YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE SOMETHING WONDERFUL
How do you define what Resident Evil is? It began as a tank-control 3rd person survival horror set in a mansion in the midst of nowhere, then quickly spun out of control into a huge series. After the initial 3 or 4 installments, the franchise went everywhere from radically divergent (Gun Survivor, Outbreak) and revolutionary (Resident Evil 4) to hamfisted (Resident Evil 6) and possible low-key revivals (Revelations 1+2). The gameplay, as of late, has generally held on to the core principles and 3rd person controls introduced in RE4, veering further and further into badly-balanced action segments and convoluted stories. What had started as primarily a horror series was becoming an offshoot bioweapon shooter with wildly fluctuating dips in quality. As someone who enjoyed Resident Evil 2 and 4 (the best ones, the Leon ones), I began to just accept that all hope was lost and Resident Evil, with Revelations 2, had become a low-budget throwaway property concerned with microtransaction bullshit and shoddy gameplay.
Capcom's answer to this was twofold: dedication to the old-school crowd with development of a Resident Evil 2 remake, and a surprise reveal of Resident Evil 7 at E3 2016. RE7: Biohazard was to be a complete resurrection of the series, taking place in a completely new setting with new characters, and throwing the player into a first person experience. Resident Evil 7 puts the "resident evil" back into the series and more, because this is one scary fucking game fraught with terrifying situations and encounters. I was distraught when P.T., a game rich with promise, was cancelled and sent to the abyss--however, RE7 has pulled in some of the best elements of Outlast, P.T., classic Resident Evil games, and SOMA.
The obvious shift in RE7 is the 1st person control, which serves in making each escape and confrontation that much more stressful. Unlike the movie angles of classic RE games, you're only going to see what's in front of you. As I don't have a VR headset, I can't comment on what it adds to the game--but I imagine it makes things that much more immersive. Although this shares many tropes and controls with other 1st person horror games of this ilk, RE7 still rests on collecting weapons, sparse ammo, herbs, and first aid kits, and puzzles that rely on things like weird objects and a series of keys.
In RE7, you play as Ethan, who is convinced his long-lost wife is being held hostage in a Louisiana estate. Ethan wanders into a southern swampmeat residence, gets captured by backwoods psychos, and hilarity ensues. It certainly puts the "resident" back in Resident Evil, as you mainly explore and run around an old house full of secrets, a disgusting basement area, and a dilapidated shack near the water. The sinister Baker family--Jack, Margeurite, and Lucas--all have their own unique quirks and challenges for you, and their respective areas change up the game each time. You'll go from a wild goose chase with a Nemesis-esque Jack to dodging bugs in the shack to solving tripwire puzzles from Lucas in the main playthrough. I did love how the type of encounter changed with each family member I had to go through, and the resulting backtracking into new, horrible areas to keep making progress. Like the original Resident Evil, the house itself is a pertinent and important feature because you'll be traversing its entrails for quite some time, and the challenges will constantly morph. Besides the merry pranks from the Baker family, you will also have to deal with a slimy black symbiotic slew of monsters called Molded. These guys are more or less the dangerous shock troops that have been infected by whatever moldy shit is infecting everyone's brains, and some of your toughest decisions will come from whether you want to use your limited ammo to take them out or flee.
It feels like yesterday I was downtrodden over the death of the excellent P.T. project, which held so much promise in its presentation and unease. Resident Evil 7 has actually succeeded in spooking me just as much as P.T. did--the terror of pushing open each door and navigating through the next dimly-lit room had my heart pounding, especially when I knew something was following me. A lot of this can be attributed to the excellent graphics and hyper-real construction of the household, which was a reason why P.T.'s hallway and relatively "normal" space seemed so scary; there's something not quite right under the surface. Much like the odd viscera and threatening pictures in that game, RE7 has more than enough moments to make you question what the fuck is going on in this estate, and what happened to this family. The best moments come from absolute radio silence, because in those instances the threat is at its worst. You will be taken aback when you feel your safest, and every escape feels like a tiny victory--especially in the more decrepit areas of the Baker estate that have fallen to ruin and sludge.
It wouldn't be Resident Evil without boss battles, something that I feel didn't even become worthwhile until Resident Evil 4. I'm glad to say the battles in RE7 range from pretty good to genuinely thrilling. I don't want to spoil anything, but some of the battles are actually fun and/or funny to go through, especially since you're being egged at by the equally fun Baker clan. Provided you are careful with your inventory, you should almost always have enough in the tank to conquer these battles, though quite a few supply you with items in or around the fighting arenas. Towards the end of the journey, those battles may get a bit bigger and more obnoxious, but critical thinking and quick reflexes will always win out over these creatures.
Regarding the narrative and pacing of the game as a whole, things are at their best when it's confined to the madhouse of the Bakers and their humble abode. The game gets a bit iffy once you leave this area and dive into the final 2 zones, which will have you getting a bit more trigger happy than usual--but the payoff, and storyline revelations, are served up on a platter that is an exquisite callback to classic Resident Evil in ways that mirror the finale of the very first two games. After an initial game dominated by caution and fear, you're sent on a wild run through to the bitter end; a bombastic reminder of what series we're still entrenched within.
My hope going forward for Capcom would be that they continue on this new route of satisfying the hardcore old-school crowd with their REmakes, while also experimenting with this well-conceived first person dimension. RE7 is a largely satisfying endeavour when you understand the perspective of its release frame--a game that came out after P.T. was buried, in a world where Resident Evil's latest outing was a very cheap-budget but acceptable Revelations 2. Although RE7's makeup is an amazing beginning/ending with a low point in the ship zone, it's more than worthy of your time if you're hungry for survival horror and a tense, terrifying dive into gross muck and brainwashed podunks. It's an extremely promising start to what I hope is a new tradition. And after all, tradition is what makes a family closer, son.
NINTH CENTURY NETWORKING
Ubisoft, the perennial slash-and-burn 3rd party, is coming off a moderately successful Watch Dogs 2 outing (I wouldn't know, I don't give a shit about realistic open world busywork) and a bargain bin snowslope sim in Steep. Normally, I'd have something to say about an Assassin's Creed game, but Ubisoft took a year to think about the franchise future and offered up Ghost Recon: Wildlands and For Honor in 2017 instead. For Honor is easily their most unique IP in the last few years, not stemming from any series in the past and offering a new kind of fighting game formula. Pitting samurai, knights, and Vikings against each other in 1v1, 2v2, and 4v4 scenarios, it's focused largely on the multiplayer components--though it offers AI matchups and scenarios, including a semi-interesting single player campaign that functions more like an introduction. Although For Honor lays the groundwork for some very fun brawling and laughable moments, it does suffer from an outer layer of typical Ubisoft bullshit.
Starting from the beginning, the fighting system in For Honor relies on your 3 directional stances and the numerous light and heavy attacks from them. You also have special directional moves, character-specific combos, guardbreak grabs and throws, parries, deflections, dodges, and movement-assisted moves. Certain characters have qualities like a dodging parry or a full-defense stance, others may have better counter cabailities and bleed effects to their attacks. With 4 characters each for the 3 factions, the basic 12 (with 6 to come for free later on) is a nice round number for a 3D weapons fighter. For the most part, each character has a nice balance of strengths and weaknessess, although selections like the viking raider or the ironclad Lawbringer suffer in speed and moveset pool when compared to other easier characters. When it takes twice the work to do things that come simply to others, why bother playing them? Overall the system is very unique and very enjoyable, mostly through the one-on-one duels you have where you're on equal footing.
The game modes available boil down to a few basic selections: solo or duo battles, group elimination, and a quasi-MOBA zone capture. Solo/duo is exactly what it sounds like: 1v1 or 2v2 against players or the AI. The 4v4 modes are a little different; not only are you in complete chaos, but you'll be dealing with "gear stats." Throughout your play, you'll get gear you can equip on each character, buffing and nerfing specific qualities. You can buy stupid steel points with real money to speed up this process, if you're insane. Normally, these stats are not active for solo and duo modes, but they'll be turned on for any 4-man battles, and this will quickly become problematic for you if the matchmaking decides to fuck you over. Though the game is primarily one of skill, being matched up against characters with ridiculous high-tier high-level gear will undeniably cast things in their favor. Additionally, Elimination matches can quickly devolve into either 1) your opponent hightailing it away to doubleteam someone faster, or 2) a wild goose chase to continuously revive teammates ad infinitum. Elimination is rarely "for honor" and to be fair I don't expect anything beyond frantic drunken fights, but it gets fatuiging chasing down another agile character through a level over and over.
Dominion is a mode where you have a horde of AI soldiers helping you take Point B in a map, while points A and C depend on you and your teammates to capture and hold them for points. Again, this is a mode that quickly turns into "rove around as a pack to take points or get ganked badly" so it's not nearly as interesting as it appears.
Let's talk about the stages and the overall aesthetics. I think Ubisoft ought to be commended at locking this game to a very steady 30fps, as I rarely experienced any kind of stuttering or slowdown (terrible fucking servers nonwithstanding). Each stage for duals and larger 4v4 setpieces is lovingly crafted and looks great, from the crumbling medieval forts to the Asian temples and walls. There are plenty of stage hazards, aka "places to throw people off a cliff or into a pit" and that will surely cause many a player to disconnect in salty anger. In terms of animations and effects, Ubisoft nailed everything from telegraphed motions to the more brutal executions. Where the game sucks is the bare bones bullshit of the "soundtrack," which is mainly the same loop of fucking war drums over and over. I ended up setting the "music" down to almost mute because it's fucking worthless. I would have preferred some kind of heavy metal or stupid techno shit but I guess no fun is allowed, even if the presence of such metal aesthetics would have lended itself to such a soundtrack.
So, For Honor has a cool combat system, some nice stages, and looks pretty good. What else is there to say about the core of the game? Well, besides the multiplayer modes, there isn't much else. Like Overwatch, this is primarily a multiplayer game--though one with not as much flexibility or updates, most likely. For Honor has a few problems with the gear functionality, primarily with the piss-poor matchmaking: there is zero discrepancy with how you get premade with people that are either level 8 or 80 with their overall experience and items. There's the entire issue of "honor" in the game, as well--and why not, it's fucking called For Honor, isn't it? And yet, across platforms, people disconnect or quit midmatch all the time, or accuse others of not fighting "fair" i.e. waiting their turn to jump in next in a 1v2 situation in duo dualing, or grouping up rapidly against others in 4v4 scenarios. While I can't really say how this gets enforced or if people really care about it as a majority, I will say that Ubisoft gives zero shits about leaver penalties at all. It's very common to see a "desyncing, please wait" notification break the action for a few seconds, leading to players getting rapidly replaced by bots or even replacing bots without much warning. The peer-to-peer matchmaking isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's certainly susceptible to errors and fuckups when people are dropping out like flies. I don't think Ubisoft really thought about this kind of thing hard enough, so as a result the multiplayer is less than solid. What we're left with is a fairly confusing base game with modes dominated by gear stats and anarchy while others are governed by strictly standard rules. Meanwhile, a "pay-to-win" dichotomy exists for those who want an easier time with 4v4 rules, possibly gaining better items from the weapon packs on sale. Add to all this the tiring matchmaking with a lack of lobbies for duels and a necessity to exit out of underfilled matchups, and you have an undercooked product.
I like playing For Honor--it's an enticing new direction to go with duel-based games and has the ability to make people isnsanely angry. That alone is pretty cool, but if I paid the full $60 for this game (I paid $1.80 due to old trade-ins) I'd be pretty disappointed. In the long run, I can see a lot changing with the game, and maybe it'll have a longer tail than Rainbow Six Siege does for Ubisoft. For now, it remains an experience that is marred by stupid statboost microtransactions, moronic matchmaking and connections, and a playerbase that cannot decide if they want honor or glory. For now, the only potential dishonor might lie with Ubisoft if they fuck up an otherwise great new idea.
YARE YARE BRAWL REVOLUTION
For the majority of us, Yakuza 0 is the first proper introduction to the batshit insane series by SEGA. Having started way back on the PS2, Yakuza is probably best described as Streets of Rage combined with Shenmue--a strange bizarro world representation of 1980s Japan crossed with a soap opera story, brutal brawling, and hundreds of side activities. It would also be correct to describe Yakuza 0 as a real estate and cabaret simulator with breaks to play darts, shoot pool, and smash bicycles over the heads of an entire crime syndicate. After all is said and done, you retire to your home office to write letters to a radio show in the hopes your stupid tale about helping a dominatrix restore her confidence will make the air. Also, your best friends are a man in a diaper with acute priapism, and a debt collector woman who destroys people with milk crates.
Yakuza 0 deals with the ascension and fall and ascension of two different crime mens: Kazama Kiryu, a strong chinned man who loves karaoke and hates kinkshaming, and Goro Majima, a yakuza-turned-cabaret manager with a fondness for blind chicks, baseball, and breakdancing. A murder happens, people are blamed for it, betrayal and sexy honorbound battles occur, and manly tears are shed over the course of a multi-chapter epic wherein you will switch back and forth between Kiryu and Majima.
The core of the game is a hodgepodge of factors, but after the narrative it's the fighting system. Although not as transitional in nature as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, Yakuza 0 gives you a wealth of combo options, grabs, and counters. The upgrade system, as explained by a drunk American wino/trainer, is tied to "investing" the monies you earned into any of the 3 fighting styles each character has. Being able to switch to each style with the control pad is quite intuitive, especially if you use one style as a "battery" to build up Heat for another. Heat is what you'll be using to strengthen normal attacks and pull off brutal finishers, which number things like curbstomps, smashing fruit in a dude's face, twisting (breaking) somebody's neck, or treating someone like a fucking lawn dart and piledriving them into the concrete headfirst. Combat is by and large quick, exceedingly painful-looking, and an absolute spectacle, especially when your Heat meter is off the charts and you're throwing around motorcycles like the fucking Juggernaut. Equally as fun are the many skills to unlock and upgrade, which give access to some truly neat counters and context-sensitive actions that might save your ass in the thick of the tougher encounters. Don't forget that block button, kids.
I'd call this game "a bit like Shenmue" because it's not a "true" open world, and honestly, thank god for that. Unlike sandbox games like GTA, Yakuza 0 trims the fat and the meandering drives towards fuck-all; there's very little filler here and little time wasted from one event transpiring to the next. SEGA instead has created a smaller hubworld for each character with restaurants, shops, random sidequest encounters, and recreation centers around, with random thugs sprinkled around to test your resolve. It has a distinct arcade feel, densely packed in a small but lovingly crafted city rife with places to visit and experience. Since the city is such a contained sphere, it's easy to simply run around and discover new things to do and partake in, many of which are humorous side-stories that usually require hilarious dialogue challenges.
I love taking a break from burying people's faces into concrete to help a poor little kid purchase a porno mag, or help a band achieve its big break. The more sidequests you complete, the more letters you can write about them to a radio show. You'll also be able to recruit some of the people you've helped into Majima or Kiryu's side-business games. There's nobody I'd rather trust with my property investments than a guy known only as "Masochistic Man."
That being said, how is the actual storyline for the main game? In a word, it is the GREATEST STORY SINCE METAL GEAR SOLID 2. This is a MANLY COURAGE tale, one inhabited by love, loyalty, and danger. Kiryu, the strongest human in the world, will do anything to honorably clear his name and restore honor to the imprisoned man who took him in as a child. After being thrown out of the yakuza, Kiryu proceeds to become even stronger and more diligent than the clan itself--a paragon of unrelenting, unyielding machismo and halfway-heroism. On the other side of the coin is Goro Majima, a yakuza broken and beaten but accepting of his assigned role as a stewardly manager of a cabaret. A hitman unwilling to execute the innocent, Majima slowly ponders ditching his one-time family of cruel criminals and creates a new identity as the "lord of the night," a dutiful manager of hostesses who doesn't even know how to return to the life he worked so hard to get back. It's interesting that Kiryu is the protagonist that changes the opinions and reactions of those he comes into conflict with, enticing respect and friendship---whereas Majima is morphed and moved around constantly by the people he fights and protects. Majima's story is fraught with enemies who become friends, whilst Kiryu has made a family clan the enemies. That Kiryu is willing to burn down the institution of the Yakuza to make things right while Majima views his destiny to profit or suffer eternally within his caste is as telling as their fighting styles; one man is an unstoppable force centered on brute force while the other is one rooted in strangely different styles, all adapted solely to advance his one goal with any means: winning a way back into the only life he ever knew. There are so many twists and turns and dramatic soap-opera beats that you'll likely be engaged for the entirety of the ride, and left with some new favorite characters to love and hate.
I'll leave the rest to you to discover but there is one other character--Tetsu Tachibana--who was very intriguing to me. Tachibana brings an element of xenophobia to the tale, being a half Chinese-Japanese man who was unwanted by both clans. A man desperate to make good by coming up from a life of crime, Tachibana fords a real estate front in order to reconnect with an ancient secret and prevent a city from upending into chaos. Moreso than even Punished Snake from MGSV, Tachibana is the real "Fallen Man" drawn by a unique phantom pain: the loss of his hand, along with his past, is the fuel that drives him to mentor Kiryu. In a world filled with dumb punk rocker bands and stupid salarymen, Tachibana's anger and sorrow driven by a dose of racism from his countrymen was a poignant point to take in. As much power as he wields, he cannot change the past, which defines both his failures he could have prevented, and the genetic code he could not.
The story beats and cinematics spare absolutely nothing, as we get not only fully-voiced high-def cutscenes, but also in-game cutscenes with voices, "motion-comic" stills with voices, and general interactions with text-only. At one point I think I went through all of these styles in one story moment, though it was followed up by a huge 3-on-50 gauntlet so I didn't really mind. Although it's not going to be mistaken for Naughty Dog anytime soon, the art and graphics are quite good and have a clean, colorful "SEGA arcade" feel. This is a great looking game, and one that sounds just as good, too--the mix of beat 'em up rock and techno fits well with every encounter and moment in downtime. There's a lot of cheesy buttrock, but it's the enjoyable kind. Personally, I loved the ridiculous karaoke song "Judgement" the most. Although it's Japanese-only dialogue with English subtitles, the professional inflections and excellent facial expressions go a very long way in building each character throughout their tribulations.
There is so much goddamned depth in this game that it's dizzying. Unlike other checkbox crap and boorish minigames inserted into every GTA clone on the market, Yakuza 0's side orders are as engaging as the main dish itself. I've spent hours just playing the various darts and cue sport minigames, both of them given a sheen of polish that most games would barely care about. That's the way it is with most of Yakuza 0's distractions and sidejobs; they could certainly be portioned off as very satisfying ventures on their own on mobile or handheld plaforms. It's an entirely new postgame activity in itself to go into Kiryu's real estate shakedowns and investments or Majima's recruitment and training ventures with his cabaret roster. There are entire storylines and cutscenes devoted to things like this, with more content constantly being brought forth. And yet, none of it is ever overwhelming, as you could do as much or as little as you want in the realm of combat training, weapon crafting, slot car racing, and more. You are getting the most bang for your buck, and without the bloat that most open world games bring with it in terms of long spans of nothingness partnered with needless grinding. With Yakuza 0, even the "grind" of your character stats is achieved by way of investing money in yourself; thusly, all your ventures in the game bringing cash will help you not only purchase items and plot macguffins, but also improve your abilities. It's a brilliant way to reward you for simply enjoying some of the non-fight related stuff, so when you do get back to busting up a 20-man gang, you're going to have a lot more fun and look a lot cooler doing it.
Yakuza 0 is a game that reminds me of that Dreamcast era where everything ran fast, looked beautiful, and constantly gave you fun things to do while handing you a ticket to the craziest ride you could imagine. It is a drama and a comedy, a fist fight caught in a twister of disco dancing and telephone clubs. Yakuza 0 boils down everything to its bare essence and slathers it with a saucy overdrive, demanding you give equal attention to epic showdowns and toy collecting. It's the Shenmue experience we never got in the following decades, a game that fulfills Sega's reputation of going big with the gameplay and unique attitude. This is one of the most enjoyable videogames I have ever played, combining the new era's narrative drama with the old era's arcade sensibilities--especially the long-dead brawler genre. Much like last year's DOOM, this game almost flawlessly packages everything you love about games into one experience.
Amazing and topical!