I like to play video games! (I’m currently playing Persona 4 Golden.)
As you’ll probably realize quickly, I’m a sucker for JRPGs and the RPG genre in general, but even within those confines I’m fairly normcore (lots of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Pokemon — though maybe describing my RPG tastes as normcore is showing that I care too much about the niche.)
(Also, be warned: my writeups will probably contain spoilers.)
I don’t think I have anything interesting to say about Hades that hasn’t been already said by many of its (justifiably) adoring fans. It’s a legitimate contender for GOTY, and deservedly so. The game is interesting, fun, and succeeds at everything that it sets out to do. If I were to try and sum up its victories in a few points, here’s what I’d start with:
- Weapon and build variation mean that characters feel much different within minutes of each run.
- The core gameplay loop sits at around thirty minutes, which is perfect.
- Story progression (which fits perfectly within the framing device of the game) is tied to death, so you look forward to losses as opposed to the common roguelike feeling of “well, jeez, that was a waste.”
- Metaprogression (both in terms of your character getting stronger between runs and the difficulty scaling up in the postgame) is incredibly smooth and elegant.
The plot, setting, voicing, and art direction are all just really good and, again, tie in extremely well with the story. I’m at a loss to say what can be improved about it: the runs started feeling a little repetitive towards the end, and some of the currency/story unlocking is stingy, but it’s just an incredibly good game and one that I look forward to playing more of down the line.
…So why isn’t it a 10? Because it didn’t consume my life, I guess. The two most recent 10/10 games I played were CrossCode and Slay The Spire, both of which I daydreamed about and spent shower time thinking about and never wanted to end. Hades…didn’t hit me that way.
I struggle to think of anything too positive about this game besides the fact that it is mercifully brief. The entire conceit revolves around it hitting you over the head with references to the gaming canon, which is cute and sweet at first but it manages to get stale in, like, two hours of gameplay. Perhaps this is an issue of mismanaged expectations: if I had played this like a flash game I think I would have been impressed (and that’s really the way to gauge it), but treating it like an “actual” game means it fails pretty much any test you give it. (One legitimate nicety, though — they did a good job with the graphics!)
Okay, the game has flaws.
It’s overtuned and overstuffed; dungeons should be half the length, a third of the quests should be removed, and the challenge is clearly calibrated for folks who have spent three years on the engine. (I call this “early access syndrome” — releasing to passionate beta users both gives you the privilege of adding a bunch of new content because it’s easy and you don’t have the time pressure, plus it means you’re building content for experienced players rather than novices.)
The middle third of the game (everything surrounding Gaia’s Garden, basically) is rough and frustrating and caused me to quit the game once and put it down a second time.
But, man. The first fifteen hours of this game is the most pleasant I’ve had in a game maybe ever. It hits all of my nostalgia points — the faux MMO nature reminds me of MapleStory, the characters and writing is warm and charming, and the core gameplay is just so goddamn fun. I love the platforming; I love the trading and progression; I love the grinding on hedgehags.
This isn’t a perfect game but I can’t remember one that has highs quite as high as CrossCode.
On the one hand, Xenoblade grabbed me really hard. I have fond memories of playing through it in 2012 — in Seattle for the first time — and being blown away, though ultimately I drifted away a little and never finished it. I was blown away by the scale and scope of the game — an MMO, but as a JRPG!
When the remaster came out for Switch, I was excited to finish it, and I’m glad I did. The quality of life improvements are dramatic, and propelled me through the first half of the game handily: “listen to podcast, grind and handle a bunch of simple quests” might sound bad, but it’s a very nice gaming mode for me to be in, so I loved that.
I really faded in the last third or so, though, even though I thought the aesthetics and environment were at their peak. I’m not a big RPG completionist but I sped through the ending pretty much as quickly as possible, and after some self-examination I think the reason is simple.
There’s no point to doing pretty much anything in the game. The most important variable in battle is your level: if you want to do better, level up. This is so drastically less interesting than a game with parallel grinds (crafting! exploration! arts!) etc, and as soon as you shatter the illusion that all these subsystems actually matter you’re left sighing, finding the optimal party to one-hit things with combos, and rushing through the cutscenes.
A pleasant, short JRPG throwback with some clever affordances (particularly around equipment progression) and a truly braindead plot. Nice as a palate cleanser!
A perfect brain-smoothing game. Hold down buttons and watch demons explode and numbers go up. A little short (a friend and I maxed out co-op in two weeks), but really enjoyable!
One of the things that I think Diablo III does very cleverly (and that is now part of the genre, at least based on reading up on Path of Exile) is that they recognize the fun part of the game is the power creep and going from level 1 to being a whirlwind of carnage, which is why they’ve set up a seasonal system: every few months, all of your characters get wiped from online (moved strictly to offline so you don’t lose anything), and you restart in the exact same game except with a couple season-specific tweaks and bonuses (extra treasure goblins, say, or more critical hits.) It keeps the game fresh because there’s so little to do once you’ve hit the asymptotic part of the power curve but the journey is more fun than the destination.
I didn’t think you could remake a game with twenty years of nostalgia and weight behind it and have it be as good as this was.
I found this game both objectively bad and unchallenging (discounting the metagame, which I don’t dabble in) and also weirdly enchanting. The Wild Area is great! That should be the entire game!
I’m playing this four months later, having downloaded the expansion pack DLC with my partner, and… kind of the same as above? It’s frustrating to me how many good parts of this game there are (collecting Pokemon is just inherently fun, the game is cute and charming albeit slow) — why isn’t this an entire MMO or experience?
A fun game that I loved playing with my partner — but fuck that sewer level.
In lieu of more to say, I think this is the most well-designed game I’ve ever played. The size of a given session is perfect for me (45-75 minutes); the difficulty curve is elegant and sloping; variety is strong. I have poured at least a hundred hours into the game and could see myself pouring a hundred more.
If you’re looking to improve dramatically, I recommend watching jorbs who streams on the highest difficulty. His gameplay both radically improved my skill with the game and taught me a lot about how to approach games writ large.
Health as currency
The easiest way to improve your character is to fight elites (monsters who are stronger than normal but offer better cards and items as well as more gold); elites are, as one might imagine, much more dangerous. There’s a balancing act here: when progressing through an act, you might get to choose between one of three paths: one with one elite fight, one with two elite fights, and one with four elite fights. The path with one elite fight gives you a high chance of survival but a relatively small improvement to your character’s power; the path with four elite fights will dramatically improve your character but you risk dying.
One of the key strategies of the game is essentially a Umeshism — if you’re ending every act with full health or trying to end every turn with complete block, you’re not being aggressive enough. StS is a game where you need to treat your health as a currency that you spend to improve your character.
In one of many clever touches by the game designers, this is made explicit in the Ironclad’s starting bonus, which allows you to regenerate health after each fight — not a large amount of health, mind you, but enough to incentivize “blocking with your face” and being aggressive rather than turtling your way to victory.
I’ve noticed that if I want to give something a perfect score but know that it’s not a “perfect” thing, I always start off with “okay, so, it has flaws.”
Final Fantasy IX has flaws. The battle system is extremely slow; three of the eight characters have near-zero characterization; technical limitations mean the final disk is a shadow of the world.
But everything else is perfect. The world is the most charming game-world ever committed to Final Fantasy. The theatrical motifs are delightful; the minigames and sidequests are fun without being overbearing; the progression system is smart without being fiddly. (And the music is great, too!)
When I think of being a kid and playing RPGs and being transported into a different, fantastic world, Final Fantasy IX is what comes to mind.
The game certainly shows its age, I can tell you that much. (I played Dawn of Souls, which was the slightly easier remake, and even then it was a bit of a slog.) It’s short, though, and it’s I think worth playing for its place in the canon.