Horizon: Zero Dawn

It occurred to me that I’ve mentioned Horizon: Zero Dawn a couple of times in this blog, but my review of it never appeared here. For the sake of completeness and comparison, here are my reviews of Horizon: Zero Dawn and its expansion, Horizon: The Frozen Wilds. These reviews first appeared in a small members-only World of Warcraft forum, Deadly Cupcakes.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

This is one where you play a savage hunter going after mechanical dinosaurs.

I’ll start with what makes this game unique: the encounter mechanics. In H:ZD, you can’t go toe-to-toe with a foe unless you’re at least 10-15 levels above them, and often not even then. To deal with a given beast, you have scan them to learn their weaknesses (e.g., they have a canister that will explode if hit with fire), and come up with strategies for defeating them. The game does not force you into a particular strategy, it just provides you with a variety of tools, each with ammo of various elemental types (fire, shock, etc.): bows, tripwires, traps, and slings; there’s even some machine-gun-like weapon that I never used. You typically sneak around, plant your obstacles, lure a mob to you, do some damage… then run away before it can attack you, wait until it’s forgotten you’re there, then head back to do more damage.

If you all you want to do is blast away at enemies, this is definitely not the game for you. If you like to play a game that rewards patience and strategy, it’s a game to consider. For me, a player who has no twitch reflexes, it was a lot of fun.

This is an open-world game. After some initial tutorial quests, you can go pretty much anywhere you want, though the further you go from the starting areas the tougher the mobs get. There are the usual loads of side quests; I went on every one I found to out-level the main story content. There are also many types of collectables; my favorite was the Vantage, which gave you an overlay of the original high-tech landscape before the fall of civilization.

The graphics: This is a beautiful game on the PS4 (I don’t think it’s available on other platforms). The landscapes are lush, the details on the characters and the creatures are amazing. More than once I was befuddled by a shadow crossing the sky, then realize it wasn’t one of the flying creatures, but the sun rising. The one drag on this realism are the cut-scenes, which occasionally demonstrate some graphics glitches.

The story: You play Aloy, who (after a bit of a tutorial) starts out as a 19-year-old outcast from the Nora tribe. As you proceed in your efforts to be accepted by the tribe, you gradually become aware that there’s a destiny in store for Aloy, one that explains the mechanical creatures and the ancient remnants of a technological civilization that are all over the landscape. In the end, I liked the story; it did a good job of rationalizing the environment and tugged on my heartstrings as Aloy learned who she was and where she came from.

Diversity in gaming: Aloy is a 19-year-old woman, but none of her outfits looked anything other than practical gear. Several male characters (and at least one female character) attempt to flirt with her, but she has none of it: she’s focused on the task at hand. There’s an even blend of different human racial types represented. Aloy’s one semi-romantic interest (it goes no farther than “I’d like to show you that cavern someday”) is someone with a different skin color than hers. Like the recent Tomb Raider games, this game does well by the female lead (at least, according to this particular cis-gendered white male reviewer).

Final verdict: If you have a PS4, and you value patience in your game-play, this is a “must-have” game.

Horizon: The Frozen Wilds

This is an expansion for Horizon: Zero Dawn. When you install H:FW, a new large area is added to the Zero Dawn game map. H:FW assumes that you’ve already played the base game to completion (or close to it), since you face a level 30 mob just to reach the area and the mob and quest levels go up from there; for comparison, I finished the base game at level 48 and was level 58 by the time I completed the Frozen Wilds.

If you play Zero Dawn to completion (and after you go through the post-credits scene), a dialog box informs you that if you play again you’ll be taken to the point just before the end-game big battle, but with all the skills and gear you gained during that fight. That’s when Aloy (Horizon’s protagonist) was when I started the DLC. There’s no new quest marker; you have to look at the map, see the big new area, and head to it out of curiosity.

Once there, you find yourself among the Banuk, a tribe introduced in Zero Dawn with an affinity for communicating with the machine dinosaurs. Something has changed, and the machines in the far north have been possessed by a daemonic force. As you progress through the main quest (there are many side quests and collectibles, though not as many as the base game) you learn why this happened and what Aloy can do to stop it.

Guerilla Games put all their skill into this DLC. The character models are better, I saw no errors during the dialog sequences, and the graphics in the Frozen Wilds are as lush and varied as the base game. The challenges are greater, but you’re given access to better gear to handle them. Two new paths are added to dump your skill points into; they’re non-critical (better handling of mounts, better resources gathered) but they make grinding for craft supplies a bit easier. The story is shorter than the base game, of course; I think it me about 20 hours to get through everything, including all the side quests.

The overall gameplay of Frozen Wilds is the same as Zero Dawn: scan the monsters, plan your attack, grind for mats and craft supplies for your encounters. If you didn’t like that style of game before, there’s no change now.

If you liked Horizon: Zero Dawn, you should definitely consider Horizon: The Frozen Wilds. I enjoyed it, and I hope Guerilla is thinking about further adventures for Aloy.

Final Fantasy XV

As some of you may know, I’m homebound for a few weeks and was looking for a game to pass the time. I found one: Final Fantasy XV. Before I get to my review, I have to address the elephant in room (though it’s more like a T-Rex in a broom closet):

The very first female character players see in the game is Cindy. She’s got a chest that only exists in the world of computer graphics, and wears a car mechanic’s outfit of the sort you see models wearing in magazines like Hot Rod. She speaks in a Southern Belle accent and generally acts like a sex kitten. You can see an image of her here:

http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Cindy_Aurum

There are other women in FFXV. Those women are either standard anime tropes (the cute teenager with mystic powers; the woman warrior with revealing chest armor), or background NPC figures that are easily overlooked or skipped over in dialogs.

FFXV was published in 2016, well after awareness of representation in video games had become an issue. There was no excuse for this, other than to appeal to young Japanese boys who are presumably the target audience of the Final Fantasy series in its country of origin.

If I hadn’t just paid $50 for the game, I would have ragequit when I saw her. As it stands, I cringe every time she’s on the screen. This is fairly often, since she’s a frequent quest-giver and is responsible for maintaining your character’s main mode of transportation. Of course, whenever she refuels your car, you get the classic “bend-over” as she waxes the hood.

Setting that aside (and it’s a lot to set aside), let’s take a look at the rest of Final Fantasy XV.

FFXV is a fairly standard entry in the fantasy-world RPG genre. You fight monsters, complete quests, and explore dungeons. These gain you experience points to advance your character, money (the currency is “gil”) to buy items, and skill points (here called “Ascension Points”) to buy skills in a progressive tree.

Your character, Prince Noctis, starts off in an open-world environment, accompanied by three companions. Predictably, given what I noted at the start of the review, one of them makes frequent remarks on the female NPCs’ appearance. It’s very much a guys’ adventure, with typical male-bonding tropes.

The open world follows the conventions of the genre: villages, towns, cities, quest-giving NPCs, wandering monsters, etc. The difference is that the environment is based on modern-day imagery like that you’d find the mid-west. The towns are gas stations with diners, the main characters dress in Goth outfits, and you travel from place to place along interstate-style highways in a sports car. The monsters are still monsters, and you can still hack at them with swords, but you can also use guns if you wish.

Apart from what’s noted above, the story is FFXV‘s weakest link. It’s conventional: After the death of his father and the conquest of his kingdom by evil armored invaders, Prince Noctis must save his kingdom and marry the princess to restore order and happiness to the world. Evil foes with obvious motives obstruct his hero’s journey, including the mysterious Ardyn (who looks like the Fourth Doctor, acts like the Seventh Doctor, and turns out to be like the Valyard).

Apart from the lack of originality in the story, the presentation of the world’s mythology is confusing. There are big cinematic confrontations where it wasn’t clear to me who was doing what to whom and why. Maybe it would have made more sense in the original Japanese or to someone who played previous Final Fantasy games, but I found it to be opaque.

Another problem with the story is after Chapter Nine or so, the open world is left behind and you’re put on a generally linear path through the rest of the story. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; a linear story revealed between combat and puzzle challenges is the description of the Uncharted series, which I enjoyed.

But the Uncharted games know what they’re doing, and FFXV does not. The linear portion of the story mainly consists of one cinematic after another, with very little player agency. It’s more like watching a movie than playing a video game. That would be fine as well, if the movie were interesting. But it’s just another tired series of cliches. For heaven’s sake, if you’re in Japan, just have lunch with the anime studio folks next door and ask them how it’s done; don’t come up with something boring.

The partial saving grace is that after you’ve finished with the linear story, you can time-travel back to the open world with all the gear, experience, and skills you’ve gained. The story is over, but there’s still plenty of open-world content to visit, depending on how long you chose to wait before completing the tasks that lead you to the linear adventure.

For the record, I played on the Easy difficulty level. The linear story requires you to be level 35-40, I didn’t go on it until I was level 50, at the end of the story I was level 55. When I returned to the open world (courtesy of a time-traveling dog), I was immediately informed of a level 99 quest. So there was plenty more to do, if I cared to do it.

I finally grew tired of the game when I hit level 77. It’s certainly possible to advance further than that; game forums speak of leveling up to a max of 120. But to get beyond 77 I learned that I would have to become less focused on adventuring and more on using tricks; e.g., eating foods and gaining items that boosted experience; resting in places that granted XP bonuses. It just didn’t seem worth it.

Conclusion: FFXV served its purpose, which was to occupy my time. It certainly is not the best open-world video game I’ve played; that honor belongs to Horizon: Zero Dawn. If you, like me, are looking for a basic time-spender, FFXV is acceptable entertainment, if you can overlook the misogyny and the story problems.

Now to find another time-spender. Platformers, first-person shooters, and multi-player combat games need not apply.