Drakengard 3’s DLC – Should you buy it?

The new "pop-up" style for cutscenes--likely cheaper and easier to render than the other ones.

The new “pop-up” style for cutscenes–likely cheaper and easier to render than the other ones.

I’m here yet again to talk about Drakengard 3–is anyone tired of it yet?  All humor aside, it’s a game I think has been tragically overlooked by many, even with its rough edges, and I can’t stop thinking about it for a variety of reasons.  The most recent reason?  Its DLC, which I bought a few months ago and just recently got around to finishing.  Since this DLC is quite expensive ($30 for 6 new chapters), and since Drakengard 3 is already a game not too many people have “got around” to playing yet, I thought it would be useful to some if I did a little overview/review of what the DLC entails, to help all of you decide whether or not to purchase them.

First off, let’s talk about what you get in the DLC chapters.  There is one for each of the sisters, One through Five, and a new prologue chapter for Zero.  Each of these chapters is four stages (with one of those being a dragon level) that take about an hour or so to complete in total.  You play as Zero’s sisters for the first time, but this isn’t much more than a model swap with many of the same animations.  Each of them also have their own weapon, one of the four types from the original game, with its own stats and attack patterns–these weapons also unlock for the main game after finishing each chapter.  You can level up each sister but on a much smaller scale that caps at 10.  There are a few cutscenes for each chapter, most of them in a new pop-up storybook style that works quite well if not appearing a bit cheaply made.  Every chapter also has TONS of in-game VO fleshing out the sister in question and her relationship with her Disciple (including One’s “new” Disciple).

The DLC handily contrives a reason for dragon levels by having One's dragon, Gabriella, aid each sister.

The DLC handily contrives a reason for dragon levels by having One’s dragon, Gabriella, aid each sister.

The story of each of these chapters is obviously tailored to the sister it stars, exploring part of their life before the events of Drakengard 3 occurred.  Because of this, the DLC does a much better job relating each of the sisters to the player than the main game ever did.  Also, many of the questions you would probably want to know after playing the main game are answered in these chapters, either indirectly or during the actual events of the gameplay. The most interesting of these in my opinion are easily Two’s chapter, where you learn how she became catatonic in the events of the main game, and Zero’s prologue chapter, which details how she met her original dragon Mikhail.  The rest vary in relevance, some focusing on humor instead of serious backstory, but they are all at least entertaining enough to experience once.

Furthering this backstory information are the Memoirs for each sister.  These Memoirs are a series of relatively short journal entries from that chapter’s sister that unlock as you level up the sister in question.  Many of these mimic the tone found in each sister’s chapter: for example, Five’s Memoirs are a series of orders she made to a speciality store for things like high-end cuisine, art she cares little about, and even a variety of sex toys.  These journal entries pack some of the funniest bits of the entire DLC.  Four’s journal, easily my favorite, contradicts her usual “holier-than-thou” tone of perfection with what essentially consists of a burn book towards everyone in her life, including herself.  It’s unfortunate that this entertaining writing is stuck behind an arbitrary leveling process, one that forces you to replay the smallish amount of content multiple times, but the Memoirs are easy enough to find online (link) if you’re curious.

Two's chapter is a tragic, yet well-told story of how she lost her mind.

Two’s chapter is a tragic, yet well-told story of how she lost her mind.

The strength of each of these DLC chapters varies greatly from one to the next, for various reasons.  You are locked into a certain weapon type for each sister, meaning that you may have to use spears or chakrams exclusively–even if you don’t much care for those types of weapons.  Some of the chapters throw a lot of rather difficult enemies at you, demanding excellent execution or a lot of health items (which gratefully carry over from the main game).  Most notably, however, is that some of the content just features poor design decisions.  Three’s chapter is easily the worst in this regard: it packs in wave-based encounters in each level, has the most horribly tedious dragon level of the bunch, and features an end “boss” encounter that is poorly explained and frustrating.  Sadly, her story is also one of the most terrifyingly fascinating, which made me gladly plow through to see how it ended.

There’s a few other problems I had with the DLC as a whole.  First, it only reuses levels from the main game in each chapter.  I wasn’t really expecting brand-new content, but it still makes the DLC a bit more tedious, especially considering how much the main game already recycled those same levels.  Second, there isn’t much replay value to any of the chapters.  Odds are, you won’t want to play through the levels more than once: unless you want those Memoirs, which force you to replay several levels to hit max rank and see them all, or a perfect set of Trophies.  Finally, the DLC reuses a lot of the humor tricks used in the original–bleeping out lines, breaking the fourth wall, making jokes about platforming sections–and saps them of all their remaining humor.  I know the dialog was written by the same people as the main game, but a bit more creativity and variety would have been nice–especially considering the price tag.

While I greatly enjoyed this content as a big fan of Drakengard 3, I do think it’s a bit overpriced for what you get–$30 for a bundle containing all the chapters or $6 a chapter (meaning don’t buy them all individually).  In the end, I can only really recommend the DLC to those who loved the original game and want to see more of the humor, characters, or storytelling.  The amount of content you get isn’t worth it otherwise, especially considering that the combat absolutely doesn’t hold up well for that much time.  I also recommend that you only buy all of the DLC or none of it whatsoever, unless you just really want to know more about a particular sister.  The DLC works better as a whole than as six individual pieces.

Hopefully, this closer look at the DLC of Drakengard 3 is enough to tell you whether or not it’s up your alley.  For those of you reading this who haven’t even played the original game, give it a try!  It’s still one of the funniest and most entertaining games I’ve played all year (link), even considering the often monotonous feel of the gameplay.

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Bound by Flame (PC) review

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

Bound by Flame takes place in Vertiel, a world slowly falling to the evil of the Ice Lords.  Humankind and elfkind are both on the brink of extinction, with the last members of each race joining together to form a very rough, slipshod resistance (made up of elven royal guard, a mercenary group called the Free Blades, and a sect of mages with ulterior motives) in an attempt to fight back.  Every day, their numbers shrink and the undead armies of the Ice Lords grow.  It seems like an inexorable march towards death–that is until a member of the Free Blades named Vulcan (last name–think Shepard from the Mass Effect series) gets accidentally possessed by a flame demon in a magical ritual.  The power it gives him/her may just be enough to fight back the evil forces and save the world.

The setup is a potentially interesting one, with the last vestiges of society forced to work together in its final struggle before extinction.  Combine this with a demon possession that manages to avoid many of the typical pitfalls of such a tropey idea–silly evil voices, promises of world domination, etc–with a focus on co-existing with the demon and there is the potential for an interesting story here.  There are also a few fantastic party members you can recruit, such as a knight who only talks about himself in the third-person and an immortal spirit who hops from body to body as they decay, that give great flavor to the proceedings.  On the surface, there does seem to be some promise here.

Unfortunately, Bound by Flame doesn’t utilize these elements very well.  After a relatively strong opening and story setup, the events quickly become a little too flat and narrow.  Any sense of peril is practically nonexistent, as everyone around you is quite unfazed by the oncoming horde of undead troops ready to take over the world.  You and your party linger in one spot for much too long, which breaks the immersion a bit considering the vast inequality in the sizes of each opposing force.  Even the Ice Lords, the commanders of this vast army who are spoken about in reverent tones, barely even factor into the story: you only encounter one of them in the entire length of the game.  Because of this lack in scope and tension, I found it hard to feel any sense of dread or terror towards events that should have instead been horrifically dire.

An early action shot.  Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

An early action shot. Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

One of the few things I liked about the story was how you make the moral “choices” regarding your demon.  Just as in many RPGs of the modern era, you can either choose to be good or evil, but the nature of this choice is slightly different here.  Instead of simply having you decide to either help others or act selfishly, the moral choices all revolve around how much you are willing to allow the demon to fuse with your character.  This can have huge consequences, such as causing the death of party members who don’t agree with your decisions, but also gives you the ability to do (story-related) things you couldn’t otherwise.  It’s a unique twist on the idea–the thought of giving up one’s identity to gain power necessary for saving the world is an intriguing one–but it doesn’t ever become any less binary than these decisions in other games.

In terms of the gameplay, Bound by Flame feels much like The Witcher 2 in design.  You engage in melee combat with an (often) large number of foes; managing crowds is a huge part of the game.  There’s a block/counter system that feels rewarding to use, hacking off a huge chunk of an enemy’s life if successful.  A light stealth mechanic makes backstabs possible, but few situations give you a chance to use it well.  There’s also ranged weapons, spells, and traps that can be used from a radial menu–or bound to a few shortcuts–to better handle difficult situations.  Finally, your party members can be given basic commands, such as attack your target or use certain abilities, from that same radial menu.  It all comes together adequately, if not a bit clunkily at times, but without much variety.

Bound by Flame also emulates The Witcher 2 in the difficulty of its encounters.  Enemies are extremely resilient, come in great numbers, aren’t afraid to attack you while you are otherwise occupied, and can take you down in a matter of seconds if you aren’t careful.  Dealing with your foes necessitates frequent blocking/dodging and careful timing of when to open yourself up to push the attack.  For a time, this difficulty can be extremely rewarding.  Every fight feels like something you have to claw through, but each victory also feels that much sweeter.  Learning to be patient and expand your tactics to deal with the difficulty curve is fun at first.

Unfortunately, the way the difficulty curve ramps up makes the experience shift from rewarding to tedious.  Enemies, especially late-game ones, take an absurd amount of hits to go down, a trait that doesn’t extend to you and your party members.  As you progress, the number of enemies in each encounter also increase, as well as the variety of those enemies.  Some later encounters might feature a few archers that like to pelt you with slowing arrows from afar, a shielded warrior who can take a huge beating, large sword wielders who can pound you and steal your mana, and a large general with some scary area attacks.  As you can probably guess, fights quickly go from a challenge to a chore: trying to dart in and out to kill the weaker enemies, preventing you from getting hit in the back, before taking on the bigger ones.  It just loses any amount of that rewarding challenge it previously had, instead being replaced with frustrating fights that demand absolute perfection from the player.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame.  Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame. Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

On the RPG side of things, you can find and purchase a variety of gear to equip your character with.  Weaponry is nicely diverse, both in types of weapons and visual style, but there isn’t much variety in the armor.  Sadly, none of this gear feels very meaningful.  Even a few more points of attack power or a higher percentage to crit feels like it has little to no impact on the actual combat.  Your gear can also be upgraded with various materials, but these upgrades suffer from mostly the same problem: only the more noticeable changes, like more health or faster attack speed, are worth anything.  I do like how you can break down old gear and recycle materials, though, as it made me feel like I could never mess up and pick the wrong upgrades.  Finally, there are some other craftable items as well–traps, potions, crossbow bolts–but you find plenty of these items during your explanation, enough so to make this feature rather pointless on anything but the hardest difficulty.

There are also side quests, but these are as plain as they can be, sending you around the area to fetch things for various members of your camp.  All of these consist of following the waypoint until you reach the area, gathering something or killing some foes, and running all the way back to turn it in.  By the time I cleared an area in one of the game’s four acts, I was completely tired of this cyclical process.  The developers try to mix things up with quests given by your party members, reminiscent of games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but these are just as boring as the rest.  Combine this boredom with my previously stated point that new gear (as quest rewards) is mostly useless and there isn’t much reason to chase these quests down, aside from a few more experience points.

As you level up, you earn talent points and feat points.  Unlike the gear, the talent tree and feat system do have some meaningful impact on your character’s growth.  The early stages of the talent tree give you things like the ability to block from any side or a larger window to counter enemy attacks, benefits that will aid you for your entire quest.  As you move up the tree, however, these useful abilities vanish entirely; I found most of the late-game abilities to be next to useless.  One example of this is the final talent in the warrior tree, a buff that boosts your attack power and potential to interrupt, which has an absurd mana cost (I couldn’t even cast it at full mana when I first unlocked it) and a short length that barely makes it worth using.  As a result, I spread my points around each of the three trees–warrior, ranger, and mage–to try and collect all of the great early-game buffs.

The in-game map, which you can overlay.  Notice the narrow corridors.

The in-game map, which you can overlay. Notice the narrow corridors.

Feats are small perks that unlock as you perform tasks, such as killing 50 enemies or crafting 10 potions.  You can then spend your feat points on thematic rewards; using the given examples, you could then unlock more experience from foes or cheaper crafting requirements for potions.  These rewards can actually make a pretty big difference, giving you a bigger health pool or a significant damage boost, but are fairly limited in scope: odds are, you’ll have all the ones you want by the end of the game.  Overall, the leveling system gives good incentive to gain experience at first, but those incentives become meaningless as you progress.

Bound by Flame is a game I consider to be plagued with genericness.  Many of the character designs are absolutely terrible, either relying on tropes or trying something new that just doesn’t work visually with the rest of the game.  Each new zone seems large but is actually a few “larger” areas connected by ridiculously narrow “corridors” that hinder your traversal. The voice acting is low in quality and has very few stand-out moments (your spirit companion mentioned above isn’t terrible).  Most tragic is probably the soundtrack, which I just shockingly learned was done by Olivier Derivière, most famous for his excellent work on the Remember Me soundtrack.  For someone who did such a unique soundtrack, I can’t believe the bland nature of his  extremely standard and repetitive soundtrack here.  All in all, I would consider this game’s genericness to be its biggest weakness.

To your average person, Bound by Flame may just look like a bad Witcher 2 clone.  After all, it has a similar fantasy setting, isn’t afraid to (poorly) emulate that game’s tone, and features some fairly identical combat–aside from polish.  For people like me, those who played this developer’s previous game (Mars: War Logs), Bound by Flame looks like a more ambitious version of that game.  While it manages to add depth, length, and some interesting new ideas, I still find myself liking it less than Mars: War Logs.  That game managed to have its own very unique identity, one that managed to grab me even when the rest of the experience was rough around the edges.  Bound by Flame may be a better game, but I still found it too generic to enjoy my time with it.  If it can be gotten cheaply, it may be worth a quick romp.  At its current $40 price tag?  I suggest Mars: War Logs instead–or The Witcher 2, if you want a fantasy game.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4) review

Snake/Big Boss himself.

Snake/Big Boss himself.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place just a few months after the events of Peace Walker, the last previously released game in the series.  Two characters prevalent in that game’s events, Paz (presumed dead) and Chico, have been captured and taken to an off-the-books American prison site called Camp Omega.  Snake (really Big Boss, since this takes place in the older fiction) receives a distress call from Chico and plans to infiltrate the base, determined to rescue both Paz and Chico.  Due to an important nuclear inspection of Mother Base, Snake must undertake this mission quickly and quietly, with no backup or further support.

There really isn’t a lot to the story in Ground Zeroes: in fact, there’s shockingly little.  Aside from the beginning and end cutscenes, all the “plot” in the game just serves to tell you where to go and what to do on the base.  Just as things start to get interesting at the tail end, it’s already over.  It’s extremely thin, serving only to bridge the rather small gap between events in Peace Walker and those upcoming in Phantom Pain.  I was reminded of an old shareware game or those demos that would play a trailer after you finished it (which Ground Zeroes also does, funny enough), trying to get you to buy the full game.  It feels like the small story was just an excuse to make the game in the first place, trying to hook players before releasing the actual game later on.

The choice of characters, particularly the two from the previous game, used in the story also seems a bit strange.  I feel it’s safe to say that a large portion of fairly diehard fans of the MGS series (myself included) didn’t bother to play Peace Walker, likely due to the fact that it was on the PSP originally and because it never sounded crucial to the fiction.  Paz and Chico aren’t really that important to the series–at least at this point in time–so it makes me wonder why they needed to be included at all.  It seems like nothing would have been lost in just making a couple throwaway, nondescript characters as prisoners with necessary information to push these events forward.  As it stands in the game, it’s a very small callback with a poor resolution for fans of those characters: a lose-lose scenario.

It’s also worth noting that there is a bit of unpleasant material found in Ground Zeroes.  Both Paz and Chico are tortured before Snake can come to rescue them, and there are multiple points where you can hear some of this for yourself.  Very little of this is actually found in the main story; instead, it is relegated to the optional bits of story, found in various cassette tapes recorded by Chico during his imprisonment.  Since these are all audio with no visuals, you can only infer what is happening.  Still, it’s plain to hear that there is beating, intense mutilation, and even sexual abuse happening in these scenes.

It's hard to tell here, but this is a shot of the slowdown effect.

It’s hard to tell here, but this is a shot of the slowdown effect.

For some people, this may go a bit too far, prompting the question of why the inclusion of these scenes is even necessary: isn’t knowing that Paz and Chico were tortured enough?  I can, however, see potential value in this information, particularly in regards to the new villain introduced here, Skull Face.  Knowing the distance he will go in his torture shows just how determined, or fucked-up, he really is.  It could be a really important character-building moment that has relevance later on in Phantom Pain–or it could just be a shocking moment included to titillate.  I feel an argument can be made for it either way but dismissing it outright for its shocking nature is a bit too kneejerk.  It doesn’t really bother me, although I could see it being pointless in the long run.  In the end, of course, your opinion of these scenes will come down to how they impact you in the moment.  For those squeamish, however, I advise avoiding the tapes entirely.

Whereas the story doesn’t do much to impress, the gameplay of Ground Zeroes is remarkably solid, especially for a game series that has always felt a bit clunky.  Finally, modern controls have come to the series and it feels fantastic.  It operates much like you would expect a typical third-person shooter, removing all of the finger-acrobatics that the old systems required.  Two new additions that are particularly noteworthy are the binoculars that allow you to mark enemies for easy tracking and a moment of slowdown that occurs if you are spotted, allowing you quickly down the enemy who just spotted you to prevent him from sounding an alert.

I had a blast playing this game, no matter how I tackled a situation.  Sneaking around is made easy thanks to the great accuracy of the guns over range, the aforementioned slowdown feature to prevent instant alerts from unseen enemies, the ability to run while crouching (finally!), and increased speed in moving/hiding downed enemies.  When a firefight breaks out, dealing with the vast number of enemies is easy thanks to tight aiming controls and a smart cover system.  It just feels good to play, in that way that’s hard to describe but you understand the second you sit down and play it for yourself.  Knowing that Phantom Pain will play just like this makes me that much more excited to play it next year.

I could say "Skull Face" is the dumbest name for a villain in an MGS game yet--but I'd be lying. Sigh.

I could say “Skull Face” is the dumbest name for a villain in an MGS game yet–but I’d be lying. Sigh.

 

Because I enjoyed playing the game so much, it’s really a bummer that the content in Ground Zeroes is so thin.  There’s a decent amount to do–the main mission, a handful of side missions with new objectives, and two silly bonus missions–but it all feels a bit repetitive.  Part of this likely stems from it all taking place on the same sizeable but limited landmass, while part of it stems from the very meager amount of story included throughout.  Once you complete a mission, there isn’t much incentive to go back.  Both a harder difficulty and trials, challenges that have you doing things like marking all the enemies in the base as quickly as you can, unlock once you finish a mission once, but these still have you playing the same handful of missions again and again.  Furthermore, you don’t unlock anything of value for completing these extra bits, making them rather pointless.  Even for how much I enjoyed the act of playing Ground Zeroes, I couldn’t help but get bored after just a handful of hours.

There are, however, a few collectibles found around the base to stretch the game’s length.  These come in the form of XOF patches, which unlock the bonus missions after finding all 9, and the cassette tapes I mentioned above, which include some additional story information.  These are remarkably hard to find, due to their tiny appearance in-game and the size of the base, and are scattered throughout the various missions; collecting them all without a guide was a bit too much of a chore for me.  These can add a few hours to your playtime but can also be a bit annoying to track down.  I do recommend at least finding the patches, since the bonus missions are quite enjoyable to see at least once.

Finally, I don’t think I can end this review without talking a bit about the new voice for Big Boss, Kiefer Sutherland.  I will say that the voice seemed rather inoffensive–different, of course, but inoffensive–in my time with the game, perfectly suited to the character of Big Boss.  Personally, I always found it a bit weird that they didn’t change the voice in MGS3, instead opting to use David Hayter’s iconic voice even though it was a different character.  This new voice does feel a bit more natural for Big Boss; however, there really isn’t enough here to make a final verdict.  Sutherland doesn’t have a ton of speaking lines, and I couldn’t really get a handle on how exactly I felt about it.  We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out in Phantom Pain.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a weird game.  It feels like a tech demo being sold to fans, getting them used to the new systems and making the small bridge in story needed to set up the next game.  While I think the gameplay is absolutely fantastic and can’t wait to spend more time controlling it, I was a little bummed at just how thin the content is in scope.  It doesn’t feel worth it, at least not for the full price tag.  I paid under $20 for it, which I feel is the sweet spot for this product.  If you want just a taste of the MGS craziness, and aren’t annoyed by the whole thing just being setup for the actual game, give it a shot.  Just don’t pay $30 for it.