Bloodborne's a huge game. Digital Chumps received a copy about a week in advance, but it wasn't nearly enough time to properly play through the game. What follows are loosely connected observations, general information, and an introspective reflection around the first twenty-five hours of Bloodborne. Stylistically, it's more loose and conversational than a committed, thesis-driven review. I love the game and I want to give it a great score, but we're not quite there yet.

When I reviewed Dark Souls II last year I wrote that it operated not as the nextDark Souls, but rather moreDark Souls. The original initiated a pivotal realignment of my gaming sensibilities and transitioned to generational leap in my personal gaming history. Those milestones are too many to count at this point, but just as Super Mario Bros. got me into games and Panzer Dragoon Saga opened my eyes to role-playing games, Dark Souls, well, made me accustomed to patience in combat, rewarding exploration, and personal feelings of wondrous accomplishment – a trinity of characteristics that perfectly encapsulate From Software's Souls series. I missed the perfect entry point with Demon's Souls, but going head-first into Dark Souls and coming out the other side hundreds of hours later was a transformative experience, a once-in-a-generation feeling matched with justified hyperbole.  

Dark Souls was difficult, but it wasn't just about the difficulty. Feelings of discovery and chipping away at ignorance were equal parts of Dark Souls' plan. This analogy isn't my own, but impressed itself and operated on my then twenty nine-year-old brain in much the same way The Legend of Zelda affected me when I was seven years old. It's a giant world, there's a hell of a lot of stuff out there, and god damn it please just try and maintain some level of personal restraint when trying to parse through it all. Venturing into the unknown and finding a way to emerge victorious by practically any measure is the driving force behind the game.

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I'm rambling at this point, but you get the idea. Dark Souls. Transformative experience. Justified hype et cetera. Dark Souls II did many of the same things, and in some cases it did them better. It changed rules, it added options, and it built layers. It was a product of a lot refinement and some experimentation, but you'd never lose touch with the feeling that it was moreDark Souls. It could act and improve, but by virtue of its compulsory similarity, it couldn't run on the same ethereal plane as its predecessor. It's a sequel and there's a giant "II" in the title. Dark Souls II was more of the same, and in a world populated by only two others of its kind, it was perfectly fine – but it was not the next Dark Souls.

Naturally, like a truculent drug-user searching for those feelings of their first narcotic high, I've looked to Bloodborne to be the next Dark Souls. I have no idea if that's healthy and I'm not even sure it's realistic, but the pieces seemed to be in place. It's a new game – contextually outside of the Souls series thanks to Sony's publishing duties – and it's been billed (fairly or not) as the true successor to Dark Souls, with most of From Software's design leads opting to work Bloodborne over Dark Souls II. Twenty-five hours in and I'm thoroughly unprepared to answer the, is it the next Dark Souls? question. In fact, I'm wondering if it's even the right question to ask.

I don't have a shield. Through nearly all of Dark Souls and at least 50% of Dark Souls II, you'd find me wandering into constant danger with the security blanket of a shield. Shield's up, and whatever terrible surprise is lurking in the corner will be, at least partially, rendered ineffective. Sometimes I would be daring enough to trust my riposte skills or circle-strafe + dodge-roll into oblivion, but through exploration and the eventual futility of boss fights, my shield was always up and ready.

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I don't have a shield by choice. Bloodborne didn't see it necessary to issue me one (though I've since found a wooden piece of shit that sort of looks like a shield). Instead, I chose a shotgun and a saw-blade cleaver thing as my starting weapons. The cleaver is equal parts arresting and mechanically satisfying because, like many of Bloodborne's weapons, it transforms into a different weapon at the push of a button. Retracted, and it's fit for one versus one combat. Extended, its range grows and it's better suited for dealing with crowds. Or at least that's what Bloodborne wanted to tell me.

"Crowds" is sort of funny word because, typically in Souls games, if you found yourself in a crowd of enemies something had gone profoundly wrong. Crowds aren't necessarily the norm in Bloodborne, but they're a frequent enough occurrence to, apparently, merit a series of weapons and actions equipped to properly deal with the violent and bloody fallout. They're part of the game, not the result of some grievous mistake.

This is also where the shotgun comes in. While it can also be used to essentially riposte enemy’s attacks and render their body uniquely vulnerable, it can also act as a "pushback" against swarms of unreasonably hostile townsfolk. This completely changes Bloodborne's operating paradigm, as more direct and traditional direct forms of defense are now essentially obsolete and unavailable. With a finite amount of ammunition and the usual limiters of vitality and stamina to contend with, a seemingly miniscule change to Souls' basic operating procedures has opened up a whole new way to look at Bloodborne. I don't have a shield, but everything seems to be OK anyway.

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While Bloodborne's approach to combat is revolutionary (in its own terms), there are still plenty of hold over's from past Souls games. Bonfires, intermittent posts signaling a checkpoint and relief, and now lamp posts. Souls, now called Blood Echoes, are won from downing foes and used as currency to level up, buy items, or (when combined with gems) bolster weapons. You still lose every Blood Echo you’ve got on you when you die, and this is where Bloodborne starts to twist a little bit. Occasionally there will be a bloodstain on the spot you died, and you're free to recover your Blood Echoes if you can make it back there unscathed. More often than not, however, an enemy in the area will assume control of your Blood Echoes – indicated by their villainous glowing blue eyes – and you'll have to defeat them to see all of your lost Blood Echoes returned.

An interesting risk and reward system has also been added to Bloodborne's basic combat. If you've taken damage, immediately attacking the attacker will recover most of your lost health. A natural instinct in Souls games is to run, hide, and down a few health potions if you find yourself in a position of intense or mortal vulnerability. Bloodborne turns that idea on its heels and screams engagement in its place. Sometimes I use this by walking up to an enemy and unleashing a ton of quick swipes; I'll take some damage too, but I'm instantly getting it back in the process. Other times, particularly on bosses, I'll take a nasty hit and force myself to reengage just to try and get some of it back. It's an interesting way to play with patience because, as any Dark Souls player knows, you can be cruising along fine but the moment you start rushing your routine, bad things happen. Applying this action to an impulse-based incentive in combat is one of Bloodborne's more immediately noticeable tricks.

Health management has also seen a bit of refinement. Gone are the Estus Flasks that could refill health and replenish at every bonfire. In their place are blood vials, limited consumables that (initially) cap out at 20. What's interesting is that any blood vial collected when you have more than 20 is instantly sent back to a storage box in the Hunter's Dream hub area. Whenever you're killed in battle, the remainder of blood vials in the storage box teleport to your immediate inventory. Blood vials in the storage box cap out at 99, but it certainly didn't stop me from farming souls and buying a ton of them from the small vendor at Hunter's Dream.

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I'm not yet deep enough into Bloodborne's narrative to make any sense of its implicit or explicit lore, only to say that it's tremendously effective in creating an atmosphere of tension and chaos - and the opening area of Central Yharnam is a perfect example. From what I can tell, it's the night of some mythical hunt, where beasts roam the streets, death is everywhere, and the good citizens of Yharnam are shut away in their living quarters. Occupied homes always have a light out front, and the commotion inside is always unsettling. Some are scared out of their minds. Others are cursing up a storm. One establishment sounded like it was having a party, which is all sorts of terrifying. All had one thing in common; they assumed I was a stranger or a foreign hunter, and they told me to leave.

The people actively roaming the streets of Yharnam didn't seem to want me around either. Cries of, "it's all your fault!" run rampant while they're slashing swords, torches, and other bladed instruments in my direction. I don't know if these people are affected by whatever's happening here and are just out to get hunters like me, or if these guys are just other hunters and hate strangers. In any case several classes are abound; black-clad pitchfork guy, old-timey musket man with a top hat, spindly sword guy, and torch-wielding man with sword seem to make up most of Yharnam's active population. There's also room for giant ogres with bricks, fucking cheetahs, and some sort of ground-based crows in select areas.

What's most arresting of Yharnam is how intricately designed it feels. Everything connects to everything else, an asset not fully revealed or understood until I took the six or whatever hours to canvass everything in the level. There don't appear to be many dead ends, just gates that reveal pathways and shortcuts to new areas. One time I was down in an abandoned canal (running from muck men zombies with no legs, obviously) and found myself on the other end of an elevator right near my last-visited light post. Later that turned out to be an incredible shortcut to a boss of that area.  

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The Cathedral Ward and Old Yharnam, two more of Bloodborne's levels that I've explored thoroughly, operate in much the same way. The game exhibits Dark Soul's expertly designed series of interlocking levels as an over-world, but the sheer intricacy behind the individual levels all feel like miniaturized versions of Dark Souls' world. Gone are the one-off and mostly linear spindles of Dark Souls II, and in their place is a more engaging and organic approach to level design. Every area aches to tell a story as much as it does to challenge your ingrained Souls gameplay sensibilities.

I can't tell you how many times I've returned to an area, explored around a bit, and found either an incredible shortcut or a whole new section. In Old Yharnam, for example, I have intimate knowledge of a series of absurd roof drops that effectively shortcut me right to that level's boss. Technically it's all available and there from the outset, but I just didn't have the geographic awareness to try, see, and test it all until much later. Again, I've only canvassed five levels and have been to maybe eight total, but they're absolutely packed with little secrets and tiny, unnoticeable shortcuts. There are still areas I don't know how to reach in places I swear I've covered completely.

Bloodborne also plays with personal expectations. My usual methodology in Souls games involves slowly working my way through a level and taking the time to explore side areas along the way. In doing this I create a mental blueprint of the entire level, undoubtedly aided by repeated death and destruction. It's a bit of trial-and-error and some disciplined memorization, but I love doing it because of how quick Souls games are to reward players who try and step outside its lines. I want to know everything about every location, and I'm prepared to die however many times it takes to gain that knowledge.

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Right on schedule, Bloodborne delights in throwing a wrench into this plan. By discovering new bosses or locations in Bloodborne, the player is rewarded with Insight . It's a number right below your Blood Echo total, and it purportedly alters enemy layouts or placement in Bloodborne's levels (it can also be used as a currency in a unique shop). So far it's only been responsible for a few different variations of a guy that looks like The Undertaker in the Cathedral Ward – and maybe one other specific instance.

Sometime after I defeated the Blood-Starved Beast, I noticed a grim-reaper looking fellow cloaked in back floating around behind one of The Undertakers. I was surprised to see him move much faster than I anticipated, and even more taken aback by his ability to one-hit kill my character. Now in the third tier of unexpected surprises, I found myself respawned not in the Cathedral Ward where I had been, but rather a jail cell in the middle of nowhere; Hypogean Gaol. Over the next hour I broke out, killed a half-dozen grim reaper things, murdered some giant pigs, and thoroughly explored the prison area – and that's it. I can't find a boss, every door seems to be locked, and killing everyone does nothing. Vague text in a of couple areas makes mention of deception and sacrifice, but I have no idea how to apply that information. Eventually I found a lantern to teleport me back to Hunter's Dream, but the mystery of what exactly I'm supposed to do in Hypogean Gaol continues to drive me forward.

If there's any dissent in my time with Bloodborne, it may be related to its system of fast travel. The game starts the player off (sort of) in Hunter's Dream, a hub-area full of basic gameplay tips and, with time, areas to level up, repair and boost weapons, spend Blood Echoes, buy and sell items, and talk to an older hunter and an, uh, doll. It also has a couple gravestones that offer fast travel to different lands in Bloodborne. You can't go directly from area to area, but rather you always have to return directly to Hunter's Dream first. I get why Bloodborne is doing this – as comforting as Majula felt, the necessity of fast travel was a mark against Dark Souls II – but incredible (30-40 second) loading times between death and travel make it all an arduous process. I've also established a different hub and rounded up a few NPC's at the Cathedral Ward, leading me to question the pure necessity of Hunter's Dream.

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As for what the PlayStation 4 brings to the table, Bloodborne looks fantastic. Almost every environment I've found has suffered a tremendous amount of architectural destruction, but it's nevertheless beautiful. Yharnam's opening areas relay a ruined interpretation of Victorian London, complete with crashed stage coaches and endless coffins. The lightning is absolutely perfect, shifting to pure and terrifying darkness when context demands it. There are times when I think Bloodborne is one of the most beautifully rendered games I've played, and there I times when I question if that bias is tied to how much I adore the rest of the game. It's not sixty frames-per-second like Dark Souls II on PC, but it makes up plenty of ground with its insanely detailed texture work and effective lightning. As of this writing I appear to have even stumbled onto a night cycle for Yharnam (complete with different enemy layouts and actions), though I think, rather than a natural timed occurrence, it had more to do with where I'm at in Bloodborne's narrative.

Every aspect of Bloodborne exhibits a handmade-feel not typically present in other AAA titles. Not only are From Software the masters of disguising level design with believable scenery – seriously, Bloodborne's levels don't feel like levels, but rather lived-in or purposeful narrative entries – but enemy design and placement feels explicitly constructed. With larger, open-world games like Skyrim I always got the feeling Bethesda had just loaded generic caves with troves of enemies. Pure action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have more purposeful encounters, but at the risk of condensing combat into a defined arena. Bloodborne allows its bosses the concession of a de facto arena, but enemy encampments are anything but. Nearly every area of every level has specific purpose in mind, and often a new way to challenge or develop player skill.

Yharnam's opening areas are a perfect example of Bloodborne's lesson progression. First you face one angry man with fire and a pitchfork. Then you run into enemies in stasis in the ground. Later you take on three at once, then a concealed guy with a musket, and eventually a veritable army of a dozen folks scattered around pyre. Hemwich Charnel Lane, rife with witches, also exhibits a nasty, spindly demon (which looks a lot like David Cross in that insane Mr. Show sketch). You're introduced to one, then one surrounded by witches, and then many as a compliment to that area's boss. Bloodborne is hard, but if you're paying attention, it takes plenty of time to teach all of its lessons.

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Bosses also make their presence know. Father Gascoigne opens by demonstrating Bloodborne's new and elusive approach to combat. The man has a shotgun, just like you, and he wields it in tandem with his bladed weapon – just like you. Watching the speed at which he moves and trying to account for his actions was the first time Bloodborne really clicked with me; it revealed the capabilities and requirements of combat paced differently than the Souls games. I got around Gascoigne, eventually, by strafing at the right time and finding a particularly fortuitous tree, but even that reprieve was only temporary.

I've faced six bosses so far, and of the five I've defeated all have had a running theme; they transform. After a third of Gascoigne's health was down, for example, he visibly transformed into one of the beasts implicit in the game's lore. The Blood-Starved Beast, found much later, started exuding a poison cloud that made any sort of melee assault a dangerous proposition. Vicar Amelia has a penchant for regenerating health and Darkbeast Paarl's chaotic electricity grows in range and strength. In any case this appears to be a way around the normal strategy of circle-strafing and dodge rolling every available boss, as it lets the player use a set of training wheels on normal attacks before a boss goes completely nuts with a deeper set of maneuvers.

From Software also seems to have gone a little crazy in the aesthetics of boss design. Vicar Amelia is a massive giant wolf thing overrun by wispy white strands of hair. She's constantly clutching her chest, as if in pain, and seems to favor one giant paw. The Blood-Starved Beast's preference for charging at the player is aided by a head-cape device that sort of looks like a matador's cloth. Darkbeast Paarl's immense size and pure refusal to be cornered is intimidating enough, but it's aided by impressive looking electrical effects surrounding its shards-of-rock body. If Dark Souls II had any criticisms of too many humanoid-looking enemies, Bloodborne aims to correct it almost immediately.

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All of this seems to work because I've learned to interpret Souls unique gameplay language. Old Yharnam, for example, has another hunter in a tower unloading on you with a machine gun for much of the level. This is either the worst thing in the world, or just another challenge to overcoming. By taking my time and not rushing into anything, I found a series of uniquely positioned doorways or unassuming architecture to take cover behind and make my way through the winding depths of Old Yharnam. I got caught in the crossfire a couple of times, which was bound to happen with the amount of tiny demons I was simultaneously slaughtering, but it never felt impossible. This is a microcosm of Souls and Bloodborne's design philosophy; there's always a way around, provided you look hard enough.

Knowing how to parse Bloodborne's language is entirely different skill, and unfortunately I think it's one that just has to be learned as you go. Much has been made about Souls and Bloodborne's difficulty, and rightly so. It's part of what makes it so challenging, but it doesn't factor into a general lack of direction, a cornucopia of bewildering statistical and character information, untraditional means of weapon and item acquisition, the nature of NPC's, and From Software's occasional fascination with trolling the player. If you've played a Souls game before most of Bloodborne's inherent systems will appear natural; it's part of the game. For the uninitiated, it's more likely to be a struggle. 

What's important to note is that Bloodborne's implicit challenges are (usually) not a fault of its design. A decade's worth of focus group fueled data have lead games down a path of massaging any sort of trepidation away from the player. Action games often have harder difficulties than can be applied, but few are constructed with a ground-up mentality of applying the same philosophy to an entire experience. Bloodborne isn't difficult because the enemies hit hard and their health bars are huge, but rather every aspect of its design is intended to challenge the player's sensibilities. Yharnam is only a scary place when it's unfamiliar. By exploring, accepting, and taking all of its assets into account, it's easier to analyze and respond.

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In a best case scenario, and as my running thesis with Bloodborne, it reminds of the jump between Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4. There were steps in between, of course, but Resident Evil 2 wasn't properly ascended until Resident Evil 4 came along nearly seven years later. You were no longer facing one or two zombies at a time, but rather an entire village of Los Ganados in the very first level of the game. Bloodborne almost literally repeats the same trick. It's not about dodging, defending, and one-on-one combat. It aims to break patterns players established in the Souls series, and its chosen path is to literally toss groups of enemies at the player in quick succession. It's a different type of adversity, and one which Bloodborne is prepared to take on with its slight but important divergence in player mechanics. It's all hopeless and impossible until patience and familiarity reveal that it's not.

Right now, Bloodborne isn't the next Dark Souls. It's also not more Dark Souls. It's something else – changes that appear miniscule in nature have evolved into an altogether different approach to how I interpret its challenges. It's been a struggle to psychologically break myself away from my tendencies in Souls games, almost as if they're a weird inhibitor toward my performance in Bloodborne. I suspect that I'll get better. Somehow, Bloodborne will also (probably) get better. I think we're a great match, and I'm anxious to see how far we can go. Whether that materializes in a review or another round of impressions first, more Bloodborne coverage is on the way.

 

Read more: Lords of the Fallen on PC

Dying Light is a surprisingly long game! In lieu of a timely review amidst a hectic week, I've decided to write a mess of words in response to the first half of the game. Ordinarily I'd quality check my writing to make sure it all flows together and makes sense, but I did none of that for this. That being said, check back for our review later this week - which surely will benefit from both better organization, some semblance of fact-checking, and actually having finished the game.

Dying Light exhibits a dynamic relationship between its systems and the player. Whether or not it swings your way is (sometimes quite literally) the difference between a swift execution and an intolerable mess.

If Dying Light were a language, it would undoubtable be some form of English - but vaguely unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable. Operating under the guise of realism typically disposes of certain "videogame-y" caveats, which Dying Light doesn't seem to acknowledge. Or, to put it differently, accepting Dying Light means coming to terms with some of its more insane contradictions. Parkour is a major part of the game, and falling too far down is a very real consequence - but it's a penalty that can be mitigated entirely by landing in a blue trash pile or on top any available car. Similar to the (automated) Assassin's Creed hay-dive, the world is basically yours as long as you land in the right place. Dying Light’s visual fidelity may imply that it takes place in a very real world, but it’s thoroughly a goal-oriented and heavily abstracted videogame.


Similarly, Dying Light's cache of zombies are some of the most physically realistic specimens I’ve seen. Most of their time is spent idling in the middle of the street, but they absorb and deal with impact with remarkable fidelity. They'll misstep and tumble over a railing, get tangled up together and collapse into a huge pile, and cascade off buildings with remarkable clumsiness. There's a real sense of weight to everything about Dying Light. When you drop-kick a zombie in the chest they'll fly into groups like a bowling ball. When a limb is severed it hits the ground with a satisfy thing thud. Part of the fun of combat is testing the fidelity of an in-game physics system and watching the results work in your favor. In this regard Dying Light feels like a comfortable medium between the floaty mash of an Unreal Engine 3 ragdoll demonstration and the plodding Euphoria physics that drove Grand Theft Auto IV and V.

Another positive, Dying Light has the darkest, blackest night of any game in recent memory. Games with day and night cycles typically reduce the latter to a blue-light Hollywood special, where visibility is barely hampered in the interest of actually seeing what’s ahead of you. Dying Light goes the other way, adapting principles of a stealth game and forcing the player to use their map safely and effectively. Use of the flashlight or noisy parkour antics will encourage pursuit by nighttime-exclusive Volatiles, who will typically rip the player to shreds if alerted.

Interestingly, there's an entire metagame built around more risky night time player. The experience system that drives the combat and agility skill trees is doubled during night, and the length of time in which one evades an alerted Volatile earns points for the third and final Survival skill tree. It's a tremendous risk/reward, and one that's at its peak when a learned-player is instinctively running on rooftops and playing cat-and-mouse with Volatiles.


Unfortunately it doesn't seem like the depth of Dying Light's challenge is qualified to match the player's progression. When I first started playing Dying Light there were mostly "normal" zombies, Biters, shuffling about the streets. With time came Runners (run fast and pursue relentlessly), Spitters (acid projectiles), Exploders (suicide bombers), and several varieties of thugs (monstrous but slow and powerful). As I keep playing it now seems like Runners are everywhere and its ruining any sensation of travel or exploration. I'm constantly harassed everywhere I go, and the once enjoyable parkour mechanics aren’t enough to successfully evade anything with reasonable accuracy.

The apparent solution seems to be crafting better (or at least more efficient) weapons, but I don't find group-combat all that engaging. Sure, swinging around flaming knife-staff with poison capability or an electrified baseball bat is great for racking up experience points and sort of funny the first time around, but it's boring to find and craft that stuff over and over. One-on-one battles with conscious humans make better use of Dying Light's jump/dodge mechanic, and are much more satisfying. Ideally, with my Level 12 fitness skill tree being far more fleshed out than my Level 8 combat skill tree, running should (usually) be a viable option. Instead it feels like an aimless concession. It's cool to do, but ultimately ineffective.

This was ultimately the problem that crippled Dying Light's spiritual prequel, Dead Island. Toward the end of that game the balance between player and systems strongly started favoring the latter. I was no longer playing the game for enjoyment, but rather to push my way through it solely in the interest of writing a qualified review. I stopped doing sidesquests, I stopped looking around, and I ceased having fun. Abrupt difficulty spikes seemed groomed exclusively for cooperative play, and at one point in Dead Island it was impossible for me to progress without enlisting randoms online. It wasn't a great time.

One particular aspect of Dead Island, significantly penalizing the player upon death, actually makes an appearance in Dying Light. When you die, you actually lose experience points for the Survival skill tree. The survival tree fuels abilities that are all but essential when moving through its systems. Any sort of death, whether it be an unplanned fall or accidental undead homicide, negs points to the tune of 2000 a pop. At Survival Level 10 I need 60000 or so for my next level, but and repeating deaths puts a huge dent in that progress. On one hand I love it when a game says fuck it and plays for keeps, but on the other, well, the focus-group-fueled, overly-controlled content of 2015 has made me soft.

Item durability, a statistic/attribute I typically loathe in games, actually comes out fairly well in Dying Light. Items you craft, either with consumable powerups or forged from loot-fueled blueprints, have a limited lifespan. While I hold my flame sickle precious, for example, I have to understand its use is finite. This sort of bums me out, but it also forces experimentation with new and different types of weapons. If I stuck to the same one or two weapon types I'd probably never learn about the joy slicing off appendages, or how effectively poison can control crowds.

It's also important to recognize the glut of content Dying Light is prepared to offer. At 23 hours I'm only 46% of the way through the story, and I have more sidequests available than I know what to do with. Existing sidequests have felt every bit as fleshed out as the main game, with the concession that they often make use of existing geography (campaign quests, by comparison, tend to break out into their own one-off levels). I've stolen batteries from busses, discovered the horror of a mass suicide, helped a pyromaniac light gas lines, converse with men who think I'm a brainless sycophant, and aided in an imminent pregnancy that was really a company of drunks. There's an incredible amount of content there, and while some of it is your usual open-world collectable filler, most appears to be hand crafted affairs.

To be continued!

WYMT in Hazard, Ky., reported Tuesday that the University of Pikeville (located in Pikeville, in Eastern Kentucky) will become the second college in the United States to make video games an official sport. Pikeville will begin offering at least 20 scholarships for League of Legends gamers in the next academic year.

From the article:

 

This fall the University of Pikeville will become the second team to offer athletic scholarships for eSports.

New Media Director Bruce Parsons said it is something he can smile about.

"It's actually becoming a worldwide trend," Parsons said. "This game is five on five competitive play. It takes skill, practice and a lot of teamwork."

Robert Morris University in Chicago last June became the first school to make eSports a scholarship-sponsored activity.


According to its official news release, UPike plans to compete as a co-ed sport in the Collegiate Star League, an intercollegiate gaming league open to all accreditted colleges and universities. The school will have one team competing at the CSL Division 1 level and three teams, including an all freshman group, at the Division 2 level.


It's nice to see a local university (Digitial Chumps is based in Lexington, about 2.5 hours west of Pikeville) acknowledge eSports' growing popularity among youth by awarding scholarships to those who show exemplary skills. I'm 100% for universities awarding financial aid based on skill-based criteria as long as it has applications for the classroom. And I think eSports embrace such criteria, in some ways more than traditional athletics. Plus, it's one of the few competitive venues in which men and women can compete together without their inherent physical traits providing advantages or disadvantages.

As long as the standards for maintaining a scholarship are in place (and Parsons says later these scholarships will be treated the same as those of student-athletes), I see this as nothing but a positive for the students, the school and the region. Hopefully this is another positive step towards establishing Eastern Kentucky as a technological frontier.

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2013's list was founded on the principle of raw innovation. 2014's thematic tie in-is a bit more fundamental; one cool idea. I can't think of a better way to express 2014’s drive other than games that left a profound impression by the efficiency and execution of a single great idea. In some cases I couldn't believe a game like this hadn't existed before, and others went so far down the rabbit hole of mechanical minutia they could have only been the product of everything that came before it.

If you want to go deeper into my increasingly obtuse criteria, all of these games (and probably all games I really like) somehow reproduced the feeling I experienced when I first picked up a videogame controller. Being born in 1983 and having a fairly normal middle-class white person upbringing, that game was Super Mario Bros. and the feeling was literal disbelief that I had agency over something inside of the television. At 31 I've got a better grasp on the process, but still find myself (occasionally) overwhelmed with my ability to exert some measure of control over it. Then and now, however, the general sentiment remains the same; a great idea is easy to recognize, but invariably more difficult to explain. With that in mind, I did my best to justify ten of 2014's best games.

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NIDHOGG

Messhof

I've always harbored an interest in fighting games, but never was quite good enough to put together any sort of manageable game plan. Memorizing giant command lists in Tekken and Soul Calibur didn't translate into a proper understanding of a fighting system, and even Smash Bros.' shared move-lists offered little guidance in the way of its finer intricacies. It's one thing to remember commands, but another to develop the contextual recognition necessary to properly deploy them.

Nidhogg issued a call for engagement that I responded to on a sort of primal level. Each player shares an identical set of mechanics, the likes of which are extremely limited and yet highly functional. Duel, vanquish, and run for the end is all that you need to understand. What allows Nidhogg to overcome its low-pressure ornamentation is the errant risk inside its objective goals. By managing fallen swords or consciously taking command of variable respawn placements, perceived failure quickly transitions to unassured strategy and grandstanding achievement.

The low-fi aesthetic certainly works in its favor, broadcasting its trappings as an open invitation. Anyone can play this. Give it a try. Through Nidhogg I've had some of the most intense and enduring virtual battles I've ever had with another human being, each of which offering sincere resolution whenever someone finally won. Being an adult and attending normal social situations, the convention of busting out consoles and controllers isn't as accepted as it was in my early 20's. When it happens, though, I'm secretly championing Nidhogg every time. My review

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LUFTRAUSERS

Vlambeer

Luftrausers serves as the model for 2014's surrounding theme; one look and it's easy to recognize as a god damn great idea. Angry Birds likely had nothing to do with Vlambeer's inspiration in building Luftrausers, but both tap in to the same general belief that momentum is attractive, and destroying things with that momentum makes for a great time. Luftrausers adopts this philosophy and literally attaches giant engines and obscene weapons to its general premise, all geared toward increasing the efficiency of personal and unbridled destruction.

The remainder of Luftrausers' ingredients also do well to support its signature killing machines. The eclectic and evocative soundtrack dynamically shifts based on your chosen load-out. The dueling monochromatic aesthetic communicates the game's relative simplicity, directly appealing to a wider range of players. Unconventional ideas like a side-scrolling map, vaguely random enemy arrangements, and variable degrees of terse luck help shape Luftrausers as 2014's ideal arcade experience. That particular label may have lost some of its meaning, but the core that Luftrausers seeks to impress should recognize it — and feel right at home. My review

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TRANSISTOR

Supergiant Games

Plenty of games explore the relationship between narrative and gameplay, but few are reluctant to give all of its finer details away. Transistor does just enough in either category, but leaves a tremendous amount of room to speculation and experimentation. You're given instruction toward its basic functions, but left completely alone with regard to how you're supposed to operate them. Likewise, Transistor's plot and tone are relayed through its transient narrative and wildly imaginative locals, but not enough to fully explain its delicate story. Popular media, especially videogames, is content to slam on the gas and assault every available human sense. Transistor is better content to slow down and let the player find his or her own way.

This was sort of the last thing I expected from a game centered creatively and mechanically on a talking sword. I found Supergiant's previous work, Bastion, to be emotionally affecting but mechanically lacking — the team loved and appreciated beloved games of the 90's without considering how their parts functioned as a whole. Transistor better achieves this concept while obliging a separate style of game, one that's probably more fitting of Supergiant's range of influence. As it turns out, that's exactly what I was looking for, too. My review

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LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII

Square Enix

Lightning Returns is a mess. This was the thesis of my review eleven months ago, and it’s the same general sentiment that I keep coming back to now. With that in mind, it's the kind of mess that's extremely fun to play around in. What I discovered with Dead Rising and solidified with Lightning Returns is that I greatly enjoy the threat of time set against a massive list of potential activities. The pressure should be unbearable, especially with each game meeting an unfortunate end if its needs aren't met in painstaking detail, but somehow an uncompromising time crunch makes me operate with ruthless efficiency. If I don't figure out how to get this done, then I've just wasted forty or so hours of my life.

In defiance of Square Enix's highly controlled and hilariously deficient modern output, Lightning Returns feels like a gross assemblage of every idea the XIII team was too skittish or unprepared to implement in either of the other XIII games. Quests dependent on the time of day, a job system reminiscent of X-2's Dresspheres, a (more) pure expression of XIII's battle mechanics, an open-ended approach to narrative progression, and mercilessly unloaded statistics all coalesced into Square's craziest game of the last decade. Too weird to live, too rare to die, Lighting Returns is a loaded gun of unconventional ideas and bittersweet execution. My review

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HOHOKUM

Honey Slug + Richard Hogg + Sony Santa Monica

My agitation when someone incorrectly describes Hohokum speaks directly to my passion for its incurious means instruction. Hohokum doesn't fall into the obtuse category of non-games (improperly) shoveled upon Proteus or Dear Esther. Not telling the player what to do isn't the same thing as offering nothing to do, and it's the former where Hohokum stands in defiance. There's an enormous amount of things to discover inside its disparate worlds, and literally poking and prodding at its odds and ends is the fun of the game.

Fly around, see what happens when you interact with stuff, and complete the puzzle demanded by the given context. It's a great idea, and one that I hadn't ever experienced with such consistency. Whether you're combating an elephant pulled out of psychedelic Indian folklore or properly assembling lost pieces of a roller coaster, Hohokum always makes sure you're doing something to further its cause.

Special mention also goes out to Hohokum's eclectic soundtrack, not necessarily by its insistence on reactive shifts in melody, but rather through the meditative quality behind its calm and collected rhythm. Culled exclusively from artists signed to Ghostly International, a record label with a penchant for relaxing electronic exceptionalism, each piece of music falls perfectly in sync with Hohokum's mission. Tycho makes the most significant contribution, with "Coastal Brake," "L," and "A Walk" practically defining Hohokum's lush soundtrack, but poignant offerings from Michna and Shigeto stand out as well. My review

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DARK SOULS II

FromSoftware

Dark Souls II largely gets off on being a slightly different version of Dark Souls. Marginally improving upon an established presence isn't typically enough to warrant a spot on any top ten list, but given the game being improved upon is Dark Souls — and it’s my firm belief that Dark Souls was the most important game of the last generation of hardware — Dark Souls II suits me just fine.

In all fairness, Dark Souls II had plenty going for it. Automatically de-populating Drangleic by vanquishing too many foes was, depending on your interpretation, either a welcomed bit of reprieve or a mark of shame (or, conceivably, a nightmare if you weren't good at racking up souls). Majula's warm embrace is something I'll never forget, even if the larger world lacks the contextual cohesion of its predecessor. Tack together a load of unforgettable moments - the dark stalkers in No Man's Wharf, the forced despair inflicted by The Gutter, the Bell Keepers in Belfry Luna, and the lurching assassins in Huntsman's Copse - and Dark Souls II certainly leaves enough behind to make its own lasting impression.  

Dark Souls II also allowed me the benefit of knowing what I was doing before I went in. I appreciated the process of discovery granted by total ignorance with Dark Souls, but certain bits of foresight, I think, allowed me to enjoy Dark Souls II from the get-go. It didn't help so much when the game twisted and contorted its rules into unrecognizable moments of sheer terror, but such is the inherent risk and reward of playing the game. Reminding myself to breathe typically isn't in my list of conscious functions, but every boss fight in Dark Souls ended with an exasperated sigh of relief; I did it. In the case of Dark Souls II, I did it again. My review 

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KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO ACT III

Cardboard Computer

In a medium defined by surreal escapism, none have done it with the isolated confidence of Kentucky Route Zero. Of all the ways to interpret its themes — a meditative dive into the plight of a rural culture, a vaguely detached observance of mortality, and a thoughtful rendition of transient relationships among them - what I kept falling back on was gaming's version of Twin Peaks. Alan Wake tried to reproduce Twin Peaks' setting and Deadly Premonition (probably) tried to create an identical copy, but only Kentucky Route Zero invokes a similar sense of wonder. It's not so much about following its plot as it is about sensing its characters.

Act's I and II wrote their own signature on Kentucky Route Zero's evolving mythos, but Act III's contribution came out bolder and brighter. The addition of Johnny and Junebug provided some much needed color to the cast, but with them also came a startling sense of player-authored personality. The Entertainment was the subject of a small sequence set between Acts II and III of Kentucky Route Zero, and seeing its live embrace in the form of Johnny and Junebug's concert sent its ambition soaring over any perceived horizon. Its affecting melancholy set against The Lower Depth's otherworldly aura was a perfect moment in gaming, and certainly my favorite portion of any game I played this year.

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CLOUDBUILT

Coilworks

Cloudbuilt projects a commitment to success only sustainable by games with insanely fine-tuned player mechanics, and levels designed to test those mechanics. Super Meat Boy did this with 2D platformers, and Cloudbuilt does it with—uh, well, fast-paced, 3D third-person parkour with a touch twitch-based shooting. Other games (like Jet Set Radio and Sunset Overdrive) have featured elements of functional parkour and other games (like Mirror's Edge) have used it as a cornerstone for other ideas, but none have made it their absolute concentration. From its beginning until its end, Cloudbuilt is laser-focused on providing the player with options and challenging them to engage those options in the most efficient way allowable.

Like Super Meat Boy, Cloudbuilt is also an exceptionally difficult game. There's a bit more non-linearity to Cloudbuilt, levels aren't trying to be much more than potential venues floating in open space, but it still boils down to two basic means of play; work your way through it piece by piece, or build a route and repeat it until you nail it. The narrative of a comatose and physically mangled heroine didn't do much for me, but Cloudbuilt's vivid imagery — opaque pastels, wild agriculture, and the occasional dark and dreary neon nightmare — works well within its cel-shaded trappings. In its end Cloudbuilt isn't especially easy to wrap your mind around, but there's something to be said for a game that openly declares its mission and doesn't make concessions if you don't agree.

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BAYONETTA 2

Platinum Games

Bayonetta 2 explores the finer points of fucking shit up. This is Platinum Games' modus operandi, and yet somehow there work never stagnates. It can be odd (The Wonderful 101), abrasive (Anarchy Reigns), and overly aggressive (Metal Gear Rising), but it's never boring. Platinum's insistence on internal iteration and only releasing a technically-sound and mechanically complete final product closely follows, of all development studios, Nintendo. In a fall season when almost every major title debuts in some sort mangled or half-broken state, Bayonetta 2 makes a statement by a releasing pitch-perfect product on day one.

On its own, Bayonetta 2 did well to push the boundaries of character-action games. Bayonetta was defined by the intensity of its over the top circumstances and pushing its characters and context harder and harder throughout the game. Bayonetta 2 not only flexes more technical and artistic muscle, but out allows the player a better sense of agency inside of it all. This is something Grasshopper Manufacture and Ninja Theory, whose games are drenched in style, haven't quite learned. Pushing the line is meaningless without a correspondence with player input. Bayonetta 2 responds by not only having the best mechanics in the business, but levels designed to explicitly test and focus their potential. Coming from Platinum, it would have been silly to expect anything else. My review

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EIDOLON

Ice Water Games

In the gaming landscape of 2013, there are plenty of games about exploration and even more games about pure survival. Some make these objectives a sideshow (Far Cry 4) and others feel designed to explicitly test the player's ability to manage their environment alongside their mortality (The Forest, Rust) - but few get by on narrative alone. Gone Home, Dear Esther, and other narrative-focused, non-traditional games have found success in a relatively limited environment, but have done so with a fairly easy to follow and linear story.

Eidolon responds by going against every convention in the book. Its environment, loosely based on a “post-human” Northwest Washington state, is geographically larger than (probably) anything I've played, and yet the only means of locomotion is plodding foot traffic. Its story isn't a single tale over a short period of time, but rather the lives of a myriad of characters spread out of the course of a dozen generations. Its narrative isn't absorbed from discarded audio-logs or sequential text-dumps, but rather an incredible collection of newspaper clippings, personal journals, sketches, portraits, promotional flyers, town records, and photographs. Whatever happened in Eidolon's world is long gone, but scouring its vast expanse in search of clues is an endearing hook that makes it last for hours.

Of all the games in this list, I think Eidolon has the most objective problems. The survival aspects aren't especially well thought out and mechanically irrelevant. Its crude visual construction, while allowing for plenty of sequences that are equally breathtaking and unique, starts to feel a little same-y after a while. Likewise, either stumbling upon narrative bits randomly or obliging its primitive navigation system can infuriate the impatient. Wrapped inside of it all, however, is a game that honestly asks, "What happened here?" and drives the player to answer it with each and every piece of new information. Spacing the information out acts as an informal break, challenging the player to apply it to Eidolon's sweeping narrative until the next bit is discovered. In its end Eidolon could have found a couple of ways to be a better game but, even in its present state, it's the only game of its kind. My review

Past year’s top ten lists: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Other games I greatly enjoyed this year:

Sunset Overdrive - The last to be cut off my top ten. The pure joy in navigating Sunset City alongside classic Insomniac combat made it my most surprising AAA title of the year. My review

Jazzpunk - Funniest game of the year, and it also receives The Stanley Parable Award for Advancements in Weird-Ass Narrative.™ My review

The Walking Dead: Season 2 - A familiarity with its systems and operations prevented Season 2 from affecting me the way Season 1 had, but it remains an engaging and, occasionally, intense experience.

Sportsfriends - In a world where Nidhogg didn't exist, Sportsfriends would have made my top ten. Johann Sebastian Joust is one of the best party games ever made, and Hokra, Bara Bari Ball, and Super Poll Riders are excellent companions. My review

Shovel Knight - I didn't think it was possible to simultaneously scratch a Duck Tales, Mega Man, and Zelda II itch, but Shovel Knight nailed it.

P.T. - Though less of a game and more of viral problem solving/marketing phenomenon, P.T. still managed to repeatedly scare the living shit out of me. I have a feeling Silent Hills won't carry its desperate theme or unsettling disposition, but it was worth it if P.T. influenced something else along the way.

Velocity 2X - This would have been fine if it acted as a tidy remake of Velocity alongside its new and inventive horizontal, on-foot segments. The last few levels, however, when Velocity 2X makes good on its literal title, are completely sublime.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter - It's funny what seeing a game through to its end can do. A narrative I was judging as disappointing and inept revealed its potency in its final moments. It’s probably the best looking game of the year too. My review

Alien: Isolation - I support a commitment to a craft, even when it’s abrasive to the point of being uncomfortable. There's a better seven-hour game somewhere inside Isolation's bloated twenty-hour narrative, but what remains is far from disappointing. If nothing else, it's an exceptional Nostromo-era space exploration simulator. My review

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS - I bought this game twice and haven't spent more than five hours with either version. When the 3DS Smash came out I couldn't get around its obtuse and imperfect controls, so I waited for the Wii U version. When that came out Nintendo didn't see fit to supply the market with enough any GameCube controller adaptors, further fucking any incentive I had to play it. There's an incredible game here, and one I can't wait to wrap my head around and explore with my friends, I just lack an appropriate means to engage any of it. Steve Schardein's review of the Wii U version, and Greg Schardein’s review of the 3DS version.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Could have been easy fan-service, which it unapologetically is, but it's also fairly rich and inventive dungeon crawler. My review

Murasaki Baby - In 2014 you can still find high quality, touch-based, and totally unique exclusives for the PlayStation Vita. My review

GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition] Montage Parody The Game - Peak internet. Danielle Riendeau covered this neatly over at Polygon

Flash Game It'll Take You Five Minutes Just Play It Game of the Year - The Last Night (and it's being pushed into a complete experience sometime in the future)

Most Disappointing Game of the Year - Infamous: Second Son. Whether it was marketing hype or my own dumb expectations, I thought Second Son was going to be the first "real" videogame to push and define the current generation of consoles. What I received was a slightly better version of a game I loved five years ago, which Sucker Punch already remade once with Infamous 2. A new generation should come equipped with new experiences, not better looking versions of the same things we've been doing for the last decade.

Games I regrettably missed this year: Drakengard 3, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Fantasy Life, Dragon Age: Inquisition, OlliOlli, The Banner Saga, This War of Mine, 80 Days, A Bird Story, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Broken Age: Act 1, The Evil Within, Kirby: Triple Deluxe, Lords of the Fallen, Super Time Force, D4.

Total games finished this year (which I keep track of because how else can I hope to assemble this list): 87

2014 games I finished this year: 55

Greatly looking forward to in 2015: Final Fantasy Type-0, Bravely Second, Firewatch, anything VR related, Yakuza 5, No Man's Sky, Bloodborne, Mighty No. 9, Scalebound, Persona 5, Galak-Z, Metal Gear Solid V, Tearaway Unfolded, Severed, Xenoblade Chronicles X, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Superhot, Just Cause 3, Star Fox, Volume, Yoshi's Woolly World, some playable version of State of Decay, Fallout 4, Hotline Miami 2, Ratchet & Clank. Usually I also list The Last Guardian, Mirror’s Edge 2,  and whatever Square Enix is calling Final Fantasy XV at the time, but I'm finally ready to acknowledge none of those are coming out. Ever.

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