zero Dawn, satchel upgrade materials are usually a number of skins or bones from different animals, but the process is much more like farming, as certain items have different likelihoods of dropping. You might have to kill 10 or 20 or more rats in order to get that rat skin you needed for a particular upgrade. In any case, there is a story-motivation reason for there being so little diversity in the animal species in the game, so this is more forgivable.
  • Armor and Weapons: Armor provides different levels and kinds of protection for the player. Some might protect you better from melee, others from ranged attacks, and still others might provide better resistance from shock, fire, or freezing attacks.
  • Resources: Yes, in a list of resources, I have to include an item called resources. Which contains an item called resources, which contains....Sorry. Nobody likes recursive humor...Anyway, resources in Horizon: Zero Dawn are scraps of metal, wood, different herbs, and all the diverse machine parts you can pick up. Some are special items that are vendor trash: 3,000 year old coffee cups or watches, special metal flowers, action figures of animals. Others are extremely useful: metal scraps, for example, are both money and the heads of your arrows. Most shops function on a kind of combination between a barter economy and commodity trading: for each item you will need a certain number of metal scraps, but for many items you will also need specific combinations of other items. For example, to buy a certain weapon, you might need 400 scraps, the lens of a Thunderjaw, and two crystal braidings.
  • Potions and Traps: There are two main types of potions: there are three kinds of health potions (regular, full, and resistance), and several different general resistance potions (against fire, corruption, shock, etc). Similarly, there are different elemental traps.
  • Money/Metal Scraps: Metal scraps function as the game's money, but are also used in crafting different kinds of ammo, and in many different items.
  • Medicinal Herbs: Medicinal herbs are different from the other herbs in that they have a separate pouch, and can be used via a quick slot button at any point. Their main purpose is to provide a way for the player to replenish their health without having to make a health potion, which relies on different kinds of meat that can be hard to have a good supply of.

Conflicts

Leveling

Although is not possible to unlock every skill, but at the same time, you will probably end up with a very similar build of Aloy as everyone else. This is because the skills you unlock do not tie into the specific weapons, with the exception of the bow skills.

Stealth versus "Going loud"

It is possible to focus more on direct conflict or on taking out enemies quietly.

Boundaries

Grappling and Climbing

It is only possible to climb on "yellow" things, items which have been hand placed by devs to allow the player to traverse the levels.

Inventory

As mentioned before, the inventory for each category of equipment is limited, although it may be expanded. This forces you to sell items, disassemble items, or just to get rid of them altogether.

Outcomes

There is only one main outcome for the game: you find out what happened to cause the machine to become more aggressive and you solve the problem.

Dynamic Elements

There are many examples of dynamic friction in Horizon: Zero Dawn. I will mention four here. First, the leveling system works by way of dynamic friction. Every time you get a level up, it will take more XP to reach the next level. Second, the number of skill points needed in order to unlock each higher tier skill increases. Third, the amount and rarity of ingredients increases as you upgrade your satchels. Fourth, the enemy difficulty increases as you progress through the story.
A second dynamic element is the use of stopping mechanisms. There are again four that come immediately to mind. First, the spear override, which lets you take over machines, has a cooldown timer, preventing you from spamming it. Second, higher power weapons generally have significantly longer draw times, again preventing you from making too frequent use of them. Third, weapons like the Stormslinger, which shoots electrical bolts, has an "overheat" meter, which fills as you shoot and if maxed out will cause damage to you. Fourth, the limited inventory prevents you from carrying everything you could possibly need in near infinite amounts, forcing you to be more careful and strategic.
The third dynamic element is trade. There are dozens of vendors throughout the game, and it is possible to sell many farmable items to them in exchange for metal scraps, and also to use some of those items to buy new equipment.
The fourth dynamic element is worker placement. Your equipped weapons function somewhat like workers, allowing you to build up different elemental meters on your machine foes.
A fifth dynamic element is playstyle reinforcement. Depending on which skills you unlock, and which equipment you use, you might be better suited for stealth combat or for all out war.

Dramatic Elements

Characters and Story

Horizon: Zero Dawn features a large cast of characters. Most of these have little in the way of real personality or characterization. The main character is of course Aloy, the player. She starts as an outcast of the Nora tribe, raised by another outcast, Rost. It is not exactly clear why Aloy is an outcast at first, but she develops into a headstrong young woman. Most of her scripted dialogue makes her speak like a hyper-aggressive pubescent boy, and even her body language is distinctly masculine. As the story progresses, she learns more and more about the history of her people, the Nora, and the other tribes. Eventually, she begins to discover more about the ancient history of Earth and what happened to produce the world she lives in.

Aloy quickly becomes a member of the Nora through a ritual known as the "Proving." Through this she encounters more people both in her tribe and in other tribes. For example, she meets a man called Erend, who is from a tribe called the Oseram. His tribe was historically persecuted by another tribe called the Carja, but now the Carja have a new king, and Erend is a member of his army, and possibly something of an emissary. Later, Aloy will travel to the Carja lands and assist the people and the king there.

At one point, Aloy will receive assistance from someone else using a focus. With his help, she will discover that a corporation developed a range of autonomous machines which function by absorbing organic matter to repair themselves. In typical SF fashion, the corporation loses control of them, and the only option humans have left is to develop an AI that is deeply buried and sealed in the Earth. After the machines go into hibernation due to absorbing all organic matter, this AI will be responsible for cloning and raising humans and animals stored in DNA banks. You learn that Aloy is actually the clone of one of the scientists who designed the AI. One of this AI's subroutine's, called HADES, gets out of control and causes the AI to self-destruct. HADES has the goal of resurrecting the slumbering machines and returning Earth to a barren wasteland, and of course you must stop him. The AI had you created in the hope that you would grow up, gain access to the AI's data banks, and find a way to stop HADES.

The story of the expansion is similarly connected to this AI. A tribe in the far north worships one of the AI routines as a goddess, but "she" has been taken over by "HEPHAESTUS," another subroutine. You must battle some great machines and find a way to stop HEPHAESTUS from continuing his manufacture of deadly assault machines bent on killing humans.

Conclusion

Horizon: Zero Dawn succeeds on many different levels. It combines stealth, RPG-style leveling, and exploration elements that other franchises have popularized, and creates a fun, in-depth combat system (at least in regard to the machines). The story is original, but the acting and presentation sometimes lack emotion, and at other times are overly dramatic. The Frozen Wilds expansion fixes a lot of the story issues, at least in terms of acting and personality.
The world is beautiful, and well-designed, with distinct areas and truly interesting machines to dispatch.
Much like Darksiders, which combined Bayonetta-style combat with Zelda-inspired level design and items, Horizon: Zero Dawn combines pre-existing elements into a fun experience. To horribly mix metaphors, it is like what writer Neal Stephenson labels the Midwestern predilection for "recombinant food:" foods like rice krispy treats, which take already complete food items (rice krispy cereal and marshmallows), and re-purpose them into a new Franken-food. Horizon: Zero Dawn offers little that is truly original, but what it does offer is well-executed, and well-worth the time it takes to play.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Analysis

Overview

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an action RPG developed by FROMSOFTWARE and Activision. It was released on March 22, 2019.

Formal Elements

Players

Sekiro is a strictly single player game, and unlike other recent games developed by FROMSOFTWARE, there is no multiplayer competitive or cooperative element, and players cannot leave messages for each other. As you play the game, you control an initially nameless shinobi. The prologue functions as an introduction to the basic gameplay and mechanics, as well as providing a background and motivation for the player.

Rules

Combat and Movement

Combat in Sekiro shares many similarities to other games produced by FROMSOFTWARE, but has several important distinctions. You control a shinobi armed with a sword, which you use to attack enemies. The animations are fast and fluid, and you can interrupt most by pressing a different action button. Although Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne also featured quicker animations than were typical for FROMSOFTWARE, you were still locked into an animation once it was triggered. Unlike Dark Souls or Bloodborne, attacking, dodging, and jumping do not drain stamina. In Sekiro, there is no stamina bar. You can attack, dodge, or jump repeatedly as much as you want. Instead you deal with two bars: a health bar, and a posture bar. When you attack enemies, you reduce their health bar. If you can reduce it to zero, you can kill the enemy. The same holds true for the player: if your health bar is reduced to zero, you die. In practice, you will only sometimes reduce the enemy's health bar to zero. More commonly, you will attack, doing some damage and also increasing their posture bar. If they block, or if the player continues to attack, the posture bar will continue to increase. If you max out their posture bar, this puts the enemy in a stunned state, during which you can one-hit kill them, regardless of the status of their health bar. The same is also true for the player: when you take damage, you increase your posture bar, and if your blocks are poorly timed, you further increase your posture bar. If it maxes out, the enemy can one-hit kill you.

If you avoid taking damage or being attacked for several seconds, the posture bar will slowly drop. Holding block will increase the rate of drop, but your health level effects this rate: having high health makes posture reduce more quickly, while low health causes posture damage to linger. Running around slows the rate of posture recovery. This all flies in the face of what most players and fans of FROMSOFTWARE games have come to expect. I started playing Sekiro immediately after finishing my third playthrough of Bloodborne, and I felt like was being punished for having played Bloodborne. All my habits and instincts were wrong.

Besides the posture system, there is the blocking and deflecting system. Most enemy attacks can be blocked. This is achieved by simply holding the block button before an enemy attack. Deflecting is achieved by tapping the block button just before an enemy attack connects. Some enemy attacks cannot be blocked, for example, thrusts. These must be deflected or dodged. The precise timing of deflection is critical. You can hear a slight difference in the sound effect of the deflection based on your timing: perfect deflections have a sharp, ringing sound, while imperfect ones are duller and more wooden. In contrast to thrusts, sweeps cannot be deflected or blocked, but most be dodged or jumped over. Finally, grabs must be avoided entirely.

Lost? That's how most players will feel coming into the game. Instead of a relatively simple choice of block/parry/dodge/attack, where parrying is simply a high risk/high reward form of blocking, you must read the enemy's state and animations, and correctly figure out: Should I press the attack? Are they readying an attack that I can block? Will they thrust (forcing me to dodge or use a perfect deflection), or sweep (forcing me to dodge back or to jump over it)? Much of the tension of previous FROMSOFTWARE games is still here, and the density of the choices you must make in real-time is much the same, but they have increased the number of different response options you must choose from based on the enemy's tells. Compare this to walking into an unfamiliar grocery store and being forced to best match a BBQ sauce to a particular cut of meat or wine while someone is punishing you for any hesitation or dilly dallying.

Like all FROMSOFTWARE games, you eventually begin to read the opponents automatically. On my first playthrough, it took me about 5 hours spread over several days to beat Isshin Ashina the Sword-Saint, the final boss of the game for several endings. On my fourth playthough, I beat him on my first try and felt somewhat detached throughout the fight. I knew what to expect from him, and I had seen his attack patterns many times previously. I felt something like Neo must have at the end of the first Matrix movie, calmly countering Agent Smith's increasingly desperate attacks before finishing him off. Counter to the popular wisdom concerning game design, Sekiro is difficult to learn but easy to master.

Items and your shinobi prosthetic can play critical roles in combat. At the end of the prologue, you will lose your left arm in a duel. This is replaced with a prosthetic arm which can be equipped with enough different gadgets to make James Bond blush. Enemies with large wooden shields can be taken down by upgrading your prosthetic with an axe to destroy the shield, while other enemies who spew out fire or terror can be safely blocked by equipping different kinds of armored umbrellas, and still other armored enemies can be stripped of their armor using a spear upgrade. Many animal or beast enemies can be stunned by firecrackers, and others are weak against fire damage, which can be inflicted using a flame-cannon/thrower. Only three upgrades can be equipped at a time, but thanks to the ability to pause the game completely, you can easily swap these out even in the midst of combat. Similar to focus in Dark Souls 3 or bullet ammo in Bloodborne, the use of these powerful abilities is limited by an item called a "Spirit Emblem." These can be purchased at a save point, found in the environment, or received from enemies upon their death.

The typical health items which regenerate after spawning at a save point make their appearance in Sekiro. There are also rocks to stun enemies with, jars of oil to use with the flame-cannon, different sugars which increase your damage, buff your posture, or make you extra stealthy, and many others. You will need to experiment or check a wiki to see which you should carry for which enemies.

One last twist to combat is dying. In Sekiro, if you die you have a single chance to respawn immediately where you died. This can give you one more go at the enemy or boss without losing money or XP. If you die a second time, or if you decide to respawn at the last save point, you will lose half of your XP and money permanently, unless you receive "Unseen Aid," which occurs randomly but at a percentage determined by how often you have died previously. This "Unseen Aid" chance can be reset using in game items and following an optional side quest.

The basic movement system is roughly similar to previous games by FROMSOFTWARE. You can walk, run, and jump around the levels, but the biggest changes are in the freedom to explore the levels in different ways. There are many ledges that you can hang from or shimmy along, increasing the number of places that you can reach. Your shinobi prosthetic also has a grappling hook, which you can use to grapple from tree branches, building decorations, and even particular enemies. This opens up the levels immensely, making you feel like a real ninja rapidly traversing both horizontally and vertically. The target may be changed in midair, allowing you to chain from one point to another with grace and aplomb. While walking near steep ledges or along tree branches, the game developers have made it impossible to simply walk off the edge, which is one of the many instances of truly considerate design in the game. After all, how likely is it that a competent ninja would clumsily plummet off a ledge to their death?

Besides these forms of movement, Sekiro is the first FROMSOFTWARE game to feature swimming. Exploring several underwater segments is pretty fun. It does not match the feeling of Subnautica, but the swimming areas are well-laid out, and the camera and movement controls are competent and feel nice.

Stealth

Another change is to the stealth or aggro system. In previous games, you could sneak up on enemies, but after they knew about your existence, they never forgot until you got far enough away to cause them to reset their state. In Sekiro, you can sneak behind, above, or below enemies and execute them with a single deadly blow. As long as they are out of sight of other enemies and far enough away, you can chain these stealth kills together. Further, the placement of ledges, walls, and tall grass allows you hide from the enemy and execute further stealth kills, or to return to an undetected state if you managed to get seen by an enemy.

Inventory

Sekiro features a few changes from the standard inventory system in previous FROMSOFTWARE games. In previous games, you could carry 99 items of each type, including weapons, armor, health items, and throwable items. Sekiro removes all armor and weapon customization, and limits the number of items you can carry severely. For example, you can only carry three of any type of Buddhist sugar at a given time. If you pick up a fourth one, it will be sent to your remote storage. If you respawn or rest at a save point, any carried items that are at less than capacity will be stocked up from your storage. You can have up to five different quick items equipped at any time, but again, because of the ability to safely pause the game, you can use any item you want at any time, or switch your quick slot items easily.

The above limitations on numbers are partly to refocus the game away from the item management and stat matching in previous games, and partly to maintain the difficulty. Since the player can pause the game completely and thus switch out items and abilities without worrying about dying while doing so, the number of items you can carry must be correspondingly reduced in order to maintain challenge.

Skills

Skills and stats is another area where FROMSOFTWARE has departed from the past. Instead of having different stats such as strength, agility, endurance, intelligence, etc, there are five different skill trees. As you kill enemies, you receive experience points which you can see in the upper right corner of the screen. After a set amount is reached, those points are converted into a skill point. The amount of XP needed to reach the next level increases with each point earned in a way familiar to fans other RPGs. The skills themselves require different amounts of skill points, generally increasing as you progress farther from the root.

Only one combat skill and one ninjutsu skill may be equipped at a time, but most skills are in fact passive. For example, you will unlock the ability to run and slide. While running, if you press the crouch button it will trigger a short slide that let's you evade an enemy's detection, or to get back into cover quickly. Once unlocked, you do not need to equip or unequip this ability. An example of a combat skill would be the Ashina Cross. This is a quick attack skill which causes Sekiro to make two rapid cuts in the shape of a cross. This costs spirit emblems to perform. All combat skills are triggered by pressing the R1 and L1 buttons at the same time. An example of a ninjutsu skill is the Puppeteer Technique. This allows you make an allay of an enemy after committing a death blow on them. Like the Ashina Cross, it costs spirit emblems to perform.

Procedures

Defeating a boss

There are two main kinds of bosses: mini-bosses and main bosses. Main bosses are few and far between. There are very few bosses which you must kill in order to progress in the game. There are two primary benefits to killing any kind of boss in Sekiro. First, you can often receive a prayer bead, which after four are collected can be used to increase your health and posture. Second, you can unlock a new area which was not available before killing the boss. Main bosses have the additional benefit of granting you a battle memory, which can be used to increase your attack power.

The prayer beads and battle memories highlight one of the key differences between Sekiro and previous FROMSOFTWARE games. In previous FROMSOFTWARE games, you could grind certain areas in order to beat a boss. However, in Sekiro, while you can grind for XP, money, and items, XP is only used to grant skill points. Skill points can be used to purchase skills from any skill tree you've unlocked. These might give you a new attack, or increase the power of healing items, etc. BUT, they will not increase your health or posture bar, and they will not increase your attack power. Money and items can be used to upgrade your shinobi prosthetics, or to buy items and materials from merchants (some of which might allow the player to increase health and posture), but are not generally key to beat bosses. Furthermore, in previous FROMSOFTWARE games, there were companions that the player could summon if a certain boss was proving too much of a challenge. So, two major crutches that veteran players might have used to get through a boss have been removed. If you were hoping to increase your attack damage stat or your health for just a slight edge in the boss battle, you're SOL. In the parlance of many fans of the Souls-borne games, you have to "git gud." You will not be able to get a friend to help you, and you will not be able to grind XP and increase your health or damage. You'll need to learn the patterns of the boss and the best ways to counter them, and what kinds of damage they are weak to. THEN, you will be granted your battle memory or your prayer bead.

Leveling up

Leveling in Sekiro is quite different in feeling from most RPGs. You can increase your health only by collecting four prayer beads and offering these at a save point, and although you can find a few of these lying around, and you can purchase one, the vast majority of the 40 total prayer beads can only be earned by defeating bosses. By the same token, you can only increase your attack power by defeating main bosses, who will grant you a battle memory. Like the prayer beads, these must be offered at a save point in order to take effect. XP, as mentioned before, is earned by killing enemies, and is automatically converted to a skill point after the next plateau is reached. Like prayer beads and battle memories, skill points can only be spent at save points to unlock new skills.

Exploring an area

Exploration has been touched on lightly before, but like many FROMSOFTWARE games, there are many areas, events, quest lines, and even endings that are easy to miss. Although exploration feels better than ever before, the designers have drastically increased the number of different paths through an area. To fully explore an area will usually require a great deal of dedication, patience, and even multiple revisits, as it is likely that the player will not have all the required abilities to reach every part.

Resources

  • Health: Health works the same as in many games. You have a set amount, and it can be reduced by receiving damage from falls, poison, fire, terror, and regular attacks. Low health slows the regeneration of your posture bar. If it reaches zero, you enter a death state. The twist is that you have one chance to come back to life right where you died.
  • Posture: Posture determines your ability to block further attacks and avoid damage. If you block using poor timing, or if you forget to block, your posture bar will begin to build. If it maxes out, you will be put in a temporary vulnerable state.
  • Sen: Sen is the money in Sekiro. It is needed to purchase items and to upgrade shinobi prosthetics. Like XP, you will lose half of all sen that you carry when you die. If you store it in money bags, you can keep it.
  • XP: Keeping with Souls-Borne tradition, the player gathers XP by killing enemies. The main difference is that once a certain amount of XP is gathered, it is converted into a skill point. Until this happens, that XP is similar to the souls or blood echoes from previous games: upon death, the player will lose half of all XP, unless they receive "Unseen Aid." Any XP that has been converted into a skill point will be kept, no matter how many times you die. The amount of XP needed for each successive skill point increases according to similar curves to souls or blood echoes in previous games.
  • Skill Points: Skill points are used to purchase abilities from the different skill trees that Sekiro has. As you play the game, you will unlock more skill trees with different abilities.
  • Skills: Unlike other FROMSOFTWARE titles, skills in Sekiro are divided into several skill trees, which can be unlocked by progressing in the game, completing optional activities and dialog checks. Each skill has prerequisites and a skill point cost. Most skills are passive buffs, but some are combat or shinobi skills. The player may unlock as many of these as they like, but only one combat and one shinobi skill may be equipped at a time.
  • Shinobi Prosthetics: There are 10 shinobi prosthetics in Sekiro. Once you receive your prosthetic arm, you get one basic skill: you can grapple onto specific objects in the environment. For example, tree branches protruding from cliffs, and specifically shaped trees; and lastly certain decorative elements on the roofs of buildings. All the other prosthetics must be discovered by the player through exploring the environment or by purchasing them from vendors. Only three prosthetics may be equipped at a time, but they can be switched dynamically during gameplay. Every prosthetic has several different upgrades which either increase its effectiveness, or alter its effects in some key way.
  • Dragonrot: This increases as you die more and more. This makes NPCs in the world sick, and prevents the player from advancing their questline. It also lower's your chance of receiving "Unseen Aid."
  • Throwable Items: These include items like pottery shards and oil jars. They can be used in several different contexts, but are most useful to get the attention of enemies, or to set them up for a fire attack.
  • Consumable Items: These are items like different sugars which provide different attack buffs, or Divine Confetti, which allows the player increased damage to particular enemy types.
  • Sake: You will be given or will find several different varieties of sake throughout the game. These can be given to different NPCs as gifts to unlock different dialogue options. Usually, these will be nostalgic monologues about some past friend or event, which bears indirectly on the story of Sekiro.
  • Materials: The final set are materials which are used to craft shinobi prosthetics. These are things like Fulminated Mercury, Lapis Lazuli, or Scrap Iron. They can sometimes be randomly dropped from enemies, but others can only be found once in the environment or purchased from vendors in limited amounts.

Conflicts

Leveling

Although the strength of the conflict has been reduced, there is still a conflict in terms of what skill to choose. Most skills require more than one skill point to unlock, so deciding which one to unlock can feel like making a big investment.

Game Story Path

Fans of FROMSOFTWARE games will notice a requiring theme about immortality. In Dark Souls, the player and most of the NPCs and enemies are cursed to come back to life again and again. At the end of the game, you can choose to continue the age of fire, or end it, beginning the age of dark. The exact implications of each path are not exactly clear. Similarly, in Bloodborne, you are a beast hunter who is possibly trapped in some kind of dream or nightmare. When you die, you don't really die but can come back again and again, as do the enemies. At the end, you can choose to leave the dream, continue the dream, or perhaps to become some kind of in-human god-like being. Again, the implications are not exactly clear, but the in-game justification for why the player and the enemies respawn is clear and well-implemented.

In Sekiro, we also find a preoccupation with immortality and a clear message about it. In all FROMSOFTWARE games, immortality is regarded as a kind of curse or perversion of the natural order. Certain members of the Ashina clan want to make use of the Dragon Heritage or Divine Blood in order to create an immortal, unstoppable army. It makes sense that the two main story paths in Sekiro are the player either choosing to make use of this power, or agreeing with the Divine Heir that it is indeed a perversion and trying to destroy it.

Boundaries

Grappling

Not everything may be grappled to in Sekiro. Some enemies in particular animation states can be grappled to, if you have unlocked the skill which allows this. Particular branches can be grappled to. Roof decorations may also be grappled to.

Inventory

Your inventory is severely limited, as has been detailed before.

Prayer Beads

As mentioned before, there are only 40 total prayer beads, and once a prayer bead has been received, either from an area or from a boss or vendor, it will no longer be available there for any playthrough.

Outcomes

There are four different main endings, but there are several different states that NPCs can be in at the end.
  1. Shura: This ending effective short circuits the game. You decide to betray your lord, and "stay loyal" to your father. You end up actually killing your father, and becoming a demon of hatred.
  2. Regular: You decide to stay loyal to Lord Kuro, and you give him Divine Dragon Tears to cut his connection to the divine realm. He dies, but the Dragonrot curse is ended
  3. Happy?: You decide to stay loyal to Lord Kuro, and you give him Divine Dragon Tears and an Aromatic Flower to cut his connection to the divine realm. In order to free your lord of the curse and and allow him to live, you must take your own life.
  4. Happiest: You decide to stay loyal to Lord Kuro, and you give him Divine Dragon Tears and Frozen Tears to cut his connection to the divine realm. He dies in some sense, but his soul is carried by another, and Sekiro and this other person travel to the west in search of the origin of the Dragon's blood. This removes the curse of immortality from the mortal realm.

Dynamic Elements

There are several dynamic elements in Sekiro. First of all, there are the stopping mechanisms of resurrection and inventory. You may only resurrect once, unless you use a special item to refill this ability, or unless you can fill the second resurrection bar by getting death blows. Both these methods are limited by either the number of enemies in an area, or by the number of items you can carry. The inventory limitations prevents players from cheesing the game.

Secondly, there is the near ubiquitous use of dynamic friction for the acquisition of XP, as found in almost every RPG.

Third, work placement is found in the effects of equipping or swapping out abilities and ninja prosthetics.

Finally, the attrition pattern can be found in the gradual loss of XP and sen upon repeated death, and in the gradual build-up of Dragonrot. Under this paradigm, the first 4 deaths can take you from any random amount of XP to only 6.25% of the original amount. Each subsequent death takes away the same percent (50), but since the amount has become so small after 4, these deaths matter less and less.

Dramatic Elements

Although all FROMSOFTWARE games have featured a story, Sekiro is perhaps the first that takes place in a world that is easy to understand, and the developers have gone out of their way to make the main story beats comprehensible to the players. That is not to say that it will always be clear what to do, what the consequences of different choices are, or even what the conditions are for achieving different branches in the story. There is still some of the attitude of "players are like mushrooms so keep them in the dark and throw shit on them."

Characters

The main character is Sekiro, a boy found on a battle field by a master shinobi and trained in that profession. You are initially called Wolf. You lose your arm protecting your lord in the prologue, and are afterwards named Sekiro, which translates into something like "Lone Wolf" or "One ~~ Wolf," where ~~ could be arm, leg, ball, ear, or eye.

Your "father," a shinobi called Owl, plays a main role in the story. Although he raised Sekiro, he later fakes his own death and tries to kill Sekiro in order to get control of the "Divine Heir." You will have to decide whether to help him or stay loyal to the Divine Heir.

Lord Kuro, the Divine Heir, is the lord who Sekiro must protect and serve. His blood is somehow connected to the divine realm, which when given to a servant, creates a bond between them, and will cause the servant to resurrect whenever killed. Through one of the optional areas and missions, we discover that Kuro has given his blood to Sekiro 3 years before the start of the game. This explains why Sekiro can keep respawning again and again. However, it does not explain why enemies that you've killed have returned. He comes to view this immortality as a kind of curse, and asks Sekiro to help remove it from the world.

The sculptor was featured in the first reveal of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in 2018. Like Sekiro, he is lacking his left arm. As the game progresses, you will learn that his shinobi name was "Orangutan," and that Lord Isshin was forced to cut his arm off to prevent him from become a Shura, a kind of demon of hatred. The sculptor's shrine functions as an initial safe place, and the player can upgrade their shinobi prosthetics by speaking with the sculptor.

Lady Emma is a doctor who appears at the shrine. She is the daughter of another famous doctor, who appears to have some connection to the Divine Blood or the Dragonrot curse in the past. You will be able to upgrade your Gourd of Life, the main way of replenishing your health in the game, by giving her seeds you've found. Like prayer beads, there is a set number of seeds in the game, and once you've found one, it will be replaced by other items in later playthroughs. You can also eavesdrop on her at different times and places in order to pursue different quest lines or endings.

There are at least a dozen more NPCs in the game, but these are the ones you will probably interact with the most often. There are different merchants, but these have little personality. You can also sometimes interact with enemies, or eavesdrop on them to get more information, but these moments are rare.

Story

The story takes place in a fictionalized version of feudal Japan. The land of Ashina is under attack, and you must protect your charge, Lord Kuro, from his enemies. You lose your arm doing so, and the sculptor helps you and gives you a prosthetic arm. You spend much of the game trying to reach your lord. Once you do, you are faced with the same enemy who dismembered you in the prologue. From here, your lord tasks you with gathering components needed to reach the divine realm in order to cure the immortality curse. Once you have gathered the materials, you will have to fight your way back to the castle. There you must choose between helping your father and helping Kuro. If you choose to help your father, you will become a demon of hatred. If you choose to help Kuro, you must travel to the divine realm in order to get tears from the Divine Dragon. Once returning to the mortal realm again, you will have to fight your way back to the castle before defeating the final boss(es) of the game.

Along the way, you will explore dungeons, haunted forests, deep gorges where you must navigate ledges and branches, the obligatory poisonous ground level, and of course feudal Japanese castles and battlegrounds.

Conclusion

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is another masterpiece from FROMSOFTWARE. It captures that feeling of triumphing over impossible odds that has kept fans playing since 2009's Demon's Souls. At the same time, it successfully innovates in key areas. Gone is multiplayer, gone is messaging, and gone is the sword-and-board combo that got many people through Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Dark Souls 3. You don't need to worry about character customization or armor/weapon/stat matching. In their place you have skill trees for the first time in a FROMSOFTWARE game, and you also have a dynamic movement system that makes you feel like a ninja. Gone is the grind of trying to get just one more boost to health or strength or what-have-you. Instead you have a system that forces you to observe your own reactions to enemies, and alter them appropriately until you emerge victorious.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Red Dead Redemption 2...lacking in imagination

Hey all,

I've been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for several weeks now, and while the graphics, physics, and hardware performance are utterly amazing, I'm left cold by mountains of bizarre design decisions.

To pick one that others have already touched upon: looting. In order to loot a body, you must HOLD...no hold it longer, idiot...the triangle button, then wait for the looting animation to finish...just a little longer... yeah, OK... no sorry it's not done yet. If this was some momentous occasion, the waiting and drama involved in this SIMPLE BANAL ACTION might seem appropriate, like the hubbub that Santa Monica Studios makes of Kratos patting his son on the back. However, that is not the case. You will loot hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies in RDR2, and you will have to hold triangle, and wait for the animation for all of them. If you are looting a building, may God have mercy on your immortal soul. Going through a wardrobe involves holding that same triangle button FOR EVERY SINGLE DOOR/DRAWER in the wardrobe, and FOR EVERY SINGLE ITEM you will have to HOLD square...no, don't fucking tap it...this requires some consideration...I mean, if you didn't really mean to pick it up then you can still change your mind...AND WAIT FOR THE GODDAMN ANIMATION to finish.

Yes, I do understand that in the "real world" if I want to open a wardrobe and go through it, I will have to open every single fucking drawer in the fucking thing, and one by fucking one take out the items I want...I'd like to point out that RDR2 is not the real world, but a piece of entertainment software that emulates certain aspects of it. How entertaining is looting in RDR2? As this is a great way to support your gang, restock on bullets, and sometimes even necessary for story missions, why make it so boring? Why discourage players from doing it by making it take so much time? Why not streamline it? It is like coating a dildo with sandpaper: it just introduces friction where and when you least want it.

To pick another example, one which I haven't seen discussed, the way items attached to your horse react in a crash. Say you have a deer carcass tied to the back of your horse when you suddenly crash into a tree. This carcass will go flying and you will have to go find it, pick it up (by HOLDING THE FUCKING SQUARE BUTTON....WAITING FOR THE ANIMATION...), and put it back on your horse (by FUCKING HOLDING THE FUCKING SQUARE BUTTON....FUCKING WAITING FOR THE FUCKING ANIMATION...). Why? Your saddle didn't come off. Your guns and inventory items didn't go flying all over half of Creation...just the carcass. Now, if you had skinned the deer instead, you could have put the skin on the back of your horse (by FUCKING HOLDING THE MOTHERFUCKING SQUARE BUTTON....GODDAMN WAITING FOR THE SHIT FUCKING ANIMATION...), which now acts as if it is epoxy bonded. You could even have a stack of skins and they will not come off in a crash. Only carcasses and hogtied people act that way, and to make it more interesting, they can even be washed off if your horse gets into water that is too deep. Is it realistic? In a limited way, yes. Does it make for fun, interesting gameplay, with engaging choices? No. It means you waste more time holding buttons and waiting for animations to finish. It means you may lose carcasses and hostages in a crash or in death.

Just one more example: autosaves. If you decide to manually save your game, you might be asked whether you really want to overwrite the previous autosave. To do this, contrary to what you'd expect, you simply press X. However, when you load that save file and the game asks whether to autosave over it, now you must HOLD x. Why the difference? How exactly is making the first decision to overwrite an autosave different from the second one?

In Polygon's wonderful piece about the design choices of RDR2, they mention the seemingly complete lack of thought that went into the user experience. Your character moves stiffly, slowly, and is awkward to control in tight places. It is easy to accidentally shoot someone who you just wanted to talk to, because shooting and talking are literally controlled by the same button (it just depends on whether you have a weapon equipped or not). Or when you go fishing, baiting and putting the rod away are mapped to the same button, the difference being held or pressed.

 A little more than half way through the game, the leader of the gang, Dutch, makes this remark  "Real? How I detest that word. So lacking in imagination." How wonderful for a game that has gotten press coverage for simulating how a horse's testicles will retract in cold weather.