Sky: Children of the Light

thatgamecompany is known for making computer games for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in computer games. Sky: Children of the Light is their attempt at making a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for people who would otherwise not be interested in MMOs. In my opinion, they did not succeed; if you’re not already a gamer with some experience and/or aren’t willing to face some bitter disappointments, you’ll find Sky a difficult game.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so: SPOILER ALERT! Since the game is meant to be played over and over again, at most I’m only going to spoil the experience of the first run-through. Or maybe I’ll spoil the game by giving a critical review to what is may be a delightful MMO if I got over my own limitations. Once again: SPOILER ALERT!

Background

In the first thatgamecompany game I played, Flower, you play a breeze guiding a flower petal to gather more flower petals. It was delightfully non-competitive. You could revel in the beauty of the environment, blowing past flowers to make them bloom and collect their petals. For the most part, you were playing with the game and not against it.

Their follow-up game, Journey, had you making an epic journey through several worlds to get to a light on a distant mountain. It introduced player interaction: In the second world, you met another player who could accompany you on the trip. You could only communicate through simple beeps. Your behavior options were limited: you could help the other person progress, or you could ignore them and proceed solo. There were hazards to avoid in a couple of the worlds, but the worst that could happen is that you’d lose the ability to fly somewhat and you wouldn’t be able to get some of the achievements.

When you complete Journey, you can play the game again. The incentive (apart from achievements) is that each time you’d meet someone else. Their behaviors could make each run-through different: Would they help you? Could you help them? Would they go off to journey solo? It didn’t matter that much from a game-play perspective, since the game didn’t require much skill to give a sense of satisfaction and completion. There was a zen-like quality to the worlds and the journey that made replays rewarding even if you didn’t meet anyone else.

Sky is similar to Journey: You travel from world to world, heading towards a light in a distant mountain. Your key mode of transportation is based on your cape; as you travel, you collect items (in Sky these are the Children of the Light) to improve your cape and let you fly longer. The design of the worlds in Sky is very similar to the worlds of Journey: the desert world; the skiing world; the world where monsters attack you; the world of the tower; the struggle to reach the summit of the mountain.

Children of the Light

The differences between Sky and Journey begin with your cape. In Journey the cape was useful but not required; in Sky it’s almost essential. Therefore visiting the Children and collecting their Light is a key component of the game. You can’t even visit the final world in Sky without collecting at least 20 of them, and if you consult the hint guides they suggest collecting at least 40 or more because of the difficulty of that level. My own experience is that you’d want at least 50.

Collecting all that Light is important. As you might guess, some of the Children are easy to find. Some are in locations so obscure that even with a hint guide you might not be able to find them. And some are in locations that are difficult to reach unless you have very precise control of your character.

In Journey, controlling your avatar wasn’t difficult. In Sky, the difficulty of controlling your avatar is a complex function of environment, world, cape energy, and whether you’ve just been slammed by a creature (more on that below).

More than once I’ve tried to do some precision flying in an environment and just clip some surface. The avatar starts ping-ponging all over the place, zooming uncontrollably, only able to turn slowly. If you were in the room at the time, you’d hear me screaming at my iPhone: “Why are you going over there? I didn’t tell you go there! Why aren’t you turning when I’m telling you to turn? Go up! I’m pushing the up button! Why aren’t you going up? Why are you flying when I’m telling you to jump? Why are you jumping when I’m telling you to fly?”

It makes me glad my cat is almost deaf.

As you might have figured out from the paragraph above, right now Sky is only available for iOS, on iPhones and iPads. When iOS 13 is released later this year, it will be possible to use a PS4 controller with iOS games. Perhaps then I won’t experience the frustration of trying to do precision movements on a touchscreen.

Hostile environments

As I said above, Journey had creatures that could damage your flying cape, but that wasn’t important to the overall trip. Sky also has creatures that can attack you and steal your Light, and gathering Light is basically the goal of the game. If your avatar loses Light and therefore flying power, you might have to start the game again from the first world.

Unlike Journey, in Sky these creatures are in dark environments where the screen contrast is very poor, even when when I crank my iPhone’s contrast to maximum. It can be hard to see the creatures, places you can hide, even exits from the area you’re in. There are worlds where standing in water drains your Light away.

Once, I was knocked by a creature into a dark area, my flying gone. The pit was filled with water, surrounded by blobs of blackness. I watched my Light disappear. I didn’t know what to do. (There’s a Sky equivalent of a Hearthstone in World of Warcraft, but I didn’t know about that option at the time.) I splashed around desperately, but there was no escape. Finally my avatar “died.” I found myself in another world of darkness, though with stars in the night sky at least, until I finally figured out the direction I was supposed to go.

If you play a game like Dark Souls, this sort of thing is par for the course. It certainly doesn’t match the zen-like joy of Journey or Flower. It’s as if thatgamecompany was trying to appeal to both hard-core gamers and the audience for their other games.

Other players

In Journey, you could meet with at most one other player in a given world. In Sky, when you enter an area there can be up to five players initially, and up to eight total (there’s a way to teleport to the location of one of your friends).

In the first couple of minutes of Sky, you’re limited to the same level of communication with your fellow players as in Journey: beeps and sitting down. That rapidly expands as you encounter Spirits, also known as Emotes for their basic reward. A Spirit takes you on a small trip across the landscape, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the world. At the end of the trip you receive a new gesture, pose, or sound effect for your avatar.

There are something like 36 Emotes in the game, so potentially you have access to a wide range of expressions. Often you’ll see a group of players standing around in a common area showing off the Emotes they’ve acquired to each other. This sort of “playing around” is certainly not possible in Journey!

For more direct communication, there are chat benches in all the vendor areas of the game and scattered throughout the rest of the worlds. If two players sit on the same bench, they can type text messages to one another.

Another annoyance: The “microphone” key is not available on Sky‘s keyboard, so you can’t use the iPhone’s dictation feature.

For my part, I only found someone willing to sit on the bench with me twice. The first time they typed in Japanese. I tried to apologize for not understanding them, but they promptly left. The second time I was seeking help to get through one of the monster-laden worlds; the other player expressed ignorance and left before I could say more.

The next level of social interaction is to become Friends with another player. This costs a Candle (more on currency below). This allows you to assign a name to that player. For the few couple of Friends I took the time to compose names for them. After that I just hit “Randomize” for a quick name, so most of my Friends have names like Ewotuka, Acoc, Oyes, and Isefa.

The game is easier when you travel with other players. When you’re close to another avatar, the cape energy passively regenerates. When you’re Friends with another player, you have the option for one of you to hold the other avatar’s hand and lead them, guaranteeing the energy regeneration. You can even form chains of up to eight avatars, each one clasping the hand of the next one. There are Children of the Light that are almost impossible to reach unless someone else is there to help you regenerate.

You can see an example of this in the (spoiler-laden) videos available in the Sky wiki: https://sky-children-of-the-light.fandom.com/wiki/Sky:_Children_of_the_Light_Wiki. In those videos, the player forms her own chain by playing Sky with four devices at once, regenerating cape energy rapidly.

All of this sounds wonderful, but there’s a communications gap: Without text and with the range of Emotes available, you can’t tell if someone wants to accomplish a game task or just wants to play around.

Here’s an example: Someone offered to become Friends with me. I accepted. They offered to clasp my avatar’s hand, and again I accepted. They promptly dragged me into the initial area of the most monster-laden world. Then they go of my hand. I interpreted this as they were asking for a guide to get through it. I knew something about the region. As I alluded above, I’m crappy at dodging the monsters and precision flying so I couldn’t give them a complete tour, but I could offer something. I offered my hand, they accepted, and I took them deeper into the world.

It wasn’t until we were deep into that world that it became clear that the other player wasn’t looking for a guide, they had been looking to play with Emotes or something and had picked the most dangerous world at random. In a dark area, they activated a spell that made their avatar glow. This is a purely cosmetic effect; it does not illuminate your surroundings in any way. But in a dark zone, it made my iPhone’s screen wash out with the bright glow. I could no longer see the dark terrain and the dark exit to get out of the dark zone. There was only the glow of my companion.

I didn’t want to abandon them in a zone they didn’t understand, but I was stuck fumbling around blind. I tried to initiate a text communication with them, but they refused. (I later learned that Japanese speakers are often embarrassed that they can’t communicate with English speakers.) I continued to try to find a way out, but finally we met up with someone else who knew what they were doing and I joined them, leaving my first companion behind.

That’s just one incident, and I’ve experienced others. The bottom line is that there’s no way to express ideas like “Please, I need some help” or “Please, let me help you” or “I just want to dance” directly. You only have guesses based on behavior. In the incident I described above, I tried to be helpful only to come across as rude in the end.

Of course there are ways around this, but they’re the standard MMO tricks. In this spoiler-laden video (https://youtu.be/Ah_-W3XKEfY, recorded just last night as I type this) you can see a Sky expert coordinating with her friends using some communications program; I can’t tell if it’s Twitch, Discord, or something else.

Eventually this will all shake down. Some standards will emerge and communities will form. Perhaps there will be default communication channels for each language. Something like this happened with World of Warcraft, except that WoW provided open text communication from the beginning, and servers were already segregated by geographic region. Maybe a sort of pidgin will evolve based on the available emotes.

This is far from the contemplative joy and basic companionship in Journey.

Currency

There are five currencies in Sky: Candles, Hearts, Ascended Candles, Seasonal Tokens, and Seasonal Candles. The last two are for cosmetic improvements only, so I’m not going to discuss them further.

Candles are the basic currency. Once you’ve interacted with an Emote and gained a new expression, that Emote becomes a vendor in a world’s social area. Candles will let you purchase some upgrades for your avatar.

Candles are also the basis for social interactions between avatars. When you make an offer to become someone’s Friend, the cost is one Candle. To upgrade interactions with that Friend costs more Candles. To be able to text-chat with that Friend costs yet more candles.

Candles can be forged by collecting wax from other candles in the environment (something I do in real life) and from other sources. It’s possible to spend time in the game each day grinding for wax. According to one of the videos I linked above, you’d get about 15 Candles for two hours of work each day.

Here’s where the real-world money comes in the free-to-play app: You can also pay for Candles. For example, for $20 you can get 60 Candles (actually, it’s presently 72 for $20 as a new-game promotion). That lets you make Friends freely and purchase quite a few minor improvements for your character.

You may ask, given that my critical review of the game thus far, did I resist paying for Candles? I’ve already confessed that I’m a former WoW pet collector, so you can guess the answer.

If you want serious cosmetic improvements to your avatar (hairstyles, masks, trousers, capes), you have to move to the next level of currency: Hearts. These costume items have no effect on the game. They’re a digital good, like WoW pets, that solely affect the appearance of your character. The cost of new trousers might be 5 Hearts; the price for a really nifty cape might be 30 Hearts.

Hearts can’t be directly purchased through real-world cash. You can purchase them from the Emotes/vendors at a price of three Candles for one Heart… once for each vendor. Since not every vendor sells a Heart, you might get 35 Hearts this way (at a total cost of 105 Candles, which takes us back to spending real-world money for Candles).

You can also get Hearts from Friends. If you send a Friend a bundle of three Candles, they’ll receive a Heart. So the way to get Hearts is to give them. You send Hearts to your Friends and hope they’ll reciprocate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this “investment” of Candles will pay back in Hearts, especially if you haven’t paid Candles to initiate a text chat with that Friend to arrange any deals. You send out bundles of Candles and hope for the best.

This leads to another my criticisms of Sky, in the choice of their iconography. Suppose a newcomer to the game meets me. I could use someone else when visiting a difficult world, so I offer to be Friends with them. They accept, we travel around, I show them where some hidden Lights are. Later, I send them a Heart to see if we can work out an exchange.

Is this how they perceive it? There’s nothing obvious in the game about the informal Heart economy. You can read about it in fan-based web pages (that’s how I learned it) and it may be implied in the optional game tutorials (I haven’t checked).

In other words, a newcomer adventures with a stranger for a brief while and later they get a Heart from them. It might be perceived as a creepy gesture. I wish the Heart wasn’t a “heart” but some other icon without the same connotations.

That leaves Ascended Candles. They are a reward for going through the final world successfully; if you recall above, that’s the one that requires at least 20 Light to enter. The more Light you enter that zone with, the greater the potential reward… if you can manage a challenging environment.

The Ascended Candles can be used to purchase “permanent” cape upgrades from the Emotes/vendors; most vendors offer one such upgrade and a couple offer two. Each upgrade means that when you start the game again, your cape starts out with additional Light. Overall, this gives Sky some of the visceral feel of Diablo: You go through the same adventure each time, but you get a bit more powerful and maybe you can handle some tougher challenges.

Ascended Candles can also unlock the most potent Friend option: To be able to Warp to a Friend’s location within the same game world. Since Ascended Candles are so hard to get, I’d only use this option on someone I really, really trusted.

Unskippable Cutscenes

I wanted to mention the unskippable cutscenes in this review. Have I talked about the unskippable cutscenes yet? There are unskippable cutscenes. They’re annoying after the first playthrough, especially if you’re in the middle of a complicated maneuver that gets interrupted by an unskippable cutscene. There are skippable cutscenes, but not enough compared to the unskippable cutscenes. If you think this paragraph is wordy and annoying, just wait until you have to deal with the unskippable cutscenes.

Conclusions

I investigated Sky because a friend of mine was a big fan of Flower and Journey. They were looking forward to another game from thatgamecompany that echoed the meditative qualities of those two. I offered to test the waters for them and walk them through Sky when they were ready, as I had when I introduced them to Journey.

Sky: Children of the Light is not the game I think they were expecting. When my friend finally has the chance to sit down and play the game with me, I think they will be disappointed. It’s not likely that they’ll read this review (my blog is so obscure that not even my good friends read it), but I’ll keep the critical tone out of my voice and let them make their own judgements.

I’m neutral on the monetization of the game. You can play Sky without spending a dime. You can forge your way through the game solo, get the 20 Light to be pounded in the final zone, emerge to see the game’s ending, then never play again; I think you’d have more fun doing basically the same thing in Journey. You can also make Friends and gain Hearts by grinding for Candle wax, but you’ll spend time instead of money.

I think my WoW friends would perceive Sky as a very light MMO. I can easily see some of them playing Sky with one hand as they tank Ragnaros with the other… if they cared to play Sky at all. There’s definitely a market for people who like light MMOs; Second Life is one example. But I believe there’s more to do in Second Life than there is to do in Sky.

Sky is too much of an MMO to be like Flower and Journey. I’m turned off by its occasionally frustrating controls, difficult environments, and player communication issues. I hoped for better from thatgamecompany.

Lost and Found and What’s Next

A couple of days ago, Christopher Chase sent me some pages from an old issue of The Crone Papers that mentioned Isaac Bonewits. (Christopher, brother to Sabrina Chase of Blue Star, is on the faculty of the Philosophy and Religious Study Department at Iowa State University.) After I downloaded the pages, I went through my usual practice of placing the pages in a Dropbox directory, coding the pages, and storing the codes in Zotero.

I took a glance at another directory I had on Dropbox that contained Isaac’s documents that I had not yet coded… and found the directory almost empty. I searched the hard drive of my computer, and those files weren’t anywhere on my hard drive. I searched my backups on Apple’s Time Machine, Dropbox, and Backblaze. They weren’t on the backups either. Three levels on backups, and none of them had the missing files.

What happened? In reverse chronological order:

  • When I set up Backblaze, I found that I’d deliberately omitted all my Dropbox directories from the off-line backup. I probably felt having two offline backups of the same files was not necessary. (Pro tip: I was wrong.)
  • Periodically, my Time Machine disk drive fills up in a such a way that it requires a fresh backup from scratch. This last happened at the beginning of May 2019. Since I suspect that these files disappeared before then, they weren’t on the Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox only keeps deleted files for 30 days.
  • In addition to off-line backup, I use Dropbox to synchronize a suite of files and directories between three computers: my home computer, my work computer, and a laptop. The laptop is primarily used for the Science-on-Hudson talks, but I also use it for when I go on trips.

    When I was in the hospital at the end of December 2018, one of my work colleagues brought the laptop to me so I could watch movies to pass the time. But while Nyack Hospital offers excellent medical care, their wi-fi stinks. I struggled with turning off the Dropbox synchronization for the laptop to save on bandwidth and disk space.

    What I suspect happened, though I will never know for sure, is that somewhere in that process the flaky wi-fi connection made Dropbox interpret “do not sync this directory” as “this directory has been deleted”. This would have been propagated to all my other computers running Dropbox.

As I write this, I’ve not yet had the chance to inspect my work computers. It may be that the files are there in their separate Time Machine backups. However, I strongly doubt it.

What have I lost? As far as I can tell, I’ve lost most of the contents of two directories related to Isaac’s biography: the documents I had not yet coded; files I copied from Isaac’s old laptops and had not yet even started to look at.

The most important directories were unaffected by this: the files I had already coded, which to some extent were of the greatest interest to me; the recordings of the roughly 50 hours of interviews I’ve done so far.

Is the material really, truly lost? The answer is no, on two levels.

  • The originals are in the Religious Studies Archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They’re available to anyone willing to make the trip. For medical and practical reasons, I can’t make that trip. But if someone is willing to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar, it’s all still there.
  • I used two devices to scan Isaac’s files. One was my scanner at home, a low-end consumer device that could only scan one page at a time. The other was a scanner at work, which was fast and could scan piles of 8 1/2″x11″ paper placed in its document feeder.

    I also scanned some files into Adobe Creative Cloud using my phone, but these were relatively unimportant documents that Phaedra sent me a couple of years after my main scanning efforts. I can live without copies of Isaac’s old debts and bills.

    The work scanner delivered its scans to me via email. I checked last night, and I kept all those emails. So anything I scanned at work is, in principle, still retrievable.

Why “in principle”? The work scanner labeled the files it sent to me with coded names like “20110501163942716.pdf”. I took those files, used tools like PDFPen for OCR, and extracted/moved pages into files and folders with appropriate names. It took me hours to do this work, though it didn’t seem like much at the time because I worked on relatively few files after each scanning session. To do it all over again seems like a Sisyphean task.

Now comes the big question: How much did I really lose when it comes to the actual biography?

In a previous blog post, I addressed some issues associated with reducing the scope of this project. Maybe losing those files could be a positive thing. I’ve already have a lot of material. I have 50 hours of interviews; Jimahl di Fiosa wrote a biography of Alex Sanders based on less material than that. When I think about the material I had not yet tagged, I don’t remember most of it except for a big folder on Isaac’s EMS, and I only needed that for dates and such.

I still have questions about Isaac’s life that I would want the biography to address: Who was the Creole woman who introduced the Christian-raised Isaac to magic? Why was he attracted to Druidry over Wicca? Why did he found the ADF? What were the issues he faced as ArchDruid that caused him to resign? But if I don’t have the answer after interviewing Isaac’s spouses, what makes me think that some mysterious key to his life lurks within the files that I had not coded?

So I’ll set a limit: One more interview, with a member of the musical group Real Magic. If I’m able to recover the lost files, be ruthless: Only code those files that look critical. Then listen to the interviews and take notes of quotable sections. Use the already-coded material as reference.

Then do what Deborah Lipp has encouraged me to do for the past few years: Just write the damn thing already.

It won’t be the work of scholarship that I originally hoped for. But the first biography of Gerald Gardner wasn’t a scholarly work either. Let those with the credentials, the will, and the means become Isaac Bonewits scholars. Who knows? Maybe what I write will inspire them.

Final Fantasy X

Disclaimer: I did not play this game to the end, for reasons discussed below. This review is based on what I experienced until I decided to quit playing it.

A few months ago, I posted my review of Final Fantasy XV. I was still looking for something to occupy my time during my convalescence. A friend of mine recommended Final Fantasy X on the basis of its story. I’ll start with my immediate impressions.

It must be said: This is a clunky game. It’s a port of a game published in 2001 to modern gaming systems. It was strange to play a game for which the right knob on my PS4 controller did almost nothing at all. There’s no way to change camera angles; you take the view the game gives you. Switching between targets during combat is not intuitive.

Since it is an old game, I’m willing to let that slide.

In my FFXV review, I made a big deal about the blatant sexism of the character of Cindy. In FFX many of the female characters show a lot of skin, but so do the male characters so I’ll let that part slide as well.

However, I’m not going to give a pass to the character of Lulu. She’s modestly dressed compared to most of the other female characters, except for exposed cleavage. The issue I have is the game’s focus on that cleavage: many of the cutscenes have the camera pointed at Lulu’s chest, cropping out her face; Lulu’s “victory dance” at the end of combat has her flaunting her cleavage at the camera.

Lulu is a popular subject for fan costuming, so I may be overreacting; if female fans have no problem with Lulu, I probably shouldn’t either. Still, it bothered me that one of the most powerful characters in the game is presented as a subject for adolescent ogling.

An observation instead of a criticism: I was startled to see how many of the game elements of FFXV were also present in FFX: chocobos; potions names and effects; victory music at the end of combat. It made it clear that the Final Fantasy series has traditions of its own.

Let’s get to the game itself. You get to choose your viewpoint character’s name; the default is “Tidus” but I picked “Artax” (which in retrospect was a mistake). Tidus is a successful Blitzball player in the city of Zanarkand. After a confusing introduction that reminded me a bit of Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, you find yourself 1000 years in the future. Through a few info dumps, you learn that you’re part of a team of characters whose goal is to defeat the monstrous creature Sin.

There are open-world elements to FFX, but basically it’s a linear story from your arrival in the land of Spira to the final confrontation with Sin. As you engage in combats you gain skills and stats, as is typical games of this genre.

This leads to my first frustration with the game: the Sphere Grid. Instead of the standard skill trees in similar games, the abilities and improvements for your character are unlocked by navigating a visually confusing circular display. As you win combats, you gain different kinds of spheres. You navigate between nodes on this display by gaining “sphere levels”; you activate the nodes by using special spheres dropped by most of the monsters you fight.

Here’s a much better explanation of the system:
https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Sphere_Grid

Even after I understood how to use the Sphere Grid, I had two problems with it. The first is that it was all too easy to “lose your way” among the concentric circles. This cause me to waste sphere levels as I tried to navigate a character’s location on the grid, only to find out that I headed in the wrong direction.

The second problem is that sections of the sphere grid, with more powerful abilities or opportunities to navigate to other characters’ skill sets, are blocked off by “key spheres”. These are extremely rare and do not drop randomly. By the time I stopped playing FFX, I had activated all the characters’ spheres within their areas of the sphere grid. Without the necessary key spheres, I could not improve them further (not even basic stats like hit points). I accumulated sphere levels with no way to spend them.

Another issue I had with FFX was with the difficulty of the late-game boss combat. I played the game in Easy mode (as always), but there are increasingly more combats as you continue with the game that, realistically, can only be won by consulting a hint guide or by failing a lot until you learn the appropriate strategy.

The latter sounds acceptable; after all, someone must have done this before writing a hint guide in the first place. The problem is that the game punishes failure. If you lose a combat, the game is over. You can always restore to the last save point, and there are save points before every major boss combat. But restoring a game forces you to watch a three-minute unskippable cinematic before you can play again.

This means that, without a hint guide, late-game combat becomes “glasschewing”: You lose, spend minutes restoring the game state, fight the boss to the same point as before (which can take several minutes on its own), only to wipe again if you miss some important strategic concept for that battle.

When you reach a stage where only a hint guide can move you forward, you’re not really playing the game anymore; the hint guide is. That’s when I lose interest. Now that I think of it, that’s when I stopped playing FFXV, when I could only progress using hint guides.

But in FFXV, the Uncharted series, the Tomb Raider series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, even God of War, I didn’t need a hint guide to get to the end of the story. I only needed guides for the optional content, though I may not have realized it at the time. FFX required me to have hints to get to the end of the game’s story.

What of that story? My friend was right to say that FFX’s story is better than FFXV’s, without question. The problem is that while the story is better, the writing is awful. In the cutscenes, characters say the same thing over and over again, they repeatedly state plot points that are painfully obvious even to players unfamiliar to any of the conventions of the fantasy genre, and they whine incessantly and repeatedly about the same issues. I’ll give the game credit: both the male and female characters do the same amount of whining.

Perhaps this dialog sounds better in the original Japanese. Or perhaps it’s pitched to a very young audience. I discount the latter, because of the difficulty of the late-state combat and confusion of the Sphere Grid; I don’t think six-year-olds could deal with those game elements.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating six-year-olds. It would not be the first time!

Final (fantasy) verdict: Final Fantasy X served its purpose, to occupy my time during long stretches when I couldn’t move from my easy chair. At $15, it was priced reasonably for a time-waster. But I can’t give the game an enthusiastic recommendation.

Sometime in the next several months Square Enix will release a remake of Final Fantasy VII. Hopefully by then I won’t need time-wasters. Unless the reviews are glowing beyond measure, I don’t plan to visit the Final Fantasy series again.

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.

Shroud of the Avatar

Sometimes you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Shroud of the Avatar makes a lousy one. After spending a few hours with the game, I feel no desire to continue playing it. I didn’t even get out of the starting area.

Shroud of the Avatar (SotA) is a MMORPG (massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game). There’s a blunt reality when you design a new MMORPG: World of Warcraft (WoW) is the 600-lb gorilla in this field. I can’t help but compare SotA to WoW. I know that many millions of dollars have been poured into WoW’s development, and perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. But SotA has some significant game-play issues that discouraged me immediately.

I got into SotA by helping to Kickstart the game in 2014. Even though I was a regular WoW player at the time (and still am), I was attracted to the concept of the new game because it was designed by Richard Garriott aka Lord British, the developer of one the favorite games from my childhood, Ultima III. After kickstarting the game, I received periodic emails about SotA’s development, but I had no desire to play the beta version of the game.

Finally, after three years, I got the announcement of the game’s official release. On a Macintosh, Shroud of the Avatar is played via the Steam portal. I downloaded it, started it… and promptly got lost. The problem was, by default, SotA uses a different set of keys to navigate than WoW. It was hard for me to get around. It wasn’t until the second time I tried the game that I realized I had to reconfigure the SotA keys to match WoW to be able to play it at all.

My second impression was how dull the game looked. I’m used to Steam games, and know they generally don’t make the best use of a graphics card; I lowered my expectations accordingly. But here the color contrasts seemed flat and uninteresting. Again, I may be spoiled by WoW, which uses a bright and more cartoony color palette.

The issues with color palette became particularly obvious when night fell within the game. Both WoW and SotA have day/night cycles. In WoW, even when it’s night, it just means the sky and shading become different; you can still see to get around. In SotA, without a torch you can’t see much of anything. SotA’s approach is more realistic, but it means that half the time it’s more difficult to travel from place to place because you can’t see where you’re going.

This might not have been a problem, except that SotA in its starting zones borrowed a trick from WoW’s later expansions: crinkly terrain. In WoW’s starting zones, you can generally travel from one point to another by going in a straight line. In SotA’s starting zones, the terrain blocks straight-line paths between the initial quests and their destinations, so your avatar has to do a lot of walking. In the game’s daytime, this is annoying enough; at night you just get lost.

I’ve got one more visual complaint: In the starting zones, everyone looks the same. Every character starts off with the same gear. You can customize your avatar’s appearance and gender, but those differences aren’t obvious. All my fellow characters were wearing the same shirt, pants, and hat. Visually it looked like a bunch of clones wandering around.

The same thing would happen in WoW, except that WoW has distinct character classes: warriors, warlocks, mages, and so forth. While every starting avatar of a given class has the same gear, the differences between the starting gear of the various classes avoids SotA’s problem. Also, in WoW you start to acquire new gear within a few minutes of playing the game. In SotA, I didn’t get any new gear during the few hours I played, at least none that affected my avatar’s appearance.

As you may have gathered from the previous paragraph, in SotA there aren’t character classes common to many role-playing games. Your character starts with points in some initial skills based on a set of questions you’re asked during character generation, but in the long run you can put skill points in any of the skills available in the game.

In general, I like systems in which your ultimate abilities aren’t restricted when you create your character (anyone who’s ever created a character in my tabletop RPG Argothald can attest to this). The problem I found with SotA is that you’re deluged with skills and it’s not clear what to pick or how to use the skills. There are two different skill bars on the screen, and I couldn’t figure out how into which bar a skill or item should go; this was important because it appeared that one bar was supposed to be used in combat and the other not.

I also learned, when going through some web sites in preparation for this review, that you should set up an allocation pattern for how your experience points (XP) are shared between the skills you develop. By default, your XP are evenly shared between all the attributes and skills your character possesses. If you don’t know about the reallocation (there was nothing about this in the interminable tutorial panels thrust on your screen), then your warrior could be wasting XP into their intellect instead of putting all the points into strength.

Crafting also starts immediately, with craft materials being the first thing you find in the landscape or dropped by enemies. What do you do with them? Which are useful to anything you might do? I never knew, because I never was able to craft any items and/or get any recipes. In WoW, crafting is introduced gradually; in SotA I had no idea if I should save the items in my limited inventory space (in SotA the limit is by weight rather than WoW’s bag slots) or sell them.

Even basic world interactions could be confusing. At one point I saw a fellow player character whose health bar wasn’t full. I thought I should do a good deed and use my healing spell on him. I clicked on his avatar, clicked the icon for my healing spell… and healed my character, not his. How do you cast beneficial spells on other characters in SotA? I never learned, but it’s not the simple method that’s used in WoW.

Another example: I was in a camp of humans, and clicked on one of the non-player soldiers to see if he had any dialog. Instead, that click was interpreted as an attack and the soldier started hacking at my character. There was no change in the mouse shape or any form of reaction indicators (as there is in WoW) to let me know that the soldier was hostile. Since he was five levels higher than I was, I would have been killed except that a fellow player decided to help me. It was a near thing, but we defeated the soldier.

Afterwards, I tried to thank that other player. I couldn’t, because even as simple a thing as a “say” command wasn’t obvious.

Even combat in the game wasn’t obvious. My memory is getting hazy, but there didn’t seem to be any “auto-attack” and you had to keep pressing a key to swing your weapon. Spells had long cooldowns (at least for my low-level character). I typically won each combat, but it took a long time.

All of these interface issues and other game elements are explained in various SotA web sites and forums, and I looked at some of them. As I noted above, it was a lot of information to absorb just to start a character. I like the open-ended skill sets and the potential for crafting, but the complexity of the initial decisions and limited carrying capacity at the start of the game was off-putting.

In WoW, you can create a character with a few keypresses, watch a short lore intro, and start questing within five minutes. The initial quests teach you the basics: how to sell useless items, for example. You don’t have to make any decisions about developing your character until you’ve reached tenth level, by which time you’ve been exposed to enough that you’ll know if you’ll like playing the game.

I know that SotA is much, much bigger than just the starting area. Promotional material talks about cities, dungeons, great events, customized housing, and so forth. But I have no desire to see any of it.

Lord British, if you want me to play Shroud of the Avatar, you have to start out stronger than this.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

It’s probably unfair for me to review Shadow of the Tomb Raider so soon after Spider-Man. My viewpoint is skewed because Spider-Man is clearly the better game. It’s also unfair because I’m not a professional videogame reviewer, though I feel compelled to write reviews; I feel that one game is better than the other, but I struggle to explain why I feel that way.

I’ll start with Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s positive qualities: The graphics are beautiful and lush. The jungles, rain forests, and tombs are rendered in detail. When you activate Lara Croft’s survival instincts or have her take a perception potion, you can make out the highlighted features without the effects obscuring object features.

Given my initial criticism of Spider-Man, I particularly like that the difficulty level of Shadow of the Tomb Raider can be set separately for combat, exploration, and puzzles. Of course, I set them all to ‘easy’, and I needed it. Unlike Spider-Man, the Easy difficulty in Shadow of the Tomb Raider apparently adjusts the timing windows for various actions so I could do most of Lara Croft’s famous platform antics, and when I failed I usually could get through things with only a couple of repeats.

The gameplay: If you’ve played the previous two Lara Croft games since its 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s more of the same: tombs to raid, crypts to plunder, puzzles to solve, collectibles for gear or achievements, bad guys to fight. Here’s where my powers of description fail me: overall, the gameplay doesn’t feel as rewarding as it did in the previous games. When I finished Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s main story, I wanted to go back and complete all the puzzles and collectibles I’d missed along the way. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, once the story was finished, I was done; I didn’t feel there was any joy to be had by continuing the game.

The story: Basically, it’s the usual. Lara follows clues left behind by ancient monuments that take her to South America, battling the forces of Trinity, looking for a mystical artifact that can save or destroy the world. Unlike the previous two Lara Croft, I didn’t see that there was much of a character arc for Lara; she starts out a cold-stone killer and stays that way throughout the game. There are some emotional beats, but at this point in the series they feel stale, like seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in the alley yet again.

Voice acting: Here’s is where Shadow of the Tomb Raider definitely falls behind Spider-Man. I know that voice acting for a massive videogame like this is a tough job; there are hundreds if not thousands of lines to be recorded, including endless descriptions for every collectible. But the Spider-Man voice actors make it all sound fresh and engaging. The voice actors in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, especially Camilla Luddington as Lara Croft, sound tired and flat by comparison. Only during the cut scenes do the voices even have a semblance of life.

The exception is the main villain, but he has fewer lines since he speaks only during the cinematic intervals. The actor Carlos Leal, playing the leader of Trinity, sounds like he’s having fun being Lara’s antagonist.

If you’re a fan of the Tomb Raider series, the game does fill out the trilogy and brings Lara Croft to the point she was in the first game from the 90s. It’s certainly worth playing for that reason. But if the story of Lara Croft doesn’t compel you, and you have a PS4, I’d recommend Spider-Man instead.

Edit: I forgot to make this point in my original review: It’s probably my imagination, but the latest computer model of Lara Croft looks a little more breast-and-butt heavy compared to the two earlier games. It’s as if they were pandering to the male audience as they did in the 1990s version.