The Unknown Gamer

Grizzled Old Monster Hunter

Due to their non-linear nature, many open world game suffer in the story department. While it can be said that The Elder Scrolls has very strong underlying lore, the actual narritive of the MSQ often ends up taking a back seat in favor of openness. The Witcher 3 manages to avoid this, and ends up being one of the most well-written video games I've ever played.

I am, undoubtedly, late to the Witcher party. In its native country of Poland, the franchise started off as a book series long before the games existed, and many desribe the series' author, Andrzej Sapkowski, as the Polish J.R.R. Tolkien. For fans outside of Europe, however, most had never heard of The Witcher until the 2007 PC game was made. Unfortunately, I never got around to playing the first two games in the series. Even without being overly familiar with the story, however, I found that the opening hours of the third game did an excellent job of brining me up to speed regarding Geralt and the other major characters. I certainly would have appreciated the story even more had I played through the older games, but I didn't find it necessary to understand what was going on for the most part. Not needing to read a wiki in order to understand what made the main character and major NPCs tick is a sign of excellent writing in and of itself.

Unlike many fantasy titles, which tend to present a more idealized version of a vaguely middle-ages society, the world of The Witcher is best described as being darker and grittier. There are plenty of RPGs with dark themes, evil nobles, mad kings, and deceptive religious organizations. Few go to the lengths of presenting a world where the fingers of human greed and corruption reach even to common rank-and-file NPCs in the way that this game does. Likewise, choices that you are forced to make can have far reaching repurcussions that impact events that happen hours down the line. Unlike Bioware's often simplistic moral choices, it is often not clear in The Witcher 3 which choice will end up having the desired moral outcome. For hours during the first part of the game, I thought I was making the "correct" choices, but my actions inadvertantly lead to one of the more prominent quest givers to hang themselves. There were no indications or hints this would be the outcome, and only in retrospect did I realize that I had sealed this NPC's fate by trying to be unecessarily heroic.

Similarly, I found that the game had plenty of depth in its sidequests. Every RPG has quests where you need to kill a dangerous monster or disrupt the activities of some bandits. However, in this game, many of these tasks unveiled their own little interesting backstories. Defeating a dangerous specter, for example, often requires discovering the reason it is haunting the area in the first place. In one instance, a quest to hunt down a beast ended up uncovering a love triangle involving a werewolf. While many of these still ultimately require you to kill enemies, they help reinforce the often morally ambiguous world of The Witcher.

Another aspect I found that this game excelled at was its settlements. Even in most modern fantasy games, the "biggest trade hub in the region" consists of a castle and no more than two dozen buidlings. However, the Witcher 3 does things a bit more realistically. I'm not going to claim it is perfect, but the developers put a lot more effort into making its towns and cities seem more plausible. The map that encompasses Velen, Novigrad, and Oxenfurt has roads dotted with small peasant villages and a few larger settlements. Novigrad, stated to be a large port city in the narritive, has discernable outskirts and districts. It is far more believable than any of the cities in Skyrim. It is bigger, livelier, and has far more convincing architectural design than what we typically see in games like this.

This game is impressive, no doubt. It looks good, has a great story, and a offers up a big open world to explore. It still has its limitations, however, especially when it comes to total player freedom. Because it is still bound by its narritive, some earlier side quests that you may have skipped over become unavailable once you reach specific points in the main story. Aside from the few small portions where you play as Ciri, you are also stuck with Geralt as your character. Just like everyone else, he is incredily well written, but you're basically forced into playing a grizzled middle-aged white guy antihero. It also makes your gameplay options very rigid. You can spec him so he's slightly better at certain things, and you can choose to favor a certain type of armor, but you're pretty much locked into Geralt's fighting style. Combat generally involves dodging attacks until there is an opening, and then whacking the enemy with your sword. Geralt can use low grade magic in the form of his Witcher signs, but typically you're either going to use the one that gives you the damage shield, or the one that whatever particular enemy you're fighting happens to be weak against. Geralt also has a crossbow, but I found its only real practical use is to shoot a flying enemy out of the sky so that your can then use your sword on it to do real damage. There is nothing wrong with the combat in general, but there is no option to play as a full-time magic user, archer, or stealth specialist.

The characters in The Witcher 3 are well written, but they're less than diverse.

There is also a slight issue with the cast diversity. The characters are all very well written, but almost everyone is a white human who speaks in either an American or European accent. You will run accross some token dwarves and elves as well, but they generally behave as you'd expect them to in any high fantasy setting. This makes some amount of sense given that the world is based heavily on European culture, but it is still somewhat boring. Many fantasy games these days do at least make some attempt to represent non-Caucasians in some reasonable manner. The Redguard race in The Elder Scrolls represents, at minimum, a token effort to represent people of color. I'm not trying to be an SJW, but The Witcher 3 doesn't seem to make any effort to do this at all. You're stuck with a lily white cast exclusively.

Overall, I found The Witcher 3 to be a very well crafted open world game with a very compelling story. While I cannot say i like it better than The Elder Scrolls in terms of the overall game experience, this is a matter of heavy personal opinion. I prefer the greater degree of freedom those games allow, even if it means the story suffers a bit as a result. Still, I'd place this in my top five open world games easily, and I think that it is a game easily worth nabbing on Steam.

Final BROntasy XV

Final Fantasy is the world's most well-known, and arguably, most beloved JRPG franchise. It sprawls over a dozen numbered games, countless spinoffs, various psuedo-sequels, two MMOs, and even some television and movie ventures. One would think that by now, Sqare-Enix would be able to craft an amazing open world game with a brilliant story and well written characters.

Instead, they came up with Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy XV

FFXV is a game that had languished in nearly a decade of development hell before re-emerging as an attempt to overhaul the entire franchise by moving it away from traditional turn-based combat, and by adopting paradigms from open-world RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls. There was a lot of hope that this game would reinvigorate the series' single player games after the poorly received FFXIII. So high were the hopes that Square-Enix even siphoned subscription money from FFXIV to get the game out the door, leaving those of us who prefer real Final Fantasy games with less than awesome content updates. I guess this is the thanks that Yoshi-P and his team for saving the company.

FFXV's fate was practically sealed because it started under the direction of Tetsuya Nomura. Nomura is a character artist who, in my opinion, has no business designing games. Kingdom Hearts is terrible and the only reason that anyone likes it is because they played the first game when they were nine. While Square-Enix wisely moved the FFXV project to a new director, Hajime Tabata, Nomura's influence upon the game and its characters is ever present. The entire expriences feels disconnected and rushed. There are a number of well-meaning, but poorly executed concepts present. While I'm not going to call the game "terrible" because it does have many fun and redeeming factors, the 8/10 rating it received from GameSpot is incredibly generous considering all of its serious flaws.

In Final Fantasy XV, the player assumes the role of Prince Noctis. His father, King Regis, sends him off on a roadtrip with his three best friends at the opening of the game so that he can go marry his betrothed, the oracle Lunafreya. The premise is as ridiculous as names of the characters. Almost as soon as Noctis leaves, the capital is is attacked by a rival state generally refereed to as "the Empire." The king is killed in the assault, and it is inferred that the Empire is now ostensibly out to get Noctis as well. It is nevr fully explained why the king decided to send his son off on a road trip. The game mentions that this marriage is necessary for some sort of political alliance, so one might assume that Noctis would be sent off with a batallion of royal escorts.

It isn't even really clear what deal with the empire really is, aside from the fact that there was some sort of war 10 years prior that is never fully explained. Whereas FFVI and FFXIV both into some detail in order to explain the histories and motivations of their respective evil empires, FFXV just assumes that the player will accept that "the Empire" is evil because it uses so-called "magitek" soldiers. The magitek in FFXV bears little resemblance to the magitek in FFVI, so it just feels like they were recylcing the entire concept without flesing it out or making it unique to this game's world. To further confuse things, the behaviors of the imperials we see are incredibly vague and inconsistent. Throughout the course of the MSQ, the empire has many opportunities to kill or capture Noctis but chooses to let him go. Apparently this is all because of the incomprehensible motivations of the main villain, Ardyn. It seems to me that they were trying to draw inspiration from Kefka (the villian of FFVI) when they created this guy, but they completely missed the mark. The empire is stated to commit atrocities, but almost all of them occur off-screen. The attempt to sell the imperials as an antagonizing force is ineffective because of this. An evil empire is an exceedingly basic concept in theory, but Square-Enix manages to screw it up in FFXV.

The motivations of Noctis' friends are not entirely fleshed out either. While Ingnis, Gladiolus, and Prompto can be endearing at times, we never get too much insight into their pasts. I would have had zero clue who these guys were in the first place had it not been for the Brotherhood anime that was released last summer. Prompto is the happy-go-lucky guy, Ignis is the serious intellectual, and Gladio is the big tough guy who is supposed to be Noct's bodyguard. They're cool pals for Noctis to hang out with, but there is nothing overly complex or interesting about them.

The rest of Noctis' allies are mainly one dimensional cutouts. The game has NPCs appear and disappear from the narrative, but assumes that you're somehow supposed to magically know who they are and what they've been up to. Almost none of the NPCs leave a lasting impression beyond their stereotypical archetype. Cindy is a fanservicy mechanic who works on your car. Iris has a crush on Noctis. Cid and Cor used to be friends with Noctis' father. Aranea starts off as a villain but switches sides with some handwaving, as if Square-Enix suddenly decided that she needed to become good because she's pretty.

Darkness! No Parents!
My Parents are DEAD!

Honestly, not even Noctis is that well explored. We really only know a couple things about him. It is indicated that he is the precised "King of Light" and flashbacks show he used to hang out with Lunafreya when they were kids. There are some vague hints that Noctis might see his royal station as a burden, but there is nothing really specific called out. He gets emo every once and a while, but Gladio always quickly whips him into shape whever he does. For the most part, it appears that Square-Enix decided that the easiest way to make him sympathetic was to pull a Batman and kill off his parents instead of fleshing out his backstory. At least, I assume both of his parents are dead. The game prattles on quit a bit regarding King Regis, but makes no mention whatsoever of Noctis' mother. I assume that she died when he was young, but for all we know she could have rotted away in some imperial prison, forgotten by everyone.

Ultimately, the game does its biggest disservice to its "heroine," Lunafreya. Luna is said to be an oracle who is capable of communing with the gods. While it is clear that she is out doing her own thing for much of the game, it appears that her mission is simply intended to set things up for Noctis so that he can receive the gods' blessings. Aside from this, she's billed to be some hyper-altruistic figure, wholly devoted to Noctis even though it has been a very long time since they were together. She's fully bought in to the prophecy that Noct is the "The One True King" and the game makes zero effort to explore Lunafreya beyond that concept. We're just supposed to accept, at face value, that Luna and Noct are destined soulmates who are both happy with the their betrothal. There was a great opportunity for Square-Enix to give Luna a more active role in the story in the second part of the game, but instead she was killed off for shock value in order to motivate Noctis to take down the bad guys. Seeing Lunafreya essentially get fridged within a few minutes of finally reuniting with Noctis was incredibly disappointing.

While the writing of the Final Fantasy games of the 32-bit era tended to crap out towards the end, this game has all of those beat in terms of half-assed narratives. Even a stellar voice cast (at least on the Japanese track) is unable to save the game from itself. Outside of the vague notion that Noctis has to win the favor of the gods, then purify the world of demons using the power of the Crystal, you're left scratching your head most of the time. It is clear that the designers of FFXV had a far grander concepts in their minds when they put this game together, but didn't have the time or focus to flesh them out in a way that expressed this vision properly. There are plenty of cool looking visuals and characters with weird outfits, though, which in Nomura school of game design is supposed to somehow make up for subpar gameplay and story.

In fact, Square-Enix can't even get the setting consistent. From what little we see of the Crown City (and from what we can infer from the Brotherhood anime), it seems to resemble modern urban Japan. Noctis and his crew could easily pass for a Japanese boy band with their coordinated black outfits and copious use of hair product. Everyone in the world also carries around smartphones, suggesting contemporary technology is available in the world. Despite this, the areas outside of Crown City more closely resemble the Western United States, circa 1960. The game pushes a Route 66 motif hard in the open world, and fills it with vintage-looking gas stations, diners, and the like. All the vehicles we see also look to be from the mid-20th. century. The rather modern looking party simply appears to be place navigating this landscape, as if they've stepped out of a time warp. Meanwhile, the Empire has sci-fi trappings (though relatively drab and boring, design-wise). While Final Fantasy has classically meshed high fantasy and science fiction concepts, FFXV's lack of cohesion effectively makes its world of Eos seem less than genuine.

As an open world game, the main continent itself is passable. Noctis and his team can roam the roads in their car, via chocobo, or on foot in order to hunt for treasures and do side quests. The fast travel options do leave much to be desired, however. In many cases you are spending several minutes driving to a quest objective, but once there the objective only takes 30 seconds to clear. Fortunately you can usually warp back to get your reward for a mere 10 gil. There are a few optional dungeons and other tasks with a bit more depth to them, but for the most part the side quests amount to killing X of something or being a gopher for an NPC. In this regards it is a far less rewarding experience than most open world games, especially those that are truly well crafted, such as the Witcher 3. Sadly, after Chapter 8 or so, FFXV's story rips you away from the open world into a disappointingly linear set of locales. While you can return to the open world through a hand-waving mechanic (so you can complete side quests), this is poor design that was clearly injected in order to cover up the fact that FFXV is an incomplete game.

Another point of contention I have is with the combat system. I am OK with the mainline Final Fantasy games moving away with turn-based combat, conceptually, but only if the combat system is actually good. On the surface, the game has what appears to be the the building blocks of a decent system. Noctis can switch weapons mid combat, perform comos take defensive actions, and even has a flashy warp move. Sadly, I find that these pieces are poorly mashed together in a way that fails to provide a satisfying experience. Combos don't seem to flow or connect consistently, and the acts of blocking and parrying are messy. The camera (which can get stuck behind objects such as trees or freak out in closed spaces) functionally makes warping about very difficult as well. Enemies have many attacks which are practically unavoidable, forcing a power-through approach with curative items rather than handling them with with finesse. It is sometimes even very difficult to tell when Noctis is actually taking damage (partly due to poor HUD design). To make matters worse, the NPC partners don't do a great job of defending themselves. I spent way too much time managing Ignis and Prompto's health, and every time an item is used by a partner, it causes the camera to focus on them in a mini-cutscene. This disrupts the flow of battle terribly. To add insult to injury, some boss fights become glorified cutscenes with QTE nonsense thrown in.

The game completely jumps the shark at the Leviathan boss fight. This is a key event in which Noctis comes to Luna's aid when she summons the creature, only to piss it off. Noctis must fight Leviathan solo, without help from his friends, in order to prove his worth as king (or some nonsense). Since this is a giant sea serpent, the fight involves darting around the area using warp strikes. Detrimentally, the camera craps out as Noctis fly about, making it a haphazard affair in which the boss can't even be sen half the time. I also realized that even when I managed to land a few decent hits, my combos would barely scratch Leviathan's health. Once I beat on Leviathan meaninglessly for a few minutes, a cutscene was finally triggered in which Luna summons a giant glowing beam of light, turning Noctis into a virtual super saiyan. At that point, I'm flying around in the air shooting glowing sword-projectiles. All I have to do is hold down circle in order to win. This whole sequence represents the absolute worst in lazy combat design, coupled with a shoddy Dues-ex-Machina plot device. Also, Lunafreya dies anyway. This fight is the critical point at which the entire game falls apart completely.

There are also plenty of smaller technical annoyances here and there that detract from the overall game experience. The game's HUD is poorly done, designed with a font and iconography that are hard to read. Subtitles are hard to read and it is hard to identify things on the minimap. The loading times are also inexcusably terrible. The car is clunky to control in manual mode (just let Ignis drive), though chocobos are much better. Additionally, Noctis has a tendency to jump when you attempt to interact with things, unless he's at a complete standstill. Finally, there are a many invisible walls and barriers that get in your way, despite this being billed as an open world game.

I'm going to be completely brutal. This this game is mediocre at best, and the only reason it got more than a 6/10 on most review sites is because it is a Final Fantasy title. As an open world game it is OK but nothing special. Almost every modern open world game I've played blows its socks off. As an action JRPG, it leaves much to be desired when compared to just about any Tales game released after 2002. From a story-perspective, it is less coherent than Metal Gear Solid 5. With so many amazing open world titles out there (Skyrim, The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Breath of the Wild...) there is no excuse.

Most damning of all, as a modern Final Fantasy game, it is an utter failure. When compared to the excellent work that has been put into Final Fantasy XIV, it doesn't hold a candle. There is clearly a huge potential for Square-Enix to actually make an amazing open world Final Fantasy that takes all of the good elements from classic FF games and stick them in a well crafted open world. Instead we get a bunch of bros on a roadtrip.

Since I got this game for free, I don't really regret playing it, but it isn't a game I can recommend anyone pay retail price for. I can honestly say that I enjoyed Star Ocean 5 more than FFXV. The combat was better.

Cavegirl vs. Robot Dinosaurs

2017 is shaping up to be a good year for open world games, and for the first time in what seems like forever, Nintendo fans have an exclusive AAA title that they are proud to gloat about. Fortunately for Playstation loyalists, the PS4 also got a highly anticipated open world title.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a visually stunning game set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where the ruins of 21st. Century have been overtaken by nature, as well as robotic animals. Humans live in primitive societies and hunt these robots for parts. Taking on the role of Aloy, a plucky huntress of the Nora tribe, players are tasked with uncovering the secrets of the machines as well as the lost history of the Earth, while getting distracted by all the Skyrim-esque map markers and side quests.

There isn't too much to say here that isn't self-explanitory. The game's selling point is that it is a well-crafted open world in which you fight giant robot dinosaurs with bows and a spear. By leveling up and doing side quests, Aloy gradually increases her skills at hunting machines, and can even learn how to take over machines to use as mounts or to sic on enemy robots. Her bow skills can be supplemented by traps and other weapons that can be used to trip up, freeze, or otherwise temporarily disable robots. These can be very handy when taking on flying enemies or robot T-Rexes, as it is easy to take massive amount of damage if you let yourself get hit by a big attack.

Since Horizon: Zero Dawn has the unfortunate fate of being released only a few days before Breath of the Wild, these games will be inevitably compared side-by-side. I'm not sure if this was intentional on Sony's part in an attempt to steal Nintendo's thunder, or just a tragic mistake that frustrates people who happened to be looking forward to both games. While I feel Zelda is the better game overall, there are a few things that this one does better, aside from just the graphics. The controls are just a bit tighter, and the ability to craft arrows on the road is something I wish Link would have spent time learning. On the other hand, the game is not without its own annoyances. The climbing in this game is (in my opinion) heavily "automated" as Aloy climbs and jumps between points in largely per-determined climbing paths. It looks cool but provides little challenge in most cases compared to combat. I am also a bit annoyed that I unlocked all of the machine override skills and invested heavily in stealth skills, only for them both to have no use in the final showdown of the game.

Story-wise, the game ended up having a better MSQ than I anticipated. The game's writers actually did a decent job of taking the concept behind the game and putting together a story that justifies it happening. While I feel that the narrative suffers at the beginning, and that some of the plot points are extremely predictable, things do pick up about halfway through. Some of the truths behind the old world are revealed, and in many ways this part of the story is better than that of Breath of the Wild, though it is somewhat annoying how Aloy is basically being dragged about by the whims of a shadowy NPC who may actually be evil. By the end, the story remains open enough to make a sequel feasible. Given the sales figures, this is almost guaranteed.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a must-play PS4 title for PS4 owners or anyone who likes open world games. It is a shame that a PC version does not exist, but it looks great even on a standard PS4. Also, robot dinosaurs.

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