Yakuza 0: trying something different

The Christmas holidays are a great time for gaming. Whether it’s spending time with a game received as a gift, treating yourself to a title in the Steam sale or trying something completely new, it’s the perfect time of year to curl up on the sofa with your controller.

My other-half and I managed to complete several releases we’d never played before. Sea of Solitude was a lovely puzzle-platformer with a sincere message at its heart; Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure kept us guessing at what was going on right until the end; and Call of Sea was a beautiful escape-room type journey. Then there was Quern – Undying Thoughts, a game I’d purchased after a recommendation from Darkshoxx and which felt like discovering Myst all over again.

It wasn’t all about video games though. Being aware of just how much I enjoy a good detective thriller, Kevin from The Lawful Geek very kindly sent us a murder-mystery-in-a-box to solve. Post Mortem: Death in La-La Land was a choose-your-own-adventure with physical evidence that kept us bust for around six hours trying to find out whodunnit. It made us feel as though we were the middle of our very own noir story and I can’t wait to start the next case, Lucha Muerte, very soon.

This would be a good pick for January’s EXP Share but it’s not the experience I’ve chosen to talk about today. This community event is hosted by DanamesX over at Tales of the Backlog and has been designed to get us all sharing our gaming tales, with the current topic being: “Share a story about a game that you played for the first time this month.” I know I’m cheating a little by selecting something from December but, with bonus points available if it’s in a genre you wouldn’t normally pick up, I’ve got something that’s perfect.

Although I’d vaguely heard about Yakuza previously, I’d never tried an entry myself because the series just wasn’t something on my radar. I quite like watching others play action-adventure releases and seeing how their narratives develop, but I often don’t take the lead on the controls because I’m so uncoordinated. It’s also the case that I don’t usually enjoy Japanese RPGs or releases set in the country because their storylines tend to be a little too over-the-top for my taste.

But watching Nathan from Gaming Omnivore play part of Yakuza 0 during one of his streams made me kind of curious. What the hell were we doing following two strangers into a restaurant and then helping them solve a crossword puzzle? And how on earth was ‘soy sauce face’ the opposite of ‘sauce face’? Although I get it now, at the time the Crossed Words substory was perhaps one of the weirdest side-missions I’d seen someone play through on Twitch.

And now this absurdity is the main reason why I’ve been having so much fun with the game since downloading it from Xbox Game Pass a few weeks ago. Obviously I’m terrible at the controls and prefer to mash the buttons while sticking to a single fighting style but that’s ok – because Yakuza 0 doesn’t take itself too seriously, I don’t feel the need to either. There’s no pressure for me to perform perfectly during the combat sequences and so instead I can concentrate on simply enjoying myself.

Just when you think the substories couldn’t get any more outlandish, they do. I’ve saved someone’s daughter from losing all her money to a doomsday cult and reunited her with her mother. I’ve won several cuddly toys from the UFO Catcher at the SEGA Hi-Tech Land for a child and then had to listen to her call me ‘Daddy’. And I’ve incorrectly given someone a pizza when they actually wanted a visa, and then celebrated with her and her pimp after they decided to get married.

On that note, I must admit that some of the depictions within Yakuza 0 do leave me cold. The sexes feel as though they’re handled rather differently: while positive traits have been written into male characters and some even subvert stereotypes, the women come across as being unable to do anything without the help of a man, and are expendable. I may understand that the game is set in a different era and culture but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with it – and that’s where I’m going to leave that subject for the time-being.

The other negative I have with the title is its use of character-switching. This isn’t a mechanic I like because I find it breaks my immersion in a story; I know many people like seeing a digital world through multiple protagonists’ eyes for different views, but I prefer to stick with just one throughout a playthrough. Saying that though, it’s not so annoying here because you get to spend several chapters with either Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima before switching over to the other.

These aren’t the reasons why I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish Yakuza 0 though. This is actually due to its long length: with 17 chapters, 100 substories and a bunch of mini-games that can take around 140 to complete, I’m just not sure I want to put that much time into it. The past few years of blogging have taught me that I don’t like spending so many hours on a single game, and I get more satisfaction from shorter releases which can be finished in several sessions.

But still, I’m glad that hanging out with my blogger-friends in a stream led to me trying something I’d not considered before. Having an action-adventure divert my attention away from my beloved point-and-clicks resulted in a few fun days during the Christmas holidays – and it even reminded me why I adore the adventure genre as much as I do. A big thank you to Nathan for persuading me to download Yakuza 0 (and for sticking with the Gabriel Knight series for his streams!).

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales of the Backlog too for another great topic this month. If you’re interested in joining in with January’s EXP Share, you have until the end of the month and can find all the details in this post.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Call of the Sea: puzzles in paradise

Call of the Sea has been on my wishlist since I first saw its trailer a few months ago. It stood out back then due to its lovely visuals and mysterious premise – and it stands out now because it’s a recent addition to the Xbox Game Pass which isn’t another shooter.

Having the subscription during the past year of lockdown has been beneficial as it’s given me the chance to fill those extra free hours by trying titles in genres I wouldn’t normally be interested in. Take Yakuza 0 for example; I was able to give it a go without the risk of buying a game I might not enjoy and ended up finding something that’s a lot of fun. My only complaint about Microsoft’s line-up is that tends to be action-heavy and as a result, I’ve already played most of the narrative-based releases available.

That’s why I jumped on Call of the Sea by Out of the Blue shortly after its release at the beginning of December. Set in the 1930s, it tells the tale of a woman named Norah Everhart who suffers from a strange illness which causes black blotches to appear on her arms. She embarks on a journey to a small island 74-miles east of Tahiti after her husband Harry disappeared there while searching for a cure. What is she going to find waiting for her and where has her spouse gone?

The articles I’ve read about the game since completing it have tended to liken it to Myst and The Witness. I have to say that neither of these sprang to mind during my playthrough and I don’t entirely agree with these comparisons, outside of the appearance of challenges on an island. To me, it felt more like a series of escape rooms: finding the clues to solve each puzzle within a chapter opened the doorway to the next and allowed Norah to progress on her quest.

The clues mentioned there come in various formats but you can usually glean a lot of information from the items left behind by Harry’s team and the notes scattered around each location. You always seem to be just one step behind your husband so you must use his drawings, letters and photographs to figure out how he made it past the current obstacle. If you get stuck, you can always look at Norah’s journal for a recap of the story so far along with the most important details.

Although Call of the Sea isn’t the most challenging or the longest adventure I’ve ever experienced, it did feature a nice difficulty curve and didn’t outstay its welcome. There was one particular puzzle which had us stumped for a good 30-minutes around two-thirds of the way in (I’m putting this down to tiredness due to the late time) but at no point during our eight-hours did we feel the need to turn to a walkthrough. The pace felt mostly constant, a good thing as you don’t want your momentum to be slowed down in narrative titles like this.

There were only two minor negatives I picked up on in terms of gameplay. First was that I didn’t enjoy the later swimming sections as much as some of the other parts of the game because they felt a little slower; and second was that Norah really isn’t a fast walker. This does make some narrative sense as she explains her illness causes weakness but even holding the ‘run’ button doesn’t speed her up very much. Still, at least you have plenty of stunning scenery to look at while you’re strolling along.

I couldn’t help but take a couple of screenshots while playing and post them on Twitter. They’re exactly what you’d expect of a tropical island – white sands, blue waves and glowing sunsets – and several friends in Twitch chat remarked how much the graphics looked like Firewatch. The settings in the later chapters change to a stormy beach complete with shipwreck, a mountain-top with murals and an ancient temple, each of them beautiful in a distinct way.

Norah’s inner monologues through her journey reveal details about her relationship with Harry and it’s lovely to see that these protagonists consider themselves as equals. Forget the 1930s view about a woman’s place being in the home; the way these two refer to each other as ‘my dear old pal’, a reference to their favourite song, shows they’re best friends as well as partners. It does go some way towards making your final decision more poignant but sadly it’s not as poignant as it could have been.

The start of Call of the Sea feels as though the island is crammed full of mysteries, and certain items uncovered hint at something dark and horrible happening to Harry and his expedition. This feeling continues throughout the title but observant players will be able to figure out what’s going on well before the conclusion is reached. At certain points we found ourselves talking to the screen and asking Norah why she still didn’t have a clue, because it just seemed so obvious to everyone watching.

This did the protagonist, who initially seemed like a very intelligent and determined woman, a disservice by making her come across as somewhat oblivious. Her habit of expressing shock at something alarming revealed in Harry’s notes and then immediately making a humorous comment about the next item observed made her seem distracted. Not that you wouldn’t be distracted if you had a weird illness and your husband had disappeared on a remote island several months ago, but you get what I mean.

Still, the final choice players find themselves confronted with in chapter six is a fitting one. The fact it’s a binary decision was frowned upon by one person who joined us for our stream but to me, it felt as though it suited the characters and their situation. There’s no good or bad ending regardless of which option you pick because Call of the Sea is a game which explores what it means to love someone and being true to yourself, and as such there are no perfect answers.

This is the first release from Out of the Blue and it’s a very promising start. Despite the shortcomings of the narrative and the minor niggles I had with the gameplay, I’d recommend Call of the Sea to adventure fans or anyone who’s looking to get lost in a story set in a beautiful location. If the team can take what they’ve learnt from making this game and use the experience in their next project, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Game passes: unexpected item in the bagging area

At an IT industry event last month, there was a presentation called Shaping Self-Service for the Future. This described one company’s journey towards implementing an online portal where their customers could go to make support requests and all the factors that had to be considered at the start of the project.

The desire for these self-service channels, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots has been taking the IT world by storm for the past year or so. The speaker compared this current trend to the self-checkouts frequently found in supermarkets nowadays and explained that the just-in-time stock management followed by such companies inspired the creation of the Lean principles in the 1990s. (It might be for IT but it’s also pretty good at keeping your video game backlog in check.)

self-checkouts, Tesco, tills, store, supermarket, cashier

The part of the presentation I found most interesting was the section comparing the benefits shouted about by businesses to how self-checkouts are viewed by customers. We may be told they give us more choice, convenience and speed, and have been put into stores to ‘improve our shopping experience’, but is that really what we believe? Not at all: a 2014 poll found that 93% of us dislike the machines and see them as a cost-cutting method used by supermarkets to boost their profits.

It struck me after the event just how similar self-service channels and game passes are. You log into an online portal, select the product or service you require, receive it and are asked for your feedback. Everything you need is contained within a standard monthly fee which can be increased depending on the level of service you’d like. And right now consumers view these subscriptions with a large amount of cynicism: do the supermarkets and publishers have our best interests at heart or are they looking to make a quick buck?

During their briefing at E3 last month, Microsoft employees took every opportunity to tell us about Project XCloud and the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. They’re apparently going to revolutionise the way we purchase video games. They’re going to give us unlimited access to over 100 high-quality titles from well-known developers. They’ll bring us together to create a shared community regardless of where we play. All great benefits for gamers, certainly – but by the end of the show I was sick of hearing about the products.

Although I could see the truth in what was being said when thinking rationally, I was curious to realise it was a totally different matter emotionally. The high number of mentions about XCloud and the Game Pass somehow made it seem suspicious; surely it was all about the company and not the consumer? Microsoft can look forward to a regular and reliable source of income, instead of hoping we’ll shell out £50 to £60 for a new game several times a year and having to get sequels out as quickly as possible to keep the cash coming in.

There’s also the fact that cost-savings can be achieved through the potential to focus on a single marketing effort. Rather than having to constantly promote individual titles, stick them together in a single game pass, throw all your marketing weight behind one product and occasionally offer a free month of service to draw in new customers! It’s an attractive proposal for shareholders: a guaranteed monthly income for the business through subscriptions plus a few extra consolidation tricks on the side to increase those profits even further.

The rational side of my brain then kicked in and wanted to argue for those benefits the Microsoft representatives had put forward during their E3 briefing. How could paying for unlimited access to a library of video games not be a good thing? You’re betting a chunk of money that you’re actually going to enjoy the title you’re buying if you do so at full price, and a game pass removes this risk as you can try as many as you like for a much lower monthly fee. There’s also no more having to wait for payday to get your hands on that new release.

But what if you don’t have a lot of free time to play, or if the games you want aren’t available in the library? Is it still good value then? And what if one you’re halfway through is dropped from the service? So many questions, all of them leading back to the ultimate: are game passes just a way for corporations to make money? It’s no wonder customers are suspicious. It appears every company we encounter through our hobby wants to push at least one subscription, whether it be a game pass, access to their network, or season pass for new content.

When do all of these become too much? Let’s turn to television for an example. Now that companies have seen just how successful Netflix has been, they all want a slice of the subscription pie and are removing their content from the platform so it can be placed behind their own paywalls. Viewers will therefore be locked out of certain shows if they can’t afford yet another monthly fee, and it could mean we have to make some difficult choices about which platforms we pay for in the future.

E3, Xbox briefing, stage, lights

Is this where the video game world is heading too? Not according to Microsoft. Head of Gaming Services Ben Decker said in an interview in August 2018: “We don’t have a goal of being the subscription where you get all your content. This is meant to be additive to the ecosystem. We don’t see a future where subscriptions are dominant. We see a future where customers have choice between a subscription and purchase-to-own, where there’s a mixed ecosystem because that’s what customers want, and that’s what developers want.”

So maybe that’s what it all boils down to: choice, and perhaps too much of it. Research has shown this isn’t a good thing as it can make us miserable. When there are fewer options available, it’s easier to make a decision (although we’ll feel cheated if there are too few) and around 12 seems to be the sweet-spot for decision-making. Perhaps our current cynicism and suspicion towards game passes are because we’re starting to feel overwhelmed at all that choice.

Microsoft and other companies are jumping into the future of cloud-based services and are quick to point out the benefits. But we as consumers are far more cautious and want to take the journey one step at a time. Whether it’s a self-service channel in an IT setting, self-checkouts in supermarkets or game passes from publishers, they’ll need to lead us gently and avoid any unexpected items in the bagging area.