THE YEAR IN SQUAREBLIND 2021: JAN – JUNE

By Neil Merrett

January

After a 2020 defined by an unprecedented pandemic, Squareblind tried to kick off 2021 on an optimistic note with a look at what might be considered an underrated gem in the crowded field of zombie apocalypse games.

In going back to the original State of Decay, as well as its 2018 sequel – handily called State of Decay 2 – JJ Robison found that the series had something good to say in 2021 about surviving, at or least trying to get though a global viral catastrophe together.

While the series was met with middling reviews upon release, at its hardest difficulty, Mr Robinson found a game that can tell a player way more than they may be comfortable with about who we are in times of strife and trouble, as well as what matters most when the chips are down.

February

By February, the site was looking at two videogame brawlers that are based on the Scott Pilgrim Movie and comic books, as well as the Netflix series Cobra Kai – a shpw that serves as a more nuanced and in-depth sequel to the popular 80s movie, The Karate Kid.

While videogame brawlers were once arguably a staple of videogame arcades and home consolers, the genre has been superseded in popularity by challenging RPG adventure games or one-on-one fighters such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter or King of Fighters.

However, recent years have seen something of a renaissance of titles looking to take the concept of the scrawling multiplayer brawler and evolve. This has involved adding more immersive physics with the core mechanics of a range of gaming genres from RPG-style levelling up systems, to the combos and timing requirements of rhythm and beat em up games.

Neil Merrett looks at both the recent re-release of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game and speaks to the development team of Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues to look at the different approaches to update both the gameplay and storytelling mechanics of the brawler genre.

Squareblind.co.uk looked specifically at how the simple mechanics of kicks, punches, parries and special moves that are essential to the genre are being subverted to incorporate more nuanced narrative themes concepts such as unreliable narrators and the limitations of violence to resolve systemic failings.

March

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the highly influential Legend of Zelda series, Squareblind ran a series of pieces looking at the impact of the game on the RPG genre and gaming as a whole.

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of the series’ design across both home consoles and handheld devices is the ongoing efforts by other developers to try and take bold, or not so bold approaches to recreate, copy or build on some of the series’ main mechanics over the last three decades.

Even some of the earlier 2D Zelda games are arguably the footprint for more expansive, modern RPG adventures such as The Swords of Ditto: Mormo’s Curse or the online multiplayer adventure Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos.

Neil Merrett noted that three decades on from the original release of ‘A Link to the Past’, it would have perhaps been unthinkable in the early 90s that friends across the world might one day be able to play a shared Zelda adventure on wireless handheld consoles simultaneously.  Two people couldn’t even play Zelda on the same console for decades, never mind seemingly through the air and hundreds of miles away.

Yet even with modern innovations in 3D world building and immersive simulations of everyday life, there is a clear demand and interest in invoking the earliest Zelda games to create new kinds of adventure game experiences.

April

In April, we looked at the budget dungeon-based game Skull Rogue. Available from digital stores at parts of the year for less than £3, Squareblind considered the concept of getting value for money in a game.

While Skull Rogue is based on a fairly simplistic game loop and the repeating challenge of levelling up a limited set of skills to survive a massive onslaught of possessed skeleton warriors, it is perhaps fair to accept even a few hours of gaming entertainment and intense challenge for less than a third of a cinema ticket is something of a bargain.

Just how important then is cost to the appeal of a game, particularly as the industry looks to introduce a variety of different pricing models from free-to-play to the best past of $100 in the PS5 and XBox Series X Era?

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May

On the opposite scale of game development to Skull Rogue is Ubisoft’s 2020 AAA title, Watchdogs Legion. The game aimed to recreate the current city of London as a near future metropolis teetering on the brink of a dystopian autocracy – a scenario that doesn’t always feel so far-fetched.

Neil Merrett noted that the London of Watchdogs Legion was truly a marvel of open world engineering and design. The digital setting offers an anarchic playground for the player to hack and sabotage through in the name of liberty.  Yet the game is less satisfying as a form of interactive satire, especially when trying to provide meaningful consequences for the difficult decisions it sometimes asks the player to make around technology, accountability and justice.

Is it possible therefore, at least with more recent hardware, to create an open world that has legitimately messy real word politics that can be impacted and steered by the players actions?

June

We finish the first half of this recap of 2021 with a look at the evolving concept of stylish videogames and the challenges of giving the player a meaningful sense of control and consequences in trying to be a gravity and physics defying bad ass that can slice apart projectiles and enemies without breaking a sweat.

The site looked at the development of two very different games in the form of 2005’s Devil May Cry 3 and 2020’s ScourgeBringer.

The latter game in particular can be a hard title to describe in terms of any single genre. It’s a game that appears on its surface to be a hectic 2D platformer with lightning quick action that marries gunplay with sleek, samurai-style manoeuvring. Its designers told Squareblind.co.uk that the game is less of a platformer and more an intense combat game that incentivises the player to leap from danger to danger while smashing opponents into pieces with your sword or explosively launching them into each other. 

The title feels spiritually like a successor and a refinement of decades-old 3D action games such as the Devil May Cry series, with their emphasis on stylish combos, quick reactions and the idea of trying to look a little bit cool amidst the explosions and chaos going on around you. So just what lessons did ScourgeBringer’s designers take from an almost 20 year old PS2 hack and slash adventure game in terms of making a player feel actually like a ‘bad ass’ in their game, as opposed to just playing one?

Thomas Altenburger, co-founder of Flying Oak Games kindly spared some thoughts with us on taking the right inspiration from an iconic videogame that is now nearly two decades old.

We wish our readers a fantastic Christmas and will be back next week to finish this recap of Squareblind’s gaming adventures over the last 12 months.

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