Next in the 2015 GOTY chats will be two games that take different, slanted roads to the RPG promised land: Bloodborne and Fallout 4.
This week, the plots thicken with Pipboy figurines and blood as Richard Donaldson (Fallout 4) and Ben Runnings (Bloodborne) argue over their personal game representatives. There might even be a third staffer named Max Delgado that couldn’t hold his tongue any longer, making Richard fight off two writers for Fallout 4 to rein. And something about the firing of the post-apocalyptic maid services.
Anyhow, take a look at our second talk for major 2015 GOTY candidates, and let us know if this argument (or this one) swayed your own choice. And don’t forget: Spoiler Warnings for both combatants!
Richard: Hey, before we start this off, can I throw an olive branch to you and say that Bloodborne was really, really good? It is the first time a From Software game ever really worked for me. I have almost no ill feelings towards it. The key word there, of course, is “almost.”
Ben: Well I really liked fallout 4. These are all great games.
Richard: Hey, on that much I agree.
But on the note of Bloodborne, my primary issue with it is the primary issue I’ve had with almost every From Software game: there are parts of it, from a design perspective, that are simply horrible. Or, more specifically, they reek of being over-designed to the point of incomprehension.
Ben: This intrigues me, but how should we go about this whole thing? Unless you feel like that’s good jumping off point.
Richard: Well, as jumping off points go, the Chalice Dungeon bosses are a good one, as they made me want to jump off a cliff.
Ben: Yeah, okay, not a good place to start haha. Let’s go back to what’s wrong with the design in the game. Because from a pure combat mechanics standpoint, I think the game is pretty close to perfect. They managed to speed up the combat from Dark Souls and add depth while also simplifying (see: improving) the weapons.
Richard: I completely agree that Bloodborne’s combat is perhaps the best leap forward the game made from the Dark Souls series. I long since lost count of how many times I swore at the first two games’ combat during moments where absolute precision is required. I understand that the combat is supposed to be complicated, but I’m supposed to be fighting in the game, not the mechanics. In Bloodborne, the streamlining and responsiveness of the combat alleviated most of those complaints, but better controlling combat can’t solve occasionally baffling level design.
Take the game’s ninth (or so) boss Darkbeast Paarl. This is frankly a disaster of a boss fight, which is a shame because on a conceptual level, it’s fantastic. It is an open field fight against a monster with clearly defined attacks and structure, and with the Souls games’ space and clarity, the designers are usually allowed to shine. But the way Paarl is designed directly conflicts with Bloodborne’s controls. His size conflicts with Bloodborne’s tight, smaller scale controls and makes camera control – a necessity for a game that requires this much precision – a nightmare.
This fight, along with a couple others, feels like the moments in which From Software’s delicate difficulty balancing act doesn’t work. They feel like moments in which the boss designers and combat/control designers were not working in consort. Instead, they feel as if the gameplay and bosses were designed separately, and a friction is created – the friction of crossing the line from masterfully designed difficulty to being purposelessly unfair.
Ben: “I understand that the combat is supposed to be complicated, but I’m supposed to be fighting in the game, not the mechanics.”
I know you’re talking about Dark Souls, but could you elaborate? I’ve always found that it is the simplicity of combat that makes it great. It’s really just light/heavy attacks with rolling. Not sure what you are referring to specifically.
On Paarl, yes the one weakness with Bloodborne is definitely the camera. It doesn’t happen often, but it can get stuck on bosses as you are saying. However, I never found it to be much of any issue throughout my 80-ish hours playing through the game three times over. Any time the camera did something screwy, I was usually able to roll away to safety, or at least roll to a less dangerous spot.
In fact, the only time I can remember it being a hassle was my first time fighting the Blood-Starved Beast. It’s still fairly early on and I hadn’t quite mastered the idea of being more aggressive with the combat (I was stuck in defense mode from other Souls games). But after that fight, I can recall no issues.
Yes, the combat does tend to shine with the smaller bosses, but even against Amygdala, I’ve found little issue with the camera. Many of the bosses in Bloodborne follow the same slow hulking, then jump around, movement pattern that Paarl does. Blood-Starved Beast, Cleric Beast, Vicar Amelia, Moon Presence, all of them follow this pattern (a pattern that has clear roots in Dark Souls from bosses like the Gaping Dragon, Quelaag, Sif, etc). They are a joy to fight because of it, but also because they sometimes break the pattern to discourage that cardinal sin in Souls land: complacency.
I disagree that any of the bosses are unfair. I’ve done the Defiled Chalice on the road to the platinum, and those can be called unfair only because it’s the game’s intentional, ‘come here to die’ area. There are sections of certain levels – all optional sections I might add – where I would say the game purposefully deals you a really bad hand, but none of the bosses ever felt like an unfair roadblock. In fact, this game probably does the best of all the Souls games in terms of keeping the difficulty consistent throughout.
Richard: I actually agree that it does the best job of evening out the difficulty across the board. The pacing is one of the strongest things about Bloodborne – the way it builds and releases tension across its story and gameplay is masterful.
Here’s what I mean by fighting the game, not the mechanics. I actually think of games such as Bloodborne and the Souls series as puzzle games more than anything else. A puzzle built by designers for you, the player, to solve. That puzzle is the “game” proper (the bosses, the standard enemies, the level layouts, the story, and any inhibitors on the player’s capabilities). The “mechanics,” then, are the tools designers give you to solve the puzzle (weapons, health, armor, skills). You must assemble and use those mechanics to defeat the designers – those mechanics, therefore, need to work *perfectly* in conjunction with the puzzle.
I think Bloodborne occasionally fumbles this balance, and my issues above with Paarl are compounded within my biggest complaint about Bloodborne, the Chalice Dungeons. Randomness fits the From Software design philosophy much like random legendary enemy/loot draws fit within Fallout 4: like a five fingered glove on a two fingered hand. When a Chalice Dungeon works, it works splendidly. When it doesn’t, it is unbearably frustrating.
They are, thankfully, optional. Which is the smart decision as randomness, even within the Chalice’s limitations, would have completely derailed the specificity necessary for the tale From Software tells in Bloodborne. Which, by the way, is what I think is the reason I truly do love Bloodborne: it finally finds a way to tie the intellectual coldness of the Souls series’ game design to a story that befitting such coldness – a Lovecraftian nightmare.
Coincidentally, this is also the reason I love Fallout 4 so much. It too creates a story that fits its world design. I just happen to believe Fallout 4’s overall combination of gameplay and story is much more compelling.
Ben: I don’t mind the Chalice Dungeons at all. In fact, I think they work pretty well. It’s just a shame they are all so formulaic. Still, there’s a pile of Chalice-only content hidden away in there (using assets that were clearly cut at some point from the main game).
As for Fallout, I really do enjoy the post-apocalyptic milieu of the game, but I find so little of the actual written story to be compelling. In fact, most of what I’ve played of it is just an excuse to take the player to different parts of the map. The plot point of finding your kid is a continuous search for a maguffin that is so slowly doled out – I don’t care. Admittedly, that’s where I currently am with the story after 35 or so hours with the game.
So many of the best parts are either completely unscripted or are small tales told only in computer logs, like the one at the science lab where everyone was sealed inside. These stories may be great but they are completely separate from everything else and are so archaically told they might as well be on papyrus. And if you were to just rush straight through the story, it would feel monotonous.
Fallout 4 is compelling because of its world and in spite of its main plot (and all of its other problems). There’s always something to do when I start up the game. There’s always another hill to run over but none of my motivation is related to the traditional story moments. Many, many locations feature excellent environmental storytelling but none of that is unique to Fallout. The Souls games have always done that – showing rather than telling—and what they have to say is deeper and has real meaning to the plot. The ruins of Boston are so indirectly related that half the game could take place in space and nothing about the story would change.
Also, I’m pretty sure a two fingered hand would fit fine in a glove made for five fingers.
Richard: Okay, fine. Bad analogy. But everything you just said about the main plot of Fallout 4 feels like you and I played a different game.
In terms of plotting, character, and pacing, Fallout 4 to me rivals BioWare in terms of coherent open-world storytelling. I’ll cop to believing the opening prologue in the pre-war world is a bit rushed, but in regards to the plot being an excuse to take you to different parts of the map? Each movement of the plot is always grounded by well defined character motivations, characters that genuinely felt alive to me in a way that the wax figurines of prior Bethesda games never did, and always offer you the ability to change your own character’s motivations. Blowing through the main plot, which I did for one of my playthroughs during review, feels the opposite of monotonous. It is constantly inventive and engaging, building interesting ideas and narrative threads, before exploding in its third act.
Take Nick Valentine and the Memory Den: yeah, the detective with the lost memory knows about the place where people go to experience fake/other memories. It’s a device to get the plot moving, but it is entirely in character, not the designer’s hand reaching in and going “now you go this way,” which was my major issue with Fallout 3 and Skyrim. And the eventual payoff of the kid story arc, which coincidentally starts happening right after where you are, is totally worth any lack of feeling you have now.
You mention that the world feels completely incongruent to the main story, which I also completely disagree with. So much of Fallout 4’s world sketches out an idea presented in the main plot. The usage of Boston as a location with all of its Revolutionary War iconography purposefully contrasts with the abolitionist imagery of the Railroad. The positioning of a black man, Preston Garvey, as the head of the Minutemen – a group that would have never tolerated a black leader in their time – feeds into ideas of progress and re-contextualization of history. Fallout 4’s world and story work hand in hand and feel coherent.
Most armor-packed game of the year: Fallout 4
Ben: Admittedly, I’m still very early on in the main plot, so I may like it more as it develops. I do like Diamond City and Piper and Nick. They are great and interesting. But they are really side characters to the main event so far (side note about Diamond City: they act like hundreds of people live there when really there are 10-15 houses. Very odd.).
Also, what BioWare are we talking about here? Cause Inquisition, Mass Effect 2 and 3 all had bad, uninteresting, thrown together main plots. Yes, the environmental storytelling is great (I love those worlds) and the characters are even better. So I should expect something better from the main plot.
Maybe I’m getting hung up on the difference. I will agree that it is leaps and bounds ahead of Fallout 3 and especially Skyrim, which was somehow worse than Fallout 3. You are right that all the pieces of the world fit together, but I’ve yet to see how any of it plays into the plot. Besides the Institute, which is the most interesting part so far.
But I think we should move off of story for two reasons. I feel like I’m coming off way too harsh on it (I do like it) and story can be extremely subjective. Luckily, there plenty of issues in the gameplay to discuss.
The gunplay was poor in Fallout 3 but it worked well enough. They say it’s improved here, but I really don’t see much of a difference. After 30 hours, I feel like I’m finally figuring out which guns I like and should use. Because most of them are garbage, like the pipe weapons, and most enemies take so many damn hits. We’re talking raiders with 20 bullets to the chest. If you’re going to make a semi realistic damage model for the player character – one the makes you almost constantly go into your inventory to eat some sort of roasted meat or use a stimpak – then at least apply the same logic to the enemies. At least give me a fighting chance with VATS’s percentage to hit. I’m level 25 or 26 and I basically have to be eight feet away to get anything higher than 55 percent. That’s garbage.
Oh, is there some SPECIAL that I need to level up to improve that? Ok, let me just pull out the handy dandy—oh my god what is this?! There are skills everywhere. You can level up some of them several times. They don’t do anything major and are in fact confusing a lot of the time. I regularly stockpile 2 or 3 points because I have no idea what I might need.
It’s too much for not a lot of change. Some quick, inaccurate math: there are 70 perks. Of those perks the average you can level them up is 3 times (maybe). That’s 210 perks. And 80 percent of them don’t really do anything interesting. It’s just awful.
But I keep playing because it is a lot of fun. Hell, I think Skyrim is one of the most overrated games of all time. Everything it does, except for the open world, is done way better in a lot of other games. And yet I spent over 100 hours with it. Fallout 4 kind of feels like that. It’s a love\hate.
Max Delgado: Oh, god. Can I throw in complaint about Fallout 4 please?
The whole meme and running joke of “Kill. Loot. Return.” really hits home after 155 hours of gameplay. I know that’s always been Bethesda’s style, but it’s way too prevalent here. It’s not that I’m not finding the game fun, but that’s all the game literally is. Each location, while very unique for historic reasons and brilliantly realized, serves only for the purpose of killing things.
There’s a noticeable lack of inhabited settlements, thanks mainly due to Bethesda’s settlement building mechanic. Which is really fun and fine, and I’ve invested way too many hours into it to admit without sounding like a geek, but they definitely put way too much emphasis on this portion of the game. It’s like someone in the office loved Hearthfire when it came out for Skyrim and went bananas with implementing a more robust version of it in Fallout 4.
The dialogue system is atrocious. Good. Bad. Sarcastic. Inquisitive: that’s literally the formula for every conversation. And the inquisitive ones make no sense. An NPC is asking you to clear out a building of Ghouls, and the dialogue option is “Ghouls?” as if you’ve never heard of them. Idiot, I’ve been slaying Ghouls for 100+ hours of gameplay!
Further, NPCs don’t react to the world state or player character. I’m in my settlement and my own settlers say stuff like, “Are you spy sent by the Institute?” They also act like they’ve never seen Preston in that settlement before, always thanking him for his services. What’s worse, you can bring a Synth on board the Brotherhood’s HQ. Are you serious, Bethesda?
The factions are shallow to a laughable extreme. Bethesda clearly tried mimicking faction depth from New Vegas, but failed. I haven’t beaten the game yet, but I’ve heard from four close friends that your decisions with factions mean absolutely nothing in the end.
The themes of Fallout 4 such as “Can Synths really be human?” and “Can we build a better future by re-creating the past?” are there at the surface, and they’re incredibly intriguing questions to have in the game’s world state, but they’re not explored deeply. Hell, barely at all. There’s nothing like the theme of “The struggles of letting go” from New Vegas. Do you see a pattern here?
I’ve done a ton of side quests already in Fallout 4 and none of them stand out like anything from Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Maybe “The Secret of Cabot House,” but that’s about it. And this comparison between Fallout games completely ends when you compared mission numbers: New Vegas has 120, and Fallout 4 has about 40.
Richard: Ben, I’m not arguing that the leveling and skill system isn’t screwy. It accounts for pretty much all of the half point I took off from the game’s score. It would’ve accounted for more, but it was made up for by the story, writing and characters – again, I feel like I played a different game than both of you did.
I know the content differences between this and New Vegas; I could probably write the book on New Vegas if you gave me the time, that’s how well I know it. Yes, the massive scale changes are less, but the freedom you have is in the minor details of character motivation and relationships. I completely agree that the removal of skill check-like options in dialogue is perhaps the biggest disappointment Fallout 4 has, (especially for me as I am *that guy* who ramps Speech to 100 and talks past everyone) but the speech check system that is in there is filled with some wonderful small flourishes of dialogue and character in the quests. I think there is more variation in content depending on your decisions than you’re giving the game credit for.
Personally, I like the radiant quest system. Did they go overboard on the murder sprees? Absolutely. But I like the sense of ownership it lends me over my role in the world and in the faction. There’s a pattern here, I think: I like the degree to which I feel like a character with real definition in the world of Fallout 4, in contrast to the blankness of Fallout 3’s Lone Wanderer.
In short, I’m fine with the limits. I became easily frustrated with the miles wide and inches deep nature of Bethesda’s previous games. Here, they sacrificed their typical sprawling coverage for a tighter focus and control – less you playing yourself, more you defining a previously existing person, and how that person changes the world. Do they get it perfect? No. There are issues with NPC recognition of your actions (which I personally only rarely encountered, making me think this is a case of Bethesda bugs over bad writing). Yes, it lacks the absurd rabbit-hole nature of Obsidian’s writing. But the details of the factions, the characters, the themes, the companions, the settlements that work? They sing. And in my opinion, they matter far more than any sprawling madness of prior Bethesda games.
Max Delgado: Sound arguments. I can understand where you’re coming from. I take it you liked New Vegas miles over Fallout 3 then?
I guess at the end of the day my main two main issues with the game – while I haven’t completed it – are the dialogue system and how factions are handled. But I may not be looking or understanding the deeper themes of their motivations and goals if you disagree that they are shallow.
One thought I can’t get out of my head while playing is: will Elder Scrolls VI have a pre-defined, voiced player character? Seems logical. And as much as I complain about the game, I have to reiterate I love Fallout 4. That’s contradictory, though. I have issues with the formula, but don’t mind the formula at the same time. What’s wrong with me?
Richard: Oh Max. Did you not read that 2500-word thing I wrote about Fallout? Don’t blame you.
Short version: New Vegas is a masterpiece of design almost unparalleled in modern video games or indeed ever. Fallout 3 is, to me…not that. But I still enjoyed it!
My relationship with Bloodborne is well explained by what you just said, Max, “I have issues with the formula, but don’t mind the formula at the same time.” I love what it does on the whole, but my issues with it on a design level ultimately make it lesser to me than Fallout 4. Still absolutely in my top five of the year, however.
Max: Oh, lord. A fellow New Vegas lover!
Ben: There’s no way the design shortcomings of Bloodborne are even close to as egregious as Fallout 4’s are.
Bethesda insists on making games in a Frankenstein engine that was made to create Oblivion ten years ago. Why do the character models act like they do? Why are there the same bugs, year after year? Why does it feel the same at its core as Oblivion and every game made by them since? Cause of that old, junky engine that they refuse to fully remake and update.
Also, I liked the lone wanderer aspect of Fallout 3. I think there are too many people in and around Boston for it to make logical sense here though. Why doesn’t anyone clean up though?
We’ll have to agree to disagree but I see far more and far more glaring faults in Fallout than in Bloodborne. Hell, I stopped playing Fallout 4 to play the Bloodborne DLC and within 30 minutes I thought to myself, ‘Dang, this game is good.’ It’s just pure fun to play. It’s the video game equivalent of eating cake or pizza or whatever. The gameplay in Bloodborne is delicious to me.
Richard: To me, this is a fight between games where the whole matters more than the parts, about the final image the game leaves beyond errors in design. Ultimately, I think the image that Fallout 4 leaves stands taller. Bloodborne’s final image that I remember is a work of mad brilliance, but can’t fully cover the moments where From Software’s delicate gameplay balancing act flounders. Fallout 4’s narrative and design ultimately more than outdoes its errors in mechanics and skills for me. What works works, as they say, and I think it works better than anything else this year.
Ben: And why is there so much paper? Wouldn’t it all have blown away or have just gotten destroyed by rain and stuff? It’s been like 200 years, take the papers off the floor and make it seem like you’re trying!
Richard: C’mon, man, its post-apocalyptic! Sometimes you just take a few things for granted.
Expect at least one more of these bare-knuckle brawls over 2015 GOTY, and maybe with some unexpected entries into the running. Which side do you fall on between Bloodborne and Fallout 4?