Hollow Knight Script

This is an updated script for the Hollow Knight video. It is not 100% accurate but it’s close. The video has subtitles based off of this script that I’ll be adjusting the day of the video’s release, so you may want to use them if you like to read along. If you prefer to read instead of watch the video though, then here you go.

 

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There are many ways that you can judge a game. That should be obvious because there are many ways that you can judge anything, but there are two big ones that I want to speak about. The first is looking at something as a product that’s available for purchase. The second is looking at it as art. Or, if you find that term too contentious, appraising it in regards to how successful it was in what it set out to do—whether that’s intentional or your interpretation.

In my mind, this is the difference between a review and a critique. A review sets out to decide if something is worth your money and time. A critique, on the other hand, cares very little about those things. Instead it’s about weighing the strengths and weaknesses of something, divorced from any monetary value. These are not hard, firm, or other erotic descriptions, to put in front of the “rules” for either reviews or critiques. My videos especially bleed from one to the other, although I think I’m more on the critique side of things and only like to mention value here and there.

Enough of that though: why am I bringing this up for Hollow Knight?

This game is exceptional in many ways. The biggest one, however, is its ratio of price to quality content. What I mean by that is Hollow Knight is such an outrageous bargain at its fifteen USD launch price that it’s pretty much flawless. It’s immune to criticism. If you like Metroidvanias, or just have an interest in 2D platformers, then you can’t really go wrong. I can’t explain this more clearly than saying I would have happily paid sixty dollars for the amount of enjoyment I got out of this game. At forty-five dollars I would have still thought it had great value.

Hollow Knight launched permanently on sale. And maybe this is irrelevant to a lot of you watching but that’s a big part of what a product review is. If, say, two office chairs are of equal quality in every way but one is a hundred dollars cheaper, then it’s easy to see which is the better product. Although you might be suspicious about where they’re finding places to cut costs.

That’s how I feel about Team Cherry. Not including the composer, only three people made this game. And it is a massive game full of lots of enemies, upgrades, bosses, and a world that keeps expanding outward with new levels long after you’re sure you’ve seen everything. It’s that kind of experience—the energizer bunny gamified because it just keeps going. And if this is the type of genre that you like, you’ll want it to keep going. Even when you are finally done with it, you’ll want it to keep going.

I just hope Team Cherry didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with their launch price.

And that’s my spoiler-free, barebones review of Hollow Knight, and my glowing recommendation to play it before watching this video. I can find a lot to criticize in this game despite everything that I just said, but that’s only when judging it as art.

As a product, Hollow Knight is a 10 out of 10.

So why did I just go through the trouble of explaining all that and making that big distinction? In part to act as a spoiler warning, but mostly because I want to make it abundantly clear that all of the criticism that follows may appear petty unless you separate it from the price. Much of what I speak about will be advocating more content. More work and development time, from a game that has outstanding value for money already. That may not seem right to some of you but that’s how this works. Hollow Knight is more than just a product.

Its biggest problem is pacing, which isn’t something that’s brought up much when speaking about video games. It’s hard to quantify what pacing even is when the player is often in control of most of it and therefore dictacting it. It’s made further complicated when you account for taste—movies and television shows that have a slow burning plot are a favorite for some, and are tedious for others. Books can show this even more if the author has a voice that benefits from a lot of observations and gradual, rich exposition rather than one explosive plot point after another. Some people can also appreciate many different forms of pacing and don’t want the same one in every single movie that they watch or book that they read.

Video games can also be viewed this way. The pacing of its story—sometimes even how that story is being told. If gameplay is constantly being wrestled away to show many long cinematics, then it can be viewed as poor pacing. At this level it doesn’t even matter what the story is about, just that the pacing of the gameplay is being interrupted. Just like some people who prefer the story in some games to the gameplay may view the opposite as poor pacing. I’ve heard that said about The Last of Us in particular: some people really like that story, but they don’t like the gameplay. And they wish that they could just have the story without having to go through all of that.

An overly long tutorial is another good example because it can feel like a really slow start. Neverwinter Nights 2 immediately comes to mind with its long festival scene that introduces so much and is pretty much necessary but still drags.

But what about the pacing of gameplay throughout an entire game? Its mechanics, complexity, and challenge?

In Hollow Knight you are a Hollow Knight—a vessel. Since it’s a Metroidvania, it has many upgrades and abilities that you find throughout the game that unlock access to new areas. Which, in turn, have more upgrades and abilities that unlock access to new areas. It’s a snowball rolling down a hill. Or an anthill would be more appropriate for this game.

This also means that at the beginning, your options and abilities are strictly limited. This is something that many people love about the genre: the difference between where you start and where you end. My issue is two-fold: that your ghost-type bug Pokemon could have started with at least one more ability, and that the game can’t capitalize on the potential of the full moveset you’ll have by the end of the game.

Except for one fight, at least.

At the start of the game, you can move left, right, and jump. You can hold the jump button for higher jumps—which can allow for some precise control when doing a series of differently spaced jumps without stopping. Similar responsiveness can be found in mid-air control, and the acceleration you have when you move from a resting position. Or rather the lack of it. You go to top speed instantly once you start moving from a full stop.

Without playing the game, this can be difficult to understand because it has to be felt. I’d like to draw comparisons to some of the older 2D Nintendo games and I’ll have to risk the video getting copyright claimed to do so. Although there’s at least one alternative I can think of right now.

Shovel Knight has a tiny delay from resting to moving. Same for when you change direction. His mid-air control is just as responsive as Hollow Knight’s though, at least from what I can tell from playing it a little. On the opposite end you have Samus in Super Metroid, who has the air control of a pregnant cow who miraculously discovers she can fly for a few seconds and then just as quickly loses this ability at the peak of the jump. She also has a sharp focus on vertical movement rather than horizontal, which feels like trying to throw an empty plastic bag across a room when you’re trying to make any horizontal jump in the game.

This level of responsiveness in Hollow Knight’s controls does not automatically make it a better game. In fact I’d say most of the great 2D platformers that I’ve played have at least a small amount of acceleration delay when moving, and nowhere near this level of mid-air control. However, it does suit Hollow Knight specifically, because it has a much more involved combat system than most 2D platformers. Especially when it comes to bosses. Enemy attacks come at you relentlessly and with very quick telegraphs, so you need to have a movement system that is just quick and non-committal with its jump arcs. This is more true later on in the game when combat becomes more aerial in nature.

In terms of offense, your options start out just as light as your movement. Your weapon is a nail, which I will from here on out refer to as a sword because that’s functionally what it is. You can slash in four directions: left, right, or up when you’re on the ground. And the same when you’re in the air plus a downward slash.

I think there are two things are important to note here: unlike Zelda 2 and Shovel Knight, Hollow Knight’s downward strike isn’t automatic if you press down on the D-pad—or analog stick depending on what you’re using. This means it’s something that you have to time in order to hit your enemies—it also means it’s something you can mess up and land into them, taking damage instead.

This may make it seem like Hollow Knight makes more demands on you when it comes to landing attacks, but the other difference here is that every slash in this game has a wide arc to it. Whereas in Zelda 2 and Shovel Knight, you have a slower stab that can be trickier to land. This is very clear in Zelda 2, which has many enemies with shields that can shift to block your precise stab attacks—which is something you can also do and creates a simple dueling system in that game. Shielded enemies in Hollow Knight, on the other hand, block your whole arc no matter what. You have to wait for a total opening or get above or behind them instead, or use magic.

You also start the game with the ability to heal. You have a resource called Soul, which can be used to replenish your life by getting to a safe position and holding down the B button. To me this shows that Hollow Knight was already willing to break the soft-Metroidvania convention of starting you with as basic a character as possible. I wish they had gone one step further than this and included the dash from the start too.

I don’t know this for certain, but I’m fairly confident that if you’ve played Mega Man X—and then played it again sometime later—that you do Chill Penguin’s stage first. How Chill could he be if he’s trying to take over the world though? Never mind. The Penguin is an easy boss but his stage also has the dash power up capsule sitting out in the direct path you’ll travel. I don’t think it’s possible to beat the level without using it and acquiring this upgrade.

The dash is a core mechanic in Mega Man X. So much so that returning to the game with a new run feels off. Something is missing, like you left the house with only one shoe on. I’m never comfortable playing this game until I have that dash again to zip around levels. And it would seem that Capcom agreed because they made it baseline in X2 and, I believe, every other X game after that.

Hollow Knight has a dash ability that functions near identically to Mega Man X’s. For most players, it will be the second major upgrade they find, and the movement system feels neutered to me until that moment. I’d argue the ability to wall jump is also essential to the experience, but that might be too extreme of a suggestion. Much of the world opens up after you get that one after all. But having said that Super Metroid has the wall jump available from the start, although many might not realize it since it’s tricky to learn how to do it your first time through.

So let’s hammer this point down by fastforwarding to the end of the game. You can still attack in four directions and you have the same movement and jump as before. But now there are three different charged melee attacks, three spells that spend Soul, a dash that functions on the ground and in the air, an even more powerful “super dash” type ability that rockets you left or right until you cancel it or hit something, a wall jump, a double jump, and finally an upgrade to your dash which gives it some shadowy invincibility frames on a short cooldown. This is without mentioning a large assortment of charms that can further tweak some of your abilities—the speed and size of your sword slash being the most impactful for my runs.

The double jump acts as an uplifting force that you can control just like a regular jump—you can hold down the button to go a little higher or let it go early to not jump so high. This is different than the double jump in Ori and the Blind Forest which is like a spring with a set distance no matter how long you hold the button down. Curiously this is a change from the first jump you can do in that game, which does have some height you can control with the button press. This makes the double jump in Ori feel more bouncy which suits that game in my opinion, compared to the more precise control you have in Hollow Knight.

In fact all of Hollow Knight’s abilities follow the idea of quick responses and a great amount of player control. Spells activate and deal damage near instantly. Heals can be cancelled if you realize you’re going to get hit before it can finish. The only exception is the dash, which has a set distance and cannot be cancelled once triggered. You can’t even jump out of it halfway through, which makes me wonder why it’s different to the rest of your moves. The set distance on the dash can make platforming challenges a bit more straightforward, especially those that require you to dash off a wall or some other platform. Maybe that’s why it was chosen to function the way it did and that carried over to combat. Or they found that holding the dash trigger down to control the distance was too unwieldy during testing, although Mega Man X allows you to cancel its dash and it feels fine. That game doesn’t have the same sort of platforming gauntlets though.

As the game progresses, and the areas you can explore and fight your way through gradually expands, so does the complexity of the enemies and bosses. Mostly. It’s more true of the bosses than the smaller enemy types. Dashing and double jumping become effective tools in avoiding damage and, whether you choose to favor magic or sword arts or a mixture of both, you have more offensive options at your disposal to deal with each situation. Instead of just hacking away with basic swipes.

My preferred way of playing was to take advantage of the brilliant decision Team Cherry made with downward strikes while in the air. Hitting an enemy like this resets your double jump and air dash, meaning that you can “juggle” yourself in far more creative ways than simply timing the same strike on one enemy on the ground. I found this combat system, particularly in the Colosseum of Fools challenges, to be deeply satisfying. You have a lot of movement options to get around, something akin to a combo system when trying to keep yourself in the air for as long as possible, and an invincibility dash that requires a bit of timing to use between cooldowns.

Once again though, there are two main issues here.

Up first is that it takes far too long to go from this:

<clip of hitting a bug in Crossroads>

To this:

<clip of aerial attacks in Colosseum>

On your first playthrough, from the initial projectile upgrade all the way to the double jump, you are likely looking at around twenty hours. This can be cut dramatically down if you know where you’re going and all of the hidden routes between levels. But hey that’s any game really. The first run is what matters the most for these kinds of balance and pacing problems. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some people finished the game without finding the Shade Cloak upgrade which grants immunity during dashes. This isn’t required to see the end credits. It is required for the “real” ending and to fight the “real” last boss which is, incidentally, the only boss that requires you to have all of the movement upgrades in order to beat it without taking damage.

This means that there is a long stretch of game time wherein the player has very few options during combat compared to the potential you have at the end. Things don’t stay quite as simple as they are right at the beginning, but they don’t get really interesting until you’re close to finished.

The reason that the Radiance boss can have much more demanding abilities is because, of course, you can’t get to that boss without having all those abilities to unlock the way. And that’s the key to understanding the other problem. Because the dash, super dash, and wall climb are the only three abilities you truly need to see almost every part of the game, bosses and enemies couldn’t be designed around the player having all of them. You can still take advantage of them and fight most enemies in new ways if you do have all of these options, but there’s clearly a limit on what they can do.

The White Palace challenge is another example of this but for platforming instead of combat. You can’t unlock access to this place without having the big movement upgrades. So these challenges can be safely built around all of those options, making them by far the most complicated and intensely designed platforming in the game by a gigantic margin. The only thing that comes close to this are the short jumping sections in the Queen’s Gardens because, once again, you need many of these upgrades to access the area.

There are a number of solutions to this problem. The simplest, but most timeconsuming one, would be more areas in the game that are gated like the White Palace. More endgame areas that can incorporate all of your upgrades. I’m hopeful that this will actually happen in the future with more DLC and a paid expansion.

The other possibility, which will never happen but it’s interesting to think about, would be starting Hollow Knight with the dash and wall jump abilities as a baseline. The first upgrade you find would be the double jump, and that would hopefully be a good enough foundation for a different set of upgrades to add more optional complexity to combat and platforming, with early areas being able to incorporate the fundamentals much sooner.

At the very least, combat could become more interesting a third or so into the game, instead of close to the end. And every boss could be built with dash and double jump in mind. This would still have a lot of optional complexity at the end, but more room to design more interesting encounters much earlier.

This is more of a problem in Hollow Knight than Ori and Super Metroid because combat in those games isn’t a focus. Super Metroid has a clunky combat system and knows it. That’s why it gives you so many energy tanks for more health so you can tank your way through every encounter. Ori doesn’t even let you aim your attacks. You spam them instead while avoiding enemies, because the game is more about platforming and movement, which is clearly seen in the bash ability, the gravity gimmick, and how the “bosses” in Ori are movement-based escape sequences instead of combat.

Hollow Knight has the combat right there at the top, next to exploration. An equal partner. It gets good, but it takes too long to get there.

While we’re speaking about Super Metroid and upgrades, I want to point out how much better I think Hollow Knight handles new abilities and unlocking areas. Super Metroid has something like locked doors blocking your way, and a specific upgrade is required to open it, or to hook onto it. And then required to open the next one like it. Not all, but many of these upgrades don’t do much outside of that functionality—they only have one real purpose.

Some of Hollow Knight’s upgrades also function in this way, but I felt that the majority that are used to unlock areas also expand platforming and combat. So as you’re opening up the possible routes around the game’s world, you’re also gaining new tools to fight with and making it easier to get through earlier areas when you return to them. This makes backtracking more interesting and convenient since you’ll be exploring many areas more than once to find the previously inaccessible paths.

Ori and the Blind Forest functions in a similar way, but I was surprised when I returned to the game again for this video that there’s a lot less backtracking in order to complete the main questline than I remembered. It’s a lot more linear compared to the freedom that Hollow Knight can provide after you get the first few major upgrades. That’s not a bad thing but it’s atypical for a Metroidvania from what I understand.

Let’s talk about that now because we can finally be positive for a while. I played Hollow Knight four times. That may sound excessive but, just like with Prey, I felt that there were enough decisions that the game warranted the multiple runs—decisions in gameplay though, not in the story. Plus one of my playthroughs doesn’t really count since it was a steel soul, perma-death, Fox only, Final Destination, speedrun that I did just to see if I could do it. It does help illustrate how efficiently you can get around the world once you’re familiar with it though. I think I did it in less than three hours, which is kind of slow.

The decisions that I wanted to see and replay primarily come from how you explore the world. I believe this can start off right at the beginning, if you’re willing to farm up enough Geo—the currency that Hollow Knight uses—to buy the lantern to light the dark tunnel to Crystal Peak really early. You’ll be grinding out currency for a while, and I don’t think you can do much when you get to Crystal Peak without some of the other movement upgrades, but you can do it. I think.

The same goes for the order in which you go through the world once you have the dash and wall jump. I believe the intended point for the world opening up to most players is after they get the dive ability from the City of Tears. I think this because there’s a boss you can fight shortly after acquiring the wall jump called the Mantis Lords. If this boss kills you, an NPC will appear during your corpse run and suggest that you head to the City of Tears to upgrade your sword nail—suggesting that the Mantis Lords are out of your reach at the moment, and you should go do something else and come back later.

If you go to City of Tears and clear the boss there, then there are a lot of potential paths open to you all over the world. I’d guess that this is the point that most players diverge into the next area they visit being very different from others: from Crystal Peak, to the Waterways, then to Ancient Basin, the Kingdom’s Edge, or thinking of going back to the start and finding the Howling Cliffs, and so on. There are a lot of possibilities and most importantly, there isn’t one that’s clearly telegraphed as the next one like the game has functioned so far. You start off in the Crossroads, go to Greenpath, then go to the Fungal Wastes, and then to the City of Tears. I think that’s the progression path that most people are going to follow.

However I’m a stubborn asshole. So I gave that friendly NPC beetle the finger and kept fighting the Mantis Lords with my unupgraded nail. After I killed them I went to the left of their boss arena into a different area and a different progression path. A place called the Deepnest.

Now not only was my sword nail still at its base level, I also hadn’t purchased the lantern upgrade yet. Which means that dark levels in the world were barely visible. I kept pushing down here because I was in love with the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Look at the introduction: this horde of dead bugs that the mantis warriors have fought back and kept from invading their village. It just screamed to me: this place is infested and you are not welcome here. Even the spiked pits are replaced by writhing masses of killer centipedes. Enemies continually emerge from burrows in the ground to ambush you. The sound design is phenomenal too—the grinding, chirping, and rumbling drowns out everything else and I don’t think there’s any music here either.

Somehow I made it to a very long drop at the end of a dark maze of jumps and enemies. I landed in an oasis in the heart of the infestation. There was a bench, which is the game’s checkpoint system, and I used it without thinking what I had just done. Because now I was stuck in the Deepnest with my raggedy nail and no lantern. With no way out because I couldn’t climb back up the long fall that got me there.

And so began one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had all year.

It took me a while to get out of the Deepnest. Some areas were too dark without the lantern that I had to leave them. Others were too confusing without a map. Hollow Knight makes you earn a lot of things that other games just give you. So the map system and even the pins to mark key things on it have to be purchased. Same for unlocking the bestiary for information on all of the enemies you’ve killed. Everything is measured in some way—collect enemy encounters, kills, spirit for your dream nail, upgrades, geo, fill in the map of each area, find relics, increase your health and Soul capacity.

To draw a map of an area, you first have to find the cartographer in the area itself. He’s usually in one of the first parts of the level, but sometimes he can be tricky to find or surprisingly deep into the zone. This became a little ritual: when I found a new area I’d go hunting for the map beetle guy and be really happy when I heard his humming from far off. There are discarded pages you can follow like breadcrumbs too. It also meant that I didn’t overly rely on the map either, because I’d learn a bit about each area before I found Cornifer. And then I’d enjoy the completionist urge of drawing in the map.

In the Deepnest, however, Cornifer is scared and hiding near the entrance. He’s not humming. There are no pages to find. So I missed him. I was also stuck in this area with no map. Not only did I have to figure out how all of these parts of the Deepnest fit together in my head, I also had no reference for knowing how close I was to finding a link back to another part of the world.

Now that I’m familiar with the area, I know that I came close a couple of times to getting out. But on my first run, I was stumbling around in the dark for at least an hour before I found an abandoned tram station. Here I fought my way through some tough enemies to find a tram pass, which would grant me access to a tram that was still functional near the bench that had become my new home.

You may think this is where the story ends but Hollow Knight is more special than that. I went to this tram expecting it to take me back to the first proper area in the game—because I remembered a sealed tram car there in a station that I knew I’d come back to eventually. So when I rode this tram and it took me to another new area I had to stop for a minute while my perception of the game’s world grew even larger.

So I rode the tram again to the next station, expecting that this time it would be the starting area. And it was yet again another new level. This tram line wasn’t even connected to the one near the beginning of the game.

These places seemed more like endgame areas to me than the Deepnest. That was the slithering evil that I already knew so that’s where I went back to, eventually climbing my way out of a deep pit and to a familiar area. I ended up going to a few other places before reaching the City of Tears because of this, and so my progression path through the game was very different than what I went through on my other playthroughs. I consider myself very fortunate to have stumbled my way into this route, because it made the game feel, quite frankly, magical. That there were still several new areas to discover after this pushed the game’s world from impressive, to ridiculously so.

My guess is that most people will have a similar experience after clearing the City of Tears, and it’s helped by how every area after the first introductory zones has multiple entrances. Even something as remote as the levels that sandwich the map—the Howling Cliffs and the Kingdom’s Edge—have more than one way to discover them. As you can tell by my strange journey through Deepnest, some of these entrances can be more difficult to find than others but they still exist.

What’s further impressive is that these entrances can have their meaning altered depending on how you approach the area. For the Deepnest examples: I had to climb out of this pit, wondering where the hell I was going and what was waiting for me at the top, before finally emerging to what felt like a safe place. For another player that comes from a different progress path, this pit is something they fall into without warning and serves as their introduction to this awful place that just swallowed them up. They get to fall all the way down this thing that I had to climb up and wondering where the hell they are all of a sudden. If they have the lantern already and travel to the path that leads to the Mantis Lords before killing them, then they would see a sealed tunnel with a bunch of corpses and be left wondering what kind of battle took place here so long ago. Who was responsible for killing them, and what’s hiding behind that door?

The Howling Cliffs are another good example, since you can get here either by returning to the starting zone with the wall jump ability and climbing your way to the place that your character leapt from in the opening, or you can arrive here via the stag station after discovering enough of the other stations in the world. You won’t know where you are yet and have a different click moment when you get the map or fall down to realize that you’re right back at the start of the game.

These moments work in multiple ways and I think that’s something unique to the medium. It strengthens the experience for players no matter how they may explore the world, instead of forcing them to go through only one introductory path between each level. Which players are more likely to miss if they’re hidden, or that they’re being guided too firmly to feel like they’re actually exploring if they’re not hidden.

The unraveling of the bottom part of the map was one of the best moments of exploration that I had in a game. You go from City of Tears and descend into its sewers. Then you find a long lost ruin that’s below that—below the sewers. Then there’s still more below that, a giant abyss that feels more open and vacant than the cliffs on the edge of the map. And, although it’s a smaller area, there’s even more below this if you come back here with the item required to unlock the true ending.

The game keeps descending lower and lower, long after you expected it to be done. Just like another one of my favorite games that will remain nameless.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels on their own isn’t nearly as compelling. Although they definitely do shine when it comes to atmosphere and presentation. With only one exception—the Greenpath and the Queen’s Gardens—they’re all visually very different from each other. In terms of structure and gameplay, though…

Look no part of this game is bad. The worst thing I can say about the levels is that some of them feel unfinished, even if they still got a high level of polish after content was cut or wasn’t developed enough. We’ll get to that in just a second but right now I want to point out how samey all of the levels are if you strip away their visuals. Initially I thought that some levels were more narrow and claustrophobic, but during my many playthroughs I realized that pretty much every area has a mix of wider, more open sections, followed by narrower paths and more maze-like routes. The game uses that basic structure and scrambles it in a different way for every level.

This results in a “soft-linearity” as you fight through each area. You can definitely feel lost, but once you understand each level you can see that there is a mostly direct path from where you enter the area to the goal—usually a boss or upgrade that you’re heading toward—and a bunch of optional off-shoots that have challenges and other items to find. These will be upgrades to your spells, health, Soul, mini-bosses, captured grubs, or more involved challenges for Pale Ore to upgrade your sword. The game also uses relics as a way to reward some of the more obscure secrets—these aren’t required to finish the game or achieve 100% completion, so they’re the perfect fit for secrets that many will miss. I know that I must have missed quite a few of them because I found new ones on every playthrough. They’re generally good to find because they’re worth so much geo when you cash them in and you don’t lose them when you die. Although there are some problems with that as well that we’ll talk about later.

Once you realize the fundamental structure that the game follows, it can feel a bit formulaic. Probably not on your first playthrough, but definitely after that. Or toward the end of your first one. What really made me realize this was playing Ori and the Blind Forest again. I don’t know why it took going to a whole other game to notice this, but Hollow Knight doesn’t have any sloped surfaces. There are no inclines or declines that you walk on anywhere in the game. There are some sloped ceilings and walls to prevent you from climbing, but everything else is a series of rectangles and squares. It’s boxy and grid-like in structure, which contributes massively to how familiar everything feels despite the visual differences in each area. I’d guess it was also something that helped Team Cherry put the areas together faster than they would have otherwise.

To put it into perspective, even Super Metroid has slopes. Way back in 1994. So does Mario 3 on the NES—you can slide on them to kill enemies.

Where the different levels do distinguish themselves is with some sort of overbearing enemy type or an environmental hazard. And I don’t mean the ratio of safe space to spikes, pits, thorns, or whatever else passes as a damage zone.

Almost every level has something that makes them standout, although not all of them are as developed as others. The Forgotten Crossroads begins this trend with the giant Goam worms that require timing to jump or bounce over. This area also benefits from changing later when it’s corrupted. Which is something I wish had happened to some of the other levels as well. I thought it was an unexpected twist and it was really interesting.

Crystal Peak has the conveyer belts that you can both run and climb on—which suits the theme of the area nicely since these crystals were part of an industrial excavation effort.

The Fog Canyon has the big jellyfish that demand either tight navigation to avoid them, or quick reflexes to not get blasted by their homing corpses after striking them.

The Fungal Wastes has some sort of bouncy mushroom and a separate village for the mantis enemies, where you learn to use the wall jump ability. This is likely also the first type of enemies that will give players some trouble if they don’t have a lot of experience with the genre.

We’ve already spent a lot of time talking about the Deepnest but it’s worth repeating how much the area commits to its dense atmosphere. Enemies appear to attack you from many directions, reinforcing that feeling that you’re out of your depth. Plus there are a few sections with massive Garpedes—more advanced versions of the armored worms from the Crossroads.

City of Tears has a focus on climbing and elevators and teleporting enemies at the end. The Hive has destructible platforms and rampaging bees that smash them. The Queen’s Gardens has platforms that collapse a moment after you step on them so you need to jump quickly from place to place.

Greenpath and Ancient Basin are a bit harder to fit into this trend. Greenpath does have a theme of ambushing you with—ah, well, literal ambushes. Kind of funny to realize that. There are the fly traps that appear as well, but overall this area strikes me as the more standard one in the game. Probably to provide room to use the dash after acquiring it without too much getting in the way. It is one of the first areas after all.

Ancient Basin on the otherhand only has the Mawlurks to set it apart, which are neat enemies but they only show up at the end. Which is where I can begin to point out some areas that don’t feel as fleshed out as others.

I think that having some standard, more mundane levels is a good idea. Not every place needs to be built around some core mechanic—but I’d be more comfortable saying that if there was more variety in how the levels were laid out so there was more contrast. The Kingdom’s Edge and the Howling Cliffs are both areas I like a lot but more for their atmosphere and the tease of what might be waiting on the outskirts of Hollow Knight’s world, rather than the gameplay they provide. Meanwhile the sewers below City of Tears is the level I consistently forget exists at all until I arrive there and remember I need to get a key to get inside.

The level design does succeed in one particular way that made me very happy: short cuts. Parts of Hollow Knight’s levels will remain blacked out until you find a way to get to them, or break your way through a hidden piece of the floor or the wall. This is cleverly taught to you in the starting area by placing a breakable wall next to a cluster of geo that you want to attack because you want the money, it’s really early on in the game. You’ll break the wall by doing so and learn how this works. And you have another chance shortly after this to notice another breakable wall to reinforce what you learned. There’s more than one instance of this happening throughout the game too. So if you miss this lesson or simply just forget, then the game has some natural reminders for you. I think it works really well.

My favorite result of these dark areas on the screen is that you don’t know something is there until you come back around after exploring. So there will be many walls that you can only break from one side—usually marked with wooden supports that you destroy—to unveil either a shortcut or an alternative route back to the main path without so much backtracking. Many levels will incorporate these types of surprise shortcuts to shorten the path between the checkpoint bench and the boss, with my favorite of all being this wall you can smash open in an elevator ride in the Soul Sanctum in City of Tears.

This type of shortcut is used really well throughout the game—perhaps it’s even used a little too much. But I really enjoyed this experience of connecting parts of levels together on a small scale, while I was doing the same thing on a larger scale with upgrades that unlocked connections between the broader named levels.

Where the game falls short is in places like Ancient Basin, the Abyss, the Hive, and to some extent: the Queen’s Gardens and the Deepnest.

There are two sides to this issue. The first is a return to that pacing problem that we mentioned way earlier. The other, while similar, is more about a lack of development in an area’s unique slice of gameplay. Nothing shows this better than the Abyss.

This is probably the final area that most people will find in the game. It’s either that, Queen’s Gardens, or Howling Cliffs. It starts off great with this massive fall through a chamber, and a mysterious surface to greet your landing at the bottom. To the left there’s only one room, which has an upgrade to one your spells. To the right is a straightforward path that introduces the most creative twist on a damage pit: these tar-like claws and hooks that reach up to kill you. The only other enemy in this part of the level are your hollow void brethren. There’s a part I really like down here when you activate a lighthouse to calm a lake of the shadow claws in order to pass them. Then, in the very next room, you get an upgrade and you’re done. There’s nothing else here.

Ancient Basin has the same issue. Like I already said, the big twist to gameplay here are the monstrous artillery bugs. Once you’re past them, you have a boss to fight in order to get an upgrade. Then there’s a short optional offshoot that allows you to use your new ability for some hidden stuff.

These two areas feel designed solely to give you a short trial and an upgrade, instead of being full areas that are worth exploring. Now, in the case of Ancient Basin I think this is fine. Shorter, more direct areas can be enjoyable and serve as more of a focused part of the game and act as contrast to other parts. This area also benefits from the entrance to the White Palace being here, which makes it feel more substantial even though it should count as its own level in my opinion.

The Abyss has something similar with an incredible story moment that happens later in the game, but I think the area is a letdown because of how much potential there is in the interaction between the lighthouse and the shadow claw water.

Just like some of the best parts of Ori and the Blind Forest, a series of challenges could have been made out of this system of light and dark. Smashing walls and floors to let light pass through to calm the water. Or some sort of object you can carry that does the same. An enemy that you have to hit in order to create the light, which then starts a short timer for you to do some jumps and dashes. Or a boss that you fight while also micromanaging a light source in the arena. Something along those lines—I don’t mean to come across like I want these specific things I’m saying, I know I’m not a game designer, just an exploration of this system.

Having brought up bosses, it’s a lack of them in some areas that feels like an exclamation point is missing at the end of a great sentence. A building of tension in exploration, story, and gameplay complexity, that ends with nothing instead of a climax. I’d call this poor pacing.

Excluding the two added by free DLC, there are twentyfive bosses in Hollow Knight. But similar to the residents of George Orwell’s farm: all of these fights are bosses, but some are more bosses than others.

Firstly, you fight some of these more than once. There are harder versions of the Broken Vessel, the False Knight, the Crystal Guardian, the Soul Master, and a handful of others. Some like the mother bug in the Crossroads feel closer to a mini-boss than full boss. But even here you have some judgement calls to make. The Flukemarm looks a hell of a lot more like a boss but it doesn’t do much of anything really. Meanwhile this fight against the Soul Warrior, which is a normal enemy in the Colosseum, feels like it’s just one added move short of full boss status, a fancy introduction title, and his own series on Netflix.

I’m not going to go through every fight and fire off whether they’re really bosses or not. Laying down the groundwork for a solid distinction on that could fill a whole video all on its own. What I will say is that some of these fights are definitely more on the lore and atmosphere side of things. Uumuu, Nosk, and the Traitor Lord especially—that last one isn’t even a boss if you complete an NPC’s questline and, if you don’t do that, it’s simply a supersized mantis fighter with the same moveset and just more health.

Please don’t misunderstand me: some of the bosses in Hollow Knight are incredible. I had the chance to dig in and learn a lot about many of them during my fourth playthrough with no weapon or health upgrades. Even the ghost set of bosses, which have their own theme of being spectral targets that move around while summoning a separate set of weapons and attacks, are a lot of fun and they feel like they were just bonus content that was thrown into the game. There are patterns to learn and openings to recognize to deal a lot of damage. All of them are enjoyable because of this rhythm and flow, except for No Eyes and Marmu.

No Eyes has the issue of spawning projectiles off screen which, if you’re forced to use a dash to get to him or climb platforms, may end up colliding with you through no fault of your own as the screen shifts as you move. Now this is avoidable if you play very slowly and carefully, but I say that’s a flaw on the fight since then it becomes boring ’cause you’ll have to wait for him to teleport to a safer position. This is unfortunately a trend I noticed with some of the teleporting enemies as well, or those that can spawn from the floor. Because dash has a set distance, and cannot be cancelled after use, enemies can sometimes appear on top of you with no chance to avoid it.

Marmu has a completely different problem: she’s boring. She curls into a ball and flings herself at you over and over and over again. You hit her away like you’re playing a game of tennis against a wall and then continue to do so until the fight is over. This fight would be fine if it was one of the earlier ones you can find—with some more creative teleporting safely away from where the player can dash I can see it being much better too—but this fight is the simplest of all of the ghost bosses and yet it’s in one of the final areas. This is in the Queen’s Gardens, which requires more upgrades than most levels do in order to access it.

Making things far, far worse, this is the only real boss in this whole level. I don’t think Traitor Lord should count for reasons I just went into. It’s just a regular mantis with a big healthbar.

This isn’t the only area in the game that suffers from this problem. However, you may be thinking, Joe you’re not even a real dragon, not every area needs to have a boss. It might come across as forced. And maybe for The Abyss you have a point. But for other areas, the issue isn’t a lack of content or the expectation that every area should automatically have a big fight at the end. It’s that the game itself leads you to believe that it’s building to one.

Take the Hive. This is a secret level below the Kingdom’s Edge. I found this during one of my escape attempts out of the Deepnest on my first run when I got stuck. I accidentally blasted off a chunk of the hive’s wall and then ran scared away from it when I saw the giant bees. If anything was an area to go near the end of the game, it had to be this one.

This level has many large chambers full of dangerous enemies. And what is more common knowledge than a hive having a giant queen bee that the smaller workers and drones serve? And sure enough there is one. You enter a room at the end which reeks of an incoming boss. There’s a ghost and this huge giant bee-thing! in the background. Aaaaaaaaand you don’t get to fight it. You just walk past and grab some treasure and leave.

Un-bee-lievable!

<Joseph laughs at his own dumb joke>

Deepnest is the same way. Once you know the game is about a desecrated kingdom of beetles and bugs—insects and arachnids—what could be a better fit than a supremely dangerous spider boss? Deepnest is where the spiders weave their homes, and there’s a similar dreadful buildup here. You get closer to the heart of the nest. There’s a warning you receive from some dead bugs. There’s a trap you’re forced to trigger and yeah, here we go. Time to break out of this webbed prison and fight some big ass spider.

Nope, nothing happens. There’s no boss here. You invade the mind of one of the big three dreamers that is keeping the previous Hollow Knight in its prison, and even that isn’t a fight.

Finding and killing these three dreamers is the main goal of the game and the other two have bosses before them. The one in the City of Tears is pretty good—it’s an endurance fight against an army of knights. Meanwhile the boss before the dreamer in Fog Canyon only has two mechanics involving lightning, and a gimmick that requires you to wait around for another NPC to make the boss vulnerable for you. It’s not awful, but it’s not great either.

I want to remind you all quickly of what I said at the beginning of this video: as a product, Hollow Knight is as close to flawless as I’ve ever seen. It has enough bosses. It has enough enemies. But in terms of pacing these dreamers should have been challenging fights instead of dreaming pinatas. I think most people are going to have the impression they’ll end up fighting them too, since they appear two times earlier in the game like they’re posing for their indie band’s album cover. It’s a real letdown that you don’t fight them.

Considering that these are ghosts in the dream realm, just like the ones you fight in the world, it may have been an easy solution to simply transfer some of those fights to here instead of have them in the levels. Or some amalgamation of existing ones since just one mechanic wouldn’t feel right since these are big moments in progression and story.

White Palace also feels like it’s missing a boss as a big WOW moment at the end of its platforming gauntlet. Although this may be weak criticism, since White Palace is one of the ways Hollow Knight tests you on a specific part of its gameplay. There are four that I can see: White Palace is the endgame platforming challenge. The third Colosseum trial is the enemy combat challenge. The Radiance is the endgame boss challenge. And finding all of the grubs in the jars would be the endgame exploration challenge.

Those grubs are linked to one of many big moments in the story, although story may not be the right word. Lore isn’t really either. It is a narrative moment but a subplot compared to the main journey around Hallownest. I don’t think very highly of the story in Hollow Knight for two reasons. The first is that I don’t think it’s finished. DLC and, I hope, an expansion has a lot left to add. There are currently areas in the game that lead to nothing and are mysteries waiting to be developed on later. One that I question the inclusion of is the weavers’ room in Deepnest. I can imagine many players spending a lot of time here trying to work out some secret to the place or some hidden piece of treasure that should be here, when it’s just a tease for upcoming content probably involving Hornet.

The second reason I didn’t pay attention to the story much is that it has that vague, up-to-your-interpretation issue that’s really popular at the moment. Although I will say in the game’s defense, this could be something that’s resolved with future content that clarifies some things. We may only be seeing half of the story through one character’s perspective at the moment.

That does not mean that I didn’t enjoy some of the narrative and “experience” moments while playing. Arriving at City of Tears for the first time, with the music cutting out and then slowly coming back with the sound of the rain on the glass, was marvelous. As was the conversation with Quirrel at the first bench here—he wonders aloud where the rain is coming from and that he hopes to see the source of it one day. A wish that comes true when you meet him later at the Blue Lake. It’s a small, unimportant area that didn’t need to be in the game. Yet it still is, and stands out in my memory. Perhaps partly for that reason.

Two other strong moments were at either end of the map. The biggest strength of Hollow Knight’s world is that it continues to sprawl out long after you expect it to be finished. Then, when it did finish, I wish it hadn’t. Not many games have made me want so strongly to break out of bounds and continue exploring. What’s beyond the edge of the Howling Cliffs? What’s the wasteland really like out there? What’s outside of this tent at the Kingdom’s Edge? They may just be more clever versions of invisible walls and an arbitrary limit, but they still managed to capture my imagination while also being a firm boundary.

For something that I didn’t enjoy as much, we have to go back to the Crossroads at the beginning of the game. There are two important NPCs here. The first is the Grubfather, who showers you with geo and occasional higher rewards for every grub you free from captivity. The other is Myla, one of the friendliest bugs in the game.

Myla’s story is very contained. She’s cheerfully mining and singing near Crystal Peak. She’s pleased to have company when you’re around and she’ll sing for you if you talk to her. Since this is a game where you regularly explore prior areas with new upgrades, you speak to NPCs more than once. So when I was passing through, I would speak to this character. Over the course of the game, her dialogue changed.

I don’t know when the exact trigger point is—it seems to be when the corruption begins to leak from the black egg nearby—but at some point Myla goes “hollow” for lack of a better term and attacks you on sight. Just like any other enemy. This small story is fine. It’s on the bitter side since she was so nice but it’s a clear demonstration of what the corrupting force can do in the game—and what it has already done to many of the bugs you’ve been killing since the start. This may be the first point that you realize what the corruption even does, and raises the stakes by showing you how important it is that you succeed.

The Grubfather, on the other hand, feels shocking just for the sake of it. There’s no foreshadowing or anything that is being shown to you by this reveal. It’s just the revelation that this character is a monster, and that you can’t do anything about it.

It’s probable that this is something many people are going to really like about this twist. Maybe if I had been in a different mood I would have felt that way too. It’s unexpected and I usually like that sort of thing. But to me the game was already grim and dark enough without this—it’s also something I didn’t know about until someone on my Discord server pointed it out, because I simply never came back to this room after receiving the reward for all of the grubs. I didn’t have a reason to do so.

There’s a ton of things like that in this game. Secrets are crammed all over the place. You can use the dream nail on almost every NPC and enemy to hear some of their thoughts and insights on what’s happening, or the history of some locations. It’s dense in a really good way that’s never forced on you, and it’s another example of how the game is so packed with content. The false hero Zote, for example, proclaims that he has Fifty Seven Precepts to an adoring fan and, if you sit here and talk to him enough, he really does go through all Fifty Seven of them. He talks more than I do.

The best moment of all like this for me was my return to the Abyss after finding the two halves of the secret Kingsoul—from the White Palace and the Queen’s Gardens. The heap of masks, which represented discarded corpses of failed vessels to me, was already an enthralling choice for the setting of this big story moment. But it was what happened next that really stuck with me.

The corpses are blasted apart and rain down. You have to climb up the Abyss, not knowing that this is a vision of something that happened in the past. Messages flash as you do this, but it was the gradually building music that sealed this sequence for me. This is the same music that plays during the Hollow Knight boss at the end of the game, only this time its a lot more somber. Instruments are added to it as you climb higher through the Abyss, before it’s all cut away and you’re sent tumbling down.

Of course things like this are going to be very subjective. It’s why I try to avoid speaking about them in my videos. However this was powerful enough that it didn’t feel right to not mention at least a little. As was the incredible introduction to the secret final boss, The Radiance. I think most people aren’t going to expect that, as you jump up these platforms to the challenge prompt, that the sun in the background is what you’re going to end up fighting. It’s also the only boss in the game that has this grand, full-page announcement timed to its music.

Boss fights are one of my favorite things in video games. Hollow Knight delivers with at least ten really solid fights, with the top two for me being the rematch against Lost Kin and The Radiance. That’s not strictly true however because I enjoyed some fights more than others on different runs, which is where I have to call the game’s balance of progression into question.

The core principle of many action games is this: you avoid enemy damage while dealing enough damage back to kill them. Pretty simple. The higher the damage output you have, the sooner the fight is over. Your health can be seen as an alloted “mistakes meter” that depletes after so many errors are made on your part. The higher your damage, the lower the duration of the fight, and the fewer chances you have to make mistakes and therefore die. This iswhy damage dealt to the player when it isn’t strictly their fault—and therefore not a mistake at all—can be so frustrating.

For charms you can extend yourself to be more durable, or go for a higher damage output. Or both, in the case of upgrades you can find in the world.

Sometimes you can break this principle by becoming so durable, or achieve such high damage, that you can ignore what the boss is doing. This is fine and even a welcome feature in some games because it can become an alternative method of progressing for some players who struggle with pattern recognition, or somewhere in the middle for players who want a bit of a boost or don’t like a certain boss. The issue arises when it ceases to become a choice. When you upgrade yourself without understanding what you’ve just done—that you’ve broken fights for yourself, in your favor, and have no way of reverting back to a lower amount of health and damage so that the encounter once again adheres to the principle.

Hollow Knight crosses this line with sword upgrades in my opinion. I don’t know where I’d nail down this exact point, but I know for certain that the final weapon upgrade is too much. At this level, you are able to whack away through phases of bosses and the Colosseum of Fools without much effort. The Radiance tries to prevent this by dealing two units of health whenever you take damage, but even this endgame boss was something I found shockingly flimsy with a fully upgraded weapon. Especially in phase two.

The solution here could be a hard mode, a New Game Plus mode, the removal of the last weapon upgrade, or tying the upgraded nail to an option you can toggle.

This may sound elitist of me and I do apologise for that. Even that apology may sound elitist, but I feel strongly about this after beating the game without magic, without weapon upgrades, and without any health or soul boosts. This is definitely not the ideal way to play as it turned many of these fights into very long struggles—the last challenge in the Colosseum became a thirty minute fight with this low damage number. But I also learned how well designed these bosses were by having to fully commit to the time and effort of beating them in such a weakened state.

More than anything it gave me a deeper appreciation for the Radiance battle: how all of the moves it has available weave and follow each other, and when to exploit openings for a lot of hits since every hit I did land dealt so little damage. I had to maximize that uptime.

This ties closely to the healing system and why the health upgrades don’t break the game’s balance nearly as much as the weapon ones do. Attacks come quick in Hollow Knight, especially from bosses and groups of enemies. I love so much about the healing system in this game because it requires you to be active in a fight to use it, and has a tradeoff with your magic spells if you decide to use them. You can spend the same resource you have for healing on extra damage. Sometimes a lot of extra damage—to the point that I’m really hoping there’s a New Game Plus mode that encourages it, since magic is so powerful.

The only way to get Soul in the middle of a fight is to land a hit on an enemy. You can bank this ahead of time for when things go wrong, or find yourself in a clutch moment trying to sneak in some hits without dying so you can scurry away and heal up from one hit from death.

But things aren’t that simple.

This is another tradeoff moment. Let’s look at the Radiance, who has some gaps between certain attacks that you can slip in free hits on her. You can also use these to heal, trading the opportunity for damage with recovery instead. But the more you see this fight, the more you learn that there are moments within other attacks that you can begin to heal too. When the line of daggers comes in a specific pattern and provides a few seconds of downtime. Or when the third and final laser volley is telegraphed—you can heal at least once if you’re prepared for this and know what you’re doing.

For fights against regular enemies, this is a lot simpler. You just run away and heal. It’s during locked rooms and the Colosseum that you need to be smarter and know when it’s a good time to heal. This is a skill you need to develop as you play, not just a button you press to heal and when you run out—tough luck you have no more healing. It allows players who are struggling to play a bit smarter to give them more time to learn, or players who take risks and are aggressive to have potentially unlimited sustain if they don’t get too greedy and take the time to heal.

Having so much damage meant I didn’t have to do any of this, which is a shame because it was a really satisfying part of combat for me and I think it’s a core system in Hollow Knight that you can just ignore. Instead I could tank hits and burn enemies down. I highly recommend playing the game with only the first two or three weapon upgrades to get a much more rewarding combat experience. I think you’ll be surprised to discover how much there is to learn about some fights—moments that you can attack when the enemy is also being aggressive, or when you can heal when you didn’t think you had time before.

Many bosses also have this really cool feature early in their encounters: they become periodically stunned after you hit them enough times. This means that, for the first half of the fight, you get more structured, guaranteed moments of reprieve in order to heal before continuing. Or, if you know the fight already, you can slip in some free hits and knock them out of the stun early. As the fight goes on, these stuns stop happening, which I take to mean that they were deliberately included to smooth out the learning curve that struggling players will go through for each attempt of the fight. Bosses actually get more difficult as they go on because of this, while still being accessible at the beginning without sacrificing that difficulty for the whole fight.

I adore this feature, and I would love to see it in other games.

Swinging this to the negative side of things though, we have the death system in Hollow Knight. This isn’t a good fit at all except for the setback to the checkpoint. That’s a decent enough punishment for death. The potential loss of all of your geo if you don’t kill your ghoststain would also be a good inclusion, except that it’s only truly punishing in the early game. In fact, in the early game it can be tremendously punishing, since there are a few big items to buy with geo at that stage. Geo isn’t that easy to get in the first few areas. Yet, by the end of the game, geo is so common and has so few things to purchase, that the death mechanic loses its bite. This seems backwards to me. It should be easier at the start, and harder toward the end.

The safety net for geo are the relics you find throughout the world. You do not lose these upon death and they sell for a high amount of geo to a trader in the City of Tears. I strongly dislike how long it takes to sell each relic to this guy and I’m hoping this is something that I just missed—some quick sell menu or something. Otherwise it takes way too much time to sell each individual piece that you have.

This death system would work much better if geo was something you always wanted to have to upgrade your stats—tying it to a level system, for example. I am not saying that Hollow Knight should have a leveling system, only that it would be a better fit with the ever-present fear of losing your geo. And also incentivize finding more of it after the mid-game.

Some charms and the extra slots to use them are expensive, but even after buying everything available in the game I was left with a mountain of geo by the end. And this includes hours spent playing the game long after I stopped caring about collecting much of it.

Charms are interesting because they’re like a talent tree that you find via exploration, and then get to assign within a limit of how many notches you have. You can compare it to the chipset system in Prey only Hollow Knight’s augments are a lot more substanial. It also works as a secret hard mode since you can overcharm yourself by forcing a charm to equip that requires more free notches than you have. This makes you take double damage and, while welcome, it’s not quite the hard mode I’d like.

Something else about charms is that some of them are about utility instead of combat, magic, or defense. Some can tweak your healing as well, so you can pick a part of the game that you’d like to make easier for yourself. I’m unsure about how successful this is however, as some charms felt mandatory to me.

The one that shows your position on the map and, for the early game, the one that draws in all geo that enemies drop, are essential as far as I’m concerned. As is the Dashmaster charm that lets you zip around much quicker. This can be twisted into a positive since, if you get to a boss that you’re struggling on with these charms equipped, then you can think of taking them off and putting stronger charms on temporarily for a power boost to get through that fight. That’s a cool trick to realize for yourself.

However, I do wonder if a good way to sink extra geo in the mid-game would be some sort of special vendor that that can make 1-notch charms permanent and separate from this system. Just like the void soul becomes after your climb out of the Abyss.

The charm that I was most surprised to discover was the one that removed the recoil from sword strikes. This is an integral part of the combat system right from the start and, because of that, this was a charm that I decided to never use. Just like how the absence of the dash can be heavily felt when you start the game fresh, I think losing this charm after getting used to the lack of recoil would be very offputting. It also takes away a good bit of how impactful your attacks feel while smacking enemies.

Having spoken so much about the bosses, it’s only right to also go into some detail on the wide variety of enemies throughout the rest of the game—or, at least, the illusion of variety. Hollow Knight definitely has enough different enemies and not just for the price, either. However, many of them recycle ideas from earlier levels. The worst offender of this are the bugs that blast out poison gas in the Greenpath and their cousins in the Fungal Wastes shortly after this. Both of them even explode in the same way upon death.

There are also many variations on the same basic beetle bug that will run and jump at you. And that’s all. That’s all they do. The same for stronger knight enemies with swords and shields—their size are the only real thing that changes.

There are some good enemies amongst these though, with the standard method being a ranged attack that can trigger if you’re out of range of the melee one. The mace wielders in the Crossroads, the moss knights in the Greenpath, and some of the fighters that are unique to the Colosseum. There are also a variety of larger flying enemies that show repeated ideas, but by in large I think the game does a good job with its enemy variety. It’s not quite as impressively unique as this list may appear, though.

Fighting in that Colosseum was my favorite part of the game overall. The third trial especially. Just like the rest of the game and my videos, it goes on for far longer than you expect. It’s here that the combat system gets its chance to fully shine, and shows how much potential the rest of the game could have if this level of complexity was reached sooner. Something I am clearly hoping is achieved in an expansion considering how many times I’ve brought it up now.

Despite my gripes I brought up earlier, it was the teleporting enemies that I enjoyed most of all. When they don’t materialize right on top of you, it makes fighting so frantic. The game is at its best when you have to combine all of your movement options to both attack and evade at the same time.

There are some stumbles and questionable decisions here and there. The rematch against Soul Tyrant, for example, is something I think really requires the double jump in order to be fair. He can cancel his dive bomb at the very last second—right before he hits the floor, when his nose is touching it even—and teleport into a second one, which was the only attack in the entire game that I felt could be a regular unavoidable hit without the double jump. The Radiance also has an issue of spawning projectiles and telegraphs that are the same color as the background, making them hard to see. Now this is meant to be some sort of shimmering embodiment of light (like look at its name) so hey, maybe that’s intentional, but since it depends on what part of the background she’s on I doubt it.

The preceding Hollow Knight fight is also overshadowed by this one—in more ways than one. It couldn’t be that challenging or complex because it would be frustrating to get through it over and over in order to get more attempts on the Radiance. It’s a weird thing to think about really: a checkpoint between Hollow Knight and the Radiance would of course make the latter of the two much easier. But it would also allow the freedom to make Hollow Knight harder.

On my no upgrade run I enjoyed this fight a lot more, since I didn’t burst my way through it so quickly. It was also the one I used the shade cloak the most on to dodge through attacks, which makes me think it’s another part of the game that has untapped potential. Actually thinking about it now, even in platforming and challenges in the environment this could be used in really creative ways in other areas.

I’ve said it too many times throughout this video, because I really am hopeful that Team Cherry is nowhere near finished with this game. If I had done a video shortly after release, then I would have laid some heavy criticism on it for having a huge chunk of the map so extremely divorced from the rest. Getting anywhere below the sewers was a huge chore on my first playthrough. And this is something they addressed and changed with the first free update before I even started writing this script.

They added a teleport rune and an extra stag station which I think was enough to fix the problem. The teleport might even be a bit too much but you can only place one of them—I can’t comment too much on it because I kept forgetting it existed since I was used to the base game. The stag station was a really good addition though.

Two bosses were also added—a rematch against the dung beetle Defender and another fight that fits a subplot in the game so well that I don’t want to spoil it. These bosses were not added to any of the areas that I felt needed more attention, which makes me wonder if they’re reluctant to change anything in the major points of the story. This makes sense knowing that people are used to the current way progression works in the game now but I’m not sure if I’m sold on that idea. It’s new areas that use all of the upgraded moves and abilities that are more likely, or maybe I’m just wishing so because that’s what I want to see. The base game is already here as the foundation and more challenges like the White Palace, The Radiance, and the Colosseum should be built upon it.

Hollow Knight is a fantastic experience and a contender to be my favorite game of the year. If you watched this video without playing it then I still think you’d enjoy it a lot if this is your type of game. I cannot think of another title that comes close to the shockingly high amount of value it provides for the price. That’s where it stands as a product. As a work of art, well, that’ll be up for you to decide.

So as the credits roll as a small thank you to some of the Patrons that made this video possible, there are a few scattered thoughts that I couldn’t fit into the rest of the script that I’d like to say.

The game’s soundtrack is wonderful and generally understated. I didn’t notice how good it was until my second time through—especially the alternative versions during tricky parts of levels when an extra layer of the music kicks in.

The Markoth fight in Kingdom’s Edge was the most challenging of the spirit bosses for me, and I think a good example of what the dreamer fights could have been.

I think a hard mode with a set nail upgrade and health amount, with remixed enemy types in all areas, would be a great idea. Like a “Master Quest” version, with charms still being there for player customization.

The rematch against the Crystal Guardian had a warning on its lasers that I was never comfortable dodging. Maybe I just need to get good but this felt off compared to other fights in the game.

Similarly, as much as I love the enemies, having the Primal Aspid shoot orange projectiles when they also gush orange blood when you hit them probably wasn’t the best idea.

The second phase of the Mantis Lords is one of the simplest yet effective ways to increase challenge and complexity in a fight that I’ve seen in a game. I hope they add a rematch to this one later that has all three of them assault you together in a new phase at the end.

The Nosk fight was really disappointing after its cool introduction. In general, any boss that primarily attacks by recklessly running in your direction feels lame. The Brooding Mawlek was far better and that was in the first level.

The Hunter’s transformation and intentional boss fakeout after completing the bestiary was a massive tease. It was funny but, looking back at some of the other pacing issues in the game, I wish this had been a fight afterall. He looks really intimidating too, and I think he would make a fun boss.

Knocking the falling debris into the Failed Champion to damage him is a really cool touch, and something I didn’t realize you could do until my second time through. It’s also a really neat way of combining defense and offense since you can knock them away from dealing damage to you at the same time.

And I think that’s everything. Thanks for watching. I might do something on Hellblade or Cuphead next, before Nier Automata.

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Prey Video Script

As always, parts of this are subject to change. Parts can be cut/expanded. Reading this may also spoil your experience of watching the video for the first time. For some it might be improved though!

I don’t think Prey has gotten a fair chance to impress people. Reviews have been mixed and not without their minor controversies, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. The problem is a lot more fundamental than that. It’s the name.

So before I do the usual thing and spoil this entire game for you, please be informed that a far more fitting name for Prey would be Bioshock 3. Or System Shock 3. I have played all of the Bioshocks and, for the purpose of making this video, I went back and finished System Shock 2 for the first time. Not only do I think that Prey is worthy of being in the same group as these games, I also think it’s better than all of them. By a significant margin.

Now I need to qualify that statement a bit. First, I didn’t play System Shock 2 at release. So I can’t tell how good it was relatively compared to Prey’s release today. Secondly, I don’t love the Bioshock games. I enjoyed them. But they’re not my favorite. Not even Bioshock 1. However, they ARE a favorite for many, many people. They reviewed incredibly well and are high up on many people’s top ten lists. Chances are you liked them more than I did, which means you should theoretically also enjoy Prey more than I did.

That’s not to say the game is without any problems. I’m not willing to overlook its flaws just because I think it hasn’t been given a fair chance—that wouldn’t be right of me. But I also don’t want to ruin an experience for some of you since I think this game has been misunderstood, or overlooked. It’s going to be compared to the first Prey that came out a long time ago. Is it a reboot? A spiritual sequel? Did an actual sequel get canceled for this? I can only tell you that there is no connection between the games and that this sort of confusion has probably been fatal for the game’s success. Which is a bit troubling—how much a name really matters. Because by my reckoning, any game that does the Bioshock and Deus Ex formula this well, should be a smash hit. Even with its flaws.

There will be spoilers from here.

The best thing that Prey does is its world design, then individual level design within that world, and then giving you strong reasons to pay a lot of attention to it as you navigate each area.

I would love to say that story is also one of Prey’s major successes because it starts out very strong. Unfortunately, I think the story has fallen victim to the same problem that much of the game suffers from: a frantic rush to finish it, when it needed a bit more time.

You play as Morgan Yu, who is either male or female depending on your choice. The only difference this makes is the voice actor for your character, even though they’re a silent protagonist. Which is—yeah, the story is a bit weird, but this is part of why it starts so strong.

The game begins with you waking up in bed, in your apartment, to a song playing as an alarm. You go through a morning routine guided by your brother. You can take as long as you want to soak all of the details in—your computer, your work area for gadgets, a conversation in the hallway, and so on—before you leave on a helicopter ride through one of the more memorable opening credits that I’ve seen in a game.

You meet your brother face-to-face and are then put through a series of tests. These are simple tasks: throw some boxes out of an area on the floor, try to hide in a room, jump over an obstacle, and then answer some questions on a computer terminal. I really like this sequence because it’s a tutorial that manages to hide that patronizing teaching from experienced players because there’s a bit of intrigue from those observing you. Something is clearly going wrong, no matter how well or poorly you perform in these chambers. Something out of your control and maybe a little sinister.

Then, sooner than you might expect, this happens.

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And then you’re unconscious.

The game begins with you waking up in bed, in your apartment, to a song playing as an alarm. You go through a morning routine—wait, what? The tone is different this time. Something is wrong. The objects in the room are in a different arrangement. The computer has a warning email spammed instead of the ones that were there before. The mechanic in the hallway is dead and, next to her, is a wrench. You pick it up and, if you’re like me, you will be drawn to smash through the window to the balcony where there were some things you couldn’t get to before.

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This is one of the coolest openings I’ve played in a game in quite some time. It really grabbed my attention and I was ready to get lost in this twisted narrative. If this was just the beginning, where was this going to lead? How were they going to build on this? The looking glass feature alone—the technology that allows one scene to be displayed on top of another, like a window instead of a video—is really fun all on its own. What were they going to do with it?

Unfortunately, this is the best that the story gets in this game. That might not be truly doing it justice because there are some parts of it that are worth some thought and attention—and the exploration through the rest of the game is definitely worthwhile. But in terms of the main narrative surrounding you and your actions, it never gets any better than this opening.

Well, maybe. It depends on how you view the ending.

Morgan has been stuck in this simulation for about three weeks—living the same day over and over. We’ll get to how that works in just a second. For now, you go through the area surrounding your fake apartment, fight some mimics, and eventually discover that you’re not even on Earth. You’re on a space station that’s closer to the Moon than our planet. A space station that has been overrun by these aliens called the Typhon.

Your character is directly responsible for what has happened here. You and your brother Alex Yu, have been experimenting on the Typhon. They’re not the only sort of experiments that have been going on here, but they’re the most important because they resulted in neuromods. Basically, using the typhon’s organic matter as a base, human experiences can be copied from one person and implanted in another. So a gifted musician or a grandmaster at chess—those abilities can be identified, copied, and then gifted to another person through these neuromods. With the unsettling method of injecting them through your eye. Which is why some of the promotional footage for the game showed your character with a deep redness in the eye when looking in a mirror.

There are a few unforeseen problems with neuromods, but one that was fully understood was that they cause the erasure of memories when they’re removed. Adding a new ability causes the brain to be remapped in such a severe way that it has to revert back to the state it was in before receiving the neuromod. So if you were to have the ability to play guitar injected in you right now, and then three years later have it removed, you would forget those three years completely. You’d be back to where you started, only three years older and very confused.

This is how you were kept in the simulation of your apartment for three weeks. Your neuromods were removed and, each day, you were sent a different set which was also removed afterwards. You were being run through a series of tests for reasons that we’ll get to later. They’re a little intriguing but not all that exciting.

Your goal is to either find a solution for the aliens rampaging through the station, or find a way to leave it. Which is enough context to put all of that on hold for the time being, and to focus on gameplay instead. Which is where Prey is a lot more interesting.

The space station is called Talos One. It is comprised of many different levels which you eventually have total freedom to move between. At the beginning you can only access a few areas. As the story progresses, more floors of the station are opened to you, but you can always return to the others to explore or complete side-quests. The most surprising thing about all of this for me was that you can also go outside the station. You can space walk around with controls that are initially quite awkward. If you’re willing to adjust they can become comfortable, but they never felt good for some of the combat parts in zero gravity. There are five airlocks around the station that you need to open from the inside first—so this doubles as something like an alternative to fast travel. Just hop out an airlock and rocket your way up the station.

Doing this a few times led me to realize that the sections of Talos One are put together in the actual arrangement that you can see here. There’s the main lobby, the hardware labs, the long elevator bridge leading to the upper decks—the arboretum, crew quarters, and so on. The exterior matches the interior which, considering that the game didn’t need to have the option to go outside at all, struck me as an impressive commitment to world design. Some thought went into the needs of the people that live here too, and how they would work and get around—to make it feel close to a place that could actually exist.

Not only that but it’s an interesting setting that offers a lot of freedom. There are many areas you can explore early if you’re willing to get creative with some of the movement mechanics—the gloo gun and climbing especially. You also get the ability to glide early on which reminded me of the movement system in Breath of the Wild of all things. Being able to grab onto ledges, pull yourself up, and then also jump with a glide to soften your fall at the end, compounds to make exploring not only vertically focused but something that’s so liberating. You’re not stuck looking at the same horizontal layers around you. You’re looking up to see what you can climb—often rewarded with alternative routes and hidden supplies. You’re looking down to see where you can glide to, or a quick way to get back to the main floor instead of taking the long way with the stairs.

Which is the best way to explain how the level design in each of these areas maintains the quality that the entire space station has. First there’s the theme of each area—despite being restricted to a single space station, there was a surprising amount of variety and visual distinction in many places. There are offices that look like they belong on Earth. Then luxurious lounge areas, a high class cafeteria, and an enclosed park at the peak of the station. In contrast to this are the more pragmatic locations. The cold labs of Psychotronics, and the industrial layers at the bottom that control the station’s power, water, and oxygen supply. Then there are sections that look close to what our actual space station in orbit looks like today—parts of Talos One that couldn’t been plastered over to hide that reality, to make it appear normal. The appropriately named GUTS section—a wide maintenance tunnel that connects the whole station—being the best example of the complex inner workings that most inhabitants don’t see everyday.

Peeling that atmospherical layer away, you have how you explore each of these locations. This is where the other gameplay systems of Prey begin to get tangled into a big ball that’s hard to separate. It’s difficult to nail down the One Essential Thing in this game that it’s built around. You can say that it’s the neuromod upgrade system, but on my third playthrough I finished the game on Nightmare without using any. You could say it’s the combat system, but it takes a bit of thought to realize how combat even functions in Prey. The loop of gathering objects and then recycling them might be a safer choice, but if you use neuromods you can undermine the value of that system. And that’s how my thought process goes, looping between each one like that tangled ball bouncing along.

So let’s try to address them all together.

Most places, and most problems, have more than one way to deal with them. So, for example, if the way into an area is blocked off, you could use a neuromod ability that gives you extra strength to pick up the obstacle and move it. Or, if you don’t have that mod, you could find some explosive canisters and use them to blast the blockage clear. Or you could throw a recycling charge to condense whatever is in the way. Or you could use a mimic ability to turn into a cup or something to bounce your way through the opening. Or you could go around to another entrance and hack your way through the security lock. Or you could use your gloo gun to make a set of stairs on the wall to smash through a window or open a hatch to crawl through. Or you could use your toy crossbow to shoot the unlock button on a computer terminal. Or you could…

I think you get the idea. For other kinds of problems you have the same sort of options. By going through that list, I’ve spoiled a lot of the game. Some of them may seem obvious when pointed out but when you’re first playing, a lot of the options you have available can be overwhelming. Or you might not realize some of the functionality that they have—using recycling charges to clear blocked doorways being a good example I think.

This is tied directly with exploration and gathering, because everything you pick up can be broken down by the recycling machines. It’s a cool feature actually, all the stuff gets shot through this laser and pooped out into cubes you can collect. Like it’s one of those rigged claw machines at arcades only this time you’re always a winner.

The more resources you find, the more options you have. Neuromods, at the beginning of the game, are the best reward for exploring. These are Prey’s version of an experience system. One that’s also eventually tied to combat because you can pick up alien materials from the corpses and, with a neuromod schematic, start to craft these yourself. So in a way each alien gives you some experience points, you just need to go refine them at the recycling machine first.

Neuromods are hidden all over the station. But you also need other materials to craft them. Metal. Synthetic. There’s also organic for some other things too. So you are heavily incentivized to pillage each location for everything that you can carry, and to make regular trips to the nearest recycling machine. Early on this can cause a bit of a feedback loop: you gain a new ability which unlocks access to new areas, which then gives you more resources for a new ability, which unlocks access to another area, and so on. The more creative and observant you are, the more you’ll be able to find and collect with as few of these abilities as possible. During my no neuromod run, I was able to access a large chunk of the station with recycling charges, some clever climbing, and the gloo gun. It was areas, terminals, and safes that required hacking that locked me out more than anything. Some of them have codes you can find around the station, but a fair chunk of them can only be unlocked through the hacking minigame.

So with scavenging being so important, I think you can see how exploration and studying each level is encouraged. You want to have as many resources as possible—not just for finding neuromods, but also crafting ammunition for your weapons. A lot of work went into making these levels: tons of secrets and rewards for players willing to climb around and look for things that aren’t laying out in plain sight. It’s a twistedly wonderful feature then, that the mimics are capable of disguising themselves as those very same items you want to pick up.

In terms of gameplay, this might be the best thing that Prey does: this concept that, the act of looting and acquiring items is tied to an enemy and danger. Mimics can take the form of any small to medium sized object. Even medkits that you can pick up. And I love the tension this made me feel on my first playthrough. Eventually I learned the rules of how mimics worked—the subtle movement objects have, or the little ticking noise they emit like they’re bombs ready to go off. But before that, I had to question a lot of items that I was about to pick up. Early on this prevented the game from being too cleanly split into two halves: clearing the level of enemies, and then going on to safely loot. I was always a little on edge early on because of it.

Having said that, once you’re used to this it loses some of its charms. I wish that the concept could have been expanded on somehow. To take that idea—to make a game mechanic out of inspecting and picking things up. Maybe some mimics don’t reveal themselves unless you hit them, but that the objects you want to pick up also break from a hit if they’re real. There could be minor differences you could learn and identify so you have to judge when it’s a mimic or not. Might not be a great idea though since it can be resolved through save scumming, but it’s the only one I’ve got. That might be why it wasn’t built on further.

Later on the game does devolve into those two phases as well, since you find the ability to scan objects to see if they’re mimics. Once you’ve cleared out an area you are safe to loot it without being bothered, until you leave and come back through a load screen. Enemies don’t respawn in a direct way—it’s more like a new set of aliens has wandered into the area while you were gone. Some people might not like that but I thought it was mostly great. Sometimes big enemies spawning in places I had already cleared out was a bit annoying, but having a fresh set of mimics swarm in was fantastic.

Remember at the beginning, when you woke up in the apartment for the second time and some of the stuff was in different places? The new mimics are like that. You start to question anything that’s out of place. Was that lamp on the floor before? Was that garbage can in that position? A few mimics can be noticed like that too, which I think is wonderful. You can go into an office and see that there are one too many chairs. You can figure it out just like that. Or you can feel paranoid when something else you were certain was an alien turns out to be benign—like there’s a mind game being played on you.

Having brought up mimics it’s likely best to go into combat now, which is also deeply linked with gathering, crafting, and neuromods. The biggest problem combat has is also right there in those links. Some people, including myself when I first played, might not understand the type of game that they’re playing.

Or, to put it another way, Prey isn’t really a first person shooter.

I mean of course you are in a first person perspective. You are also shooting things. I know how stupid it sounds but genres can be stupid sometimes. Is Skyrim a first person shooter, because it has that same perspective and magic spells and arrows to shoot? I doubt many would say that fits. Nor does Prey in my opinion, but for different reasons.

I went through a really long example a few minutes ago about how many options you can have to solve problems—how to gain access to a room. Combat in Prey is sort of like that. But it can be summarized into other parts too. Such as:

      1. Planning and Tactics

      2. Character Building and Stats

      3. Then Execution

The issue with these three stages is that many players are going to go rabid for the third one. Myself included. It’s a shooter. There are enemies. I’m just going to go in and shoot them while dodging their hits until they’re dead. If you’ve played the game and tried to smack the very first phantom with your wrench, you know how much of a bad idea that is. It just doesn’t work.

Please understand that the fighting is more complicated than this. There is a certain amount of skill and finesse required to succeed in combat—and we’ll get to that shortly—but I think the best way to describe fighting in Prey is with this sentence:

It’s all about bringing the right tool for the job, as long as you know how to use it.

For mimics, this means hitting them with the wrench. But where the game gets a bit cruel is that it doesn’t make it clear how much more effective the wrench is if you hold the attack button down to gather your strength for a second. Not only does this do more damage, but it can stun some enemies for even more hits. Most curious of all about this feature is that using the weapon this way doesn’t cost more stamina. Only time to charge the strike.

I’ve seen some people spam the attack button on mimics with very little success, which can quickly lead to no stamina and a mimic still trying to eat you. This can make encounters with them very frustrating because they’re small targets that dart around a lot. But if you charge your strikes you have to wait just a little bit, which makes connecting with your wrench feel much better. At least that’s how it did for me. It feels a lot less mindless than swinging away as fast as you can.

If we take that example and run it through our list, you have figuring out that a mimic is nearby and knowing which weapon is best, which is linked with your build and upgrades. If you’ve invested a lot in typhon abilities, for example, then going with the wrench might not be the best option. Then you have executing that plan by aiming your shots well and moving out of the way of the mimic’s counterattacks, or locking it down before it has a chance.

Seems simple enough right? Well, unfortunately, the mimic is probably the cleanest enemy in the game for this.

First off, it’s worth noting that some options are more powerful than others. With only a few exceptions, the shotgun is capable of chewing through any enemy in the game. Same for the neuromod that allows you to slow time down for only your enemies. You can break combat through using some of these things and, for some, that might be the best way to play. However, this isn’t a simple solution to every encounter because, aside from the wrench, every action that deals damage in Prey is going to use some sort of resource. You need to find bullets and batteries for your weapons—usually you craft them yourself from items you find. Psi powers also use psi points which usually can’t be replenished for free.

Neuromods that increase damage and recycling yields then, become very important. If a basic pistol shot only deals say, 8 damage, then that is the low return on how many resources it took you to craft that bullet. If you take neuromods that boost your damage, and the gunsmith line that allows you to upgrade your weapon even more, then each bullet is now a much more effective use of your scavenged materials. Same goes for the mods that increase your inventory space, since it allows you to carry so much more back to the recycling machine.

This is what I meant by the systems being tangled together. Some neuromods can lessen the importance of scavenging because it makes your weapons so much more efficient. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, since players who realize this early on will have a much easier time as the game progresses. It might be tempting to invest in more hacking mods, or some of the healing ones, when boosting your raw damage will lead to having so many more resources since you’ll spend fewer of them on ammunition.

This could be seen as a learning curve, or a trap.

However, the game is still possible to beat on the hardest difficulty setting without using a single neuromod. I did three Preythroughs of this game. My first time was on normal. I didn’t use any of the Typhon-based neuromods because it seemed like a bad idea in terms of the game’s story, and I was having a good time with basic weapons. My second time I went on Nightmare, installed many Typhon mods, and killed every NPC that I came across. My third run I also went on Nightmare and didn’t install any neuromods at all.

This made the game more tedious than difficult, and I don’t mean the combat. The biggest problem I had was the lack of inventory space. I needed to recycle a lot of items for ammunition to compensate for my low damage. I also had to rely on the wrench for many fights, and carry more grenades for some of the tougher enemies. This took up much of my already limited inventory, so early on I had to make many trips back to the recycler for only a few items each run. In some parts it made the game more exciting since I had to think of solutions to problems that mods previously solved. But it also made the game feel a bit empty since I missed out opening a lot of safes, offices, and computer terminals.

I also think doing it on Nightmare wasn’t really necessary. I couldn’t find any stats for the difficulty modes in this game so I had to go in and tinker with it a bit on some enemies to find out for myself. By fighting the same mimic and phantom on each difficulty mode, I’ve concluded that the game has simple modifiers for damage dealt and received.

So no matter if I was on Easy, Normal, Hard, or Nightmare, this mimic always had 30 health. And this phantom always had 100 health. The difference was, on normal and hard I was dealing 10 damage with a basic strike with my wrench, but on easy that was bumped to 11 damage. And on nightmare it was lowered to 8 damage.

So a 10% damage bonus on easy. A 20% damage reduction on Nightmare.

Funnily enough this answered a question I was going to bring up in this video: there’s a secret weapon you can find halfway through the game that’s an upgrade to your basic pistol. The problem was, it was showing numbers that didn’t make sense. I upgraded it to deal 9 damage, yet it was showing here to do 10 damage when unmodified. So I had made it worse by modifying it, somehow. What was really happening was that the Nightmare difficulty debuff was effecting the numbers here. That was part of the modification and the reason why it didn’t make sense. At least that’s what I think. You can see the same thing with the wrench when you’re on easy mode.

Damage received works in the same way. On Easy you take half the damage that you do on normal. On hard it’s increased by 40%. On Nightmare it’s 60% higher. That may seem like a lot but the only significant difference here is between the easiest and hardest modes. And even then, the way combat works in this game means these modifiers don’t mean all that much. I’ll confess the real reason I went to all of the trouble of figuring this out was because I didn’t feel like the game was any different at all on the hardest mode when compared to normal, and that I was suspicious it didn’t change anything at all.

But it does, right? 60% should be a lot. So why did I feel that way?

Very few enemies allow you to reliably avoid their attacks. Even the basic mimics can scurry out of sight and slash at you before you can turn to follow them. Phantoms show this even better since they zip around like they’re vampires in True Blood. Often they will race away, then come back, and hit you before you’ve had a chance to react—not that the game even has a proper defensive option to use if you did notice. Same goes for their projectile blast. This has a charge time to let you know it’s coming, but sometimes they use this and the rapid dash together so you have no way of knowing when it’s going to come at you.

You can see a similar thing in the larger enemies. Prey only has five, arguably six enemy types—each with their own variations. Again sort of like the enemies in Breath of the Wild, of all things. Phantoms can be active with fire, lightning, invisibility, or some sort of dark energy. Mimics can be the usual type, greater mimics, or infused by those phantoms. There are robotic sentries that can be corrupted—either a turret or the flying ones that can spew fire or an electric shock.

Then there are the larger enemies. These are all the same hovering sort of blocky blobs that have minions do the fighting for them. One hacks any turret or robot in the area. Another “hacks” people in the same way to turn them into bombs that explode if you get too close. And the third creates an energy shield and spawns smaller blobs that rush at any source of movement to burst open.

The last enemy type is an event, quest level boss. The Nightmare, more dinosaur than typhon, can spawn when you enter some levels in order to hunt you. And you can see the same problem as the phantom here, with how it can move a lot faster than you and attack without any sort of telegraph. If you stay far away from it you can sometimes dodge the projectiles it creates to follow you, but reliably avoiding its melee attacks felt like I was exploiting the fight through the terrain around me rather than actually beating it.

Some of these enemies have attacks you can learn and avoid. The pattern I saw, with the flame typhons and the technopaths, were damage zones that spawn on your position that you need to run to avoid. Once you realize that this is happening this can be a fun mechanic to remember and sprint away from, but the first person camera may limit your ability to even understand why you’re dying at first. Especially since a flame typhon is in the medical center in the first major area of the game—it can feel like it’s killing you just by looking at you hard enough. Same for the technopath, which is introduced in a cramped area with two other robots guarding it. This may function as a mini-boss at this point in the game, but this area is so small you’re likely going to die from the ball of lightning it can summon without understanding what it’s doing.

The theme of many of these enemies is simply to stay away from them. The telepath, as another example, has an ability that had no warning that I could see which simply does a massive amount of unavoidable damage in a huge ring around itself. Really huge if you find this guy in space outside the station.

This is what I mean when I say Prey isn’t a first person shooter. You can bash your head against these encounters and bruteforce your way through with weapon upgrades, but I think the intended way to go about these fights is similar to thinking about how to overcome the obstacles you find in each level.

The telepath can’t do that big explosion of damage if you throw a nullwave grenade at it.

The technopath can’t do any of its abilities at all if you keep it stun-locked with the disruptor gun—something you can fire and then switch to your wrench or shotgun for some free hits.

Same for robot enemies: these weapons can knock them over and prevent them from fighting back.

You can sneak up on phantoms, knock them out, and then switch to a shotgun blast to finish them off when you’re out of stamina. Or the gloo gun to freeze them while your stamina regains for the last hit.

Meanwhile the elemental phantoms radiate a damage aura that prevents that, but they also don’t dart around as often so you can better shoot at them from afar. The old tactic won’t work.

This is closer to a puzzle approach rather than a fight. Which is why the difficulty settings changed almost nothing. Once you’ve “solved” each enemy, being able to kill them in one or two fewer hits, or dying a little faster, doesn’t matter. You’re going to keep them incapacitated or ambush them from full health to dead. Which is something you’re strongly nudged into figuring out when you begin to scan enemies and can view their weaknesses in a list.

Again, this is of course assuming you’re not breaking the game with some of the more powerful mods—the combat focus one especially—which is simply another way of looking at the puzzle and finding an alternative solution as far as I’m concerned.

I wouldn’t call this combat system great, but if you realize this it can be a good fit with the more slow-paced resource gathering which fuels your options. But I can imagine someone trying to jump around larger enemies with their shotgun, which only works if you’ve heavily invested in damage and health neuromods. It’s a shame that there weren’t more ways to avoid damage, and some more variety in both enemies and weapons to fight them.

There are other balance issues as well if you’re willing to put the legwork in to use the medical and engineer bots to recover health and armor. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 have this same problem. I vividly remember being on a first-name basis with the little medical drone in the shipping container on the Liberty Island level in Deus Ex, since I could risk meleeing every enemy to save on ammunition before returning to this little guy to heal up for free. Same for the medical beds in System Shock 2, which can heal you to full for a pittance. I didn’t use a single healthkit during my first run of that game because of that. And the same goes for Prey: I didn’t use any of these medkits or suit repair kits. I ran back to a helper bot instead, which I was often doing to get to a recycler to unload my inventory anyway.

Which might be the best time to speak about some other sloppy and questionable decisions the game has, which I believe are a symptom of rushing to meet a deadline. My guess is that some of those instant-damage attacks may also be a result of that, since they don’t feel quite right no matter what kind of combat system the game was meant to have.

As always, it’s very difficult to judge what’s a bug and what’s a bad feature. The best example of this in Prey is how the screen flickers and becomes dim during combat. Sometimes this effect is very gentle and adds a bit of tension to a fight. Other times it gets so dark or rapid that I found it genuinely hard to see what was happening, like the game suddenly became a rave. Especially when against simple mimics. Sometimes it feels like this effect is being tripled because of a glitch.

Other enemies have similar problems that come across as poorly thought out features. There’s a “fear” mechanic for some enemies that makes your camera go wild in random directions. You can prevent this by opening your inventory and drinking alcohol but I’m not willing to slow down combat just for that, or stockpile booze just in case I run into these monsters. Maybe that’s my own fault and I’m being unreasonable, but at the very least this supports the view that Prey has a more puzzle-like approach to combat.

For some things that are definitely bugs you have visual flickering, some missing models, and enemies occasionally dashing themselves right off the map. These are minor and don’t spoil too much. Another minor bug made hilariously into a big deal because of the type of game Prey is, are objects not sitting right when they’re placed on top of other surfaces. This is a common issue in games but it’s a massive deal in Prey because these vibrating items appear like mimics, when they’re just glitches. It’s funny looking at it now, but in the game it can be annoying. Not a common issue though.

Some of the more major bugs prevented access into some areas. Sometimes a keypad will bug out and become uninteractable, even if I had the keycard that was paired with it. Even restarting the game wouldn’t fix this. A similar problem was with invisible walls spawning over doorways, which I believe is tied to hit detection on gloo gun piles remaining even after they were destroyed but I’m not sure. I’m lucky that this only ever blocked me off from an unimportant area.

NPCs will often speak over each other. Or you will get phone calls that you cannot decline that speak over important audio logs. Both of these are incredibly frustrating, like you accidentally opened two youtube videos at once, and show how much polish the game is lacking. A similar problem was with the audio logs that only auto-play sometimes. I’m lucky I thought to look for a hotkey to play the most recent audio log I found because navigating the menu so much is terrible. It was definitely designed for a gamepad and not a keyboard and mouse.

While we have the inventory open, I feel the need to gripe about items not automatically stacking when you pick them up. Or, far worse, that some of the typhon organs you can loot from corpses won’t add to a stack already in your inventory. So you have to open it up, drop a one slot item, then pick up the organ, and then pick up the item you just dropped. I really wish I understood how a problem like that, in a game where almost every player is going to be constantly hitting the limit on their inventory, made it into the game.

There are four levels of hacking—both in difficulty and the neuromod that matches them. Yet because of the way the allotted time increases with each node you have to hack, the level two hacks end up being the most difficult by quite a lot. I always had a ton of time leftover in the level 3 and 4 hacks compared to the level 2, because the numbers weren’t properly considered. A better way of doing this might have been you can always try to hack terminals but each neuromod upgrade grants you more time. Instead of it being a check to see if you’re able to begin the hack at all.

But the biggest issue I had is present right from the start: the game’s UI and its insistence on holding your hand. Now some people dislike this sort of thing because they find it insulting to their intelligence. I sometimes agree but I also think this is an incredibly difficult thing to judge. An example being that, I am certain there will be at least one person who watches this video who didn’t like all of the UI tutorial hints and yet wishes that the game had made it more clear how important it is to hold down your attack button for some of your wrench strikes.

I’ve been dismissive of some tutorial sections in the past—the one in Fallout 3 comes immediately to mind. My opinion has changed a bit on them now but I still think that Prey goes too far with it because these pop-ups and notifications persist throughout the entire game.

For me this is about preventing freedom and discovery. Let me explore on my own. Include details that nudge you into figuring things out—more like the scanner information for a way of it being done directly, but still something that you’re making happen yourself. Worse than all of this however, is that all of these notifications get in the way and slow you down. The noise that accompanies them is quite loud and jarring compared to the moodiness present in the rest of the game. I was always afraid to start moving so soon after completing an objective, since I knew all of the notifications would have to play and could interrupt conversations or block my view of things or even disrupt combat if I was moving quickly to the next area.

What’s strange about this problem is that the game has quite a few puzzles and details that require you to be paying attention. They’re not spoonfed to you. You could argue the story is the biggest one of all—that it requires quite a lot of thought outside of all of the information that’s more plainly delivered to you.

Two puzzles that come to mind are the way you get the code to the first safe in the game. You can notice that it was written on this board but later erased. If you remember this, and recognize when this scene is repeated later, you can look through the looking glass screen during a recording to see the code and return to the safe.

Same for another puzzle in the hardware labs. You can notice a specially named flask in one of the workshops. You can also find some emails that prod at you to think that it might be important. The secret can be revealed through another looking glass recording if you’re willing to watch the whole thing.

I’m not saying these are supremely stimulating puzzles or anything, only that they require some amount of perceptive ability and thinking by the player in comparison to so much of the rest of the game that holds your hand. Same goes for exploring the outside of the station and repairing some of the rooms that are broken. Or remembering prior areas that were blocked before and you should return to with the appropriate upgrade later.

Speaking of that however, let’s address a few issues about Prey’s world and level design. Some of these points may not be truly fair to criticize, but it would be dishonest of me if I ignored them.

First up is something that I think most people will agree with. Unless you’re a huge fan of backtracking through levels with very little to do. Some of the places you unlock through abilities are very far from the most traveled routes in the game. The most extreme of these is the derelict shuttle floating quite far from the station. This is guarded by a weaver which isn’t the easiest enemy to kill in space. Inside are some corpses and some loot, but part of it is locked unless you’ve invested heavily in a particular line of neuromods.

With this example we can see a number of problems. When I realized that I would have to come back here later on, and travel all the way to the shuttle again, I let out a very heavy sigh and questioned if I would even bother. Of course I ended up doing it and the reward wasn’t really worth it.

Which makes me have to ask: is that a good thing or not?

You may have had an instinctive reaction to that question but I suggest thinking about it a bit more. Locked areas like these, which require a specific upgrade, should theoretically have the best loot—in order to make the trouble worth it, and to reward the player for investing in their character. Especially in a case like this where many players won’t even notice or be able to access this area.

And yet right there you can see how it should go the other way: putting valuable items in a place like this means many players will miss out or, in many cases, be almost forced to take a specific upgrade and do all of this backtracking so they have whatever it is that’s locked away here.

It’s a strange conflict when you really think about it and I’m not sure what’s correct, only that I hated having to waste time to come back here afterwards. And I probably would have still hated it even if there were 20 neuromods here as a big reward.

As I said though, there are a number of problems. The three main points I want to address here are the progression system, how Prey’s loot isn’t as exciting as it could be, and that the world design suffers a bit from what I’m going to assume is a hardware limitation. I could be wrong on that though.

Like the points earlier on combat, these three are all tied together.

There are only a few things that are really exciting to find in Prey. Neuromods are the obvious one. Then there are weapon kits and upgrades for your suit. These are minor modifications that add little perks like resistance to certain damage types. Stuff like that. They would likely be talent trees in most other games. Outside of gameplay are audio logs which most people enjoy listening to—at the very least these are good to find if you’re invested in the story.

Outside of that there isn’t much that makes you think “Oh cool, I just found this!” Early on weapons fill that role but you quickly have a full set and there’s only really one alternative weapon to find in the game. There are also materials—especially storage rooms full of typhon biomatter—but that also leads to another problem. You can craft neuromods and weapon kits, which dilutes the excitement of finding them “in the wild” so to speak. It’s still always good to find them, but about halfway through the game there’s never anything really thrilling to find on the gameplay loot side of things.

I don’t think Prey would have benefited from a Diablo style weapon system. In fact I think that going that route can bog a game down—the most recent example being all of the clutter it adds to Nioh. But maybe larger weapon modifications could have had a place, or a few new weapon types added late in the game, or more upgrades like the jet pack that are simply added to your character as a fun addition to everything else you’ve already collected.

Suit chipsets are mostly boring. In fact, the only memorable ones are the stamina upgrade, the jet pack upgrade, and the ability to scan for mimics—which arguably also ruins your enjoyment of trying to figure out where they are for yourself. The reason why these stand out is that they aren’t simple number tweaks and that they also change more than one thing. The jet pack upgrade allows you to travel much faster in space, but also gives you more air time when used in the station. The stamina upgrade allows you to sprint more from place to place and also helps during combat when using the wrench. It’s possible there were some other chipsets like this that I missed, but to be brutally honest most of these were so boring that I sometimes didn’t even check to see what they did until hours after I picked them up.

To link this with neuromods, there’s another reason why it gets less exciting to find these as the game goes on. It takes many more than just one neuromod to get most of the later tiers of upgrades. You also start finding packs of neuromods to compensate for this a bit, which leaves me sort of puzzled. I’m hesitant to say this, but I do have to wonder if this was simply something they copied from System Shock 2—where the number of cybermodules needed for later tiers also begins to rapidly increase.

On paper this makes sense because it allows players the freedom to invest in a lot of the early mods and acquire a lot of low-level options while investing heavily in certain paths. But there are so many neuromods in Prey thanks to crafting that you can typically get everything that you want. The only areas you’ll be lacking are some of the typhon powers that only really help with damage anyway, which you’ll likely want to pick only one or two of—or the human weapon equivalent—since you rarely have to use multiple damage options in any given fight. If anything this could be seen as another trap in progression since some of these options will be redundant, and you’ll want more hacking, repair, inventory slots, or health upgrades instead.

Same goes for the leverage abilities to move heavy things, which can be done with the plentiful amount of recycler charge grenades you’ll find in the world, which frees up a bunch of neuromods for more worthwhile things.

The core of the problem here is that finding neuromods became less exciting as time went on, the upgrades weren’t always worth it after filling out the fundamental ones to access each area, and that the game couldn’t be built around the assumption that players had these tools because they may have chosen a different progression path, or ignored neuromods completely.

So here’s where a broad judgement call has to be made. Did Prey benefit from this freedom, or would it have been better with something closer to a Metroidvania? The only options the developers knew for certain that every player would have for getting around were the gloo gun, the jet pack, and at least a few weapons. And you can see this limitation reflected in every area that has multiple paths. If it’s part of the main storyline, then there will always be a way to get somewhere either by looking closely around for a vent to climb through, somewhere to glide around, or a wall to make some stairs with the gloo gun. Always. This is the baseline that the levels are built around, and even most of the optional areas follow this.

The gloo gun is a cool weapon. I really like that it’s effective in combat without dealing damage directly. It’s an unusual twist like that. Building your own stairs or climbing points up elevator shafts is also strangely satisfying—like you’re breaking the game—and it’s impressive that these gloo clumps persist in areas even after you leave and come back a long time later. You can also learn to use it to put out fires or plug broken pipes, which you have to realize yourself through experimentation, studying the environment, or paying attention to audio logs. This was a great, versatile tool that every player has access to.

So my thought process is maybe some of the neuromods should have also been things you “find” in the world and a different system could have been used instead. Upgrades and abilities that you acquire just like those in a Metroidvania, so that later levels could be built safely with the knowledge that every player will have some sort of hacking ability, or repair ability, or the increased jump height, or puzzles involving the mimic transformation.

I know that this ruins a lot of the game’s story. I also know that it changes Prey significantly. I am not trying to say that the game as it is now should be altered, only that it’s worth considering if the open ended nature of Prey’s progression system is really superior to upgrades found in each main area so levels can become more complicated. Or maybe a mix of the two could have been better—the game already does that, and it could have done it more.

This would have also offered more ways to put rewards for exploration around the station. Inventory slots would have been a great one to start with instead of tying it to neuromods. Basically a more advanced way to upgrade the suit you’re wearing outside of chipsets. It would also be a way to explain some of these upgrades, since I don’t see how injecting experiences through your eyeball could ever increase a physical limitation like how high you can jump, or help you lift drastically heavier things. It also doesn’t make sense that you would need multiple neuromods for one thing either, unless there’s some sort of unspoken limit on how much information each mod can hold so abilities had to broken up into multiple pieces. How would that even work?

The last thing I want to point out here is how much the game’s world is hurt by all of the loading screens between areas. This might not be fair to criticize the game for—I have no idea if it’s even possible to make levels that are as complex as Prey’s without the load screens separating each one—but it’s still something that brought the experience down for me. In more ways than one.

The obvious thing to gripe about here is that load times are boring. They interrupt the game. You’re forced to wait. They’re not excessively long so they are tolerable—although I do think it’s strange to have to wait for an animation to finish and press a button to finalize the load. The issue is made worse because of how often you’ll be returning to previous areas. Not just for when you unlock a new ability, but also when the main mission sends you through the whole length of the station a few times. Or returning to the hub and your office to speak to some NPCs.

For me, knowing that I had to sit through two or three load screens to go outside the station to fix a problem really killed my motivation. To leave the area, find an airlock, go through it, get to the place I need to go, and then go back through the airlock. It also makes the world feel disconnected even though it’s put together quite well, which is a reason why I was surprised that it mostly makes sense when you go outside the station and view the different parts.

But the real loss here is that it makes the routes between each level feel so rigid. Each of the sections on Talos One are brimming with hidden routes and alternative ways to access most areas. Yet when it comes time to go from one level to another, your options are limited to just one or two. There could have been a similar, large scale network of hidden paths between levels that could reward exploration, or accessing previously blocked areas. This could have made backtracking more interesting since these alternative paths could have opened up as the player gains new abilities, so they’re not constantly retreading the same path.

However these problems could also be caused by the game’s story and the progression path that you’re set to at the start. Because despite the eventual freedom you can find later on, you’re kept quite confined at the beginning. This could be why the open ended upgrade system may hurt a bit, because it’s not matched in the same way by the world. There are gated checkpoints you have to reach before some places unlock, which could have also been smoothly matched with some mandatory upgrades—just like how the jet pack works already in the game.

Prey’s story starts out strong and then quickly becomes background noise. An excuse to go on many fetch quests and to explore each part of the station. Once you arrive at these parts, you have some wonderful environmental storytelling to take in, as well as some mostly well acted voice logs and emails to read about what life was like on the station. Almost every area also has a choice to make, which is thankfully not broadcasted to you with very clear right or wrong decisions—at least for the most part it isn’t. This is a full step above many choice systems in games, but it still has some stumbles.

<clip of January grandstanding>

But see how quickly I slipped past so much of the story there? Because that’s how empty most of the main quest is. After this gripping opening, your actions become: go to your office to view a video. Oh no, the video system got turned off somehow. Go somewhere else to turn the system back on. Now go back to your office to finish watching the video. Now the elevator is broken, go through another part of the station to get to the upper levels. Oh no a door is locked. Go find some audio logs so you can fabricate the necessary speech patterns to open it. Oh no now another door is locked. Blow yourself out the airlock. Oh no now the whole station is locked down. Go to the engine room to reset it.

See what I mean? The end goal of the game is interesting, as is the setting and some of the choices you make along the way, but the main story is so boring that I wish they hadn’t bothered. And I truly mean that: I wish that the game had let you go anywhere from the beginning and let you discover all of these choices and scenarios in each part of the station on your own, as you decided to go to each place. Because that’s what 90% of Prey’s main storyline is: a trail of breadcrumbs to keep you moving to new areas so you have some direction. Which is something that could still have been provided to you with some more broad goals without sacrificing your ability to go anywhere on the station.

With the way that the typhon infestation continues to grow over time, this could even be factored into a difficulty curve since most levels go through phases and become populated with more difficult monsters. The station could have reacted and changed slightly depending on where you go first or last. This is something that Prey already does.

I want to make something clear here because I sometimes get comments saying that I hate linearity. I don’t. I think a directed, polished, linear experience will often be far superior to a vague open one. But like everything it needs to be done well. I look at Prey and see a bunch of work that went into the main mission and see how much better the game would have been if they just hadn’t done it. And considering how strong the opening is, and how many interesting details are in the game outside of this main story, it makes me wonder if something else was originally planned, and that what’s in the game now was rushed together when they realized they didn’t have enough time for the original idea.

Let’s go back to the beginning and look at how much work went into this. Each day Morgan spent here was fake, but Prey’s developers also committed to fully realizing how that would work. This starts out early on with the scuff marks on the floor from the constant rearrangement of the fake walls while Morgan is in the elevator—which, of course, isn’t moving anywhere. It’s just shaking to give you that impression while the rooms change outside.

I noticed these marks on my first playthrough. I didn’t make the leap to think the room was changing, but it did make me pause and feel slightly off. A feeling that continued when I reached the test chambers. And a feeling that persisted throughout the whole game after I smashed this glass—because I was ready to smash another wall hours later and find out that even Talos One wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Which turns out to be exactly right.

<clip: They’re lying to you>

Work went into the helicopter room, the big screen, the supply room, and even some other ways in and out of the fake apartment. All for this opening. When you play the game again, you can notice some other things too—including what I thought was a cool email about how much trouble they had getting the birds right during the helicopter ride. The reason the researchers are getting exasperated with you is that you’re meant to have a typhon neuromod installed to try out. That’s what the “just do whatever feels natural, do the first thing that pops into your head” means despite how easy these tests are.

You’re meant to use a kinetic blast or levitation to move the boxes. You’re probably meant to use the teleport to cross the room. And, most telling, the room with absolutely nothing to hide in is meant to trigger your usage of the mimic ability to become the chair—the only other object in there.

The computer at the end is to monitor changes in Morgan’s personality. In theory, these answers should always be the same since it’s the same Morgan with the same memory wipe each day. The idea that changes can still happen is an unsettling one, and ends up being a major part of the story.

As I’m typing this it sounds pretty good. And yet after this, the game becomes fetch-quests-in-space and the more interesting parts are situations mostly isolated to each part of the station that you find them in.

Like whether or not you execute a prisoner in Psychotronics.

Whether you save a corrupt mechanic in an escape pod—one that has caused the deaths of so many others by not investigating the faults in the other pods. A decision that’s made more difficult because there’s someone else in the pod with him that’s innocent.

Choosing to save groups of mind controlled people, or letting them die as you take out the alien. Or even if you’ll be able to figure out how to save them at all.

There are quite a few choices like this, and more than a few stories that you can discover through emails and audio logs about people who lived on the station. It’s a simple thing, but seeing an email early on in the game and then many hours later finding that person’s office and reading the email again sent from their terminal, made Talos One feel a lot more real. This sort of thing happened many times as I played. I think the tracking bracelets and security terminals that allow you to find the corpses of everyone are to encourage that feeling: that everyone who worked here had some sort of minor story about what they were trying to do, and how they ended up dead. Most games don’t put that level of work in.

One of the most powerful moments for me was when I first got outside the station and decided to check out the orbiting billboard I saw earlier on. There was the corpse of a guy there that had died in the middle of uploading something. I finished his work and, as I drifted away, got to see the slow unveiling of a new message flash on the screen. This is something that I made happen for myself, and the creeping “Oh shit” realization of what it said stuck with me. This is what I mean by the potential of letting the player free to wander and discover for themselves.

The only parts of the main quest that came close to this involved Alex and January. Alex is Morgan’s brother and is absent for the majority of the game. He speaks to you through your phone when he really should just come out and talk to you directly. Even when you get to his office, and are right above his safe room, he refuses to meet you. Because the game was so unwilling to give players total freedom to roam around Talos One early, that they knew they had to keep Alex away from players who would kill him on sight and ruin that progression.

I think Alex is an interesting character and voiced incredibly well by Benedict Wong. Eventually he still has some opportunities to shine but it’s a shame Arkane felt the need to keep him locked away and unimportant for almost the whole game.

The same can’t be said about January and his brothers. Or sisters, depending on whether you choose to be a man or a woman at the start. The simulation at the beginning that you played through was not the first one Morgan had been subjected to. It was not the first trial for alien neuromods. He or she had gone through it and then been released at least two times before now. I think it might even be four or five from what I’ve gathered from emails and audio logs.

Each time the test was over, a different version of Morgan came out, because the memories lost from each experiment are unrecoverable.

The first iteration of Morgan was quite cold and committed to the tests involving the Typhon. Mimics can only reproduce by feeding on a consciousness, which means that for every new mimic created a human had to be sacrificed to them. From what I understand, this was done exclusively with Russian prisoners who were lied to—that they were volunteering for some sort of experiment in space as an alternative to their punishment on Earth.

Since neuromods are created through typhon material, and typhons can only be created through feeding on humans, that means every neuromod is also ground up and refined human matter as well as alien. That’s being injected along with a human’s experience and ability when a neuromod is used. Combine that with the memory loss which got Morgan into this horrible state to begin with, and you can begin to understand why there are some strong reasons to avoid using neuromods completely.

While the first Morgan was willing to see humans be sacrificed for progress—and even the morals of himself and his brother—those that came after him were not. Alex was troubled by this and eventually things got so bad that he decided that Morgan should be kept in the simulation for longer than they agreed to while he figured out a way to deal with him. Because the new Morgans kept wanting to shut the experiments down.

Enter January, December, and I believe a November robot that we never find. Morgan created these as a failsafe to help the next versions of himself deal with what’s happening on Talos One. At first you only meet January, who is the previous version of Morgan who believed the best course of action was to blow up the station.

Then you meet December, who believed the best idea was to escape and presumably expose what they were doing to the people on Earth.

If you keep going back, you have the original Morgan who wanted to develop a weapon that could destroy all of the typhon material with a station-wide pulse, just in case things got out of hand.

This is one of two parts of the main story that are interesting to think about. Because at first it may seem that January is the most valid perspective to follow. He’s the first one who speaks to you. He’s the one that helps you the most. And he even shows you a video of you, yourself, confirming everything he’s saying.

However, this happens only because the previous Morgan had the most time to develop this robot and create these plans. There are other videos too. Other audio logs. And other robots. Then there’s also the current iteration—you. What do you think about all of it? What do you want to do about it?

Once you realize that January is only one of many prior personalities of Morgan, things become a lot more unstable and harder to judge. What he says sounds reasonable: the station is a dangerous disgrace and needs to be wiped out to save Earth from being exposed to the typhon. But what’s really the best choice here?

There are other decisions like this in the game. Whether or not you decide to blow up a shuttle that left Talos One before it reaches Earth—with no way to tell if they’re carrying mimics to the surface or not. Whether or not you try to save survivors on the station and find a way for them to escape, even if you choose to blow up the station in the end.

Unfortunately the main quest doesn’t live up to this potential because there are only three choices. You either destroy the station, arm the nullwave transmitter to try to destroy only the typhon, or you simply find an escape pod and leave without doing either. Something that can finish the game early and ruin the surprise waiting for you at the end.

Which is probably something I’ve spent too much time dancing around by now. So let’s get to it.

The big twist in Prey comes after some shockingly bad ending cinematics. These are so abrupt that I think most will be relieved that the real ending comes after the credits.

If you haven’t played the game I think you’re going to have a very strong, negative reaction to what I’m about to show you. So please try to temper that because things are a bit more complicated than “it was all just a dream”.

Everything you have done has been a simulation based on the real Morgan Yu’s actions. Alex has captured a phantom and injected human abilities into it, just like they were putting typhon abilities into people. You have been playing as that typhon, believing you’re human, as you make choices through Talos One. You’re now judged on your performance, to see if you are empathetic enough to relate to humans, instead of being a typhon that only wants to kill—the typhon are more complex than that but let’s go with it for this part of the story.

Now setting aside the “it was all a dream” reaction for just a second, this sequence where the game passes judgement on you is pretty cool. You may have made some good or bad decisions that you didn’t even know the game would be paying attention to. This is especially strong with decisions that are hidden within decisions. You can choose to let some NPCs die—specifically Sarah Elazar and her people in the cargo hold, Doctor Igwe in a container outside the station, and Mikhaila who is dying above the station’s power plant.

If you save these people, then there are even more choices that branch out from that decision. Whether you help Mikhaila discover what happened to her father—who was a Russian prisoner that Morgan sacrificed to create more mimics—and whether you let her have the information if you find it, or destroy it and lie to her. Then you have whether you save Elazar and her people a second time later on. Igwe also asks you to retrieve something from his room for him, but he also has important roles to play in the decisions presented to you by Mikhaila and Elazar. All of which would be different depending on who you did or didn’t save.

The game judges you at the end for these decisions, which I think is really interesting. It made me want to go back and try to do different things—even how many typhon you killed, or how many mind-controlled humans you saved, is a part of it. The goal of the simulation is to create a typhon ambassador that can communicate the needs of the surviving humans since Earth was infested—no matter what Morgan may have done, it didn’t work.

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, it’s worth considering that even this isn’t something you should take at face value.

The decisions that matter the most involve the NPCs you find on the station, which is why it’s so fitting that they end up being the voices of the robots that judge you. There are some flaws with this—for example, if you leave on an escape pod the simulation ends immediately with failure. The same really should happen if you demonstrate that you’re a feral, bloodthirsty typhon that uses mostly those powers and kills every human they see, even if they’re not a threat. Especially Alex, the first chance you get, since he would see himself being killed as a great reason to not trust the typhon when the simulation was over. But for that sort of reaction to be present in a way that was still satisfying, there would need to be some sort of continuation of the story after this point. Or an initially artificial way that ends the game if you murder someone without giving away the ending like the escape pod does.

What surprised me on my second and third playthroughs were how many things the game does react to. For instance, you can kill January on sight and go the rest of the game without his advice. I think the game is both improved and weakened played like this—you get to make more decisions on your own, but you miss out on some of his better lines and background information on the areas you visit. If January is not killed then he kills the other robot December, since he sees himself as the most recent robot helper and therefore the most valid. If you kill January first, then December survives and continues to direct you to find a way to leave the station. There aren’t nearly as many lines for the December robot, but that the developers accounted for this choice at all is impressive.

Likewise for the events of the third act of the game, although it’s likely you won’t appreciate it your first time through. Prey is quite a long game that, due to a lot of backtracking in the main story, overstays its welcome. You end up going to Alex’s office multiple times only to be interrupted by something and sent elsewhere. The worst of all of these is if you follow the January path, since you’ll end up going down to the engine room, then back up, then outside the station, then back up again, then back down to the engine room again, then all the way back up to the top. Even saying it sounds ridiculous.

So please try to understand that I’m not being contradictory when I say that I both enjoyed the arrival of Walther Dahl, but also wished that the game was done already instead of throwing another problem without introducing any new areas to visit.

Dahl is a mercenary hired by Morgan and Alex’s parents to clean up their mess on Talos One, which is a twisted family betrayal that isn’t explored nearly as much as it could have been—especially if Dahl had shown up much earlier in the plot. He arrives at the station via shuttle and brings with him a robot helper that hacks all of Talos One. He begins printing military grade robots to move through all of the levels, killing any typhon and also any survivors. Including you and your brother.

There’s a giant plot hole here that I can’t ignore. Dahl’s service bot did not physically change any of the hardware on the station. Which means that these dispensers were always capable of creating these high-grade combat drones. Ones that are surprisingly difficult to kill and, as you can see, are more than a match for cutting through the typhon. I do not understand why Alex or Elazar didn’t have this capability ready to react to any aliens that escaped confinement, considering how easy it was to get the machines pumping them out.

Plot holes aside, there is an impressive amount of different options and reactions you have here. Depending on how many people you’ve killed, Dahl will either start taunting and insulting you over the phone, or he’ll congratulate you on doing most of his job for him because you killed so many people. He’ll ask you to hunt down some of the final ones and then offer to meet you in order to bring you back to your parents—which is of course a lie but it’s still a way the game reacts to what you’ve done.

If you saved Elazar’s group, then Dahl tries to bait you into fighting him. First with an ambush in the lobby on the station. The same technology you used earlier to create a synthetic voice to get through a sealed door is used against you: to simulate the voice of a dead man in the medical centre. If you were paying attention to his name when you explored it earlier, you can dismiss this distress call and not fall for the trap. The second way he baits you is by turning the air supply off to the cargo hold where the survivors are still hiding.

On top of this, if you saved Igwe, he will propose knocking Dahl unconscious instead of killing him so you can remove his neuromods, making him forget his mission and act as an ally instead of an enemy. You can ignore this and still kill him. If you choose to incapacitate him, you can purge the oxygen control area to knock him out, or you can use the disruptor gun. Or you can choose to ignore the whole scenario, and use the location of Dahl’s security bot from his shuttle to block his access from Talos One and save the survivors that way.

If you do this then Dahl rides the elevator to the top of the station to try to kill Alex. Which you can then choose to kill him, knock him out, and the same for Alex himself. If you choose the disruptor gun, then the game has even planned to react to the big alien’s arrival by further tasking you with getting Dahl’s unconscious body safely to the nearest medical office so a robot can transport him down to the neuromod division to remove his mods.

See how many choices there are? There are more too. Whether you saved Mihkalia and her presence on the shuttle at the end. Even the prisoner you can choose to save in Psychotronics can be here if you cleared enough of the typhon so he doesn’t die in that area after you set him free.

Unfortunately not every choice is as well executed, or expanded on thoroughly enough. One of the most initially interesting parts of the game was the chef in the crew quarters. This is a little under halfway through the game—this story unfolds the instant you enter the area and hear him half-guiding, half-taunting you over the speaker system. You continue to do things for him while you collect audio logs to create the fake voice to open that door across the station.

There’s something both great and terrible about this encounter. Firstly, you should know that the chef is a fake. The real one is dead and this guy is an escaped prisoner from Psychotronics. He sends you on seemingly pointless tasks which I didn’t understand on my second playthrough—the first thing he wants is for you to go to his room and bring him a cooking award. Since he’s a fake, he shouldn’t care. It wasn’t until I was really paying attention to his lines here—about how the lights are flickering and the station is hurting, just ignore it—that I realized the chef knows about the lightning typhon near the room and has sent you into a trap. My first time I just assumed it was a coincidence this enemy was here.

You can also hear him talk aloud afterward, wondering if you’re still alive or not.

There are several chances to realize the chef is an imposter on top of this. First are the audio logs with the real chef—he has a different voice and a different portrait. Then there’s the photograph in his room with his face scratched off, and at least one email confirming that Morgan and the chef already knew each other.

Pretty cool encounter right? Lots of clues. And the mystery of what the chef’s endgame is. After he tries to kill you, by locking you in the freezer, he sets traps for you all over the station which is also a neat twist on the idea of studying your environment for dangers.

There are two major problems here, however.

The first is that this cat-and-mouse routine through the station leads to an anti-climax. I don’t know if you always find the chef in the same place, but for me I stumbled upon him in an escape pod and simply backed away from the recycler charge trap he set off, which killed him instead of me. There was no grand explanation or involved story about what this guy has been plotting. You just find him and he dies. Very disappointing. Although it’s possible I may have missed an alternate path.

The arguably even bigger issue is that you cannot confront the chef with any of the clues. The game won’t let you interrogate him, or accuse him of being a fake. You either need to go along with it and wait for him to attack, or you need to presume he’s out to kill you on top of being a fake Gordon Ramsey, and hit him first. This is a problem in many stories in video games and is probably worth discussing another time. I understand that this can’t simply be solved with a dialogue box since that option itself would reveal the truth to players who didn’t notice. Because there’s no trigger for acknowledging these clues—which I definitely think is the superior way to do it instead of an interactable prompt which is also a clue in of itself—it’s difficult to have the game realize that you’ve seen through the deception and want to make an accusation. It hurts this encounter because my only option is to pretend to be fooled, or to attack first and never find out what was going on.

This could be explained away, like several other issues, by the game being a simulation—a game within a game with its own limitations. I don’t buy that since it seems like just an excuse to me, but I do wonder if some people will accept it. It’s a way to explain other things too: like how the NPCs you save somehow get around the station unscathed. Especially for Doctor Igwe, who has no combat abilities whatsoever, who manages to get to the neuromod division to remove Dahl’s neuromods.

A plot hole that IS explained by this, is the absence of any sort of hacking or repairing skill on Morgan at the start. You can clearly see in his apartment that, even before receiving any neuromods at all, that he was an accomplished engineer. There’s a ton of work he was doing and he was even able to make the January and December robots after losing his neuromods. We also know from Alex’s comments that Morgan has been hacking into computers for decades, and yet he’s incapable of doing even the most basic versions of these things when you’re in control because it’s a typhon in a simulation. It even explains why the player doesn’t have all of Morgan’s prior memories either.

However, once you open the door to that line of thought, it’s hard to close it again. And the end result is a feeling of deep uncertainty about the story—about what’s intentional, what was planned, and what was rushed together.

Once you know that Prey is a simulation, it’s easy to dismiss it. If you think about Alex for a bit though, and assume that this ending scene is real, then things can become a lot more interesting. The key phrase spoken at the end is that it was a RECONSTRUCTION that was BASED on Morgan’s memories. It’s not a faithful, entirely accurate representation of true events. Of course how could it be, when they’re judging you on your decisions?

Alex has a lot more at stake here than simply seeing if a line of communication can be opened with the typhon. Earth is lost, and they’re desperate for a solution. It makes zero sense to think that Alex would not alter the simulation in significant ways to make the humans appear more sympathetic.

When I went through the game a second and third time, I was struck by how little respect the employees had for Alex and Morgan Yu. They are painted as borderline incompetent and maybe even a little evil. Alex admits that he broke Morgan’s arm when they were kids over some deleted save files for a game. And there are numerous emails and audio logs that show how ruthless he was with his staff—that they were underpaid, rebellious, and even forced into neuromod removals to keep teams in the dark about what was really going on. Let that one sink in all on its own. Forced neuromod removal, robbing people of months or even years of their lives.

The picture so vividly painted was of the majority of Talos One’s employees having no idea that the typhon were being used in such a way—or that they even existed at all. Most that do find out reject it outright, from the extreme end with suicide, to organized plots to get the truth to news outlets back on Earth. The station is teeming with the stories of Alex being questioned, undermined, and hated by almost every major character.

Nothing like the reasonable person he is when you speak with him directly, or the cautiously optimistic, calm presence in the ending scene. Like a man acting the part of one on the road to redemption. A few of the audio calls you receive don’t match his actions running the station either, especially the one where he seems to show some understanding about the aliens, and even an affinity for them.

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I find it very hard to believe that most of the people on Talos One would be unaware of what was really going on. Just like I also find it hard to believe that so many of them were plotting against their employers.

The conclusion I want to come to is that Alex has made himself and his brother into scapegoats, and arranged the station to make the typhon believe that it was only a small minority of humans that were treating their race like a science experiment. That most people, when they discovered the truth, rejected the whole thing and would have treated them better instead. That there’s something worthwhile in our race, and that we shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of only a few. That they should please, please empathize with us and try to help.

Where I stumble is that there’s no way to confirm this in the game, aside from the choice to reject Alex and kill him instead. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe the real mind game in Prey is realizing that you are being treated like a puppy—being trained and conditioned to grow up to be an obedient little dog, and that maybe the horrific choice at the end is the right one for once. That you should reject the manipulation and punish them instead.

I would have loved to be able to break the simulation on subsequent runs. Find flaws and cracks and escape in some way after realizing what was happening, but maybe that’s asking for too much. Especially given how many choices there are.

Overall I think Prey as a story starts out strong, and spends too much of its middle portion wasting time to also finish strong, even if there is a lot to think about. It’s strange to realize that the sidequests are still overshadowed by a weak main quest, since the expectation after the opening would be a continuation of that quality.

As for gameplay—combat and exploration—I think Prey is well worth experiencing yourself if you’re a fan of these types of games even despite some of its shortcomings, and a more puzzle-like approach to combat. But another big reason to play ties back to System Shock 2. A supposed classic that’s often exalted for doing everything well.

Prey has so many similarities that you’ll probably get a much better understanding of what System Shock 2 was at release then you would playing it today. You can see how blatant some of the influences were: from the gravity shaft elevators on many levels, to the almost exact same way the wrench is swung from above and to the side. There’s hacking, repair, cybermodules to neuromods, a voice telling you what to do for most of the game, vending machines for supplies, a lot of audio logs, environmental storytelling, a setting in space, and I could really just keep going.

System Shock 2 is by no means a flawless masterpiece and, like some of the other Shock games, it falls apart at the end, albeit in a more hilarious blaze of glory than the others in my opinion.

Prey is also far from perfect, but so are many games released. I know I’ve been heavily critical of it in this video but I hope, if the game happened to pass you by, that I’ve shown at least some of what it does well.

Because it all comes back to the name for me, and how Prey should have been called something more SHOCKING instead.

The Villain of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is best described as a vastly more complicated and interactive version of those pop-up books you may have played with as a child. The ones with the pull tabs that move things on each page. There’s even one of these in Edith Finch itself that you find early on.

Because of that, it’s hard to recommend What Remains of Edith Finch to everyone even though it is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever encountered in the interactive medium. It has a few sequences that are well worth experiencing yourself, but it’s important to know that it is firmly a story. Your input is limited to walking around, interacting with things like those pull tabs in those books, and absorbing the narrative.

The exceptions to that are found in specific sequences when you become a different character. At least one of these is incredible, so if you’re interested in stories alone then I recommend you stop watching so you don’t spoil it for yourself. It’s only about two hours long so it’s not a big time commitment if you really want to hear me speak about it.

It may also help pique your interest, because What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t the type of story you’d expect to have a villain. And yet, to me, it has one of the most insidious yet sympathetic characters I’ve seen in recent memory.

There will be spoilers from this point onward.

The story begins on a boat. You have no idea who you are or where you’re going. Eventually you’ll look down and see a book in your lap that you can open. You may also notice the flowers and a cast on your right arm.

The book is entitled Edith Finch. On the first page are two false starts that have been scribbled out, both of which state the same sort of thing: “My family never seemed strange to me when I was growing up.” On the next page, the first paragraph begins to glow and we move to another scene with another character. This is the beginning of two trends that we’ll be seeing again and again: a creative use of subtitles, and that What Remains of Edith Finch is a bunch of stories within stories. Although Edith is the main character and narrator speaking to us through this book, everything we experience is nestled in a layer underneath that boat ride at the beginning. Which is something you may forget after a while.

The story is primarily about this withered family tree of dead children. There’s a curse following the Finches, and it has claimed every member of the family except for Edith herself. Her mother is the most recent victim and, after the funeral, a mysterious key that Edith inherited has led her back to her unusual family home. She’s 17 years old and alone in the world.

The goal is to discover what happened to everyone else in the family. This is marked by those branches on the tree in her book. As you learn about each dead aunt, uncle, sibling, and grandparent, Edith fills in the tree with a short sketch above their birth and death years. There are thirteen entries on this tree but only nine of them involve sinking another layer deep into the story-within-a-story, when Edith discovers a book or a letter that explains what happened to them, which you act out in first-person.

It’s important to realize that each of these sequences is a recreated experience of how they died, but also sits with a wild amount of variance on the Unreliable Narrator Scale. Not everything is meant to be taken at face value.

At the beginning, however, things are a bit jarring. For two reasons. The first is that Edith Finch is like me: she never shuts up. That’s a rude way of putting it because that was my initial reaction: I wanted to be able to figure things out and notice them myself, without having Edith point them out and rob me of that enjoyment. What I failed to realize this early on is that her narration is crucial because everything we experience is translated through her perception of events, just like the stories she finds and reads through her journey. This is important when it comes time to process everything that happens in search of answers. Also, just because Edith does speak a lot doesn’t mean there aren’t things you have to notice yourself. There’s a surprising amount of this if you’re paying attention. The first type are finding trigger points for more of that narration: early on here are details about the deaths of both of your brothers. Milton went missing many years ago and was never found. And that Lewis died shortly before Edith and her mother left the house and never came back until now. But far more rewarding are details Edith doesn’t comment on. Or things you can notice earlier than some others might.

For instance, I looked down in this opening scene and saw that Edith had a bit of a tummy. You can see your body but not your feet unless you’re walking, because your stomach is in the way. About an hour later you’re told directly that Edith is 22 weeks pregnant, but you could have also pieced this together early on and linked it back to the opening scene on the boat. It’s my opinion that much of the story in What Remains of Edith Finch is left for you to discover through these details—the key difference between this and other stories that I’ve criticized for doing this sort of thing, is that it’s clear the writers do have an answer for almost everything and want you to figure it out. Whereas other stories are vague to give the impression of a story when there isn’t one.

This is directly linked to the second thing that’s jarring about the opening: the house. Which is weird and wonderful in the distance but also fucking bananas. Edith may say herself at the beginning that she didn’t know any different as a child so she didn’t realize how strange it all is, but everyone else here WILL notice. The house looks like a monstrous tower growing out of the forest and, even worse, inside most of the rooms have been sealed closed and then drilled with holes so people can peep through like they’re all front doors to other worlds. This is beyond unreasonable.

However, it’s explained in a way that makes perfect sense later. But only if you’re paying attention. The Finches are a family that are equal parts disturbed and brilliant. Everyone is deeply creative and driven to leave their mark on the world or, at least, this house. The true tragedy of this family is that this is intertwined with the curse that’s killing them. Perhaps far more deeply than they realize.

Edith’s mother Dawn is arguably the most normal of any of the Finches. And yet even she was compelled to travel the world to help people, and even wrote and published at least one book on teaching. The others are builders, soldiers, artists, or those that lose themselves deeply in their own imagination. Especially for the younger Finches that died before they could fully realize their creative potential.

So even though this beginning is crazy, with the strange sealed doors with looking holes like the whole house slowly mutated into a mausoleum, it eventually makes a lot of sense. It’s important to know that Edith has never been allowed into most of these rooms until now, which is demonstrated with one of the best lines in the story:

I felt like I stepped behind a painting.

From here you find a padlock in a book that accepts the inherited key, and begin following a path through the house that leads to each of these sealed rooms. We’ll get to why they were sealed to begin with later, but for now let’s go through each of the stories within Edith’s story.

Odin brought the Finch family to America but died during the trip. He attempted to sail the family house across the ocean and then sank with it. His daughter Edith Senior—who goes by the name Edie so you’re not confused between your character and hers—survived along with her husband Sven and their daughter Molly. Edie is Edith’s GREAT grandmother. So three big jumps on the tree here.

They begin construction of the new family house. Two important details are that the old house is visibly sunk in the water outside. And that Edie decided that the cemetery should be built first. BEFORE the house. The family curse was already alive and kicking before this point and Edie was certain it had followed them to America. Hence Odin’s death.

And then every death after that.

Edie and Sven had five children. Two girls. Then twin boys. And then another boy.

Molly was their first child and it’s her story that we experience first as well. She was only 10 years old when she died, and the first-hand account of her death is both one of the longest in the story, and one of the most ambiguous.

You find her journal in her room and read the final entry, wherein Molly claims she knows she’ll be dead soon.

Molly was sent to bed without any dinner, presumably because she was misbehaving. You control Molly as you search her room for anything to eat: she considers eating her goldfish, but ends up gnawing through a stale carrot from her gerbil cage, downing an entire tube of toothpaste, and eating some berries resting on her bathroom windowsill. You can search for Halloween candy but the pumpkin is empty. You can also try to open the door and discover that she’s been locked in, and hear Edie tell her to go to sleep.

The story changes when a bird appears outside. The window is chained but can be opened enough that a little girl could slip through. This is the first of a handful of moments where I think the story intentionally subverts expectations. I thought the girl was going to end up falling through the window as she’s reaching for the bird and that’s how she died. It wouldn’t make sense because then how did she write the journal entry you’re reading, but that’s where my mind immediately went. Instead, Molly suddenly transforms into a cat and leaps through the window. You then chase the bird through the trees as a cat, eat the bird, and then go through another transformation into an owl. You eat two rabbits in a surprisingly unsettling perspective—swallowing them whole like this—and then transform again.

This sequence goes on for quite a while, with Molly continuing to state how hungry she was. She turns into a shark next, eats a seal, and is still hungry. She then turns into a monster and attacks sailors on a nearby boat. You control all of this in a slithering game of leapfrog along the way to each person. Then the final change takes place when Molly-As-Monster smells something far more delicious than anything else far away from the boat. She swims to a pipe on the coast, climbs up through a toilet and into a bathroom in a house, and immediately you might guess where this is going.

You snake your way through Molly’s bedroom and take your hiding spot—the standard monster under the bed. Then Molly wakes up in the same bed and begins writing the journal entry that you’ve been reading—confident that she’s about to be eaten by the monster lurking underneath her. This is all the information that you’re given and Molly is presumably found dead the next morning, or dies shortly afterward, or goes missing and is never found at all just like your brother Milton.

So what’s really going on here? First of all, this is some pretty great storytelling. The transition from the girl’s hunger, to what is clearly a dream, to what then loops back to the same bedroom with an “oh shit” moment is wonderful. The only thing I can criticize is that the shark falling down this hill looks a bit crap. What really happened is left up to you to decipher, just like Edith herself has come to the house to figure out.

If you space out on the diary entry date like I did at the beginning, there are many clues that nudge you into realizing how Molly died. The empty Halloween bucket is the first one. Then there’s the small Christmas tree at the window and, more obviously, the calendar showing it’s December. There’s also the sea monster drawing on the blackboard—and the squid shaped pillow among other things in the room. The berries she ate in the bathroom were mistletoe which is highly poisonous—in reality that’s not exactly true but it’s well known enough that for the sake of this story we should accept it in my opinion. Molly ate those berries on top of a tube of toothpaste and a decaying carrot, and then went back to sleep. She then became sick which fueled her dreams into what you played through. There was no monster. She died from being poisoned or whatever sickness she developed afterward.

Back in her story, Edith draws a sketch of Molly into her book and then goes out the window to follow a similar path that the cat did in her dream. For now let’s move through most of the death scenes a little quicker so everyone is on the same page.

In Edie’s room you find a ton of important details about her character, but no death scene. There are images that tell you how Odin died on the way to America instead. You also find out about her husband Sven, who died building a dragon-themed slide on the side of the house. Edie likes to tell this story as an actual dragon killed him. Neither of these characters get their own death story to go through.

Up next are Calvin and Sam, Edie’s twin boys, who shared a room for many years. Another one of those details you can notice yourself is in here with the marked heights on the door that stop at a young age for only one boy.

Calvin’s death has a similar fantastical layer to it as Molly’s death since it’s told through a note Sam wrote about him. You play this sequence out as a boy on a swing that’s trying to go high enough that they loop right around the branch at the top. Which is something I think most kids who went on a swing a lot thought about when they were young. In this sequence, Calvin succeeds in his attempt and, as Sam puts it, was finally able to fly. In reality he went right off the swing, over the cliff, and fell to his death. At the age of eleven compared to Molly’s ten.

Barbara’s room is next but not before you open an unexpected shortcut back to the main part of house from inside a wine cupboard, which means I can make my obligatory Dark Souls reference even for something like What Remains of Edith Finch.

Barbara was the most famous Finch. She was a child star in what looks like some campy horror show with Big Foot. Her stardom didn’t last long though. Her story is told with more layers to obscure the truth than any of the others, because it’s a Tales from the Crypt Keeper style comic book about her death. Edith even comments that it’s strange that Edie kept it and put it on display in Barbara’s room.

The story in the comic is that Barbara, now sixteen years old, is living a boring life as a forgotten, washed up child star. She suddenly has a new opportunity when she’s given a chance to repeat one of her performances at a local horror convention. She winds up missing her chance when her father, Sven, hurts his hand and has to be taken to hospital by Edie. Barbara is left looking after her younger brother Walter, while her boyfriend continues to coach her with acting lessons.

As the night progresses, it becomes more like a parody of old horror movies. The boyfriend goes missing and you have to take control of one of the comic panels to go looking for him. It turns out he was trying to scare you to help you get into character for your big scream at the horror convention. The radio is also blaring out a warning that a band of criminals are terrorizing the area. A hookman ends up invading the house and Barbara fights him off. Younger brother Walter goes missing, and Barbara is killed by a pack of monsters that left the convention to find her—but not before they get to hear her trademark scream one last time.

Barbara’s boyfriend is missing and never seen again. Walter was apparently hiding under the bed and witnessed enough of it to be scarred for life. All they find of Barbara, in the comic at least, is a severed ear in a music box in the downstairs hallway. Something her father made specially for her.

An important detail in the comic is that it reveals how to get into the basement. If you keep turning the handle on the music box, a key pops out which lets you unlock the door. Which is how you continue to progress to the other parts of the house after this point. Until you read this comic, you don’t know how to do this and the basement is locked off.

Barbara’s death is more likely caused by the boyfriend. Each of these stories has a bit of truth to them, as you can see from the broken part of the railing where the struggle took place, and my guess is that the fight they have in the basement got out of hand and he killed her. Which is why the boyfriend was never seen again since he fled. Walter’s story is after this and his is directly linked to what happened here—what he saw when Barbara was killed.

The dates of each death show that Calvin died shortly after Barbara. So, in rough terms, by the time you get to the beginning of Walter’s story, Edie only had two children left. Molly, Barbara, and Calvin are dead. Only Walter and Sam are still alive.

Walter’s story is on the shorter side. You discover it when you go through the basement and find a hidden door in a refrigerator at the bottom. This leads to a secret underground bunker where Walter lived for 30 years.

Barbara’s death was so traumatizing for Walter that he was unable to cope with the real world. He describes this as a monster waiting to get him—the Finch Family Curse. This is a visible rumbling for him as he settles into a daily routine in his restrained life. You experience this routine by opening the same can every day in the same position. He has one of the best lines in the story here when he describes his life as so comfortable and cushioned that even the monster at the door has become routine, almost friendly.

Then, after 30 years of this, he has finally recovered enough to venture outside. He goes down to the area he was using to store extra supplies and garbage and that creative use of subtitles is back as he hammers his way through a wall to the outside.

I don’t comment on this sort of thing much, but I’d feel like this video would be incomplete if I didn’t point out how much the music adds to this scene. The way it represents Walter’s newfound hope as he steps toward the light of the outside world for the first time in three decades. I went through the story twice and this got me both times. It’s especially profound given that Walter’s words were already written on the note Edith is reading before he got out and walked along this tunnel, which is why the train that immediately appears and kills him is so twistedly ironic.

In the bunker you can find a train set that Walter had been working on painting. I don’t know the full intention behind that detail, or if the rumbling he felt was meant to be the train passing by each day. It doesn’t quite make sense if that’s the case because it was the fact that it stopped happening that led him to leave the bunker. Whereas his death proves that the trains were still running. Maybe a little later than usual if the rumbling was caused by them.

It’s also worth pointing out that the death he was so afraid was waiting for him outside the door, to snatch him if he left, got him within the first minute that he was free.

Following this story is Edith following in Walter’s footsteps. The train tracks are strangely destroyed now, and it’s important to know that Walter was living below the house for so long that Edith was alive and living there when this death occurred. Walter was the last of Edie’s children to die and even made it to past the disappearance of Edith’s brother Milton.

Just like the scene in the tunnel, I found this next sequence to be extraordinarily beautiful. Edith wanders along the shore, staring at the water, and is digesting all of the stories she’s read so far. Some of the most important lines in the whole story are said here, but we’re going to skip ahead to the cemetery and the next round of deaths. We’ll come back to this later.

Every dead Finch is enshrined here overlooking the water—a link back to the sunken house that Odin’s statue is pointing toward, because every room in the house being a dedication wasn’t quite enough for Great Grandma Edie.

This place shows a staggering amount of investment in memorializing the dead. There’s also a sick detail here that I didn’t notice until my second time through: a crown on the tombstone for Lewis’s grave.

The next death scene is with Sam, the only child of Edie’s that we haven’t seen yet. Sam is Edith’s grandfather. He married a woman named Kay and had three children: Dawn, Gus, and Gregory. So our journey can be seen as moving through three phases: you fill in the generation below Edie’s first, then Sam’s children, and then Dawn’s children. Of which one is you, Edith Finch.

Sam’s death is the most pure form of dramatic irony in the entire story. Because you know that there’s going to be a death, as there always has been so far, and yet everything is steady and peaceful. Sam has taken Dawn on a hunting trip. Just the two of them. The date of his death is a year after Gus died, which means that both of his sons are gone and Dawn is his only remaining child. He is surprisingly content despite losing two children, and is calm when he interacts with Dawn. You play the role of the camera that they take turns holding to create pictures of the trip.

Things start to take a darker turn when Sam insists on shooting a deer that Dawn spotted with the camera. You get a photograph of the precise moment that Dawn shoots the animal, and the next scene is her crying over it in the dramatic display that Sam has set up to commemorate the moment. You control him as he starts the camera timer and run up in time for the picture to be taken. Which exactly matches the point that the deer reveals itself to not be dead after all, and knocks Sam to his death.

Edith comments after this that her mother never told her this story, and that she wishes that she had.

Gregory and Gus are next and they’re both fairly short sequences. If you know how these go already, and watched my videos for a while, then you can probably guess how I feel about one of them. I have two boys. One is less than two years old. The other isn’t even five months yet. I think I bring this up a little too often in videos but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t relevant here. Because Gregory’s scene is the death of a one year old baby.

For me this was the most horrifying part of the whole story. And not just because it’s depicting the death of a small child. It’s that it was done with such a happy song and dance. Like someone had broken into your home at night, tied you to a chair, and decided to put on a full clown outfit and do a funny dance to Disney music while holding the knife behind his back. And if you don’t look happy enough that this is happening, he’s just going to kill you sooner.

You know what’s going to happen here and yet it’s bright and colorful and the music is glorious—the whole thing is majestic like it’s a celebration that this baby is going to drown. The story justifies this because it’s written from the perspective of Sam—who has combined both a eulogy for his son and a plea to his wife that this wasn’t her fault. It focuses on how this baby was always so happy and must have seen the world as a very different, very joyous place compared to most. Which becomes the twisted scene you see now.

I don’t know what the intention was here. I feel like my reaction is the odd one out. I think this is meant to show that there can be beauty in the world and that, even though this baby drowned in the bath, that he was happy right up until that moment. But for me this takes a nosedive right into pure horror when you start to think about the baby’s drowning consciousness fading, fading, fading—his arms change color, and the bath toys are now enormous in this underwater paradise, like they’re greeting him in death and encouraging him to join them. This is him dying right now. His stream of consciousness as he drowns. And his swimming animation here may actually be him struggling out of instinct to get his head back above the water.

Gus dies five years later at a wedding that takes place on the beach outside the house. Dawn wrote a poem about it, and you control the kite that Gus was flying that day to swoop around to highlight all of the words. This becomes more nonsensical as time goes on, with chairs and other objects being swept up in the wake of the kite, to represent the building storm on the ocean. The deathblow in this sequence comes when the tent itself is tangled up and swept along with that storm, but it’s unclear if that’s what really happened or if the storm killed Gus in another way and his body was found later on. My guess while doing this was the cliche that he was going to be struck by lightning while his kite was still in the air.

After this you climb a wall to the new part of the house—the misshapen tower that seems tacked on to the top because that’s exactly what happened. Dawn married a man named Sanjay and, after he died, she moved back to the house with her three children. Edie, who is clearly fabulously wealthy, expanded the house so they could have their own area on top of it. Each child got their own room, a central living and eating area, and even a school room for Dawn to teach them at home. Which is where you can find the books that she wrote.

There are only two, arguably three, sequences left to go through now. One is Milton’s disappearance, which Edith proclaims as the beginning of when things got bad. Life at the house was happy and normal for a while, but then Edie built Milton a castle for a new bedroom. Shortly after that he went missing.

This one is told through a flipbook you find in Milton’s room because, like Edie, he was a gifted artist. This flipbook shows one of his paintings coming to life and granting him a magical paintbrush to create a doorway to another world. I hate to do this but there’s already a bunch of details that I’ve skipped over because they’ll be more relevant at the end. So we’re just going to acknowledge that this is all you discover about Milton here and move on. Oh and that you can actually stop and flip the pages here one-by-one, which I thought was a neat detail. This isn’t just an animation baked in that does the whole thing for you, you can pause it.

So that leaves us with Lewis.

I’m going to do something now that I haven’t done in a video since I think the Witness or SOMA. I’m going to repeat my spoiler warning. In my opinion Lewis’s scene is worth the asking price for What Remains of Edith Finch all on its own. That’s not to say that there aren’t other worthwhile moments in this story—I think we’ve already seen a few of them. But this sequence with Lewis’s death is simply incredible. I’ll do my best to emulate it here for the sake of discussing it but if anything that I’ve shown you so far has looked like a good time to you, then please stop the video and do this part yourself. It’s real close to the end too, so you can see that and form your own thoughts before hearing mine.

I’m going to risk saying that nearly everyone is going to be able to relate to this scene with Lewis. And if you don’t, then you should count yourself very lucky. Because it means you’ve never been forced, or stuck, doing a monotonous task that leads you to an inevitable bout of daydreaming. A wanderlust to be doing anything other than what you are now. A soulless job, or a daily chore that eats up a ton of time.

As you can see, Lewis takes this one step further than most. This scene is wonderfully narrated by his psychiatrist in a letter to Lewis’s mother Dawn. The performance of this letter, both formal and subtly emotional at the same time, is the perfect match for the otherwise bizarre visuals you’ll be interacting with. It’s as though even she was traumatized by what happened and is struggling to accept that she almost understands why he did what he did.

Your right hand on the mouse controls the hand putting the fish under the guillotine. Your left hand is on the keyboard, moving an imaginary character through a fantasy world. You have to do both at the same time. Your boring job, and your daydream.

If you’re like me then you’ll have another great moment of subverted expectations here. This is, of course, going to end in death. And what could be more obvious than the daydream taking over and Lewis losing concentration, putting his whole arm under the guillotine along with a fish.

This is not what happens.

The fantasy world of Lewis’s imagination slowly grows in complexity as this goes on. First to a far more advanced perspective of the world. Then to other characters. Then music. A city instead of a flat maze in a cave. It gets more difficult to navigate along with these changes, but it also becomes more visually appealing. With all of these changes, more of your attention is getting drawn away from the fish that you continually need to chop—something that doesn’t have a regular rhythm to it so even that can’t be something you demote to muscle memory. Your attention is being pulled like a tug-of-war between the two and, while I was doing this, there was the added tension of avoiding getting my arm stuck under the blade. Which I’ll further confess, I thought I could break the setpiece as long as I paid enough attention to not put the fish too forcefully under the guillotine. Even with that in mind, I lost myself more than once to the daydream.

You have to start making decisions, which coincides with some of the more powerful rises in the music that’s playing. These decisions don’t really matter, and yet they’re enough to make you FEEL how Lewis is being pulled away from reality. Look at the pacing here: you’re a boat sailing ever forward. You’re not going to stop in the middle of this river and debate it. You have to make a decision. Left or right. Think about it quick and decide. Follow the water. Follow the images. Follow your imagination, not the same fish being chopped over and over and over.

And I mean look at the scale of this. Look at how this continues to snowball further and further out of control and into insanity. There’s so much in this consuming daydream that it rivals everything else we’ve seen so far combined. The palace. The people. The spectacle.

Eventually you can’t see the conveyor belt or anything of your workstation anymore. Just the fish plopping down, ruining your hypnotized view. And then, suddenly, you’re brought back to reality. You’re no longer in the fantasy world. You’re no longer chopping the fish. You’re walking through the cannery. Lewis is working alone. So lost and mesmerized that he isn’t even picking up the fish. It’s same motion over and over as he’s in a trance. You walk up the conveyor belt and join with his vision, and immediately see how that compares to the drudgery you just walked through.

And the celebration becomes something similar to Gregory’s drowning in the bath. Lewis is now consumed by the idea that his imagination is just as real as his physical body, and that the world he made for himself is superior to the one he was originally born into. The parade here is encouraging that. These are the cheerleaders of his suicide. All that’s left is for him to be ordained king of his own land, which requires him to bow his head and receive his crown.

All that’s left for us though is to climb to the final room of the house. Edith’s old bedroom. The layer of the story that we’re in is about to loop into itself as she pulls out the book from the beginning on the boat and starts to write the words that we’ve been reading this whole time. As her son.

When I first saw this ending I thought it was too abrupt. My second time through, I realized that the ending doesn’t start when they leave the house. It starts when Edith lays down on the bed and picks up the pen. Viewed that way, this ending is satisfying. It has most of the answers for what’s happened to this family, even though you could have also worked it out before now.

You go through a night after Lewis’s funeral when Dawn decides they all need to leave the house. This is an escalation between the deaths of both of her sons. When Milton went missing, Dawn sealed up all of the rooms in the house. This is speculated by Edith as a way to keep whatever Milton found from escaping. Edie fought against this by drilling the peep holes to the rooms and, I’d think, putting those decorative plates underneath them to mark their lives. These were her shrines after all, and Dawn had just locked them away from her.

With Lewis’s death, Dawn has decided that this isn’t enough anymore. They all need to leave. Edie included, which leads to a fight on this last night. Edie baits Edith away from the dinner table with the promise of a present in the library, which you go to find as you control a younger Edith. You hear the two of them arguing in the dining room as you walk, find a book, and sink the most layers deep that this story gets. By my count, we’re the boy on the boat, then reading the book, then Edith writing the book, then reading Edie’s book within that book that Edith wrote.

Edie is telling the story of when there was a supernaturally strong earthquake that allowed her to walk the seabed to visit the old house that Odin died in. This progresses just like most of the other sequences we’ve gone through, and it seems to be building to this grand reveal of exploring the old house. You can see it shift in reality here, from the old wreck to a pristine version when Edie unlocks the gate.

But the satisfaction of exploring it is quite literally ripped away from us when Dawn interrupts Edith reading the book. They struggle over it and it tears apart. A great detail here is that the words stop abruptly on the page, because this is Edith’s recounting of a memory. She was prevented from reading further, so in her mind she doesn’t know what the rest of the words were so it just stops right here suddenly on the page.

Edie refuses to leave with them. Dawn and Edith still go. Edie dies that night alone in the house. Well, alone as she can be with all of her dead children seemingly haunting it.

Dawn is the next to die. Of an unspecified illness sometime after they leave. And then we go through a birth scene, and maybe a death scene too, as Edith’s child is brought into the world. It’s not explicitly said but it’s heavily implied that Edith dies in childbirth. The date of her death on her tombstone supports that, at the very least.

And that’s the ending. Which means we’re finally done with the commentary walkthrough and can start discussing what just happened.

The villain of this story is Edith Finch. Senior. Great Grandmother Edie. The most important lines of the whole story are spoken near the end, when you’re walking through the library. Dawn and Edie say this:

“Edith has a right to know these stories!”

“My children are dead because of your stories!”

Which is an echo of Edith’s words earlier as she walked along the water:

“But now I’m worried the stories themselves might be the problem.”

Edie is obsessed with the family curse. This presents itself with a chicken or the egg sort of problem. See it’s clear that the Finches already believed they were cursed before coming to America, but it’s not clear if Edie was truly invested in it before that point. While that detail about her wanting the cemetery to be constructed before the house might support that she was already fully committed to the curse-narrative, that might have been out of respect to her father. And the giant statue they built of him to immortalize the moment that the old house sank.

Any and every family will experience tragedy. Cruel, relentless tragedy that can feel targeted when the losses come quick and packed together just out of chance. It’s easy to imagine a group that went through such an unlucky time that they had to create a reason for it. Create a boogeyman to point to and proclaim: there, that’s the reason. These losses have a purpose. It may be evil and malicious but it’s something. The deaths are happening for a REASON. They’re not pointless. And, as Walter says, a family living with this for so long may get used to that curse.

It may even start to feel almost friendly, as it waits outside the door.

This is exactly what has happened to Edie, but where I’m uncertain is whether or not she was like this before the first death of one of her children. Before Molly died.

We’re going to go through the deaths again now armed with a different perspective: that not only is there no curse, but that Edie’s obsession may have contributed in some way and caused at least a few of these deaths. Or at least warped the family’s reaction to them. And we’ll start here. Because Molly’s death is Edie’s fault.

Edie sent her daughter to bed starving. This by itself is questionable but fine, but Molly obviously isn’t the one who decorated the bathroom with poisonous mistletoe. More damning than this is that the bedroom door was locked. From the OUTSIDE. This alone is alarming enough but her plea to come out and finally eat something is dismissed by Edie who tells her to go to bed.

The death is still an accident. It’s caused by neglect. It isn’t murder. But this is how Edie loses her first child. Not from a curse. Not from a monster. But from a shitty decision on how she punished her daughter.

A trend that unfortunately continues.

Imagine being Edie for a moment. Imagine the guilt and shame. Now imagine how much better it would be to have a curse to blame this on. And at first this may seem farfetched, and I’m not saying that Edie wasn’t devastated by this death, but there’s a mountain of evidence in the house that shows her to be a person who reveled in all of the attention and mythology that her family name began to earn.

Her husband died building a slide outside of the house which, as we recall from the beginning, was shaped like a dragon. Instead of this being a simple accident, Edie tells this story that Sven was killed by a dragon. Not only does she say this, but she has a shrine in her room dedicated to this accident, along with the newspaper announcing the story framed like it’s a collector’s item. Worse than all of this is the picture of Sven actually falling to his death that’s sitting right next to it. These things are left out as something she wanted to see and remind herself of every day. Just like every other death in the family.

Let’s skip out of sequence because I want to prove this without any shadow of a doubt before I pass judgement on her for some more of these deaths. The comic in Barbara’s room is even more damning than the photograph of Sven falling. This comic was made in response to Barbara’s murder. It’s a pulpy, sort of trashy tabloid account of the death of a young girl who didn’t even make it to twenty. That’s already a little inappropriate but it’s even worse that Edie not only wanted to read it, but kept it on display in her dead daughter’s room. Imagine the twisted need for this curse to be validated so badly that you accept such a thing and even begin to treasure it.

But this is only the first, initial layer of Edie’s depravity with this comic book. Because there are details within it that only someone in the family would know. That only Edie herself would know. This story is a dramatized, unreliable version of events. And yet the layout of the house is correct. Now before you roll your eyes and say, okay, artistic license, it would be confusing to have a whole other house and to make it just for this death scene—look I agree, but there’s a specific detail here that can’t be explained away like that.

Whoever wrote this book knew about the secret key in the music box. Which is a real, true thing that not even Edith knew. You use this learned knowledge from the comic to progress to the next area. Which means someone in the family had to collaborate with whoever made this comic or at least give an interview with these details, and the only candidate for that is Edie herself.

Once this clicks a lot of the story becomes really, sickeningly clear. You start to see the contents of Edie’s bedroom in a new light. Especially your second time through. Look at her flourishing in the attention of another newspaper article about how she refused to leave her home because of a forest fire. Look at another article framed here about a moleman living underneath the Finch house. Something that Edie took part in and GAVE AN INTERVIEW about.

“Edie gave a big interview about a moleman living under the Finch house. My mom was furious.”

I’m not shocked that Dawn was furious, because the date on this article is 1991. The article is clearly about Walter who, at the time of publication, was the only child that Edie had left. Imagine the kind of person who gives an interview encouraging that kind of speculation about their son who lives in such daily, paralyzing fear, that he had to lock himself away in a protected bunker underneath the house. And almost twenty years into that isolation, his mother is making fun of him in the papers in order to further the image of the cursed family name.

And let’s just keep going here. How was letting Walter live under the house a rational solution to what he was going through? The way that Edie responded to Barbara’s death, and likely embellishing the cursed monster angle of the murder that Walter witnessed as a child, might have led him to want to be away from her as well as the fear of the curse. It’s very telling that when he feels like he’s finally overcome his fear, that he takes a sledgehammer and knocks his own path through a wall instead of just opening the door and going upstairs to his family. That was the better, more attractive choice of the two.

Instead of encouraging Walter to get help and work through his problems, Edie facilitated him becoming a hermit and living as a family moleman mascot below the house.

At this point you might be thinking, okay well this seems sort of obvious now. Edie used the curse as a way of dealing with the family tragedy. That’s what I meant at the start when I called her sympathetic. I really do understand this about her. She and the rest of the family have suffered a tremendous amount over these generations. But there’s another angle here that makes this so… nefarious. Because the curse wasn’t just a way to accept the death of so many children, it was used as a scapegoat to justify some insanely reckless behavior. And this has trickled down from Edie and Sven to corrupt every generation since then.

As Edith herself says:

“I don’t know if I should even be writing this. Maybe it’d be better if all this just died with me.”

The nature of these stories tries to hide this from you. Imagine Edie encouraging Sam to write this beautiful letter about his dead brother. Or imagine Molly, so familiar with how inevitable her death is at the hands of the curse, that she writes a journal entry about it while she thinks a hungry monster is about to eat her from under the bed.

Look at the sublime emotion and adoration that Sam pours into this letter about Calvin being so adventurous and fearless, that he was determined to swing around the top of the branch. That he was so certain that he could fly—that he needed to fly—that he went for it. Now look at this scene again and realize that Edie and Sven built a swing on a tree on the top of a god damn fucking cliff where, even at a normal swing arc, the kids would be close to dangling to death if the slightest thing went wrong. Or the pathetic looking broken fence that might be more inclined to impale them if they fell rather than stop them from going over the edge.

Also notice that he already has a broken leg here. You have to understand that we only get to see the death scenes. We don’t get to see the other careless behavior that only resulted in injuries, not death. Look at Edith herself who, 22 weeks into her pregnancy, is climbing and jumping over this house. Look at what she’s doing when she even admits it to us. Imagine how this branch could have snapped underneath her weight. She could have broken her neck and died right then. Or broken her legs and died slowly on her own with no one to help her in this house in the middle of nowhere. Or she could have lost the baby. Really imagine how fitting this death would have been in context of the others—you can even imagine finding the unfinished book about why she came back to the house just like Molly’s journal entry. And a tree with a broken branch on top of her tombstone.

Sam’s death is the same. Why risk taking such a photograph and not confirm that the deer was dead? His daughter was weeping over it for a long time and he didn’t even check. Why not drag the animal to a safer place instead of tempting fate with this dramatic pose? Because the Finches don’t do safe and reasonable. They’re creative, brilliant, determined people who have that ambition shackled with the curse as a reason to be reckless, beaten into them by their matriarch’s obsession with legendarily bad luck.

Sam dies from falling off a cliff here. Just like his twin brother Calvin.

Then we come to Gregory and Gus. Each of these deaths is the fault of each of their parents.

No matter what Sam’s letter might say, and no matter how much he may try to find some meaning in the death of his one year old son, this is purely the fault of the mother. You don’t leave a baby alone in a bath. In the scene Gregory manages to get the water back on and drowns when the tub floods, but even the small amount of water at the beginning is enough for a baby to die in. This is disgustingly irresponsible but it’s the curse, right? It’s not that the Finch children weren’t being looked after well enough. It’s a supernatural force that’s twisting their fates and killing them while they’re young.

Gus is almost the exact same thing. The mother Kay neglected the baby in the bath. The father Sam neglected the boy at the wedding, and forgot about him flying his kite out of spite in the storm. He wasn’t happy about his new stepmother, so he refused to take part in the ceremony. Sam was so pissed that he just let the kid sulk in the storm. And that killed him.

He drowned after being swept into the ocean. Just like Gregory in the bath.

Which brings us to Dawn and her children, and where things get a lot more complicated.

Dawn didn’t tell any of these stories to Edith, as we know from her comments. This is what I meant earlier when I said Dawn is the most normal out of all of them, likely because she realized the kind of damage that magical thinking about death can cause. But you can see that a little sliver of Edie’s ideology had gotten to her, because when they adopted a stray cat, she named it Molly. Which is something Edith only fully understands the significance of after reading the first journal in the house.

There’s also more evidence of Edie’s obsession when Dawn returns to the house with her kids. Any other great grandmother would have realized that it’s time to let things go, clear out the rooms, and have the next generation move in while the house moves on. Instead, she makes the house bigger. It grows like a tumor, like an abomination in the forest, just so Edie’s meticulously crafted shrines, each with their death portraits that paints herself, can remain preserved.

As Edith says, things take a turn for the worse when Edie gifts Milton with a castle. A very grandiose gesture. Shortly after which, he goes missing.

Milton’s death is the only one I can’t reconcile with my thoughts on the story. It’s important that he’s missing, not dead, for reasons that we’ll go into shortly. But because of this mystery, I ended up googling this and found an answer by the developers. Giant Sparrow also made The Unfinished Swan, and Milton’s disappearance into a painting is meant to be a connection between that and What Remains of Edith Finch. I don’t know how I feel about that, because it implies there is some sort of supernatural element after all, but it could also just be a cute easter egg and a way to link projects, especially given there’s no information suggesting this in the story whatsoever. Otherwise it doesn’t fit with a lot of what else said in this story.

The reason that it’s vital that Milton is missing and never found, is that Dawn is stuck because of it. She seals the rooms in the house in reaction to losing her boy, when it would make far more sense to take her surviving children and just leave. When she seals the rooms, it isn’t to keep something trapped inside. It’s to keep her children from getting in and exposing themselves to the stories. Edie clearly disagrees which is why they start a minor war over it and she drills the peep holes.

Dawn can’t leave because she’s convinced Milton is missing and will eventually come back. As shown by her refusal to put a death date on his tombstone in the cemetery. Also these ornaments that Edie decorated them with must have been a thrilling return to form for her—a refreshing return to thriving under the curse that made her family infamous. It’s probably this drought of attention between deaths that led to her doing the article on Walter and the comic book on Barbara. Just imagine how quick and eager Edie had to have been to get this crown on Lewis’s grave when she herself was dead so soon after his funeral.

Lewis’s death shows the lasting damage that Edie’s stories can have, and it’s for that reason that I consider his sequence to be the most important. Sealing the rooms prevented Edith from getting inside of them, but Lewis was fifteen when Milton went missing and had all those years of Edie taking him from room to room. And just imagine how much those stories were embellished over the years—and how mundane the versions we experienced must be since Edie wasn’t around to build on the simple foundation. For Lewis, seven years after the rooms were sealed, he has to live with the loss of his brother, and that his life has become depressing and dull. He’s in such a bad place that he understandably has to visit a psychiatrist for help, and Dawn tries to steer him toward normalcy with a very mundane job. Nothing like the castle that Milton had. Nothing like the glamorous stories that Edie kept telling and retelling.

Is it so unexpected that he began such involved daydreams then? Is it so surprising that he began to yearn for something more fantastical than what he was being subjected to—something closer to those stories of family members that he was meant to be a part of and equal to? Where’s his version of the great-great-grandfather that packed up a whole house to sail it across an ocean? With a constant reminder of it sitting in the water outside to see everyday as he went to work? He made a story for himself instead. No curse. No monster. No accident. Lewis killed himself because of this contrast between how dull his life was to what he must have felt was owed to him.

“My children are dead because of your stories!”

Which makes Dawn’s desperation at the end make so much more sense. With Lewis’s death, she has to admit that Milton isn’t coming back. She’s accepting the death of both of her sons at the same time while knowing she has to protect Edith better than she did Lewis. It’s that desperation you can see as she physically fights with her daughter to stop her from finishing even one story that Edie left for her—one more outrageous than any other that came before now. A massive earthquake? Visions in the fog? A magical house in the ocean? Returning to your childhood home that’s full of ghosts? Something that Edith herself is doing in this story right now? I felt this when the book was torn away. I wanted to see the end of Edie’s story, I wanted to see who had just turned the light on. I think most people will. They’ll feel cheated that you don’t get to see this ending, and that the real story stops so suddenly after this.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?

It’s telling that Edie outlives almost everyone in this story. She definitely gets the highscore in terms of age, which makes you wonder about her attitude toward the curse that she’s never really afraid of like Walter was, or any of the others despite being the one who encouraged the thoughts about it. Her recklessness shows only at the end here, with a throwaway comment from Dawn about Edie mixing alcohol with her medication. She dies that night. Probably from this.

Poisoned, just like Molly was.

As for Dawn, it’s not surprising at all that a woman who witnessed her father die, lost two brothers, and then two boys, would have her health suffer in response to that. Unlike Edie, Dawn didn’t have a curse to unload all of that emotional work onto. There was no scapegoat for Dawn.

Edith dying in childbirth is a tragedy but those strike every family. Mixed in with all of the deaths caused by carelessness and neglect will be genuine, unavoidable loss. It’s her son that deserves at least a little attention. He has a cast on his arm, just like Calvin did on his leg. It’s a detail that was deliberately included, and I wonder if it’s trying to say something. It could just be a routine injury that many children go through, or it could be a sign that there’s already a connection between him and the Finch name that follows him. That the stories in the book, and his visit to the house, may persist and be passed down with a new generation after him.

The danger here is reading too much into details like this, but I think with the kind of story that What Remains of Edith Finch has, that it’s safe to say that almost everything is intentional. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t happy accidents or mistakes. For instance, both Edie and Lewis’s rooms have sealed doors, which doesn’t make any sense. Edie would have still been using the room after Milton vanished, and Dawn and Edith left the house right after Lewis’s funeral. Right before Edie died. Unless Dawn went back to seal those rooms afterward, but then she also would have had to drill the peepholes… so yeah, that seems like an error to me.

No story is going to be without a few little issues like this, and they definitely don’t ruin it. There’s enough attention to detail that I do think the writers have an answer for nearly everything, which is why I enjoyed piecing it all together. It may surprise some longtime viewers, but I do enjoy stories that are open to interpretation, but only when there are actual answers. It’s when the vagueness clearly leads to nothing at all that I view it as a waste of time, because then it’s like an artist slathering blobs of paint on a canvas without an effort to shape them. They don’t want to make a picture. Just color. They don’t want to make a story. They just want it to look like one.

I thoroughly enjoyed What Remains of Edith Finch, and I hope you enjoyed me talking about it nearly as much. This isn’t the usual thing I do on the channel but I love stories, and I get a lot of requests to dig into narratives.

I think most people are going to be able to see a little of themselves in these characters, or something of their family, or a memory of interacting with them, in the Finches. It made me really think about the power that older generations can have on the newer ones, and the troubling thought that family traditions can influence more about ourselves than we might realize. How we think, how we approach things, and even some of the strongest opinions on things that we might have. That we just continue to perpetuate and assume is right without really thinking about it.

Whether or not that was intentional, I can’t say.

Thank you for watching. I’ll see you next time.

Ringed City Script

The one word I would use to describe Ringed City would be bittersweet. It is, for now, the end of Dark Souls. I’m sure FROM will release something similar in the near future, whether that’s a sequel to Bloodborne or a new direction for the same core ideas. I’ll also be shocked if we don’t see anything on Dark Souls 4—or something of a series reboot—before 2020. For now though, Dark Souls is over.

Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, is over for good. I don’t anticipate a remixed version of the game like we had for Dark Souls 2. Ringed City is the end. It’s always a little sad to witness the conclusion of something you enjoy so much, but I think it’s for the best and the break is welcome.

The content of Ringed City is bittersweet in another way. I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve played it around three times now and it’s some of my favorite content for this game. But it comes with a bit of baggage—there are two elephants in the room here, not just one. First, let’s review what exactly is in Ringed City and get our usual spoiler warning out of the way. I’m about to show all of the levels and the bosses, so turn back if you want to play it yourself first. If you’re a fan of Souls then it’s worth your time.

Ringed City has two main areas and four bosses. For levels you have the opening in The Dreg Heap and a large area from which the DLC takes its name. You can break these down into more precise pieces: The Dreg Heap, which players were given a preview of in the base game before the final fight with Soul of Cinder, can be split into two. The first part where you explore one of the most vertically inclined levels in the series—this crushed and mangled mess of Lothric—and then the remains of Earthen Peak from Dark Souls 2 which sits as a swampy mess at the bottom of it all.

Ringed City can be broken down into three areas: the introduction to the city and your descent through part of its streets. Then exploring another swamp which is, to me, visually distinct from others so far in the series. It’s far more moody and thankfully doesn’t poison you or slow your movement. Lastly there’s a cliff side area with a dragon that leads to a short climb through a tower and a grand cathedral.

The difference between these two larger areas is that Ringed City feels more interconnected. The swamp leads back to the streets in two ways, and your climb through the tower loops back to the beginning of the level to reuse a bonfire for some bosses. There’s also a large area that you can explore at the end, but this is more like an arena for the final boss fight.

Of the four bosses, I feel confident in saying that three are well worth seeing for almost every fan of the series. For some they might be among the best in all of the games. The only one that’s questionable is the PvP fight in the cathedral. This is a concept that has been done in both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 2—another player can be summoned to become the boss you fight against.

My issue with the fight is that its quality will largely depend on who you end up fighting, or if there’s anyone available to fight you at all. Aside from the usual connectivity issues that some may face online, you could get someone who has no idea what they’re doing and you get an easy win. Or you could get someone who has prepared themselves to be able to heal with miracles, prolong the fight, and play cleverly with the NPC helpers to overwhelm and destroy you since it’s not a one-on-one duel. At worst this is a glorified NPC phantom invasion if no one is available.

I like the concept of this fight and I think it might be a favorite for some people who love this part of the game. And it also might be a great hook for some players to get drawn into PvP in Souls that typically avoid it. Ultimately I think my disappointment comes from two sources: how epic the cathedral looked when I approached it so I thought it was going to lead to a really cool boss fight. And that I heard ahead of time that Ringed City had four bosses, when in reality this was three for me personally because this was just a PvP invasion with a healthbar.

Having reconciled those warped expectations I like the inclusion of this encounter, but it’s important to say that it isn’t going to be something everyone enjoys.

The other three bosses range from good to great, although one in particular has been the source of some disagreement. The only boss in the Dreg Heap level is a two phase fight: two demons to begin with, and a much larger one at the end. After the PvP fight, Gael in Ringed City is the final boss of the game and is a standard duel that reminds me of a mix of Orphan of Kos and Artorias.

Darkeater Midir is arguably the real final boss however. You can fight him before Gael and the PvP encounter, but I think he’s meant to be done after both of them. Especially given FROM’s comments about this being the ultimate challenge for fans of the series. You fight this dragon twice—the first time is on a cliff above the swamp. When you beat him, he falls away and suspiciously awards no souls, which I think is a clever way of indicating that you should be prepared for his return, or to go looking for him. The real boss fight is through a hidden door in an elevator ride and then a fake wall inside of that area—a secret within a secret.

These are three substantial, new fights that are fairly challenging. I don’t think any of them are quite as difficult as Sister Friede from the Ashes DLC… which is a good way to address the first elephant in the room.

When I reviewed Ashes of Ariandel, the biggest piece of criticism I laid against it was a lack of content for the price. In terms of quality the DLC is good, but there was only one level and only one real proper boss as far as I saw it. Whether or not you agreed with how extreme my opinion was on the matter isn’t all that important anymore, because Ringed City has proven without a shadow of a doubt that Ashes was strangely priced. Even with a generous estimation of the content in the first DLC, it’s undeniable that Ringed City has so much more of everything—and it costs the same amount.

At the end of that review, I proposed that FROM originally planned to have only one DLC pack and that the decision was made later to split them in two—likely so the game could advertise a Season Pass for more sales, or so the game would have two DLC releases to promote the base game instead of just one. I think it’s clear now that this is exactly what happened, especially given how connected both of the DLCs are.

For examples: the NPC that grants you access to the Ashes DLC ends up being the final boss in Ringed City. The reason he’s there is linked to the painter in Ariandel. You can go back there and give her an item after killing Gael at the end of the DLC. If you do Ringed City first, then Gael is no longer at the Cathedral of the Deep in order to teleport you to Ariandel. You have to interact with a scrap of the painting here instead, with a different cutscene that plays.

It feels to me that Ashes may have originally meant to be last. So you start in the Dreg Heap, which would make the DLC have a much smoother transition from that disturbing imagery you saw at the end of the base game in Dark Souls 3. You fight your way through there, travel to the more exotic Ringed City and learn about Gael. After defeating him you would return to something more familiar in the series with Ariandel which, as a single level in a larger DLC, would be a substantial way to end. Friede would be the big tough fight and then you can end the story of Gael and Ariandel right then by talking to the painter.

As it is now, splitting the DLC meant that Ariandel was the only choice to go first since it would have been unacceptable to go with the larger DLC and then end with a much shorter one.

All of this isn’t a huge problem, but I find myself in the unfortunate position of wishing I hadn’t bothered playing Ashes of Ariandel until all of the DLC was out. It’s this really weird way of looking at it that I’m finding difficult to reconcile: individually I think that Ashes is a ripoff, but all of the DLC bundled under the Season Pass is good value. Not great, especially compared to the Old Hunters and the Dark Souls 2 DLC, but still good. I feel like, as a big fan of the series, that I made the wrong choice in being excited for this content as soon as it came out.

That’s all I’ll say on the matter for this video because it’s no longer important. I doubt many will be buying Ashes on its own from this point onward. Let’s get back to the levels and bosses in Ringed City.

Dreg Heap is a cool idea that feels like something new even if the series has done tall vertical levels in the past. What is entirely new, however, is the addition of ash piles that you can land in and prevent fall damage, sort of like those piles of hay in Assassin’s Creed.

This is such a big change that FROM decided to include developer messages to make sure you understand that you’ll survive the fall at almost every point that you have to do it. There’s also a really cool trick that shows you there’s no limit to the damage prevention, when you’re lured to this item and fall far below through a window to a new area.

This caused a shift in perception for me: I wasn’t just looking ahead to where I could go next. I was looking down to see if there were any piles of ash that led to secret areas. Unfortunately this mechanic isn’t used much in the level, likely for the same reasons that FROM included those helper messages. It can be a little difficult to tell what’s safe to land on, and they must have been afraid many players would try to get to places, die, and be angry with all of the trial and error. There were only two “secret” places that I found to fall—one at the beginning which makes it faster to get into the level after dying. And the second was a drop at the end of an optional path to an alternate route to the swamp at the bottom. It’s possible that I might have missed another secret that uses this mechanic, and I still enjoy that the level successfully tried something new, but I think the result is more of a fun gimmick than a really interesting feature.

The major problem with the way this works is that it requires backtracking through the level via bonfire warps or death. So if you want to see everything you are going to have to do the earlier part of the level again. This is fine for a one-off area like this, but it may have also been another reason why secret paths that use the falls were limited, to reduce how many level resets the player would have to go through.

The minor problem is that I think the dust piles themselves look really lame. Your character simply clips through them like it’s a raised part of the floor. Having a unique animation of your character getting stuck and pulling themselves out, like the sand in Mario 64, would probably have been too much work and slow down your navigation through the level too much to be worth it. But maybe landing on top of the ash would have been an easier and better way to avoid this awful looking clipping.

Two other things worth mentioning in the Dreg Heap are the angels, and an unexpected shortcut. Halfway through the level, this winged monster appears in the air and starts spewing lasers at you. The idea is that you run away from it, dodging when you can, and use cover until it takes a break between each barrage. This first angel is fairly simple and you’re urged to rush forward after being prompted to fall from a ledge here.

After you take cover in a church, you have to defeat two of the knights from Lothric, which proves how challenging an early enemy can still be if you pump up their health and damage. A little after this, your presence triggers the collapse of a tower which leads to another opening where the angel can shoot you. This time you’re next to this strange corpse flower thing though and, when you kill it, the angel in the sky withers.

Two things happen here. The first is that, if you die after the tower collapse, you get the surprise of seeing that the back wall of that church with the knights has been busted open to reveal an unexpected path through the level. I’m taking the time to point this out because it helps support something I’ve said in two of the previous videos on the Souls games: I want more unexpected shortcuts like this, instead of the usual locked doors and broken elevators. I really enjoyed this surprise and I hope I’m not alone in that.

The other thing is that the game uses these angels—and teaching you to find their root to kill them—as something that’s almost like a shortcut. That may seem like a stretch but it’s similar to those spectral knights in the Dark Souls 2 DLC. Or the second Crystal Sage fight in The Grand Archives. These areas have a mechanic that makes the level a lot more difficult your first time through which, after you conquer it, makes exploring the level much easier. You have to prove yourself before you’re given the freedom to properly explore the level. It’s not a concept that I would like to see used a lot in the series, but it does appeal to me enough that I think it’s worth exploring more in a few levels of each game. The giant siege weapon in Smouldering Lake is another example, and one that could have been a lot more interesting if the area you’re exploring while it’s shooting you had more to see and do.

There are two more angels in the swamp of the second half of Dreg Heap. I think swamps have been used too much in the series now and I don’t find them interesting anymore. This one is quite small and may have been included out of necessity after deciding that this area would be a collapsed Earthen Peak from Dark Souls 2. Considering how much criticism this level received for not making sense in that game, I have to wonder if this was done out of spite or something. Either way I thought it was cool and unexpected to find it here.

You need to use cover to hide from the angels between fairly long runs to new locations, or you can time dodges to avoid most of the lasers while searching for their roots. Something I like is that most players will find the root of the second angel before the first one. For me, this made this section feel a lot more desperate and substantial, that I was out of my depth scrambling to beat this second angel when I hadn’t even gotten rid of the first one yet—especially since there are other enemies to fight along the way while you’re hiding behind cover, like there isn’t enough room for both of you. Using these branches as paths is one of the best times the series has done this and it was clear what you could walk on and what you could not, and I enjoyed using higher branches for cover and then feeling relief when I finally did kill both angels. Like I had now claimed these areas and had earned the right to pillage them.

Doing this will lead you to the final bonfire in Dreg Heap and the fall to the demon bosses. Before we get to that though, let’s look at the new enemy types that were introduced here.

Unique to the Dreg Heap are the abyss corpses. These appear in a bubbling up from the floor, and can be spawned by the magic wielding versions. These guys are the fodder of Dreg Heap and are easy to defeat. There’s not much to say about them except that they double as traps in an early part of the level to ambush you when you go to pick up items. And that the spell casters can also turn into humanity specters and rush you for a lot of damage if you don’t dodge them.

It’s the larger headless knights that are a lot more interesting to me, specifically because they’re just so easy to kill. They look intimidating and have a lot of health but their attacks are slow, predictable, and leave massive openings for counterattacks. I find this interesting because it makes me wonder what the intention was with these guys. Later on in Ringed City they show up in groups—there are six of them in this area with a staired street leading to the swamp. So it would make sense that they were made to be less challenging individually since you can end up fighting more than one of them here—they’re a larger fodder monster.

But in the Dreg Heap, they’re introduced to you as big threats. They’re guarding treasure. They look like they demand your attention and are tucked away from most of the other enemies so you can fight them solo—with the exception of the patrolling one in the swamp. This is a conflict I don’t have an answer for, other than to point it out as strange. It’s not a bad thing, but because of their large health and bland attacks I ended up getting bored after the first few times. It’s the smaller ringed knights that are more challenging but we’ll get to those after the demon boss.

Demon in Pain and Demon from Below are at the bottom of another long fall. You are given this massive arena to fight them in, which isn’t all that necessary at first. This is my favorite boss fight in Ringed City but not by a lot—I think that Gael and Midir are really good too. I like the demons because the first phase is a really enjoyable fight against multiples that isn’t too challenging but it isn’t a pushover either. The big demon prince in phase 2 has a lot more attacks and it’s that part of the fight that I enjoy the most. It’s also when the big arena is required to compensate for how much leaping around he does, and his massive area attacks.

For the first phase, there’s a flow to this fight that is unique among boss encounters with multiples in the series. At least I can’t think of another that functions this way—both of the demons have the same moveset that they cycle through, but they’re on different timers. Each of them moves between two phases: being on fire, and then burning out into exhaustion. The one on fire will typically be way more aggressive and chase you with melee attacks, whereas the other will favor hanging back and use poison breath and spit.

What I really like about this interaction is that the demon in ranged mode creates a warning line on the floor to let you know the attack is coming, so that you can dodge away from the melee demon without having to constantly look back at what the ranged one is doing. The melee attacks aren’t all that demanding of your attention on their own but, combined with the second demon, can make for some more challenging overlap that feels fair to fight against.

That said, the demons do not always work this way. And I think it could be argued that this is something you might have to make happen yourself by luring the aggressive demon away from the other. Even doing that, I often felt that the exhausted demon wouldn’t always act like it, and that both of them would end up flailing around together. The demons are both large enough that it still feels fair like this, since it’s easy to dodge away and rush back in for some hits when they leave themselves open, but there can be some waiting around for this to happen. The fight feels more fun when it’s you against one demon with the other in ranged mode. The demon switching between these modes can also be punished when you learn to recognize those changes for openings, especially if you hit them enough to trigger a stagger and a big hit.

Both demons have to be killed before going into the next phase, and Demon Prince is different depending on which one was the last to die. The boss’s core moveset is a more advanced version of the two demons that came before—he’s a lot bigger but much of the clawing and rampaging is similar. He can jump into the air for a slam attack, as well as flying away for a fiery dive, or to do one of two special moves.

If Demon in Pain was the last to die, then Demon Prince can summon some fire orbs that spit at you, and then begin charging a massive storm of fire. This takes a while to complete and is difficult to avoid when it’s at full power. As far as I can tell, the test here is to run at him and hit him enough to interrupt the building storm before too many of the fireballs can spawn.

If Demon from Below died last, then Demon Prince can jump away like before, only now he charges a massive laser breath that sweeps over the arena. This can be handled in a similar way as the other move: close the distance between you and attack while he’s busy with the laser. The main difference is that you’re safe once you’re close, whereas the fire attack can still get you, meaning that the fight is easier if Demon from Below is killed last.

Demon Prince doesn’t use these moves often however, so it’s not a big difference, and my guess is that most players won’t realize that the order in which you kill the first demons even matters—they’ll think Demon Prince simply has some moves he rarely shows. Most of the fight is responding to his mix of melee attacks, jumps, and when he starts to fly. He reminds me a lot of Sinh even though he’s not a dragon, which is probably why I enjoy the fight so much.

After this you go through the wrecked version of the firelink shrine pond room and wave another flag in the wind for another blind gargoyle flight to the next area. This is very similar to the journey to Anor Londo in Dark Souls 1 and the visuals here are equally appealing. I’ll be speaking a bit about this at the end but for now this is how you arrive at Ringed City.

Your first encounter is similar to the angels in Dreg Heap. You have to use cover and are unable to fight back until you get through this area first. I like this part on its own, especially the sound the giant makes as it summons these ghosts, but it feels like retreading the same concept too soon after the previous level. Although I think it’s a little funny for me to realize that, if this had simply been another angel, I probably would have just accepted it as a continuation of that monster instead of recycling an idea. So I guess it’s okay.

After this Ringed City feels like a victory lap for the series. You’re going through part of a city and then a swamp. There are some cryptic NPCs that tell you about the bosses you’ll be fighting. There’s a cathedral and some beautiful views. The ringed knights remind me of the darkwraiths. There’s the usual humanoid fodder enemies. Shortcuts are locked doors and elevators. And the bosses are a dragon who breathes fire over a long stretch that you have to run through, and a duel against an armored guy with a big weapon.

And this is good. It really is. I don’t mind that FROM decided to play it safe with this final DLC and make great new versions of content that fans like to see—in terms of gameplay anyway. I don’t know how fans of the lore would appreciate all of this. It ties into why I described the DLC as bittersweet at the beginning though, since there was something disappointing here that we’ll get to at the end.

Having said that, I don’t mean to imply that Ringed City does nothing new. The turtle clerics are a fun enemy that create void zones that damage you if you stand in them. You’re encouraged to keep moving, but they also have high enough defense—and can turtle up for even more—that you can’t reliably rush and kill them without having to avoid at least one void zone. This is especially true if there’s more than one of them around. I would have liked to see these guys used more often with other enemies in areas, or maybe more of them could have been hiding in the swamp and emerge to join in the fight against other enemies.

The insect like humans in the swamp are also one of my favorite twists on the basic humanoid enemy type. They hover in place and have different attacks than the usual weapon swipes with two feet firmly on the ground. Many of their combos are telegraphed so well, but are still dangerous, that I enjoyed fighting groups of this enemy type more than any other in the DLC.

The ringed knights are also enemies you’ll encounter in groups, and it was these that I found to be the most difficult. They can be very aggressive with long sweeping combos when they ignite their weapons, but it was the heavy shield wielders that were the most substantial fights. I think a minor flaw in Dark Souls 3 is that many enemies can be killed as long as you get one hit in—from that initial stagger, you can lock them down into a combo from full health to dead. This is such a reliable way to kill so many enemies that there are honestly a few in the base game that I’ve never seen attack more than a few times, because I can rush in and lock them down. All you need to do is land one hit to sink your teeth in for the kill.

The shielded ringed knights can fight back against that which, when in groups, made them challenging. It was interesting to fight these enemies because of that difference even if they are just stronger versions of the Lothric knights underneath that.

For some enemies that aren’t so great, there are the other fodder monsters. These smaller humanoids come in two flavors. The standard ambush type is fine, if a little samey to the big hat guys from the base game. But the cursed variant is the worst enemy in the DLC because it results in so much waiting around. If you’re a melee build then you will fill up some of your curse bar while fighting these and, since they’re often clumped in a narrow corridor together, that means waiting around for the curse to deplete enough before you can safely go to the next one.

There is no challenge here. This is a problem I’ve had for the whole series and it’s a shame that we’re this many games and DLC in and a simple solution hasn’t been implemented yet. The same problem can be found in frenzy in Bloodborne, or even waiting for your poison buildup to go down when you’re going through a swamp. Waiting is boring, and it’s often done with no enemies to fight while you do so. The most obvious change here is to make it so the status effect bar speeds up its depletion rate with every second that you’re safe, so that the time is reduced.

The final enemy is a giant that roams the swamp. This is similar to the one at the beginning of the level that summoned the ghost archers to shoot you. This one can do the same thing but his army is a lot smaller. I found this guy a little awkward sometimes because it can be hard to see the archers he spawns if he ends up between you and them—especially since if I did get hit that often meant I was stunlocked by their arrows all the way to death.

However I like this guy. He looks imposing as all hell in the distance and the other ghosts he can spawn—melee guys and a few spell casters—felt a lot more manageable. So it’s possible that I just suck at the archers and there’s a trick to it, or maybe you’re meant to run away and use cover when he does summon them.

There’s also a third giant in a secret area that does the same thing in a more cramped environment. This was strangely a lot easier to deal with because of all of the cover available for hit-and-run tactics, or breaking line of sight with the archers.

For the sake of being thorough I want to mention that there’s a rematch against the Dragonslayer Armor at the end of the swamp. If there are any changes to this encounter from the base game then I didn’t notice them, with the obvious exception that he doesn’t have the spinal dragons to provide air support. There’s also a ringed knight that dual wields greatswords before the PvP boss with a moveset that, to me, rivals many of the mediocre bosses in the series. I thought that was pretty funny.

Which leaves us with Gael the knight and Midir the Dragon. Let’s go with Gael first because I think FROM intended for the dragon to be fought last.

Gael has quite possibly the most grandiose introduction of any boss in all of the Souls games, if you view the buildup to his reveal as part of the boss’s package. After the PvP fight in the church, you ride an elevator to a set of stairs, meet a mysterious sleeping woman with an even more mysterious object cradled in her lap. Then, with a flashy cinematic, are transported through time to what appears to me like the conclusion of all of those levels smashing together in the Dreg Heap—the world is grinding itself to dust or ash, and the woman is long dead and rotten.

You’re allowed to roam around this massive area but this is mostly a fight arena for the Gael boss fight—who gets his own cinematic with a very Artorias-like throw at the end of it. All of this is for just one boss. He even has a mid-fight cinematic when he increases his power level.

Mechanically, Gael is Artorias on steroids. His first phase was the most difficult for me since he has a lot of moves, some decently long combos, and some attacks that you really need to see a few times before you get the dodge timings down—especially the one where he attacks and then quickly jumps away into another attack. It’s that jumping that reminds me of Artorias, and it’s the thrashing that reminds me of Orphan.

After this phase the fight becomes slower. Gael starts using some ranged abilities—he has a repeating crossbow and can throw out a spray of projectiles that are then pulled back to him from the same direction a little later. The fight from this point onward is about positioning and not just dodging his sword strikes, although he still does plenty of that. His cloak is now a part of those attacks which acts as a sort of after-trail or a followup to each slash. At first this reminded me a lot of the fire trails in phase two of the Abyss Watchers. It still does in concept at least, but my experience was that Gael’s version didn’t require multiple dodges for each attack but instead a better timed dodge—it was to punish dodging too early since if you avoided the sword then the cloak will get you instead.

Phase three adds some lightning spells that are also about being mindful of your positioning in the arena—just like the spell he throws out and then pulls back. But all-in-all, as you can probably tell, I don’t have many interesting things to say about this fight. It feels like the end of the victory lap that the DLC is taking: here’s this great duel against an armored knight with a big weapon, who has some fun tweaks on that basic formula and some callbacks to earlier fights in the series. It’s the spectacle that stands out to me more than anything. Gael’s animations are fantastic—especially the combo toward the end of the fight that has him jump in the air and fire his crossbow as he drifts by.

He’s not so challenging but I also think that’s the point. You’re not meant to bash your head against him. You’re meant to enjoy the fight instead. That’s not to say he’s really easy but if you’ve gotten this far then I doubt he’ll be too much trouble.

Midir, on the other hand, is the opposite of Gael in almost every way. Although he does have almost as spectacular an introduction as he swoops in to guard his cliff, the path that leads to the boss fight is hidden and tucked away. Even then, the room you find the entrance in is a small, almost forgotten thing. You fall down a long shaft into an arena about the same size as the one for the double demon fight.

Midir is one of the best dragon fights in a series that has a mixed bag of dragon fights. I have a feeling that many players are going to have varying experiences with this boss. There’s a lot it does well, and arguably more it does poorly. For me, it’s in my top three below Sinh and Kalameet. But I didn’t feel that way until I killed him a second time.

The three biggest problems that I have with Midir all interact and compound to make each other worse. First up is his gigantic health bar that makes this an endurance fight even though he has several moves that do an extraordinary amount of damage. Combine that with how ill-suited the camera is to keeping up with all of the moves he can do, and you can find yourself dying to a move you’ve never seen before just because you weren’t able to see what was happening—after you’ve spent a lot of time fighting through that huge health bar.

Thirdly, and perhaps worst of all, the corpse run from the nearest bonfire is a full step over the line named Ridiculous. The distance itself isn’t that long, but you have to run from the bonfire, ride an elevator down to the bottom, wait for it to reset, then ride it back up again and jump through a hidden door partway through. Then you have to run down two short corridors, slide down a long ladder, run across the room, and then go through that fall from before. Even after that, Midir is still far across the room and has a wake up animation he plays as you run there—not to mention any further delay you might have if you want to find your bloodstain first.

The reason I feel comfortable pointing to this as something that feels like an intentionally cruel joke is that there are no enemies anywhere during this run. The elevator and ladder also make it annoying since you have to stop and wait for both of them. And it’s all a waste of time. There’s no challenge. It’s not interesting. There’s no way to learn to do this faster or open a shortcut. It’s this drawn out run to a boss that is drawn out even more with all of his health.

And I say that as someone who only died to this boss about six times when I first killed him. Which is a good way to address the fight. I’ve read some comments that Midir is too difficult. I don’t really agree with that—he’s just awkward and has some cheap moments. As I already said, learning moves such as his tail swipe and his different fire breaths can be an exercise in trial and error because he’s just so big. The only way to keep him in view is to never go underneath him and instead attack his head. Which is where a big judgement call for the fight has to be made.

On my first kill, I religiously ran underneath him and attacked his legs and then his tail. Many of his animations seem deliberately made in order for him to shift his legs and tail away from you after you dodge an attack and get into position to strike. It happened so much that it’s either on purpose or a giant coincidence. Yet you can learn to compensate for this at the end of his tail for some good hits while he’s channeling a fire breath. You can also learn to dodge his counterattack right afterward and then rush back in to keep hitting him. His body takes half of the damage that his head does but this was worth the safety to me because staying locked onto his head made the camera whip around like crazy for too many of his moves, and I could better avoid a lot of his dangerous attacks.

Basically, I compensated and learned to account for the awkwardness and was able to get him down, occasionally sneaking in some hits on his head as I ran back under him.

On my second kill, I attacked the head exclusively, and this is now what I consider to be the superior version of the fight and the way it was meant to be done. There’s a lot of things that support that: the head is the only lock-on point for him even though he’s massive, he doesn’t chain his wide fire breath on the floor as often which can lock you out of hitting him, and many of his swipes and bites leave good openings for his head. The best evidence of all is that if you hit him enough he enters a stagger state that wipes out about a fifth of his health bar—over 4,000 hp—meaning that the fight isn’t as long as it first appears. This doesn’t happen if you don’t go for his head.

However, the game usually lets you choose your own way to fight bosses so for some this won’t be acceptable. Or, rather, it won’t be ideal. I enjoyed the fight a lot more doing it like this but I had also already seen it a bunch and knew what to expect. If I had gone exclusively for the head from the start then maybe I would have had a rougher time—an example being a horrendous decision that, in phase 2, he can start charging a new type of beam breath attack that can kill you outright if it lands. And there’s no real way to anticipate how this is going to move until you’ve seen it once already, after taking so long to get to phase 2.

This is a different pattern than the beam he uses on the cliff or in the first phase of the fight. I had already seen it and knew what to expect on this second kill. Maybe it’s just as simple as that: the fight is one that’s more enjoyable once you’ve seen it enough, instead of one you can take to immediately.

If attacking the head was the way this was meant to be done though, I wish they had made that more clear. Dealing half damage to his body isn’t that bad considering you can often hit him multiple times compared to only one hit on his head. I also had to learn to recognize when I should unlock my camera from his head in order to prevent it whipping around. This is something that could be done for you—before he starts his frenzy, or when he starts a fire breath, he emits some sort of pulse that cancels your lock so you’re not left wondering what’s happening as the camera goes crazy.

I do understand why some people won’t like this boss even if they do click with all of these little oddities. His health is enough to make the encounter grueling, although I personally enjoy it since it matches his large size. This feels like exactly what you’re doing: fighting this massive dragon that you should have no business standing up to, but here you are trying anyway. But some of his moves don’t mesh well with this bloated health, since they encourage a lot of waiting. Many of his breath attacks force you to retreat or run around him until the fire is over. And worst of all is his forward rampage that he can spam. It goes on for quite a while, and you just have to wait for it to finish after dodging the first part of it. I don’t quite understand what the idea behind that one was. His standard claw and bite attacks feel better to fight against, since you can time your dodges and counterattack.

With Midir dead we can move onto the final point, and the second of those two elephants in the room that I mentioned at the start. It’s linked to that bittersweet feeling. Some of you may roll your eyes at this but this is the last bit of Dark Souls content for a while so I won’t have a chance to say it again.

The biggest disappointment of Ringed City came from this part here. You’re given this beautiful shot of the city itself, are set down with this huge open area around you, and can see all these places you’re going to be visiting. And you never get to go there.

This is a tease on so many levels, and I know it’s not realistic to expect the DLC to be even larger, but I also feel justified in being disappointed that I never got to see those distant city streets that the game called attention to. Instead you’re kept on a small part of it that leads to a swamp.

My first time through, I found the dragon and the cliff before I went to the other end of the swamp—which I thought would eventually lead to a connecting area to another part of the city. The one in the distance right now. Learning that this swamp was really all there was made me realize how much potential there was in this new area. There could have been multiple levels weaving to and from this central hub of the tower, the swamp, and the top part of the street where you started. It felt like I was plopped down into the middle of this larger world and that I could explore all of it.

Basically it felt like arriving at Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls One again.

I said in my Dark Souls Three critique that I’m giving up on ever seeing another connected world in the series. Maybe I still need to work on letting go of those expectations because I felt them so strongly here, and was once again disappointed even though I know finding that in a DLC isn’t reasonable. But imagine if Ringed City had been the direction the base game of Dark Souls 3 had went, and that a full game’s worth of content could have spiraled out from this foundation.

That’s why it feels bittersweet now that we’re at the end of the first iteration of Dark Souls—something I’m sure will be continued later. A series that has, in some ways, gotten so much better and more consistent over time. But in other ways, isn’t even trying to recapture the spark that made so many players enraptured to begin with.

Little Nightmares and the Importance of the Experience

Little Nightmares is one of those games that focuses on atmosphere and making you feel something, rather than introducing mechanics and then testing you on them. Nor is it really about puzzles. There is some of this stuff in the game but it’s clear to me that this was all secondary to the main goal of Little Nightmares: to create an experience.

This game is very short, so I have to put the spoiler warning early for this one so I can continue using footage. I’m also going to speak a bit about INSIDE and Limbo—and I highly recommend that, if those are two of your favorite games, that you stop watching this video and play Little Nightmares first. It shouldn’t take you long and this video will be waiting for you when you’re done.

For those who have already played it, or don’t care about spoilers, let’s continue with those other games I just mentioned. If you’ve watched my video on INSIDE then you might be furious right now that I even bothered to do a video on something like Little Nightmares. Why would I waste my time when it’s clearly not a genre that I like?

Well, that’s sort of the point of this video. Because, surprisingly, I enjoyed my time with Little Nightmares. Quite a lot actually. I suspected I would after watching the trailer, because this type of setting really appeals to me—this surreal nightmare dreamscape stuff.

But there’s no denying that INSIDE and Limbo are quite similar to that. Yet they didn’t grab me. I didn’t enjoy them very much. They’re nowhere near on the same level as Little Nightmares.

This feels like a big conflict to me. It’s something that I’ve wanted to discuss for a while now and then this game comes along, with a fresh way to compare these different experiences that I had. And that really is the keyword here. Experience. It’s arguably even more important than the word “game” for what we’ll be discussing.

Way back in my Dragon’s Dogma video, I made a short list of broad reasons that people play games. It’s rare that a game will fit purely into one of these categories, and I highly doubt that many developers intentionally go out of their way to focus on just one. There’s a category that I now realize is missing from this list, and it’s one that I think I’ve undervalued until recently. Even though it’s something I enjoy and have also brought up in past videos, I didn’t think to include it back then.

So number seven on this list. For the Experience.

This reason to play games is the most difficult for me to measure. It has a lot more in common with appreciating music and art. For some people, this will be the most powerful reason to play a game. And I have a growing suspicion that it’s also something more and more people are seeking from the games that they buy. To the point that some people might be exclusively wanting that, instead of traditional story or gameplay.

Most games don’t try to do JUST this though. Many are mixed with other types of things that games can do—some more so than others. I’d argue Subnautica is one of the strongest examples: the game has this intended experience of being stranded on an alien world, which was a big part of the appeal for me and what I spoke about in my video on the game. But there are too many mechanics here—and a research-based progression system—for it to solely fit under “an experience”. Even though that’ll be the big draw for many players.

In a game like INSIDE though, you see something different. There are platforming sections and puzzles, but that’s never what I see people raving about when they’re talking about the game. And with over a thousand comments on the video I did on it, I have read a lot of that raving. It’s about the atmosphere. Soaking up the world of the game. Inspecting and losing yourself to speculating about what’s going on.

It’s about the experience. It’s about THAT stuff. A problem arises here, however, in that I’m not alone in finding this sort of thing difficult to measure. Even those who love the game will struggle as well. There’s no solid ground to start building a conversation and context on. It almost always leads to “You just don’t get it.”

<clip: I don’t get this game>

Let’s look at this from another angle. Enjoying a game’s experience in this way is just like your response to hearing a new song, or trying a new type of food. Are there reasons why you like or dislike those types of things? Absolutely there are, but for most they’ll be too hard to fully understand. Especially with food. It could be something genetic and out of your control, or you might have to trace it all the way back to disliking something so intensely when you were really young. Something you hated so much that the reaction has been burned into you, and now you reject everything that tastes similar.

Now here’s a video game that you don’t like in the same way. It couldn’t reach you. The experience failed to take you in—for whatever reason that might be. When someone who loves it comes along and tries to explain it to you, it’s like comparing a taste in food. They may be able to give you all these reasons why they love sushi so much but in the end it doesn’t matter. When you try to eat it you’re going to spit it out because to you it tastes like garbage.

Most people know immediately if they like a meal, or like a new song. There will be some people in the middle that take a while to decide—an acquired taste, or an acquired distaste, is something I hear a lot about in music. But most people just know. It hooks them or misses them. They like it or they don’t.

A game’s experience speaks to them. Or it doesn’t.

For other games that are like Subnautica, that have something else in addition to the experience, this isn’t a massive problem. There are other things to like. Even Dark Souls could fall into this category despite being so heavily steeped in carefully made gameplay mechanics. There’s an experience to be had there that many adore and even love more than the combat, whereas some others play those games ONLY for that combat and ignore this other experience side of it.

You can also use this to understand why some people unabashedly loved No Man’s Sky. Some of these people defending the game will be hipsters or contrarians—or both, the dreaded Contrarian Hipster, like the Canadian Goose of internet trolls—but some people did love the experience that game provided. This is how strong this part of games can be. It can shine through a lot of other huge problems a game can have and still hit someone as a great time.

This is a realization I’ve been circling around for a while now. I fully grasped it after I wrote my review for The Last Guardian and then went back to play Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and then The Last Guardian a second time. I struggled to write the script for the video and this was a big reason for that. These games are about a unique experience they provide for the person holding the controller. When it succeeds in making a connection, then you can understand why the games are so venerated by many when the game is discussed. But you can also understand why that reverence is rejected and misunderstood by those who didn’t make that connection.

It’s like a song that speaks to you. You can relate, as if it was written just for you. It’s that strong of a connection. But not everyone is going to feel that way.

Ico was a genuinely boring experience for me when I first played it as a teenager—I rented it when the box art caught my eye and I didn’t even finish it. It was still just as boring when I finally did finish it a few months ago. My reaction to The Last Guardian was similar, even though I can appreciate that it’s really just a better version of Ico. I can understand what they were trying to do, and I can even admire where it succeeds, but it didn’t get to me. It was boring.

Meanwhile, Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s comfortably in my top five of all time and playing it through from start to finish for what I think was the eighth time was still a great evening. Because I was able to connect with everything that game is trying to do.

To bring this back to Little Nightmares and INSIDE, you might wonder what’s the point of trying to judge them in the way that I look at games on the channel. And that’s also one of the main points I’m trying to make here. The way I approached INSIDE was, in a way, inherently flawed. I judged it as a game, when it was trying to be an experience. For me it failed as a game, and I found it completely stale as an experience. So I couldn’t really get a hook into it for proper criticism, in the same way that it couldn’t get a hook into me to enjoy it.

Does that mean that I shouldn’t have reviewed it? Well, I don’t think so. Especially since I don’t officially score anything I look at for the channel. Many other people were unable to connect with INSIDE, and it’s important that those who don’t give their honest reaction. Imagine how unsettling it would be if you were alone in disliking something, when in reality it’s that many other people who feel the same are just keeping quiet.

That said, I do think I’m going to be taking a different approach from now on when it comes to these types of games, as long as I’m able to properly identify when something is trying to primarily be an experience. I don’t regret what I said about INSIDE’s gameplay and puzzles, but if I was to make that video today I don’t think it would start out with:

<clip I don’t get this game>

It would be something along different lines, about how it failed to resonate with me. That we didn’t get each other, if that makes sense. I think it does.

These aren’t game mechanics that can be measured, tested, and compared to other games that do different versions of the same idea. They’re experiences. If a game makes you feel something, positive or negative, who is anyone to you tell that those feelings are wrong? Who is anyone to tell you that, sorry, you’re mistaken, it turns out that you DO like sushi after all, and that you need to stop pretending to hate it whenever you try it.

But the final point I want to make here is that maybe people should be more restrained when it comes to raving about these types of experiences. It’s always amazing to hear a new song that you instantly fall in love with, but you also know that it won’t appeal to everyone. That sort of excitement can lead to overblown expectations, and talk of a game close to perfection. That this is so much harder to quantify than standard game mechanics should lead to more caution when it comes to proclaiming something as a masterpiece when it did grab you.

Because people who didn’t connect with it are left cold and confused on the outside of that, like they’re not a part of an inside joke.

Little Nightmares can also serve as an example of how you can try to explore why an experience succeeds when it already has succeeded. Which sounds a little awkward but it’s still important. I think it’s near impossible to try to work this out, especially on the more emotional side of experiences, when you were unable to fundamentally connect with what it was trying to do.

I can’t tell you why INSIDE failed to get me. I can only tell you that it didn’t.

Little Nightmares is a 3D game that may initially appear like a 2D one. You travel through a series of locations and overcome dangers, but each place has a lot more to explore since you’re not trapped on a single horizontal plane. This makes a huge difference when it comes to getting through areas and working out the solutions to puzzles, because there’s many more potential paths instead of just moving left, right, up, or down.

Climbing is also used regularly to get around, which is a good way to start on the game’s controls. You play as a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six—information that the game never tells you while playing. I had to look this up separately on the store page. Same for the name of the location you’re moving through: it’s called The Maw and if that is ever shown within the game itself then I missed it.

There was a lot more to Six’s moveset than I was expecting in comparison to other atmospheric platformers that I’ve played. You have to hold down a button to sprint. Another button to crouch and sneak. Combined, you can end a run in a slide. There’s another button to hold things, which can also be used to throw objects. Holding is also used for climbing and pulling things around, meaning that there’s a satisfying clinging effect that you can learn to rely on when you’re jumping and grabbing onto ledges. It’s not so different than the grip mechanic in Shadow of the Colossus.

This, combined with more open environments, makes Little Nightmares feel more substantial in the part of it that is a traditional video game. You can never attack your enemies, but there’s a lot more involved in avoiding them than simply holding right on the control stick. You have to time sprints, jumps, climbs, and even slides to avoid being captured, and there is rarely a single set path that you’re meant to follow—except for the scripted chase sequences. You have the freedom to use all of the room you’re trying to get through.

There’s a focus on stealth that complements this freedom. Being detected doesn’t trigger a failstate, so these semi-open environments with a lot of climbable clutter can become part of a mad scramble to get away. There’s also a puzzle-like approach to the two main enemy types you’ll encounter: the blind long-armed man, and the monstrous chefs.

I think a lot of this will be apparent in the footage that’s playing: you can easily see potential hiding spots and where you can sneak through areas. Enemies also move however, so using the camera to watch them is important so you’re not seen. For the blind janitor, staying quiet is more important. Some floorboards creak, so staying on soft carpet or rolls of fabric—sort of like “the floor is lava” game—is the safest way to get around.

There’s this really engrossing perspective in all of this, like you’re spying on a game of hide-and-seek that’s going on from room to room in this evil, corrupted doll house. The fourth wall has been sliced away and left open for you to peer inside. It’s an unusual point-of-view and it’s unusual sights that you’ll be watching.

The experience of Little Nightmares is only half of what the title implies. I was expecting something that was far more loose and disconnected—that the main character would be caught in layers of dreams and nightmares and constantly be waking up and cycling through them. Instead, the world is surprisingly tangible and you are moving physically from one location to the next.

The nightmares are still here in the unsettling imagery you’ll see in each of the game’s rooms. For me and I imagine most others, the game was never outright horrifying. There were no jump scares or moments of sheer terror. Instead it’s a more gradual accumulation of disturbing and creepy. You’ll spend a lot of time in the dark. You’ll see a lot of things that imply death and depravity. When enemies do appear they do so slowly with elongated arms reaching for you in an almost lazy way, not in a quick swipe. There are some moments that are clearly meant to induce panic, but they’re always telegraphed in advance.

I enjoy this type of horror a lot. It’s what I expected out of the game from the trailer I watched, and those expectations were definitely met. With the lone exception being that lack of layered nightmares. It doesn’t get quite as nebulous or surreal with its locations as I thought it would. At first the swaying of the rooms, something that sometimes causes objects to roll around, added to that nightmarish feeling for me. But later on you discover there’s a reason for it. Basically, even though much of the game is creepy and strange, it’s mostly kept grounded in a way that makes internal sense where nightmares usually don’t.

At least it does later on in the game. The opening level was the strongest section for me because this is where the other half of the game’s experience is introduced and is linked with that dream-like quality. To me, Little Nightmares tried and succeeded beautifully in trying to make you feel like a child. That perspective of spying into a doll’s house is further augmented by the warped scale of the rooms and its contents. Six is tiny. All of the children are in this game. The adults aren’t normal—this isn’t a reasonable difference in size. It’s far more Jack and the Beanstalk. These guys are giants and, even if Six was to have the chance to become an adult, I think much of this place would still be far larger than her.

Although maybe not. Because this is what I mean by the nightmare theme of the first two sections. This place feels like a demented version of a family home. A game has never made me feel more like a child than this one did during these sections—trying to work out what furniture I can climb on and get to places that I’m clearly not allowed to be. Using drawers as steps to get to other places. Even “the floor is lava” is a part of that. The long arms of that monster being like a parent grabbing a child from victory when they’ve pushed past the safe boundaries of the home that is their world.

Sneaking around this monster is like that. If you ever walked around your house at night when you were a kid and learned which parts of the floor creak, or which steps on the staircase to skip over, so you don’t wake your parents up. There are a lot of ashtrays in this location too—little polluted ornaments dotted around, which are a staple of many childhood memories. Especially in my generation and those older than mine.

See this is what I mean by experience. All of this and more combined to make me feel this way. And maybe you’ve played the game and are right there with me. But I’d wager a bunch of others are shaking their heads going “I didn’t feel like this at all, it’s like you played a different game. I was bored.”

And yeah, the game is certainly not perfect even if it does grab you. The puzzles are often too simple—there’s even a section where you hide in shadows from a spotlight. Some of the chase sequences have you funneled down a path that is too easy to follow. The puzzles involving stealth were the most interesting, but the big draw here are the visuals and atmosphere that you’re peeling layers from as you do these things. It just so happens that this time, with this game, I was engrossed enough with the experience to be able to accept some of this simplicity as a vehicle to move through more of that atmosphere.

Every area feels precisely put together. A lot of work went into the objects and details in each scene—to the extent that they all felt used and lived in. This was a place that these monsters have inhabited for a while and continue to do so, instead of reused and recycled assets to make video game environments. The people are particularly pig-like in a grotesque, twisted way. Especially in the fourth area of the game after a reveal that I won’t spoil because it caught me so much by surprise. A herd of people are feasting in this section and you are like a mouse darting between their plates and groping hands. It’s such a disturbing thing to see—especially the primal hunger these monsters show as they try to get you. That’s how the visuals work in this game. They’re nothing that anyone would think they want to voluntarily witness, yet I couldn’t look away once I had started.

The game does not have a story as far as I’m concerned and I’m okay with that. Like I said I was expecting a disjointed series of nightmares and, although that isn’t what the game turned out to be, it’s just as ambiguous as I thought. As always, some people may love putting the pieces together with their own interpretation used as glue to fill in any plotholes. I don’t enjoy doing that and I was happy to ignore it. If there is an explanation that reconciles everything that happens throughout the game then I’ll be happy to accept it and think more highly of Little Nightmares. But I think the ambiguity was intentional.

In closing let’s talk about the game’s biggest flaw. Which may be something that many of you won’t care about, but this is a large enough negative for me that it makes me hesitate on recommending the game. I said at the beginning of the video that Little Nightmares is short. My first playthrough took less than two and a half hours. And that includes a ten minute stretch where I got stuck on a part because of some weird inconsistency the game has, and more than nine minutes watching the credits at the end. If you take those away, the game just barely broke the two hour mark.

For that inconsistency, I didn’t know that you could hold down the throw button to launch objects further away from Six. This would be my own fault for not experimenting except, here, when you need to throw the clapping monkey toy earlier in the section to call the elevator, Six automatically changed the arc of her throw when I was close enough. For the later encounter with the button and the shoes, you need to hold the button down instead. I wasted a bunch of time trying to get the right location for what I thought was a context-sensitive throw like the first one. This isn’t a big problem by any stretch, but it does mean there was wasted time in my playthrough that was already on the lean side. (Note: I went back in and tested this and I now have to hold the button down for that first part so I don’t know what’s right here. I distinctly remember not having to do that so this section may change for the video)

Is it short enough that I regret playing it? No. But I don’t think it had overstayed its welcome yet either. Two more areas, with two unique new monsters like the long-armed man and the chefs, would have made the experience more substantial for me. Especially since the final area is quite brief and more could have been done with the scrambling and climbing hide-and-seek gameplay. As it is now I felt like the game had just reached a climactic moment that would be expanded on in a third act. Instead, the game was over.

Little Nightmares is still my favorite of its kind that I’ve played and I do feel comfortable recommending it if you are a fan of the genre—hopefully this video didn’t spoil too much. I do have to wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on chance. I had the good fortune to be able to connect with this game as an experience, which is rare for me. The more emotional, atmospheric experiences don’t usually work. It’s the more interesting ones like Subnautica and The Long Dark that get me. It makes me a little sad actually. It makes me wonder what else I’ve missed out on.

Breath of the Wild Script

— PLEASE READ THIS FIRST —

Usual warnings apply: you may spoil your enjoyment of the video by reading this ahead of time. Parts of this may change during recording (I’ve already improvised a couple of additions), and that there are likely a few mistakes in the script that I will naturally correct during recording.

Please be aware of that if you’d like to read this early.

 

 

 

Introduction

Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I have ever played. If you follow me on Twitter then you might be surprised that the video is opening with that line, because I’ve spent most of my tweets bemoaning how many reviewers overlooked the game’s flaws. And the game really does have those flaws—not just nitpicks, although I have plenty of those too—but huge, critical problems that I do not understand how so many reviewers managed to ignore.

But I’d be equally guilty of not doing my job if I didn’t acknowledge that parts of Breath of the Wild do things better than any other game I have ever played. And through that admission, I hope I can help you understand how conflicted I am on this game and how difficult it is to properly judge it. Because Breath of the Wild is so huge and has so much to do, that it’s like two games in one.

On one side, you have the incredible stuff. Exploration. Link’s mobility. The freedom in the many options you have to move through this world. The visuals are heavily stylized and won’t be to everyone’s tastes but they consistently impressed me. I cannot think of another open world game that does these things better.

But on the other side, you have another game. A game that feels frankly unfinished. Which, oddly enough, is what you play almost any time you’re taken away from exploring. When you enter a shrine or what masquerades as a dungeon. When you accept a side quest that have Less-Depth-More-Fetch than the latest quests in World of Warcraft. The game’s combat is the best of these but falls short of its potential, and has some balance issues that are so terrible it feels like it was made by a team of amateurs in comparison to the experts that developed the exploration you experience through the world.

That sounds like an exaggeration as I’m reading it back now. But this is really how I felt: there were many moments I had while playing Breath of the Wild that I had to stop in place to wonder how a game THIS good was possible. How on Earth did Nintendo manage to make this? Hyrule is so vast, and beautiful, and overflowing with detail. And then a few minutes later I would be thinking the opposite: how could combat be this bad? How could a shrine puzzle be so worthless? Why was so much of my time being wasted, when there’s already an overwhelming amount of places to go and find? Why is this a Zelda game when there’s hardly any of the typical Zelda-content?

The conflict I feel about this game is something I hope I’ll resolve by writing this. I can sum it up like so: imagine a hypothetical game that was 20 levels long. 10 of these levels are some of the best content you’ve ever experienced. 5 were just okay—about average. But the other 5 were terrible. How much should your overall reaction be brought down by those bad parts? Do you just ignore them and focus on the good, since that’s what stood out the most to you? Diehard fans who think Dark Souls 1 is the best in the series would say yes, you do. And I can’t say for sure if they’re right or wrong. I don’t know where or how to draw these lines. I don’t know if you SHOULD draw them, even though it’s clear to me that so many reviewers have. They’ve quarantined off the diseased parts of Breath of the Wild and responded to the best of it.

And that’s about as long as I can be vague and spoiler-free. If you love exploration in video games then you owe it to yourself to play this game knowing as little about it as possible. If you want something more—deep combat, an engaging story, any sort of challenge, or interesting puzzles—then you could probably skip Breath of the Wild. You might want to hear my reasons first though because you might disagree. Fortunately, there isn’t really much of a story to spoil anyway.

 

 

Part One – That Was Your Spoiler Warning

Breath of the Wild begins with a cinematic. There’s no menu the first time you start this game. It just automatically plays this introduction sequence and gives you control of Link. He’s been asleep in this chamber for a hundred years and has lost his memory. You’re guided by a voice through this small area and walked through the basics of the game.

This opening is interesting and could potentially get you wondering about what happened. Why was Link left here? Who’s speaking to you? Why has he lost his memory? Ultimately the pay off in the story isn’t worth the time spent speculating. While it’s certainly a story that received more attention than any of the Mario games, it’s still primarily an excuse for Link to travel the world and have an adventure. I do think the potential was here for something more elaborate but we’ll get to that much later.

For now let’s focus on all of the things that are introduced here. First up is the Sheikah Slate, that I immediately saw as a pack of Hearthstone cards and could never unsee it for the rest of the game. Hopefully I’m alone in that observation and, if not, at least someone out there will now share my pain now that I’ve pointed it out.

The Sheikah Slate is essentially a magical smart phone. Eventually it even has a camera. For now it has a map and I guess some sort of GPS. You can use it to inspect your surroundings and mark things in the distance, which will then also be visible on your map. Soon after this you unlock four “apps” for the phone that you can use for the rest of the game.

First let’s get out of this chamber. You’re given some clothes in the next room and not-so-subtly nudged into opening the menu and learning how to equip things. Then after that you see the exit open as a light at the end of the tunnel, but not before you’re forced to climb up a wall in order to leave. Again, not-so-subtly showing that Link can climb in this game. Although my guess is that most players won’t realize exactly how important that is in this first stage.

You’re given a brief but beautiful shot of Hyrule and the title of the game fades into view. You’re shown a mysterious old man nearby and then left to do whatever you like. Welcome to Breath of the Wild. Go nuts.

Except you’re actually confined more than you might think. This starting area is called the Great Plateau, and it’s raised on all sides from the rest of Hyrule. You can’t leave this place until you’ve completed the game’s tutorial. Where the game succeeds however, is that you’re still given a lot of flexibility in how you go about completing this area. You can also skip some of it on your second playthrough when you know what you’re doing.

The Great Plateau is one of the best things that this game does. Because Breath of the Wild is all about freedom. So as much as it may seem paradoxical that it’s showing you that freedom while keeping you confined, this part is necessary for each player to be prepared to face the larger world before being able to leave here. The genius is that my guess is most players won’t even notice this.

See The Great Plateau is like a miniaturized version of the entire game. The whole thing really. For starters it’s surprisingly large—it has multiple areas to go through, ruins to see, and multiple enemy encampments. You have the fields, a mountain range, the ruins of the temple of time, and your first tower to find. After that, you’re given the task to find four shrines on the map.

Compare this to the larger quest in Hyrule after this… you’re looking to complete the four “dungeons” on the map. Which you can do in any order you like, but you’re still strongly nudged in the direction of one of them. Just like here on the Plateau. Your quest leads you to the shrine that grants you the magnesis app first, but you can ignore that suggestion and go wherever you want.

Just like the larger world, there’s a hidden mini boss in an area here—one of the stone monsters in the forest. And the mountain area is colder than the rest of this part of the map, which is also a feature you’ll be running into a lot in the larger world: preparing yourself to survive harsh environments. Whether that’s with clothes or temporary food buffs.

But the thing I love the most about this starting sequence is how much it promotes exploration. It starts with that sweeping shot when you first see daylight. I saw Death Mountain in the distance and I immediately wanted to go there. Then, when you raise the tower, the cinematic that plays does an even better job of this. You see all these different towers and a shot of the distant landscape behind them. As soon as I saw this snowy one I was sold. I want to go THERE. I want to see THAT. I already have longterm goals to keep me playing. Then, as the final thing that pushes this all from great to brilliant, you can use the Sheikah Slate function I mentioned a minute ago. I was curious enough to want to see how far Death Mountain was from the Plateau. And that moment when the sheer scale of this world began to dawn on me was one of, if not the best, thing I felt while playing this game.

The Great Plateau feels so large at first but it is comparatively tiny to the rest of the game. To the point that, after you reveal the whole map, it’s honestly hard to tell where it is anymore without zooming in. And that’s something you will notice and experience for yourself. That there’s THIS much to explore in this game.

But WHY is the exploration good? I’ve said it a few times now: that I loved this part of the game. Well for starters not everyone will. Some people prefer their games to be heavy on combat, or puzzles, or stories. I enjoy those a lot too, but I also like getting lost in video game worlds and seeing interesting things. And those two qualities right there are what Breath of the Wild excels at. There are a lot of cool things to see if you get lost. And it is very, very easy to get lost in this game.

By lost I mean sidetracked. You almost always have your map and you can fast travel to shrines you’ve found, so it’s not really possible to get properly lost or stuck—with only a few exceptions like Eventide Isle. The two main mechanics that facilitate exploration are the climbing and the glider. The first finally lives up to that famous line about open world games: “See that mountain? You can climb it.”

Well in Skyrim this means finding a set path and following it to the top. Or finding literal stairs built into the side of the mountain. In Breath of the Wild, you actually climb it. With your hands and feet. And it’s not some brainless alternative to walking either, you have to judge the height of things and compare it to your available stamina. For something that appears so mundane on the surface, there is a shocking amount of things you can learn here.

Firstly, you can look ahead for potential resting spots on the side of whatever it is you’re climbing. Some of these are obvious, while others are harder to recognize. Then there’s the ability to jump ahead at the cost of more stamina. Link is capable of climbing for longer at the slow pace—his stamina lasts longer that way—but you’re a lot faster if you jump. This means you can do some quick planning to squeeze in a few jumps to climb faster but, more importantly, that you need to account for the final desperate jump you can do just before your stamina runs out to finish climbs that you otherwise wouldn’t.

This is also useful when it’s raining. Surfaces are too slick to climb when they’re wet, but after a few attempts you can notice a pattern to when Link starts to slip. If you time a jump right before that, you don’t lose any of the height you’ve gained. It’s very stamina intensive but makes climbing possible. This was one of many little tricks that I taught myself while playing through experimentation, and it’s one of the best things that the game does—rewarding player creativity.

Look this climbing thing may seem unworthy of the praise I’m giving it right now especially since I’ve criticized Uncharted and Tomb Raider for all of the climbing in those games. The difference is that they have “climbing walls” with a set path to follow. Breath of the Wild let’s you climb anything. At any point. With very, very few exceptions—so few that it’s genuinely not worth me saying it but I want to avoid the pedantic comment correcting me—you can climb any surface while you’re out in the world. It’s a decision you need to make and for you to determine whether you can make the climb. Which was a big reason why I favored stamina upgrades over heart containers as I played.

There’s a childlike wonder in climbing things. It feeds into that idea of freedom. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing how awesome it was to get a flying mount for the first time in World of Warcraft. It’s like some shackles you never knew you had have been broken. Climb the building. Jump on the roof. Jump OFF the roof. Want to ignore the roads and the paths we’ve made? Go for it. Climb around them.

Have you ever gotten a stubborn streak like that in Skyrim or a game like it? There’s a cliff between you and your destination and you’re clearly not going to waste time going around even though it would probably end up being faster. So you sort of do a half strafe up the jagged edges of the land, jumping whenever the game lets you, and making a little bit of progress each time. This is more glitching through the game than anything else but god damn it you’re going to do it your way.

Breath of the Wild embraced that. And made it a feature.

Couple that with the glider and I think, if you haven’t played the game, that things might start to make sense about why the exploration succeeds. There’s a lot of verticality in this game. You climb towers to reveal the map in each region—of which there are fifteen. And there are a lot of hills and highland all over the world. You’re taught early on to survey the land for shrines and, by extension, anything else that catches your interest. Then, when you begin to slowly glide down from up high, you have the time to look around and study everything as you descend. And there’s seemingly always more than one thing that catches your eye on the way down. It’s up to you if you want to investigate, and the fact that it’s so simple to get around with all the gliding and climbing made it really easy for me to get lost.

Shrines reward you with spirit orbs that are functionally heart pieces from the previous games. You need the same amount for them to be worth something—four heart pieces, four spirit orbs. The difference is you can choose either more life or more stamina with every four that you exchange. So shrines already have an intrinsic value and allure for you to find them via exploration. But it was other qualities I found that added to the reason to go out looking for things.

The most subjective one is that the world is really something to look at. There was genuine beauty to be found in this game for me. While I do think a few too many of the regions were full of green trees and sprawling grassy fields, there was enough variety in the many mountains, highland, swamps, jungles, and desert to keep me admiring my surroundings. “That looks cool, what’s that?” was often the first thing that got my attention.

Next up are the Korok Seeds, which reward players for being perceptive and stopping to look at the things they pass. This is a collectible that, initially, is extremely valuable because it expands your maximum carrying capacity for weapons and shields. There are 900 of these seeds to find in the game, and each of them are tied to exploration or a very light puzzle. The game trains you to be on the look out for any potential place one of these guys might be hiding—on top of a temple, or hiding under a suspiciously placed rock. There are patterns in the world that you’ll start to notice and, 9 times out of 10, whenever I thought to myself “I bet there’s a korok hiding over there,” I was right.

900 sounds like a lot. And it is. It’s actually insane that there are that many. But I am certain you’re not meant to find all of these—you’re not even meant to find MOST of them. 900 seeds isn’t there as a number so the game sounds like it has a ton of content. It’s there because by having so many, they can be crammed all over the place for people to find easily without being glaringly obvious. I found almost 300 of these seeds across the 150 hours that I played Breath of the Wild. And I am certain that I likely missed another 300 hidden in those same areas I went through. This is the equivalent of casting a really wide net for players—another person who put in the same amount of hours I did may have also found hundreds of seeds. But they’re likely to be a completely different set.

But the most important way exploration succeeded for me, and I hope for many others, were the stories that I was able to experience myself. Stories in a way unique to video games and more like situations you may get yourself into in real life. The most standard of these were encountering other travelers on the road. These interactions were usually boring but a rare few stood out. I don’t know why, but saving a couple from monsters and then learning that were searching for a blooming flower—a silent princess—is stuck in my memory. As is my first meeting with Kass, the traveling bird bard. Hearing his accordion through rain in the distance and walking toward the music, wondering what it was. And then being given one of many riddles to solve—which were always easy but were still enjoyable.

The bigger moments were when I felt like I was traveling “out of bounds”. There’s a tangible sense, especially early on in the game, that you’re climbing to places you’re not supposed to get to yet. But the game still lets you do it. The most memorable of these stories for me was climbing the frozen mountain range in the southwest part of the world. This was a very long climb and, once I reached the top, I discovered that I wasn’t prepared to withstand the cold. Now I had a choice: leave so I can become better prepared, or push on to find a shrine or the region’s tower so that I would have a fast travel point to come back next time without having to do the long climb again.

Of course that’s what I did, which ended up taking a lot longer than I anticipated. I kept pushing on, with supplies dwindling as I ate most of my food to replenish hearts lost to the cold, before finally finding a shrine and then the tower shortly afterwards.

There were a bunch of experiences like this for me while I played—seeing my first dragon was another one, even though they ended up being disappointing when I learned more about them. I know full well that this type of thing doesn’t appeal to everyone but combined with everything else to do with exploration, it made this part of the game immensely enjoyable. It was a real pleasure to get lost in this world—which is exactly what I did for my first fifty hours or so. I didn’t do any of the main quests. The game was just this for me during that period.

But this is only half of what there is in Breath of the Wild, and I think you could make a strong argument that it’s even less than that. So let’s rewind back to the Great Plateau, after we raise the tower and are given our first quest to reach those shrines.

You get your first set of four spirit orbs by doing these, which you can use to buy an upgrade in the nearby temple of time at the end. The Mysterious Old Man, who turns out to be the ghost of the King of Hyrule, won’t give you the required glider to leave the Plateau until you do this. More important than the orbs however, are the Sheikah Slate powers that each of these shrines gives to you.

These are:

Two sets of bombs. A series staple. One is the standard sphere version. The other is a cube so you can securely set it somewhere, which I thought was a neat touch. It was also nice that these recharge instead of being a limited quantity. Puzzles could be designed around the player always having access to bombs because of that.

Magnesis allows you to lift up metal objects. You can move them to make bridges, or a set of stairs, or to open doors.

Stasis allows you to freeze objects in time. This makes them immobile for the duration of the effect no matter what force is being acted on them. So balls won’t roll down a decline—which is how the shrine tests you on the mechanic—and that any series of strikes you land on something while in stasis will compound by the end. So you can launch heavy objects away.

Lastly is the pillar of ice ability. I say lastly because this one is at the top of the mountain in the Great Plateau and is likely the final shrine that players will visit. There are multiple ways up here too, and more than one way to combat the cold. It’s yet another example of how much freedom the game offers each player to choose their own journey to a destination.

The pillar of ice is exactly as it sounds. You can also make them appear from waterfalls but that twist on the mechanic isn’t taught in this shrine. The way it’s introduced is by spawning ice under a gate to lift it up from the water below.

Your reward for doing all of this is some story about your past and the destruction of Hyrule—that Zelda and Link, before you lost your memories, failed to defeat Ganon 100 years prior. You’ve given some very vague details about Zelda being locked in a perpetual battle with Ganon in a now corrupted Hyrule Castle, and that you need to save her. First, you should visit and reclaim the four “Divine Beasts” around the land, that were set as weapons to help defeat Ganon before he corrupted them. So you’re given more details about how you ended up sleeping in the shrine at the beginning—because you fell in battle and had to be taken there to be resurrected 100 years ago—and have the goal of the game. Purify the divine beasts. Kill Ganon.

The other, far more fun reward is the glider. So let’s ignore the story and speak about that.

I was very excited the first time I got to this point. There were so many possibilities for the game building on what it had just done. The Great Plateau was a gated area. Because of that, Nintendo knew that every player had an array of tools when they left to explore the world—weapons, a bow, a shield, probably the knowledge about cooking and clothes, the ability to climb, glide, and all four of the Sheikah Slate powers.

In previous Zelda games, many of the dungeons couldn’t incorporate the tools found in earlier dungeons. That’s likely a reason why many of them followed a similarly gated design. You do a small set of dungeons, find their treasure, and kill their bosses, and then have those key items for the next grouping of dungeons that you can do in a different order. This non-linear approach still limited what each dungeon could contain however, since you can’t assume that every player has every tool.

Here, in Breath of the Wild, you have all of this already! So dungeons can be built around the idea of mixing and matching different mechanics. Climb something, then stasis a moving platform so you can glide to it. Then drop a cube bomb to blow something up, which reveals a metal box that you can manipulate to allow access to some water for an ice pillar or something. I can only be vague about this because Breath of the Wild doesn’t do this. Ever. So I can’t show any visual examples to reinforce this point.

At most there are instances where you have to use two abilities together. But that’s it. And even those are really rare. I was expecting a dungeon at the end of the Great Plateau—one that incorporated all of these tools and then introduced a new one that can be added onto a growing list. But stunningly enough, these are all the tools you get. For the whole game. Not even the excuse of the dungeons present in Breath of the Wild add anything to this list.

Instead, the only additions you get are the ability to swim up waterfalls in the Zora questline, and a powered jump ability from the Rito questline. The former of which is only required to do a handful of quests in the area and a korok seed, while the latter is never used for anything specific at all.

Not even the shrines build on any of these concepts introduced by the first ones on the Plateau. This is such a missed opportunity that it’s MINDBLOWING to me that Nintendo did not think of a way to develop this potential. This is the most fertile beginning that I think any Zelda has ever had, and it goes on to to be the most lackluster series of puzzles and dungeons that I’ve ever seen in one of these games.

Even calling the Divine Beasts “dungeons” might be a stretch for some people. They’re incredible to look at—with a spectacle both from the outside and the inside when you board them and run around their insides like a more “organic” version of a dungeon. It reminds me so much of the awesome scale in Shadow of the Colossus, which I think is a comparison a lot of people are going to make. And I did enjoy these sections don’t get me wrong—I liked the unique mechanic each one had with controlling part of the robot to make it rotate, or move in a way to open different paths. They’re very well put together, but they’re also tiny. There’s no clever, grand level design like in many other dungeons in the series. They’re too small for that. The only place that really felt like that was Hyrule Castle which, depending on how bitter I’m feeling when you ask me, might be the only thing I consider to be a dungeon in the game, period.

The divine beasts also share the same visual theme. Have the same introduction from a ghost of the pilot who died inside when Ganon took over. They have the same concept of find a map, manipulate the beast’s unique function, and access several terminals to regain control. Then you kill a boss—all four of which share a very similar visual style.

I’ll talk about the bosses more later when we get to combat, but for now I want to hammer home how disappointing this was for me. I play Zelda games for the dungeons and the bosses. That’s the thing I look forward to the most. I will never forget how awesome some of the bosses looked in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time when I first saw them. Just like the overlapping level design and challenge in navigating those dungeons was what made me fall in love with the series to begin with. And this just isn’t in Breath of the Wild. It just isn’t. Imagine how much more rewarding exploration could have been if there were dungeons to find in the world. The mazes you can discover hint at the potential here. They’re unfortunately too simple but the idea is still present. You can feel it when you arrive. All this mystery and intrigue… imagine if it gave way to a huge dungeon.

Very little of this game was spoiled for me before I started playing. So I really was expecting to unearth some dungeons somewhere as I explored. I looked forward to it the whole game—stumbling upon the entrance of some place and having a whole different kind of experience in a dungeon, with a new tool, and an awesome boss. It never happened.

And I don’t know if that’s fair of me or not. You’re going to have to let me know about that. I know it’s not fair to want MORE content, because Breath of the Wild is already brimming with stuff to do. Like I said earlier, I had to stop and ask aloud how Nintendo possibly made this game because it really is that vast. And having even four real, proper dungeons hidden in the world—which would still be too small of a number—would be a massive amount of work. And yet even understanding that I’m expecting too much, I can’t stop myself feeling this way because of the “Zelda” in the title of this game. It’s a great experience on its own. But there’s not enough Zelda to justify it.

What I am certain of however, is how right I am to be disappointed in the shrines. Because maybe that’s the alternative. There are 120 shrines in Breath of the Wild. If 20 shrines are about the same size of a dungeon when combined, then that could be the equivalent of about 6 dungeons that were chopped up into bite-sized chunks and spread throughout the world. Not so bad if that’s how they work, right?

 

 

Part Two – Shrine On You Crazy Diamond

The shrines are the worst feature in Breath of the Wild. This section is going to be long and overly detailed because I intend to prove it, instead of just whining about it. So if you’re not all that interested you might want to skip to the combat in Part 3.

Korok Seeds and Shrines have one main thing in common: they appeal to a completionist mindset. Longtime viewers may wonder why I’m comfortable saying that Korok Seeds are something you’re not meant to fully finish, yet I forced myself to do almost every puzzle in The Witness, beat the end of Darkest Dungeon, and reached the center of the galaxy in No Man’s Sky.

In those games, that IS the game. Those are the main features. The main goal. In Zelda, there’s a hell of a lot more in the spotlight. Even ignoring the main quest, it’s clear that exploration is front and center. You could argue that it’s right there in the name of the game. It’s for this reason that I’m willing to give the side quests a pass. I enjoyed next to none of them—although some of the characters had some funny lines and were charming—and that’s okay because they were clearly filler content to me. Do I wish the game had great side quests? Absolutely, why not. If something can be good why not have it in the game? But I would have rather had dungeons and more Zelda-content instead.

Korok Seeds are clearly not something you’re meant to obsess over. Even though the reward you get for finding some of them is important—I’ll argue later that it’s even gamebreaking—the amount of seeds you need for each upgrade slot quickly ramps up so that it’s not all that worth it. Also while we’re here and just mentioned No Man’s Sky, am I alone in having flashbacks to how the inventory upgrades here? Holy hell that game really did a number on me.

The difference between seeds and shrines is that I think you’re meant to do the majority of them. I don’t think you have to do ALL of them to consider yourself finished with the game—although I don’t think it’s crazy to go that route if you like—but doing more than half, maybe even 80 of the 120, is reasonable if you explore most of the world and do all of the main quest. Or maybe it should be a comparison to the 70 stars out of 120 in Super Mario 64.

That’s still a lot of hours of content devoted to shrines. I did all 120 for the video and just that content alone took me about 20 hours. And that’s a pretty accurate estimate because I went through all of my footage and spliced together every shrine. Mostly because I wanted to be able to review all of the shrines for this examination but also because I’m as crazy as a straw.

All of these different clips are the 120 shrines. We’ll be splitting them up shortly. For now, it’s important to know that there are two ways to find all of the shrines in the game. The first is that you just find it. With your eyes or your ears. You see a shrine, walk toward it, unlock it and then ride the elevator down. You get off and say “Yep, it’s a shrine.” Or you hear it with your shrine-dar in the slate and play a game of hot-or-cold to locate it. This can actually eat up a lot of time, as does all of the waiting for the shrines to play their cinematic movies—which are always the same—and then load in and out.

The second way to find a shrine is through a quest. Often these mean the shrine is inaccessible until you do a task. But it doesn’t always mean that. Which can lead to some trouble when you’re measuring the worth of each of these shrines. Because even though every shrine has the same visual style and recycles the same assets over and over, the content inside can be very different.

I’m going to sound disrespectful with what I say next but I also feel like Nintendo has wasted my time already so I think we’ll break even. The majority of these shrines are so bad that it feels to me like the developers held a “Bring Your Kid to Work Day” and had all them design their own shrine with incredibly simple tools, and the ones that everyone liked the most became the bulk of the shrines in the game. That’s how vapid a lot of this content is.

So let’s split this up because that was a fairly bold thing to say and I need to support it.

First off, the easiest examples to get rid of are the combat shrines. These are all identical. It’s the same room with the same enemy. It’s a medium-sized guardian robot who will have an assortment of weapons and shields to use against you, and either a small, medium, or super-sized health pool depending on whether it’s a minor, modest, or major trial.

These enemies always have the same mechanics. And the only change in the environment are the pillars you need to bait them into slamming through when they enter a certain attack. On harder trials you need to use your magnet powers or your ice pillars to make these barriers which, to me, made the fights EASIER because I could always guarantee there would be something to use.

If you count the tutorial introduction shrine for these fights—which I definitely think you should—then these take up 21 of the shrines in the game. One sixth of the shrine (slash) piecemeal dungeon content is comprised of just this. Same fight. Over and over. And over.

Stay with me because it gets worse.

More often than not the shrines that require the completion of a quest will be elaborate. And this is generally the best shrine content in the game. There’ll be a puzzle of some sort in the world, or some task you need to do. Kass will present a riddle—like finding the right point to shoot an arrow through two of these rock formations. Or a woman in the desert will require you to go on a quest to make a drink for her before she’ll free up space so you can access the shrine, which leads to carrying an ice cube through ruins full of monsters and hiding it in the cooler shadows so it doesn’t melt while you fight.

There were 35 of these type of quest shrines in the game on my playthrough—there’s technically more than that but not all of the shrines require you to have the quest in order to access them. Just most of them do. Of these 35, 25 of them ended with an empty shrine. Although I hate the wasted time loading into these things for what amounts to a free pass, it’s more than acceptable that some of the shrines are like this because some of the quests are complicated enough to justify it.

So quests like navigating the huge mazes on the map, or completing the challenges in the lost woods, or Eventide Island—which was one of my favorite parts of the game. Quests like this justify the empty shrine at the end, since that’s just the reward. The shrine “puzzle” was in the world instead.

However not all of the quests are worthy enough of this pass. And it’s made doubly strange because some elaborate quests DO have puzzle shrines at the end of them. 10 of them do and a few of these are some of the more substantial shrines. There’s a quest in the Rito region that requires you to find a bunch of bird children so they’ll practice some song at a nearby nest. You have to hunt for them in the village, then cook some special food for the most troublesome one, then you need to solve a puzzle by listening to their song at the nest. Only then does the shrine spawn and it still leads to a series of puzzles inside.

Yet other quests, like holding a snowball at the right angle in the sun so its shadow is cast on a panel, leads to nothing. An empty shrine. Or lighting these torches in the desert—which takes less than a minute. It leads to an empty shrine. Not all of these were made to be equal, and it’s made worse by some of the shrines you can find without a quest that are also just empty. There was this one hidden in a wall that my shrine detector picked up. No quest. Empty inside. Another in a cold lake that was very easy to find and get to. Same thing. Easy to find without a quest. No puzzle inside the shrine.

This is a game that promotes exploring. So it should have been predictable that someone like me, who enjoyed going to the far reaches of the map, would have found some of these shrines before finding the quests. This one here, which was empty, was linked to some sort of quest in a nearby town. A quest that I got a long time later and watched as it instantly auto-completed in my quest log. I have no clue if there was some challenge I skipped over accidentally but I don’t think that matters. For me, it was a dead shrine.

That means that there are 29 shrines like this in the game—just a bridge with a chest in a chamber of water. And not all of them had meaty enough journeys there to justify that. The fact that some of the longer quests—like solving the heart-shaped riddle in the Rito village, or taking photos of the broken monument on the beach—still have a puzzle shrine at the end of them after all of this, makes a lot of the ones that don’t feel suspiciously unfinished.

The shrines that are left are ones that you directly find in the wild. These also include the starter shrines on the plateau and the simple ones in the areas closest to that starting area. I think this split might be a bit hard to follow so let’s refresh all the shrines on the timeline.

The first group on the left are the 60 shrines you find and then solve a puzzle inside. The next 10 are those that have a quest in the world but still have a puzzle shrine afterward. And the remaining 50 are the 21 combat shrines, 25 quests with empty shrines, and the 4 shrines that I found without a quest that were completely empty.

We’ve already gone over how variable the quality some of the quests can be. I think it’s worth mentioning a few other examples real quick though. The riddle that requires you to stab a platform with a specific weapon should have really had a puzzle shrine underneath it. As should the shrines that require you to present a scale of each of the three dragons in order to unlock the way—especially since this is something you’ll have to do many times if you want to upgrade your armor.

Conversely, discovering the ruins at the end of the game’s biggest canyon, and fighting my way through many broken guardians, was one of my favorite moments in the game. Even after I was disappointed that I hadn’t just found a secret dungeon, this was still enjoyable and worth an empty shrine at the end. As were some of the mini-games like the Goron Climbing challenge, and the sand seal racing in the desert.

There are some stinkers in these quests but it was the best scripted content in the game on average. Which is not something I can say for the 70 shrines in the game that had puzzles in them.

The biggest issue is that too many of these are overly simple. And this is also where we’ll be going through the most examples.

I’ve went through and split the 70 puzzle shrines into the five groups you see now. The four on the left are the tutorial shrines on the Great Plateau. The next group are 15 shrines that I consider to be good and interesting. The next group are another 15 that are just okay or borderline bad. Then there are 32 that are outright bad and a waste of your time or repeat concepts. And then there are the 4 at the other end which I am going to label as terrible, because they use the frustrating motion controls.

A lot of this is going to be subjective. What I just said might be something you disagree with—some people might like those motion control puzzles. Whereas I hated them. So I’m going to go through each group and explain why I separated these puzzles. Obviously I can’t do them all but I think you’ll be able to understand my reasoning, and then decide whether you agree with me or not.

First, let’s establish the four tutorial shrines as a baseline for what I consider to be a good series of puzzles. Each of these follows a pattern of introducing a concept and then testing you on it at least two times after that. So with the stasis mechanic, you need to freeze a cog, then freeze a ball, and then freeze a third ball which you then need to hit while frozen to move. It’s a progression on the idea each time.

Same goes for the magnesis ability, your bombs, and the ice pillar. You make a pillar to climb to a ledge, then open a gate, use it to block a guardian from hitting you, and then lift a seesaw.

This progression of an idea is what is missing in the vast majority of the shrines that I’ve labeled as bad or only okay.

For example…

This shrine requires you to place a bomb on a block and then use another bomb to blast it in the air so you can break through the ceiling. This is actually a cool concept—timing different bombs—but after doing this first part of it you’re already done. This is the end.

In this other shrine you jump over two gaps with the glider open and ride the wind. And then you’re done. This is the whole shrine.

This one gives the enormous undertaking of jumping on a raft in moving water. Then it goes full frogger and has three more rafts. Then you have to use the current and a bomb to open your way. And that’s it. No really, this is the entire shrine.

You shoot an orb off a pillar into the docking pit. Then you throw a ball through the door it opened into another pit. And then you jump upward to the end. This, like many other shrines like it, should have been the first phase that builds on this concept. Instead it’s already over.

Same for this one which has you shooting a ball in the air so a jumping pillar activates so you can shoot a crystal. That’s the whole shrine.

For the most ridiculous example of all, there’s this one which needs you to freeze an electrified ball so it falls to the floor—or you can time a magnetic grab I guess—and then you’re finished. You take it to the inactive power switch and you’re done. I had to put the controller down after this shrine and really think about how this made it into the game.

Then there are others that are so close to introducing a cool concept. This one has heavy balls on ropes. You shoot the first rope and see that they fall to press down a button. Then the next room requires you to freeze the ball so you can shoot both ropes without it swinging out of alignment of the button. That’s a cool idea! But you’re already done. Aside from an even easier optional ball for a hidden chest, this was all there is to do in this shrine.

For some of the other bad ones and some of the okay ones, there are a lot of repeated concepts. This shrine has a fair amount to do with using stasis to launch objects, but this is the same puzzle the tutorial used to TEACH you this mechanic. It’s repeating that again. Same for the balls rolling down slots that you need to stop or block. It’s the same thing.

Or this shrine that was similar to the inside of a giant clock. This could have been a really interesting puzzle involving stopping certain gears in a specific order, or moving onto more complex chambers like this with more mindbending puzzles. Instead you ride up to the top, make a simple jump, and then freeze the gear at the right time. Which is exactly the same as the very first thing the game taught you to do in the stasis tutorial shrine. After you climb these stairs the shrine is over.

Some of the shrines that are okay do build on an idea but are still too simple. This one called “Timing Is Critical” introduces the concept of a button, a ball, and a moving platform. Then it tests you twice after this with a slightly more complex version. So there is a progression but it’s just not enough. There are quite a few shrines that are like this.

In contrast to these, you have some good shrines that feel like they got 10 times the attention, which is why I’m only half-joking about my “Bring Your Kid to Work Day” explanation. These good shrines are the only ones that feel like actual game designers made them.

There was one that was an assault course of lava, wind, and timing jumps with the glider. Another one that delivers on the promise of timing bomb explosions—first with a simple introduction of an automatic thrusting pillar, then one you have to control, and then a final room that needs two bombs set up in a slightly clever way to solve it.

Most of the shrines involving electricity also followed this pattern. They start off simple and gradually increase with each stage of the shrine—just the fact that they had stages at all makes it better than most of them unfortunately.

There was a decent shrine that built on the foundation of the magnetic ability, first by having you get a set of platforms swinging in place, then coiling the spiked balls around the ceiling beam—or making them swing in a pattern that you can dart through—and then making some stairs to the end.

And that difference in approach there—that those spiked balls had two solutions—might be what a lot of you are screaming at your monitors right now. That I’m wrong about these shrines, because many of them have multiple solutions. That they’re flexible and therefore fun.

I understand that it can be enjoyable to do stuff like that. But my perspective is that a boring puzzle with three boring solutions instead of just one boring solution is still a boring puzzle. And that some of the solutions break these shrines in ridiculously stupid ways that show such a lack of thought on Nintendo’s part.

There’s a shrine that has a lot of fans, a ball, and a dock for it to sit in. The idea is that you’re meant to use blocks to cut off specific fans so that the wind currents left active will roll the ball into the dock from beginning to end, so that you have time to get to the rising pillar that the dock triggers when it’s active.

Seems like this could have the potential to be a cool puzzle, right? Well not only is this shrine one of those “one room, one layer only” puzzles, it’s also completely subverted by using stasis on the ball when it’s already in the dock and then running to the pillar. And this mechanic, with freezing a ball mid-roll, is something taught to you in the tutorial shrine. Every player is going to know this. Imagine if putting a bomb in the slot would work just as well because it’s the same shape. That’s how poorly designed this puzzle is.

To add insult to injury, there are TWO of these wind current shrines that can be ruined the same way.

And look I also understand that there’s an inherent problem here, which could be something another group of people might be screaming that I’m wrong about. Breath of the Wild is an open world game, so that means there’s a soft limit on how complex these shrines can be. Because if you can do them all in any order, that means really difficult ones could ruin the experience for players if they happen to stumble onto a challenging one early. Something like this happened to me with combat in the game—and we’ll get to that in a bit. The opposite happened to me with the shrines. At the end of the game, while searching for the final ones, I was finding modest and minor combat shrines that I could kill without any effort at all.

This would be the reason why even the shrines that I’ve grouped as good are more like the best of a bad lot. Some of them are interesting but they still don’t have much to them compared to some of the puzzle content and level design in the previous Zelda games. So maybe I’m wrong to criticize them for this missing complexity… easy shrines should exist so there are more accessible ones, and lots of really difficult ones might ruin the game.

Except I can think of three solutions to this problem, and I’m just a guy with a YouTube channel, not a legendary experienced developer at Nintendo.

The first solution has to do with how the shrines exist in Breath of the Wild in comparison to other open world games. In Skyrim or Fallout 4, places you find that you can enter through a load screen are an actual place. This is a little abstract without an example so think of a cave in Skyrim—it has to still be a cave after you’ve loaded into it. Or a factory or a sewage plant in Fallout 4. The interior has to match the exterior in some way. They have to be consistent and are therefore limited on what the interior can be.

In Breath of the Wild, all the shrines have the same reused entrance. They have the same interior theme. They even have the same assets and music that plays. This means that the shrines don’t actually have to physically match their entrance location on the map. By that I mean, Nintendo could have made a set list of shrines from 5 to 120, and dynamically changed which shrine you load into depending on how many you’ve done before that.

By doing it this way, there could have been a real, actualized difficulty curve with shrines expanding on concepts from previous shrines because the developers knew that players already had a chance to see them. It would have also made what happened to me impossible: all the combat shrines I found early on would have all been minor ones, then modest ones in the middle of the game, and major toward the end. Same goes for puzzles. All of the easy ones would have been the first 20 or so you found in the world.

Some of you watching might reject this idea because it means everyone gets shrines in the same order. Well the other solution is a tweaked version. Shrines are separated into tiers of difficulty—say sets of 10 or 15, that are grouped by being Tutorial, Very Easy, Easy, Moderate, and so on up to Very Challenging. And each set of 10 or 15 could have that order scrambled within its tier, with harder versions of each type of shrine in each set so developers can still design these shrines by building on previous concepts, while still making it so each player sees them in a different order.

The third solution would be fewer shrines. So some of them could be larger. Make some of them have more than one spirit orb and stages of progression on ideas so that more can be built on whatever foundation—say, burning leaves to reveal hidden paths and switches—that each shrine is based on.

This concept could be taken even further with a few rare “Mega Shrines” that take a few ideas and go crazy with them. Maybe have a few interact and overlap, with several spirits orbs to find in different rooms. Maybe there could even be a new Sheikah Slate app that’s introduced in these “Mega Shrines” that adds a new twist to the existing mechanics, so that there’s even more possibilities for the developers to get creative. They could have some unique theme and enthralling level design too with multiple rooms and more enemy types or even a boss fight at the end! The name “Mega Shrine” is sort of weird though. It would be good if they could call them something else instead. I wonder what that name could be.

<beat>

What it boils down to is this: too many shrines were like this one. I had to spend time finding it, waste time with the cinematics and all of the loading screens, all so I could run up a hill and dodge metal spiked balls that were coming down to get me. Or I could not dodge them either, even that didn’t matter. This was the whole shrine. And I kept saying that to myself “That’s it? That’s all there is?” after each shrine like this that I finished.

With only 15 shrines that could be considered good, another 15 that are only okay, and the rest either being bad, empty, a mixed bag of world quests, or the same combat shrine copy and pasted, I think it’s easy to understand why this core part of Breath of the Wild was so disappointing.

And I think that wraps it up for shrines. Maybe I’m expecting too much from the game on this one but I really don’t think so. The amount of time that’s squandered on the loading alone is enough to prove that these weren’t as well thought out as they could have been. Which, unfortunately, matches some of my thoughts on combat. Not all of them. But enough.

I have a feeling that’s what a lot of people have been looking forward to in this video so let’s get to that now. Combat. Enemies. And how Breath of the Wild turned “durability” into a four letter word.

 

 

Part Three – C-C-C-Combat Breaker

The two words I would use to describe combat in Breath of the Wild are fragile, and inconsistent. And “fragile” doesn’t refer to weapon durability, although now that I’ve written it, it would have been way funnier if it had.

Combat is fragile because Breath of the Wild is a game that is too easily broken. So fighting enemies is something that you have to go out of your way to make enjoyable for yourself, because there are far too many pitfalls and temptations that make it too easy.

However, let’s start out being positive because if you do manage to walk this narrow line and find a way to make combat fun, then it can be enjoyable. And not just a little bit either. There’s a surprising amount of freedom found in combat that mirrors the exploration in the world, and how you can creatively break the game’s puzzles.

Small enemies almost always come at you in groups. These groups are also almost always in encampments in the world that you can approach and plan to engage. The other type of encounter are mini-bosses but these are few and far between depending on how you play.

Clearing out these camps is the lion’s share of combat in Breath of the Wild, so let’s focus on that for now.

Freedom is found in messing around with the mechanics. You can approach camps in a direct assault and fight them in what usually turns into chaos. You can stealth your way in, picking off the guards at night and then sneak attacking sleeping enemies for massive damage, or stealing their weapons before they wake up so they have to fight you unarmed. Or you can embrace creativity and get more than a bit crazy.

Metal objects? Well those can become weapons. Fire? Burn enemy weapons to nothing. Have a fragile weapon of your own? Early in the game you can deliberately break it over an enemy’s head so their weapon goes flying from their grasp. Then you scramble ahead of the dazed goblin thing and pick it up to kill the enemy with their own weapon.

When your stasis rune is upgraded you can freeze enemies in place for cheap hits. Or stasis boulders or logs to smash into enemies. Push boulders the old fashioned way to crush them. Blow up explosive barrels. Throw bombs—but be careful that they’re not kicked back at you.

And the possibilities here keep going far beyond my own creativity. Video Game Dunkey has a great video that showcases how fun this can be. However—and again, it all comes back to how subjective it is—playing the game in this way failed to engage me for a significant amount of time. After a few camps of doing stuff like this, I felt that not only was it inefficient but that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. And this gets even more true later on when the harder types of enemies begin spawning in the world.

Stealth is also fairly simple but it can be enjoyable, especially if you attack encampments from the skies. You can glider down, shoot arrows during bullet time… or arrow time, I guess… to wipe out the tower sentries, and then softly land next to the sleeping monsters to stealth kill them. It’s not a bad way to play and the option is welcome.

Direct assaults were what I settled on though. For both the most fun and the most challenge, but this is the part of the game that lives up the most to the idea “you have to make this fun for yourself.” Because holy shit does this combat system fall apart without self-imposed rules and limitations.

The problems are everywhere, but you can find the most in the numbers. You heal by pausing the game, opening your inventory, and eating raw ingredients or cooked meals. There’s no limit to how much healing you can receive while paused and there’s no limit to how much food you can carry. And ingredients are everywhere. I never came close to running out. And cooking recipes that use any “Hearty” ingredient automatically become full heals after cooking. Something as simple as one Hearty Vegetable plus a single apple turns into a full heal, because the game needs to give you full life in order to grant you the bonus yellow “armor” hearts that are part of that type of ingredient.

Similar to that, some food buffs can increase your defense and offense numbers, which might make you wonder how damage and defense is calculated. If you watched my video on Dragon’s Dogma you’re about to be shocked that Nintendo did the same thing.

Every heart container is made up of 4 quarters. You can see Link losing these in the cold. Each weapon has a damage number attached to it, and each number stands for one quarter heart of damage. I figured this out by giving bokoblins specific weapons and letting them hit me without any armor on.

So a basic red bokoblin—the lowest enemy in the game—will deal half a heart worth of damage with a 2 damage stick. So each damage point is a quarter of a heart. Likewise, if I gave him a Royal Sword that has 36 damage, he deals 9 full hearts of damage to me. 9 hearts multiplied by 4 quarters in each heart is, of course, equal to 36.

Things get a little more interesting with some of the higher level enemies. These are color based. So the red bokoblins are the weakest. Then there are blue ones. Then black. And finally silver. The way damage is handled is that higher level enemies have an added damage bonus to each attack. For example, when unarmed, a silver bokoblin will deal 6 hearts of damage. But if you give him the same 2 damage stick, he now deals 6 and a half hearts damage. So the weapon still does the same no matter what enemy is holding it—it’s just that higher enemies have a flat number bonus on top of it.

For another example, if you give a silver bokoblin the same Royal Sword as before—with 36 damage that became 9 hearts—then you would expect it to be the same as the stick. The silver bokoblin should add its 6 hearts worth of damage on top of that 9 hearts and sure enough that’s what happens. It’s 15 hearts worth of damage.

If you translate this into numbers, then a red bokoblin holding a Royal Sword is only doing the weapon damage—9 hearts. 36 damage.

While the silver bokoblin is doing 15 hearts. 60 damage.

Now let’s add armor so I can show you how easy this system is to break forever.

Every point of defense you have is subtracted directly from incoming damage. It’s not a percentage reduction. So it isn’t like 50 points of defense means all damage is reduced by 50%. It means that whatever damage number the enemy has is reduced by 50.

So if I have armor on that adds up to 36 defense, then that red bokoblin with a 36 damage Royal Sword won’t be able to hurt me. As you can see, that’s almost true. The game never allows you to be fully immune. Instead it lowers the damage down to just 1 quarter of a heart. If I wear even higher defense, all the way up to 84, it still deals 1 quarter of a heart. So this shows there’s a minimum amount of damage each hit should do, but this is so low it’s still effectively zero.

If I go at the silver bokoblin with 36 defense then it should stand to reason that the armor should cancel out the entire Royal Sword and all that should be left is the silver bokoblin’s base 6 hearts of damage right? This is exactly what happens. 36 armor is negating 36 weapon damage.

If I bump my armor up to 60 then all of it is now gone. The silver bokoblin is now doing 1 quarter of a heart per hit. And it’s the same if I go all the way up to 84 armor.

Upgrading armor breaks the game. And I am very lucky that I didn’t figure this out until I was already finished with it. Because it would have been yet another thing I would have had to stop myself from using to make the game fun.

If you’ve played the game and wonder why you sometimes take a massive hit of damage, this is why. Because the world in Breath of the Wild levels with you. Tougher enemies start showing up. Even on the Great Plateau you’ll find these silver bokoblins later in the game. And with them come better weapons. So if you’re not upgrading your armor as you play, then you are going to get smacked around a lot by the same high damage weapons that you’ll start to use. Because instead of percentage modifiers, Nintendo used this batshit insane subtraction system which makes it so low armor players get destroyed, high armor players take absolutely no damage, and people in the middle have to play a game of chicken on whether or not they should upgrade their armor to make the game a little easier, but not TOO MUCH because otherwise they’ll ruin the game by blocking all incoming damage.

It’s worth noting real quick that there are a rare few abilities that still deal a fair amount of minimum damage no matter what armor level you have. This guardian laser for example inflicts 14 and a half hearts on a naked Link. Then 3 and a half with 64 armor. And still 3 and a half with 84 armor. So there are a handful of instances that it’s different.

Hilariously enough though, the final fight with Ganon is one of them but… Okay I feel like I’m picking on the game here but this is too stupid not to mention. If you fight Ganon naked with no defense, then most of his attacks deal about the same amount of damage. His laser does 11 and a half hearts. All of his sword slices do 10 hearts.

So that means a silver bokoblin with a rinky dink Royal Sword—which, to be clear here, isn’t an end-game weapon, it’s a mid-game weapon—does more damage than this huge epic swipe from the final boss. Even with no weapon, this little silver goblin thing’s 6 hearts is close to it. And for the most ridiculous of all, a silver moblin with a shitty spear that’s on fire will do 9 and 3 quarter hearts worth of damage. Ganon’s weapon is also on fire by the way so I feel that’s a fair comparison.

So why are the numbers so terrible? Well because balancing offense and defense like this when you can’t be sure if players will even have access to upgrading armor is a nightmare. Which is why percentages would have been so much better. Same for that healing problem. If players can heal themselves instantly of any damage, then it makes sense that enemies should spike damage really high. In this way, your health isn’t just these hearts, it’s the entire supermarket worth of food you’re carrying around with you too. You can view your health in Bloodborne in a similar way—your health bar isn’t just what’s at the top of the screen, it’s all of your blood vials as well. The genius there is that to access the rest of that health, you have to play well enough to time a heal in the middle of a fight, and also recognize that you SHOULD heal instead of attacking, but also not to heal too early so you don’t waste a lot of it.

Breath of the Wild also has an added security net that if you’re at full health you can’t be killed in one hit. You’re left with a quarter heart instead. Even if you only have three hearts and the attack does so much more damage. As long as you have food, you are effectively invincible. Except for when an attack glitches out and deals damage twice quickly in succession, which was rare.

Something as simple as having the game unpaused after selecting food, and having a second or two of downtime while Link eats it, would have solved half this problem just like that. Now you have to run away from enemies and position yourself to heal instead of somehow being able to eat 20 apples and an entire turkey while reeling on the floor. The solution to the other half of the problem would be to limit the amount of healing you can carry for each fight. A simple way to do this would be that raw ingredients don’t heal Link. Only cooked meals do. And you can only carry a fixed amount of them. In this way you don’t have stupid inventory limits for picking up ingredients, but you can still restrict how much potential healing you can carry at once. This could even be something you could upgrade or expand by finding things via exploration—more cooked food slots.

Or maybe they would have to be preserved in special containers after cooking. Maybe you could have four of them at the start. Four glass, uh, jars? Cups? What’s the word I’m looking for here? I feel like it should start with a B maybe?

And that’s the first two major problems on this list that I couldn’t find a way to bring up until now:

  1. Damage Calculations and Armor
  2. Healing and Recovering Mistakes
  3. Inconsistent Rules, Mobility, and Balance
  4. Low Enemy Variety
  5. Weapon Durability

My hope is that by now you should be getting a decent idea on why I labeled the combat as fragile. It’s too easy to intentionally break it with food. And it’s too easy to accidentally break it with armor upgrades. Now the answer to those problems are to just not use them—don’t eat during combat, and don’t wear armor. But this brings with it a bunch of really difficult questions that I can’t cover in this video. About developer intentions and how much responsibility players have to make games enjoyable for themselves. Plus the game should still have a healing system. Ignoring the option entirely isn’t a good answer.

This is a two-way street and, unfortunately, with the other problems on this list it keeps getting worse. Because although I eventually did find a way to make combat in Breath of the Wild a lot of fun, it wasn’t like that after my first hour of game time.

If food and armor are ways players can break the game, then balance issues are ways the DEVELOPERS broke it. And this is also something that goes two ways. At the beginning of the game, after finishing the Great Plateau and being given a glider, I wanted to ignore the main quest and begin exploring. I had so many possible directions to go but I eventually decided to go south.

I had two reasons for doing this. The first was one I think a lot of people will understand: this was the shortest trip to the edge of the map and I wanted to see what was at the boundary. The other was that the canyon stretching off into the distance looked like an interesting place to explore. So that’s what I did.

If you’ve played the game extensively and explored this canyon yourself, you know I made a terrible mistake here.

We’ll talk about enemy variety shortly but it’s important for everyone to know that there are roaming mini-bosses in Breath of the Wild. The one that lives in this canyon is called a Lynel and, despite it being the most difficult enemy type in the game—more so than any of the bosses including Ganon—it’s the only one out of the four types of mini-bosses that doesn’t get a fancy, extravagant health bar.

I got here so soon that I was still armed with my crappy Plateau weapons. And being the Hardcore Gamer (sarcasm) that I am, I started to fight this thing and got my ass handed to me. Its arrows killed me easily. Every hit was potentially fatal. Its moveset was way more advanced than anything else I had seen so far and I was still getting used to the controls.

However, these are all good things in my opinion. I like it when games put challenges like this in the world to overcome. Because that’s exactly what I did. I learned to sprint out of the way of its arrows. I learned to dodge its attacks—many of them perfectly to trigger a special “Flurry Rush” counterattack mode. I, the player holding the controller, was able to learn and beat this challenge.

So what’s the problem then?

Well, even though I could beat this monster, Link could not. Or, more specifically, his weapons couldn’t. I was incapable of dealing enough damage with them before they broke and I was out of options. It wasn’t that I couldn’t dodge him for long enough or anything like that. It’s that I was literally incapable of killing this monster without better gear.

This turned me off the combat for dozens of hours after this. I’m not kidding either. I dismissed so much of it as a gear-based game that was all about acquiring armor and weapons and more hearts. My response to this may seem extreme but I hate it when games mix gear progression and skill together, without making it so players can still skill their way through if they play well enough. I loathed that I had to run away from this lynel because my weapons weren’t good up to the task.

Now the tragic thing about this is that if I had gone in literally any other direction this wouldn’t have happened. Don’t get me wrong this is still Nintendo’s fault and there are many things they could have done differently to avoid this, but this is bad luck on my part for encountering this monster. It spoiled any sense of exploration I had in that moment too. I actually thought “Oh I guess I can’t go anywhere after all, because my gear might not be good enough for some areas. It’s not that they would be difficult. They would be impossible.” This early on in the game, because the lynel didn’t have a fancy health bar, I thought this entire region was full of this enemy type so I should go somewhere else instead.

There’s another direction I could have gone and encountered a lynel this early. And I went out of my way to test it on my second, three-hearts-only playthrough. There’s a colosseum near the Great Plateau that has a lynel at the bottom. If you go there first, right after getting the glider, there are enough monsters in the levels around the lynel that drop good enough weapons for you to comfortably kill it early on. Most of them still break but it’s possible. And this is the sort of thing the other lynel needed in the canyon.

But I also said this problem goes two ways. Weapon durability in this game has been such a hot topic that I’ve read quite a bit of articles on it. My impression is that many people who have played Breath of the Wild didn’t realize that the world scales with you. I don’t know what causes it and I don’t have the time to commit to another thorough playthrough to find out—it could be your average weapon damage of your collection, or how many enemies you’ve killed, or how many shrines you’ve beaten. Or it could be how many regions you’ve visited.

What I know for certain however, is that it’s NOT caused by clearing the Divine Beast dungeons. Or at least that my game world started to get harder before I did any of them.

Harder enemies bring better weapons. Tougher fights. Like I said, the hardest type of bokoblin started spawning in the STARTING AREA after I went back later on, with dragonbone weapons instead of basic clubs. This is true for all of the regions in the world. Everything scales as you gain power and experience, EXCEPT for the dungeons.

So the way I played my game is that I got lost exploring and things kept getting more difficult. The first change I noticed were the black bokoblins. Then the black lizards. Eventually I saw my first silver moblin and then even a silver lynel because even they have tougher versions too. And I came to the incredibly reasonable conclusion that, if the world was this dangerous, then surely the dungeons and Ganon must be even more so?

In these hours exploring I had done quite a few shrines. Gained some more hearts and stamina. I hadn’t really upgraded my armor and hadn’t thought to investigate how it worked, so that added to how much I was getting smacked around by these high level enemies. More important than all of this however, is that I stumbled into the Lost Woods and found the Master Sword.

The Master Sword is the only weapon in the game that doesn’t break permanently. Instead it loses its energy and has to recharge for 10 minutes before you can use it again. It has 30 attack damage which is middle-of-the-line. It’s even below those Royal Swords we were using earlier. However, in the presence of guardian enemies, it gains a damage buff. It starts to glow and spikes to 60 damage.

Armed with this weapon, the world didn’t feel all that different. In fact I was mighty disappointed that the Master Sword could break at all and, in the case of enemy camps, often broke before I could kill multiple enemies. This legendary blade felt legendarily brittle. But when I finally went to finish the dungeon content that all changed.

What I am about to show you is the boss of the Zora domain. The great elephant divine beast. This is the first dungeon I completed. This is the first boss I fought, and it’s the first time I am ever fighting him. This is what happened.

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This is the other way the balance issue can go. I had ruined the game by playing it the way I had. I didn’t get to enjoy boss fights. The other three weren’t as extreme as this but they were still so easy that I didn’t even know what their mechanics were until I fought them again on my second playthrough with three hearts.

After leaving the Great Plateau you can ignore everything and go straight for Hyrule Castle. You can collect an assortment of weapons from within the walls and then go for Ganon. If you do this, then the game makes you fight all four divine beast bosses in a row before the Ganon fight. Whereas, if you do the beasts first, there are no other bosses here and Ganon gets a huge nerf down to 50% health instead.

These two options are at the opposite ends on a spectrum of insanity. Even Ganon is a pushover if you do all of the four beasts first. 50% health makes the fight a joke even in his second phase, and then his third phase is even worse than that.

But if you rush here then it becomes this huge eleven phase struggle that took me over half an hour to do from start to finish. And by doing that I got to learn the mechanics of every boss. And they were pretty good. Not overly great or mindblowing but good. Enjoyable. So I wish I had gotten to experience them properly on my first playthrough in the dungeons. Same for Ganon himself—I wish it had been a proper fight my first time.

Instead, I felt like I was being punished for playing the game wrong. No boss fights for me. They were all far, far easier than normal enemy groups in the world.

These are problems born from a gear-based system instead of a skill-based one. And even then, the issue is exacerbated by the disposal nature of the weapons you find. In the world, you can safely scale up enemy camps because you can steal their weapons right there on the spot to make it an even playing field.

Whereas with bosses—if the game scaled up these fights in response to some sort of trigger… Say, if you ever pick up a weapon that has more than 40 attack power then the fights become stronger. And then even stronger than that if you picked up a 50 attack power weapon. Well you might not have those weapons anymore when you get there. It’s highly unlikely that’s the case because once you find one you usually find a bunch more, but for bosses like this they would want to avoid players experiencing what I did with the lynel at the beginning. This may also be why there are so few enemies in the dungeons, so you don’t break your weapons and have them for the boss.

I also understand that they couldn’t have made the bosses scale to whatever weapons you were carrying at the time either—because otherwise what’s the point of progression systems at all if the game is constantly going to be scaling the difficulty to about even? I think that the world scales very well—it’s easy to understand the stronger colors of each enemy, and the weaker colors never vanish. So you can still have a challenge with the newer ones while having opportunities to wreck weaker enemy types that used to cause you trouble. That’s what progression systems should be all about—balancing moments when you get to turn the tables and feel powerful, but still provide a challenge. The bosses and dungeons fail where the open world succeeds.

Fighting all of the bosses in a row ended up being one of the most enjoyable parts of the game for me. But it also provided ample opportunity to notice a lot of little problems and inconsistencies in combat. Which, if you recall the beginning of this section, was the other word along with fragile that I used to describe the fighting in this game. Inconsistencies come primarily in animations and the Flurry Rush ability.

After 150 hours I can’t tell you for certain what the trigger is for a successful Flurry Rush. I can hazard a guess but, if I’m right, then it’s one of the stupidest systems I’ve ever seen. Ironically enough, the best enemy to show this on is the Zora boss that I wiped out after accidentally triggering flurry rush on my first encounter. This time we’ll be fighting him in Hyrule Castle.

This enemy has very slow, predictable movements in phase one. If you’re too close to him he’ll do a big blast move. If you’re too far he’ll do the horizontal lance swipe. And if you’re goldilocks he’ll continuously do a forward thrust.

Now, my dear viewers, if you’re experienced with action games that have dodge triggers or parrying systems, let me ask you. What do you think should be the core idea behind something like that? If you’re parrying an attack in Dark Souls then that’s the reward you’re trying to skill your way to by getting the timing right. And with that reward comes a risk. Essentially, in order to parry an attack, you have to be in a position that you might also get hit by it. If you mess up the parry then you’re going to get smacked.

If you mess up the dodge, then you’re going to get smacked.

The proposed idea then, would be that you should stand in the path of the enemy’s attack and, at the last possible second, have to dodge away, right? To put it another way, the dodge should remove you from damage that you would have sustained if you hadn’t moved. The weapon should slice or stab the air wherever you just were and, the closer your dodge time was to taking damage, the more that it seems like it should be given a reward. In this game’s case, flurry rush.

This is not how the mechanic works.

Seen here, I stand in the path of the spear and dodge when I think it’s about to come at me. And they’re just normal dodges. No flurry rush. It is possible to get this right but it requires very precise timing that is honestly well beyond any other timing challenge in the game. And for a while I thought “well it’s a big reward, maybe it really is meant to be that tight.”

Then I started to experiment. I purposefully went to the side of the weapon and, long after the attack started, dodged. And it triggered flurry rush every time. As I’m writing this I don’t know how clear it will be in the footage so I just want to hammer this detail home: if I hadn’t dodged these attacks, I still would NOT have taken damage. I’m not even in the path of the enemy weapon, and yet the game still gives me the fancy Matrix reward.

This is ridiculous.

So the guess of a conclusion I can come to is that, when the game looks to see if a flurry rush should activate, it doesn’t care about whether you would have taken damage. It simply does a check for the area around Link to see if there’s any sources of “active damage”. If you dodge while those conditions are met, then you get a McFlurry Rush.

The next boss in this series seems to abide by these rules with his overhead slam. I can strafe and already be out of harm’s way before I dodge and still trigger a flurry rush.

Same for some of the lynel attacks. When he runs away and does his sudden charge, you can trigger a flurry rush before he would have hit you. Yet even this far away, because he’s in an active damage state, the game gives you the reward.

You can also see examples of this when, during the slow motion dodge animation, Link actually collides with the enemy weapon from a bad dodge and still gets the rush mode. Conversely, there were many attacks where Link actually does a flip timed so well that he flips through the air over a sword that passes so close underneath him but, because the game didn’t think the weapon was “active” when I hit the dodge button, these don’t count as flurry rushes.

And yet stuff like this does.

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What makes this immensely frustrating on things like the lynel fights and the Thunderblight boss is that if flurry rush doesn’t activate you can sometimes dodge into damage. For this lynel attack, I am waiting for a timing window so I get the rush and, even flipping so well over his sword, it doesn’t activate. Then, before I can dodge a second time, his attack comes so quickly as a followup that I can’t always dodge it. This means that my initial dodge was too late, yet if I go earlier than that it can often look like I didn’t even dodge an attack at all to trigger the rush, and instead just did a back flip that was SO FANCY while the lynel was flexing his sword arm, that he became stunned enough that I could murder him.

The medium sized guardians show a similar problem. Pretty much anything with a spear shows the same thing that the Waterblight fight did.

For a bunch of other issues, you have the first boss in the series being capable of spawning tornadoes immediately on top of you without any warning or time to react after his first phase change. Three arrows to the facemask area are meant to stun these bosses but sometimes it just doesn’t work—but it works enough of the time that it’s clearly intended. A similar issue for that stun: it’s meant to last about 8 seconds or so but sometimes they recover instantly.

The Thunderblight boss has an attack in phase 2 that I can never reliably dodge ever. I’ve watched a couple of speedruns of the game and even those players don’t try to dodge this attack, they cheese him in a doorway instead so I’m fairly comfortable saying that there’s something wrong with this. It comes back to the old Bethesda’s Bug idea on these dodge timings. Are they even working properly, or are slightly different timings for each attack some sort of unique feature they were trying to do and messed it up?

This attack still does damage to me during flurry rush because the weapon is radiating fire damage, yet Ganon’s doesn’t do that even though it’s the exact same attack.

Sometimes the shrine guardians will keep on trucking through a pillar and not be stunned even though they’re supposed to. And this lynel was capable of shooting arrows that could clip through the ceiling to kill me. More than once, too. Not to mention their 360 no scope bow shots while they’re riding around.

And finally, there are a bunch of attacks from normal enemies that have no telegraphs whatsoever. And some highly questionable use of hyper armor. Your attacks usually make small enemies enter a chain of stuns that you can continue to lock them down if you’re relentless. But sometimes, for no reason I can determine, it just doesn’t work.

Or they will instantly activate an attack with no warning and knock you away.

The worst offender for stuff like this are the bokoblins with spears. Seen here, they have a warning animation that has them twirl the spear once before they stab. But if they’re waddling around before they do it, or if you weren’t in range and suddenly come into range, then they instantly trigger the attack at a supersonic speed.

There’s just this general sloppiness to a lot of this. And that continues with the controls.

There is nothing I hate more about Breath of the Wild than the camera during combat, and the lack of a dedicated dodge button. The camera is easy to explain: I shouldn’t have to play roulette whenever I break my lock on and reapply it. The right analogue stick should switch targets instead of being some weird rotational control that can mess up what direction you think Link is going to dodge in. Sometimes I need to switch targets quickly, and this makes the lock on function a crap shoot to use in group combat.

But! I’m forced to use it because that’s the only way to dodge. Without being locked on—whether that’s at an enemy or empty space—Link doesn’t dart to the side or do a flip. Which means that if I want to dodge an incoming arrow while I’m in the middle of fighting, I have to just hope that I can do it, or that I break the lock and sprint for a while so the arrow misses me.

These are two problems that I think are really easy to solve, and they would go a tremendous way to making group combat fun for me. I like that there are hordes of enemies to fight. I like that they all bunch up and try to come at you from different angles and attack together—it also promotes using spear weapons to pick off stragglers who waddle too far from the group. But often it’s so awkward to properly dodge or switch targets. Even with footage like now, I am occasionally dodging at random because I can’t properly see or stay locked on to what I want, purely because of the controls.

The dodge button should be the sprint button. It should function just like it does in Nioh. Tap it for a dodge. Hold it down for a sprint.

With that said I can finally talk about how much potential there is in this combat system. Because there is a lot to like during direct assaults. Switching between melee weapons and the bow is fast and fluid, and you’re rewarded for quick head shots. You’re also incentivized to incorporate a lot of Link’s mobility options. If you’re gliding then you can trigger arrow time. If there’s something to climb then you can get up there to better land your shots or do powerful slam attacks. There are so many wonderful hit-and-run tactics you can use during group fights. And when you’re smacking around a goblin, with its head bobbing through the air, it feels so satisfying. I love the downward stab in this game too—something that harkens back to the second Zelda on the NES—and how awesome it feels to charge at an enemy you just knocked away to finish him off with a jumping attack.

I tried to do something new or a little more daring with every enemy camp I came across. When to commit to a big spin attack. When to try to trigger a flurry rush on the biggest monster. And while a lot of these encampments were too samey and had the same giant skull, the few that utilized the glider and climbing in ways like this made these encounters such a joyful experience. It genuinely breaks my heart that the lock on sucks and there’s no way to dodge outside of it, because that flexibility is what’s missing here. Link is so acrobatic outside of combat, but the moment the weapons come out the game screams “NO. YOU MUST BE LOCKED ON.”

Which finally brings us to the next point on the list. Another thing that squanders the potential of Breath of the Wild’s combat: a lack of enemy variety.

On a surface level this may appear like a good chunk of content. But after playing the game yourself you learn that many enemies aren’t utilized very well, or are too insubstantial to matter all that much.

So even though there are bats, slimes, and octorocks—and a few elemental variations on all of them—since they all die in one hit and appear more like mobile traps than actual fights, it’s easy to dismiss them as not really part of the combat system.

The most interesting thing they can do are when the bats come at you in swarms at night, or when an octorock is on the fringe of a battle you’re fighting at a camp. But both of these circumstances were exceedingly rare when I played. Same for the wizzrobe enemies. I rarely saw these guys and, when I did, they were almost always alone.

Mini-bosses have the same problem. These are the lynels I mentioned earlier. The giant cyclops monsters called the hinox. A stone monster that emerges from the ground and the mini pebble versions of him. And the mulduga sand monsters in the desert. Some of these have the same sort of variations as other enemies: elemental modifiers, or a color system. The hinox has a skeletal variation, just like the three main humanoid monsters you fight.

These fights are interesting the first few times you do them—except for the stone monsters which are always kind of dull. The lynel fights are the only ones that still feel a little exciting for me now because they have a lot of different moves and require different reactions—running away, back flips, and side dodges—depending on what they do. The hinox on the other hand was far more interesting the first time and has rapidly became one of the most boring enemies a few encounters later.

This fight can remind me a bit of the asylum demon in Dark Souls 1. You can force him to do a slam move, run away, and then get some easy hits in. Or you can just shoot his eyes to stagger him and cheese the fight. You can cheese it even more with stasis so those eye shots are even easier—which is another way you can add to the long list of methods used to destroy the combat system in Breath of the Wild.

I do have to say that this fight has a lot of cool details. The first time a hinox covered his eye so I couldn’t shoot it had me grinning like an idiot. As were the variations that had armor on their legs to block your hits. And when I saw a hinox rip a tree out of the ground to use it as a weapon. There’s probably a ton of things like this in the game that I missed in combat because the game can be so damn easy to break. It had fewer chances to impress me.

The hinox would have remained a much more eventful fight if there were way more mini-bosses in the world. Or if they were confined to certain regions. Nothing proves this more than the molduga fights.

These aren’t terribly interesting on their own—in fact they’re more like a puzzle involving bombs and pretending the sand is lava than a proper fight. But the first time I fought one of these was after I had played the game for about 80 hours and, to make you all groan with how bad this next line is, it was like finally finding water after being lost in the desert.

A new enemy encounter was so refreshing and hit home how sorely the game needed more things like this. But it goes further than that because having the molduga monsters be unique to the desert region adds a lot of character to this area. I know it would have been a lot of work but if each region type had its own unique boss like this it would have made the game a hell of a lot more fun for me. Some areas already do this with unique wildlife. It’s a shame they couldn’t have done the same with some fights that use the environment as a part of the encounter like the molduga does.

I just want to reiterate real quick: those are all the mini-bosses there are. Lynels, and Talus, and Hinox, oh my. These are the three you’ll be seeing over and over unless you purposefully go to the desert. Just three. Which funnily enough is the same number of regular enemies you’ll be fighting.

This is a bigger problem than the mini-bosses. The vast majority of your fights will be against these humanoid groups. The bokoblins. The lizard men. And the larger moblins. They all have the same color variations. And they all have skeletal versions that spawn at night.

Despite only being three, they’re all quite similar. Moblins especially—they feel like they’re just larger bokoblins. The lizards are far more agile but this brings its own problem: they dart away from your attacks so much, or if you try to close the distance between them, that’s it often a better strategy to just wait for them to come to you and then counterattack. Which adds a lot of unnecessary tedium to these encounters.

And that’s it. Really. For some people this will be the biggest problem the game has. That around 80% of all of the fights you have in Breath of the Wild will be against bokoblins, lizards, and moblins. And while there is a lot of fun stuff you can do with the different combat arenas and encampments throughout the world, you could double this number and it still would be considered low.

But I’m forgetting something, aren’t I? There are two other enemy groups. There’s the human assassins in the Yiga clan. And there are the guardian robots.

Well the Yiga clan attacks have the same issue as the wizzrobes, bats, and octorocks. They’re quite rare and only ever attacked me alone when I was out in the world. The larger versions with the two handed wind swords only ever appeared to try to kill me once. Which is such a waste of an enemy type. Yiga camps around the world would have been a great way to get more mileage out of these enemies and, during the Gerudo questline, the game shows that it is willing to send more than one of these at you at the same time, but it never happens in the world.

This waste of an enemy type honestly leaves me dumbfounded.

Same for the guardians. They likely didn’t want the small and medium sized ones out in the world because then the combat shrines wouldn’t feel special—but they’re already overused in that environment. Having a guardian like this show up in the middle of a camp, or maybe even fighting two at the same time, would have been fantastic. This is the type of enemy that the game sorely needs by the way. Something that’s a bit more hefty. More armored and slow. Less fodder and more demanding of your attention. Something like a big armored knight would have worked as well. But no, you just keep fighting the Mordor Rejects and lizards.

The much larger guardians are something I’m unsure about. I died a lot to these early on getting the parry timing down on the lasers. After that, these were never a threat to me. Chopping off their legs is kind of cool, as is trying to shoot them in the eye, but that these enemies only have the single laser attack makes them feel so shallow. Which is something else that’s a shame because I like how they look and move. And I love the music that plays as they’re charging up their blast. It’s just that they don’t feel like fights to me—they’re “can you parry this” instead.

And unless I’m forgetting an enemy and I don’t think I am, that’s all there is. Oh there are bees. Do bees count? Probably.

I don’t think I need to spend anymore time on this because the low number speaks for itself. In my mind it’s very similar to the problem I have with the shrines. It deeply confuses me that Nintendo thought this was enough, when they poured so much effort into the world that supports these features.

And so that brings us to the last one on our list. Weapon Durability. Which I think, after how long this section went on, deserves its own.

 

 

Part Four – The Elder Scrolls Has Glass Weapons Too

Weapon durability is fairly straightforward and easy to understand, but let’s review it with some numbers before we get into it.

At the start of the game you can carry 8 weapons. On the Great Plateau, these were ranged from starting sticks, bokoblin clubs and spears, to some low level swords, hammers, and axes.

Later on you will be able to carry many, many more weapons. You’ll start finding great swords with elemental damage. Energy weapons that the guardians use. And equipment that is much more fancy and durable than what you started with.

To put this into perspective, the first weapon most people will find is the 2 damage stick. This breaks in about 10 hits, for a total damage potential of around 20. Whereas the 30 damage Master Sword breaks after roughly 40 hits, for a total damage potential of about 1,200.

This type of progression can be good. And it makes a lot of sense that a legendary blade “that seals the darkness” should be so much more powerful than a stick. But I’m pointing it out for the sake of just having some basic numbers for you to grasp the system if you haven’t played the game, and to also show how reliant the game is on gear.

Combat often involves switching weapons when something breaks. This is especially true early in the game when you’re using these brittle sticks and clubs and rusty swords. This is the feature that I think has received the most attention from players—some people love this system and think that the entire game is built around it, whereas other people hate it and wish the game had more traditional weapons.

I can break down what I think the goals of this system were into six main points:

  1. To force the player to use different weapon types, and adapt to each.
  2. To create big exciting moments in combat.
  3. To make the Master Sword feel special.
  4. To allow equipment expansion slots to appear valuable.
  5. To better balance the game.
  6. To reward exploration.

In my mind, only one of these succeeds. You may already have guessed which one that is.

Let’s go through these in more detail. The argument in favor of balance is that if weapons weren’t breakable, you could sneak into Hyrule Castle early in the game and pick up a bunch of powerful weapons and steamroll all of the content. This argument makes a bad assumption in that if weapon durability was removed, that it would be the only change—that you would still be finding all of these weapons everywhere and you just keep replacing old ones with better ones. It also ignores that the world levels with you, and that these weapons in Hyrule Castle wouldn’t always be this powerful.

The weapons available here could also have their attack power reduced. But in my mind, changing the durability system would require a lot more changes to make the game better. Not to mention that Nintendo clearly didn’t care much about balance to begin with considering all the other ways you can break the game.

Making the Master Sword feel special initially works. It’s a permanent weapon despite needing time to recharge, so it does feel unique. However this clearly backfires because of this very quality. When I played, the Master Sword became my pickaxe. It became my chopping axe. It was the only renewable weapon I had, so therefore it only made sense to use it up on stuff like this since it would grow back again afterward. It was also the first weapon I would always use during fights before moving onto “waste” my breakable ones.

This ties into the first point on the list: this system doesn’t really encourage use of a lot of weapon types. And a lot of you may have just thought “You’re crazy, of COURSE it does,” but give me a minute here to explain.

There’s no way to renew your weapons after they’re damaged. Even the Master Sword, once it starts to wear down, has to be broken before it’ll begin to recharge. Since there’s also no way to see durability on weapons, that means you’re heavily incentivized to keep using the same weapon once you’ve started. After winning a fight with the Master Sword, I would often find some trees or rocks to intentionally break the last 8 hits or so, in order to begin the recharge timer so it wouldn’t break early in my next fight.

Same goes for other weapons. If you’re constantly switching, you’ll lose track of what weapons are already close to broken. You want to avoid the situation of having half of your weapons with low durability, so it makes sense to keep using the same weapon until it breaks before moving onto another, which also frees up a slot for whatever weapon you find next.

But even if you like all of that—and I don’t think you’re wrong to because these are decisions right? You’re playing in a clever way. Even breaking your Master Sword can be seen as a little trick you can learn and take advantage of. Same with being smart about using your weapons efficiently. Even if you like all of that, there isn’t really any weapon variety in Breath of the Wild. This system isn’t encouraging much at all.

The Master Sword is the same as the Royal Sword, or any other one handed blade. Even one handed clubs are only a little different and have the same spin attack. It’s the large two handed weapons that show this better. Those big swords, hammers, clubs, and axes? They all have the same moveset. They may emit fire or ice or lightning or just physical damage, but they’re just visual tweaks on the same weapon.

The only other different one is the spear, which I enjoyed a lot, but I found much fewer of these than any other weapon type. Probably because they’re also what I consider to be overpowered for locking enemies down in quick hits, and long range pokes.

There are only three weapon types in Breath of the Wild. I don’t think the magical rods really count. Just in case I’m forgetting one we can increase that number to 4. That’s still very very low for a system that’s apparently made to force you to switch.

I think most people don’t realize this since they defend the system because they’re so enamored by the second point on this list. Which is the only one I agree with. And I agree with it a LOT. Having weapons break during combat, with a big explosion that knocks the enemy away and sends their weapon flying, is a lot of fun… in the early game. When you have so few weapons and they’re all breaking regularly, when switching between them is a really quick decision, or you scramble to steal another weapon that was just flung onto the floor.

This is all great stuff. It’s the reason why I enjoyed the Great Plateau so much on both playthroughs, and also returning to that highly focused system on Eventide Island. The weapon durability system is at its best with a low amount of truly disposable weapons, and encounters that are built and balanced around that.

Which is why this system, like the weapons you carry, degrades the more you progress. Hetsu the Broccoli Man allows you to carry so many more weapons in exchange for korok seeds. Couple this with finding much more powerful weapons, and it all starts to crumble. Now there’s so much time being wasted deciding if a fight is worth your special collection of high power weapons. And returning to the low disposable ones isn’t possible because of the appearance of high hp monsters—there’s a reason why the game takes you from that 10 damage potential stick to 1,200 Master Sword.

At some point during the mid-game, there are too many weapons. And so many of them are good that I ended up hoarding them all and rotating between my Master Sword and two free spots for some the of the average Dragonbone equipment I could scavenge from higher enemies in each fight. Then there are opening chests with weapons in them, which makes you have to decide whether it’s worth taking, what you should throw away for it, and then have to open the chest again to do so. That might seem like petty criticism but there are so many of these chests in the game and it slows things to a crawl.

In summary, it’s not an absence of permanent weapons that ruins this game. It’s an abundance of breakable ones. It’s going from 8 weapon slots to so many that it takes a few seconds to cycle through them all in the quick select menu. It changes from a big exciting turning point in a battle, to something that makes you pause and interrupt yourself as you decide what to use next, like a man who can’t choose what brand of shitty cereal he wants to get at the grocery store and spends twenty minutes staring at all of the colorful boxes until they lose all meaning.

There are many, many ways to achieve the goals on this list that are better than the game currently works. To avoid the other problem early on, with finding high health enemies without enough weapons to kill them, there could simply be a weak unbreakable weapon or an unarmed punching attack—just like the ones the bokoblins can use—for when you run out. I know bombs can do damage but their basic version does so little that I don’t think that’s a viable alternative for something like a lynel.

Or Link could steal an enemy’s weapon with a special timed dodge or parry if he currently has no weapons available. Or Nintendo could have been smarter about their encounter designs.

This isn’t a problem with enemy encampments, because you can steal weapons. The hinox also solves this problem with the amazing inclusion of weapons still embedded in its body, or hanging on its neck as trophies, from adventurers it killed in the past. You can steal these weapons in the fight, meaning the encounter itself is supplying you the means to beat it if you’re smart or quick enough.

Adding this concept to the lynel—he could have had a huge quiver full of big spears on his back that he could occasionally throw at you. If you dodged it, you could pick up the spear and there you go, you have a weapon that could be balanced around this fight that you had to earn for yourself. Problem solved.

Guardian enemies in the combat shrines could have weapons break off after you deal damage to them, or they could snap off when they collide with pillars in the arena. Then they could repair themselves so they can still fight, while you go and pick up your new weapon.

Solutions like this could justify keeping inventory slots really low. And the lower the inventory slots, the more likely you are to use all of your weapons and not end up agonizing over decisions more often than anything else. Hell if you did this right Link could get away with just having one weapon slot, period.

But the more traditional solution would be to give Link more weapons like the Master Sword. There are only three weapon types, so each of the tutorial shrines could give one of each—versions of the special weapons you’re gifted after each of the shrine dungeons. So a hammer that’s on fire. A spear that has an ice modifier. And a sword infused with lightning. The fourth shrine could have a bow.

These weapons would be “breakable” in that they need to be given time to recharge—ideally they would have some of the guardian energy tech, so you could justify that they start to renew hits immediately instead of having to be broken completely before they start to fix themselves.

This also means puzzles and bosses can be built safely with the knowledge that every player will have access to these weapons.

Link could still have an open slot to grab enemy weapons that should always be balanced through world level to be just a little better than your permanent ones. And Korok Seeds could now be used to increase the amount of hits your weapons can deal before they break, instead of increasing inventory size. With these permanent weapons you could also add a new collectible in the world to find and acquire—some resource that allows you to increase the power of these weapons as the game goes on, just not in a way that breaks the game like armor does.

This ties back to the only point on that list of six we haven’t gotten to yet. Exploration isn’t really made any better by finding weapons. It’s cool at first but a reward isn’t all that exciting when you know it’s going to break soon. This is especially true if the weapon is so cool looking that you don’t want to use it. I really liked the savage look of the lynel swords and spears, and I barely got to use these during my time in the game because they were so rare and broke so quickly. If you had permanent weapons from the start, then these other weapons you find could be unlocked as skins you could use to alter the appearance of your starting ones, so that each player could choose what they want to look like.

There are other solutions too—especially if you agree it’s later on in the game that the weapon clutter gets to be the problem. After freeing the Master Sword you could start using Korok Seeds to make some weapon slots permanent. Maybe weapons are corrupted by Ganon’s influence in some way and the Master Sword allows to you protect some of them through Broccoli Man’s magic.

My favorite idea that could also improve the story is that Link starts with a broken Master Sword. When he fought Ganon in the past, he got trashed so bad the the sword was shattered. When he was left in the Resurrection Shrine, all he has is a hilt with a jagged blade. This could be Link’s permanent, weak weapon that you could upgrade by questing for lost shards throughout the world. It also makes Ganon appear a lot more threatening. Maybe that could even be incorporated in the final fight somehow to make it more interesting—every hit you take during that fight instantly destroys whatever weapon you’re currently wielding. It’s the last boss so you can safely inflict that sort of penalty on the player.

And with that said we can move onto some discussion on the story and the main quest. Breath of the Wild’s story is told through a few conversations, some fancy cinematics from the dead King of Hyrule, Impa, and the four champions during the Divine Beast sections, and a selection of memories you can find in the world. The memories were the most interesting to me because they’re scrambled, and I love it when stories experiment with a non-linear order of events. This was made even more interesting by the first memory you access, since it introduces a bunch of characters and heavily hints that this ritual and bond between Link and Zelda isn’t all it appears to be. That Zelda may resent Link for a reason you’re left to wonder about.

Unfortunately the game never unlocks this potential. Most of the memories are somewhat charming scenes of Link and Zelda that don’t go anywhere. It’s still interesting enough that I would have preferred to play that version of the game—with Link and Zelda together so they can speak and interact with each other when something happens. Instead they’re short flashes of events that don’t go anywhere.

The biggest letdown here is why I suggested the change about the broken Master Sword. See the story is that Zelda has some sort of emotional block and is unable to access the special power in her bloodline—the one necessary to seal Ganon away. So she heavily invested in another plan with the guardians and divine beasts, which goes wrong when Ganon corrupts them all and turns the weapons against Zelda and Hyrule.

The whole game, this event is hyped up as a disaster. Ganon tricked everyone, killed Link, and Zelda was left to contain him. Then later on it’s shown that Link didn’t even fight Ganon. He died to a couple of guardians instead. Which immediately deflated a lot of the tension. When you get to Hyrule Castle, that’s the first time this version of Link and Ganon have met. So instead of it being a huge, tense rematch of the century with Link finally overcoming a challenge that kicked his ass last time, it’s just him finally doing what he was supposed to a hundred years ago.

The main quest is quite short and that’s okay. Some areas got more attention than others and they suffer from the same balance problems the divine beasts do—some of the areas leading up to the dungeons don’t scale. Especially the Zora domain, where you are constantly interrupted by Prince Shark Fish telling you to watch out for so many dangerous enemies that most players will likely be able to wipe out without any effort. But then again maybe this is a joke that failed to land. It’s so obnoxious that I’m starting to guess it might be.

The biggest difference between the four quest areas can be found in the Rito line. The others all have a chain of things to do before you can get into the dungeon. Zora has that gauntlet in the rain, followed by getting lightning arrows from a lynel after climbing some waterfalls—which is skippable but still something you’re meant to do. Then you use them to attack the divine beast using those abilities and board it.

In the Goron domain, you have the light puzzle of figuring out how to resist the intense fire in the air, then you go through what is my favorite combat arena in the game: the vertical pillars in the lava. This uses so much of Link’s mobility tools in a way that clicked with me, even though you can cheese it with the bomb cannons. I recommend not doing that and being creative with climbing, the glider, and your bow instead.

Then you have to guide a Goron through something sort of like a stealth section in order to board the divine beast.

The Gerudo quest is similar. There’s a light puzzle required to gain access to the city. Then you have to go on a different quest to retrieve something—which ends up being a mini dungeon, with another stealth section that I was thrilled to discover you could fight your way through instead of automatically failing. Good job on including that choice Nintendo. Seriously, well done.

There’s even a mini-boss in here to beat, which leads to what I’d argue is the best divine beast fight with the Shadow of the Colossus weak points and riding on the sand seal. Then you have what is also the best divine beast dungeon after this.

In contrast, you show up to the Rito town. Get a quest to glide to a nearby area with no combat whatsoever. You prove to the bird man that you know how to shoot a bow and glide at the same time in a very simple puzzle that’s nearby. And that’s it, you’re immediately taken to the divine beast boarding sequence. Which, visually, is very impressive. But mechanically it’s really boring. There’s too much down time gliding between each cannon. It’s by far the worst one.

One of these is clearly not like the others. In the immortal words of Shania Twain, this don’t impress-a me much.

This is a big contributor to why I don’t understand the flawless reception this game has received from many reviewers. Because there’s something that’s even worse than this in the game and far more obvious. A lot of people would argue that the ending of a game, story, or movie, is the most important part that you have to nail down. It’s definitely the best way to make something memorable, but I’d argue everything is equally important—the beginning to grab someone’s attention, the middle to keep their attention, and the ending to make everything that came before worthy of their time.

Breath of the Wild’s ending is one of the worst fights I have ever played in a game. I can say that because it’s barely even a fight. To be clear I’m not talking about the Bloodborne version of Ganon that you fight in the castle. That boss is actually pretty good if you’re not overpowered. I’m talking about the behemoth version that you fight in Hyrule Field afterward.

There’s something very wrong with the story, tone, and world in this game. Ganon’s arrival is known as the Great Calamity that ended the world. Hyrule is now a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. In reality though, it’s anything but that. This place is a paradise. Nature is thriving. There’s beauty and animals everywhere. More than that though, the many villages in the game are prospering. Without exception. All of them. Even with the divine beasts apparently stirring up trouble, no one seems worried. Monsters never attack anyone. The Gorons are continuing to expand their mining industry. There’s a construction company. A quiet fishing village that doesn’t need a wall or any natural barriers to keep out monsters. There’s no strife. No famine. The monsters are all content to mind their business.

Even those who have the job to help you seem so lazy about it. It’s like yeah whatever Link, if you feel like rescuing Zelda then go for it. It’s cool. Even that is so vague. Zelda is still 17 years old at the end of the game. So what sort of timeloop paradox has she been keeping Ganon contained in until now, and why is it only now that his power has grown to the point that he’s causing trouble again? Why are the divine beasts only now starting to make a mess of their respective areas?

This doesn’t really matter all that much but I do think more effort could have gone into the story matching the setting, or at least an attempt made at matching the freedom to take your time exploring the world that Nintendo clearly wanted to give you.

Because the potential was here to make this something special. Despite myself not giving one single shit about anything to do with Zelda or the story after seeing how weak the memory cinematics were, I was shocked by how epic I found the introduction to this final fight with Ganon. Zelda’s words here, pertaining to the series historical use of Link’s triforce of courage and his amnesia in this game, are surprisingly strong. It creates this momentum. This “Oh it’s on. Let’s go. Let’s kill Ganon.” And it stays strong as you ride forward, pick up the special bow of light, and then…

This isn’t a fight. Ganon can’t hurt you. I don’t think this monster even has AI tied to it. It’s just a random selection of shifting in place and then spewing an evil breath in a cone in front of him. He doesn’t try to target it. He doesn’t try to do anything. The whole encounter is riding in a circle waiting for Zelda to tell you to shoot some targets. And then you do that, wait some more, and do it again.

Oh also, if you get here without ever catching a horse, the game just gives you one. I thought that was kind of weird.

I loved parts of this game. I know that I’ll play it again with the DLC features and hard mode later on in the year but, without those additions, I don’t know if I would want to. There’s still so much left to see and find in the world, but the thought of having to do just some of the shrines again is enough to turn me off.

Breath of the Wild is undoubtedly the best open world game I have ever played, when I am playing it as an open world game. It has so many smart decisions. I love the blood moon mechanic. Because not only does it contextualize why monsters have now respawned in the world, it also clearly announces it for you so it’s not a guessing game when you want to go back to old areas. But even here you can see how it’s two steps forward and one step back. Why is there only one version of this cinematic? If you’re going to play it each time blood moon happens, why not have a shorter version, or different ones, so that I’m not stabbing the skip button? Blood moon happened more than twenty times as I played.

Actually it happened three times in one night one time. I think it can be buggy.

The game is gorgeous, but it comes at the cost of frequent frame drops. Although I do prefer games to have at least 60 frames per second, I am not a big frame rate snob. I can happily tolerate a stable 30 FPS on console games but the keyword there is stable. I also understand that some dips can be forgiven, because it would be a waste to lower graphical quality so much across the entire game just for the occasional rare time that things get really intense.

Breath of the Wild, however, regularly starts to chug whenever there’s a lot of grass and trees in one area. As in, the first place most players are going to go after leaving the shrine at the start of the game. For an even clearer example of this you need to go to Korok Forest, where the frame rate tanks harder than anywhere else in the game. Most importantly, it tanks EVERYTIME I come here. And this is where you upgrade your equipment slots and return to try to pull out the Master Sword when you get a new heart container. How was this performance seen as okay? I don’t understand how places where the game regularly starts to stumble couldn’t have been identified and made better.

During combat things are usually fine, except for moblins. This is another case of a regular problem. More often than not, when I hit a moblin hard enough to make him enter ragdoll mode the game will drop a massive amount of frames or even lock up for more than a second. It’s even more strange because when I play the game when the Switch is in handheld mode it runs better. Unfortunately I’m not able to record footage when the console is undocked.

I’m curious if hard mode will have large enough changes to fix a lot of problems I have with the game, although I seriously doubt it. Same for the dungeon content that’s coming, which I foresee as just one dungeon a little bigger than a divine beast but I could be wrong. I don’t think Nintendo has ever planned DLC for a game like this so maybe it’ll be this huge addition that makes the combined game so much greater than what we have now.

I doubt it. But I look forward to being proven wrong.

Fallout 4 One Year Later Script

WARNING – Reading this might ruin the experience of watching the video first. So consider that if you’d rather wait for the video. Some of the script may change when I record it. Some parts might be cut. It also hasn’t been EXTENSIVELY proofread because I automatically do that again while I record it. So there might be mistakes. I update the script with those changes while watching the completed video at the end of the project.

 

If anyone actually reads all of this before the video comes out please leave a comment. I’m curious how many go through all of the scripts beforehand. The main reason I post them is for people to read along with the video. My guess is that with long ones like this, most people only read a little. Which makes sense!

 

 

Fallout 4, One Year Later

November of 2015 was an important month in my life. My birthday is in November and that year I turned 30, which is too old to pretend you’re not an adult anymore. It was also my first birthday since becoming a father. And it was the month that Fallout 4 came out.

That last one doesn’t seem like it belongs, does it? Turning 30… birth of your child… Fallout 4. I know it doesn’t match with these other, monolithic milestones in life but it was still a very important event for me. Because Fallout 4 was the game that I decided to take this Youtube channel seriously. To treat it like a job.

So despite this game being the least important of those three things, it’s all I really remember about November, 2015. All I did was play Fallout that month. I vaguely remember a birthday cake. My son had some icing when he really shouldn’t have. I know I got some sleep at some point. But those are flashes among a huge blur of the Commonwealth, Diamond City, Piper and Nick, and those infectious songs on the in-game radio.

I don’t remember making the video. I remember writing the script and recording it. But the video part… not even a little of it, which is unsettlingly common when I look back at other stuff I’ve made for the channel. When I watch that Fallout 4 Analysis today, I can view it like someone else made it. And, considering how quickly I got it done after the game’s release, I’m happy with it. Parts are a little rushed. And I’ve learned a lot since then. But that’s a really good thing. A year is a long time. I’ve changed. The channel has changed. Fallout 4 has changed as well. And I think returning to the game is long overdue.

This video will, naturally, contain major spoilers. It will also build on a lot of what I said in my first video—if you’ve played the game then you don’t HAVE to watch it to understand this video, but I still recommend it.

 

<ONE YEAR LATER>

For that first video I played Fallout 4 for a hundred hours. The game has since been updated with six DLC packs. Four of these were mostly about expanding the settlement building side of the game. The other two were more traditional add-ons: more inline with the DLC given to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. They added new areas, new characters, and new stories to find and complete.

Playing the game again, and all of these additions, more than doubled my playtime. Today, I’ve spent more than 250 hours playing Fallout 4. And after all of that time, I have a confession to make. One that, if you watched my previous video, may surprise you.

I like Fallout 4.

There’s some gas left in the tank on this one. If you put a gun to my head and told me to play another fifty hours of No Man’s Sky or Darkest Dungeon, then I might risk losing an eye. If it was Fallout 4? I’d be okay spending more time stomping around the Commonwealth.

Realizing this about the game hasn’t been easy for me to rationalize. It’s also come with a reevaluation on how I feel about Bethesda. Because a year ago my inclination was that Todd Howard and his Merry Band of Merrymen were only in it for the money. There’s a meme on 4chan that has Todd Howard, often in an assortment of disguises, showing up and demanding that people buy and/or preorder Bethesda’s latest game. And he gets increasingly more irate as posters reply saying they pirated it, or that they thought the game was bad. Because that’s the impression I think a lot of people have gotten since Fallout 3, into Skyrim, and now Fallout 4. Which is an image the lead designer hasn’t really helped in fighting.

<clip from the Lead Writer’s talk>

This might still be true. But I find myself awkwardly reconsidering it as I try to weigh and measure the different parts of the game. Because it’s equally awkward to judge which reality is worse: that the terrible parts of Fallout 4 exist because Bethesda doesn’t care? Or is this honestly the best they can do and they just failed to live up to expectations?

After 250 hours I can say that Fallout 4 feels like a game born of conflicted priorities. There’s the Open World Shooter Game, and there’s the RPG. And maybe, initially, these two were meant to be well integrated. As time went on, a divide formed and split them down the middle. As even more development time passed one side grew and pushed the other away. And I’m left wondering if the game’s title, and the expectations that came with it, are the worst parts about it. Because this would be a much better game if it wasn’t Fallout.

<clip>

I returned to Fallout 4 with one of my old characters in order to do the big DLC packs—Far Harbor, and Nuka World. Then I restarted with a fresh guy—Vault-Tec Salesman, Bombs Drop, Dead Wife, Kidnapped Baby, We Still Have The Backup—and decided to ignore all of it. I left Kellogg in his box. I left the kid napping. And started wandering the Commonwealth with the radio on full volume.

I saw another side of the game by doing this. One that I had caught glimpses of in 2015, but didn’t fully understand until this recent playthrough. The way I see it, there’s a cycle to gameplay in Fallout 4—one that must be deliberate in my opinion because it feels like the game is constantly pushing you toward it. Even when you pull on your knee-high boots and wade into the shit on the RPG side of the line, the game shoves you back.

Go kill this.

Go fetch that.

Another settlement needs our help.

 

The cycle goes like this:

Exploration.

Combat.

Gathering.

 

In more detail:

You explore the world and discover a noteworthy area. These places are almost always marked on your compass when you’re nearby to act as a guide to find them. They then fill in your map when you get close enough and are introduced with a discovery title on your screen.

More often than not there’s something to fight in these locations, or in the surrounding area that leads to them. You defeat how ever many enemies there might be and then move onto the final phase.

You loot the location. And the bodies of your opponents. You gather resources for yourself—ammunition, chems, stimpacks, and maybe even upgrades for your equipment—and scavenge supplies for your settlements. It’s also common to find some sort of story in the environment: whether that’s a subtle placement of objects and corpses, or something told a little more directly with audio logs, journals, or computer terminals.

Now my guess is that, right now, people watching this are going to be in two groups. They’re going to be thinking, in reaction to what I just said, one of the following:

  1. “There’s SO MUCH MORE to the game than that Joe, what the hell are you talking about.”
  2. Or: “This is really simple. Of course this is the core of the game. Why are you wasting my time?”

In short: both of these reactions are correct. But sometimes you can learn quite a lot about something by boiling it down to simple terms. And I have to wonder if there really is SO MUCH MORE to Fallout 4 that this central, three-phase cycle is shrouded from the view of some people.

You have story. Character progress—in levels, perks, skill books, and bobbleheads. There’s quests and the dialogue system that comes along with it. Which leads to characters. Companions. Interactions with them. The settlement system—building and maintaining it. Social perks that unlock options outside of combat as another avenue of progression. Weapon crafting. Legendary enemies. Upgrading armor. And even more of this stuff added in the DLC that layer over these three key points.

But this is just one way of looking at it. It also happens to be how I looked at the game when I first played it. Today, I see all these things as like… the surface of a wheel. The three phases at the heart of the game are what keeps it all connected. You can’t do anything in Fallout 4 without going out to explore, finding things to kill, and then acquiring resources after “claiming” these areas. You spin through each phase, able to feed into the other parts of the game as you do.

I view this as Fallout 4’s greatest strength. And its most glaring flaw. It’s a weakness that could have been avoided if the game had been in a different series—if it had been called anything except Fallout. I know that sounds so stupid and simple—like I’m saying if the game had been called Boston-After-Trump with no other changes then it would miraculously become a masterpiece. I’m NOT saying that. The name change is a bit more complex because it’s not just player expectations that you have to weigh here. It’s also the obligation the developers clearly felt as well.

Here’s where I get into murky territory. Surprisingly, I’m not a mindreader. I’ll also be the first to admit that I know very little about the development process that results in a finished game. And, even if I did, what information I do know suggests that this process is very different from company to company. When I’ve spoken about “Developer Intentions” and the like in previous videos, I don’t think I’ve been as clear as I could have been in saying that it’s all just guesswork on my part. It’s INFORMED guesswork—by studying the finished product—but this is all so complicated that what looks like an intentional feature may just be a failed attempt at something else. Or even an incomplete or unfinished one when content was cut to make a deadline.

Or Bethesda’s Bug, from the previous Fallout 4 video, to explain that a function in the game might not be missing. It might just not be working properly.

Despite saying that, I feel confident that the split I showed earlier in the video is accurate. No matter where this divide was at the start of development, by the end Fallout 4 was meant to be an open world, exploration-based shooter with the RPG stuff stuck on like someone tried gluing feathers back onto the chicken they just plucked.

The three main ways I can support that are:

    1. Quests, and Those Three Damn Phases Again.
    2. Stories, and the Writer Behind Fallout 4
    3. (And Finally,) The Dialogue System

Let’s take these on in order:

This first one is the strongest piece of evidence that reveals the developer’s intentions. Because, like I said, going through these phases is fun. It’s good. It’s not incredible or great, but it is an enjoyable part of the game. Many of the places are interesting. The shooting is fairly standard. And searching for loot and valuable items is strangely appealing, especially if you’re hoarding them all for crafting. I’ll speak more about this later but for now I just want to make it clear that, not only do I think this is the foundation of the game, but that I also think it’s pretty good.

Unfortunately Bethesda feels far more strongly than I do, because they try to get you into this cycle at every opportunity. After this most recent playthrough, I have completed almost every side-quest in Fallout 4. I’ve also visited almost every area. I want to say I’ve done EVERYTHING but it’s possible I might have missed something somewhere so let’s be safe and say I’ve done 95% of the game.

Out of all of that, I can say that the overwhelming majority of the quests, or even simple tasks, given to the player involve exploring the world to find a location, killing a bunch of enemies at that location, and then finding something or someone there afterward. Time and time again, with so few exceptions that it’s difficult to even think of any, this is what the game has you do.

Here’s a quest. Go here. Kill a bunch of stuff. Bring something back for me.

It’s a very World of Warcraft way of laying things out. There are NPC hubs in the Commonwealth and they’re seemingly bursting with stuff for you to do. The game has radiant quests here as well as scripted ones. For those unfamiliar, radiant quests are continually generated by spawning enemies and an objective at some location in the world, so that there are effectively unlimited quests for you to do. It’s the reason why characters who hand these out are vague on details—these voiced instructions can’t be generated like a note or a quest marker explaining what to do.

My guess is that some people at Bethesda are really proud of how these radiant quests can sometimes appear like regular ones—that many players might not even notice that they’re doing “artificially” generated content. When in reality I think this is viewing it backwards: it’s that the actual, scripted quests are so dull and samey that it’s that THEY appear like radiant ones, not the other way around.

There are technically so many quests for you to do in Fallout 4, but because they all involve returning to the core cycle, they all feel the same. It’s Quantity Over Quality. Which brings us to the second point… Stories, and that Fallout 4 has no writers.

That video clip I showed earlier is of a talk given by Emil Pagliarulo, Lead Designer and Writer on Fallout 4. I’m not going to speak about much of what he says in this presentation, because I already spent most of another video going through the problems in his story. I do want to say though that, to his credit, writing for a video game must be dreadfully difficult. As he says in this talk—you can spend so much time writing wonderful stories and then have to watch as players tear out the pages to make paper airplanes instead of reading them.

We’ll be looking primarily at the side quests for now and the issue I have with them is directly linked with that analogy he uses. It seems to me that in the face of this reality of dealing with unpredictable players, they decided not to even try. It’s tied right in with Quantity Over Quality, and some of what Pagliarulo says in this talk makes me think some of my suspicions on how Bethesda creates their scripted side quests might be true.

Basically, for a while I’ve been wondering if there’s any actual writers that come up with most of these quests. Instead, it feels like they have a big meeting one day near the middle of the game’s development cycle and ask everyone at the company to think of any cool quest idea that they think would fit in with the game. They write a quick summary of that idea on a piece of paper and drop it into a box somewhere at the office. After a week or so the guys that make the quests, hopefully guided by Pagliarulo, put all these slips of paper into a hat and choose some at random to read out loud. If they like the idea then it goes into the game. If they don’t then it gets discarded.

That sounds absolutely crazy but bear with me here. Suspend your disbelief for a second. There’s a lot that supports this in the game, especially since so many quests can be summarized like they were written on that scrap of paper.

A melodramatic actor is stuck on a tower of super mutants.

You help repair a Chinese submarine so it can sail away.

There’s a ghoul kid in a fridge.

There’s a robot that can brew beer.

Find a cat and send it home.

Rescue some kid that ran off to become a raider.

You pretend to be a crime fighting superhero.

And so on and so forth. I think you get the idea. Now immediately you might think this is unfair. It’s easy to summarize and simplify something, right? Well the proof that backs this up is that these quests, and almost every single other quest in the game, has no more depth to it other than this surface-level description. There are rarely ever any decisions or ways to interact with these stories. But even if you excuse that, you still can’t ignore that there’s nothing really to these quests.

Like look at those examples fleshed out:

You fight your way to the top of the tower to save the actor. You then ride down with him to safety. The end.

You do fetch quests to find the parts required to fix the submarine and clear out the ghouls for the captain. That’s it. You can speak to him a bit and ask some questions that don’t really go anywhere. You also have the joke option to blow up the submarine along with you inside of it—which kills you and forces a reload. But there’s nothing else. No involved story about how or why the captain has never left the submarine in 200 years—or how he even survived this long. No optional objective to fix the submarine without killing the captain’s ghoulified crew. This is a fairly interesting scenario in my opinion and, instead of exploring this potential, the basic idea is all there is and used as an excuse to send you back into that three-phase-cycle.

The kid in the fridge I spoke about last time. There’s no way he could have survived in the fridge that long without food and water. The entire story here is to take him home. His parents are still there. You fight raiders for absolutely no logical reason—he just “wants them”. The end.

The Brewbot is especially egregious because this thing should be an extremely valuable machine. It could have been interesting if multiple parties got wind of its existence and were trying to get it. The game sort of hints at this since you can choose to keep it for yourself. But that’s the end. There’s no wacky story about different gangs kidnapping the robot and fighting over it. It could have been funny if each time you rescue it that it’s been modified in a new weird way each time, or learned new bad habits from its raider captors. Even without that, really think about how rare something like this must be in the post-apocalypse. Instead it’s a glorified fetch quest. Because the idea wasn’t explored past its simple description.

In Vault 81 a cat escapes when you arrive. You get the quest to go out and send it home. That’s the whole quest. Good job. I can’t believe I have to say this next sentence: this isn’t how cats work. A cat wouldn’t do this. Would it have been so difficult to have the player able to pick up the cat and carry it back? Maybe this quest was meant to be misdirection so the bigger quest chain in Vault 81 could begin while you’re gone, but they’re not directly linked so… I don’t know, Bethesda’s Bug?

The guy that’s become a raider is in a factory right next to the farm he used to live on. You clear the place out of raiders. You have a dialogue option at the end which consistently bugged out on me. You can help him reconcile with his family or not with one conversation. That’s the whole thing.

Pretending to be the Silver Shroud has slightly more to it, and it’s this example I’ll use to acknowledge that some people might think I’m cherry picking my quests to support my argument. If you’ve played the game enough then I’d urge you to look at a wiki and read through the side quests. Think about how many fit my criteria here. How many of them are: something close to a catchy concept or situation—Convince a guy to stop taking drugs, Robots Need Fresh Water!, or There’s a Deathclaw in Salem!–but ultimately end up being one or two extremely simple tasks involving combat or retrieving an item? It’s like, imagine there was a book called The Dog Barks at Midnight. And then you open it up to read and it’s just one single page describing a dog barking at midnight and then two hundred pages of blank, missed opportunity. That’s virtually every single quest in Fallout 4, because:

They’re thinly disguised excuses to shove you back into Explore, Combat, Gather.

The quests that are exceptions—or almost exceptions—link back to the third point on that list: the dialogue system. And also roleplaying or character building, depending on what you want to call it.

There are a handful of quests that are more substantial. The Silver Shroud, The Last Voyage of the USS Constitution, Hole in the Wall, The Secret of the Cabot House, and Human Error.

These have multiple phases, characters to speak to and problems to solve for them, and aren’t just one-shot fetch quests. Unfortunately they’re still highly linear and don’t have many choices until the end. They also still eventually involve a lot of combat and clearing out an area on the world map—you’re sent to a sewer system, or a hospital, or an insane asylum and have to fight through it all.

There’s no variety or branching decisions, or ways to change anything significantly with how you’ve leveled your character. This is true for the vast majority of the game: even speech checks rarely ever result in anything other than additional pointless lines of dialogue that really don’t reveal anything important…

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…or they reward extra caps. There’s hardly ever an attempt at rewarding the player for choosing to approach the game in a specific way.

One exception that I found is among those five, which stands out as the only quest in the entire game that comes close to belonging in an RPG: The Last Voyage of the USS Constitution. This is about a crew of crazy military robots that have claimed an old ship and fitted it with advanced hardware, with the intent to launch themselves into the ocean and continue the war that ruined the world.

Now I’m not about to say this is stellar stuff, but it’s interesting enough to be engaging. It also involves a second party you can choose to side with—a group of scavengers—that want the robots and all of their hardware for valuable scrap. Plus, I doubt this is a coincidence, this is the only quest in the entire base game that I found that had stat checks. You can bypass some of the quest stages if you built your character the right way—you can repair some of the ship with your own skill rather than having to go out, find an area, clear it out, and carry something back.

It’s also the quest that seems to have the most work put into it. There’s a fancy rocket launch at the end. The ship flies through the air and lands in another part of the city. It’s the best side quest in the game and it’s still only one step above decent, which goes to show you how poor the RPG side of Fallout 4 really is. This should have been one of the middle-of-the-line, wacky scenarios in a series of great quests in the Commonwealth. It even sounds similar to one of the quests in New Vegas, and I consider it to be one of the weaker ones in that game.

So what does this have to do with dialogue? Well, first off, dialogue options would be one of the main ways that players could choose to express their character building choices—conversation paths and solutions that unlock if you have the right perk or stats or something. But even without those, dialogue options should be exactly that: an option. A way to steer the conversation and influence how the quest progresses. Or, even failing that most basic requirement, you should at least be able to ask appropriate questions so you can better understand what’s happening.

Fallout 4 does not do any of this.

Most of you watching this probably know by now how terrible the dialogue system is in this game, but even I was surprised by the depths Bethesda sank when I played again with a mod that expands every choice. Without this mod, what your character will say is labelled with a very brief hint. Some might think you’re meant to judge which is the best option for what you want say. Personally, I think these options are intentionally this castrated so players are unlikely to realize they don’t really have options.

The worst and best example was this one here, which is strangely in an area that’s quite enjoyable apart from this. This is a shopping center that was meant to be run by robots. They’ve all gone mad in 200 years and each place you enter has some deadly trick that you can try to avoid.

Here, you enter a diner. The booths are full of skeletons which should be enough to tip you off. If you accept the diner’s offer to serve you, then you are rudely shown how literal they mean that term when you take your seat. They’re going to SERVE YOU, AS dinner, not the other way around. When the robot asks how you would like to be served, your character has these dialogue options.

Which seem innocent enough, until you see the same thing with the mod installed. Three of these are exactly the same response just with a different label.

So maybe that’s not a great example though. It’s just some funny moment, right? The whole game couldn’t be like that…

Well, I strongly recommend you give the game a few more hours of playtime with this mod so you can see how much work went into giving you the illusion of choice. It’s so much worse than most people think: how you can’t ever really say no, and that your options are just yes, yes, or a sarcastic yes. It’s more insidious than that when you can read every option, because you can see how so many dialogue choices are the same line rephrased and reworded, all to push you toward a certain trigger question or statement so the NPC can unload the information relevant for you to…

Go explore.

Kill some guys.

Then gather resources.

At the risk of repeating myself from the previous video, I wish that Bethesda simply hadn’t bothered. There’s no way to express character building or true choices in these conversations, so why not make them fully scripted instead? I understand that having a voiced protagonist makes it so much more expensive to have dialogue options, but this also meant that the player character is… an actual character, and not an avatar for the player. As shown by that character’s origin story and emotions and motivations for their family. It would have been a good excuse to have scripted conversations with choices—if there are even any—left at the end.

Because the quality of dialogue suffers here too. Conversations already mostly work this way—there’s an intended conclusion to most of them that, if you exhaust every dialogue option, sits at the end of so much repeated information and awkwardly spoken lines when you consider how this back and forth is progressing between two people. Having one version would make the whole thing much smoother. It also could have made the dialogue camera a reliable tool that could be made to function properly, instead of constantly being stuck or clipping through other characters or walls or objects, since the game has to account for so many different variables if you choose to wait between dialogue choices or start speaking to someone from a direction that’s difficult for the camera to adjust to.

Seriously this sort of stuff happened to me all the time while I played.

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If each conversation was a short, scripted movie then all this could be avoided.

This all brings us to a difficult question, and back to that conflicting feeling I spoke about at the beginning of the video: whether or not this game was purely about making money, or making a good game. Was this a cash-in, or was this honestly the best they could do?

To address this I think it would be good to answer a question I get asked a fair amount in the comments on my video. About another Bethesda game that I’ve mentioned enjoying a few times.

Why do I like Skyrim?

The first Elder Scrolls game that I played was Oblivion. Then, in an order that will make sense in just a moment, I played Fallout 3, New Vegas, Skyrim, and then Fallout 4. All of these as they were released.

These games all share a lot in common, but New Vegas and Fallout 4 stick out more distinctly in my mind.

First, to answer that question about Skyrim, I think the biggest reason that I’m able to like it is that I didn’t play Morrowind. Today, I know quite a lot about that game. Just like I now know quite a lot about Fallout 1 and 2 even though I started with Fallout 3—which is helped a bit by how much I played Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment, and a bunch of other of those RPGs that get the “classic” label from so many people.

Skyrim, for me, has never been an RPG. It’s something else. Something that’s half-unique to Bethesda. Understanding this has given me both a greater appreciation for the developer, and also a heightened way to be disappointed with them.

Skyrim has the same cycle that Fallout 4 does. You explore. You find some place that could be interesting. You engage in combat to clear it out. And then you ransack it for gold, magical trinkets, and resources for crafting. Or even for your treasure trove of a house if you’re playing with the Hearthfire DLC, which is like an eerie prelude to the settlement stuff in Fallout 4 now.

Almost all the quests in Skyrim push you into that cycle. So much more work is put into the environments you find and explore, rather than the stories, characters, and choices that a lot of people wanted.

This is an important distinction because, despite what the game’s genre tags might say, I don’t think these games are RPGs. They’re… a thing all of their own. The best way I can describe them is just to say they’re Bethesda Games. Which imbues a fresh layer of legitimacy to how many people said Fallout 3 was just Oblivion with guns. And that Skyrim was Fallout 3 with curved swords. Fallout 4 is Skyrim with guns… and so on.

This is a distressingly fitting way of describing these games.

RPG doesn’t mean a leveling system or stat points. It doesn’t mean a specific setting. Or that a game has a story. Most games have all of these nowadays and they’re not called RPGs. This is outside of the scope of this video but, for now, I think it’s fair to say that there needs to be a certain level of character building and the ability to choose how you interact with a game’s conflict and characters to be worthy of the RPG name. Otherwise it’s a dead term. It’s something that New Vegas moderately succeeds in doing while the other games on this list barely try.

So why is all of this a problem? Well most importantly, Bethesda themselves haven’t realized this. Or, far more likely, they’re afraid to fully embrace it. These expectations matter so much and, although the backlash I got for it was far beyond reasonable, I do understand why so many people were annoyed that I hadn’t played Fallout 1 and 2 before making my first Fallout 4 video.

But I think New Vegas was enough to show me how much people expect from this series, and how woefully short the supply is from Bethesda. Instead of embracing the way they want to make the game—open world, combat, explore, inspect, and loot—they have this weird half-ass, token attempt at it still in the game. Like they’re afraid too many people will be upset if they ignored it completely.

The result is that unbalanced split of priorities which shouldn’t really appeal to either group, right? Suddenly the really vocal, angry fans of the RPG side of Fallout makes more sense, because what they wanted was given so little attention. But the other side didn’t get a fully-fleshed experience either. So why has a lot of the reception this game has received been so positive?

Or, to repeat the question, why do I like Skyrim? It has the same problems.

Obviously I can only speak for myself. Even acknowledging how clearly the game was made to favor Quantity Over Quality… there’s not really many games that can compare to what Skyrim provides. So even though I definitely agree with the description “As wide as an ocean but as deep as a puddle”… I really enjoying stomping around, making splashes in this puddle.

Put another way, the idea of “You Can Go Anywhere. You Can Do Anything,” is an extremely powerful one. Even if only one half of that promise is really true, that doesn’t entirely extinguish that experience so many adore.

There is so much to do in Skyrim. So many places to explore and search through. Gathering resources and having so many different ways to improve your character—with immediate feedback as your guy gets better at that specific skill as they use it—all combine to make this constant progression loop that hits me as a good time. And that’s without accounting for mods improving the experience.

Even though the combat is a full step below passable, and that the animations are sort of bad, and there aren’t many interesting characters to find and speak to, the game can still be carried by the sheer amount of content in its varied locations. I like simply exploring the world in Skyim. Arriving at the different towns and exploring them too. Finding caves and ruins tucked in the corners of mountains. The quirky landmarks someone took the time to place in the world.

But I can’t shake the feeling that, if I had played Morrowind first, I would think very differently about it. Even though I hope I could see past my expectations and enjoy Bethesda’s intentions, I would still be disappointed that they chose to make a different game than the one I wanted to play.

Because that’s how I feel about Fallout 4 because I played New Vegas first.

Fallout 3 has never grabbed me like Skyrim or Oblivion did. I don’t know if it’s because of the setting—the constant wrecked ruined place into the next wrecked ruined place. Or crumbling subway after crumbling subway. But out of all these games we’ve spoken about here, Fallout 3 is the one I’ve played the least. Or maybe it’s just how combat works—guns and raiders change too much in someway. I’m not sure.

For Fallout 4, it was that the “Bethesda Game” side of development got more attention to finally make it good outside of just exploration. Combat is dramatically improved. And a lot of character progression is tied directly to finding new locations and searching them for resources.

Before we get into that, let’s address something on both sides here. I said earlier that the quests in this game are heavily linear and that they seldom have choices. Some of you might not care about that. Some of you might think, because you love the game so much, that the RPG side is perfectly fine. My question to challenge that is, even if you don’t care about choices and think linear quests in an open world are great, don’t you agree that the stories themselves still aren’t all that interesting? That the decision to have a lot of these, instead of fewer but more developed quests, might have been a mistake? Look at how boring and uninspired the stories in Fallout 4’s vaults are as the most disappointing example of this.

On the flip side, there’s probably quite a few of you watching that think, even despite the amount of work that went into the game’s exploration and combat, that it still isn’t all that fun. The shooting is quite basic. There’s not enough enemy variety in the base game. I think this all needs to be viewed in relation to the open world and freedom the game comes packaged with to be fairly judged, and to understand why so many people still like it, but I have to agree it could be better.

A lot better actually, because it comes back to that conflict in priorities. It’s not just that Bethesda should release themselves of the obligation to include minimal effort RPG elements—essentially, do something right or don’t do it at all. It’s that they should also fully commit to the other side and flesh out all of those mechanics.

So let’s look at that now. The three phase cycle in far more detail. How it succeeds in many ways, but also where it falls short of its potential.

Let’s approach these in the same order that we have throughout the video so far.

Exploration is by far the strongest part of the game and it’s clear to me that the most amount of work went into it. Not only that, but the most amount of love and care as well. I haven’t played every open world game ever made, but I have played enough to know that Bethesda succeeds in making Fallout 4’s world an interesting place to get lost in. From what I know about their two biggest series, and playing most of them myself, I can also see that they’re getting better with each game.

This is the only part of Fallout 4 that doesn’t suffer from Quantity Over Quality. It’s Quantity AND Quality instead.

On a broad scale, the Commonwealth map isn’t gigantic or anything, but it is large enough not to feel cramped. Yet there aren’t many empty areas either—even if there’s no marker for a place on a map, there tends to be a lot of minor locations littered throughout the world too.

There’s a lot of variety both in setting and the types of places you’ll find. What impresses me the most about it all is how smooth transitions from different “biomes” are in the world. There’s the sparse woodland in the northwest quadrant that you start in, the coastal zones on the eastern part of the map, the outer city areas as you start heading south, then the distinctly different inner city streets. Farther south than that are the wetlands and, of course, you have the alien looking glowing sea in the southwest corner.

That might not seem like much when it’s summarized but there’s a lot of different places that suit many of these parts of the map. The cabins and remote locations in your starting area. Then more signs of industry in the south—railroads, trains, a garbage dump, into some larger buildings that end up being tiny compared to the inner city towers. There’s a real sense of flow and change in the locations you encounter. The placement of many factories and the like makes enough sense that it doesn’t feel forced that you’re finding so many places to explore. Which carries forward when you enter these places and have natural enough interiors to fight through. Sometimes the way the places are falling apart inside feels sort of contrived and it’s obvious they were trying to make it feel like a dungeon, but more often than not these places feel authentically like a structure lost to the war.

Add to that the amount of detail on the outside of many buildings. Or that some of them don’t have interior levels at all, and instead have spilled their contents into the street when the bombs tore them open. There’s a surprising amount of vertical layers that make many of the city sections feel dense and rewarding to explore, since you’re learning the paths between the remaining pieces of a wrecked highway and the city below it—sometimes even accounting for the makeshift bridges that raiders or the gunners have created there too.

It’s a real shame that the game’s combat is so plain then, because this level of attention was also brought to the arenas in which you fight throughout the game. It’s easy to remember the first few battles around Sanctuary—with the raiders below the electrical towers, or at the satellite station to the east, or patrolling the road on the forest. Enemies liberally use the environment for cover and fighting those raiders hiding behind those trees is a strong memory of mine in the game for a reason I don’t fully understand—maybe it’s something as simple as this was the first moment I noticed they COULD use cover, back in November 2015, and was stunned that Bethesda had bothered adding interesting AI to the game.

Because here’s the thing: combat in Fallout 3 is terrible. It’s terrible in New Vegas. It’s terrible in the Elder Scrolls games too. I said Fallout 4’s combat was good in my first video and, while I stand by that comment today, I have to wonder if I was so surprised by how much work went into it that I was a little too generous with how I judged it. Because sure, it’s definitely a huge improvement from these other games, but it’s still… well it’s not exactly thrilling.

Like I said it’s easy for me to remember those first encounters. But it’s later areas that are far more impressive. Fighting raiders in a huge quarry, with cover and vertical levels spread all over the place. The same can be said for the factories and their skeletal walkways that snake all over the outside of them. The ones that most impressed me were the ruins of Quincy, and a similar lost settlement near there that was half flooded. There were so many wrecked houses and optional paths through what ended up being quite large combat arenas. There were a lot of options for how you find and move from cover. For flanking enemies and for them flanking you. Places to climb and get to higher ground. Places to hide…

There are even more examples of this in the DLC. Some of the arenas in Far Harbor clearly had a lot of work put into them—the raider town built around a wrecked ship as the prime example that comes to my mind. And the best of all would be the Galactic Zone in Nuka World, which feels huge even though it has so many stacked levels and different paths woven throughout it all.

So it’s a missed opportunity that combat in Fallout 4 is basically point, shoot, and reload. Even the cover mechanics are shallow. The only thing the game has on top of this is the VATS system, and the variety of its enemy types… which aren’t that great.

Look I understand that having a functional combat system alone is an achievement for Bethesda. And that’s not sarcasm either it must have been very difficult for them to get this to work in their Frankenstein engine since it took an entire new game to finally feel like a shooter, instead of the gun magically spawning bullets in front of the model like you’re casting a spell for each one in Oblivion.

I also understand that this simple version of combat also feeds into the exploration and scavenging phases. There’s no base-line health regen and looting specific ammo types isn’t reliable. Essentially you have a supply of bullets and stimpacks, and your task is to kill all of the enemies using as little of these resources as possible, so that when you loot all of their corpses it’s a net-gain. It’s for this reason that a lot of raiders drop stimpacks, as well as different kinds of ammunition so that you’re incentivized to carry around multiple weapon types and switch between them. There’s variety to be found there in the early and mid-game, before you become comfortably powerful with lots of perks and levels and legendary gear.

But all of that doesn’t change how bog-standard the minute-to-minute shooting is in this game. The best argument I can make is to ask you to imagine Fallout 4 exactly as it is today, only the player has the nanosuit from the Crysis games. So suddenly you have access to reliable stealth that depletes action points. You have super strength and speed in order to navigate these really cool arenas in more creative ways. All that verticality could be incorporated into the increased jump range that these modes provide to the player. And then you could use the armor function when it’s time to have a direct fight as an alternative way of spending action points.

It’s not a perfect example, but I think it captures the essence of the problem. I know this is also basically saying “I don’t like the game as it is NOW, I wish it was something else,” but that’s simply the reality of any solution when the issue is gameplay being too shallow.

I also know that the power armor in the game sort of already fills this role, but in my experience this is a severely limited way of playing. It’s slow and clunky to move with. There’s the constant ticking down of fusion cores that, for me and many other players, is enough to never use the thing ever. Even then it’s probably going to be a fast travel jump away a lot of the time which is adding load screens to every big fight. And most importantly for me, the game feels fundamentally different when I’m inside the power armor. It’s a cool concept, but I’d rather be more mobile and human-sized. I like flexibility and that feels better to play for me.

It’s the same reason why I don’t use VATS very much, because it’s slow to execute your commands and it eats away at the same resource bar that you use for sprinting. It’s cool to watch, and if it had a separate cooldown timer and completed its queue faster I’d use it a lot more. But I can’t help wishing that the jet-activated bullet time, that’s currently in the game today, could be another way to use those points. I’m still in control of aiming in that mode instead of relying on dice rolls to hit body parts. Which, while we’re talking about them, is another cool bit of potential that could lead to interesting gameplay. Dragon’s Dogma style monsters that require more careful shots on limbs or weak spots—aided by stuff like bullet time—could be really fun. The most the game does with it now are shooting the soft parts of mirelurks and blowing the legs off some enemies so they’re immobile. Imagine using the nanosuit’s high jump to get above an enemy with a weak point on their back or something. Or shooting off buckles on a mutant behemoth’s armor to expose it for more damage.

These suggestions tie closely to the gathering part of the core gameplay, so let’s move onto that. In the previous video I drew attention to what I thought was a cool feature: the perk books you could find in addition to bobbleheads. These things are far more rewarding than their Skyrim counterparts. The removal of skills from leveling up is more like a relocation to me now. They took, say, the 100 points you could have invested in a skill and condensed them into 5 to 10 books, and then placed them in the world as fun rewards. And they succeed in being great to find. I was always happy when I found one of these.

There are a couple of problems here and, admittedly, they’re all minor ones. But when you combine them all it gets worse. First off, I don’t think this needed to be an all-or-nothing change. Leveling up in Fallout 4 is markedly less exciting than in Fallout 3 because there are no skill points, only perks. Skills could have still existed as another avenue of progression, without stripping away what could have still been significant boosts from these books. On the flip side, it’s not good that some players may not find important books—especially the stealth ones that increase your sneaking effectiveness—if they’re trying to play a certain way. Having both could have alleviated this problem. Another example being finding a bunch of melee books when you want damage boosts for guns. Or energy weapons. You get the idea.

I really, really like how much character progression is tied to exploration and gathering, but the usual leveling system needed more. But then again, even compared to Skyrim, this exploration-based system still comes up short. Because, although I just said the skill books and bobbleheads are more substantial, Skyrim had a lot more chances to find cool loot. It wasn’t tied to hoping a legendary enemy spawned: you could find enchanted items in chests and the like. I know it doesn’t make as much sense in Fallout, but the amount of “cool stuff” you find is far lower in one of these games.

That’s not even the biggest difference though, because Skyrim has the Words of Power.

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You find and collect these words that function as their own shout ability that’s separate from what kind of character you play. So even if you don’t use magic, these options are there for you. It’s not a perfect system, but it does give extra rewards and a sense of excitement when you reach the end of a lot of dungeons in that game. It doubles up functionality like that: more player options, AND more rewards for playing.

Finally let’s get to that then. How to realize the potential in the core of Fallout 4. It doesn’t have to be a nanosuit or those specific abilities, just something more. Something the player can build on and gain extra combat options from—because the current, mostly number buffing perks in the game sure don’t do the job.

There are multiple ways this could have been in the game. For one closest to the nanosuit idea, the vault suit you get in 111 could have been extra sturdy to withstand being cryogenically frozen, and one of the researchers in that vault could have worked on upgrading it when they saw how bad life on the surface was after the bombs fell.

Or: the Pip-Boy you find could have been a special Stealth-Boy instead. Then using stealth in front of enemies and they act like you mysteriously vanished could finally be explained. You could find technology to upgrade this thing—maybe some special Institute tech, or something like that. It could be integrated with more VATS options too.

The best one in my mind is to make it so the Institute now has many bases around the Commonwealth that you can find, clear out, and then loot. There could be “augmentations” inside that, since Synths are meant to be indistinguishable from humans, the player could use to upgrade themselves. It could even be explained that the player is unique in their ability to use these, because they share the same DNA as Shaun… the one they used to create the most advanced line of Synths and subsequently these augmentations. It fits really nicely.

Now you have Exploration as it functions now, only with new Institute bases that also show they have more influence in the Commonwealth. Combat options are dramatically increased with these new abilities, which also rewards the player for wanting to go out looking for them. Add skills back into the game and you have a more engaging leveling system without losing out on skill books and bobbleheads. And fighting in the already well designed combat arenas in the game is now way more enjoyable with the mobility augment powers.

Those are my armchair developer ideas in any case. They’re not amazing but, at the very least, I hope that they can function as a demonstration of how lacking the current version of the game is compared to anything like this.

Unfortunately we’re still not finished looking at the gameplay in Fallout 4, because there are a bunch of balance problems tied to what we just went through. The difficulty slider is the biggest culprit and sits in the middle of all of this. It creates so much variance that the cycle I described just a minute ago—about each encounter with enemies being a test to kill them all while using few enough resources that you end up with more ammo and stimpacks after you loot them all—may have sounded like I was describing a different game… if you played it on Easy. Or even Normal in the early parts of Fallout 4.

The difficulty slider makes you receive more damage, and makes the enemies have way more health. This method can be used to great effect in some games, but with mostly hitscan weapons and resource based health regen, Fallout 4 benefits very little from this implementation of difficulty options.

Simply put, on Very Hard many enemies become bullet sponges that are such an ordeal to kill that it becomes boring. But even on Normal, if you level up enough without investing heavily in combat perks, you will hit this same problem. Hopefully with enough stockpiled ammunition that you don’t run into the situation that I hit a lot when playing on Survival or Very Hard from the beginning: enemies taking more bullets than I could find.

There’s a wonderful balance to be found here which is related to that cycle. Players should want to carry around multiple weapons and feel happy about collecting ammo for each of them. Not only does it add some variety to what weapon you’re using, but it rewards the player for being prepared and choosing to carry options.

But this balance is broken. And I really, earnestly believe that Bethesda’s intention here is for players to constantly fiddle with the difficulty slider to self-adjust as they play. So when they reach a level and encounter bullet sponges, they go down from Very Hard to Normal. Then when they spend some more perks on damage boosts they bump it back to Very Hard. This is a terribly lazy system and is like they washed their hands of any obligation to balance the difficulties in their game.

It’s so bad that I wish there were two perk trees: one for combat, and another for social and crafting. You get a perk in each tree for each level, so you can keep up with all of the damage buffs you need to get to match the monsters leveling in the world, but still have the flexibility to take more of the fun perks. Or those that don’t have any influence on combat whatsoever.

The trouble is that I really do like the different versions of enemies that unlock as you level up. Deathclaws, into Albino Deathclaws, into Matriarchs. Or normal ghouls into glowing ones, into the bloated fungus types with staggering amounts of health. It’s one of the better instances of reskinned enemies since the changes feel a little more substantial. But when a non-legendary enemy can take multiple magazines worth of bullets to kill—and there are more than one of those enemies in each fight—then combat becomes more of a chore.

Legendary enemies are also a big part of this problem because they’re exciting to find and kill because of the special loot that they drop. It’s also a built-in solution to the bullet sponge issue because these enemies actually make sense to be really powerful, so the challenge of a big struggle with a demand for a lot of damage output can still be in the game. But in my experience some of these legendary enemies would sometimes have LESS health than the normal enemies around them, probably because of the way some enemies scale at high levels. Or, you know, Bethesda’s Bug.

These legendary encounters also spawn more often on Very Hard which, for me and I imagine many others, was reason enough to stay on that difficulty. This equipment is initially quite powerful and is another way the game can reward exploration—you want to see if there’s a legendary enemy with a legendary reward in a new place on the horizon. But then you’re stuck on the bullet sponge shitfest that comes with Very Hard.

I hate to repeat myself but these problems really show how inexperienced Bethesda are at making a real combat system, and that the moderate success they reached with Fallout 4 really is an achievement. And I’d love to be confident enough in their ability to learn—when they clearly are capable of improving, you can look at the animation quality in this game compared to Fallout 3 and Skyrim for proof of that—but then they went and added Survival mode to Fallout 4 in a patch. Which is all about gameplay changes, combat especially. And it is one of the worst game modes I have ever seen added to a game. It proves how they either know very little about this sort of thing, or that they simply don’t care. Maybe this was some haphazard attempt at appeasing fans of the series that wanted a hardcore mode like New Vegas did, and they whipped it up real fast to win internet brownie points for a free bit of DLC. And they did earn those points—even with me. I always try to think the best of people and their intentions, and if you view the problems in this mode as a symptom of inexperience instead of apathy, then it’s cool that they tried. Many other developers wouldn’t have.

And I’m genuinely inclined to believe this version. Because even though Survival Mode is as awkward as putting clothes on a dog, they’re still… cool clothes. They don’t suit this game AT ALL without additional changes, but the ideas here are sound.

The minor differences are the need to eat, drink, and sleep. Then there are new diseases to try to avoid. But the really big changes come from increased damage for both you and enemies and that you need to find a place to sleep in order to save the game. No more save anywhere. No more quick save and quick load.

There’s also this really cool idea with the Adrenaline System: the more kills you get, the more damage you can pump out. But if you sleep—and therefore save—you lose some of that boost. So hey that’s a neat idea of risk vs reward. You might debate stopping to save so you can keep that extra damage. Great idea.

But underneath all of this, the game is still Fallout 4. Enemies still have assloads of health like they do on Very Hard, so that it became incredibly frustrating to fight anything in the starting area. Some raiders and even bloatflies took multiple shots to kill—or even entire magazines—while only getting nicked a few times from their hits meant I died. Which would be fine if you could reliably dodge enemy fire… but they use hitscan weapons so you can’t.

Even enemies that are melee only are a gigantic pain, because they have massive health pools to accommodate that limitation. I just about ran out of ammunition fighting the mirelurks by kiting them around Sanctuary. And the reason I forced myself to fight them was because I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for opportunities in this starting area to get experience points to progress through survival mode.

It really sucks because I love the idea of this difficulty setting. Having to play really carefully and methodically clear out a lot of areas—both for experience and because resources are far more precious. But the killing blow for both my character and my interest in this mode came after a few hours, when I WAS playing really carefully and still died. I got into a fight with a raider to the east of Vault 111 and, as I used my Pip-Boy, I noticed a warning icon flash that a molotov cocktail was just thrown my way.

When I lowered my Pip-Boy, it hit me before I had any chance to move, and killed me instantly. I reload back at the bed and lost about 30 minutes of progress. It was enough to make me realize how the mode was flawed.

I wonder, like I do about everything in life, if it’s about Dark Souls. Tying the opportunity to save to beds and sleeping bags placed in the world sounds like the bonfire system. Having to decide to risk pushing on or to turn back and play it safe with a new save… sounds like the bonfire system. But Dark Souls tries so hard to make it so whenever you take damage it’s your fault, not something that’s unavoidable or even an expected part of the game like Fallout 4.

It’s even more of a shame because I’ve read that after you level up enough this mode becomes more enjoyable. The changes to combat damage settle to something close to Very Hard—it’s that difficulty is frontloaded with a struggle at the beginning, sort of like a few of the difficulty mods I’ve tried for Skyrim, funnily enough. But even with this, Survival Mode is broken in my mind because it doesn’t account for a huge part of the game: gathering loot from cleared areas.

Fighting enemies again can be enjoyable. But going through chests and containers and deciding what loot to take and leave is never fun the second time. It’s a chore and it’s something you do so much in the game. And if you die and are setback by even one area, that’s enough to make me want to quit for a while. And each time a player quits there’s a chance they won’t come back to the game. So the best course of action is to return to a bed at one of your bases to unload your loot and save frequently—which means why bother having the limitation at all in my opinion.

Worse than all of this, however, is that the game is still buggy! I only played Survival Mode for a few hours and it crashed on me twice. Once after I slept and saved which was no big deal. But the other time was after I had killed a few packs of enemies, looted those areas, and was fighting a bloatfly before heading back to save. And losing all that progress, because of an unstable game coupled with a strict checkpoint save system, is one of the most thoughtless combinations I think I’ve ever seen in a game.

Not to mention that some players might have enjoyed having the survival elements—hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and diseases—without all of the extras bundled with it. If nothing else I think the implementation of this mode proves how Bethesda can have wonderful intentions sometimes, but then trip and impale themselves when they try to make them a reality.

And with that I think we’re finally finished with gameplay, and have dipped our toes into the new stuff that’s been added to Fallout 4. We’re going to return to the story and the RPG side in the base game in the final section of the video. But now it’s finally time to get to the big DLC packs. Far Harbor is up next. Then we’ll take a trip to Nuka World.

 

DLC – Far Harbor

So stupidly contradictory statements about games are becoming something of a trademark of mine at this point, but sometimes they’re the most direct way to say something. In this case, it’s that Far Harbor and Nuka World feel like a string of missed opportunities. They have stories with so much untapped potential that I’m almost angry by how great they could have been. And yet, the story in the base game of Fallout 4 is so abysmal, that I can also say that this DLC is a huge improvement. It has the best writing in the entire game by a significant margin.

Now I have a lot to say about both of these DLC packs and most of it is about specific points in the story, the characters, and the quests. But some are more general remarks that may not make sense until I’ve finished going through both of them. Remarks such as: it would have made so much more sense if they released Nuka World first, and Far Harbor second. And that a huge feature in Nuka World would have been a much better fit if it had been included in the game at launch. There are a few more things like this that I want to say, so please try to keep that in mind if you think I’m glossing over something. It might just be that I’m saving it for later in the video.

Gameplay is a lot easier to deal with though because very little of it is new. So let’s quickly address that: Far Harbor and Nuka World take place in their own mini-maps separate from the Commonwealth. Far Harbor is impressively large and has quite a lot of locations to fit in that same cycle: explore the island, clear a nest of enemies, and then loot. Nuka World’s map is a lot more concentrated in a central location: the titular theme park. There are other locations on the map around it, like they’re caught in some sort of orbit, but it’s a lot more sparse because of this high density in the middle.

The only other addition is enemy variety. Nuka World is only okay in this category. It’s less creative—with swarms of insects, another sort of deathclaw monster, and yet another enemy that can burrow. Once you notice that, by the way, it’s hard to ignore how many enemies do that burrowing thing. I used to think the game had a good amount of different enemy types until I realized they were mostly humanoids, reskinned humanoids, slightly larger humanoids, and then a series of radioactive monsters that can burrow and then ambush you.

Far Harbor, on the other hand, feels like it has its own ecosystem. They have the amphibious monsters that remind me of the geckos from New Vegas, but the way some of them wait in that same old ambush is a lot more amusing—they’re pretending to be a type of plant you can harvest.

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There are also the larger praying mantis monsters—at least that’s what they look like to me. And, my personal favorite, the hermit crab. Which is a fantastic combination of the scavenging shell idea and the gigantism brought on by radiation. I wish there was more of this type of creativity in the series instead of simply making an animal grow two heads. Or only be bigger.

Most of these new monsters lurk in the fog that covers most of the island in Far Harbor. It’s a major plot point and one we’ll get to, but first we have to rewind to the player’s journey to this place. You get here by boat, and it’s not something you can simply stumble upon. There’s a new main quest that sends you here and away from the Commonwealth. You’re here searching for someone’s missing daughter. A girl named Kasumi Nakano.

There are two ways to begin this quest: either you find the Nakano residence yourself while exploring and accept the quest from them. Or, after saving Nick in the main story and reaching a high enough level, the detective agency in Diamond City will reach out to you over the radio for you to take the missing person’s case. Which gets Nick involved before sending you to the Nakano residence anyway. Nick has a fairly substantial role to play during the DLC so it’s not a bad idea to bring him along for the whole thing. That’s what I did on my first playthrough.

On my second playthrough however, I started a new character. And I confirmed that you can skip the detective agency part. More importantly, even if you do save Nick first, you can actually receive and accept this quest… before finding Shaun. Before finding the Institute. You can actually agree to the urgent task of beginning a wholely new, fresh search for SOMEONE ELSE’S MISSING CHILD, BEFORE YOU EVEN FINISH FINDING YOUR OWN.

This section with Kasumi’s parents is pretty terrible. The voice acting wasn’t very convincing for me and it suffers more than most conversations from all of the circular options given to the player—the kind of dialogue choices that have the characters repeating the same lines and information over and over. Whoever voiced Kasumi herself did a far better job, and her audio logs you find throughout the house sound far more human than the conversation with her parents.

Which is doubly ironic, because the main hook of this story is that Kasumi thinks she’s a Synth. She believes that the Institute made her kill the real Kasumi and then replace her—that the same memory erasure that triggers on every Synth has caused her to forget doing it all, but that she’s a Synth nonetheless. She cites strange dreams of something that sounds like the Institute, and a feeling that she never really belonged in the house, as evidence. It just so happens that she’s also a natural at fixing technology and, with a newly repaired radio, has made contact with a Synth refuge in Far Harbor. This is like a more isolated version of the Railroad—a haven for escaped Synths. A place that also suspects Kasumi is one of them and has invited her to join them.

I want to repeat my spoiler warning here because it’s been about an hour since the start of the video. I’m going to spoil all the plot points in Far Harbor and a big one is coming up right now. Because the situation with Kasumi is a little more complex than this, and the game surprisingly enough gives you some options here at the start.

First off, Kasumi’s grandfather recently died. The impression I get is that she was closer to him than her parents. Those parents also vehemently refuse to consider that Kasumi might be a Synth. Which makes a hell of a lot of sense because why would the Institute want to kill and replace a girl who lives in the middle of nowhere? Now this could come back to the more general plot holes in the base game of Fallout 4—or, more realistically, the plot Grand Canyon that is the Institute’s motivations—but fortunately for us, I sided with the Institute on my second playthrough for exactly this reason. I did everything Shaun wanted me to do. Then I took over when he died. Because I was absolutely certain that the game would not have planned for this. If I’m the leader of the Institute, I can simply skip going to Far Harbor and just go back to my home base and ask someone if they killed and replaced a girl named Kasumi right? The Institute would have records of that. I’m in charge. And I knew that there was no way Bethesda would have been thoughtful enough to include a way to ask that. It would be yet another thing that should REALLY be possible in the game, just like dozens of other things like it that I went over in the previous video.

I teleported into the Institute, feeling all smug that I found another discrepancy, and then had to pick my jaw off my desk when there actually was a new NPC that I could ask. They had thought to include it. There was actually an option.

In my defense he bugged out so hard during this conversation that he randomly became headless, so…

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Alright, credit to Bethesda where it’s due. However this does lead to a much bigger problem. The Institute says that, if Kasumi is a Synth, that she isn’t one of theirs. You can go one step further than that though and confirm it for yourself later. Every Synth in the game, when killed, drops a Synth component. There are no exceptions for this that I’ve encountered. Even Danse, when you don’t even do any of the Brotherhood quests, still drops a component when you do the Institute line and kill him during the assault for control of Liberty Prime. It begs the question why, if he’s a Synth, the Institute didn’t assume control of him for this attack but let’s not waste time digging more holes in that Plot Canyon. He drops a Synth component when you kill him.

So does everyone else at the Synth refuge in Far Harbor if you kill them all. Except for Kasumi. She’s the only one that doesn’t drop one. These facts are enough to conclude that she’s really human. The lack of a Synth component may be a Bethesda’s Bug, but that the Institute confirms they know nothing about this girl seals the deal for me on whether she’s a Synth. Kasumi is human.

This is, unfortunately, a massive problem in the story. But first let’s review the situation in Far Harbor.

This DLC is like a miniature version of the main plot in the base game. There’s a location that multiple factions are fighting over. These factions also mirror those in the Commonwealth. The people at Far Harbor, who have lived on the island for generations and want to be left in something close to peace, are most similar to the Minutemen who want to band together and defend the ordinary people. The Children of Atom are just as fanatical, and more than a bit crazy about their ideology, as the Brotherhood of Steel. Then there’s Acadia which initially feels like a much more competent version of the Railroad, but also has a lot of the Institute mixed in… which is by far away, by light years, the most interesting detail in the DLC. It’s also the biggest missed opportunity that we’ll be seeing shortly.

Captain Avery is the leader of Far Harbor but she’s more of a guiding voice rather than a strict leader. Conversely, Confessor Tektus is a lot more firm in his ruling role over the Children of Atom on the island. And DiMA, the Synth leader at Acadia, is somewhere in the middle—he is quite clearly the boss but is more open to discussion with his followers than Tektus.

The conflict on the island has arisen like this:

The fog in Far Harbor is like a supernatural force. You’re told that it gains and loses strength over time, like the moon goes through phases. Some years it stays powerful and causes more of the island’s monsters to attack settlements on the island. Other years it recedes to barely an issue at all and the people can build and live somewhat in peace.

You arrive at a point in time when the fog is at its most dangerous. And it’s been that way for longer than it should have. Some of the people under Avery believe that it’s the fault of the Children of Atom—their entire belief system revolves around worshipping radiation. They believe their goal in life is to Divide in that radiation, and somehow create multiple universes of existence when their body splits under the force. It makes sense to some of the people in Far Harbor that the Children have found a way to stir up the fog so that there’s more radiation for them to revel in—which was the reason they came to the island in the first place. They’ve even set up their home in a nuclear submarine base for constant exposure to radiation.

Tensions are running so high between these groups that, shortly before you arrived, a missionary from the Children of Atom was shot dead when they went to Far Harbor to try to convert some of the people to their faith.

So you have the Children possibly making the conditions on the island worse for the people who have been there for all of their lives. The people of Far Harbor huddled, close to death, in their last settlement on the island that’s safe from the monsters. And DiMA in Acadia elsewhere on the island trying to find a way to maintain peace between these groups so that everyone can continue to co-exist. His reasons for this aren’t entirely selfless however, because he wants to safeguard his own home full of Synths that were liberated from the Institute.

So this is where you come in. You get to pick sides and ultimately decide the fate of these groups on the island. Favor one with your help. Favor all of them and try to reach a peace agreement. Favor two and wipe one of them out. Or wipe all of them out. There are more decisions and player involvement in quests this time around. It’s one of the best things that the DLC does.

Before getting to that though, let’s return to Kasumi. When you arrive at Acadia, you have a long talk with DiMA and some of his people. There are a lot of details here to go through but the most important one for now is that they claim to know a way to tell if someone is a Synth. There’s DiMA himself, his assistant Faraday, and a freed courser agent named Chase. While talking to these three, it’s clear that they must have some method of identifying Synths in order to invite them to Acadia. But they are very vague on details. And I’m not sure what exactly Bethesda is thinking here.

Because they’re adamant that Kasumi is a Synth just like everyone else in Acadia. But she isn’t one. It gets even more complicated because DiMA heavily hints that YOU are a Synth too, which the player can choose to admit their suspicion of that possibility all along, but they won’t confirm it for you through whatever method they claim to have.

Either way this is terrible. Acadia has too many Synths living in Sanctuary for them to have just gotten lucky with finding them. But the way DiMA presents his arguments is more like a suggestion that it doesn’t matter who is or isn’t a Synth. That anyone could be one so therefore EVERYONE is one. So then why bother having the haven set up specifically for Synths then? Why waste resources taking care of Kasumi when she isn’t a Synth. Why propose that YOU might be one when that’s impossible.

The player character is not a Synth. This isn’t up for any level of debate outside of Bethesda’s Bug. Shaun’s actions and decisions—which directly resulted in you being freed from Vault 111 to find him to begin with—do not make any sense if you’re a Synth. Shaun believed that Synths had no free will. He treated them as property. He may have had some hope that eventually Synths could reach parity with humans, but even this is more of a plot hole than anything else. His sudden change of heart at the end of the game, with his orders to reprogram the younger Synth version of himself to believe he’s Pinocchio, is one of the biggest inconsistencies in the base game. You could argue that he had a change of heart on his death bed… it’s a stretch but it almost works. But he names YOU as his successor to take over the ENTIRE Institute long before this, while giving you tasks to reclaim Synths and treat them as nothing more than really advanced computer hardware. He wouldn’t put a Synth in charge like that.

DiMA’s proposal is that you’ve been a Synth right from the start. That your first memory from before the war really is your first memory—that’s when your Synth memories begin to give you the illusion of a lived life. What pisses me off is that making the player a Synth solves so many issues in the main story, if that fact was acknowledged and used. It could have led to some incredible moments when you reach the Institute that I’ll talk about later.

But no, you’re human. And the reason Acadia is vague on how they can identify Synths is because Bethesda wanted this to be a tease of a question: a “What if I AM a Synth?” DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN. They thought the ambiguity was cool or interesting or something, and sacrificed a large piece of Acadia making sense in the process. In its current form, DiMA asking these questions, and insisting Kasumi is a Synth, proves that the whole place is fraudulent. Which admittedly does make some sense considering what happens next but I’m inclined to think this is a plot hole instead of being intentional.

Also, while we’re griping, you can’t tell Kasumi that you’re the leader of the Institute and KNOW that she’s not a Synth. The game won’t let you. The game will let you lead the Institute here to reclaim all of them for reprogramming, but it won’t let you tell Kasumi that you have evidence that she’s human, and she’s just a confused, grieving woman that’s searching for answers in the wake of her grandfather’s death.

The game won’t let you do this, because she has to give you a quest to investigate DiMA. She suspects that he’s up to no good—that he’s not quite the gracious benefactor that the other Synths believe him to be.

Despite my earlier comments, DiMA is the most interesting part of Far Harbor. He was built during the same prototype program that resulted in Nick—so, in a way, the two of them are brothers. Bringing Nick to Acadia results in some unique dialogue and this is pretty good. Especially since Nick doesn’t just blindly believe DiMA. There’s some debate and actual conversation about it, which really drives home how shit the companions are handled in the base game.

Nothing screams Quantity Over Quality than the broad selection of sidekicks you can choose in Fallout 4, that ultimately end up being reskinned versions of Dogmeat. Now I haven’t tried traveling with all of them for hours because even I have to draw the line somewhere and live my life instead, but the only ones that I thought had any effort put into them were Nick and Piper. And even these two have forgettable quests, barely any worthwhile conversations about events as they unfold—they never commented ever on Institute stuff when I traveled with them. Curie, another companion who ends up becoming a Synth herself if you travel with her for long enough, can end up providing some truly laughable scenarios.

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The Institute just ignores your Synth traveling companion during your quest to hunt down and retrieve escaped Synths.

It makes me wish for only a select few companions with properly fleshed out options and reactions to things. The worst of these is yet to come with Preston in Nuka World.

In Far Harbor though, Nick gets another chance to be a proper character—even if the conversations are still a little awkward with the terrible dialogue system. Other characters in the DLC have had similar treatment, and the quests associated with them are elevated because of it. In terms of gameplay these are still the same as ever: here’s something for you to do or get. It involves going somewhere on the island and killing a bunch of things. Then fetch something back or return covered in blood to prove that you did the job.

What’s different is that many—not all, but enough—of the quest givers are actually people instead of mission dispensers. They have a background you can learn about. You can have conversations. There are speech checks that finally reveal new, somewhat interesting information about them. The Mariner in Far Harbor wants your help reinforcing the defenses against the fog monsters, but you can speak to her about her home, her motivations, and discover that she’s slowly dying of some illness. This improvement of the harbor’s walls is her final project before her death.

Other characters in Far Harbor are similarly fleshed out. They also speak to each other. And ABOUT each other. The quests they give out have a bit more detail to them than in the base game and, by doing them, you are earning the respect and trust of these people. Which actually matters at the end.

The same can be said about the Children of Atom, but to a lesser degree. Some of the people who live in the irradiated submarine base aren’t quite as crazy as you may first assume—although some of them are even more insane than you’d expect. When you speak to these people, things aren’t so black and white. And it feels like some actual thought went into how these communities would work and the interactions citizens would have with each other. The standout character here being someone who didn’t believe in the cause whatsoever, but joined for the sense of safety and community alone.

It’s a shame then that the final choices you make on the island aren’t better developed. Or, to put it another way, choices that actually require thought. The decisions you make at the end have answers that are too obvious. But we’ll get to that.

Returning to Kasumi and Nick: you’re given the task of making sure that DiMA is who he says he is, and that his aspirations for peace on the island are legitimate. You can hack your way to finding out, or eavesdrop on a conversation by Acadia’s leaders, or directly confront DiMA about it. Minor choices but welcome ones. From here you’re given the quest to infiltrate the Children of Atom in order to retrieve some of DiMA’s memories that are stored in terminals deep in the base.

As an older Synth model, DiMA has accumulated more memories than he can hold throughout his life. Some of them are moved to storage devices. I think he used to inhabit the submarine base before the Children of Atom arrived to the island and so some of those memories are still there. Important ones that he and Faraday believe could be useful in orchestrating peace on the island. This memory problem is also something Nick suffers from. When the two of them got out of the Institute, DiMA retained some of his memories. Nick did not. Which is why Nick doesn’t recognize him.

So this quest serves two purposes: it forces you to encounter the Children of Atom if you haven’t already. And it’s the next step in Far Harbor’s main quest line—and we’re already surprisingly close to the end, depending on how many of those side quests you do for each faction.

In order to peacefully enter the submarine base, you have to pretend to be interested in their religion. Before that though, there’s a scripted event when you arrive here that shows you what kind of people they are. Two of the disciples are returning home and are being denied entry until they prove their commitment to the cause. This is how that situation ends:

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Try to remember that for later.

For you, the same guy who is pleased that one of his people just murdered another one in front of him says you have to pass a test to gain entry. You have to travel to a nearby radioactive spring, drink the water, and then report back on what kind of vision you have.

So you go and do that. Because why not.

The following problem isn’t something unique to Bethesda. It’s something I’m noticing as an epidemic in storytelling across movies, video games, and even some books. It goes like this: have you ever gotten to some shocking detail in a story and thought “Oh wow! That’s really interesting! I wonder how they’re going to explain THAT!”

It’s such a cool detail or a twist. Something that shines a new light on the story, and you can’t help wonder how it fits together with everything else you already know. And the ultimate answer is that they won’t bother explaining it. There is no answer. It was put in for shock value. Or a cheap way of grabbing your attention. I can’t imagine the balls on some of these writers. It makes me anxious just thinking about it. Because, in reality, the writer is along for the ride with you in that moment. When they wrote that part, they were just as amazed as you were. Only they were thinking “Oh wow! That’s really interesting! I wonder how I’M going to explain that!”

In Far Harbor, there are two major instances of this. The first is the supernatural fog. It’s never explained. It has no source. I thought it would be tied to a huge bunker of missiles underneath the submarine base—something the Children of Atom had tapped into and were releasing more waste or leaking missiles or something to create more fog. But no the answer is just… this island has fog. The end.

This would be acceptable—some places do have peculiar weather and foggy island settings aren’t unheard of. But the game specifically drew attention to how special the fog was, and heavily hinted there was some nefarious reason that it was creating such lethal monsters.

It’s never explained.

Likewise, the vision you have here never makes sense. Unless the game actually believes that the Children of Atom have a legitimate religion on their blistered hands here.

You’re visited by the Mother of the Fog—which is sort of like pouring vinegar into the wound of the last problem, isn’t it? She appears and guides you through the island to a place where you can claim her idol. Then she vanishes. You cannot interact with her in any way. She is mysteriously immune to all of your weapons. When you take this idol back to the Children, they act like your vision wasn’t meant to be surprising, but that you saw the Mother Herself(!) is a big deal. Some people inside the base are envious of the importance of your vision.

And this is never explained. It can’t be a hallucination because it leads you too perfectly to the right place to prove how important you can be to the Children—the information you have from this vision is enough to impress Confessor Tektus himself, and makes him trust you far more than he should. So the only conclusion I can come to is that Bethesda really does intend for this to be a supernatural entity that you encountered here. One that favors the Children. And one that sits idle no matter what choices you make… and something that they don’t intend to elaborate on. Because screw you.

Once accepted by the Children you can run some quests to earn more of their trust. These aren’t as substantial as the ones in Far Harbor but they are generally better than the base game: investigate the faith of someone, track down a traitor, stuff like that. I think I’ve shown enough of them now to say that I think these are good but they’re still not great. They’re an improvement because they aren’t totally mindless fetch quests, and the results of them build to something later, but they’re not amazing.

It’s still important to acknowledge that Bethesda did a better job here though. If I was going to speculate on why it wasn’t done even better, it would be that despite the size of Far Harbor much of it feels rushed. To return to the idea of picking stories out of a hat that I spoke about earlier, it’s like they did that again but thought about it for a few hours instead of just going with that surface description. More time and exploring more creative ways to develop these quests would have been even better.

Let’s pause the main story and go to the only other significant side quest in Far Harbor as a perfect example of what I just said. There’s a vault on this island. Number 118. There’s been a murder here and a robot has been sent out to find you, a detective, to solve the case. On my first playthrough I actually didn’t meet this robot and stumbled onto the vault myself. It was a cool surprise because it’s hidden underneath a ruined hotel. On my second playthrough I let the robot guide me there.

So here’s the From-A-Hat description of this quest: “There’s a Vault Full of Robobrains! One of them has been Murdered!”

Then the developers sat around and thought for a while. And settled on a really plain, boring motive—it’s just about money. These robobrains are pre-war people that allowed themselves to be transplanted into these bodies to live on. And they have continued doing so in the vault for over 200 years until the whole war thing “blows over”.

Again, like the previous video, 200 years is a lot longer than Bethesda thinks. This isn’t really plausible. The person who is murdered was done so because another citizen in the vault found out they had cheated them out of some money 200 years earlier when the vault was constructed. Why would they still care two centuries later? Why did this take two centuries to come out? Why write something that doesn’t make sense like this when it’s not even interesting?

There are also some unbelievably abrupt changes in tone that go on down here. Clearly the idea was for this quest to be one of those melodramatic, the-butler-did-it, stories with an impassioned, suave detective. So when you take that role, sometimes your character acts like they normally do. But then for some lines of dialogue the delivery is suddenly REALLY, REALLY different. This would be fine if the whole quest was delivered in this style, but it’s only some dialogue options. It’s like they ran out of time to record some lines with the voice actor doing the performance. Seriously listen to these examples. You’ll see what I mean.

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This quest could have been great. The vaults in the other games are usually so interesting that it had my attention. And there are multiple robo-brain characters to find and speak to, each marked hilariously with some sort of decoration—a hat, or a bowtie, or a painter’s apron—so you can tell them apart. But that funny detail is at the heart of the problem here, because apparently those accessories aren’t just for the benefit of the player to tell them apart. This was the only way the people in Vault 118 could tell who was who for 200 years.

The twist in the murder mystery is that, Ezra Parker, the man who was murdered, is actually the murderer. He killed Julianna, a woman in the vault who only just discovered he embezzled her money. He killed her when she confronted him about it and then just swapped their accessories for everyone to think he was Julianna, and that it was Ezra that died. The voices the robobrains create are synthesized by design of course—brains can’t speak, the computer bodies do it for them.

Because no one could confirm that it was Ezra and just assumed it was because of his fashion accessory, that means there really was no way for them to tell who’s who. Which is really stupid but now I view it as a way they could have made this quest infinitely more interesting and wacky. If the two centuries were used as a feature in the story, instead of something to be hand-waved and ignored, it could have been hilarious if the robobrains had been switching identities like this for decades and decades. Two people decide to switch places for fun. Then another impersonates someone else. The accessories get mixed up. Two centuries later it could have been this gigantic tangled web of lies and deceit that comes out when someone is murdered, and it isn’t even who the murderer thought they were! Some people could have forgotten who they were originally, and the quest could have involved repairing some of the vault’s computers or something to verify everyone’s identity, with potentially funny results.

Instead you confront the real Ezra. You can pressure him for money or have him killed. That’s all. Only a little bit of thought went into tapping the potential of this idea they pulled from a hat.

Which unfortunately can also be said about Far Harbor’s conclusion. Returning to the submarine base, you have to fight your way through some of the remnant security bots guarding the computers that store DiMA’s memories. I must have missed the reason that explained why these security measures are still active even though DiMA once lived in this place.

When you get here, you use a program to enter the computer and have to beat some hacking mini-game to unlock the memories. I have a feeling this may surprise some people watching who have played Far Harbor, because this gameplay mode is admittedly sort of shit, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected after loading into this. I just stared at the screen, did a heavy sigh, and thought I was going to hate it. And ended up having a fun time jumping around blocks and finding “data” to use to construct bridges and defenses for my little computer bugs.

I’d go as far as saying that, if this feature was given some more depth, I would prefer it over the current hacking mini-game used in the series. It would have to be reserved for special terminals only—or, maybe, if you hack one terminal in a building then you unlock all of them via this method. Because it would be exhausting to have to do something like this for what must be over a hundred computers in the game. But if Bethesda could speed this up a bit—especially when you’re waiting for your bug buddies to scurry back home—and find a way to reduce the load time going into the computer, then I’d be happy to see this become a staple.

I think we could agree it’s more interesting than picking the right word from a list, at least. Especially after how many times you’ve probably done it now over these games.

Anyway there are five of these stages to get through, and you unlock one of DiMA’s memories for each one you complete. Two of these are inconsequential for the larger story of Far Harbor—one reveals the location of some special armor on the island, and the other is confirmation for Nick that DiMA really is who he says he is. The memory is when they escaped the Institute together and Nick went rogue. This was a painful memory for DiMA so he had it removed and stored on this computer.

And that’s something that’s crucial to understand here. DiMA only SUSPECTED or HOPED that these memories would provide options to find peace on the island, or at least prevent dangerous information from falling into the wrong hands. He didn’t actually know what was in the memories because, obviously, they were removed. He doesn’t remember them.

So the other three, far more important memories you uncover, are secrets and regrets that end up being more than uncomfortable for DiMA to learn.

You have options here. To return to DiMA immediately and then work together to verify his memories. Or you can skip that part and immediately collect all of the information yourself, and then either act on it or confront him.

These three memories are:

    1. The activation code for the nuclear submarine in the Children of Atom’s home.
    2. The existence of a killswitch that will deactivate an array of fog condensers around Far Harbor, allowing the monsters to attack in full force.
    3. And lastly, and far more importantly, that DiMA had someone killed in Far Harbor a long time ago, and replaced with one of his Synth followers so he could influence the people there to be sympathetic to his cause.

This last one functions just like the Institute works. Just like Kasumi suspected about herself. The person is killed, and the Synth that replaces them wouldn’t know they were a copy. The person in Far Harbor ends up being Captain Avery, the leader and first person you met when you arrived. It’s been many years and she doesn’t know that she’s a Synth.

You verify these memories by locating the separate codes from places around the island—once again entering the travel, kill, and loot phases—and uncovering DiMA’s secret medical facility where the Synth was repurposed. It’s also where the real Captain Avery was buried. Armed with all of this information, you return to DiMA and have the final series of choices left to make that end the DLC.

So this is where things get complicated for the video. I think all of this, and the decisions that follow, could have been handled way better than they currently exist. However, these revelations and the subsequent decisions are still the best part of the DLC. This is exactly the sort of thing that Fallout 4 was missing. It’s great to see Bethesda even attempt something like this, and I view it as a much tighter, far better written version than the story in the base game.

DiMA reacts like a genuinely disgusted person. Disgusted with himself. He mourns the death of Captain Avery but also views the Synth he used to replace her as equally murdered. He laments that his past self was so conniving to have the codes that could destroy both groups on the island, too. His reaction is very interesting and makes a lot of sense, and the dialogue options here matter a lot more than in other conversations.

There’s also a subtle twist when DiMA reveals that, despite being horrified with these memories, that he’s still the same person that he always was—someone who schemes and makes sure they have contingency plans to protect himself and his people. Because he immediately uses these memories as inspiration to solve the current dispute on the island.

His proposal is to replace another person. To kill Confessor Tektus and have a Synth step in. One that’s programmed to be more diplomatic and seek peace with both Acadia and Far Harbor—therefore solving the conflict on the island in a “peaceful” way.

The player has many choices. They can accept or reject this plan. They can convince DiMA to go to Far Harbor and admit what he did—killing one of them and replacing them. You can also go to Far Harbor and tell them yourself instead. You can deactivate the town’s defenses and kill them all. And you can detonate the submarine around the Children of Atom instead of replacing Tektus.

There are also choices within these choices. If you convince DiMA to confess his crimes to Far Harbor, you can go with him and try to control the reaction of the people. DiMA is executed no matter what, but you can try to calm their anger so they don’t raid Acadia to kill the rest of the Synths after killing DiMA. Depending on how many quests you did for Far Harbor—all those characters and their problems I mentioned earlier—will determine whether or not they listen to you. If you’ve earned their trust—which is demonstrated in a fairly good scene when they recount all your good deeds—then they stop with DiMA’s death. If not, they reject your plea because they don’t care enough about you to listen.

If you choose to kill Confessor Tektus and replace him there’s something similar, albeit to a lesser degree. You have to lure him to a secluded location in order to kill him. If you did enough quests for the Children then he will come willingly and believe you. If you didn’t, then he’ll arrive here with armed guards because he doesn’t trust you. You can still talk him down though which isn’t possible with the Far Harbor questline.

If you haven’t played the game that might have been hard to follow. The important thing to know is that I don’t think there was a single quest in Fallout 4 that had a quarter of the decision making and branching outcomes that I just described. It’s a big step up and is worthy of a ton of praise. However, like your mom, there’s a big but…

In most of these cases there is a clear answer. There’s not much to debate. Destroying Far Harbor makes no sense. Not only do they have the strongest claim of ownership on the island… your boat and way back to the Commonwealth is sitting in their harbor. You have no way of knowing if it’ll survive the destruction of the town—which it does, of course, because you need a way to leave. But in terms of the game having a story and a decision for a character to make, deactivating the fog condensers isn’t a true option.

Likewise, the murder DiMA committed has very flimsy motivations. It seems like he jumped to this action very quickly and the game doesn’t go into enough detail on why he felt so compelled to murder someone at Far Harbor like he did. They were tolerating him well enough at least, so it seems like a forced act to make the story have a twist rather than something he should have done. This makes judging him quite easy and even Nick agrees that he should be punished for it, even if he doesn’t like that his brother is ultimately executed for confessing.

As for the Children of Atom—dying in a nuclear blast is what they want. And if we rewind to what I pointed out a little while ago–

<clip of the guy being shot>

–then it becomes clear that, not only are most of these people crazy, that they have very little regard for the lives of their own people, never mind that of outsiders. This death scene here doesn’t seem to surprise or rattle anyone, does it?

So even though there are two or three sympathetic people living in the submarine base, achieving division through the submarine’s detonation not only removes violent people from the island, it is also granting them the highest privilege of a death that they can imagine. When you bring the code to them, you can convince Tektus to willingly do it.

So even though there are options, they appear to me like there were the answers that Bethesda planned for the quests, and then they brainstormed some other alternatives just for the sake of them. That’s not awful but compared to New Vegas, it’s a pale comparison.

Finally then, let’s talk about the missed potential in these choices. Let’s talk about DiMA’s proposal to murder and replace Tektus. When DiMA embraces his heritage and, for the second time in his life, BECOMES the Institute that he tried so desperately hard to get away from.

Even just saying it like I did there, it’s pretty compelling right? It’s so interesting to me. I just wish that it could have happened to the PLAYER, instead of this character.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s make one change right at the start. Make it so you can’t receive the quest to search for Kasumi until you finish the main story in Fallout 4. This change will make sense in a second.

The rest of the DLC stays the same until you get near the end. The conflict between the Children and Far Harbor escalates a little bit, and it’s made clear to both you and Acadia that they’re on the brink of killing each other. This would occur when you return to DiMA after finding his hidden medical facility where he turned a Synth into Captain Avery.

At this point, instead of DiMA saying you should replace Tektus, the player has to mull it over and decide. The player has to choose one person on each side of the conflict to kill and replace in order to prevent all out war between these two factions. It would have to be made clear that any attempt at diplomacy has failed. This is the only option to prevent so many people from dying. The lives of two people versus many more on the island.

And suddenly YOU are the Institute. You’re conspiring from the shadows to try to keep the peace around you. You’re a murderer, but you have the best intentions. And maybe, if you choose the wrong people to replace, it doesn’t work. And you have to kill and replace one or two more. The player choice would matter a lot and it could succeed or fail. And there’s so much potential to be found in that decision.

If you’ve completed the main story before now, then the Institute has either been destroyed or you are in control of it. Either way, you have met and interacted with Shaun. You have either approved of his decisions, or judged him to be a monster along with the rest of the Institute. And here you are, some time later, given a whole new perspective on Shaun’s actions though these decisions. The player might find themselves reconsidering that judgement as they struggle to make the right decision—to make the best of a terrible situation, and to make the deaths worth it. Or, if they fail, they might see the futility of it and better understand the stress and struggle that Shaun went through with these decisions, even if they still do think he’s a monster. The player could also reject the whole thing and see the two sides destroy each other because of this inaction, proving that maybe the Institute may have had the right idea about some things at least. Their motivations would have to be cleaned up a bit but we’ll get to that later on.

Normally I get anxious when I suggest changes but I don’t feel that way about this one. This sort of thing in the DLC would have been an incredible moment for me. I know that for certain because the current way it works, with DiMA becoming the Institute, is already really good. It’s just so close—it needed that one last step. That one last level of commitment and thought about their ideas that Bethesda consistently fails to take in their stories and gameplay.

Lastly then, let’s fastforward for a moment. Let’s skip through Nuka World to the final scene in that game. You’ve reclaimed the theme park. You’ve appeased the raider gangs that inhabit the place. You’ve secured the power plant and restored electricity to the land. The lights fill up the night sky and fireworks appear, like some Mario Brothers celebration of your victory. You’re done the DLC. The last of Fallout 4’s content.

The order here is wrong. Your trip to Nuka World—a literal vacation spot that could be a break from Fallout 4’s story—should be first. Then you return to the Institute and Synth stuff. Far Harbor should be second, with this final reassessment of the game’s main themes and concepts. It would have tied it all back together. Not with fireworks in some foreign land that you barely care about, but with thinking about what you did to the people on this island. Or returning by boat to the Commonwealth to return Kasumi to her parents, with some fresh perspective on what the Institute did to this place.

The game let’s you see the family reunited. And, even though she is definitely not a Synth, you can still ruin this moment by telling her parents that she is one. Which, for some reason, Kasumi still believes is true.

I guess it can’t all be an improvement, right?

 

DLC – Nuka World

<Nuka World musical opening>

The opening to Nuka World has many similarities with Far Harbor. You receive a new radio signal to begin the quest. There’s a small staging area that leads to a vehicle sequence that’s uncharacteristically dramatic for Fallout 4. And it takes place in its own isolated location with only tenuous links back to the Commonwealth. There are many key differences though. The biggest of them is that the first part of this DLC is good.

I have to admit though that a lot of my enjoyment in the early parts of Nuka World is highly subjective. I really like theme parks. I really like Coca-Cola. And I really like Fallout New Vegas. This DLC is a stirred mess of all three of these. And that “mess” part isn’t quite so clear until you play it for a while…

To reach Nuka World you have to clear a transport center of Gunners, and then speak with a wounded man in front of a deactivated train line that leads to the theme park. I want to slow down and focus on this guy for a minute. His name is Harvey.

This guy is a slave kept by the raider gangs in Nuka World. It’s a deception that has a lot more thought put into it than most in the game because, even if you see through it, there’s a backup option that Harvey moves onto—another lie. If you convince him you’re going to help and that he should flee to safety, he’s still in Nuka World later because he went back to his raider masters safe with the knowledge that he did his job. He even has a good line about how he deactivated the train’s power to make his story look more believable.

If the player doesn’t see through his lies then they’re heading into a trap—a gauntlet of challenges created by the raider gangs for their own blood-sport amusement. There’s a third option that I found, however, which was not to listen to Harvey after you see through his lies. You can react with self-righteous anger and kill the guy for trying to set you up. And not only does the game allow you to do this, there’s some optional dialogue with one of the raider officers that plays in response over the train station’s speaker system.

Bethesda put a little bit of extra thought into this. And it pays off immensely. Just imagine how many other quests could have benefited from this level of detail. Not only that it’s a hint of roleplaying options that are sorely missing from the game. You can choose how you think your character would react to this situation instead of just doing whatever you think is the best or right option, and you can still proceed with a little bit of extra story stuff.

For me, seeing Harvey with a slave collar on in Nuka World on my second playthrough—because on my first one I murdered him after I saw through his lies—made me realize that I had been way too quick to judge him on that first playthrough. It also made me realize how hopeless the situation was for him and the other slaves in the theme park because, hours earlier, he didn’t have a collar on and I had more or less set him free. Yet he still returned to be a slave because he was so scared and invested in the other people enslaved here.

I’m not joking when I say this relatively brief interaction with a character is one of the most memorable moments for me, not just in Nuka World, but of all of Fallout 4. And that speaks two truths the way I see it: how effective this sort of thing can be with stories and characters, and how lacking the rest of the game is in this resource.

The rest of the DLC’s introduction sort of follows this trend of standing out as different from the rest of Fallout 4. If Far Harbor is about “becoming the Institute” then Nuka World is about “becoming a raider”. And the game becomes quite overwhelming in this early part.

First though, we have to survive the gauntlet. Which is a fun section that shows how creative Bethesda’s level designers can be when it comes to cramming interior locations with cool details, and neat small stories about how people died. Or their experience when they tried to get through this thing.

On the train ride you’re contacted by a man named Gage. Throughout the gauntlet, you’re continually taunted by another man named Redeye. Initially I thought these were the same person and that Gage was simply adopting a performance persona that’s different when he’s addressing the raider audience watching you struggle through their traps and cages.

Gage then contacts you again at the end of the gauntlet—which goes on for longer than I expected it to with more than one loading screen—when you reach a bumper car arena to fight the “end boss”. Who also happens to be the Overboss of all of the raiders in Nuka World. A guy named Colter.

Gage contacts you as you gear up for the fight—the raiders allow you to do this so you can put on a good show at the end. He says that the fight is rigged and that there’s no way you can win, because the boss has a suit of energized power armor that is kept active through the bumper car arena. Gage then helps you beat him by pointing you toward a water pistol stashed in the locker room that’s able to disrupt the power supplying Colter’s armor.

<clip>

This is where the problems begin, although there’s a lot of great stuff in this introduction as well. I don’t like that you HAVE to use the squirt gun to win this fight. I’ve read that if you get massively lucky with crits on lower difficulty settings or something that you can beat Colter with your normal weapons, but I doubt there’s any dialogue after this that supports this version—Bethesda’s Bug is more likely.

I don’t like that my character would have died here if it wasn’t for the supposed generosity of this Gage guy. I’ve wandered the wastes killing who knows how many hundreds of ghouls, raiders, super mutants, and giant radioactive monsters, but my story would have permanently ended here because of some bozo in a suit powered by a theme park bumper car ride.

There could have been an alternative solution involving telling Gage to go fuck himself, and you win through being resourceful or finding a way to turn off the power—something like that. Instead, you have to use the water gun and then damage him when his electrical armor is offline. Probably because Bethesda wanted you to feel in some way indebted to Gage enough to listen to him.

Because after Colter is dead, Nuka World becomes a drastic departure from the base game in Fallout 4. In fact, this change in tone, character, and story is so dramatically different that I’m having trouble thinking of any other game that is on the same level of change as what occurs here. And this carries with it some major problems.

By killing Colter, you have become the new overboss. You’re in charge of Nuka World and, with that responsibility, comes three large raider gangs: The Operators, The Disciples, and The Pack. The game finally lets you be evil and make evil choices. You can become a raider and claim outposts for your gang, which is something many people thought was strangely absent in the original version of the game. Myself included. I actually kind of called this DLC in my previous video.

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The massive, 400 pound western lowland gorilla of a problem here is that… Look it’s like Bethesda listened to all of this criticism and was like “Oh they want to be evil do they! Want to be raiders huh!? Well FINE! Here’s your fucking theme park full of raiders and murderers and there’s going to be slaves and corpses everywhere and caged animals and people who fight and kill and act like crazed lunatics and you’re in charge and you can be one of them if you want to be evil so bad here! Are you fucking happy now?”

Later on you can lead these raiders back to the Commonwealth, which has its own gigantic issues, but for now this concept doesn’t make sense. You can’t have virtually no option to be a bad person until this moment, and then suddenly think it’s okay to become the leader of three separate Hitler Youth Camps. You could make some questionable choices until now, sure, but nothing that comes close to the depravity that these people are up to. They literally decorate their home with blood and corpses for fucks sake.

However, let’s put these issues on pause for a moment. Especially considering there’s a minor solution to this problem. On my first playthrough, I was true to my character who hated raiders. I spoke to Gage and told him what he wanted to hear so he would open the door, and I could kill him and all of his raider buddies that just ran me through their gauntlet of fun. This decision was very much like the one I made in the base game when I first arrived at the Institute. There was no messing around with these people. Kill them all and get out. So that’s what I did.

And if you’ve played the game yourself then you know that I made a terrible mistake here and that it’s really funny in a way. Because the man I just shot in the head here is actually my son, and the boy in the cell is a Synth made to look like him.

Okay, seriously now, Bethesda should be given some credit for this. Because history doesn’t repeat here despite my jokes. The game is prepared for the player making this choice. You’ve given a new quest when you kill Gage to go and clear Nuka World of all of the raiders and free the slaves. It’s not quite as fleshed out as I would like, because when you’re done it sends you to speak to one of the slave leaders and the conversation heavily implies that this isn’t the first time you’ve spoken and that you should have probably interacted once already before murdering all the raiders, but it’s a big step up that the game doesn’t outright break if you decide to react like that.

You do obliterate a lot of the quest content by doing this though. Which is fine—decisions should have consequences, but a big part of the DLC is clearing out five sections of the theme park for the raiders to claim as new territory. This could have easily been transferred over to the freed slaves instead so there’s a story here for morally good characters, but hey it’s good that there’s an option at all. And you can still go exploring and do some of the side quests even though there’s no main story to follow with all of the raiders dead.

On my second playthrough I went along with Gage’s proposal to see the rest of that content. And it’s here that you see what I meant earlier: that Nuka World has something in common with New Vegas. It isn’t just the obvious though—the casinos and hotels in that game are in the same blazing, visual space as many of the rides and attractions in a theme park. New Vegas being like a theme park for adults, and catering for more mature indulgences. But there’s similarities to be found also in the story.

Without spoiling much, a man named House maintained the central city in New Vegas and is using it as a source of income. While the nearby Hoover Dam is the real prize in the region, New Vegas itself is not without its appeal to the NCR—the largest, and most stable society that I know of in the Fallout universe. Many soldiers and tourists visit the city and bring money with them. Money that fuels House’s plan.

In many ways, Nuka World shares this quality. But not just in how the attractions and location make it appeal to traders and visitors. It’s also naturally fortified and can be protected against outside invasions. Which is exactly why a bunch of traders had claimed the entrance to the place and set up a trading hub, complete with mercenary guards.

This is where Colter enters the story. With Gage’s plans behind him, Colter founded a fragile alliance between those three raider gangs I mentioned earlier—The Operators, The Disciples, and The Pack. Led by Colter, they launched an assault on Nuka World and killed the mercenary guards and enslaved the traders. Their end goals were to then use this foothold as a base to move through the rest of Nuka World’s main areas—both for more land and to restore the park to attract more visitors and traders—and then run the place just like the traders were. They’ve already started doing some of this by the time you arrive. Outside traders are allowed to come in, exchanges goods and caps with the slaves, which makes the raider gangs rich.

So this is already pretty good. At the very least it’s interesting. Far more interesting than many of the locations you visit in the base game, which feel like they’re stagnant and not doing anything really. But we also can’t ignore that big gorilla problem that appears again because, unfortunately, nothing about Nuka World really makes sense.

And I do mean that without any exaggeration. Almost nothing makes sense here.

For starters, raiders claiming this place to then use it as a trading hub is about the least “raider” thing you could possibly do. Who in their right mind would visit here, to do business with people who have explosive collars strapped to their necks? On top of that you have the dead bodies used as decoration that I mentioned earlier. If the goal is to make the place attractive for traders and passing people with money… Seriously do you already see what I mean? Raiders raid. Not trade. This story and situation is interesting but it shouldn’t have been done with an unstable alliance of raider gangs. It’s like Bethesda had this story already cooked up and then changed it to be raiders partway through development to appease people who wanted to have their own raiding group.

Unfortunately this just keeps going with many of the minor and major details of this place. Apparently the power plant that ran Nuka World is offline. But the place still has power. More of it is functional than it isn’t. It’s just a selective problem so that some areas can be closed off or something. It’s really weird.

You’re also not really in charge. Which almost makes sense but the more you play the more you realize how nonsensical it is. When Gage told you about the water gun he wasn’t doing it out of charity. Colter’s murder was planned from the beginning. You’re just the weapon the raider gangs chose to use. Colter had been ignoring the needs of his people for months. He promised that, shortly after taking Nuka World, he would lead everyone to clear the rest of the park—these five areas you can see now on the in-game map—and divide the land between the different gangs. For a reason that is never explained, he decided to do nothing instead. The raider gangs got tired of that nothing, so Gage devised a plan to replace Colter with the next guy who entered the gauntlet who was strong enough to survive—which, of course, ends up being you.

Bethesda has a consistent issue with making the player the leader of factions, to the point that it comes across as an obsession. I don’t think it’s ever been done successfully by them—and by that I mean, not only does it never make a whole lot of sense, but it’s not even an interesting result or a sense of accomplishment for the player. They don’t get to order anyone around or make decisions. Nor are they ever in charge, and instead are only the boss in title only.

It makes me wonder if this is how things work at Bethesda and this is Todd Howard’s ways of crying for help or something. No seriously though, I do understand that being at the top of an organization, or even a country as history has proven, isn’t always directly about issuing orders and bossing people around. Often you can feel beholden to those below you and, from what I’ve read, many decisions have to be weighed carefully not just for your interests but for dozens of others. But you still do have to make those decisions. Whereas in Bethesda games, you end up doing menial busy work for people who you should be ordering around, or there are no decisions ever. At all. There’s nothing.

This trend holds true in Nuka World. If you accept Gage’s offer—which isn’t really a choice to be honest, it’s either join them or kill them all—you can only do two things. You can go to the leaders of the three gangs and do those menial tasks for them, which are more radiant quests that send you back to the Commonwealth and through its lovely load screens and fast travel times. Or you can clear the sections of the park that Colter promised the gangs. The gangs that have way more man power than you and have just been sitting around doing nothing. You go yourself instead. To do what these big gangs couldn’t. Alone. It makes no sense.

There’s a reason for this and we’ll get to that shortly, but it’s tied up in a lot of stuff that’s wrong with this scenario that Nuka World drops you in. See this is yet another tired example of Quantity Over Quality—and that Bethesda will put in a tremendous amount of effort into some parts of their games, and next to nothing in others. In a way they’re shrewd about their priorities, because they focus on stuff that almost every player will see if they complete the quests, instead of any divergent paths and the world reacting to your decisions. That’s splitting your playerbase and, by design, will make it so any work you do will only be seen by half of the players unless they do more than one playthrough. It’s not an economical way of doing things and, if we recall something that was brought up way back at the start of this video, there’s a very strong possibility that the only reason Bethesda still has their hat in this rodeo of game development is to make money.

There are more cases of things not making any sense whatsoever in these individual sections of the park, but for now let’s address the main quest. There are five areas that are wonderfully realized. Bethesda really does this stuff well, and an immense amount of work went into each location. I said it earlier: the Galactic Zone is possibly the best combat arena in the entire game. It has many vertical layers, winding paths, and multiple routes to find and fight through. There are a ton of robots here and, while I still stand by my assessment that the combat is too simple, this is the best case of how the environments you fight in can elevate that. If only slightly for some players.

But there’s more to do inside the buildings around here. There’s an interior roller coaster. A vault-like tour. This commitment to making Nuka World feel like an actual theme park is continued throughout all of the areas and, I don’t know maybe I’m missing something about this, but I am thoroughly impressed by how much detail is in these areas.

There’s a western section with robots. A tour of a cola bottling facility with a river of nuka quantum. A radioactive fantasy land with castles and more interior sections to fight through. The first location, where the raiders are at, has an arcade and games to play for tickets and prizes. None of this is will blow you away or anything but it’s clear that it was still a lot of work. And my assumption is that it’s work that Bethesda has gotten really efficient at doing over the years, which is why they’re so lacking when it comes to other parts of the game.

The quests in each of these locations are abysmal. Worse than that, the main quest falls apart here too. For what I suspect is one key reason: they wanted to give the player a choice, and didn’t think it through.

These choices come up after you meet the leaders of each gang. The Operators are the most mercenary of the three and are only in the business for caps. All they want is money. No matter how they get it—whether that’s through showing their power or through trading or striking deals. They’re the only gang that makes sense to have set up the trading hub in Nuka World.

The Pack is all about showing strength and respecting that display. They’re the most feral, War Boys from Fury Road of the three, but they’re not totally psychotic. The understanding I got is that they believe the world has gone so far to shit that they just want to get wasted, party, and do whatever they feel the urge to do without any inhibition. Yet they still respect the strength of their pack leader, which transfers to you if you can show a similar quality.

The Disciples, however, are truly psychopaths. They want to kill and torture, and are likely responsible for all of the corpses stapled to the walls in the park. It makes no sense whatsoever for them to be part of this alliance. Not only do they get little out of the arrangement, but their needs will actively damage the reputation of the place and scare traders away.

Basically these three are some of the core qualities of raiders in the series condensed down to one thing: Caps, Chems, and Killing.

The player choice enters the story when you go through Nuka World and clear out one of the areas. Once successful, you have to select which raider gang you want to gift the area to. The more you favor one gang, the more the others will dislike you. There are five areas to distribute in Nuka World, and then another three settlements in the Commonwealth afterward. That makes 8. So you can’t keep things fair between the three even if you wanted to.

The problem is that, because there are five locations in Nuka World and so many possible combinations in which you can distribute them to the gangs, there’s no dialogue associated with the choices you make. Nuka World has its own radio station and, when you gift out land, the host does announce your choice in a very general way, but there’s no conversation you can have with any of the leaders of each gang. That work wasn’t put into it, because it would create so much hassle to make sure each combination was properly factored into those conversations. It makes sense, but it also doesn’t, because these choices aren’t interesting.

There is some work put into this. When you take an area, the gang will decorate the place and inhabit it afterwards. But they also don’t have that much relevant dialogue. The leaders never thank you either. You’re only given a chest with some caps and loot instead.

So the game feels lifeless in this respect because of this choice, because it’s a really bad system. Consider, instead, if the areas were already promised to each gang by Colter before you arrived. It could be another reason why they were so pissed at him. So now, when you go to each section, you can have some backup from the gang that will eventually own it, and they could be involved in the quest here. When you’re done, because it was decided ahead of time, the gang could have some dialogue and a response to you succeeding. Instead of it feeling like you did nothing for them when you return to the main area of the park.

I know this goes against what I’ve been saying for most of this video—I want more choices, not less—but this kind of thing really is a poor substitute. You get to decide which flag to raise… yay. The choice leads to one of the gangs eventually turning on you—whoever gets the least amount of land—so it is important since the player has to deal with the consequences of their actions, but this could have also been handled better.

This situation in Nuka World was ripe to be the first time Bethesda nailed being a leader. Because there are three distinct, clashing factions at work here. So imagine, instead of raising these flags, that there were decisions and situations that come up instead. Problems between the gangs, or dilemmas that need the attention of the overboss.

You get called back to the main area, or hit a trigger after taking some of the parts of the park, and have something to deal with. These could be really simple like a gang member has turned traitor and you need to decide what to do with them. Or someone beats the gauntlet and you have to play the sorting hat from Hogwarts and decide which gang gets to recruit him, or if you should just execute him. You know, stuff like that. Situations that require a decision.

Let’s say there’s 10 or so of them. By making these decisions, you would be showing what sort of ideology you follow and naturally drift toward one or two of the gangs, and away from one of the others. You could choose the bloodthirsty way to ally with the Disciples. You could show strength and amusement for the Pack. Or you could try to proceed with the most profitable choice and diplomacy to align yourself with the Operators.

You still get to claim territory. But now certain gangs like or hate you depending on tangible decisions you make, instead of being mad that one gang got one more piece of land than they did—which, again, this doesn’t make sense. When you get to the end of the main questline you are starting to gift out Commonwealth settlements. You could easily make this even and fair for all three, but the game hits a trigger point at 8 pieces of land so that one gang is always going to be pissed and turn against you. They were happy to sit around for months with nothing from Colter, but they don’t even give you a chance to take the next settlement for them. It doesn’t make sense.

But then nothing does really. Raiding the Commonwealth needed to be in the game from the start. You can’t add something like this so long after the game’s release and expect it to go smoothly. I already had so many settlements under my control and it’s just so fucking awkward. There’s an NPC that actually, literally, has to whip out a notebook when you’re deciding what places to raid to make sure you’re ALLOWED to. Because you might already own it! One of your followers might be there! So you’re not allowed to raid it. Why would they care? Why can’t I make the decision anyway? It’s by far and away the worst feature in all of the DLC and I do not understand how they thought this was good enough to be put in the game.

Another example that proves it: if you do select a settlement that’s yours, and there’s no follower there, then you can insist to raid it. So you go there and, remember, it’s a Minutemen settlement. All of your settlements are like that in the base game. You do a favor for these people and, just like that, you become the ruler of the place. You can destroy their homes, their farms, boss them around, change what work they do, and so on. It’s already a broken system from that. But then you choose to give it to a raider and, without any contact from you, the settlement suddenly doesn’t remember you. They have no knowledge of what you did for them. They don’t recall that you built the place or own it. They act like you’re a stranger, and you have to threaten them, kill them, or BRIBE THEM to leave. It’s a place you were already in control of but, all of a sudden, it’s something different because of the Nuka World quest.

Having a raider gang in the Commonwealth should have been an alternative to the Preston and Pals at the start of the game. You could have sided with the raiders attacking them in Concord. Or, like I suggested in the previous video, you could have taken over a gang that was already in Sanctuary. Kill them or become the boss. Something like that. Nuka World should have remained isolated in its own area to avoid these horribly awkward conflicts with what you’ve already done in the base game. And to avoid all of the load screens as you go through it all. If you play without fast travel on for this part then you have my sympathies. It must be terrible.

There’s also this weird incongruity with some of the player choices. You can do almost everything for the raiders without killing someone. You have persuade checks or, like I just said, you can use money. You can make yourself sound reasonable, like you’re trying to avoid violence, as you do the dirty work for these vicious gangs who think it’s funny to kill people and butcher them in their homes. If you have Nuka World but didn’t play, I recommend going through it all real quick on very easy just to see all of this. It is so, so surreal how Bethesda went about constructing all of this. It’s like they solved a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from six separate boxes.

The nonsense continues back in Nuka World though, with the quests in each part of the park. For starters, almost none of this should still be standing after 200 years. It’s same issue the rest of the game has. Robots are still active and working. The rides are still functional. Even if you ignore that, it gets worse.

The zoo section has a parody version of Tarzan, who has been raised by a bunch of Ghoulrillas. As much as I appreciate the pun, this whole scenario is as stupid as it sounds. I like to provide examples for most of what I say but I think this one speaks for itself.

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There’s a bigger problem here. Each part of the park has something for you to do. In the Galactic Zone it’s to clear all of the crazy robots. That one makes sense. In the Western Zone, you have to do some boring quests for the robots to unlock the way to the fake mines to kill the bloodworm queen. Not the most interesting quest but it also sort of makes sense. Here, you have to find the source of the gatorclaw monsters and stop them. Tarzan tells you that they keep coming even though he’s killing them all.

Ultimately you discover that a scientist at the park was using a cloning machine to create animals as a food source. This was after the apocalypse and he wanted to use the machine to survive. He was successful, and then decided to create the monsters you’re fighting as a weapon to protect his part of the park. Which obviously backfired.

The biggest issue here is that the facility under this zoo is firmly locked down. There’s no way out of here. So how were the monsters escaping to terrorize Tarzan and his Ghoulrilla family? Really, there’s no broken vent or any way out of here, especially for how big the creatures are.

In the Kingdom section, you have to fight through radioactive gas that is kept constantly pumping through the air by the ghouls that inhabit it. Ghouls that were workers in the park. That have lived here and somehow survived for 200 years. What exactly are they eating? Why can’t you try to reason with their leader? What kind of society has emerged from this? All of these questions aren’t answered, because it’s a long combat section instead. Just like much of the other lazily made content in the game.

Also, the leader has magic. Actual magic. I thought that it would be revealed that it was all a trick because he was a magician before the war, or some effect of the gas he releases, but no there’s actually magic in Fallout now because of this quest. Terminals you find around the area reveal that radiation gave him powers.

You might be thinking that some of this is too nitpicky. Or that Bethesda clearly thinks that ghouls are closer to zombies. That would explain why so many of the quests that involve them use the 200 years that passed for an exaggerated effect. The kid in the fridge. The guy and his crew in the submarine. Or the Eddie Winter guy who’s been locked up in a safe room since the war. Same goes for these ghouls. They were able to survive for so long, cut off from the rest of the world, because Bethesda thinks they’re zombies.

There are multiple examples of ghouls needing food and water in the series. However, the thing that proves Bethesda has no idea what they’re doing with this stuff is right here in this DLC. Because back in the animal zone, with the guy who was using the cloning machine to make food… He was a ghoul. So this isn’t even internally consistent between quests that are minutes apart. What makes it worse is that the game breaks its own rules for really boring reasons. These quests aren’t even worth ignoring the basic necessities of the characters in order to make them happen.

In the end you deal with whatever gang turned on you, even though it makes more sense at any point to murder them all and free the slaves. For my run it was the Disciples that I had neglected. So you fight over the power plant with the other two gangs and then turn the power back on. Which was really on already but we’ll ignore that. Fireworks are set off and you get some okay visuals as your final send-off from Fallout 4. I think the context of this scene adds more weight to what I said earlier—that Far Harbor should have been last after this.

As a final word on Nuka World and the DLC, I’d like to show how badly it was integrated into the game in another way. Although I found the DLC to be far more interesting than the Commonwealth stories, it was still built on a rotten foundation. And that rot seems to spread anytime it’s linked back.

Preston Garvy wanted the Minutemen to stand for the ordinary people in the world. Specifically, it was an organization to defend settlements from raiders. Raiders that you, as the general of the Minutemen, lead to the Commonwealth in order to… raid.

You would think that Preston would have some strong opinions about your change in heart. And he does. Bethesda thought to include some dialogue with him. It goes like this.

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Preston thinks you’re a monster. I was really happy when I saw this because, even though I agree with a lot of his views on the Commonwealth, I’ve wanted to execute him ever since he told me that I had to do more work for my own faction before building the teleporter machine to save my son. I was the general and he wouldn’t proceed with this rescue until I added another shitty settlement on the map for him. Because, somehow, that was more important than my orders.

But the game doesn’t let you fight him here. Because the game doesn’t go all the way with judgement. Preston shouts at you and, even if you threaten him, he backs down. You’re still the general. You can still take settlements for him. Still do quests with him. He goes back to his regular old self.

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Even though you’re now the antithesis of everything he stands for.

 

Let’s Fix Fallout 4

For the last section, let’s return to the story in the base game, which was a huge part of the previous video I did on Fallout 4. We’ve probably spent too much time on this now but we’re here and already gone over the video’s estimate. In for a penny and all that.

A few people left a comment on the first video asking how the story could be fixed. At the time I answered that I didn’t think it was possible. Not without a total overhaul of the way the game was built. I’ve had a year to mull it over now and if the goal is to make Fallout 4 an actual RPG then my initial reaction is still what I think today. Almost everything in the world and the story—down to character creation and a voiced protagonist—would have to be altered. But making changes to have a better story within a “Bethesda Game” instead of an RPG… that might be possible.

Let’s identify some of the major problems before looking at potential ways to solve them:

 

    1. Character vs Player motivations.
    2. The Institute’s goals, actions, and general place in the Commonwealth.
    3. World building is hard.
    4. And Side Quest Depth.

 

I’m only including that last one so I can immediately remove it. We already went over that in the first half of the video and, I think, some of the better examples in the DLC the game received add further proof that the base game did a poor job with its quests and quest givers. This simply needs more thought and attention.

For more evidence of nonsensical missions in the game, you don’t have to look further than Diamond City. Some of the stuff you do here shows an astounding lack of thought. The standout example being another missing person’s case for Valentine’s Detective Agency. You’re looking for a guy who used to live in the city. You visit where he worked, speak to his colleagues, and learn that he was having poor luck finding a girlfriend before he went missing. Following these clues leads you to his home and the discovery that he underwent facial reconstruction surgery—thinking that the problem he was having was that he wasn’t good looking enough to get a girl.

The conclusion of this quest is visiting the surgical center in Diamond City and insisting to one of the two doctors that works there that you search the basement operating room that they have. When you get down there, the other doctor is standing over the corpse of the missing guy—the surgery was botched. The guy is mangled and dead and the surgeon has gone a bit mental over his mistake. You confront him. He kills himself. Then the other surgeon comes down to investigate because of all of the shouting. Case closed, the end.

You already might see how terrible this is. If not, let me make it clear that the guy was missing for a while. Days at least before you even took the quest. So the other doctor hasn’t entered his own cellar in all this time. Didn’t hear anything. Didn’t speak to his colleague. The doctor who killed the guy didn’t come out for days or find a solution in this time or anything. It makes less than zero sense. It makes negative sense.

For the others on this list, let’s take them in order. Especially because the first two are tightly linked.

The issue with the voiced protagonist is only the beginning for the problems in Fallout 4’s main story. The voice actor may say things in a different way than you feel about them. Even if you play with the mod that reveals all of the dialogue options, it’s a regular thing that your character will sound different than you intend. Or, because of the cost associated with recording so many extra lines, there may not be an option that you would choose at all. It’s the biggest reason why I think they should have made the main character their own person, like Joel from The Last of Us, and reduced a lot of the choices to big moments instead of every step in conversations. With scripted movies for these conversations as well.

But even doing that, you’re still left with another big problem. That the player character will shout and scream about their missing baby during dialogue, and then you decide it’s time to build some houses. Some beds. Set up some farms. Take some settlements for Preston. Make sure the Minutemen are happy and entertained. Go on some wacky adventures, singing along to the radio. Find another partner and practically get married again. This is a pretty big conflict here.

The only change I can see resolving this problem, without rewriting the entire background for the main character and almost all of the story of the first half, is to make the main character a Synth.

I realize this contradicts a point I made during the look we just did at Far Harbor, which is why a lot of the Institute needs to be changed to make this work. But this actually works in favor of this proposal to make the player a Synth, because it can help make the Institute a much more believable place. And a more interesting one.

I imagine this working like so:

Currently in the game, the leader of the Institute is a dictator. You can see solid proof of this in two instances. The first is when Shaun names you as his successor and, despite some grumbling, all of the other department heads accept it without having any method of debating the issue. There’s no discussion. No appeals. Shaun has spoken and that’s how it’s going to be.

Secondly, the only department head that does find a way to fight back, does so by sealing their section of the Institute and basically holding all of the food hostage—he’ll starve out the opposition until Shaun changes his mind. Not exactly a democratic process. At this point you’re functionally President-Elect and you have to decide how to deal with this. If you resolve the problem peacefully—by talking them into unlocking the doors—you can decide what sort of punishment the Institute can dispense on the temporary traitors. Two of these options are exiling them, or executing them. And the guy’s reaction to either of these drastic judgements, while not favorable, isn’t outright shocked. These answers aren’t rejected. They’re carried out because you’re in charge. The Institute is a dictatorship, and this sort of thing must have happened before.

This ties directly into what I said in my previous video. So much of this place is evil, and yet you’re not allowed to act on it. You can launch your own investigations—unprompted by anything in the game—and discover the immoral experiments they’re conducting, or the murders they’re committing on the surface. And yet the happy, smiling mask is the only layer the game ever allows you to interact with. The Institute, deep down, may actually make sense if you could confront Shaun about all of the things you find. In its current iteration however, you’re left wondering what it is the Institute is even doing.

So here’s my proposal, with the intention of fixing the story while changing as little of it as possible—in other words, a shift in the narrative that’s not only feasible, but one that uses as much of the current assets in the game already.

First off, the main character is a Synth and is so from the very beginning. After Kellogg left in the opening, the cryogenics malfunctioned and Shaun’s father died. Later on, after Shaun grows up and reaches a place of authority in the Institute, he learns about Vault 111 and launches a quiet investigation to see if anyone survived. He discovers his mother was shot and his father died sometime after in stasis.

The other big change here is that Shaun is not in charge of the entire Institute. I’d go one step further and say that NO ONE should be in charge and it should be ruled by committee instead—the same department heads already present in the game, with no single member being superior to the other. The other option is that there could be a different leader in charge who could serve as a villain, but that’s not really important for these changes.

Shaun is unhappy with how the Institute is being run. There’s a lot of issues he’s noticed—a list that matches those experiments, murders, and treatment of Synths we just went through—and now he’s discovered that they thoughtlessly murdered his mother and father when he was taken. This takes a plot hole—why on Earth would Kellogg and his team not take everyone for experiments from this vault?–and uses it as more motivation for Shaun to devise his plan.

One of the high ranking researchers in the Synth development department thinks that the creations they’re making are closer to human than the others care to admit. To be clear this isn’t a change. This character is already in the game today. Shaun works closely with this man, and perhaps a small, secret faction within the Institute that sympathizes with Synths—which, again, already sort of exists in the game today—to create a new Synth prototype that’s more advanced than any they’ve created so far. Perhaps the first Synth that doesn’t have a Synth component. No deactivation code. And total free will.

This Synth would of course be you.

You’re placed in Vault 111 and Shaun releases you, just like it happens in the game currently. You think your baby has been kidnapped, Kellogg took him, etc, etc. This part isn’t changed. The player still reacts strongly and passionately in dialogue when the missing boy is brought up, but you still have the freedom to ignore this search and do whatever you like. That conflict between character and player is, for now at least, still present and a problem.

So why would Shaun do this?

Much of this would initially function in the same way. Shaun is not the top dog leader, but he is still in a position of power. He wants to meet his father, and I doubt that anyone at the Institute went back to check if the cryogenics failed before now. So when you’re released the game’s story continues as it already did—the people who care about Shaun in the Institute would await the arrival of his father—and, by extension, grandfather of all of the Synths that were created with his DNA—with some amount of celebration. Meanwhile they’re unaware that this is another Synth coming into the Institute.

The bigger changes happen when you construct the teleporter and make your way inside. Shaun would have cleverly ordered Kellogg to remain in the Commonwealth as a lure for you to find your way, and also as the first level of revenge on the people who killed Shaun’s parents—which is exactly how it functions in the game today. When you reach Shaun, he would tell you that you’re a Synth. The double twist here would be that Shaun isn’t a boy anymore but that you’re not his real father either. You just have all of his memories. Then, he could ask you how compelled you were to reach him during your travels. The player could be judged for how directly they came to the Institute, or how long they dabbled doing other unimportant things instead of finding their missing child. If the player rushed to find their child, then Shaun would congratulate himself on successfully integrating his father’s memories with a Synth body, since your emotions and actions were in-line with each other. If not, he would lament that they could have done a better job making sure your memories were better matched with your decisions, because clearly you decided there were more important things to do. It solves that conflict in a way that I think could be seen as a powerful mindfuck moment. Either way, no matter what you do, the game could toy with your actions and decisions. It’s some fun commentary on player agency.

I picture this coupled with some dialogue from the player character, saying something like “I felt so strongly about finding you, but then that would fade away and I’d get caught up in something else.”

Shaun’s plan here is to reform the Institute from its evil ways into something more productive for the whole Commonwealth. You’re instrumental in this because very few people in the Institute know you’re a Synth. So you are in a perfect position to win their trust, help them out, and fool them into thinking you’re human. You are the perfect weapon Shaun could wield to prove to all those in the Institute that doubt the humanity of the Synths they’re creating—because they’ll have no idea they’re listening to one and treating one as an equal while you interact with them.

From here this would be another path the story could follow. The other paths—Brotherhood, Railroad, Minutemen—could be improved with these changes too but I don’t think I could justify going through all of them for this video. The key change here is that the Institute’s plans and motivations can finally be explored, uncovered, and addressed. Because you and Shaun will be working together in order to gather evidence of their wrongdoings in order to take down opposing factions within the place, that want to continue exploiting technology for their evil purposes. Murdering people on the surface. Abducting and replacing others. Genetic mutations.

This could lead to a truly peaceful end as well, instead of the Institute either wiping everyone else out, or being wiped out itself.

I think this would elevate much of the story in the game, because the lack of rock solid details about the main villain really hurt the game’s sense of purpose. I was never quite sure why it was I was fighting them, other than a misunderstanding on whether Synths were human or not. This confusion is also awkwardly addressed by characters in the game itself—even within the Institute. Even with Shaun, who miraculously changes his mind on his young Synth replica at the end of the main story.

Which leads us to the last point on the list: that world building is hard.

A big part of the reason why the Institute feels like such a nebulous entity is that all of them are really. The only solid one is the Brotherhood of Steel, that at least has a unified purpose and a backstory that makes sense, even if their appearance on the east coast may not.

The Railroad shouldn’t exist. Period. No one would put this amount of effort into helping Synths when real humans are still living in such crushing conditions. This should have been a Synth-created group of resistance instead. All Synths. All about destroying the Institute.

It gets worse though because not even Diamond City, Goodneighbour, or Bunker Hill feel right either. These are the biggest settlements in the Commonwealth. They’re the most successful, prospering groups of people, and yet they’re in the most dangerous part of it. They live in a place that is torn apart on a daily basis by raiders, super mutants, and roaming packs of killer robots. The inner city is a hotbed for violence and strife, and this is where Bethesda plopped down its major gatherings of people. This should be the SAFEST part of the Commonwealth, if nothing else BECAUSE of the presence of civilized people in the area keeping it that way.

Further than that, what do these settlements even do? Much of Fallout 4 reads like a bunch of people at Bethesda watched MrBTongue’s video on the series and called a huge meeting entitled: “We Have to Make Sure We Know What They Eat!”

If you’re unfamiliar, MrBTongue goes into detail on world building in his video and that asking and answering questions like this is important. Places in Fallout 3 don’t pass one level of inspection for this sort of stuff. They shouldn’t exist from just a lack of food alone. Bethesda should be commended for responding to criticism like they did, but “What Do They Eat?” is only the first stage of the problem. The next would be “WHY Do They Eat?”

Diamond City doesn’t produce anything. Neither does Bunker Hill. You could argue Goodneighbour is a hub for drug dealing and more questionable services—so that passes for now. Bunker Hill is all about traders, but nothing is being manufactured or gathered for them. Maybe Bethesda thinks they’re being supplied by scavengers still but that comes back to the old 200 years problem.

You specifically learn during your first visit to Diamond City that they rely on outside traders to survive. The question from that is: what exactly are they paying for these supplies with? They don’t produce enough things for themselves. A kid owns the water supply and charges for it. Piper runs and sells a newspaper. There are multiple shops and the like. But they’re selling things, not making them. How are the ordinary citizens here earning caps to spend at these stores?

There’s no reason for Diamond City to exist and my issue with this isn’t just a nitpicky one, but rather another chance to point out a lost opportunity. The thing about world building is that, if you do it right, you can find some surprising opportunities for stories and cool details. To build on Fallout 4 as an example of how this can happen: if you give Diamond City some sort of function—maybe a nearby ammunition factory, or some sort of other rare resource—then you can now build on that. It’s not just an explanation to satisfy pedantic story nerds like me. It can be used for more quests and stories within the game. It can lead to problems the characters need to face or struggles over power. New Vegas did this with the Strip. And Nuka World did it WITHIN THIS GAME with the theme park.

You can keep on unraveling this from these details. Places still having power after 200 years isn’t a plot hole to be waved away, but a problem that a Commonwealth organization or game mechanic could solve. A group who has a goal to re-electrify the wasteland. Or, like I said in the previous video, fusion cores could be used to power these places and they could change when you loot them. The power goes off—find another way out. Maybe that could be something another group could be producing somewhere in the Commonwealth—a town that’s claimed a fusion core production facility and employing people to make them.

See what I mean about how quickly it can interweave with other settlements and ideas? Addressing these difficult questions and trying to solve them leads to opportunities, not plot holes that seem so scary that you don’t want to fill them.

However this is looping us not so neatly back to the idea of roleplaying in the game, and the conflict between RPG and Bethesda Game. Having these details leads to a richer world and would accommodate more thoughtful character stories that players could think of. I think that even a Bethesda Game would want to have as interesting a story as it could possibly have, but I can’t stop thinking that this RPG, world building side is something that the developers have very little interest in doing anymore.

Instead they want to stay in that three phase cycle. They want you stumbling onto areas and finding cool stories there. And sometimes they’re successful. I had a blast in the robot shopping mall. It was fairly short but it was a neat, wacky idea that didn’t involve some terrible radiant quest or poorly fleshed out mission dispenser. I simply found this place during my travels and solved the problem while I was there. I wish there was more of that sort of thing if that’s the sort of game Bethesda wants to make. More details in the stories that happen in each area, even if they’re only tiny details like the New Squirrel tapes you find in an abandoned trailer park. Which even had some subtle pre-war propaganda in it with the new squirrel, who ends up bringing doom to the other squirrels, being communist red.

I love stories in video games. I want more games to take it seriously, but only if they truly want to. For Bethesda and so many other developers like them, it should be a case of do it right or don’t do it at all. Do what you want to do and not what you feel obligated to do.

You could have made one incredible game with Fallout 4. One wonderful, incredible game. But instead you chose to make two. One decent one. And one terrible one.