Virtual Reprieve During the Most Cursed Year
I don’t really need to explain what I mean with that subheading: 2020 has sucked. Life in a dystopia was already bad enough for most working class people, but the combination of a recession exacerbated by a global pandemic sets this year apart from others in recent memory.
The typical social interaction that we crave as humans has been stifled by the need to keep each other safe; this meant withdrawing ourselves from the outside world.
For many, this was a heavier burden than it was for others. I find myself lucky to be one of the few who found a silver lining in the newly found free time. This year I was able to dive into many video game experiences and at times found myself amazed, and other times disappointed.
Video games have always filled the void that can come from time spent in isolation, whether it be by choice or necessity. Today I am going to pay respects to the very best this year had to offer.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Often when anticipating a release, I usually have some kind of preconception based on what I have ascertained by following the development cycle. I know my taste and I know what I like. Typically, by observing this cycle, I can tell if a game is something I should invest time in.
“Final Fantasy VII Remake” is one of the few games that had me feeling ambivalent. On one hand, I’m not the biggest fan of the original game. It’s a solid outing for the “Final Fantasy” series’ first foray into the three dimensional realm, but it was soon overtaken by far better ventures such as IX, X, and XII.
I’m also not a fan of Tetsuya Nomura’s writing or directorial work. Nomura is the brain behind the “Kingdom Hearts” franchise, a series I am not remotely fond of. Taking creative control in the remake of a game I’m not head over heels for wasn’t exactly a recipe for grabbing my attention even with good-looking gameplay previews.
All that said, I was blown away by this game.
With Nomura delegating the writing to more fitting individuals such as Kizushige Nojima and distilling his talents into the gameplay department, the team at Square Enix was able to create a title that improves upon, expands, and recontextualizes its previous iteration.
“Final Fantasy VII Remake” is a tour de force. It wears its politics on its sleeve, it treats its humans with deep tenderness, and it does narrative dances that are so staggeringly ambitious that detailing them would spoil the game’s incredible crescendo.
The game has a couple of flaws in its structure that gives it an uneven pacing such as hiding loading screens behind walking segments and many time wasting mini-games that make me weary of repeat playthroughs. But the areas where it shines absolutely eclipse these issues.
It’s a game with heart. While most AAA video games are content with their protagonists being cynical or edgy, “Final Fantasy VII Remake” isn’t afraid to make its protagonist a complete goober. Cloud tries to come off as callous, selfish, and brooding. But every character in the game can read him like a book.
In actuality, he cares deeply for the people around him. And the game revels in these seemingly small interactions.
At one point in the game, a nanny at an orphanage in one of poor towns is searching for some of her missing children. She stresses that she needs to ensure all of the children are accounted for before she takes off because of an important appointment she’s going to be late for.
It’s not until later in the game that you find her outside of a famous cabaret wearing a suggestive bee costume. She reveals that this was the appointment she was desperate to make on time. While caring for the children at the orphanage ended up being her calling, it’s been her dream since she was a child to be one of the dancers at the club.
Interactions like this are a part of this game’s DNA. I think that video games have conditioned us to expect certain rewards from side content. These side stories don’t always offer tangible recompense like a huge upgrade or a weapon. What they offer instead is a vector for the game’s humanist ethos to manifest itself. They add an incredible amount of flavor to the world and in a game that examines the ecological and human cost of production and greed—you really need to care about its people.
“Final Fantasy VII Remake” is a game that isn’t afraid to just “go for it” and the results made me smile, cry, and left my jaw on the floor more than once. “Final Fantasy VII Remake” is a mind-melting journey that is simultaneously a metanarrative of the original game and a metacommentary on video game fandom.
It’s also interesting to see a game that cross-examines what it means to be a remake and how that can reshape our perceptions of the original game.
What initially looked like a potential disappointment after a long and troubled development cycle turned out to be my favorite game of the year and one of the best entries in the series.
The jury is out on whether or not the next parts of the “episodic series” will waltz into the alienating realm of batshit ridiculousness that “Kingdom Hearts” did (and it totally could with how this game ends). But for now, we’ve been gifted with something special.
Live, die, repeat. Get a little stronger next time. Make it a little further than before.
Work, sleep, repeat. Get a little stronger next time. Make it a little further than before.
“Hades” is a roguelike, which for me is one of those genres where I will immediately roll my eyes. A company will be demonstrating their new upcoming game with a cool artstyle and combat system, only for it to be revealed as a roguelike.
For the uninitiated, roguelikes are an RPG subgenre characterized by dungeon-crawling through (usually) procedurally generated levels and permanent death of the player character. Meaning that when you die, whether you’ve been playing for one minute or one hour, you start over.
Some games in this subgenre have expanded upon this by adding incremental advancements that carry over to your next playthrough or “run”. “Hades” is one such game and the way that it integrates this and its other roguelike systems into its narrative are what make it the first game in the subgenre that I enjoy.
In “Hades”, you play the god Zagreus, son of Hades, who is trying to escape his father’s domain to reach Olympus and be with the rest of the gods.
Along the way, deities such as Zeus, Artemis, and Athena will offer their assistance to Zagreus in the form of “boons” or skills and abilities that will enhance Zagreus’s capabilities in combat.
Like any roguelike, Zagreus advances through randomly generated battle arenas, upgrading his skills and abilities with random upgrades that will make every run a bit different. If you die, you simply return to Hades.
But instead of starting over, the story and Zagreus’s growth progresses. He’s able to make permanent upgrades through his skill tree.
As a god, he cannot be permanently killed and the denizens of Hades, the game’s hub area, will acknowledge his incremental accomplishments.
“Hades” has a wonderful cast with a well-written script, excellent voice acting, and a gorgeous art direction, and these characters you interact with along your journey amplify these increments into satisfying victories.
Today, most people face a daily grind where each dawn may seem indiscernible from the previous. “Hades” realizes the Sisyphean need to persevere to the next moment. Some “runs” or days will be worse than the one before. Some will feel indistinguishable from the last seven.
But to carry on is to find the small victories that make life worth living. The victories that can snowball into larger ones. It also knows that the road there is paved with friendship.
Much like the Greek tale of Sisyphus (who is one of the many people that help Zagreus along the way), we have to keep pushing the boulder ever forward.
When “DOOM” released in 2016, it subverted many of the commonplace designs of modern first-person shooters. Most shooters were all about finding the best cover to sit behind and pick enemies off from.
Take too much damage? Wait for your health to recharge. See some enemies? Wait for them to also head behind the best cover and throw a grenade to take them out in one fell swoop.
“DOOM” eschewed this type of gameplay in favor of a return to an emphasis on constant movement, albeit, more similar to “Unreal” games or “Painkiller” than the actual previous “DOOM” iterations.
Nevertheless, “DOOM” (2016) smashed the paradigm with a wholly different experience that encouraged the player to frantically navigate combat encounters because sitting still would result in a swift death.
2020’s “DOOM Eternal” marks an advancement of that philosophy with a few significant changes. In “DOOM” (2016), the player could usually stick to their favorite weapon with relative ease.
“DOOM Eternal” denies the player this comfort. Instead, enemies have specific weaknesses and ammo is much more scarce. The player is forced into a constant game of rock, paper, scissors to exploit whichever specific weapon or ability the enemy is weak to.
And man, are there a lot of weapons and abilities. The game has nearly a dozen weapons which each have their own upgrade paths that distinguish them from their vanilla iteration. There is a shoulder cannon, a melee, and of course the chainsaw.
All of these are harmoniously paired with the encounter design to ensure that the only path to success for the player is to effectively spin plates.
When what the game asks of the player finally clicks, they’ll enter a state of zen as they disassociate from the world around them and are fully immersed in a ballet of bullets and gore.
The player has very little health but when executing properly, they’ll be able to turn intimidating foes into piñatas of health and armor with the use of limited abilities like the chainsaw or the grenade launcher.
It’s frantic. It’s strategic. It’s brilliant. It’s a full audio-visual sensory experience that vigorously demands your attention.
“DOOM Eternal” never lets the player get comfortable, and even when the player may be settling in, it drops an enemy that breaks the status quo.
“DOOM Eternal” invites the player into a most feverish dance. All you have to do is let it happen.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
The first “Deadly Premonition” is one of the very best games I’ve ever played. Many are quick to qualify it as a game that is “so bad that it’s good” because of its rough edges, off-kilter dialogue, and obtuse systems.
But I think these things are what make “Deadly Premonition” a masterpiece. The “low quality” nature of the game lends to its Lynchian atmosphere that is confusing by design. It’s creepy and oppressing while also being hilarious at times.
“Deadly Premonition 2” maintains that same ethos. Making a sequel to such a unique and unusual title seemed like trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Surely SWERY couldn’t replicate the things that made the first game a cult hit almost a decade later, right?
Wrong. While it never quite comes together as masterfully as the original game, “Deadly Premonition 2” hits many notes that resonate in new ways.
“Deadly Premonition 2” falters in one side of its narrative and excels in another. The game serves as both a sequel and prequel with a present day story acting almost like an interactive movie that extends the narrative of the first game.
The open-world gameplay takes place before the events of the original “Deadly Premonition” which sees protagonist Francis York Morgan navigate a murder mystery in a fictional town in Louisianna.
Like the first game, characters have timed schedules with side quests that flesh out the world and relish in the mundanity of life. One side quest has you gathering items for a Creole chef while he prepares many dishes and informs you about the history of Creole cooking (this same quest also comes in a Cajun flavor from another NPC). Another has you learning new moves for your skateboard, which is how you’ll mostly navigate the game’s open world.
The prequel story often feels rushed with more than a few narrative contrivances, but it does a decent enough job of setting up the events of the first game. Where the game truly shines, however, is in its present day story.
This sees a new character, FBI agent Aaliyah Davis, trying to piece together the events of the first game as well as the prequel events of the second game by interviewing Morgan, whom she suspects as the real killer in both games. This part of the game intersects the open-world chapters of the game and offers a serious tone that contrasts well with the more playful nature of the prequel segments.
Davis, a refugee of Hurricane Katrina unknowingly unloads her trauma onto Morgan and offers a fascinating examination of how Nietzschean philosophy can offer meaning to an individual in a world seemingly without any.
Over the course of the game, we learn about the obstacles Davis has faced and the nihilism she experienced when trying to confront them. Her willingness to take the lessons of Friedrich Nietzche to heart underline the games theme of self-discovery and how important it is for an individual to find their own justification for preserving life’s turbulence.
“Deadly Premonition 2” ends on a satisfying note that ties up any loose ends. It’s a game that doubles down and reconceptualizes its themes of actualization, identity, and agency. “Deadly Premonition 2” is proof that lightning can strike twice.
I’ve been playing video games for more than 20 years. At a certain junction, I have become fluent in the language of video games. Take for instance the use of flashlights in games: it’s understood that in a first-person game, the flashlight exists within the fixed field of view of the character’s eyesight.
Wherever you look, the flashlight’s beam is there.
Or perhaps we can consider the idea of inventory management. In video games, there may or may not be a finite amount of items the player can hold. But even games where the player can become over-encumbered, they’re usually able to place items within some type of illogical purgatory.
How is my character holding five guns on their person?
“Half-Life: Alyx” is more than the long awaited continuation of 2004’s excellent “Half-Life 2”. It represents the fruition of the paradigm shift that we have been told virtual reality is capable of. It’s a game that manages, through its immersion and tactillity, to make you rethink how to approach interactions and problem solving in video games.
Remember the flashlight example? Instead of being taped to the side of your head, it’s on your hand. Being a virtual reality game with motion controls, this means that you have to aim your flashlight on your own.
Imagine being in a dark hallway in any other video game and you need to reload your weapon. No biggie, your flashlight will continue to keep the area in front of you illuminated. In “Half-Life: Alyx”, you have to use your flashlight hand to manually reload your firearm like you would in real life.
This means sacrificing your visibility, even if only for a few seconds (and that’s if you don’t fuck up the reload). If you’re doing one of the game’s puzzles that require you to scan power cables through a wall with your gadget, it means having to hastily switch back to your flashlight if you hear an enemy barge into the room behind you.
It makes you more vulnerable and also demands that you be much more aware of your surroundings as well as your position in them.
Half-Life: Alyx has a huge emphasis on things—like, actual items. Nearly everything in the environment can be picked up and interacted with. From bottles, rocks, baskets, and barrels, it relishes in things that are banal in most video games.
The game establishes this immediately by placing the player in a room with many interactable objects. There are things to throw, a telescope to use, and markers that can write on the windows. From the get-go, the player is taught that “things” in this game matter.
I began discovering emergent ways to take part in this world. Your character’s inventory is very limited. You can hold a decent amount of ammunition in your backpack, but you’re only able to hold two items in your pockets and an additional two items in your hands (you can’t hold your gun anymore, obviously).
About half-way through the game, I had died at a very difficult combat scenario with heavily armed enemies. When I reloaded my save, I noticed there were many grenades in this room. Far more than I could carry.
But I also noticed a box with handles on it. I began putting all the grenades that I could find into this box and carried them with me to the difficult fight and instead of taking pop shots from behind cover, I began unloading my stash of explosives.
I felt like I had outsmarted the game by doing something that would be impossible in any other title. Maybe this was an intentionally designed part of the game, maybe not. Either way, it was immensely satisfying.
There’s a part in the game where you are stalked by an unkillable enemy in a vodka factory. This is far from a new idea as it’s used heavily in horror games like “Resident Evil” and “Dead Space”. The enemy is also blind and you have to distract him by throwing bottles and breaking them. This too, is a mechanic used in other games such as “The Last of Us”.
What distinguishes “Half-Life: Alyx” is the palpability with which you progress this scenario. You pick up the bottles, and you throw the bottles, literally. It’s hard to describe in concrete terms but this is a completely different level of interaction and involvement than pressing a button to do the thing.
During this same segment of the game, the unkillable enemy was in the room next to me. The room I was in was extremely cramped with the only exit being the room he was patrolling. My next course of action was to find a battery to put into a generator in a different room to progress through the factory.
And that’s when it happened. I saw the battery’s glow emitting from a slightly ajar cabinet. When I hurriedly opened it, two vodka bottles fell out. If they had hit the ground, I would have been done because there was nowhere for me to go when the enemy came charging in to inspect the sound.
But I caught them. I caught both bottles and gently placed them to the side as I put the battery in my pocket, snuck past the enemy, and proceeded through the level.
This was the moment where it all came together. All of the thoughtfully designed systems coalesced into a moment of pure horror followed by sweet relief.
I could spend another 1,500 words talking about whether or not “Half-Life: Alyx” is a worthy successor to the legendary “Half-Life 2” (it is) as well as its incredible set pieces and ending.
But the most impactful parts of the game are VR concepts that resulted in something unlike anything else I’ve played. “Half-Life: Alyx” gave me something I haven’t felt in my adult life. It gave me that feeling I had when I first played “Ocarina of Time” or “Grand Theft Auto”—before I became accustomed to video game tropes and dialect.
It’s with a childlike glee that I proclaim that virtual reality is the real deal when done properly. Plenty of people have already said that “Half-Life: Alyx” is the killer app for VR. Consider me one more in the pile.
It’s 1v5 in one of the twilight rounds of the game. The entire team could barely afford to buy full weapons and armor this round, and losing will probably lose us the entire game. By the skin of my teeth, I’m able to string together a series of three 1v1 battles. I caught two of them off-guard and the last one left me at half health.
The remaining two are guarding the planted bomb. I’ve made them think I’m approaching from a different direction, and during their lapse judgment, I use an ability that blinds them both. This allows me to easily pick them off and defuse the bomb. We go on to win the next round and the entire game.
I love this fucking game.
I feel like I’m banging my head against a granite wall. I die at the beginning of every round. No matter what I do, I can’t beat two of the players on the other team. We’re down 3-10 and victory is out of reach. I’m now 3-13 on the bottom of my team’s leaderboard.
How does the other team always seem to know where I’m at? Why can’t I hit my headshots? Every time I try to enter a choke point with my teammates, I’m the only one to get instantly killed. It’s like I have a magnet in my head.
I fucking hate this game.
In recent years, I’ve shifted away from multiplayer games, especially competitive games. When I first saw “Valorant’s” gameplay, I mocked it. It didn’t look appealing at all. Valorant came off as a cheap conflation of “Overwatch” and “Counter Strike” and had a weak visual direction reminiscent of a free-to-play mobile game.
I berated it and deemed it a lazy attempt at trying to break into a genre that is dominated by other titles. I was wrong.
I played the beta, and “Valorant” had me hooked. Early on, it was difficult to adjust because I am not accustomed to tactical shooters. It’s very different from what someone like me, who grew up playing console FPS games, is used to.
You have to have significantly more situational awareness (or game sense, as they call it). You have to have better crosshair placement. Your aim has to be a lot better because there is no aim assist and the time-to-kill is almost instant (and is instant if it’s a headshot with most weapons).
I’ve played a bit of “Counter Strike”, but it was such an imposing task to try and learn how to approach it when you would constantly be matched up with players expecting you to be able to perform.
But “Valorant” offered reprieve from that. It was new and it was different. While “Valorant” shares many of the mechanics that any player would expect from “Counter Strike”, it offers the player ways to subvert those mechanics.
There are characters that can place themselves on top of objects others can’t reach with boosts, dashes, and teleports. There are characters that can place traps, turrets, and cameras to gather information and enemy locations either passively or actively. There’s a character who can revive dead teammates.
“Valorant” is refreshing in how it allows the player to “break the game”. Proper usage and synergy of these abilities with your teammates can swing a round in your favor and like
I mentioned earlier, one round can be the difference between a win and a loss.
“Valorant” games are huge time investments. One match can take upwards of an hour and performing poorly can be an agonizing experience. But when it all comes together, and you and a few friends are firing on all cylinders, a close game can be absolutely exhilarating.
It’s a game of highs and lows and the lows amplify the highs.
Once upon a time, “Fallout” was heralded as one of the premiere RPG experiences. With robust roleplaying systems and meaningful, morally ambiguous choices, “Fallout” has left a gargantuan shaped mark on the gaming landscape.
“Fallout” also came out 23 years ago. No, I’m not talking about Bethesda’s “Fallout 3”. I’m talking about Fallout by Interplay, the progenitor to the post-apocalyptic RPG as we know it. Even with the resurgence of the CRPG genre in recent years (isometric RPGs that borrow heavily from pen and paper RPGs), few (“Fallout: New Vegas”) have come close to what made the original “Fallout” so special.
It was a game that offered true agency to the player. A game where a seemingly innocuous decision can prove to be a consequential lapse in judgment hours later. A game that extended an unparalleled amount of influence on the world to players.
Ironically, “Fallout”, with all of its groundbreaking achievements in the genre, was a spiritual successor to the original “Wasteland”. The team was not offered a chance to make a sequel for the game and instead opted to make their own continuation of the title under a different moniker.
That brings us to the year 2014 where the Kickstarter project “Wasteland 2” finally sees a true sequel to the first game. It featured some of the minds behind “Fallout” leading the project and was a solid attempt at recreating the experience in its own right, but just did not quite reach the level of commentary and freedom that “Fallout” offered.
Enter “Wasteland 3”, inXile’s second attempt at trying to recapture the magic of “Fallout”, and we finally have another worthy successor to the “Fallout” lineage.
“Wasteland 3” starts with the game’s Arizona Rangers venturing to frigid wilds of Colorado after the events of the second game to acquire aid for their settlements from a man known as The Patriarch, who is the authority over the area.
Ostensibly an authoritarian, The Patriarch promises food and supplies under the condition that you return his three children, who have gone rogue and are conspiring to overthrow and kill him, to his care.
Over the course of the game, the player is confronted with difficult questions in the face of human suffering.
In one mission, the player is tasked with retrieving a questgiver’s sister from her homestead after getting word that it has been overrun by bandits. Upon arrival, there are no bandits; alive anyway.
As the player progresses through the family grounds, half-eaten and rotting bandit corpses litter their path while they must ward off mutated wolves that have overrun the area. The player will eventually come across a young girl standing over a corpse, gnawing on fingers that she calls candy.
She is aloof, unaware of the dire situation she is in, likely from shock. She’s been barricaded in this room with her dead father for weeks and has resorted to cannibalism, losing her sanity in the process.
The girl is cautious of the player, but asks the player if they will bring her more candy. The player is confronted with a series of choices. Do they bring her back to her brother in her current state? What about leaving her to her own devices, which will likely end in her starvation or death from the elements?
I was floored. After staring at my options on the screen for nearly ten minutes, I decided to put her out of her misery; feeling that nobody should have to suffer either fate. It was quick and painless, and I did it knowing it was tragedious.
Was it the right decision? Did I have the right to decide for her? It didn’t matter because it’s what I felt like my stern, stoic leader character with a soft heart would do.
I returned to her brother and was given the option to lie in many ways about the events in their home. Ultimately, I came clean and told him what happened. He was devastated but understood and was thankful somebody was kind enough to show her mercy.
“Wasteland 3” is filled with moments of pathos that scrape from the bottom of the well of human agony. But while doing this, it’s also able to maintain a dark sense of humor that keeps the game from wallowing in its despair.
It’s also a fucking blast to play. I spent almost two hours crafting my first two characters, one of which is a glass-cannon sniper and the other of which is my aforementioned leader who stays in the center of combat to dish out buffs. The game offers the option of “quirks” as a means of giving your character one significant buff at the expense of a severe weakness.
My sniper gained a huge bonus to ability points, allowing her to move and take two shots in a single turn, but she would never be able to equip armor (that’s why she’s a glass-cannon).
Over the next few hours, I built a melee and explosives expert tank that can take heaps of damage because he gains more health every level, but he can’t be revived in combat. I also crafted a medic who specializes in SMGs which allow him to move about freely, doling out heals, all while being able to cause carnage when needed.
Watching my ragtag group of Rangers amalgamate into a greased up murder machine over dozens of hours brought me great satisfaction.
Remember the part about The Patriarch being an authoritarian? As a communist, that’s something that I’m opposed to in reality. The game offers an alternative path to take in lieu of following The Patriarchs orders. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that by the end of the game, my politics ended up aligning with who I initially wrote off as a tyrant after becoming sympathetic to his cause.
“Wasteland 3” is a harrowing examination of the human condition and the primal nature of human adaptability. It’s also an immensely fun and rewarding time. It, like “Final Fantasy VII Remake”, ran a gamut of emotions but most notably, it made me question my own morality.
Baldur’s Gate III (Early Access)
Never before would I have expected a game that isn’t yet complete to be one of the best titles I would play in a given year.
But “Baldur’s Gate III” is just that.
Developed by Larian Studios of “Divinity: Original Sin” fame, “Baldur’s Gate III” brings together the design ethos behind those titles (isometric, turn-based gameplay with immersive sim world interaction) with the foundational mechanics of “Dungeons & Dragons” in one beautiful and promising amalgamation.
My biggest complaints of the “Original Sin” games were the lack of interesting world-building and the forgetful narratives. I can recall many things that I did regarding the gameplay of these games, but very little about their worlds or stories stood out to me.
Applying their skills in deep RPG gameplay to BioWare’s established “Baldur’s Gate” universe must have been a match made in heaven because both issues have been ameliorated ten-fold.
I spent hours theorycrafting my player-character and dropped into the world of Faerun where I was quickly absorbed by the deep character interactions, dialogue trees, and decision making.
Most decisions in “Baldur’s Gate III” have weight, and a dice roll or decision can be the difference between an impossibly difficult combat scenario and a new ally.
You read that right, because “Baldur’s Gate III” leans heavily on “Dungeons & Dragons”, it subsumes things as intrinsic to those systems as dice rolls. Your character’s stats will affect the success rate of dice rolls.
For example, in a situation where a high intimidation skill opens a branching path in dialogue to use said skill, it will also require a dice roll. The higher the skill associated with that roll, the lower the threshold for success is based on the roll of a 20-sided die.
Like “Original Sin”, the immersive sim aspects give the player additional means by which to solve problems and navigate the world. Failed a dice roll and can’t pass a guard? Maybe you can jump to a roof and send one character in to grab the key you need for another area while another party member distracts the guard by talking to them.
Are a group of enemies far too difficult to take head on? What if you dropped a bunch of oil barrels on them from above and then let a fire arrow loose into the pile?
The levels of player freedom in this game are unparalleled and even with its bugs, glitches, and performance issues (of which there are many), this was still an excellent 40+ hour experience for me as I made two characters for two separate runs of the roughly 15 hour first-act that is playable.
Performance issues are going to be a deal breaker for many, and that is understandable. In its current state, it is very unstable. However, Larian’s transparency in selling a game as early access has benefited them in the past as both “Original Sin” games were also early access.
This has given Larian a direct line of communication to fans who are encouraged to provide constant feedback.
In a year where games like “Cyberpunk 2077” launched in utterly unplayable states, the sincerity from a much smaller studio like Larian is refreshing.
“Baldur’s Gate III” is set to launch next year and I fully expect the 1.0 release of the game to make my list again, as this game has the makings of an all-time classic RPG experience. It’s just up to Larian to stick the landing now.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Sometimes franchises can drag on for far too long. How many “Assassin’s Creed” or “Call of Duty” games do we need to endure before we’re given something new? Series fatigue sets in when a franchise has run out of ideas and merely exists to milk its fan base by cranking out the next sequel before the end of the fiscal quarter.
There have been many “Yakuza” games. For anyone that knows me, they can tell you that not only do I love “Yakuza”, but I even named its seventh entry, “Yakuza 6”, as my game of the year in 2018. “Yakuza” games have been able to extend their lifespan (seven mainline games, two remakes, multiple spin-offs) by spreading out their releases. The series started with “Yakuza” in 2005 while “Assassin’s Creed”, for example, has pumped out 12 mainline entries since the original released in 2007.
Many of these tired franchises exacerbate their redundancy by being annual releases, something that if we include remakes, could be applied to the “Yakuza” series.
With the “Yakuza” games, however, it’s a tad different because they never quite got a foothold in the west until the release of the prequel title (remember how the sixth game is the seventh main release?), “Yakuza 0” in 2017. Even then, we’ve seen that as well as “Kiwami 1” and “Kiwami 2” (both remakes of the first and second games) and “Yakuza 6” as well as the spin-off title, “Judgment”.
As someone who recently became enamoured with the “Yakuza” games, even I had become weary of what is admittedly a sublime formula. Though “Yakuza 6” ended on a high note and sent series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu out into the sunset, I was still excited when “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” was announced.
That excitement was justified because “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” is a prime example of how to shake up a series on the verge of lassitude.
“Like a Dragon” replaces one of the main sources of drudgery in its brawler combat system with a traditional turn-based RPG system. This may seem silly at first given that “Yakuza” takes place in present-day Japan, but the game justifies it narratively by having it exist as a projection of the new protagonist’s vivid imagination.
That new protagonist is Ichiban Kazuga, a character with many parallels to Kiryu. Like Kiryu, Ichiban is a “yakuza of the people” who spends more time upending the predatory foils of his family than he does carrying them out. He also takes the fall for a murder he did not commit for a member of his family and spends over a decade in prison to protect the actual murderer.
Both Kasuga and Kiryu both have hearts of gold and care deeply for other people and grew up as orphans. But that’s where similarities end. Where Kiryu was stoic and reserved, often brandishing a concrete grimace that could survive as much punishment as a concrete wall, Kasuga is outgoing, passionate, and vivacious.
Being an orphan, Kasuga found himself with a lot of free time as a child and spent much of it playing the “Dragon Quest” games. This is noted as the reason for his wild imagination and why combat transitions into a turn-based affair where enemies and Kasuga’s party are transformed into fantastical representations of themselves.
It has a job system similar to “Final Fantasy” where changing your occupation at the game’s employment office changes your class during combat. Enforcers act as knights with their large riot shields and ability to aggro enemies, hosts serve as ice mages with their cold champagne projectiles, idols are white mages that use their singing abilities to heal and buff party members.
It’s all a bit silly, but knowing that all of this stems from Kasuga’s mind not only grounds it in some sense of reality, but also helps to contextualize who Kasuga is as a person early on. It’s a great example of telling a game’s story through its gameplay, which is often not the case. In many games, the story and gameplay are at odds with each other at worst or disconnected at best.
It’s no shock that even with these switch ups, “Like a Dragon” is able to maintain the essence of the “Yakuza” series. The series has always been a very humanist one that fills its intricately detailed city with loads of denizens in need of assistance.
“Like a Dragon” has some of my very favorite examples of this. It’s also where the game distills just how deeply Kasuga (and Kiryu) cares for the wellbeing of other people. There’s a mission where the player runs across a girl who says that Kasuga saved her from some yakuza members before he went to prison.
She said that after that, she got very sick but her appreciation of Kasuga protecting her that day drove her to keep holding on and now results in her appearing before him today. Kasuga agrees to go on a “date” with her. First they go to the movies, then they grab a bite to eat, and finally they’re approached by some gang members that harass them before Kasuga sends them packing.
As that narrative progresses, small things allude to the idea that the girl may not actually exist. Kasuga orders food for him and an orange juice for her (that remains untouched), both the waitress and the gangsters are perplexed by Kasuga’s actions and act as if he is speaking to nobody.
At the end, it’s revealed that she was in fact a ghost and that she died in the hospital, even while doing her best to hold on. She wanted to thank Kasuga for his kindness and encouraged him to keep living his best life.
In another, Kasuga helps a homeless man give a birthday gift to a lonely school boy he has befriended. The homeless man feels a connection to the boy because before everything in his life fell apart, he was very close to his son. In his mind, befriending this child is not only making up for his failures as a father, but also to fill the void in his life left by the absence of his son.
They construct a bookshelf as the kid loves to read, while the homeless man feels it is futile. In his mind, how could anybody want to be friends with someone in his position? When given the bookshelf, the kid is ecstatic and thanks the man before going home.
Later, Kasuga and the man find the bookshelf thrown away in a dumpster. It crushes the homeless man and reinforces the belief that he is inferior because of his position. However, it’s later disclosed that the man’s father threw it away when he saw who it came from because he doesn’t want his son associating with such “filth”.
After a kerfuffle with the father, he realizes that people in less fortunate economic situations are still people and the homeless man and kid are able to maintain their friendship.
But “Like a Dragon”, like the rest of the series, is a tale of many tones. Underpinning these more melancholy moments are hilarious ones. Kasuga is approached by an inventor who wants Kasuga to invest in his plan to create an automated city cleaning system.
When Kasuga returns to see the fruits of his investment, a giant robotic vacuum is there to greet him. It goes haywire while the game makes felatio jokes about all the suction occurring, and it’s all very silly.
There’s a minigame where Kasuga is put in charge of a struggling confections company and one of the employees is a chicken that also happens to be the mascot. Like…you can literally make that chicken the manager of one of your locations.
“Like a Dragon”, like all of the previous iterations of the “Yakuza” series, respects the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. It treats homeless people and sex workers with more respect than they typically find in the medium.
Overall, “Like a Dragon” is how a series should be done. Anyone can at a glance tell this is very much a “Yakuza” game even with it bringing serious subversions of series tropes. It breathes new life into the formula without altering its nucleus.
Like the rest of the Yakuza titles, it highlights the best parts of humanity by pitting them against the worst parts—and more importantly, it teaches us to be kind.