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.)

Banjo-Kazooie: Nintendo and nostalgia

Over the past six months I’ve taken part in game-swaps with other bloggers. Possibly the best thing about them is the chance to broaden my gaming horizons: I’ve played a game I’ve never heard of before, a series I’ve never touched and a title with a mechanic I don’t usually like.

The latest game-swap has been with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and we decided to go for genres we’re not skilled in. He was looking for a point-and-click and wanted something with a horror storyline; and out of the several options I proposed, he decided to go for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. It may not be the scariest game but you can’t beat Tim Curry playing a sleazy protagonist. I can only apologise to Nathan for some of those puzzles though – nobody said that 90s adventures were logical.

In return, he asked my other-half and I to play Banjo-Kazooie. This was a very good choice for us in terms of the brief for two reasons. Firstly, neither of us are particularly great at platformers (check out our previous GameBlast streams to see us playing Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and you’ll see what I mean). Secondly, it was also a sneaky way for him to get me to play a Nintendo game on stream (I still need to finish the post about why I dislike the company that I mentioned back in August). Well played, sir.

Rare’s release was just what we expected from a 3D-platformer published in 1998: big polygons, bright colours, caricatured characters and platforms where it’s impossible to tell how far you need to jump. It has a similarly cartoonish storyline to match. A bear and a bird – Banjo and Kazooie from the game’s title – must try to stop the plans of the evil witch Gruntilda, who has kidnapped Banjo’s younger sister Tooty with the intention of putting her in a machine and stealing her beauty.

They’re aided by Bottles, a mole who teaches them new moves, along with a shaman called Mumbo Jumbo who can turn the protagonists into other forms including a walrus and a pumpkin. The heroes travel to each of the nine levels through a central overworld known as Gruntilda’s Lair using collectibles to unlock doors. A certain number of Musical Notes will grant you access to a new section of the overworld, while jigsaw pieces known as ‘Jiggies’ will complete puzzles to get you through to a new level.

Each is made up of challenges involving standard platforming, helping non-player characters (NPCs) and defeating a range of enemies. Find Bottles’ hole within a level and you’ll learn a new ability to help you on your way. For some of these, you’ll need to seek out additional items such as Red Feathers for flying or the Turbo Trainers for speed boosts in timed puzzles. There are also the Jinjos to look out for, five small creatures in each level that will grant you a Jiggy if you locate all of them.

Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo, Kazooie, bird, bear, video game

The main reasons I don’t play platformers often is because I tend to suck at them and continuously seeing your character die isn’t an enjoyable experience. 2D versions aren’t too bad – for example, I managed to complete LIMBO for #MaybeinMarch last year – but I’m normally useless when it comes to 3D games. There’s something about the camera angles which means I don’t seem to be able to judge distances very well and falling off ledges ends up being a frequent occurrence.

Although you’re generally able to move the camera in Banjo-Kazooie, it usually ends up wandering back to its original position and is even fixed in one place in some cases. And let’s not forget about the inverted controls: when completing the underwater swimming sections, down on the controller moves the protagonists upwards and vice-versa. Although I played very small parts on stream, I’m very glad Pete was in charge for this game-swap because he did far better than I ever could.

He admitted finding the title hard at the start because it felt rather clunky being a 1990s platformer. But he’s now at the point where he’s really got the hang of it and has even managed to collect all Jiggies, Musical Notes and Jinjos in some of the levels. The swimming parts are still a pain in the butt and it’s proving far too easy to overshoot items when underwater or run out of air while trying to pick them up. But one or two more sessions (at the time of writing) and I reckon we’ll have another game-swap behind us.

I wouldn’t have been so positive if you’d have asked for my opinion during Furnace Fun though. This final level takes the format of a quiz show where players must answer questions about what they’ve seen, heard and discovered about Gruntilda during Banjo-Kazooie. It’s harder than it sounds: some of the screenshots shown during visual tests are so abstract they’re almost impossible to recognise, and we couldn’t hear the audio tests well due to our speaker-volume being turned down low to prevent feedback on stream.

Banjo-Kazooie, video game, path, lava, fire, quiz, Gruntilda

Consider also that if you answer incorrectly, you don’t get to move forward and one of your Honeycomb health-pots will be taken away. Lose all of them and you’ll find yourself being taken right back to the beginning of the level to try all over again from scratch. I have to say a big thank you to The_Ghost_Owl, The Gaming Diaries, Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes and Nathan for helping us by adding the answers in chat and cheering us on when we finally managed to reach the end.

Speaking of the people who joined us in chat for the streams, it was lovely seeing so many of them share their past experiences with Banjo-Kazooie. It appeared Pete and I were definitely in the minority of those people who hadn’t played it as a child on the Nintendo 64 or in fact ever picked it up before. Ellen from Ace Asunder revealed that it’s in her top-three games of all-time; and Frostilyte had plenty to say, particularly when it came to the engine room in Rusty Bucket Bay.

That nostalgia is an incredibly powerful thing. Most people recall social contexts and good relationships when they’re asked to describe a nostalgic memory; so they might reminisce about a certain title, but the chances are that they’re actually thinking about a time they bonded with loved-ones or shared their hobby with friends. Because my other-half and I don’t have these memories, Banjo-Kazooie didn’t have the same impact and instead ended up being simply an acceptable platformer.

I’m not sure we’ll ever feel more about entries in the genre. It’s The Secret of Monkey Island that brings back fond recollections for me because I received it as a gift for Christmas as a kid and it was the first game I’d ever really played for myself; and Pete always brings up Zork on the Commodore 64, a release which both intrigued and frustrated him. I think we’re therefore always going to be drawn to narrative games and feel more for them, because they feature in our earliest gaming experiences.

That’s not to say this current experience hasn’t been worthwhile though – far from it. As I’ve written previously and mentioned again at the start of this post, perhaps the best thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try titles and genres I wouldn’t normally play. So I’ve got to say a huge thank you to Nathan for proposing Banjo-Kazoozie as well as telling him ‘well done’: you did it. You actually managed to get us to play a Nintendo game on Twitch, damn you.

I’m still plugging away at Final Fantasy XIII at the time of writing but now having reached the penultimate chapter, it won’t be long before we’re able to start our next swap. I know that Frostilyte wants to see Pete play a visual novel, a genre he’s really not a fan of; will he manage to convince him?

Metal Gear Solid 2: cutscenes and craziness

Back in March, Luke from Hundstrasse and I took part in a game-swap. Our objective was to find the most bizarre retro titles and, in return for my gift of Realm of the Dead, he sent me Whiplash – a platformer that caused come controversy when it was released in 2004.

It was a fun experience so, when Athena from AmbiGaming asked if I wanted to do another game-swap, I agreed straight away. This time the requirement would be different though: instead of searching for titles the other had never played before, we instead challenged each other to try one of our favourite releases. This explains why she completed Fable on stream recently, something I can only apologise to her for; I might love this game but the controls and camera do feel awfully clunky nowadays.

She nominated me to play Metal Gear Solid in return but it didn’t quite work out as planned. Thanks to the original being rather expensive to purchase and a code donated by Ellen from Ace Asunder not working due to regional lockout, I didn’t get the chance. Athena agreed I could play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty instead, so a copy was ordered for my PlayStation 2; but ultimately I installed it on our Xbox One after realising it was available via Game Pass as it would enable the use of a modern controller.

This would be the first Hideo Kojima title I’d ever tried so I felt a little apprehensive for a couple of reasons. Although I can enjoy action releases, poor coordination means I’m not that great at them and I wondered how long it would take me to complete the game. In addition, my opinion of Kojima had been influenced by articles I’d read in the past – about the way he viewed women, his eccentricity, his sense of ego – so I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel comfortable with what I was about to see.

I usually give a story overview of the game at this point in posts but I’ve struggled to write one for MGS2. There are so many plot-twists thrown at the player, particularly within the last couple of hours, that I’m not entirely sure I fully understand what happened. There was something about virtual-reality (VR) simulations, several terrorist organisations, a president being taken hostage, huge metal machines which behave like animals and artificial intelligence (AI) – and this is only a start.

And there are cutscenes. Lots and lots of cutscenes, some so lengthy that our Xbox decided to put itself on standby while we were watching. I found this infographic online which shows they averaged 05:30 minutes each, with the longest being 20:15 minutes. I’m not adverse to such moments in video games because I usually play them for the narrative, but at times it was excessive: it felt like the control was taken away from us each time we were starting to get into the gameplay.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Solid Snake, face, gun

Luke was watching while Pete and I streamed the game on Twitch, and kindly sent me an email last week to try and explain it all. I can’t deny that I’m still confused though. There are so many plot elements, not all of which seem completely relevant or necessary, and there are far too many names for someone who struggles to remember the characters are like I do. There was the impact of streaming too: sometimes it was hard to follow what was happening in-game at the same time as trying to keep up with chat.

Luke also told me about the controversy surrounding MGS2 at the time of its release. The tanker section, where you play as Solid Snake, was released as a prologue so fans were understandably annoyed when they got their hands on the full release and realised they’d be spending a lot of time with Raiden. I’ve also read that Kojima came up with the idea of this new protagonist to appeal to female players, after hearing female debuggers working on the original Metal Gear Solid say that it wasn’t appealing to them. More about this later.

I agreed with Athena before starting that I could attempt the title on the easiest mode and I’m glad I took this option. I had to pass the controller to Pete on several occasions because there were sections I struggled to get to grips with. My main issue was the way the camera angle changed whenever you entered a new scene so I never knew which direction I’d be moving in (the main reason I’ve never felt totally comfortable with classic point-and-click series that make the transition from 2D to 3D).

The thing is though, for all the things I found confusing or frustrating about MGS2, there’s a part of me that enjoyed playing it. After our stream of the last section of the game, my other-half and I both admitted to each other that we’d actually had quite a lot of fun. Maybe it was the fact that we could finally say we’d experienced a Metal Gear title, or that we’d played while discussing it with friends over Twitch, or that we just never knew what the plot was going to throw at us next. It’s difficult to put my finger on it.

I can see why the series is one of Athena’s favourites. Certain elements might come across over-the-top or not aging well, but it must have been pretty amazing to experience a release that like that on the PlayStation 2 when it was originally released back in 2001. As Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and Phil explained to us, there was nothing on the market 19 years ago which was as cinematic or ambitious in what it was trying to deliver, so I can imagine it was something truly spectacular for players at the time.

I’m afraid I can’t end this post without saying something about the game’s depiction of women though, and I’m not sure what it is that annoyed me the most. Maybe it was that Emma both looks and behaves like a 12-year old girl despite being 18, and Raiden has a good long look at her butt as she climbs down a ladder above him. Or perhaps it was that girlfriend Rose feels the need to call him regularly and constantly brings up their relationship every time he wants to save, even though he’s on an important mission.

As Kevin from The Lawful Geek said in chat: Kojima can’t write a female character to save his life. But my annoyance could also come from the designer creating the protagonist for female players, as if a hunky blonde hero is the only thing we’re interested in when it comes to playing video games. It almost feels like he treats a person’s view of the opposite sex as something that’s purely sexual; his characters’ interactions are very voyeuristic and it’s as if people are measured in terms of their sexual worth.

I might not like all the characters. I might think the cutscenes are excessive. I might feel that MGS2 is incredibly self-indulgent and as Brandon from That Green Dude said, could have benefited from an editor going through it and telling Kojima ‘No’. But playing this game has definitely been an experience and one I’m glad I’ve had. In the very least, it gave me the opportunity to play something I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and be more open to the idea of further game-swaps in the future.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Raiden

Speaking of which, my next collaboration is lined up already. I’ve shared before that I really dislike turn-based combat because I just don’t have the patience for it, so Ellen is going to try and convince me otherwise with her gift of Final Fantasy XIII. In return I’ve gifted her both Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker, to help cure her of her aversion to full-motion video (FMV) after she watched us play Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May (perhaps not the greatest example of the genre).

Thanks so much to Athena from slogging through Fable and for giving me the chance to experience my first Metal Gear game. Here’s to more game-swaps!

Plea of Thieves: peaces of eight

One of my favourite things about video games, other than narratives, is exploration. I love the feeling of being transported to somewhere wonderful and given a new world to discover, not knowing what lies in store around the next corner or over that mountain in the distance.

This is the reason I find myself always returning to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). I might put the controller down for a while after playing it constantly for several weeks, but you can guarantee I’ll end up going straight back to it after a few months. It’s thanks to Solarayo from Ace Asunder (my gorgeous partner for The Great Blog Crawl event) that I’ve reinstalled it again recently after she decided to try it for herself during the lockdown. It’s amazing how quickly you get back into it and it feels as though you’ve never been away.

video game, The Elder Scrolls Online, Argonian, female, lizard, woman, book, reading, library

There are so many things to enjoy about this game. Find a book and the tales within help create a world which feels living, with its own history and colour. Dungeons provide plenty of action if you’re brave enough. And when you’re tired of slaying monsters, you can head in any direction and simply run because there’s all sorts of other things waiting out there. A villager who’ll reveal some local gossip, a hunter chasing a fox, a clifftop with a beautiful view; all simple events that don’t have any real impact on your journey but ones which add more depth to your adventure.

This partly explains why I’ve always been keen to give Sea of Thieves a go, even though it’s taken me over two years to get around to doing it. I can’t deny that my fondness for the Monkey Island series has helped too: there’s just something about swashbuckling characters who are out to seek their fortune which is attractive. The blue waves, sandy white shores, swaying foliage and shadowy caves of Rare’s 2018 release always appeared as though they were hiding plenty of secrets and buried treasure.

So why such a long delay? Well, as I’ve written before, I’ve never been all that keen on competitive titles. Long workdays, family commitments and adult responsibilities mean I don’t have enough time – or the desire – to improve my skills to an adequate level to be able to compete. The lockdown may have given a lot of us more time to play video games but in my ‘normal’ life, it seems pointless spending the few free hours I have being slated by my teammates for not being good enough.

But when friend-of-the-blog Phil offered to give me an overview, I gratefully accepted. Here was my chance to finally try out Sea of Thieves without being made to feel completely useless by a group of strangers online and I knew he’d be patient with my lack of hand-eye coordination. In preparation for our session, I created a character (a blonde-haired pirate in honour of Guybrush Threepwood) and worked my way through the short tutorial, trying to remember the buttons so I wouldn’t let our small team down. So far, so good.

In fact, the Maiden Voyage section captured exactly what I thought the game would be like in my head. You awake on a dessert island and are greeted by the ghost of the Pirate Lord who kindly guides you through the controls. You’re given the opportunity to explore after finishing with him and this was exactly what I wanted: beautiful beaches, tranquil waterfalls, abandoned caves, secrets notes and the promise of treasure. If the rest of the title was like this, I immediately knew it was going to be one I enjoyed.

And for the first hour, it was. Phil showed me where the Mysterious Stranger was so I could find out more about the three Trading Companies; where the Gold Hoarders were located so I could collect our first voyage from them; and how to loot barrels for food and cannon balls. Less usefully, he also showed me how to drink enough grog to make your character throw up – and then how to catch the vomit in a bucket and throw it over your teammates (that’s just his sense of humour). After spending a short time at the Outpost, it was time to hit the seas.

I’ll admit, he thankfully did most of the work while we sailed but I tried to help where I could and not get in the way. I could see here why playing with a team was beneficial because there were several jobs to take care of at once, including steering the ship and angling the sails. We made it to the spot marked on our map and finally set out to find some treasure on a small island – after I was momentary distracted by how cute the snakes were and became sidetracked with chasing a pig along the beach.

The good news was that we eventually managed to find what we were looking for. The bad news is that we also found other players.

Before we could even make it to our ship with our loot, we were ambushed by a team of four others. Obviously I’d predicted this because Sea of Thieves is a competitive multiplayer; but what I didn’t expect was just how relentless this group would be. They kept knocking me down repeatedly and were waiting for me every time I respawned. They even ignored our white flag once we’d raised it and after my fifth death in a row, I gave up trying to defend myself or attack them back. Was this supposed to be fun?

Sea of Thieves, video games, sea, beach, island, ships, pirates

I was aware we’d eventually end up in battles with other players. But I hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly, and I was hoping I would have been given more time to prepare for it. The initial enjoyment of sailing in our boat, discovering dessert islands and even being crushed by a massive Kraken eventually sunk below the waves, along with my desire to continue playing. That was the one and only time I played Sea of Thieves; I’ve now uninstalled it from our Xbox One and I’m sure I’ll ever bother returning to it.

Don’t get wrong: I completely understand that the cause of my disappointment with the game was me. I’d been focusing on the exploration elements I’d been attracted to and not what the title fundamentally was – an online action-adventure multiplayer where participants strive to become a Pirate Legend. When it became apparent that what I was searching for here wouldn’t be delivered in the way I wanted it to be, and the gameplay was going to be far more competitive than I could ever get into, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed.

I spoke to Phil about this the following day and he mentioned a thread on the Sea of Thieves forum, where someone had posted a suggestion for a peaceful mode for ‘people who just want to complete voyages and not be bothered by other pirates’. I checked it out for myself and was surprised by how many negative responses they’d received. Comments such as ‘I’m pretty sure it says in the name SEA OF THIEVES not sea of peace’ were not only grammatically incorrect, but not very respectful.

I don’t get it. Why would certain players feel so hostile towards the implementation of a new mode which didn’t change anything about the competitive aspect they enjoyed, but had the benefit of welcoming different kinds of players into the community? Rare would expand their customer-base as a result and could potentially use the extra profit earned to implement further improvements to the game, and surely that’s a win-win situation for everybody? If being a pirate means I must deal with scallywags like the people on that forum, it doesn’t seem so appealing any longer.

Have you ever wanted to play a game in a way other than it’s been designed? And how do you feel about exploration or non-competitive modes in new releases? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Locks, mini-games and The Outer Worlds

My other-half had been eagerly awaiting the release of The Outer Worlds for weeks before it came out. All the talk online referring to it as Fallout 5 had reignited my stepson’s obsession, and the pair of them could frequently be found together discussing news about the game.

I was the odd one out in our family. I may have had a vague curiosity about what Obsidian Entertainment’s RPG would be like but it was nowhere near the level shown by Pete and Ethan. Since the release of Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption 2 last year, I’ve become extremely aware of how hype around new big-budget titles reaches ridiculous heights; and even though the attention surrounding The Outer Worlds wasn’t as crazy, it was enough to put me off and make me steer clear of reading anything about the game.

It didn’t stop me from watching Pete play it for a while though. When he asked if he could take over the living-room television one Saturday evening, I saw it as a good opportunity to get in some backseat-gaming while lounging on the sofa with a bar of chocolate. But although I could appreciate how pretty the game was, and how much effort the artists had put into its design, it just wasn’t holding my attention in the same way it did with my husband – I ended up dozing off after a couple of hours while he continued on.

There was one thing I remember being surprised by before falling asleep however. Very early on in the title, Pete approached an abandoned box in the hope it contained something valuable to aid him on his journey. When putting it in focus, he was offered the opportunity to lockpick – but rather than being presented with the sort of mini-game we’ve all come to expect from RPGs when selecting to do so, the crate simply opened. No challenge, no pressure – just an open lid.

Why had the developers made this decision? I came across an article published on Polygon recently that may hold the answer. As author Patricia Hernandez wrote last month: “The Outer Worlds seems to do everything in its power to remove friction from the experience, instead opting to get me back into the action as quickly and as smoothly as possible.” It’s all part of a ‘pragmatic philosophy’ built into the title’s design, so it isn’t weighed down with filler content to increase gameplay length unnecessarily.

But removing lockpicking though, a standard part of most RPG releases? I wondered how players felt about mini-games for these situations and out of 14 responses to my tweet, they were a complete mix of opinions. Anthony from Videogame Crosstalk said: “Actually, ya! A quick break from the usual gameplay and makes it a bit more immersive, even if the minigame itself is unrealistic.” But Cameron from Dragon In The Castle felt the opposite and told me: “Not in the slightest. Fiddly bloody things.”

So what it is that people don’t like about these mechanics? I think Rob from I Played The Game! may have hit on something when he said: “Like with so many mini-games, I like them until I’ve worked out how to ‘solve’ them. Then they’re just a chore you need to get through.” Katie from The Gaming Diaries said: “Depends on if I can do them!” And Shelby from Falcon Game Reviews even picked up on the inspiration for this post: “Honestly, while playing The Outer Worlds, I’ve grown to love not needing them.”

I can understand these points and the decision to leave out the mini-games does fit in with that ‘pragmatic philosophy’ Hernandez referred to in the article mentioned above. The older we get, the more adult responsibilities come our way and these all result in a reduction in the number of spare hours we’re able to devote to gaming. When we do get a chance to play, we don’t want to spend it on a mechanic that seems unnecessarily – or even worse, one that lessens our enjoyment of the overall gaming experience.

Personally though, I feel a little sad that the designers made the choice to not include lockpicking mini-games in The Outer Worlds. It’s one of the aspects I enjoy about The Elder Scrolls Online: those moments when you find a chest hidden from plain sight and have to complete the challenge before the timer runs out. It’s even more thrilling when you discover one that’s a ‘Master’ and another player is right behind you; can you get this difficult box open and claim the loot inside, or will you fail and give your follower the opportunity to jump in?

It just feels strange that something as complex – and in certain respects, dangerous – in real-life as lockpicking can be reduced to a single button-press. The absence of a challenge you participate in seems to make the event less important somehow. Now, as described by Hernandez: “If you have a high enough stat, or if you have the right tools, you just press and hold a button for a couple of seconds and voila: you did the thing. That’s it. That’s the whole idea.”

But then video games are a way of escaping reality, and busy players don’t want to spend their time fiddling with hair-pins. I’m still torn though. Have you played The Outer Worlds and how do you feel about its lack of lockpicking mini-games? I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.