Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wandersong Review

While I've always enjoyed short sessions of traditional rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, especially in arcades, it's not a genre that I tend to engage with at home. However, games of other genres that incorporate music into their gameplay are something that I can get into in any context. That's where Wandersong comes in. This adorable-looking game came strongly recommended from IGN's Tom Marks and my streamer pal, BogusMeatFactory; with two ringing endorsements from people with such unique tastes in games, I had to give Wandersong a shot.

Wandersong is a music-themed adventure game. It tells the story of a bard on a quest to learn the scattered pieces of the Earth Song; a magical piece of music believed to be capable of staving off the apocalypse. The bard's primary ability is to sing 8 different notes based on the direction the player tilts the right thumbstick (the number pad or mouse is used if playing without a controller). This review is based on the PC version of the game, which I played via Xbox Game Pass.

  • While music is a central theme throughout the game, rhythm gameplay makes up only a minimal part of the gameplay. Instead, the gameplay takes two forms:
    • In towns, the game plays like an adventure game in which player talks to NPCs and explores the area to gather information about the location of the next part of the Earth Song. As far as adventure gaming goes, these sections are fairly rudimentary, but the game's presentation is so strong that it was enjoyable just to see the sights and meet the quirky inhabitants of the world. 
    • In Spirit Realms (i.e. dungeons), where each Earth Song piece can be found, the focus is on puzzle-platforming gameplay in which the notes that the bard single manipulates various features of the environment. I really liked the way each dungeon presented a unique puzzle platforming mechanic; this helped keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
  • Graphically, there are two especially distinct things about Wandersong:
    • Wandersong's character designs are very simple; the player character is made up of just a handful of flat geometric shapes. However, the game manages to get a lot of expression out of these designs through some very cute animations. It didn't take long for them to grow on me.
    • Something that had more immediate appeal was the game's color pallet. The use of bright contrasting colors, including lots of neons and purples, really gave the scenery a distinct and vibrant look.
  • Despite its simplistic and cute appearance, Wandersong features in-depth character development and touches upon some fairly heavy themes. Some indie games try to shoe-horn darker subject matter into otherwise cute-looking games for shock value or to give the appearance of extra depth. However, in the case of Wandesrsong, the more and less serious elements of the story play off each other very well and I found that I was invested in each of the major characters' plot arcs.
  • One of the buttons makes the bard dance at any time (including during dialog). It serves absolutely no gameplay purpose and it is highly entertaining. By finding a certain character in hidden locations in each chapter of the game, you can learn more dance moves to expand the bard's repertoire.
  • Even though this is a game about music rather than a music game, I still came into it with high expectations for the soundtrack. I'm happy to say the soundtrack is just as charming as the characters, writing, and graphics.
I often divide my observations in reviews into pros and cons, but when it comes to Wandersong, there is really nothing bad I can say about it. This game's graphics, music, writing, and gameplay all come together in a delightful package that I can comfortably recommend to just about anyone.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 14 hours

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #MusicGameMay event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Shenmue 3 Review

Considering the unusual circumstances behind Shenmue 3, a surprise modern sequel to a pair of cult Dreamcast games from nearly 20 years ago, and all nostalgia and baggage that comes with it, this "review" is going to be a bit different than my usual write-ups... more like a spoiler-free review, analysis, and retrospective all rolled into one. That being said, I hope you're along for the ride.

When I was a teenager, I got absolutely absorbed into the Shenmue games. In fact, I got Shenmue 2 right before spring break and I'm pretty sure that I spent the subsequent week off from school doing nothing but exploring virtual 1980s Hong Kong with Ryo, Joy, Ren, and the rest of the crew. It probably wasn't the healthiest way for a young man to be spending his vacation, but it was a magical experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. However, having the second game end on a cliffhanger that would seemingly never be resolved, was quite painful. Thus, when the Kickstarter campaign for Shenmue 3 was announced at E3 2015, I signed up to back it immediately; in fact, I'm pretty sure I created a Kickstarter account specifically so I could secure a copy of Shenmue 3 for myself.

Now that the game has finally come out and I've played through it, my feelings on it are incredibly mixed.

Game Overview
Shenmue 3 continues directly from the events of Shenmue 2. The Shenmue games follow Ryo, a Japanese teen martial arts student, who is on a quest to find the man that murdered his father and exact revenge. In Shenmue 3, Ryo visits two different cities in China where he gathers clues to pick up the trail of his father's killer, Lan-Di. There is also a third smaller area that serves primarily as a location for the game's conclusion. Essentially, each of these areas is used to divide the game into three acts. In addition, to gathering clues, the game features occasional combat in the style of a 3D fighting game (similar to Virtua Fighter) and a variety of minigames. Shenmue 3 was released on PS4 and PC; this blog post is based on the PC version.

Observations - Shenmue's Disparate Genre Influences
Coming back to the Shenmue franchise caused me to realize many things about these games that I was never quite able to articulate when I was younger. Shenmue is often miscategorized as an "action RPG," and this third game really cemented in my mind what a miscategorization that is. Shenmue's combination of gameplay elements and themes make it much more complicated to pin down... so here it is in Venn diagram form:
  • Adventure game: While the combat of Shenmue is prominently featured in media surrounding the game, fighting makes up an extremely little of the gameplay. Ryo spends the majority of his time talking to NPCs, looking for clues, and bartering items; all of which are much more consistent with a traditional adventure game (think a point-and-click adventure) than any other genre.
  • Slice-of-life: Ryo may be on a quest for revenge, but the game encourages him to slow down and make progressing the investigation part of his daily routine rather than the sole focus of his time. In addition to investigating, Ryo must eat several times per day to keep his stamina up, exercise to improve his strength in preparation for the occasional combat, earn an income via part-time jobs, and even go home at the end of the day to get enough sleep. This cycle feels a lot like slice-of-life games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. Something that adds to this slice-of-life feeling is that the game world is constructed to be a place that Ryo inhabits along with the NPCs, rather than just serve as a venue that provides Ryo with a set of objectives (as would be the case in most other game genres).
  • Kung-fu film: Thematically and aesthetically, Shenmue 3 has a lot of elements in common with classic kung-fu films. Much of Ryo's quest revolves around seeking out eccentric old martial arts masters and finding some way of convincing them to teach Ryo one of their signature techniques that he needs to beat one of Lan-Di's henchmen. If you've ever watched old martial arts movies, this formula will sound very familiar. Further adding to the kung-fu film vibe, Shenmue 3 retains the series' now-infamous deliberately stilted voice acting, which reminds me of the dubs of 1970s kung-fu films that I used to watch on TV as a kid.

Now that I've gotten all that explanation out of the way, let's get into how I, as a fan of the series, felt that Shenmue 3 managed to package all these elements together.

Observations - Shenmue 3 as Compared with its Predecessors
Being a Kickstarter-backed revival of a cult video game series, Shenmue 3 was inevitably going to be a nostalgia-focused work. The rigidity with which it adheres to what was established by the previous games works both for and against it.

    • Shenmue 3's characters are simple and move stiffly by modern game standards, but look very clean on hi-definition displays; a successful attempt at being consistent with the art style of the original games while still making enough updates for it to work in 2020.
    • Similarly, the game's environments are reminiscent of those from the Dreamcast days, but at a much higher level of detail. Guilin, the area at the end of Shenmue 2 and beginning of Shenmue 3, is particularly beautiful; it looks the way I envisioned it in my mind's eye when I played the previous game, rather than how it actually looked as rendered by the Dreamcast.
    • In the past, I had wondered if Shenmue's awkward-sounding English voice work was an intentional directorial decision or just the product of an inexperienced cast. Seeing as Shenmue 3 recast several characters with well-established actors but the delivery of the lines retains the feel of the first two games, I've concluded that this is an intentional style choice. Seeing as this game leans heavily into kung-fu movie tropes, I think this retro-sounding delivery works in the context of the game, but I can see how it wouldn't appeal to someone who didn't grow up with this unusual cultural connection. Thankfully, the game gives the option of switching to Japanese audio for those who don't like the direction of the English voice acting.
    • Quick-time events (QTEs) return in Shenmue 3. I was initially concerned about this as these were a source of frustration for me in the previous games in the series. In the past, QTEs would occur suddenly during battles, and executing them incorrectly could mean abruptly losing a fight that you were previously winning. While this is still the case in Shenmue 3, the QTEs are foreshadowed during the story leading up to the battle so that the player can be prepared to execute them in advance. Most of the time this takes place in the form of Ryo learning a new martial arts technique before the battle; this training sequence gives the player a low-stakes way to learn the QTE's inputs before the critical moment that they come up during combat. I thought this was a smart tweak on the part of this installment's developers.
    • When it comes to the game's UI and controls, these are areas where I think nostalgia and faithfulness should have been discarded in favor of a complete overhaul. Digging around in the game's menus felt cumbersome and I frequently had to check the context-sensitive button mapping indicator on the HUD to know which button did what in a given situation. The game's controls and UI are not even consistent between similar types of menus (e.g. the select, confirm, and cancel buttons are not mapped the same on the inventory screen and item shop screen).
Observations - Shenmue 3's Unique Content
While in many ways, it's impossible to separate Shenmue 3 from the nostalgic background of the franchise, it's still its own game. Like everything else in Shenmue 3, the new content is also a mixed bag.

  • Shenmue has always included some sort of slice-of-life elements, but the third entry in the series drastically increases how prevalent they are. 
    • The most notable example is the new stamina system. Ryo must eat regularly to keep up his stamina, a stat that serves two functions. As Ryo goes about his business, his stamina slowly depletes; if it gets low enough, he becomes tired and can only walk slowly until he eats to replenish the stamina meter. In combat, Ryo's stamina meter becomes his health meter. This means that if he gets into a fight when he's hungry, he could potentially get taken out by a single punch. As a result, making sure Ryo is well-fed not only keeps exploration moving at a reasonable pace, it can also be a matter of life or death. It's a case where the game's mechanics are very deliberately telling you to slow down and take care of the little things, rather than charge ahead single-mindedly.
    • Practicing techniques and working out are important parts of the daily life of a martial artist. Shenmue 3 tasks the player with making this process a part of Ryo's regular routine by stopping at dojos regularly to work on his punches, horse stance ("karate squats" as I like to call them) and having sparring matches. These are very simple and repetitive tasks, much as they would be in real life, but they are essential to getting Ryo strong enough to win the handful of battles that serve as gates to progressing the story. Initially, I really tried to get myself in the mindset of a martial artist and focus on the training. However, it eventually became clear to me that I would have to spend a large chunk of my playtime repeating these routines and I inevitably found myself checking out and listening to a podcast while tapping the A button for the thousandth time to keep Ryo in his horse stance.
    • The slice-of-life elements of the game all serve to reinforce the story's central theme of the value of patience. While this works well from a purely artistic standpoint, it isn't necessarily fun to play. I think it's ok for a game to include some amount of drudgery for the purpose making the player relate more to the character or make the game world feel more real, but Shenmue 3 took this a little too far for my tastes.
  • While the two main areas Ryo visits during his journey, Guilin and Niaowu, each have their own unique flare in terms of settings, the events in each place follow the exact same formula:
    1. Talk to NPCs to learn about criminal activity in the area
    2. Find and confront the criminals, only to lose to their leader (who turns out to be one of Lan-Di's henchmen)
    3. Seek out an eccentric old kung-fu master who knows the technique you need to beat the henchman
    4.  Undergo some trials to prove to the kung-fu master that you're worthy to learn the technique. In both cases, this includes winning a match against every student in the local dojo and saving up a large quantity of money to buy an expensive item of some sort.
    5. Learn the kung-fu technique (a QTE sequence) and then use it in a rematch against the henchman to win the fight
    6. Winning the fight leads to a scene that advances the plot
    • Going through this sequence in Guilin was very satisfying, but having to repeat it, almost to the letter, in Niaowu right afterward sort of cheapened the experience for me and made the game feel padded.
  • The third area of the game is comparatively very small and dense with plot developments and combat. Compared to the rest of the game it feels disjointed and rushed. I think it would have served the game well to have cut this third area and instead just spread its combat and story events throughout Guilin and Niaowu instead. This would have broken up the formula of each of those areas and made the plot developments easier to digest. 
  • Ultimately, Shenmue 3 moves the overall story of Shenmue forward only a very small amount. In fact, most of the important new information Ryo gathers during this installment of his quest is found in the first area, Guilin. The next act of the game in Naiowu is essentially a rinse and repeat (albeit in a cool new setting) that just serves to keep Ryo busy until the game's hasty conclusion. At the end of the game, Ryo is only incrementally further along on his quest for revenge than he was for the start; after waiting for 20 years for this game, I was hoping for more than that.
As a long time fan of the series who has been waiting for the next installment of the Shenmue series for the majority of his life, playing Shenmue 3 was paradoxically a joyous and disappointing experience. I was delighted to see that much of what made me love Shenmue is still here; for a big fan like me, that alone was enough to make the money and time I spent on this game feel worthwhile. However, there's a difference between something being worthwhile and being satisfying. Shenmue 3 doesn't do very much to bring the series forward in terms of game design or narrative, it is simply content to just stoke the fires in fans' hearts and serve as a demonstration that a new Shenmue game can still be made. As one of those fans, this is something I can accept this time, but it's a card the developer can only play once.

I typically like to end a review with a recommendation; in this case, the recommendation is contingent on your background with the series:
  • If you loved Shenmue 1 and 2, by all means, go ahead and play this, just be sure to set your expectations accordingly.
  • If you played the earlier Shenmue games and they didn't do anything for you, Shenmue 3 is certainly not going to change your mind.
  • If you have no prior experience with Shenmue but think you fit somewhere near the center of the Venn diagram depicted earlier in this review, I'd recommend adding the first two Shenmue games to your Steam wishlist and picking them up the next time they go on sale. (Also, kudos to you for managing to read through this mess of a blog post!)
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 42 hours

Thoughts on the Shenmue Series Going Forward
 A little bit after I started writing this post, I read a news article about how the investors that made Shenmue 3's development possible were surprised that Shenmue hasn't turned out to be a mass-market AAA franchise (i.e. this installment primarily only sold well to existing fans and wasn't especially profitable). To be honest, I don't really know what investors were expecting.

I love Shenmue, warts and all, but I'm not sure there's a future for it. In its current form, it's too expensive and ambitious for the limited audience it has. The only paths forward I can see would involve making drastic changes to pull in more players and investors, or it would have to scope down massively to fit a more traditional indie budget in an attempt to deliver a satisfying resolution to the diehard fans as efficiently as possible. The risk with either route is that it could lead to a result that just wouldn't feel like Shenmue any more. If a fourth entry ever gets made, there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on it; based on Shenmue 3, it's unclear if the series director, Yu Suzuki, and company are up to the task.

Guilin looks beautiful
Ryo's gotta make money somehow
"C'mon, Ryo! You can't seek karate justice unless you build strong glutes and quads!"