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Devcom 2018

Another year, another game developer conference. This was the first time I attended Devcom, and I have to say it’s a pretty good replacement for the now defunct GDC EU. There’s a decent selection of speakers, and the attendees come from all sectors of the games industry which gives the event a slightly less corporate feeling. The on-site catering service is still pretty lackluster though, and I sorely miss Respawn.

This was also the first time I really used MeetToMatch, and I’m blown away by how good it is. Planning meetings was always a pain during any conference, and this app allows you to schedule, cancel and keep track of them in a highly efficient manner. (The app unfortunately doesn’t help you get better at meetings though, so I’m still doing this by trial and error. Sorry, table 4!)

I guess I also appreciated just getting off this island for a while. The first thing I did after arriving in Cologne was to sit down on a nearby bench and enjoying the sunset while sipping on a cheap beer. It’s something I always took for granted living in central Europe, and not being able to stay outside for long is a frustrating aspect of living so far up north.

Lastly, I completely picked the wrong shoes for the event, and my feet developed some hideous blisters on the first day. Fortunately, I met a fellow Swiss who gave me one of his blister bandages. #networking

Event Highlight

I met 20 Swiss people in a single day. Seriously.

When I was looking for a job in 2014 right after graduating from the Games Academy, things weren’t looking good. The handful of Swiss indie studios could barely afford to exist, let alone hire anyone new so I had to look for opportunities elsewhere. Now, 4 years later, the indie scene is thriving and Switzerland has an international presence under the #swissgames banner.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The crux of the matter is that games still aren’t officially recognized as an art form, and therefore don’t receive the funding they need. To put it in perspective, Solid Clouds received more in grants than the entirety of the Swiss games cluster in 2017. While we still have a long road ahead, I remain hopeful and look forward to the day I can work on great games in Switzerland.

Game Highlight

This one goes to Imagine Earth, which initially piqued my interest because its border expansion mechanics looked very similar to Starborne. It’s a strategy game that takes place on a single planet, and the goal is to build up a powerful colony in order to buy out the competing players. The twist is that global warming is a thing, and reckless expansion will turn the entire planet inhospitable after a while which puts a dynamic timer on all participants.

It’s a very focused game with a clear goal thanks to the relatively short run time of a match, and the absence of unnecessary micro-management allows you to start a game without committing the entire evening to it. I can’t say this about most other strategy games on the market, and Imagine Earth offers a fun alternative to satisfy the strategy nerd inside of us. Check it out here.

Food Highlight

Beirut. It’s a Lebanese restaurant near Heumarkt, and offers absolutely delicious food at very affordable prices. I highly recommend you pay them a visit the next time you’re in Cologne.

And that’s about it, I think. See you next year!

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe [Switch]

Nintendo went above and beyond porting Mario Kart 8 to the Switch, and despite the impressive amount of polish I can still clearly recognize the game I fell in love with all those years ago. This is without a doubt the definitive Mario Kart experience: Pure, simple and fun.

What is Luigi Kart 8 Deluxe?

Yoshi Kart is a kart racing game where you control you favorite Nintendo character, hop on a Nintendo themed kart and race against 11 other players on Nintendo themed tracks. Random power-ups grant you various items allowing you screw over the poor sap next to you, and leave each race up for grabs until the very last moment. It’s fast, it’s fun, and if you’re thinking about what Switch game to get next, choose this one.

New from the Wii U version are slightly faster load times, updated visuals, 5 new karts and 6.5 characters as well as a proper battle mode on proper battle maps. Characters, cups and modes are unlocked from the start, but you’ll need to grind about 5000 coins to unlock all of the karts, wheels and gliders available.

There are a few gameplay changes as well: We now have a third drift boost stage with the purple spark, red shells follow you through the air, fire hopping is gone and the ability to carry two items at once is back from the Gamecube days. QoL MVP: You can now change your kart configuration in multiplayer without having to leave the lobby first.

go-kart Derby

The driving mechanics are tight, and mini-turbos have never been this satisfying. In Peach Kart you can power-slide around curves which maintains your speed and builds up a boost, while jumping the moment you leap off a ramp or ledge will reward you with a smaller air-boost. Both are very intuitive mechanics which provide constant feedback and acceleration, but involve a high degree of mastery as the time you shave off from getting the timing right really adds up.

 

But Bowser Kart wouldn’t be Wario Kart without the items, which you get from driving into power-up blocks sprinkled throughout the tracks. The random item you get can range from a ghost that turns you invisible all the way up to the infamous blue shell which will seek and utterly destroy whoever’s in first place.

The general rule of thumb here is: The further back you are, the better items you get, and you’re not affected as much when you get hit by them. While luck is still a significant factor which levels the playing field, the addition of a second item slot adds a lot of depth to the item management and clever usage is required to come out ahead when everyone is around the same skill level.

 

What is most impressive about all this is the simplicity of the controls – You accelerate with the A button, steer with the left stick, drift with the R button and use items with the L button. Realistically, that’s all you ever need which makes it incredibly easy to pick up and play the game. Tilt controls are also supported, but I haven’t found them to be responsive enough.

You get coins for finishing races which automatically unlock new karts, wheels and gliders. The thresholds are quite low, so you can try out new parts very frequently. Don’t worry – you have more than enough competitive parts to start with, but not an amount that would overload a newcomer.

 

While there are plenty of stats for us nerds to min/max our configs with, this system elegantly avoids the issue of having “poor controls” by letting you put the kart together yourself. Each configuration has noticeably different handling characteristics, and finding the one combination that feels just right enhances the gameplay a lot.

Mario Speedway

The track layouts are intuitive, and slamming into a wall because you didn’t know where to go is nowhere near as frequent as in previous installments. Because most tracks are simply rearrangements of universal track sections with a different skin, the pace at which you familiarize yourself with the game is greatly accelerated.

The anti-gravity mode allows you to traverse tracks side-ways or upside-down and results in some really creative designs, while unique gimmicks such as a super long jump, unique obstacle or even just a splitting path give each track its own identity instead of just looking different. Some tracks also feature shortcuts, which are usually only accessible with a mushroom and allow you to catch up to first place.

 

The game’s 48 tracks are divided into 12 Cups featuring 4 Races each, and clearing them all on every speed setting is good fun. To receive 3 stars in a Grand Prix you need to get 1st place in every race, which makes it a bit more challenging but also a lot less intuitive when trying to clear the cups with 2 or more players. A high score function or being able to see the race time in general would’ve been a nice addition.

Time trials let you race on each track by yourself to get the best time possible. Each race comes with a ghost (recording of a player’s driving performance) from a Nintendo staffer which gives you a decent benchmark to go for, but you can always download and race against ghosts from other players. It’s a really cool mode – seeing how the best players in the world race and what kart configuration they use is a great way to get better at the game.

Battle modes are back, and now take place on proper arena-style maps and usually involve hitting someone or something with an item while trying to not get hit yourself. The included modes are Balloon Battle, Bob-omb Blast, Shine Thief, Coin Runners and Renegade Roundup. While not as polished as the main race mode, they’re a fun distraction and definitely a step up from the previous iteration.

 

While the game has a decent amount of content to offer, playing alone against the CPU will get repetitive very fast, and the absence of proper single-player content such as the Mission Mode from Mario Kart DS is unfortunate. Ultimately, you want to get this game to play with your friends and/or online.

Online Play

With the press of just a few buttons you’re in a standard race against 11 other players from around the world. Playing decently will net you points, while playing terribly will cause you to lose some. As a result, the points are more of an indicator of time spent playing rather than actual skill which leads to the matchmaking being decent at best. There’s no online leaderboard either, which further limits their value.

In the lobby, players can vote for the next track, change the kart configuration and exchange some preset messages (“I’m using tilt controls!” is the closest to actual banter you’re going to get). The higher the average point count of a room, the more 200cc and Mirror tracks you’re going to roll. It’s fast, it’s fun, and if you get a decent room you can get some incredibly competitive games.

Unfortunately, the online experience gets worse if you want to do something other than a standard race. Any custom tournament you join is automatically added to your favorites, and you’ll have to manually delete them to make room for more. This can become a frequent issue because filtering is rather limited, and if you’re not playing at peak times you’ll have to sift through a few dozen empty rooms first.

While you have decent control over what kind of tournament you want to create, it will start as soon as the minimum amount of players has been reached. This makes it a pain if you’re trying to play with a group, as everyone has to join at the exact same time by entering a 12-digit tournament code. I could write an entire article about the dreadful design of this system, but I’ll leave the discussion around that for another day.

The game uses servers for basic tasks and P2P for actual gameplay, with unfortunately mixed results: Going online and finding a room is super fast, but the quality of a game can vary drastically. Thanks to decent client-side prediction the gameplay never visibly stutters when playing against people with a poor connection, but your single-target items may miss things they shouldn’t, or have seemingly no effect when they do connect. Worse still, if the host has a poor connection it can take up to a minute for the race to start and another to calculate the rankings at the end of it.

Ultimately, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe lacks the intricacies of a modern multiplayer game required to build a lasting community, and the sub-par online service is a blemish on the otherwise stellar experience.

4.5
Excellent
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe [Switch]
TL;DR
This is without a doubt the definitive Mario Kart experience: Pure, simple and fun. 
Kudos
Polish
Usability
Level Design
Art Direction
Music

 

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials and Tribulations [3DS]

This is a standalone review of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials and Tribulations, which is part of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy released on the 3DS.

The third and final chapter of the Wright & Co. Law Office adds absolutely nothing new to the established formula, but unlike Justice for All it doesn’t have to because the game delivers on what it tries to accomplish. The heavily character-driven story told within the context of the entire trilogy elegantly ties up every loose end and provides an incredibly satisfying ending to a great series.

What’s old is new

The writing is on point and the localization once again hits it out of the park. The visuals are charming, yet slightly outdated. The gameplay remains unchanged and Psyche-Locks are here to stay. Advancing the story is occasionally an ambiguous affair, but when it flows, it doesn’t let go. The music is still awesome. This is an Ace Attorney title through an through.

This isn’t Danganronpa, so that’s paint.

The narrative however relies on its characters even more than the previous two titles. Both Ace Attorney and Justice for All focus on showing us who these characters are, while Trials and Tribulations explores who these characters are to each other. As a result, the story unfolding in front of you is much more intimate which makes you feel sad alongside the characters instead of simply feeling sorry for them.

To put it in less abstract terms, the characters find themselves in conflict with a central villain, but also with each other. We get to see honest people lie, confident people doubt and good people do bad things. The inhabitants of this world have always been surprisingly relatable, and this game takes it up a notch by refusing to label them as simply good or bad.

Mia Fey: Ace Attorney

Don’t get me wrong, you still (mostly) play as Phoenix, but the story is about Mia. Not the get out of jail card with cleavage, but the person behind it. She was originally introduced as a cool, calm and collected mentor figure, allowing her to provide a sense of stability when the main duo found itself neck-deep in trouble. Unfortunately, that was also the extent of her character, so it’s all the more refreshing when she finally gets the development she deserves.

Iwamoto’s style is slightly cleaner, but keeps the spirit of the original character designs.

The similarities to Phoenix stemming from her mentoring are evident, but she absolutely detests losing control during trials. It’s a minor facet to her character, but enough to set her apart from her mentee in court. We also get an insight into her personal life leading up to the events of the original Ace Attorney, which is the driving force behind the game’s story.

While both Edgeworth and von Karma make a return, we’re introduced to yet another Prosecutor: Godot. This one’s not a prodigy though, in fact, he’s a rookie who’s never won a case. It’s an oddity to be introduced to a character with seemingly no ties to anyone, but the deliberately placed question mark around him eventually leads to the most striking revelation of the series.

Godot Blend #123: Probably bitter.

It’s difficult to explain the depth to his character without spoiling the entire game, but it’s safe to say that he is much more than what you’d normally expect from the masked man trope, and the game’s cover doesn’t do him justice. Also, don’t let his rookie status fool you: He is just as capable if not more than his predecessors.

The last character I’d like to mention is our villain. Unlike in the previous two games, you’re not told that she is bad, or did bad things. You feel it. This is the most vile, evil and despicable character in the entire series, and her presence coupled with Godot’s adds a very somber mood to the game.

Young Phoenix is even dorkier than adult Phoenix.

It’s not necessarily a darker story, but the focus on a more personal conflict means that most of the characters are confronted with uncomfortable truths even after the ending, which to the game’s credit is highly satisfying as Trials and Tribulations elegantly resolves almost every character arc in the series by the time the credits roll.

But as satisfying that may be, the single-minded concentration on delivering a proper ending leaves no room to add anything new. As a result, a lack of previous investment in the characters will completely remove the immediacy of the story, making this by far the least accessible entry in the trilogy – both from a gameplay and narrative standpoint.

CASE CLOSED

Trials and Tribulations contains 5 cases which took me about 15 hours to complete, but this number will vary depending on your reading speed.

The tutorial (3-1) features a young Mia during one of her first trials, defending an even younger Phoenix who at this point in time is still a law student. It’s a refreshing take on the opening case that humanizes her character (more on this later), adds a good bit of backstory and sets the stage for the amazing finale ahead.

Next up are two unrelated cases (2-2, 2-3) dealing with grand theft and identity theft respectively. They’re pretty good, but the game is so heavily centered around the opening case and its consequences that they feel like fillers – they’re the reason you play Ace Attorney, but not what you’ll be remembering afterwards.

The Stolen Turnabout (2-2) does a lot with the phantom thief trope.

I recommend both of these, as they provide important breathing room before the game goes into the final chapter which ties the opening case to the present. Turnabout Beginnings and Turnabout to the Bridge (3-4, 3-5) can be considered a single episode as the transition is seamless.

It’s difficult to say what the finale is about, other than it being really good. While the Fey family and spirit channeling are undoubtedly the driving forces behind the plot, the case involves almost every character in the series as it strives to resolve their character arcs. The underlying theme of pursuing of truth works especially well here as this episode in particular explores how the flaws of each character led to the events happening on screen.

This chapter provides closure to almost every single plot point in the series.

This case is what makes the game, and has to be played in the context of the entire trilogy as it delivers an incredibly satisfying conclusion. That said, I highly recommend you to avoid Trials and Tribulations if you haven’t played the previous two games, otherwise you’ll waste time, money and enjoyment.

4
Great
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials and Tribulations [3DS]
TL;DR
Trials and Tribulations adds absolutely nothing new to the established formula, but unlike Justice for All it doesn't have to because the game delivers on what it tries to accomplish. The heavily character-driven story told within the context of the entire trilogy elegantly ties up every loose end and provides an incredibly satisfying ending to a great series.
Kudos
Writing
Music
Character Design

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All [3DS]

This is a standalone review of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All, which is part of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy released on the 3DS.

Justice for All continues with Phoenix’s bizarro legal shenanigans about a year after Maya left the law office in order to train as a spirit medium. When the two finally reunite, tragedy strikes and Phoenix is once again tasked with defending Maya against impossible odds. Sounds like a recipe for success, so what went wrong?

In short: Justice for All isn’t as nostalgic as the original Ace Attorney, nor is it as climactic as Trials and Tribulations. It’s a decent sequel, but brings nothing new to the table in order to make up for the forgettable cases.

Magatama Gimmicks

The gameplay remains mostly unchanged from the first game, but adds the ability to present character profiles as evidence, which increases the amount of information you need to consider when looking at a contradiction. While this adds depth to the puzzle solving, some of the solutions still require a frustrating amount of trial and error which is further amplified by the increase in complexity.

The more interesting change is the introduction of Psyche-Locks. These are literal locks that you have to break to get information out of certain witnesses during investigations, which is done by presenting evidence in order to make them believe that you already know what they know, or otherwise persuading them to spill the beans.

Wendy is back, fangirling as usual.

If you present the wrong piece of evidence you’ll lose some health, and you’ll have to restart the sequence if you run out completely. Successful unlocking on the other hand heals you up a bit. It’s an utterly pointless mechanic – as I’ve stated in the previous review, the inclusion of a traditional fail state adds absolutely nothing to the experience, and the Psyche-Locks are no different.

Most of the time you won’t be able to immediately unlock them, and you’ll need to investigate further until you have all of the required evidence. While I welcome the concept of adding a tangible goal to investigations, it ends up being a gimmick that feels way too forced due to the unnatural way the dialog is presented.

Justice for Most

Apart from a few typos and grammatical mistakes, the localization remains stellar. The handling of Kurain village – Maya’s very Japanese hometown – is especially noteworthy as the narrative seamlessly inserts such an alien concept into a familiar setting. My only gripe are the memes and pop culture references, which just don’t age well.

Something something basketball.

However, even the strong localization is still at the mercy of the original script, which isn’t without its faults. The overall pacing is slightly worse and some of the leaps in logic are even more obtuse. It’s not terrible, but the game’s narrative structure is so similar to the original that slight dips in quality are immediately noticeable.

An interesting change to the script is Edgeworth’s absence, who went on a sabbatical after the events of the first game. Being framed for the murder of his own father, having to prosecute his own superior and finally seeing the error of his ways after getting repeatedly trounced by Phoenix is simply tragic, and the game acknowledges this for the first time.

Phoenix’s confrontation with despair adds some much needed depth to his character.

And I feel that’s the game’s theme – tragedy. The events depicted weigh heavily on everyone involved which not only enables potential for growth and awesome redemption stories, but also allows us to empathize and relate to the characters on a deeper level – even with the murderers, and it’s for this reason that the game’s aptly named title is my favorite in the series.

While Edgeworth and his whereabouts remain an interesting plot point throughout the game, we still need an actual prosecutor and subsequently get introduced to Franziska von Karma, daughter of the disgraced Manfred von Karma from Ace Attorney. Like her father, she’s extremely capable, obsessed with perfection and very antagonistic.

Now where have we heard that before?

She does feel rather similar to Edgeworth though, and her character doesn’t really develop until the last 20 minutes of the game which makes her feel a bit one-dimensional. Nonetheless, she’s a great rival and her lack of empathy leads to a very interesting dynamic between her and Phoenix.

The second newcomer is Pearl Fey. She’s Maya’s younger cousin and serves as substitute assistant when needed. Her ignorance about the world outside Kurain village coupled with her intense devotion towards shipping Maya and Phoenix is just adorable, and her involvement the game’s second case lets her become an integral part of the story without feeling like a token child character.

Minor self-references like the samurai ball make the various in-game locations slightly more interconnected.

While the new additions to the already strong cast are welcome, I can’t help but feel disappointed about Mia’s treatment. She still makes regular appearances via Maya or Pearl, but her existence and purpose are confined to the defense’s bench, and I feel that Justice for All missed the opportunity to explore her role in the Fey Clan as well as her life prior to the events from Ace Attorney.

Ordinary Turnabout

Let’s get to the game’s main problem now: It’s short and the cases aren’t very good. I’d recommend you to skip 2-1 and 2-3 if you’re purchasing episodes individually as the cases and its characters aren’t referenced again in the future.

The Lost Turnabout (2-1) kicks off by having Phoenix get clonked over the head by the culprit before the trial. As a result, he enters the courtroom with amnesia where he gets reintroduced to the game mechanics. It’s a lazy, poorly executed concept, and the case’s weak premise doesn’t leave you satisfied when you come out victorious in the end.

Reunion, and Turnabout (2-2) once again features Maya as the defendant, but the use of spirit channeling as an integral piece of the puzzle sets it apart from the first game’s second case. While the culprit’s M.O. is a tad bit convoluted and the pacing could’ve been better, the case provides a fascinating insight into the power struggles around the Fey Clan, spirit channeling and the inner workings of Kurain village.

If you’re interested in how this village ended up next to Los Angeles, check out this article.

Maya’s involvement also enhances the immediacy of the case, while the progress made in her relationship with Phoenix adds a good bit of continuity to the episodic plot structure. We’re also introduced to both Pearl Fey and Franziska von Karma here, making it an overall enjoyable episode.

Then we get to Turnabout Big Top (2-3), and it’s pretty bad. The actual murder is contrived, the prosecution’s case is weak and the investigations just drag on an on without ever revealing anything interesting. The characters involved are shallow, unlikable and the writing makes it difficult to get invested in them.

Can’t explain the murder? Yup, must’ve been the magician guy.

The case’s one redeeming quality is the culprit and his motive which plays into the game’s central theme once again, but even that is overshadowed by a rather large oversight in the script which requires you to have inconceivable information in order to win the case.

That leaves us with the finale, which might as well be the game’s saving grace. Farewell, My Turnabout (2-4) prominently features a strong cast of characters whose personalities and relationships are much more complex than what they initially let on. The case also dramatically raises the stakes and brings a twist to the normally black and white courtroom dynamics of Ace Attorney.

We’re made aware very early into the case that our client is a guilty son of a bitch, and for the first time Phoenix is faced with the moral dilemma of either framing an innocent person or losing someone dearly precious to him. The idea is discarded pretty soon though as you get an easy way out, removing the tiny speck of gray from the good and bad endings.

Justice for All carries a very idealized opinion about the role of prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

Stil, it’s an amazingly tense case with plenty of things to discover which is further amplified by the unique circumstances around Maya, and Edgeworth’s triumphant return coupled with the superficial, but nevertheless appreciated glimpse into Phoenix’s moral integrity lets the game end on a high note.

Unfortunately the short run time – a total of 4 cases including the tutorial – leaves no room for error, and even the superb finale can’t make up for the forgettable other half of the game.

3
Decent
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All [3DS]
TL;DR
Justice for All isn't as nostalgic as the original Ace Attorney, nor is it as climactic as Trials and Tribulations. It's a decent sequel, but brings nothing new to the table in order to make up for the forgettable cases.
Kudos
Music
Miles Edgeworth

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney [3DS]

This is a standalone review of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which is part of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy released on the 3DS.

Law school is dry, attorneys are anti-fun and trials are boring. Or so you thought.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an adventure title without the busywork involved and does not concern itself with trifling matters such as accurately portraying legal proceedings. Instead, it’s a bizarre courtroom drama where you team up with a spirit medium to defend unlucky clients against shady prosecutors with an army of lying witnesses.

Your weapons of choice? Banging your desk, pointing at the prosecution and screaming “Objection!” while scrambling to figure out why you objected in the first place. The game leaves a lasting impression, and beneath the memorable set pieces lies a highly accessible, yet immensely satisfying take on the adventure genre featuring a unique setting, sharp writing and an amazing cast of characters.

Ace Attorney

The game’s protagonist is Phoenix Wright, a fledgling defense attorney fresh off the bar. He works almost entirely pro bono and defends those who have nobody to defend them. He has a likeable personality, is reasonably dorky and his skills as a rookie defense attorney are impressive. But he’s not infallible – he remains an underdog throughout the story and can be seen at wit’s end multiple times due to his own inexperience, which is mercilessly exploited by rivaling prosecutors.

Whether this is a stroke of genius or an act of desperation is a matter of perspective.

His biggest character flaw however is his unwavering belief in his clients’s innocence. While it sounds noble, you can argue that Phoenix works to satisfy a selfish conviction rather than serving the best interests of his clients, which is especially noticeable during an instance where he insists on continuing with the trial despite his own client admitting guilt.

The reason I find this characteristic so interesting is because the game wants you to believe it as well. And once you do, the game clicks. You start to reinterpret incriminating evidence, because there must be another meaning behind it. You look for evidence that doesn’t yet exist, because it has to exist. You turn the entire case upside down, because the prime suspect is still the defendant. This lets you anticipate plot twists and leads to immense satisfaction when you finally blow the prosecution’s case out of the water in order to get that sweet not guilty verdict.

Wright & Co. Law Offices

The main game consists of five loosely connected murder cases which mainly serve to establish the characters in the series. Mia Fey, Phoenix’s mentor, makes a surprisingly early exit after guiding you through the tutorial case, and you’re then tasked to defend her sister who has been accused of her murder. The connection is immediate, and a very strong introduction to an amazing character that will serve as your companion throughout the trilogy.

The carefully crafted chemistry of this duo leads to an incredibly wholesome relationship which single-handedly carries entire chapters.

This lawyer-spirit medium duo works surprisingly well, too – not only is there plenty of comic relief, her inclusion enables characters to talk about mundane issues and makes everyone involved much more relatable. Maya’s ability to channel spirits is mostly a gimmick, but it does lead to some cool moments down the line and allows Mia’s character to be fleshed out post mortem.

As for the game’s story – there’s not much there. The world and its rules exist only to allow the characters to be the way they are. It’s an episodic glimpse into a quirky law office and its inhabitants which never connects to a bigger picture, because there is no bigger picture.

If the defendant was anyone else, you wouldn’t care one bit about this case.

Ace Attorney lives and dies by its characters, and proves that you can get away with anything as long as the reader cares about them. The game is perfectly aware of this, and makes sure that either the defendant or the victim is someone you care about, or has the case shed light onto an unsolved mystery regarding yet another character. Turnabout Goodbyes, which is the resolution of a 15 year old murder trial affecting almost the entire cast of the game, could be considered the penultimate Ace Attorney case.

If it wasn’t for Rise from the Ashes, that is. It’s a bonus case which was added for the NDS port and feels markedly superior in every aspect. It’s the longest case in the Ace Attorney Trilogy and introduces a number if investigative gimmicks using the NDS hardware, which are used extensively in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. The case also introduces Ema Skye, who will become a recurring character in the series ahead.

The ability to examine individual items adds another layer depth to each piece of evidence.

The most interesting change however is the narrative structure, which is much more concise and focused than the other cases in the trilogy – everyone and everything you encounter is connected to the case, the stakes are high and Edgeworth’s involvement gets you invested from the start. Seriously, the sheer amount of relevant backstory and characters filled into this single case is impressive and rivals that of the entire game. Apollo Justice would later expand on this format by tying 5 cases like this together with great success, but more on that here.

ON THE CASE

As alluded to in the opening paragraph, this is an adventure in name only. Most of the time is spent reading dialog between characters with funny sprites superimposed on a 2D background. This doesn’t sound impressive, but the game does a lot with it. The writing is sharp, witty and most importantly easy to follow thanks to the amazing localization effort which manages convey the experience to a western audience while keeping the spirit of the game intact.

Name puns have become a staple of the series.

A lot of care has gone into the actual dialog boxes as well – the typewriter effect competently utilizes dialog blips and individually timed letters, allowing each sentence to convey a good amount of character, and the text is easy on the eyes even over extended play sessions. That said, customizable text speed should have been an option, and it’s absence in a game that could be considered half visual novel is questionable.

Actual gameplay is divided into two distinct parts: Investigation and Trial. The former consists of visiting the crime scene and various other locations to gather evidence and question witnesses. The physical walking around is omitted in favor of a crosshair pointed at a static background to search for clues, which works well on the 3DS touchscreen.

Items you find are added to the court record and can be used as evidence during trials.

Most suspicious looking objects are relevant to the case or at least prompt a funny conversation, but pixel hunting does occasionally become an issue. A hotspot function would have been welcome to eliminate the aimless tapping, and consistently notifying the player when all relevant clues have been found could have gone a long way to improve the pace of investigations.

Characters can also be encountered and talked to until all dialog options have been exhausted, which usually unlocks a talking point for another character or new location to investigate. With the exception of occasional story-related deductions, it’s a mostly straight-forward affair.

Characters are highly memorable thanks to their exaggerated mannerisms.

The game’s strict sequential nature however occasionally leads to the rare but frustrating event of having missed a clue without having the slightest clue as to who, what or where it could be. It’s nowhere near the arbitrariness of your average point and click adventure, but getting stuck is never fun and could have been prevented with the inclusion of a quest log to at least give you a general idea of what to do.

The Proof Is In The Pudding

The trials are the game’s highlight, and consist of cross-examining various witnesses and pointing out contradictions – either by presenting a conflicting statement or hard evidence found during the investigation. Sometimes a testimony seems fine at first glance, but by pressing individual statements key details come to the surface, which more often than not create a new contradiction to point out. This is never overly difficult, but still requires enough thought to be satisfying each time you get it right.

Going through a testimony line by line lets you isolate the problematic statement.

But just pointing out contradictions won’t win you the case – eventually you have to connect the discrepancies to the bigger picture and present a new theory, which is most often the indictment of a new suspect. Your assistant occasionally drops cryptic hints, and the lack of a timer allows you to think things through before raising an objection, which is a must as presenting the wrong piece of evidence one too many times will net you a game over.

You can save at any time though, allowing you to make some blind guesses before reloading if you really get stuck, so I have to wonder why a fail state even exists. In a linear story-driven game like this, replaying a section is simply a chore because you can’t get better at what you already know, and being penalized for not immediately following the occasionally unintuitive thought process required to get to a conclusion adds needless frustration.

The prosecution counters plenty of your own objections, and gaining the upper hand takes a lot of time and effort.

Similarly to the actual Japanese judicial system, if there isn’t enough evidence to render a verdict both the prosecution and defense need to investigate the case further and reconvene on the following day. This allows the plot to progress at a steady pace while preventing a section from going on for too long, which is vital to maintain the superb narrative tension.

SPRITED AWAY

Ace Attorney’s presentation has aged quite well, which is largely due to the game’s 2D nature. The character designs are on point, the poses fit and the short animations allow for a lot of personality to shine through the charming sprites. The most impressive part however is just how memorable they are.

Character breakdowns are over the top, ridiculous and highly satisfying.

The images of Phoenix Wright pointing his finger, Karma banging his head against the wall or even just Edgeworth being slightly distressed are instantly burned into your mind, and perhaps the biggest reason as to why the game went on to become one of the most iconic entries on the DS. Major kudos to both Suekane and Iwamoto!

The same can’t be said for the background visuals though. As mentioned previously, they’re rather sparingly decorated to keep clutter out of investigations, and a decent balance between form and function was met. Still, they are qualitatively a step below the character sprites, and I feel that the 3DS release missed a great opportunity to bring the visuals up to date.

The game’s GBA origins are rather obvious.

Speaking of extras: The 3D function in itself is neat and surprisingly easy on the eyes, but ultimately not something the visuals were designed for. The refreshed UI on the other hand is definitely appreciated, if only for the ability to instantly skip the typewriter effect.

The soundtrack remained mostly unchanged, and it’s still amazing. The melodies are catchy and get straight to the point, allowing them to effortlessly match the constantly changing mood, and their ability to add incredible tension to what would otherwise be mildly suspenseful scenarios is nothing short of impressive – the game features some of best music found on the GBA and it still holds up after all these years.

With the exception of Meekins’ megaphone sound, which is the most irritating noise I’ve heard in years, the sound effects are on point as well and amplify the action on screen. A slight upgrade in quality would have been welcomed though, as the low sampling rates are definitely noticeable.

Parallel Justice

The game and series of a whole can be interpreted as a criticism of the Japanese justice system, which boasts a dystopian 99.8% conviction rate. This can be attributed to quite a few factors:

  • Prosecutors have a broad discretion in the decision to prosecute or not, therefore most cases brought to trial are those where a guilty verdict is almost certain.
  • In the public mind, an arrest itself already creates the presumption of guilt which needs only to be verified via a confession.
  • The accused can be held in isolation for up to 23 days, during which some are coerced into giving an admission of guilt.

The parallels are there, especially when taking the release dates of the games into consideration. The original trilogy preceded the passing of a judicial reform bill in May, 2004, which introduced a lay-judge system in 2009. The latter date coincides with the release of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, which strongly advocated that very issue.

Phoenix’s motivations to become an attorney are surprisingly relatable.

While the game avoids getting on a soapbox, it makes injustices abundantly clear in other ways. Trial dates are often hurried, which doesn’t allow the defense to adequately prepare. When investigating, you feel the might of an entire police department clashing against your dimly lit law office. In the courtroom itself, the defendant is considered guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, it isn’t fair, and the system is stacked against you. All you have is your badge and an unwavering belief in your client. Is it enough? It has to be. They are innocent, after all.

4
Great
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney [3DS]
TL;DR
Beneath the memorable set pieces lies a highly accessible, yet immensely satisfying take on the adventure genre featuring a unique setting, sharp writing and an amazing cast of characters.
Kudos
Character Design
Writing
Music

Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis [PC]

Disclaimer: This is my favorite game of all time. May contain traces of bias.

It’s the year 1985. The tensions between the two superpowers nearly escalate when rogue Soviet forces invade the NATO controlled island of Malden. David Armstrong is a soldier fresh out of bootcamp when he is sent to the front lines, and it quickly becomes apparent that war rarely goes as planned. Indeed, there is little time for heroics as the first few missions are all about trying to stay alive.

Even when the situation stabilizes, success is never guaranteed. An enemy squad may be lurking behind the next treeline, and a single bullet could bring the campaign to an abrupt halt. Missions are often surrounded by such a tense atmosphere that boredom actually feels relieving. It’s an unforgiving, yet highly rewarding experience amplified by the game’s biggest strength: Agency.

Each mission features one or more objectives, but how you go about doing them is completely up to you. Not only can you choose which path to take inside the massive operational area, a plethora of vehicles, equipment and reinforcing units are at your disposal to execute your strategy. Flashpoint manages to pull all of this off without losing focus, and takes you as close to modern combat as you want to get, because anything beyond that wouldn’t be fun.

The Quest for Realism

Reality is an immersive place mired with questionable design choices and rather poor UX, so the word “simulation” rarely feels like a big selling point to me. Fortunately, Operation Flashpoint is a game first and foremost, built with a system capable of depicting authentic combat scenarios.

A soviet officer takes cover after returning fire towards enemies in the tree line ahead.

Fire fights require constant observation of enemy movement to prevent being flanked.

It checks most of the boxes, too: You won’t hit anything unless you’re aiming down your sights while standing still, avoiding enemies is a perfectly viable strategy and you’re lucky if a bullet only cripples your arms or legs, resulting in a tactical shooter that rewards positioning and situational awareness over quick reflexes.

On the other hand, indirect fire is absent, weapons possess pinpoint accuracy and suppression fire doesn’t exist. This is in no way a fault though, as the game gives you a lot of agency while holding you responsible for failure – this wouldn’t work if control was taken away from the player.

The game also sacrifices some vehicle fine tuning in favor of a uniform control scheme allowing you to control planes, helicopters and tanks the same way you control an infantryman, making it incredibly easy to take advantage of all the tools offered to you.

WAR IS HARD

The only thing working directly against the game is the save system, which allows you to save precisely once during a mission. Granted, it adds to the tense atmosphere, but Flashpoint is a lethal game with death lurking around every corner and losing 30 minutes of progress in an instant is not fun – it just inflates the difficulty.

An patrolling BMP is destroyed by a timed explosion.

Satchel charges enable a high-risk high-reward playstyle in almost any mission.

Speaking of which, most of the options in the difficulty settings focus on restricting information you get from the HUD, so it’s vital that the game poses a challenge in its basic form. Fortunately, the AI is really good at killing you – especially inside a forest – and constant movement is required to survive prolonged firefights.

Friendly AI encountered during missions is usually outside of your direct control, but you do get your own squad after getting promoted in the campaign. Setting up your men for success is the key to come out victorious, while a careless advance will get them massacred.

Commands can be issued directly via the numpad. For example, pressing 7 would open the formation tab, and pressing 1 would then make the selected men form a column. While this is efficient, it’s not exactly beginner-friendly. The game does attempt to tutorialize this in a warm-up mission, but you quickly end up with a few dozen squad commands of which most go unused as the save system doesn’t incentivize trial and error.

If you decide to deal with the clunky UI however and manage to memorize all of the shortcuts, it adds another layer of depth to the gameplay as you now have to manage both your well being and that of your unit. It feels incredibly rewarding to pull off a successful ambush and completing a mission while keeping everyone alive.

WELCOME TO MALDEN

The game takes place on the fictitious Malden island group, which is located somewhere in the North Sea. The islands are modeled after real life locations, but they’re much smaller in scale and only really share major terrain features. Since the presence of single tree line can drastically change the course of a fire fight, the maps in Flashpoint work well even though they are as exciting as a generic European countryside. As a result, you can adapt to any mission the game throws at you, without ever feeling like the environment is working against you.

An attack helicopter strikes an enemy convoy.

Gunships are incredibly powerful as anti-air units are a rather rare occurrence.

With the exception of forests, that is. They seem to be made out of the strongest material known to mankind and sport ridiculously dense trees, through which the AI can snipe you during the split second you’re visible to them. Forests in Nogova, the map for the game’s final expansion, are much more manageable in comparison.

Some of the environment can also be destroyed, but this is often done unintentionally due to collateral damage from explosions or poor driving rather than trying to get a tactical advantage from it. The visuals themselves aren’t groundbreaking, but the game is decently optimized and its extensive video settings allow you to play with a surprisingly high draw distance even during larger battles before performance starts to drop.

While not accurate recordings of their real life counterparts, the sound effects are well balanced and clearly distinguishable. Not only will you be able to identify incoming vehicles before making visual contact, you can also gauge the direction and distance of enemy fire.

The game’s soundtrack on the other hand is quite tame for a shooter, but it works surprisingly well for Flashpoint as there aren’t any real action sequences to begin with. The music instead focuses on setting the tone for the mission, and lets the sound effects do the rest. Some metal tracks from the Australian indie band Seventh are also featured, which for some mysterious reason don’t feel out of place. Seriously.

COLD WAR SHENANIGANS

Flashpoint: 1985 Cold War Crisis is the game’s base campaign and focuses on apprehending a rogue general to prevent nuclear Armageddon. The pacing is superb, and it’s incredibly varied without ever feeling like a theme park experience. There are no unique gimmicks, and the rules stay consistent as everything you see was made with the included mission editor.

David Armstrong is introduced to James Gastovski, a special operative.

“Gastovski. James Gastovski.”

The storyline is easy to follow and provides context for missions without restricting their design. Characters on the other hand are taken right out of a B-movie script, and I mean that in the best way possible. They get you invested, remain memorable and avoid getting too serious in a game that couldn’t support an overly serious tone due to technical limitations.

Red Hammer was the first expansion for the game and included a few vehicles as well as a new campaign depicting the Malden Crisis from the Soviet perspective. It was developed by Codemasters instead of Bohemia Interactive, and unfortunately the British studio didn’t quite understand what Flashpoint was all about – a trend that would continue for two more titles. Characters feel more like caricatures, campaign objectives rarely make sense and the scope of missions is inflated to a point where they are no longer plausible.

One of Flashpoint’s biggest strengths is making you feel like you are part of something bigger, which is achieved by interweaving clearly defined objectives on the tactical level with steady progress on the strategic level. Coordinated advances with AI controlled units and constant radio chatter informing you about the general situation on the other hand creates the illusion of a large-scale operation.

An M1 Abrams platoon attacks a fortified enemy hilltop position.

Tank battles are carried out over even longer distances.

This is in stark contrast to Red Hammer, where you are often sent on nonsensical lone-wolf suicide missions across half the map with nothing but an AK-74, and your achievements rarely lead to anything tangible as the next mission continues at a completely different point. As a result, the difficulty is needlessly inflated and the world feels incredibly lonely.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any interesting tidbits in there, but it feels more like someone had a field day in the game editor rather than expanding on the well-structured mission design from the base campaign.

Resistance takes place on Nogova and follows former special operative Viktor Troska on his journey to rid his country of Soviet invaders in 1982. Production values for the third and final expansion have been increased across the board, and the storyline is much more narrow in scope, making it a more focused experience.

A double agent blows up a Soviet base.

Admittedly, some missions can be cheesed.

Weapons and casualties now carry over between missions, incentivizing a more strategic and thorough approach to the campaign. While the story of Resistance is mostly self-contained, it expands on the background of a few characters and explains how they end up getting involved in the events of 1985.

On top of adding new gear and vehicles, this expansion also introduced sidearms – they’re pretty cool, but also pretty useless as they just don’t handle well.

EXTRA SHENANIGANS

The game also features a few dozen single missions which don’t tie into the main story, allowing them to take place in all sorts of locations with objectives and vehicles not found in the campaign, of which there are a lot. The placement and amount of enemy units is also slightly randomized each time, changing how and where fire fights take place and further reinforces the notion of having to adapt to the situation while also increasing replay value.

A special operative takes out three enemy infantrymen from close range.

Certain weapons incentivize a more aggressive approach.

Lastly, a comprehensive mission editor was shipped alongside the game which allows you to create custom scenarios, and was the driving force behind Flashpoint’s brilliant multiplayer scene. Some servers would center around goofy death matches, while others would rotate co-op maps ranging from modern-day Afghanistan to zombie-infested Nogova.

Operation Flashpoint does so much with very little, and the sheer amount of uniquely engaging content is a testament to the game’s excellent system design. That’s not to say it’s perfect – the physics are hilariously bad, occasional hiccups in the mission scripting prevent certain triggers from activating, and the AI is often incapable of driving vehicles in a straight line. But none of these issues detract from Bohemia Interactive’s winning formula that remains unmatched to this day.

 

4.5
Excellent
Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis [PC]
TL;DR
A groundbreaking tactical shooter that takes you as close to modern conflict as you'll ever want to get in a game.
Kudos
System Design
Mission Design
Atmosphere
Editor Depth

 

Kingdom Come: Deliverance [PC]

Picture depicting a hunter walking through a field of flowers.

Huntsman on his quest for realism. (Bohemia, 1403)

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Is it realistic? No. Is it authentic? Absolutely.

Careful attention to detail makes all the difference, and Warhorse managed to create a believable reinterpretation of medieval Bohemia. What the game lacks in the supernatural, it makes up for with fierce political intrigue, interesting characters and wonderful quest design.

The world, which is beautifully rendered in CE3, feels fairly fleshed out and its inhabitants go about their daily lives in small, but logical ecosystems. They adequately react to the player character, yet the world does not revolve around him. I found this to be an incredibly refreshing take on a genre that likes to put the protagonist at the center of the universe.

Indeed, quests move on or fail if you do not show up on time, and you can’t solve every problem in existence. Not because your choices don’t matter, but rather because you are a part of a living world, and Kingdom Come manages to convey this better than any other game in recent years.

Bohemian Rhapsody

The story follows Henry, a blacksmith’s apprentice, on a quest for revenge after his home is ravaged by the hands of a foreign army. During his journey across Bohemia he gets to meet the nobility, duel knights and dive into various romatic escapades until he finally finds his place in the world.

Picture of the protagonist talking to the local executioner in a friendly manner at a tavern

Have you ever befriended an executioner?

What makes Henry work as a protagonist is that he is exceptionally unremarkable. He’s not without a personality, but having a relatable character in an authentic world makes it that much more immersive. Unlike most side characters, which are discarded after their questline comes to a conclusion, Henry develops quite a bit over the course of the game, but never loses the essence of what makes him great.

A lot of time in the game is spent on listening to characters talk, and safe to say the writing and voice acting are superb. The facial animations are pretty good as well, resulting in the characters being able to to convey their intent, attitude and feelings in a believable manner of speech. Long transitions in between lines of dialog make conversations feel a bit stilted, but they are enjoyable to listen to regardless.

The plot takes a while get going and could have ended with a bit more closure, but it’s an engrossing tale that doesn’t lose its focus and even manages to throw in a few pleasant suprises every now and then.

Respect the Pleb

Gameplay is segmented into moving somewhere to talk to, steal from or kill someone. This sounds repetitive, but the solid core mechanics, good writing and differing contexts make each quest memorable. This is genuinely some of the best quest design I’ve seen in recent years!

The game’s directional combat system consists of constant movement, choosing a direction of attack and striking or blocking at the right time. Mistakes are unforgiving, and downing an opponent with a good swing is highly satisfying. The system is clearly made with duels in mind which work fantastically, but it comes at the cost of losing focus in smaller skirmishes and completely falling apart in the larger set-piece battles. My biggest complaint is that character skill vastly outweighs player skill – if Henry fails the skill check you’re going to have a bad time even if you landed a good hit, and vice versa.

Picture of a cuman mercenary being killed by the protagonist during a battle. An bandoned church is visible in the background.

Cuman mercenaries serve as the game’s main baddies.

There are multiple weapon types available with a good mix of speed, reach and damage allowing players to experiment and choose their ideal combat style. Armor plays into this as well, incentivizing you to swap to a more effective weapon depending on the circumstances. It’s unfortunate that polearms, crossbows and firearms didn’t fully make it into the game, as some minor tweaking would have made them complement the current loadout quite well. But even so, the system conveys the clunkiness and lethality of hand to hand combat exceptionally well, and it’s fun to boot.

The crime system on the other is simply flawed. If a murder victim witnesses you murdering them, the collective AI hivemind will be alerted, leading to an inevitable arrest during your next town visit, and stealing items will promptly cause guards to search you, rendering the whole stealth aspect rather irrelevant. Predictable NPC behavior can be beneficial, but in this case it just kills the immersion.

Difficulty Slide

The game’s difficulty ranges from extremely hard to extremely easy, in that order. Henry starts out as a useless waste of space and ultimately becomes a walking god by the end of the story. The main reason behind this is the perk system, which I’ll go into now.

Character progression is divided up into different stats and skills, each with its own set of perks, which can be improved by simply using them as you play. These perks are incredibly strong, especially when used in combination with another one, which is inevtiable because you get enough points to unlock most perks for each skill, meaning that the focus lies on when to get a perk, rather than what kind. Another issue here is that weapon damage, which is already implausibly high, scales further with certain skill levels, rendering combat laughably easy later on.

Picture depicting the game's progression and equipment systems.

Admittedly, some perks exist mostly for flavor.

Henry also sports a whopping 14 equipment slots, allowing you to turn him into the medieval equivalent of a tank. Which is great! We finally have a game where armor does its name justice. The problem is that money and armor drops are far too abundant granting you stat boosts which vastly outscale the game’s difficulty curve.

The game’s survival and maintenance elements are mostly busywork and never pose a threat to the character’s wellbeing, but they do add flavor to the daily routine, while random encounters add life to the otherwise sparsely populated map.

One gripe I have with the game loop is the archaic save system. With the exception of some very inconsistent autosaves, you have to drink a “Saviour Schnapps” – a pricy ingame consumable – to save your progress. I can understand the desire to limit save-scumming, but that should be choice of the player, not the developer. Coupled with the game’s myriad of technical issues makes it hard to justify its existence, and to not include at least a Save on Exit feature at launch was a major oversight. Speaking of which…

Technical Difficulties

The launch of this game was painful. Nearly every part of the journey contained fatal bugs – crashes when opening a menu, a button not registering in combat and the main questline getting stuck at multiple points to name a few. This unsurprisingly detracts from the immersion, and one has to question the development priorities which led to the botched launch. I get it – deadlines exist, day 1 patches are a blessing and players eventually forget. But this game was clearly rushed out the door, squandering any potential for greatness it undoubtedly had.

3.5
Good
Kingdom Come: Deliverance [PC]
TL;DR
A peerless attempt at creating an authentic medieval RPG falls short due to a severe lack of polish.
Kudos
Combat System
Quest Design
World Building
Writing & VA

 

We’re Back

Donald Trump is the President of the United States, I’m living in Iceland and kaiwueest.com is no more. A lot of things have happened since my last post so I thought about getting my web presence up to speed again.

After managing to get my foot into the industry, I no longer require a website with the sole purpose of landing me a job and I’d like to focus a bit more on content instead, which I’m splitting into the following categories:

Personal

The label for event highlights, career developments and meta posts about this site. I briefly thought about including interesting tidbits from my personal life before remembering that it’s not all that interesting.

Reviews

As the name implies, I’ll revisit some of the more niche games I play and note down what them memorable. It’s something that I always wanted to do and hopefully it will get me back into the habit of writing again.

Opinion

Semi-coherent rants covering industry topics, life in general and my pet peeves in video games.

Insights

Here I’ll try to explain certain aspects of game development in-depth. Currently this will be limited to game design, but I’m open to broaden the scope provided I understand the subject matter well enough to write about it.

Off Topic

This is for posts that don’t fit into any of the categories above.

And we’re set! All that’s left is to actually start writing.

Hello World

It feels good to be back home. I didn’t want to admit it, but I missed this place.

I also founded Kreidenwerk today. It doesn’t mean or do anything yet, but who knows? Maybe it will become something cool in the future.

Either way, that’s all for now. I’m off doing this civil service thing.

Take care!