To follow up from the previous Let’s Chat focusing on the experience Ashley Harrison had had so far with the Xbox Series X, this time around we are putting our attention onto the PlayStation 5 that released shortly after the Microsoft console. Sony released two versions of the PS5 – one with a disc drive and one without – however that is the main separation in contrast to the much more dissimilar Series X and S. As with the Microsoft machines, excitement and demand for the new PlayStation was very high, and whilst I personally have not gotten one yet, I know someone who does: Stephen Brown, who once again rejoins Let’s Chat to share his time with the new console. Enjoy!
William Robinson: Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me! For this article we are going to be going over your experience with the PlayStation 5 so far – another case of me not getting an order in, but with you here it all works out! This is your first time getting a PlayStation, so why was it that you decided to jump in to the ecosystem?
Stephen Brown: Hey Will! Thanks for having me; it is great to discuss something other than Pokémon for once, not that I am complaining. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones to grab a PS5 on launch and, wow, what a console! I have been a Nintendo gamer for years now and after seeing the trailers for the next generation consoles, I decided that it was time to experience a more powerful system. With a library of games and series I had heard amazing things about, as well as some subtle peer pressure, I decide it was time to take the leap and enter the world of PlayStation.
WR: OK, so as with the Xbox Series X article, this is going to be a lot of me asking you questions aha! So to start with, we will begin in a similar way to that article. How were your initial impressions upon finally getting the package into your hands and setting it up? As with Ashley on Series X, you had to make a new account for your new system, so was that all efficient and straightforward?
SB: My initial impressions of the package was that of excitement and disappointment. I was so excited to have this console and the packaging was so slick and clean; however, I was disappointed they did not do something as creative or unique as the Xbox Series X did with theirs. It could have been made more special, and an experience to open. Instead it was just standard packing which was quite delicate in places; I actually ripped the outer sleeve when trying to get the PS5 box out of the delivery box. The PS5 packaging itself is impactful and heavy, but nothing spectacular. In terms of initial set-up, it was a breeze. I had already been advised to set up a PlayStation profile beforehand – which took 5 minutes – so once I had set up the PS5, linking my profile was easy and simple. Furthermore, the PS5 UI is streamlined so that new players can easily work out the initial controls and features in a matter of minutes.
WR: So, the hardware itself – it is clear that the PS5 is larger than the Series X, and is quite different in design; less clean edges in favour of that curved outer shell. It appears as though it would very much stand out in a room, and whether you are into that is down to your own preference. Having seen it in person, though, your opinion on this? Any other details we may not know?
SB: Yes, much larger! I think it is the biggest gaming console yet at 39cm high, 10.4cm wide and 26cm deep when it is stood vertically. Personally I like how bold and unapologetic it is. From the curved edges, to the contrasting white shell, to the sheer size of it, the PS5 was meant to stand out and be the first thing anyone sees walking into a room. It is it’s own thing and not just another console; it requires its own space. This is probably a ploy to get you to notice it more and thus interact with it more, but it really does feel like it was designed to be ornamental in a way and not something you could easily slot away and stack with your other black boxes. I think another feature I personally love is how it lights up and feels as though it is coming alive, both on the console and the controller.
WR: That sounds neat, similar to the green glow in the Series X. With the sheer size of the PS5, how did you approach fitting it into your set-up? Have you got it horizontal or vertical, as it can do either?
SB: I went with the vertical set up, it stands next to my TV and is not overshadowed by the screen. It all sits nicely on top of my dresser drawers.
WR: Furthermore, have you had any issues with it running hot or loud, or any other unexpected issues? You have played a variety of games now, right, so have a decent idea on how it is performing.
SB: No issues with the console itself, it is virtually silent. Obviously when you put in a disc you will hear the initial whirl, but after that it is so quiet, and I have not experienced any excess heat yet. I have had a couple of hard freezes when playing Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales which forced me to unplug the PS5 in order to restart it, but I put that down to the game itself as apposed to the console. Other than that, the console performs beautifully. Graphics load in seamlessly and actions perform instantly. It is very responsive and that is reflected in the new controller too, which is honestly next level.
WR: Yeah, I have had a couple instances where Miles Morales has either crashed or gotten stuck in an animation. One of the exciting innovations of the PS5 is that controller, which I am excited to try out one day; the haptic feedback all over it seems very innovative and a pleasure to control.
SB: Similarly, I had a full crash when doing a stealth takedown, and the other time I phased through a building and started falling towards the sky. Anyway, that seems like a specific game issue as I have played two other games on my PS5 with no issues at all. The haptic feedback is next level. It adds to the game immersion and makes you feel more connected to the game, especially in a game like Miles Morales when you can feel the web stick to a building. ASTRO’s PLAYROOM, a free game pre-installed on the PS5, does a fantastic job of showing the capabilities and features the new controller has to offer.
WR: Sticky controller, nice, aha! So is it as though you are feeling the same as the character is feeling? How would you describe it? It seems to be an extension of the HD Rumble on Nintendo Switch, in a way?
SB: Exactly, not sure how it will feel in other games but so far I am very impressed. Not sure how to describe it; the controller pushes back in a way that feels responsive to your in-game actions. For example, in ASTRO’s PLAYROOM you get a monkey suit that allows you to rock climb, but some of the rocks break if you apply too much pressure, so you have to ease your R2/L2 triggers down gently to find the safe amount of pressure to let you hold on and not fall.
WR: That sounds awesome! As I say, I am eager to try one out someday. How has it been getting used to a different controller layout after playing for so long on Nintendo consoles, where A is on the right in comparison to X on the bottom for PlayStation, aha?
SB: It was weird at first and took some getting used to, but once I got going I was all good. It does feel weird going back and forth between the two consoles though, and having to remember the buttons are in different places haha!
WR: Right, so onto playing the console itself! You mentioned the UI before, but could you give us a rundown of how it is structured and your impressions on it? The PlayStation 4 has a slick row of squares you scroll through with the menus for Friends, Trophies, and more on a level one step up. Is it similar on the new console?
SB: From my experience, the UI is very slick and easy to navigate. Your games, screenshots, PlayStation Plus, and PlayStation Store are all located on one scroll menu and are easy to access with just a few inputs. Your settings and profile are all located in the top right, and a media and game option are on the left allowing you to easily switch between gaming, music, and videos with ease. The use of the PlayStation button on the controller allows you to bring up a command centre that allows some customisation, making it easy to access things like downloads, friends online, devices, and power all from the touch of a button. I am not sure how this compares to the PS4 UI, but I am very impressed with how efficient the navigation is.
WR: That actually sounds a bit different to PS4 then; I guess your main recent comparison is Switch, which goes for the clear approach with not many extras around your games. How would you compare them?
SB: Yeah, it is definitely a more sophisticated leap from the more friendly Nintendo UI – on those systems, it is very much what you see is what you get, whereas PS5 has progress reports, Trophies, and latest news located conveniently below to remind you of your success.
WR: We will get onto the games themselves in a moment, but now you have been exposed to Trophies, the question is, are you feeling yourself being sucked into being a Trophy Hunter aha? I was when I got the PS4…
SB: I have to admit, I think I have been struck by the Trophy Hunter bug. I have had the PS5 for a little over a week and I already have 3 Platinum Trophies (humble brag). I love unlocking ones unexpectedly for being inquisitive and exploring the surroundings. I also like seeing ones I am yet to unlock in the UI below before I hit play, it gives me another objective to achieve for that gaming session.
WR: Uh oh, Stephen is a Trophy Hunter everyone! Haha, so have you currently got a 100% Platinum frequency so far? I really enjoy collecting them for games that I adore and can put that Platinum next to on my profile. Very satisfying! Have you played around with the Store? It is quite clunky on PS4; I hope it has been streamlined on PS5.
SB: Haha, so far, yes, I have played ASTRO’s PLAYROOM, Bugsnax, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. All 100%, and all worth the lack of sleep, haha! I can not wait to collect more Trophies, especially for a game I love. I have explored the Store a little, and from what I have found, it is very straightforward. You can scroll down and see popular, latest release, current deals, and even filter by PS5 or PS4 titles. There is obviously a search bar as well that allows for voice input, making searching games quick and easy.
WR: Is it responsive and snappy? One of the issues on PS4 I have found is it can lag quite a bit trying to browse around.
SB: I have only explored it a little, but from what I have experienced it has been very responsive and snappy.
WR: So, game time. Run us through those games you have played again, and which you dived into first?
SB:ASTRO’s PLAYROOM was free, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales came with the console in a bundle, and Bugsnax was free with my purchase of PlayStation Plus. The first I played was ASTRO’s PLAYROOM, a fun pre-installed game where you play as a little Robot inside your PS5. The game highlights the history of PlayStation consoles, as well as featuring lots of nods to games throughout the PlayStation history that made a huge impact! From The Last of Us to Heavy Rain to God of War and a couple of your personal favourites, Horizon Zero Dawn and Tomb Raider. Very fun, and a great way for someone new like me to slowly get used to the controls and learn all the new tricks of the DualSense Controller.
WR: After playing these games, and after playing so much on Switch, has the visual and performance upgrade been very clear for you? For example, Miles Morales is visually proficient on my PS4, but I imagine it is phenomenal on PS5.
SB: Yes, there is definitely a massive difference in visuals and performance. Everything loads in smoothly and seamlessly, so that when playing a game like Miles Morales it felt like there was no limits to what I could see or do. The PS5 definitely delivers in terms of rich, in-depth details that immerse you more into the gameplay. That is not to say the Switch is bad but in comparison because it is a lot smaller and does not have the same processing power, the PS5 wins on realistic gameplay. If I was given the option of having a realistic, open world style game, like The Witcher, on Switch or PS5, I think I would go for PS5 because of the next level visuals. However, the Switch will always win with the more artistic, aesthetic style and indie games in my opinion.
WR: Yeah, similar to how Ashley spoke of the Series X, the SSD and no/short load times sound very impressive. Whilst we are on this point, which has been your favourite of the three games you have played so far? Have they delivered to your expectations?
SB: Oooh that’s a tricky one… I think I am going to have to say Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. The visuals are beautiful, the controls are amazing, the storyline is brilliant, and I love that it give you options. Whether that is which missions you do first or how you take down enemies; personally I love stealth and choosing which suit you wear, it felt like I was always in control and deciding how I wanted to handle things. That was reflected in the cutscenes and progression of the story.
WR: I imagine it helped that you went into this very fresh, not having played the 2018 precursor Marvel’s Spider-Man – so the map was new to you. I really enjoyed the extra finesse and options in combat, compared to the relatively limited moveset in the prior game that was repeated too much. The story in Miles Morales is emotional, there are energetic set pieces, and the music is fantastic – it is a great game to sink into at this time of year. I hope for the next game they find a way to mix up the combat more, as it seems there is a gunfight every block – just how many criminals can there be??!
SB: Yeah that was probably a factor. I think having it set in the winter time helps separate it from the 2018 version and changes the landscape a lot visually. Whoever programmed the snow deserves an award and probably lots of sleep! I could listen to the music all day, superb choices! It really amplifies your game experience. I think in terms of combat, that is why when battling the two main factions, Roxxon and The Underground, there is a variety in enemy weapons, with gauntlets, shields, swords, and even electromagnetic bombs. So I am okay with the smaller crimes being more gun-heavy.
WR: Especially after the first game, I would appreciate more variety of encounters, as it breaks the immersion for me just how many samey fights there are. It is almost as though there are as many of them as there are civilians in this world! Overall it is a very fun game, but did have a bit of a DLC feel to it with the similar map. Which games are you planning to play next?
SB: Yeah, I can see what you mean about it feeling like a bigger DLC, especially if you played the first one. As someone new to the game series it is a great one to get stuck into. I think next I’ll play either The Last of Us Remastered (finally!) or the new Assassins Creed: Valhalla! For now though, I am going to give my Switch some much needed love and attention.
WR: Aha yes, share the playtime! After having the PS5 for a little while, is there any aspect that surprised you or you were not expecting to be such a factor?
SB: Well, I did not expect my eyes to hurt as much as they did. Not sure if that is down to the upgrade in graphic quality, or the fact I would send hours playing, but they do not feel strained when I play for hours on my Switch. Either way, it is a small thing and after some sleep and more moderate gaming time, my eyes felt better haha!
WR: Sounds as though you have been putting in the hours! I reckon I may know the answer, but are you glad you chose to get the PS5?
SB: Yes, for a few years now I had been jealous of the range of exclusive games PlayStation had and that was a big draw for me. Many Xbox exclusives did not appeal to me and the ones that did were usually available on the Switch after a while. I am excited to finally up my game playing to more intense games that require a lot of hours to complete, like Persona 5 for example.
WR: Also, with the PlayStation Plus Collection, you have access to a vast library of great games from the PS4 to play! I am excited to hear your opinions on them. Before we finish up, is there any other aspect of the console which stood out and you would bring up?
SB: Exactly! Very excited to get stuck into a majority of them. Nope, I think we have covered everything, it is all still new and exciting so there is not anything else that stands out at the moment. I will say, and I think some other people have experienced this, that I have had a couple of crashes when playing some PS5-specific games. Whether this is a software issue or a bug that will be patched out we shall see but overall the PS5 has been truly amazing and definitely solidifies itself as a next generation console.
WR: Oh yeah, we should also mention that it seems there is an issue with viewing PS5 Trophies, as we have had issues trying to view them on your profile. Hopefully this is fixed swiftly! My plan is to get a PS5 – I reckon it shall be next year now, when there is more stock and in time for Horizon Forbidden West. I am so, so excited for another game with Aloy! Right then, I guess it is time to end. Thanks so much for joining me Stephen; next up shall be a Let’s Chat discussing my Series S after it arrives.
SB: Yes, it seems gameplay and Trophies for PS5 games are not available to view on profiles at the moment. PS4 games and Trophies appear on profiles but it seems they need to update their system. I promise I have got 3 Platinums though, and I shall be attaching an image for proof! Yeah, hopefully they do a cool Horizon themed console for the release (as if you needed another reason to get a PS5 haha). Thank you for having me William, always a pleasure!
WR: Awesome, until next time!
I hope you enjoyed this summary on the PlayStation 5 experience so far and the findings from it. If you have been playing one of the new console releases, you can let us know your thoughts in the comments below! For more Let’s Chat, you can click here. Have an awesome day!
It’s the return of Ashley Harrison and I for our discussion articles, newly renamed “Let’s Chat”! The release of The Last of Us Part II means a LOT to discuss, especially knowing how invested we both are in the first game. So, what are we waiting for?
William Robinson: Hi Ash! It’s been about two years since our last of these discussion articles, and we’re starting again with our full spoilers talk of The Last of Us Part II! It is fitting in a way, as our very first was back when the game was first unveiled at PSX 2016. To me, that seems both so long ago and yet also not long ago at all; before we really get into it, Ash, perhaps you could briefly describe your opinion of the prior game and how you went into Part II?
Ashley Harrison: Yo, how’s it’s going? Really has been a while, huh? It’s crazy to think our first of these articles was 3 and a half years ago now, after that reveal. The world really has gone crazy since then. Briefly describe my opinion of The Last of Us? Man, that’s hard, you know how much that game means to me. It’s no secret that The Last of Us is my favourite game of all time, and as a result means a lot to me. So much so I have Troy Baker signed copies of the game and its vinyl soundtrack. As a result, I was probably more on the hype train that probably most people were for Part II.
WR: Wow, that long, huh? Also shows just how much time went into the making of this game – that’s only the time since the reveal! For me, The Last of Us is a masterpiece of interactive storytelling, using the medium to create a game and story that questions you as you play it. As it is such an amazing game, I was both anxious and excited at the idea of them making another game in that world. Let’s get right into it then; having played through the game, your initial reaction now?
AH: Man.. I really wish I could give the answer I want to here. If we’re looking at it from a purely gameplay perspective, it’s absolutely incredible. It’s the culmination of over a decade of work from Naughty Dog with the style of game, starting with the release of the first Uncharted. It’s so fluid and smooth, taking the base of the original game and the addition of, in my opinion, much-needed mechanics such as being able to crawl and squeeze through gaps to breathe new life into the stealth part of the game, opening up the floor to way more ways of taking down enemies. However, from a purely story perspective, the game really just leaves me wanting more, and not in a good way. I’ll explain more as suitable, but the climax to the story especially really threw me off, as well as some serious scenes really not feeling anywhere near as important as they should.
WR: We’ll really go into the story, talking about each part, in a moment; firstly, I really do want to mention more on that gameplay. Similar to how you say, it really builds upon the prior game. Going prone additionally opens up more opportunities in exploration to find hidden are as and solve puzzles, and there are new items to craft that I found altered my approach to situations – the smoke bomb, for example. There is a real variety of situations you find yourself in, which encourages trying different approaches throughout the game. Speaking of which, the environment design in this game is utterly spectacular. The scope of the areas you play through is jaw-dropping, with such attention to detail and a sense this world was really lived-in. Was this impressive to you as you went through the game, or is your opinion on this slightly different?
AH: Nah, I’m completely there with you man, the environmental design is incredible. The attention to detail for each “level” of the game is insane, and it really does help you to truly believe you’re traversing a real world. It keeps kicking up in quality somehow too, culminating in the sequence escaping from the Seraphite island. Seeing the island burning around you after seeing what it was, all as a result of human nature and their inability to keep a truce, is incredible. My only criticism of it, however, is that the environment, specifically the fungus growing into walls, does give away the kinds of enemies you’re going to come across at points, for example in the Hotel.
WR: That’s an intriguing point; there isn’t really ever a moment where they don’t signal that the next opposition is either Infected or not, is there? More experimentation with that would have been fascinating; for me, some of the most interesting combat segments were where you could play the Infected against the non-Infected tracking you down.
AH: The places where you can pit Infected against enemies tracking you down are so much fun to play, especially because it gives you a variety of options to play those specific sections. You can either go in all guns blazing, and try to take on both sets of enemies at the same time. Or, you can throw a brick or another item into the human enemies, and let the Infected take them out, then take out the Infected, which was my favourite way of playing. Finally, there’s also the option to pit the Infected and human enemies against each other, whilst you sneak by unnoticed. It’s clever design points like that that make me love the combat in the game, and it’s a massive improvement upon the first game’s combat which most of the time is gunplay-focused. I just really wish there were more points in the game where you could do it, because to me they feel too sparse.
WR: We’ve mentioned about the gameplay, but now I reckon it is time to really tackle the story of this game in full spoiler mode. To be thorough, let’s go through the game section by section, as this is a game that at times feels split into distinct parts. We open with Joel telling Tommy about the way the first game ended, in a sorta cinematic recap; I thought this was a bit of an over-explanation, but I understand that it is for players who are playing this without having played the prior game (though, I mean, if you are, what?). Then, we have an extended prologue of sorts in and around the settlement at Jackson, where we play as both Ellie and new character Abby as a routine day goes very badly wrong. We start to be introduced to new characters, particularly ones that Ellie knows, and I also found that this opening segment re-introduced how to play in a smart fashion. The playing-from-different-viewpoints idea is one that is carried through the game, and from the start I appreciated it as a change of structure from the relatively linear first game.
AH: The game opening with Joel’s recount of the first game felt off to me also; who’s really going into this without having played the first game? Honestly, at the beginning of the game, I really wasn’t a fan of the idea of the split viewpoints, especially as Neil Druckmann had said this game was about revenge and had only spoken of Ellie being playable in any way. Though, saying that, he said the same thing about playing as Joel in the first game. I just wanted to play as Ellie and see how things are going for her, and why she was going on a journey of revenge. However, I really did come to enjoy playing as Abby throughout the second half of the game.
WR: That is an element of the game I am confident we will be discussing a lot shortly; you play as Ellie for the majority of the, I’d say, roughly first half of the game? This opening is quite cryptic in terms of Joel and Tommy – and the game is quite enigmatic about Joel in particular throughout – but it seemed, at least to me, that there was signposts of Abby having a purpose at Jackson to do with Joel. Yet, it was still shocking when Abby – after Joel and Tommy help Abby out of a tight situation against Infected, no less – takes out Joel’s leg with a shotgun and proceeds to violently beat him. Then, when Ellie gets there, and Abby kills Joel with the golf club… it’s brutal. This game pivots around that moment, as it is the motivation, or even some type of twisted justification, for the many acts of violence Ellie commits as she subsequently goes after Abby. The scene is certainly intense and impactful, but does it fuel the game in that way for you? I found that there was more of a disconnect between the gameplay and story than there was in the prior game.
AH: The game definitely peaks intensity wise if you ask me at that moment, nothing else in the game really ever reaches the same point of emotion. It’s such a dark scene and happens so early into the game, which given the story makes sense I guess, that I would’ve been surprised if they’d have managed to keep up that level of intensity. I wouldn’t say there’s a disconnect at all between story and gameplay though personally, especially during Ellie’s segments.
WR: Perhaps that disconnect is more to do with how they end the game as well, when the moment of forgiveness happens relative to other events. Is that a negative for you then, if the rest of the game was never at that point of emotion? It was believable to me that Ellie would go after the person who killed Joel, same for Tommy; and Dina going with Ellie made sense for different reasons, as their relationship gradually evolved. Throughout, I found Dina really well-developed, and her dynamic with Ellie to be told in an intelligent way, all the way through to her leaving Ellie at the end.
AH: I wouldn’t say it’s a negative for me that it never reached that level of emotion again really, as it already had the build behind the whole first game to go with it that got you invested in Joel, and for it to happen so early into the game and be so brutal really added to the emotion. Am I slightly upset that the most emotive part of the game was an hour in when the whole game is 25 hours long? Yeah, I guess a bit that I am. Was I expecting that moment to be the most emotional during the game though? Absolutely. It’s absolutely believable Ellie would go after Abby for killing Joel for me, however I’m not quite sure about Tommy. Whilst obviously 5 years have passed since the events of the first game and anything could’ve happened in that time, we learned that Joel and Tommy had a very rocky relationship, with Joel in the first game saying to Ellie “I believe his [Tommy’s] last words to me were “I don’t ever wanna see your god damned face again.”” I’m speculating here obviously, but we don’t ever really learn much more than that about Joel and Tommy’s relationship through either game. As for Dina, you’re probably going to hate me for this, but I really couldn’t have cared less for her if I had tried. Personally it seemed to be that she’s only there so that Ellie could have a companion to travel with and carry on the feeling of the first game with Joel and Ellie. The game never really made me care for her, especially when her defining moment is revealing to Ellie she’s pregnant, which in itself is just such an overused trope.
WR: See, to me, Tommy is fascinating in this game. We know he is also after Abby, and probably slightly ahead of Ellie through much of the game. Yet we only briefly see him, in the confrontation at the theatre, when he visits the Farm, and in a really smart reveal as the sniper in a sequence late in the game when you are playing as Abby. He is, in a way, the most tragic character in the story, as he loses health and his marriage to his hunt for Abby after she murders his brother. I really disagree about Dina; she is a distinct character, one who won’t – and doesn’t – wait for Ellie if she won’t stop going after Abby.
AH: I wouldn’t say Tommy is the most tragic story in the game, although he does definitely rank up there alongside Ellie. Both start the game with everything they want in life, however by the end they’ve both lost it all. If they’re going to release a side-story DLC ala Left Behind for Part II, I would love for it to focus on Tommy so that we can learn more about him.
WR: The stories of Ellie and Tommy in this game have many similarities; yes, either as DLC, or if they do a third game, playing as Tommy is an idea that could make for a powerful story. He has a certain charisma to him, yet has so many flaws. Interspersed through the 3 days in Seattle as Ellie are flashbacks – these sections, playing as Ellie with Joel accompanying you, have some delightful moments that light up the game. The museum one is brilliant; it has so many wonderful back-and-forths that take me back to their dynamic in the first game, as well as a very creepy and ominous conclusion. Thoughts on these?
AH: Man, those flashbacks. They got me so emotional watching them as I played. The chemistry between Ellie and Joel is definitely the defining characteristic of the first game, so it was great to have them back together. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker have produced insane performances once again to really make you remember why you loved those two characters. I think the reason the museum flashback especially hits so hard is it’s the first time you see Joel after his brutal death, and he’s taking Ellie to see something she’s always wanted to in the Dinosaurs exhibit. It really brings home the fact that at the end of the day, Ellie is just a kid, and you’re seeing that childhood innocence come through after seeing everything she had to go through after losing Riley to the Infected.
WR: Relative to the first game, there isn’t actually much of Troy Baker in this game; he is fantastic in his performance, but he hasn’t got that many scenes compared to Ashley Johnson. For me, there was never a moment in this game when other characters had a dynamic on the level of Ellie and Joel, not that I necessarily expected there to be. You can tell how much Joel cares for Ellie in that museum scene, and it is wonderful just to hear them talk. Oh, and, erm… ELLIE SWIMS!
AH: Can we swear? Because if so, halle-fucking-luljah! When the Instagram advert popped up on my feed a couple of days before release, and the opening part of the video showed off Ellie swimming, I genuinely can’t describe just how happy that made me feel. The definite low point of the first game was having to fetch pallets for Ellie to cross bodies of water, so that fact I never had to even touch a single pallet for that reason in this game? So much of an improvement.
WR: It’s a very different moment in tone, but in that same flashback, when you see the “I killed for them” message on the wall… for me, possibly the creepiest moment of the game because of how out of place it is there at the museum. These indirect moments of referencing the cost of the actions of Joel at the end of the first game I found much more smart than when they showed Ellie confronting Joel about it in other flashbacks. I would have preferred it being kept more subtle, with the hints at the divide between Ellie and Joel and other consequences.
AH: See, we’ve already spoken quickly about this exact scene and I’m on the complete opposite side to this. It was the single biggest secret building up to this game, and because of that it basically had to come out at some point, rather than it just being alluded to in Ellie and Joel’s interactions with one another. Saying that though, I was so disappointed in that scene itself. I really felt like it should’ve a huge, pivotal moment for the game and Ellie and Joel’s relationship, as it is basically Joel dooming the whole of humanity because of his own selfish actions, but it just falls so flat in my opinion. It’s missing the emotion I feel like should be there, and instead it just feels like a throwaway conversation between the two. What really annoys me as well is the scene at the end of the game where Ellie tells Joel that she can never forgive him for taking away the opportunity for her life to have purpose is exactly the kind of moment I was wanting, but because it’s at the very end of the game it’s hard to care as much.
WR: Isn’t that sort of the problem, though? After the first game, it was always going to be hard for that scene to live up to how you imagine it. The genius of that ending is in the way that it leaves it to your imagination, and so showing it in this game goes against that. That final flashback is beautifully told, and the idea of Ellie maybe starting to forgive Joel is heartbreaking knowing the events that come after that conversation. In a different way to the first game, it leaves it up to the imagination, but this time we know that that time was taken from them.
AH: See, for me, the ambiguity of the ending of the first game was always going to be ruined as soon as this one was announced, there was no way of getting around it in my opinion. If it had stayed as a single game, then yeah, I could imagine what happened afterwards. But again, it was too big of a secret to ignore in a sequel.
WR: I reckon there was other ways around it where you don’t have to directly show those scenes. However, I have to mention that Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker are amazing in this game. Though, and this may be a controversial opinion, Laura Bailey potentially steals the show as Abby. After Ellie has killed some of her friends, she confronts Ellie at the theatre and we are again put back in time; though this time, we are playing through events from the perspective of Abby, starting around the end of the first game. We play as Abby for a long time from this point, which is a bold move, but this dual perspective really gives a different viewpoint on the actions of Ellie and Joel.
AH: Now, I know this is the point where a lot of people say the game starts going downhill, and honestly, I don’t understand it. To me, the game actually improves in quality when you’re having to play as Abby, as you’re running into Infected more and it starts to feel more like the first game from a gameplay standpoint. However, I guess I’m also biased because I love when games and films turn the perspective and make you see the story from the “villain’s” point of view, especially with this where there isn’t any character that’s either good or evil, they’re all shades of grey and have done some really shitty things to survive in the times they’re living in. Honestly, to me, Abby is the most morally grounded character in the whole game. We find out that Abby is the daughter of the surgeon Joel murdered in the hospital at the end of the first game (he’s also the only person you do have to kill in that moment, which I thought was a great touch) so she’s gone out for her revenge as I’d assume most people would in that situation. Once she’d got that, she was quite happy to just walk away from the situation until Ellie came back and started killing her friends one by one. The viewpoint switch really does go to show that Ellie really isn’t the innocent, perfect character people see her as.
WR: In my opinion, that flip of perspective is where a lot of the new ideas this game has come from. Revisiting areas that were previously hostile but, as Abby, are areas populated by people surviving, challenges how you consider the world this game presents to you. The game seems to make a point to make you play as Abby through these events after playing through them as Ellie, really hitting you with the inevitable consequences of the people you have affected. The relationship between Abby and Owen stood out to me; it has so many layers to it that make you invested, and yet the whole time you know that Ellie kills Owen. Abby also has different attributes and items which can affect how you play, which is a nice touch. The items she can craft are more directly damaging, for example.
AH: Again, when we had our quick conversation before properly doing this, I said that the whole time with Abby and Owen, there was obvious sexual tension, to the point where I was just like “can you two just hurry up and have sex already?”, not realising that’s actually where it ended up. Given that you only see their relationship and how it develops after you’ve already killed Owen as Ellie, I’m honestly so surprised at how invested in that love affair (in both senses of the phrase) I was. Abby’s exclusive items are so good, big shoutouts to the pipebomb and flamethrower weapons, definitely saved my ass on multiple occasions against the Shamblers, Clickers, and that absolute monstrosity in the Hospital Basement which I’m sure we’re going to talk about.
WR: Okay, so, yeah. For me, they went overboard with the Infected design there; I get that there are references to the Infected underneath the Hospital being there since the Outbreak, and the design of that area is very eery. However, when we get to the boss-style Infected… it gets too arcade horror for me, with this Infected of multiple bodies. The way it quickly charges around that area just doesn’t click (no pun intended) with me, tonally feeling way off from other Infected encounters. I more envisage a slower, more imposing Infected being the result of such a long gestation period. However, I will say that the flamethrower was very useful there!
AH: I will agree it definitely seems odd that it’s so fast, as we know that as the infection progresses, the movement of the Infected slows down, with Shamblers and Bloaters being super strong but extremely slow moving as the last stages of infection. I’d disagree it gets too arcade horror though, I always saw it as a natural progression. We know that Infected can start to merge into the walls with the fungus growing, as we come across this multiple times during the game, so I don’t think it’s that hard to believe the idea of “There’s been Infected in a confined, untouched area for the last 25 years, could they possibly have merged together in some way?”
WR: It isn’t really the merging together, as that makes sense, it is more the overall presentation of that fight gameplay-wise and the design of the Rat King. At that point in the game, it felt as though I was supposed to be terrified, but it more just seemed a bit ridiculous. The Shamblers are better designs; an Infected that evolves to disperse spores in such a violent way fits the theme of it being natural and evolving over time. Overall, through the game did you prefer the Infected or non-Infected encounters?
AH: If we’re just looking at it from a straight up gameplay perspective, personally for me, the Infected fights are more enjoyable than those of the human enemies. However, the story behind the human enemy fights are a lot more engrossing than those of the Infected. I think here is where it loses the connection slightly to the first game, as the story for that was always about the fights against the Infected, and the fights versus the human enemies seems like a sub-plot. Contrastingly, for this game, the roles for that have been reversed and honestly? I’m not too sure I’m a fan.
WR: Is a possible reason for much of that is because of the war going on between two factions, the WLF and the Seraphites, throughout the game? I am not sure enough was done to make me invested in this battle; more time with characters such as Isaac (Jeffrey Wright) may have helped here to really show the motivations of the leadership on either side. Instead, it seemed more of a crossfire you are navigating through.
AH: I’m so surprised that we don’t ever really see the leaders of either side all that much within the game so that they can explain their motivations. Given it takes up over half of the story, I think I can count on one hand the number of interactions you have with Isaac, none of which are particularly that long, and I don’t think you ever run into the leader of the Seraphites, do you? I honestly can’t remember, and if you do, it shows just how little the game makes you care.
WR: It even seemed to me that Isaac was being set up as a character who would be crucial to the story later on, but then he is killed quite abruptly; it is even as though they only had limited time with Jeffrey Wright? This war is really prominent in the life Abby leads, and yet for me a lot of the time playing as her I was more anticipating her interactions with Owen and Ellie.
AH: Oh for sure, especially wanting more of her interactions with Ellie, although I guess that that’s because you’re obviously emotionally connected to Ellie, and want to see more of her, as well as knowing how the story ends up so you’re left wanting to see how Abby and Ellie interact with one another once Ellie’s killing spree of Abby’s friends has gone down. You just knew that something big was going to happen between the two of them.
WR: It makes me wonder why they ordered the sections of the game the way they did; that section playing as Abby is extensive, and there is a risk of a lot of it being overshadowed by the knowledge that there is a confrontation with Ellie on the way. Perhaps it was almost meant to be exhaustive, to really force you to find more out about the life Abby leads to that point. I reckon maybe another flashback or two, similar to the aquarium one with Owen, may have helped the pacing here, as the combat is frequent.
AH: You see, I personally don’t actually mind that the extensive amounts of combat during the Abby sections you play, without much downtime. It really hammers home the fact that this is what they have to go through in order to just survive in this world. Abby and the WLF aren’t only stuck in a war with the Infected in their day-to-day lives, they’re stuck in another against the Seraphites as a result of a broken peace treaty. As well as the fact that it helps break up the monotony of the combat by not just having you face one type of enemy constantly, it actually makes me sort of feel sorry for Abby because she never really wanted to live this life, she was quite happy as a Firefly until Joel ended all of that in the first game.
WR: The aspect that really stands out is that after they murder Joel, they make a point to not kill others, and they show that again later on in the game. Ellie, though, goes through several of the people close to Abby, and that moral difference makes you question Ellie a lot. When you play through the sequence where Abby discovers first Alice, then Mel and Owen all murdered, it hit me in the core; it’s a powerful way to show the cycle of violence these people are in.
AH: Yeah, Abby is quite content on getting revenge on Joel alone for murdering her Dad, whereas Ellie is determined to take out every person that was at the scene when Joel was killed, despite the fact that it’s Abby alone who shoots him with the shotgun and then finishes the job with the golf club. The fact that Ellie is willing to go to whatever lengths it takes to avenge Joel’s killing (we finally know who the “I’m gonna find, and I’m gonna kill, every last one of them” line from the original trailer is about!) is the main thing that makes me say that Ellie isn’t at all a good person in this game. Abby spares her life on two separate occasions, whilst Ellie only does the same at the end of the game.
WR: Is it just me who finds that Ellie becomes more and more similar to Joel as this game goes on? That determination to hunt them down, and even the way she acts during combat, reminds me of Joel in the first game. So, when you reached the theatre, and you play as Abby against Ellie, were you on the side of Abby at that point of the game? It’s fascinating that Ellie becomes the opposition in the gameplay, yet which of the two were you backing throughout that?
AH: She definitely does become more and more like Joel as the game progresses, that’s a very good observation. She definitely gets more and more selfish as time progresses, to the point where it causes her to lose everything, and everyone, around her. It’s her determination to hunt Abby down that causes her to lose Dina, probably the most important person to her besides Joel. With the theatre section, I can’t actually say that I was rooting for Abby, despite having just spent the last chunk of the game playing as her and seeing her side of the story. I think that’s the game’s intention though, to make you uncomfortable whilst fighting Ellie, because she’s obviously the person you’ve spent a game and a half getting to know and empathising with. The hatred still lingers for Abby for what she did to Joel from my point of view, what about you?
WR: Even though I question so many of her actions, there is such an emotional attachment to Ellie that she is still the one I side with. That fight is tough too, with Ellie being a formidable opponent – as you would expect. It is Abby who emerges with the advantage, and again leaves Ellie alive; at this point, I find it tragic that these two people are in this cycle of violence that is damaging their lives. If Ellie and Abby talked more, I reckon they may even discover similarities between them.
AH: I don’t think they could ever get along with each other for that exact reason personally, they’re far too alike to one another. Even their stories in this game match up perfectly – they both have lost the person that means the most to them, and all they care about is avenging that fact, no matter what lengths it is that they have to go to in order to achieve that.
WR: Is there any other points about the game to this point you would have us mention at this juncture? Otherwise, we shall go on to the first appearance of the Farm; at first I wondered if this was the end of the game, with Ellie and Dina settled outside Jackson after Dina has given birth to J.J.; there are some great quiet moments here, and seeing Ellie as a mother figure after all the events you have played through is emotional. Then, herding sheep, suddenly her trauma from the murder of Joel strikes her.
AH: If the game had have ended there, I think I would’ve been even more annoyed at the ending than I already am to be honest with you. It just seemed like such a dumb place to end it, however, like you said, it felt like that was going to be the end for whatever reason. You know what absolutely broke me in that section specifically? When you’re holding J.J. (I’m gonna assume it stands for Jesse Joel or something myself) and go outside and sit on the tractor, Ellie says to him that “she’s going to teach him how to play guitar.” To me, that was a perfect way to bring a whole full circle to that, and carries on Joel’s legacy. Joel taught Ellie how to play guitar, having promised her at the end of their journey, and now Ellie is promising at the end of her journey to teach J.J. how to do the same thing when he’s old enough.
WR: That’s a great point; I also found being able to engrave initials on the tree a touching moment, especially when you revisit the Farm and see them again. The trauma Ellie feels about Joel is done well; it suddenly hitting her as she goes about her life is an apt representation of how an experience can impact you. When Tommy arrives with a lead on Abby, and Dina is trying to make Ellie stay, which side are you on?
AH: I’m automatically on Tommy’s side trying to get Ellie to go with him after Abby, purely because I feel like that’s the ending that the game justified; Ellie has gone this far, she can’t quit now. Had the game instead ended with Ellie staying at home with Dina, I would’ve been even more disappointed in the ending than I already am with the actual ending.
WR: Okay, we’re nearly at the ending; Santa Barbara is the setting for much of the final stages of the game, first playing as Abby, then as Ellie. Abby searching for a newly regrouping Firefly movement is a positive, forward-facing act, yet we never see these Fireflies. Instead, Abby is ambushed and captured, and suddenly Ellie hunting for Abby started to have the feeling of a rescue mission to me. Can I just say; this section of the game is STUNNING. That beach area when Ellie arrives? Wow.
AH: I think this is definitely the best looking section of the game by a mile, so I’m with you, it’s absolutely stunning. You know what though? I don’t actually think Abby ever got in contact with Fireflies; it was all just a set-up. My own (purely speculative, of course) theory is that that “Firefly Base” had long been taken over by the new enemies introduced for this final portion of the game, and the radio frequencies left on the table were hoaxes left by the enemies, except the one where she gets a reply, which is a direct link to them rather than Fireflies as Abby thought. Whilst we know from the Ellie section that the enemy base isn’t all that far from the safehouse, it’d explain how the enemies got there so quick to capture Abby; they were monitoring that base.
WR: That makes a lot of sense now you say it! Especially as they ambush them straight after, immediately as they leave the house. Fighting Infected in a more sunny, bright area was quite refreshing too. Those battles were dynamic, having a really different feel to other encounters in the past. I thought the non-Infected you face weren’t developed much though; for example, the two that are killed after Ellie is captured. Her using her immunity to her advantage there is a new idea too; though, that injury against the tree seemed really severe, and she stitches herself up without us seeing. I actually, despite the game being quite long, reckon more detail around this sequence would have helped.
AH: Yeah, I would’ve loved more development for them. Do we even know what they’re called, and what their motivation for hanging people on stakes is? I genuinely can’t remember that ever being mentioned in that final section. My favourite part about that level of the game though, I have to say, is the fact that you can release the Infected from their chains and temporarily have them join your side of the battle, taking out the non-Infected enemies. It’s a neat little battle mechanic that obviously we’ve mentioned you can see glimpses of earlier in the game, but this is the first time you can manually pit the Infected against non-Infected enemies.
WR: It’s slightly different to those earlier encounters – it makes me sorta wonder why there wasn’t more of it, as there is so much combat in the game. Wouldn’t the WLF and the Seraphites use Infected in their war? It seemed there is a whole operation going on in Santa Barbara that we find not much out about. Especially, again, compared to how much of the game is spent on the WLF and the Seraphites. This final part was quite tough, but to me wasn’t as suspense-building compared to the Firefly hospital in the first game, where you could really sense that you were at the finale. Here, you save the captured people, and – to me – the game quickly shifts into finale mode, with Ellie starting to struggle more.
AH: You honestly found it tough? To me, it was too easy, there was just too much stuff to hide behind so you could get a decent angle to either shoot the enemies, or sneak up on them to stealth kill them. Definitely wasn’t as suspense building as the Firefly Hospital in the first game either, I’ll agree with you there. At that point you know that the endgame was there, and it was a race against time to save Ellie before the operation started. The search to find Abby at the end of Part II doesn’t have anywhere near the sense of urgency in my opinion.
WR: I played on Hard, how about you? Not to compete, just wondering, haha! Yeah, agreed, though with the setting and new opposition, I reckon it could have been; it was paced in a way that didn’t seem smooth to me. Okay, so here we are – the discovery of Abby tied up. Ellie cuts her down, and they move over to where the boats are. I know you have a strong opinion on the next part…
AH: I did just play on Normal difficulty using all the default sliders, though I really do wish I’d turned up the frequency of ammo drops because I think I found myself without ammo more times than I ever did in the first game. Man, oh man… This fucking ‘climax’ to the story. Genuinely this has brought down my score alone that I’d give the game. For anyone wondering, the climax of the game sees you fight Abby and attempt to drown her in the sea, and just as Abby is about to die Ellie suddenly sees Joel and decides to let Abby go free. I get why the game ends this way, Ellie is breaking the cycle of revenge that she knows would only lead to Lev coming to find Ellie and exact revenge on her. However, am I really supposed to believe that after everything Ellie has been through to get revenge on Abby, after travelling from Wyoming to Seattle (a journey Google says takes 16 hours in a car, a luxury obviously not enjoyed in the game), after murdering each of Abby’s friends one by one, that she would really let Abby leave alive at the last second, purely because she saw a vision of Joel that hasn’t bothered her in the journey up to this point? She’s killed numerous innocent people on the journey to find Abby, and yet she can’t finish the job. The game is too long and too much happens to Ellie during it that it makes it impossible to believe that Ellie would show mercy at this point, she’s too far gone mentally that letting Abby go just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
WR: There is two sides to it for me; the idea of that conversation with Joel inspiring Ellie to break the cycle is beautiful, especially with the connection to the finale of the first game. Yet, as you say, for it to happen in that way, after all the events of the game… it doesn’t quite work. Also, the 1-on-1 combat is clunky; there is a melee fight at the end of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as well, so it seems to be a way the developer is going, and I am not much of a fan. That shot of Ellie isolated in the water, though, connects back to your point about her; she has lost so many people.
AH: And that point is rammed home even further upon returning to what was Ellie & Dina’s home after letting Abby go, only to find Dina and J.J. have left Ellie. This is, without a doubt, my favourite moment of the game and the fact it comes after the lowest point of the game for me is such a juxtaposition between the two moments. You realise in this moment just how much Ellie has lost. She’s lost her parents. She’s lost Riley. She’s lost Marlene. She’s lost Joel. And now she’s lost Dina. The ending of the journey has left her with less than she started with. If you think back to the first game, there’s a moment with Sam after the sniper point and Sam gets bitten, where Ellie and Sam are having a conversation, with the latter asking Ellie “How is it that you’re never scared? […] What are you scared of?” Ellie’s answer to that is “Being by myself. I’m scared of ending up alone.” And with everybody that she’s lost along the course of both games, that’s exactly what’s happened to her at this point. She had everything she wanted, and because she couldn’t let Joel go she’s ended up alone. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of storytelling that reminds you that when The Last of Us is good, it’s absolutely incredible. It upsets me so much that people aren’t making the connection between that scene with Sam, and this moment at the end of Part II, because it’s such a vital piece of lore behind this ending. I’ve had to explain to so many people online the significance of Ellie ending up alone.
WR: I also got a vibe that she was heading back to Jackson, though, and perhaps she has seen how much she has lost and is going to try and build relationships again, with Dina, with Tommy, with others. That is really complex and intelligent character development. That final sequence at the Farm, with the flashback, is so emotional. Finding out right at the end of the game that Ellie was really going to try and forgive Joel, despite every event, and that opportunity was lost… that really hit me. It isn’t at the end of a game that builds to the moment as well as the first game built to an ending, that’s a key difference. For me, forgiveness is perhaps the key theme of this game, and the ability to allow yourself to be open to it.
AH: Revenge and forgiveness are undoubtedly the key themes of the game, but the most significant piece of forgiveness just happens too late for it to be believable, as I’ve already said. That final cutscene with Joel that you mentioned where you find out Ellie was willing to try to forgive Joel for taking away her purpose in life, it’s absolutely beautiful. I mentioned earlier how I felt like the big scenes lacked the emotion that I felt they deserved, especially the scene of Ellie finding out Joel lied to her, but this one doesn’t suffer from that in the slightest – this is the exact kind of scene I was hoping for more of. It genuinely broke me that despite the fact Joel took away what could have been her purpose in life, and she’s obviously angry at him for it and rightly so, she’s willing to try and forgive Joel because of everything they’ve been through together and the fact that at this point, she really doesn’t know any other life.
WR: It’s the type of scene I am after; it is a consequence of the first game, but builds on it with ideas that are dependent on that game instead of repeating to the audience the events that have happened. The problem is that it takes until the ending to get a scene at this level. The first game excels at weaving gameplay and cutscenes together into an absorbing narrative, whilst this game felt a bit more as though I was playing towards story points. In your opinion, where is Ellie heading towards? Back to Jackson? Off on her own? Perhaps another way? Also, would you prefer they leave the story as is now (with the possible exception of DLC), or keep going – potentially to form a trilogy?
AH: I’m fairly sure she’ll probably head back to Jackson and reunite with Tommy, rather than set out on her own. She knows she’s safe there and time can heal most wounds, so I don’t think Ellie would risk her own life to go off on her own. As for the story, I’d love to see a Left Behind style DLC that focuses on Tommy and develops his story more. It’d be a good way to bring Joel back, and could help fill in the 5 year gap between the ending of the first game and the beginning of this one. As far as whether to make it into a trilogy or not? I’m firmly in the ‘no’ camp for this one myself. The climax to this story has turned me so far off the idea of another game, it’s such a letdown.
WR: Yeah, as aforementioned, more on Tommy please! I would be concerned that they would have an even greater scope on another game, and it would have even more of a problem with under-developed ideas than this game does. If it was a really focused story on Ellie returning to Jackson and finding Tommy, as well as maybe seeing where Abby and Lev go (to try and find Fireflies? Unless they reckon that was part of the ambush), then perhaps. A lot of my anxiousness about this game losing restraint was founded, though – I would prefer if they had not made a second game.
AH: After playing it now, knowing everything I know, I’d have preferred it without a second game honestly too. The first was perfect with the story and how it leaves such an open ending for you to imagine yourself what happens after the game. As an aside, have we mentioned just how good the sound design is? Despite the fact Gustavo Santaolalla can’t read or write music in the traditional sense, he’s composed 3 incredible soundtracks for the series. My favourite moment sound wise from the whole game is in the hospital basement. As you start exploring, it starts with a simple, slow drum beat. As you progress though and get closer to the Rat King, more and more instruments are added and the tempo increases, really adding to the drama of that moment. It’s genuinely incredible, and had my heart racing even just walking around in the basement.
WR: It seems harsh to say it, perhaps, with all the work that went into this game – and as a piece of art it is undoubtedly technically phenomenal; the performances, the visual graphics, the gameplay systems. The soundtrack to this game is amazing, as is the sound design. The unique way Santaolalla creates music is astounding to me, and creates such a sense of atmosphere that is distinct to this game. Yet, story-wise, it feels unnecessary to me, and that is at the forefront of The Last of Us as a series.
AH: Absolutely. For such a story-focused pair of games, The Last of Us Part II gets everything else so right except the story.
WR: After finishing the game, how were your emotions? In addition, how compelled are you to play through the game multiple ways in comparison to the first? I felt I was thorough, yet I have many collectibles to find!
AH: The game is such a rollercoaster of emotions, when it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad it’s awful, and that’s personally how I felt. There are definite low-points, but absolutely more high points. However, between the combination of game length and the fact that Ellie lets Abby go free at the end of the game, I’m really not likely to do anything more than a collectible runthrough to obtain the Platinum trophy as like you, I thought I was pretty thorough but apparently I missed so many! In comparison, I’ve genuinely done nearly 20 runs of the first game.
WR: I am not sure whether I shall go for the Platinum; I often go for the Platinum on games I connect with on an exceptional level, and I don’t reckon this game is on the level of the first. Right, unless there are other elements you reckon we should mention, we’re gonna go onto our scores! We have discussed a lot about the game, but at the same time there is so much more we could talk about!
AH: I think we’ve covered everything now that I’d want to talk about! Any further discussion would just be repeating points, and I’m sure we’ve already done as such haha! How are we doing this? A score out of 10 I assume? If we’re going for that, then I think a fair review score would be a 7/10. Like I said there are such incredible moments in the game, but there are severe problems that I have that I don’t think I could justify anything more than a 7.
WR: See, this game is so tricky to score! It is stunning in many ways – as a production it is really impressive. Those key story flaws, and a lack of restraint in multiple areas, really affect the game for me, and led to moments where I was not on board with the direction the game was taking. It’s impressive, ambitious, so flawed – a 9 from me.
AH: A 9? Honestly that’s higher than I was expecting. With such critical flaws, I could never imagine giving the game that high of a score.
WR: It’s the level of detail in the world, and the improvements to parts of the gameplay, as well as how ambitious they have been with the story they have told. There is so much smart about the game, even with all the flaws. Would I have preferred no second game? Yes. However, if I am scoring this game, I have to consider just how impressive so much of it is.
AH: See, I can’t give it extra points for ambitiousness in the story when it falls completely flat on its face at its most vital point for me. I appreciate what they’ve tried to do, but yeah… It’s definitely impressive in its scale and scope, and I fully commend everyone at Naughty Dog for what they’ve achieved, but for me the most important part of The Last of Us is its story, and Part II just doesn’t do it for me.
WR: There are those shining moments, at points in the flashbacks; at the end; in the structure of the game, that show me that those ideas are there. The flipped perspective with Abby is really clever and shows a nuance a lot of games do not have. It is a game I can imagine inspiring a lot of creators in years to come to try alternative methods with their video game narratives.
AH: I definitely hope that more creators take up the idea of a dual perspective; showing multiple viewpoints definitely helped my enjoyment of the game. It also helps provide more depth to the supposed villain if you get to see things from their side of the story. In this case, it definitely helped to humanise Abby, and see her as more than just a random person who murdered Joel.
WR: Yeah, so many games have underdeveloped opposing characters; perhaps now more people shall see that there are many ways to provide another perspective on the events of a game. Keep an eye on narrative styles in the years to come, and see if there are more experiments with alternative viewpoints on the events within games. It’s been a delight doing this again. Let me know when you get that Platinum, haha! Until next time!
AH: Until next time!
I hope you enjoyed the return of this series of article! These are going to be recurring from now on; let us know if there are any particular changes you suggest. Also, leave a comment about your thoughts on The Last of Us Part II; we could discuss more!
– This article was originally posted on 26th March 2018 and is being updated and archived here. I am bringing over the back catalogue of Let’s Chat gradually, and finding that going back to these moments in time has nostalgic appeal! –
Look, video game to movie adaptations have not had a great history. The Super Mario Bros. movie is infamous for putting Nintendo off the whole movie thing for a long time (they are now developing a new Mario movie), and other attempts like the recent Assassin’s Creed did not do much better.
Now, the Tomb Raider franchise is giving it another shot. The Angelina Jolie incarnation of Lara Croft has a fanbase, but now Alicia Vikander is taking up the mantle in a movie based off of the successful – and brilliant – 2013 reboot that has since been followed by a sequel (Rise of the Tomb Raider) and a trailer for a third game (Shadow of the Tomb Raider). This version of Lara Croft that Vikander portrays is not yet the fully formed Tomb Raider – she is learning and developing as she tries to discover what happened to her missing father. This week on Let’s Chat, Ashley Harrison and I discuss the new movie and the possibility of it being a good video game adaptation!
William Robinson: Another year, another video game movie attempt, eh? This year it is Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise giving it another go, based on the brilliant 2013 reboot; and instead of Angelia Jolie as the star, we have Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina). My first question to you, Ash, is simple: has the video game movie curse finally been broken?
Ashley Harrison: I would not say that the curse has finally been broken in my opinion. Whilst Tomb Raider is an incredible film, and Vikander does a great job bringing Lara to life, I think it will take more than just one good film for me to have faith in any more game to movie projects.
WR: That’s a fair point. The genre feels young though, and like it is finally developing into something with credibility. Whilst not groundbreaking in terms of films as a medium, I think Tomb Raider was a solid action film that harnessed the spirit of the game.
AH: Definitely so. I think even without the Tomb Raider branding, it would have been a solid action film that I would have eventually gotten around to seeing.
WR: I am a pretty massive fan of the rebooted games, including the sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider and the upcoming Shadow of the Tomb Raider. So for me, it was elevated by the links to the source material – what is your history with Lara Croft, and how did you approach this film?
AH: Obviously I have played some of the games, as I think most people have done, but to be completely honest with you I have never actually completed one or played enough to give much of an opinion on them. As such, I approached it with a basic knowledge of what to expect from it, but went into it with a completely open mind pretty much.
WR: For me, Alicia Vikander managed to embody the determined and self-dependant, yet vulnerable, Lara we see in the origin-style new games. I mean, Alicia clearly brings her A-game as far as I am concerned; from her losing a boxing fight at the start to doing whatever it takes to survive on the island, she brings that character to life.
AH: Indeed. She got into the role perfectly and I can not imagine a better choice than her to have played Lara. The fact she put on 10lbs of muscle to play Lara shows to me that she is dedicated to the role for sure.
WR: The emotional heart of the film is her search for what happened to her father, which is what brings her to the island of Yamatai. Let’s have a quick review from you of the general story. Yes, I am putting you on the spot here!
AH: It is a story of redemption and friendship to me. I am not really sure how to elaborate more on that without giving away spoilers for the movie.
WR: I mean, I think now is a decent time to go into spoilers. Let loose, I say.
–SPOILER WARNING: FROM THIS POINT ON, SPOILERS FOR TOMB RAIDER ARE DISCUSSED.-
AH: Alright, well, if you are sure. As I said, to me it is a story of redemption, and we see this with both Lara and her Dad (Dominic West). Lara wants redemption and the truth after being told her Dad was dead, which is what causes her to go on the journey to find him in the first place. Lara’s Dad feels guilty for leaving Lara, and his redemption is sacrificing himself to save Lara and the world from the curse of Himoko. And of course, the friendship that builds between Lara and the Asian dude (Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu) and becomes a major point in the movie with both helping the other when really they have no reason to.
WR: Great job, Ash. Her father being alive is a departure from the games that kinda threw me for a second, but it worked, and him sacrificing himself was a powerful moment. What did you think of the actual tomb raiding at the end, and the revelation of the magic actually being a disease of sorts?
AH: I loved the actual tomb raiding at the end, it was a perfect combination of action and puzzle which worked really well together; more than I expected, actually. It was not so simple it was insulting, and actually felt believable as to being stressed under the pressure. The “magic” actually being a disease threw me, I am not going to lie. I did not expect it at all, but at the same time, it makes sense as to why she would have been buried so deep with so many traps as to prevent anyone using the disease for their own purpose, and to stop the disease spreading itself.
WR: I agree, it generally worked for me – I would maybe have liked more insight into how Lara is working out puzzles like the door to the tomb, but that could also be the kind of obtuse sequence that would have derailed this into a generically bad game movie. What I did love was a sequence where, just after finding her father alive, Lara takes her now-signature bow and ducks and dives through a manned camp, using cover to stay hidden. It felt like the game come to life, and it was AWESOME.
AH: The door to the tomb puzzle was explained superbly yet so unobvious. It was the same as the spy glass that Lara’s Dad gave her, so through a process of trial and error she learned to unlock the spyglass, and she just remembered that pattern naturally over time. For sure that scene especially was awesome! As you said, it felt like the game come to life and for me, that is all that matters. It felt like I was watching someone actually engaging in combat knowing they are at a severe disadvantage from the start, and using their brain to work around it rather than just going in all guns blazing and somehow miraculously surviving.
WR: Yeah, the film never went over the edge into completely ridiculous, game-y action. What were your favourite action scenes?
AH: It is between the camp scene we have just been discussing, and the escape from the tomb for me. What about you?
WR: The plane sequence might have been up there, but it was so heavily promoted that I knew it was coming. If you go back to the start of the film, I actually might say the London bike chase sequence where, if Lara evades the other riders, she wins a load of money; it shows her feisty but perhaps arrogant mindset whilst also being a thrilling – and unique – chase scene. It would make me wanna try that, but it is apparently illegal, so…
AH: It is only illegal if you get caught, sooo….
WR: We gotta be balanced, though – any negatives or things you were not so wild on?
AH: To be honest with you, no, not really. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole movie.
WR: Oh, wow. I think some of the middle act moved a bit quick and was quite straightforward, but that approach also works for the movie, I think. It lets the characters develop and take centre stage. Different question, then – disregarding box office (where it is doing okay, the movie should at least make the budget back), would you like a sequel, and what would you like to see if one happened?
AH: I would love to see a sequel, and I would definitely go watch it. As for what I would want to see, just give us more of everything. More tombs, more action, more puzzles, more guns. And of course, more Alicia Vikander.
WR: Do not pine over her too much there, Ash… haha!
AH: Shush haha! Even though people were not particularly too keen on it, I would also like more of Lara’s non-tomb raiding life in there. It would give the writers and directors more ways of fleshing out her character.
WR: I would like a little more of her relationships with the side characters, too. Developing her relationship with Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a big part of Rise of the Tomb Raider, so I can see that being a natural route for the sequel. Also, more Nick Frost, please.
AH: Oh, definitely more Nick Frost. And have Simon Pegg in there for good measure too, but never have them interact.
WR: Leaning into the snow-covered locations of Rise of the Tomb Raider would be awesome cinematically, too. Poor Vikander might have to suffer some cold, though… Let’s circle back to the start, then – this is a good game movie, but do you see it changing anything? Do you expect the upwards trend to continue, with films based on properties such as Uncharted supposedly in development?
AH: I think this could be the start of a good change in the genre, and Uncharted could do nothing but continue that. Hopefully this encourages more film makers to pitch game to movie projects and they become as frequent and high quality as superhero films are right now.
WR: That is a really good point. Films took their time to properly embrace the rich comic source material, and games have a similarly massive well to draw from. If audiences start liking what they see, we could have so many stories finding new opportunities. Imagine say, Life is Strange or other story-based games being used as a source!
AH: I am not really sure how a Life is Strange movie would work, but hell, I would be up for it. I think the best course of action would be to stick to mainly action games personally, but I would love to see every genre given at least one chance to shine.
WR: In the case of Life is Strange, I think a TV series would work best, but I digress. There are mixed reactions out there to the 2018 Tomb Raider film, but overall I think the reception is definitely a step forward. There is positivity out there which seemed massively lacking for the likes of Assassin’s Creed.
AH: Yeah, there is definitely more positivity towards this than Assassin’s Creed, and that can only be a good thing.
WR: Poor Michael Fassbender realises Alicia Vikander is his partner OK, actually, maybe he will be fine.
AH: Maybe he will. Or maybe he will be even more upset his wife made a better movie.
WR: Closing thoughts then: Give us an arbitrary score out of 10 for Tomb Raider, and will you be getting a Blu-ray? Or do you hate physical media and want us to lose any sense of justifiable media? HUH?
AH: I give it a solid 8/10. It is not the best movie in the world, but it is still a solid movie definitely worth watching, I will be getting the Blu-ray at some point, though just not when it releases.
WR: I will agree with that, 8/10 is a good score. Not groundbreaking in terms of the medium, but perhaps in terms of the genre and where game movies can go from here. Give me that steelbook, Warner Bros. ; oh, and that soundtrack vinyl, too. Junkie XL is such an awesome composer.
AH: You are not allowed anything until you have played Super Mario Odyssey.
WR: One of these weeks I will have played it. One week. See you next time!
That is right – the 2018 Tomb Raider film is great! Oh, you disagree? Well, you can let us know in the comments below. Also, you can go here for more Let’s Chat!
Developed by: Guerrilla Games Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: Out Now
Horizon Zero Dawn‘s major DLC expansion delivers more of what made the action adventure so compelling to begin with – beautiful environments, visceral action, and an engaging story about woman and machine (you can read my review here). The Frozen Wilds also makes subtle but noticeable improvements on weaker areas of the base game, which bodes well for the inevitable sequel.
A Cut Above
The Frozen Wilds is set in The Cut, a brand new addition to the north of the map. As we know from popular culture, heading north often means cold, harsh conditions, and it is no different here. Horizon is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where sentient machines caused widespread devastation and led to the human race essentially hitting the reset button; The Frozen Wilds introduces a new handful of these imposing robot dinosaurs, and the linear path up to The Cut forces an encounter with one straight off the bat.
This is the Scorcher, to be precise – a machine that is ferocious at close range and can produce devastating bursts of fire. Even the players who are experts with the the way combat works in Horizon will find a big challenge here, especially when multiple machines are attacking at once later on. Whilst the recommended level for entry was 35 (the previous cap was 50, which is raised to 60 in this DLC), even my lv50 Aloy struggled at times. Another introduction is a machine based on a polar bear, which can unleash consecutive melee attacks that leave Aloy reeling. The added challenge is welcome for those who had perhaps gotten too comfortable with the cycle of strategic combat.
A big draw of Horizon was not only the gameplay but the intriguing story that was interwoven in; the Banuk were a tribe that were involved at times, mainly though the enigmatic Sylens, who assists Aloy at crucial points. They remained mysterious, though – however, The Cut is the residence of the Banuk, and reveals a lot about them. The overarching plot does little to deviate massively from what Guerrilla presented in the main story, with dangerous machines populating the freezing mountain known as Thunder’s Drum due to a hostile AI.
It’s what The Frozen Wilds gives you within that structure that supplements what came before. Aratak, the Banuk Chieftain, and Ourea, who discovers a friendlier AI, are the most developed side characters and provide the main emotional payoff, but the Banuk tribe is full of other perspectives and troubles that Aloy can help with. It’s like learning a different culture – one quest requires finding missing hunters that didn’t return from a survival ritual, and dealing with the morality of saving them when they think their failure makes their lives void. Other quests teach you about new materials and techniques, adding slight variety to gameplay whether it is spear modifications or a new flamethrower weapon. Horizon was already good at giving you side quests that weren’t just busywork, but felt unique and worthwhile, and The Frozen Wilds continues this.
Ice, Ice, Aloy
The mini-open-world addition that is The Cut is full of notable things to do. Some are changed-up versions of what came before, such as a Tallneck machine which needs putting back together. Others are new additions, like the Control Towers that repair nearby machines. The latter is one of the better introductions, as it makes you think about new approaches; if you sneak in and disable the tower first, the ensuing battle will be much easier. The Frozen Wilds is at its best at times like these, where it is ever-so-slightly changing up the the gameplay while sticking true to what made Horizon one of the gaming highlights of 2017.
It’s the little things that you notice, as well. In my original review of Horizon, I noted the animation as sometimes looking a bit stiff in conversations. The Frozen Wilds features exchanges where characters look more natural – swaying, using hand motions, and pacing as they express emotion. It makes everything a little more believable, and is a good sign that Guerrilla know what to improve for the sequel that they are surely working hard on.
It’s just a shame that not everything can be magically fixed in DLC. The timing of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s release – so close to the groundbreaking Zelda: Breath of the Wild – emphasised the clunkiness of traversal when ascending more awkward, mountainous environments. The Frozen Wild‘s snowy world is full of these areas, awkwardly limiting where you can and can’t go. At one point, I got lost in The Hunting Grounds of The Cut just because a small wall was blocked for me; one issue with being given another chunk of the same game is that you have more time to examine the intricacies of how it works – flaws and all.
Then again, it is saved to a degree by the stupendous beauty all around you. Even by Horizon‘s already-high standards, The Cut provides another level of technical achievement. You’re either journeying through tranquil, crisp white sheets of snow, or you’re being battered by relentless blizzards that block out everything further than a few feet in front of Aloy. In the spirit of Horizon, this is mixed in with the remnants of the old world, like the massive, frozen dam in the centre of The Cut; in both art direction and raw technical prowess, Horizon remains at the pinnacle of games as an art form.
The 8-ish hours it took me to get through the majority of The Frozen Wilds gave me a strong sense of closure. There is enough DNA from the base game to keep it feeling familiar, but also enough new ideas – and considerable challenge – to make playing through the entirety of the DLC both justifiable and enjoyable. Learning new bits and pieces of info about the events of Horizon act as a neat epilogue, but also set up what might come in the future; just like being reminded of some weak points raise the excitement for what an improved Horizon sequel could achieve.
Recently, we looked at how the 3DS still has plenty of great games to play in 2018. The same can’t be said of the Wii U, a console Nintendo cut their losses on some time ago. Yet, the Wii U is still giving Nintendo Switch players plenty of joy, as Nintendo brings over the software highlights that would otherwise be trapped on the quirky system. We’ve seen it done with much success already – look at Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which has sold over 7 million copies – and more is on the way, as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is scheduled for a Switch release in May. Despite these fantastic choices, there are plenty more Wii U games that would be easy wins and buy Nintendo development time on new entries in their beloved series. Let’s take a look at 6 of them, or rather, Captain Toad and 5 other games to bring over afterwards. Let’s just get Captain Toad on Switch, OK?
I regularly get urges to play Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, but I just know that the moment I play through it, a Switch edition will be confirmed. Sod’s law, y’know? This isn’t just my personal fanaticism talking, as Captain Toad would be a brilliant fit for the Switch. It was unexpectedly revealed at E3 2014 as a title that expanded upon the Captain Toad side puzzles in Super Mario 3D World, giving us a complete adventure starring the loveable Captain. He has no specific weapons and can’t even jump, but will find a way through hostile environments because he is just that great a guy. The bite-size nature of the levels makes them ideal for the handheld play Nintendo’s new hybrid allows; you could just imagine yourself loading up your Switch, playing a level, and then jumping out again. Come on Nintendo, get this game on Switch – and give Captain Toad a slot on the Smash Bros. roster, yeah?
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
An obscure game on an obscure console, but if what my Tanuki Bridge co-writer Demelza Ward had to say is to be believed, also a very good game. I am one of the large crowd that hasn’t played this game, but I believe a new audience would be interested in picking it up on Switch – an audience that has bought into a massive JRPG in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (which has sold over 1 million copies since launching in December). Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a crossover between two much-loved franchises, Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, creating a JRPG with many Persona-like elements. You can summon unique magical elements through each character, and the focus on relationships is very Persona-like, even if it comes from the Fire Emblem side of this crossover. We see a lot of talk of Persona 5 being a great fit for the Switch, but that is so heavily tied to PlayStation – Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE could be the game to fill that slot. I know I’d jump in.
Super Mario 3D World
I try to be understanding, I really do, but when 3D World is glossed over in the discussion of greatest 3D Mario games it is hard to keep quiet. The 3D Mario of the Wii U is an utterly phenomenal continuation of the series, full of creativity and inspiration around every corner. It deserves a 2nd chance for appreciation – the huge fanbase of Super Mario Odyssey could snap this up and revel in how exceptional it is; while Odyssey exploited Cappy for numerous clever puzzles, 3D World just constantly throws amazing ideas at you. Take the Double Cherry power-up, which creates copies of Mario for eccentric results, or the signature Cat Mario, which gives the plumber a level of traversal ability unlike we’ve seen before (it’s almost like how Breath of the Wild gave Link climbing, but to a slightly lesser degree). A Switch version needs to happen, to educate gamers to this masterpiece.
What a joyfully-realised game Pikmin 3 is. Growing on everything the first two titles did, and subtly using the Wii U GamePad to enhance the real-time strategy gameplay, Pikmin 3 was a dependably excellent game all the way through. The problem it had was how much rode on it at the time; Wii U struggled with a massive draught of major software releases in the first year, so when Pikmin 3 came along in July (more than half a year after the launch of the console) Nintendo fans were looking to it to be something special. It was certainly a fantastic game, but wasn’t ever going to save the Wii U; Pikmin 3 is the kind of game that would excel as a pleasant surprise hit between behemoth releases – which is exactly what it can be on Switch. Bundle all of the well-executed DLC in, and you’ve got a really worthwhile package for newcomers. Also, this has the best-looking fruit you’ll ever see in a video game. That is reason enough to play.
Super Smash Bros.
Of all of the games on this list, surely this is the easiest win for Nintendo? Take Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, merge the exclusive modes and stages of each into one package, include all of the DLC characters and stages, add Captain Toad too, and sell a gazillion units. There isn’t much else to say here! Nintendo is also launching their paid online service in September, so a major online-focused game such as Smash Bros. would be ideal to persuade audiences to sign up. Perhaps the only thing that could stop this happening is if Nintendo would prefer to commit to a fully new Smash Bros. game, but going by previous entries that would take years of development. Switch owners are already getting restless, you know…
Super Mario Maker
Super Mario Maker, like Super Smash Bros., seems a straightforward sell on Switch. However, the Wii U has a rare trump card over Switch for a game like this in the form of the GamePad. The ease of constructing levels using the stylus and touch functionality of the second screen is part of what rose Super Mario Maker to the top of the level-construction genre; the game was released on 3DS as well, which is again a dual-screen system. Nintendo would likely find a way to make it work on Switch, whether it is just flipping between menus on one screen or some other UI wizardry – either way, after the success of the Wii U and 3DS versions, we’re inevitably going to see Super Mario Maker appear again in some form. With more consoles sold than the Wii U already, an even bigger community could be created on Switch, and with it another feather in the online cap of Nintendo. They need reasons for people to pay for online, and this could be another one.
The Wii U didn’t light the world on fire, but it did get plenty of top-tier software releases, and it would be a great shame if the effort that went into them couldn’t reach the enormous audience that the Switch is tapping into. For the sake of gamers everywhere, let’s show them that the Wii U had a lot of highs amongst the lows, and give us even more great games to play on the Switch. We all win out of this scenario.
(Look, just work on getting Captain Toad over first Nintendo. The other 5 choices here are supplementary, and to make it look like I think of games other than Captain Toad.)
On January 27th 2018, a game named Celeste released on Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC. This game first came onto my radar with an appearance in the January 11th Nintendo Direct Mini. The fast-paced platforming, in particular, drew me in. Also, it’s from the same developer – Matt Makes Games – that brought us the brilliant multiplayer title Towerfall: Ascension. Yet, still, Celeste defied my expectations – all because of how a touching story was interwoven so wonderfully with the core platforming.
Celeste is about a girl who just wants to move forward. That’s how it all started out. Talking to the ID@XBOX BLOG, Designer Matt Thorson was asked whether the story or the gameplay came first:
Our initial concept for Celeste was just “a platformer about a girl climbing a mountain.” The mechanics came first, and as we developed the game we were surprised to see how big a part of the game the narrative was becoming. In the end, narrative ended up becoming the center of the game that the rest is built around, and we’re really proud of the story Celeste tells.
More specifically, this girl is named Madeline (she can be renamed) and is just trying to climb a mountain. Great – simple narratives work for platform games like Mario all the time. You get into learning a simple toolset of climbing, jumping and dashing to make your way through the levels. However, the first of these ends not with a flag, or an arbitrary line to reach. You meet a memorial for those who have fallen trying to climb Celeste (the name of the mountain), and make your campfire by it. Madeline, complete with charming portrait and text, exclaims how she thinks this might all be a bad idea.
From here on, the narrative really starts to come in. Early in the second level, you find a mirror which brings form to a different version of Madeline – one more hostile, more generically evil-looking. Naturally, “Badeline”, as the developers named her, has to be avoided or defeated. She haunts the player, chasing, threatening. You’re literally climbing up, up, as far away from the bad side of Madeline as you can, and towards your personal goal of the summit. As you go through the levels, environments get tougher, more difficult, and more claustrophobic. Areas are tighter, jumps more precarious.
The mountain, and the game itself, is constantly a reflection of Madeline’s mindset. This is something only an interactive medium could do for this story. Players can be made to perform moves that, without them even knowing, fit into what the characters are experiencing. Now, Celeste is a hard game. You try, try, and try again, racking up death counts in the hundreds – but it is an encouraging, and crucially very enjoyable, type of punishing. You are trained to expect failure, and learn from it. One chapter even starts with a letter telling you how it’s a positive thing, as it means you’re trying. Respawns are instant, and you keep going. You make it to the next screen – somehow – and restart the cycle.
Just as Madeline is constantly trying to progress and change how she thinks, the player is doing the same. It happens without you even knowing, reflecting the whole point of her journey. She came here to leave her life behind for a while, but her problems have come along too, plaguing her every step of the way. Now, my personal experiences by no means compare to the debilitating depression suffered by many. Nevertheless, this hits home. Sometimes in life, all you want to do is push things down, rise away, and forget about them – especially when it is silly things you know you shouldn’t worry about so much.
It’s rarely that easy, and Celeste does a wonderfully subtle job of talking about it. In the early chapters, you find Theo – a modern hipster of sorts, coming to the mountain to take photos for his InstaPix account. Theo is kind, and understanding; about halfway through the game, after a tense sequence, Madeline and him escape in a gondola. Midway across the chasm, it stalls. Suddenly, Madeline’s constant movement to that point has stopped, and it all catches up to her – all the anxiety, all the stress. She has a panic attack (as aluded to by an earlier phone conversation with her mother, this isn’t new), which is presented with tentacles and darkness, a motif of Badeline throughout a large part of the game. It’s exaggerated, but effective.
Theo manages to calm her down, but it’s a powerful moment that leaves the Madeline sprite breathing noticeably heavy. Not long after, sitting by a campfire, the game brings down all barriers. An expansive conversation between both Madeline and Theo, and the challenges each of them face in there lives, is talked about plainly and candidly. It’s marked by being able to choose the order of conversation, unlike anywhere else in Celeste. Madeline talks about her anxiety and her depression, and Theo tries to understand. With just a small amount of dialogue, Celeste does more than some open-world RPGs manage with novels worth. Out of nowhere, Celeste goes from a fun 2D platformer to one of the most moving character stories in a long time. Equally, if you need it to be just the former, you can skip all the cutscene stuff. Just know that there is a special story here, too.
So Madeline continues on. She climbs, and she climbs, claiming to have a new attitude. Negativity will not hold her back anymore! You’re nearly there – the game even starts to present itself like the end is coming. Oh, but that’s the easy option, where talking about your problems and getting help instantly conquers issues. Celeste pushes it further. Badeline shows up, angry at being left behind. She’s furious that Madeline wants to abandon her – she is just as worthwhile as her! Madeline is thrown down, crashing through screen after screen, until you hit rock bottom. Landing in the water at the bottom of Celeste mountain, it seems as though nothing has changed.
The ending sequence of the game becomes something else. In a long, winding battle against Badeline, Madeline eventually realises that the resolution isn’t to forget or remove the side of herself she doesn’t like – she actively apologises when Theo sees the monsters that Badeline produces – but to embrace her. She is part of her, whether she likes it or not. What Madeline can do is try to make her, and therefore herself, do things in a better way. With renewed determination, Madeline sets off for the summit. Now, Badeline is an assist, propelling her up distances she cannot cross. Accepting the whole of herself, flaws and all, things are clearer. The game even gives you an extra dash ability. It’s a glorious sequence.
In the space of 5-10 hours, Celeste makes you care about Madeline and those around her, and examine your own mindset as a consequence. Are there things you would like to face up to about yourself? It’s better to do that instead of attempting to hide it away and pretend it doesn’t exist. Celeste could have rested on the laurels of it’s fantastic gameplay and been another great, brutal indie platformer, but it goes one further and surprises you – it even surprised the developer. Designer Matt Thorson, in a Kotaku video (which is worth watching), says this about the narrative element of Celeste:
“… when we started the game, I also did not expect us to do that, to go there and it’s just like a way we ended up pushing ourselves like, out of our comfort zone… “
What an apt way to describe it. Throughout Celeste, Madeline is made to realise that just deciding to go and climb a mountain or push something away isn’t the hard part. Really going out of your comfort zone means facing up to the problem, realising it’s part of you, and trying to do better. Oh, and if you’re not looking for a disarmingly absorbing story? Well, beating a seemingly-impossible challenge after 500 tries is fun too.
Developed by: Tokyo RPG Factory Published by: Square Enix Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC Release Date: Out Now
Tokyo RPG Factory, the developers behind I Am Setsuna, were created by Square Enix for one purpose – to make RPGs. In particular, ones that harken back to the classics such as Final Fantasy. For better or worse, I Am Setsuna really defines what that mission statement is; as the 20-hour story unfolds, the game simultaneously delights and frustrates in how it brings back RPG elements.
An Important Journey
I Am Setsuna is about sadness and the value of being alive. In this world of monsters, protection is only brought about by a sacrifice – a female who gives her life in order to keep them back. After a time, the threat rises again, and another sacrifice is made. The main player character, Endir, is an enigmatic warrior who ends up as the guard to the new sacrifice. Named Setsuna, Endir’s job is to see her to the Last Lands, where the sacrifice is made.
Along the way, you will encounter enemies, new comrades, and characters in need of your help. It all interweaves into the main story seamlessly, fitting into the overall themes. Characters like Nidr, who has a subtle but unspoken relationship to the sacrifice, are well developed; this combination of character arcs makes you care about the group as a whole. When it comes down to it, though, it is really a story about the pairing of Endir and Setsuna. Just seen like that, it is a really touching and poignant tale of how one person can influence another.
The journey to the Last Lands is navigated through a mix of enclosed areas and a limited overworld. While you may freely navigate this mini-open-world, there is little to do other than find some items, recover your party, and move from place to place. Generally, this includes forests, caves, and dungeons between the multiple towns. They’re the kinds of locations you would expect from a throwback to the likes of Chrono Trigger. The towns in particular have a charming nostalgia, being places to buy and sell items, obtain new abilities, and chat to the townsfolk. Many intriguing characters end up being involved as you go.
Cold as Ice
One factor that helps your journey is the presentation of the game. The island land mass this game is set on is under snowfall, helping to give I Am Setsuna a distinct look despite the many callbacks to past games. Everything looks slightly magical under the cover of snow, and the sense of cold extends into caves and forests. Along with vibrant character designs, it all plays into a nostalgic appeal – where it comes unstuck is in repetition. It is noticeable that the dungeon areas, which appear more frequently in the latter half of the game, are all pretty much identical in presentation. While they are the exception, it messes with the pacing when you come across places very similar to ones you have already progressed through.
On the other hand, the soundtrack is beautifully composed. It rarely intrudes on things, but if you listen for it, you realise that the carefully constructed beats are fitting into the quiet mystery of the world. A word that can describe a lot of I Am Setsuna’s presentation is “understated”. It’s not in-your-face, but has plenty of character if you sink into it. Well, once you are past the opening hours. It’s a shame, really – in the opening hours, I Am Setsuna barrages you with screens of text explaining the intricacies of the battle system.
Unsurprisingly, given the inspiration, the combat is the meat of the game. This is one of the biggest nostalgia plays I Am Setsuna has, bringing in time-based live combat. It is a style used in entries of the Final Fantasy series. To the uninitiated, this involves removing the system of characters taking one turn after another. Instead, the combat has a continuous flow of time. Each of your party of 3 has an ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge that fills over time, and when full, they may use a move. Time only stops when selecting your next action (unless you go hardcore and have time continue then, too). Under this is your expected HP and MP metres for each character.
Old RPG, New Tricks
However, I Am Setsuna does add a few ideas onto the combat. Spritnites are crystals that can be equipped to different characters, giving them different abilities. These are basically the source of your special moves. Spritnite becomes a strategic preparation tool, as a combination across characters can enable a combo attack if both ATM gauges are full. Discovering and using these extravagant moves is a fun part of the combat, but it also ends up being a major downfall as well. Spritnites may enable you to change your movesets, but some combos are so superior that you stop seeing the reason to change.
Once into the rhythm of I Am Setsuna – and especially in the latter half of the game – my battle strategy focused around only a handful of moves. Battles between bosses (which are, thankfully, much more testing) became an almost instinctive set of inputs that would wipe out the enemies. The smaller enemies ended up just feeling like padding between tougher encounters. When the aforementioned dungeon areas were combined with this, it all ended up feeling especially bland. It’s only emphasised by the quaint, interesting areas of the rest of the game.
The other major addition is Momentum Mode, which has a much more subtle impact. Different actions in battle fill up the Momentum metre on a character, and when full, it allows for extra effects on your moves. This may mean added damage or critical hits, to name two examples. Continued use of Momentum can even add permanent improvements (Fluxes) to your abilities. In contrast to Spritnite, Momentum feels more refined in how it is included – even if it lacks the dynamic visuals of a Spritnite Combo. In general, the combat feels like it needed more time to fine-tune the balancing of certain elements.
I Am Setsuna is one of that increasingly-rarer species of game – a mid-tier title, both in production and length. The charming presentation and characters only make the 20-hours feel more appealing and palatable, and Tokyo RPG Factory use them to tell a sombre but hopeful story.
However, the smaller scale does lead to some repetitive environments and enemy encounters, particularly as the game gets into the final act. The combat has plenty of interesting ideas, and nicely calls back to classic RPGs, but feels unbalanced in the implementation of Spritnite Combos. Yet, if you can get past these flaws, I Am Setsuna is rather engrossing. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and beyond some obtuse issues, you’ll discover a touching game about the value of life.