Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, alongside fellow Entropy editors Peter Tieryas Liu and Angela Xu.
It was awesome.
I didn’t approach the show with any particular journalistic intent. I wasn’t fair. I didn’t stand in line to try the hottest games of the show just because they were the ones I knew people would want to read about. I didn’t snag any exclusive interviews or first looks. I didn’t treat the consoles or publishers with anything like parity–I lingered far longer around the Nintendo and Sony areas than any others. Instead, I approached the show like a flâneur, wandering the aisles of demo screens and taking in whatever I could, letting my feet rest in front of whatever caught my interest.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of every game I saw or tried. It’s only the ones that left a deep impression, that I was eager to talk about after the show.
Hohokum: This relaxing little indie game from Honeyslug, in collaboration with artist Richard Hogg, was without doubt my game of the show. The first sentence I snagged on to describe it is still the best: it’s like a meandering hybrid of Flower and Yellow Submarine. When playing, you aren’t beset by the usual video game pressures; there is no apparent goal or challenge. It is, as far as I can tell, a pure exploration game in 360 degrees of flowing movement. The player controls a colorful, flying worm-like creature (the Long-Mover) capped by an almond-shaped eyeball. Movement is as intuitive and fluid as pointing the analog stick in the direction you want to go, with a couple of buttons to modify the speed.
This may seem like an insufficient fundament to build a game upon–and for many “core” gamers, it will be–but in Hohokum, what you do is only the lesser half of the game. The other half, the half that had me captivated, is observing the way the colorful, surreal world reacts to your presence. Every area holds different surprises, and you’re free to explore them without worrying about traditional gating factors like enemies and puzzles. That’s where the comparison to Flower comes in, which at the time of its release reminded me of the earlier Ecco the Dolphin–the liberating sense of pure play as you literally fly through the game space.
In many areas, colorful locals will hop onto the Long-Mover’s back as you fly past, reminding me of another goalless sandbox game, Noby Noby Boy. I observed one player gathering seed-toting passengers–there appeared to be a minor puzzle attached to convincing them to climb aboard by blooming the surrounding vegetation. A level that I visited, composed of cloud-capped ziggurats, seemed to want me to transport specific, important-looking characters–priests or royalty–to their thrones near the bottom of the stage. In another area, the newly unveiled “Jungle Floor” stage, white monkey-like creatures swung freely from the worm-thing’s underbelly or from nearby vines. Later, the worm-thing’s passengers threw seeds or stones at dark, lumpish silhouettes on a shadowy forest floor. The formless shapes which subsequently transformed into deer and other wildlife before scampering off-screen.
Beautifully, there were no giant fingers pointing out these potential interactions or micro-goals, not even the hint of a tutorial screen. This lead to a joyous feeling of discovery as I explored the environment not only visually, but “tactilely” through my virtual interactions. Speaking of the environment, the current model has it composed of discrete areas connected by a complex web of portals. Diving deeply into these connections, not quite knowing where they met up, felt a bit like the unmoored exploration in FEZ.
Exploration in video games, if done well, can be sublime. This was done well. It won’t appeal to those who crave action, but for more pacific types, it’s perfect.
Hohokum will be available in multiple PlayStation formats starting August 12.
Yoshi’s Woolly World: First off, let me say: the screenshots and videos don’t do it justice. Unless you’re playing it in HD on a living room-sized display, you don’t get how deliciously couture this game is. You can probably guess from the screenshot above that, as in its predecessor from the same developer, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, every element in Yoshi’s world is rendered as though hand-knitted from yarn (aside from a few elements like sequins, signifying we are in a sparkly underground cave). What you can’t tell is that not all yarn is created equal–there are varying weights and styles represented, from the tight and thin to the loose and fluffy. I defy anybody to play this game and not revert to a childlike state of soft, cuddly comfort.
But what really had my interest was the gameplay. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on the Super Nintendo has long stood unchallenged as my favorite Mario game of all time. It was relatively forgiving for a Mario game of the time, thanks to a number of elements: Yoshi’s waggling, straining float that could extend his jumps at the last moment, now a staple of the character; the fact that he could take any number of hits from enemies without dying (any damage simply knocked Baby Mario from the green dinosaur’s back, starting a generous 20-second timer to retrieve the rascal by popping his bubble with a tongue or a tossed egg); and Yoshi’s egg-tossing prowess, allowing him to get rid of pesky enemies from afar, all contributed to this feeling. Nonetheless, the game was replete with secrets, surprises and charm, and getting a perfect score in the levels (which meant collecting 5 flowers, 20 red coins and ending the stage with 30 mini-stars, which are depleted when you take damage) was a true challenge. 2006’s Yoshi’s Island for the Nintendo DS didn’t come close to capturing its big brother’s charm, but Yoshi’s Woolly World, despite its soft-bodied presentation, feels true in its gameplay execution to the original.
Maybe a little too true. There were two levels on demo at E3, and neither of them showed off any revolutionary changes to the standard formula of swallow enemies, turn them into eggs, and toss those eggs to get at hard-to-reach bonuses or clear up paths through the level. The biggest upgrade was the 2-player co-op gameplay–Nintendo seems to be the go-to publisher for couch co-op these days–in which, like the New Super Mario Bros. Wii, players could boost off each other’s heads to reach new heights, but were just as likely to get in one another’s way. Even better, one Yoshi can swallow the other, turn him into an egg and toss him, adding a new dimension to the cooperative puzzle solving. The other big innovation is that different kinds of enemies now provide different materials of egg–in one of the levels on display, fluffy birds could be turned into cotton balls, creating cloud-like temporary platforms.
Yoshi’s Woolly World will be released for Nintendo’s Wii U in H1 2015.
Night in the Woods: This Kickstarter-funded, story-driven indie title from developer Infinite Fall was my runner-up for most interesting game I demoed. And, like Hohokum, it isn’t likely to appeal to a lot of “core” gamers–the iconoclasm of these two games, their willingness to reinvent what makes a video game worth playing, is part of their appeal. Night in the Woods is a purely story-driven, side-scrolling adventure game with one of gaming’s most unusual protagonists: Mae, a college dropout with destructive impulses and a nihilist attitude who also happens to be an anthropomorphic cat. And she’s a girl–the first video game to portray a female character smashing car windshields with a baseball bat?
The gameplay of Night in the Woods, at least the aspects of it on display, is as basic as they come. Mostly, Mae wanders around the 2D mining town where she grew up, chatting with the other anthropomorphic locals and engaging in occasional spurts of minor parkour–hopping onto roofs or tightrope-walking power lines. She is a cat, after all. The game’s trailer promises horror elements and some dimension-swapping gameplay, but I didn’t get to experience any of that firsthand. What I did experience was the sharp-as-a-razor dialogue, which puts the writing of Tim Schafer (who’s made a career out of games in this style) to shame. The start of the demo finds Mae in her bedroom. There are numerous items in the room to examine, indicated by a helpful eyeball icon. But instead of the single-line descriptors I expected, each one contributed to an increasingly elaborate fantasy about burning the building to the ground. I was already in love.
Other dialogue was equally surprising. Mae keeps a journal, by request of her therapist, which is useful for the occasional gameplay reminder but also worth reading in its own right. In town, she meets another directionless youth who’s also keeping a journal. “Oh, do you have destructive impulses, too?” Mae asks. “Nah. I was caught stealing codeine cough syrup from the Snack Shack.” Apparently, the journal thing is just a cure-all for disaffected youth.
There were plenty of games at E3 about saving the world or fighting evil, and some (like Sunset Overdrive) with a similarly satirical presentation, but this is the first video game I’ve seen that, talking animals aside, deals strictly in the reality of what most of our late teens and early twenties were like, the reality of wasted youth. It will be released on PC, Mac, Linux and PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015.
Bayonetta 2: What? Bayonetta got a haircut?
Yes, it’s a Wii U exclusive, which still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (the first Bayonetta was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, although Bayonetta 2 will include a Wii U port of the original game). On the other hand, Platinum Games and Hideki Kamiya (Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 2) still know how to do action games like nobody’s business. While the first few games I wrote about are all fairly placid, Bayonetta 2 is pure, hyperstylized ultraviolence. However, it’s violent in the way that Wire Fu movies are violent–dance-like in its execution, and so over-the-top that it comes out the other side and becomes, at least in my opinion, fairly harmless.
The same goes for Bayonetta’s sex appeal. It’s so obviously and ironically exploitative–the titular witch attacks enemies with her long, flowing locks, which also form her skintight outfit, so that with each major attack, more skin is revealed; she also has berettas built into her high heels, which means her ranged combos are accompanied by high-kicks, splits and hand-stands–that it’s hard to be offended by it. I didn’t get to try the gameplay demo firsthand, but from what I observed, Bayonetta 2 has got more of everything that made the first game great: gravity-defying platforming, fluid and fast-paced combos, and bizarro enemies, such as a boss whose head was attached to his sword (the key to the fight seemed to be knocking the oversized blade from his hands so that you could attack it while it hopped awkwardly back toward its flailing wielder).
Bayonetta 2 will be released on Wii U in October 2014.
Sunset Overdrive: To be honest, this was the only Microsoft exclusive at the show that really wowed me; then again, there’s a reason that I tend to gravitate more toward Sony and Nintendo, which has a lot to do with their publishing philosophy and the type of software they attract. Sunset Overdrive feels like it breaks Microsoft’s mold a little bit, which isn’t really surprising, given that it was developed by former Sony loyalists Insomniac Games, creators of Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank.
I didn’t get to demo this game personally, but from what I saw, it takes a page from Insomniac’s buddies at Sucker Punch Productions: the open-world, superpowered parkour gameplay mixed with third-person shooting looks, at first glance, like a carbon copy of inFAMOUS‘s gameplay formula. The major differentiating factor is the online multiplayer, which has been an increasing focus of Insomniac. Dubbed “Chaos Squad,” the 8-player co-op mode is a sort of triathlon event, with several smaller missions (voted on by the players) culminating in a massive base defense scenario. Players can drop in and out of Chaos Squad from the single-player game via photo booths located around the map, and progress gained in this mode carries over to your single-player game.
Sunset Overdrive‘s setting, a sort of hyperactive They Live in which most of humanity has been reduced to mindlessly aggressive mutants after overdosing on a new energy drink, is its other draw, even more colorful in its presentation than Sucker Punch’s comics-inspired setting.
Sunset Overdrive will be released on the Xbox One in October 2014.
Xenoblade Chronicles X: This game wasn’t available for demo, but a couple of trailers were being shown on a loop. Even those did not tell me much, but I’m riding the hype train for this one nonetheless. Why? Well, for starters, let’s not forget the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles from Monolith Soft, the spiritual follow-up to high-philosophy JRPG classics Xenogears and Xenosaga, was really the only halfway decent JRPG released last console generation. That alone drew me toward the X trailers, which seemed to depict a new setting with some familiar characters and gameplay features. Better yet, the X in the title (pronounced “Cross” in Japan) seems to signify that Xenoblade Chronicles X is the intersection of all previous titles in the Xeno- series. One of the trailers depicted some kind of migrant fleet of humans in search of a new home planet, a bit like Xenosaga‘s setting…and, oh yeah, musn’t forget the giant mechs. Xenoblade-style gameplay with giant mechs? Nothing more to say, really.
Again, these were just my strongest impressions…feel free to ask me, Peter or Angela about any other games at the show!