“S**z If You Want To”: Watch Dogs 2, Ableism, and Cultural Ignorance

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Content warnings: multiple uses of a variety of ableist slurs and descriptions of ableist bullying.

Watch Dogs was a cool game that feel victim to its own overbearing hype, so when Ubisoft released the first trailer for Watch Dogs 2 and showed off it more light-hearted, teen-focused style, I was immediately excited to see where the series could go.

Except the trailer had one huge problem: the song. The trailer was backed by N.E.R.D’s song “Spaz”, which immediately put me, as a disabled person outside of America, on the defensive. It’s a word that keeps popping up in the media, often by creators with little to no understanding of the word’s international connotations.

Outside of North America, “spaz” is a slur often aimed at people with disabilities, particularly those with conditions that cause either cognitive or motor impairments. It comes from “spastic”, a term that historically has been used to describe people with Cerebral Palsy. A lot of its history as a slur comes from the appearance of Joey Deacon, a man with Cerebral Palsy, on the children’s show Blue Peter.

His appearance and mannerisms were quickly used by children as a way to insult each other, and eventually “spastic” gave birth to further words like “spaz”, “spack”, “spazzer” and “spacka”. From anecdotal evidence of those I’ve discussed it with, the word’s also grown into a slur in other European countries, and potentially in Australia too. The UK’s leading disability charity, Scope, was renamed from “The Spastics Society”, and using “spastic” in a medical context has all but vanished now.

(I hate this video, by the way.)

However, this progression of a medical term to offensive slur didn’t really happen in the States. The term was initially linked to disability, much like elsewhere, however, it’s since become more of a phrase to mean clumsy or erratic. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t much better than tweens using “gay” to mean “bad”, even if it isn’t technically considered a slur in its context.

“But Joe, Watch Dogs 2 is developed in Canada by a French publisher for a game set in America! It isn’t a slur there! What’s the problem?” The problem is the game is being marketed worldwide, including to countries where it is considered offensive. The trailer was released globally online, and pieces of media released internationally should consider how the words it uses are accepted in different cultures. The line “spaz if you want to” being repeated constantly doesn’t actually add anything to the trailer, and any other song could’ve been used, and nobody would’ve cared. The song adds nothing to the trailer in the States that no other song could’ve done, and it causes more issues internationally.

I have a disability which affects my motor skills and muscle tone (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). I have very poor proprioception, and because of that, I did badly in PE (Gym class) in school. I didn’t have the stamina or the coordination to do what the other children were doing, and so because children are probably demons from the ninth circle of hell born to torment all those who are even the slightest bit different, that of course ended up in a lot of bullying.

I was called everything from “spaz” to “spack” to “Forrest Gump”, both in PE and outside of it. One time, in particular, we had to do long-distance running, and I remember the entire class decided to run alongside me mock-singing “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Ableist bullying, like any other bullying, hurts. It being condoned or tolerated by teachers because they thought it might “push me harder” hurt (quite literally too, thanks to my condition). While I’ve gotten over it as I’ve grown up, seeing people uncritically use, or even worse defend, the use of those words that were used against me, feels wrong.

Ubisoft globally releasing a trailer – a commercial product trying to drum up interested purchasers – that uses language that disparages probably a large proportion of its consumer base, is, quite plainly, ignorant. Words have different meanings in different countries, sure, but when a French company releases a globally available trailer, there has to be some consideration that the content of the trailer isn’t needlessly, unjustifiably offensive.

Watch Dogs 2 looks great already, Ubisoft. We didn’t need to “spaz if we want to” as well…

The Disabled Gaming Resource

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Being a fan of videogames while being disabled can be difficult. When we’re not flat-out ignored, the resources we need to enjoy our hobby are often scarce and difficult to find.

To help rectify that, here is a collection of resources, tools, and communities, both for those with disabilities and those who want to make things easier for us.

I hope this list of resources helps. If there is anything I have missed, please tweet @JoeParlock or email parlock (at) outlook (dot) com, and I will try and add it to the list.

Please note: While I am not able to personally verify every resource on this list, I have been sure to exclude defunct or too-small organisations.

I also do not claim to necessarily share the personal politics, opinions or beliefs of anyone on this list. We all just work toward the same common goal: making lives easier for disabled gamers.

I’m a disabled gamer, or know a disabled gamer, and need help:

SpecialEffect (UK) – http://www.specialeffect.org.uk/

AbleGamers – http://www.ablegamers.com/

CanAssist (Canada) – http://www.canassist.ca/EN/main/programs/technologies-and-devices/hobbies-and-leisure/gaming-controller.html

Accessable Games – http://www.accessablegames.com/

MERU – http://meru.org.uk/

The Controller Project – http://thecontrollerproject.com/

OneSwitch – http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/

I want reviews of games that take disabled accessibility into account:

Unstoppable Gamer – http://www.unstoppablegamer.com/category/accessible-game-reviews/

GameCritics.com – http://gamecritics.com/

I am a developer and want to make my game more accessible:

Includification – http://www.includification.com/

Brannon Zahand’s accessibility guide – http://www.brannonz.com/accessibility/disabilities.html

BBC’s Accessible Game Standards (more for web-based games) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/accessibility/games.shtml

IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group – http://igda-gasig.org/about-game-accessibility/game-accessibility-top-ten/

Game Accessibility Guidelines – http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/

Alan Zucconi’s Colour Blindness tutorial – http://www.alanzucconi.com/2015/12/16/color-blindness/

I am a disabled gamer and want to find other disabled people to play with:

/r/DisabledGamers – https://www.reddit.com/r/disabledgamers/

AbleGamers Steam Group – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/ablegamers

Disabled Gamers and Friends – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/GamingHeals

I want to read more about gaming with disabilities:

Antagonise the Horn’s disabled writing masterpost – http://antagonizethehorn.com/2015/01/28/disability-and-gaming-resource-list/

My own collection of writing – https://joeparlock.wordpress.com/tag/disability/

 

Review: Dying Light: The Following

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I loved Dying Light. It took the light-RPG slashfest that was Dead Island, stripped out most of the bad bits, and added a really fun parkour system to make easily one of the finest zombie games we’ve had in the last few years. It’s one of the few games where I’ve completed every single side-quest and loved every second of it.

Sadly its first major expansion, The Following, feels like a hell of a step back.


Dying Light: The Following – Enhanced Edition (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Released: February 9, 2016

MSRP: £15.99/$19.99

The Following takes place in the countryside bordering the city of Harran. Mr. Kyle ‘Generic as Hell’ Crane goes to investigate rumours of people who are somehow immune to the zombie virus plaguing the city, and in doing so he gets caught up in a story of cults, bandits, and lots and lots of cars.

The vast majority of the gameplay is just as it was in Dying Light, and your character and all his abilities can carry over from it. The parkour is still great, the grappling hook still adds a whole new layer of movement, and the combat still feels adequately brutal.

The Following feels a lot like the core game’s fantastic side-missions expanded out into a full campaign. You’re treated to a mystery revolving around a cult: why are they immune? Who is the Mother? What are the Faceless? It’s all really exciting stuff, and it’s certainly a step up from the generic military guff we had in Dying Light’s main campaign.

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If that was all The Following was – a few more missions in a new map – I would’ve been incredibly happy with it! Unfortunately, there is one major thing that returns from Dead Island that drags down The Following in a major way: driving.

I don’t like driving in games at the best of times – usually they control poorly, and not very many games actually do interesting things with them (car chase missions need to just stop forever, please). It often feels like vehicles are just placed in a game because it’s what is expected instead of being a fun and worthwhile feature, and nowhere is that more painfully obvious than The Following.

The few pockets of built-up areas where the already excellent parkour mechanics can shine are separated by miles and miles and miles of absolutely nothing. When there is stuff to explore, it’s great: power plants, watchtowers, water pumping stations, and farms are all enticing and detailed enough to make worth checking out. But if you want to actually get to any of them, you’re going to have to drive to it in your rickety, unresponsive buggy that slows to a crawl if you so much as graze a zombie.

Most of the missions seem built around it too: drive to the needlessly faraway place, do X, then drive all the way back again to turn the quest in. Things do get switched up a bit with forced racing segments, but thanks to the awful driving controls they still feel like an unnecessary slog. Nothing seems new or interesting here – if you’ve played a driving mission in Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, or Sleeping Dogs, chances are you’ll experience the exact same things in The Following.

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That on its own wouldn’t be particularly egregious, but then in stumbles the poorly planned out vehicle degradation system. Crash into a tree: vehicle damage. Crash into a car: vehicle damage. Crash into a zombie: vehicle damage. Don’t even think about driving through those big, tempting pockets of squishy undead found scattered on the roads, because there’s a chance the buggy will break or run out of petrol before you come out the other side.

Once the buggy does give up the ghost, having to scavenge around for car parts on foot in that big, empty map feels like more hassle than the buggy’s actually worth. It’s nothing more than irritating padding that actively prohibits the player from having fun, and it doesn’t thematically make sense when elsewhere in-game you can stick a battery onto a machete and then drop-kick a zombie to its death.

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When it’s good, The Following feels just as good as the core game. Its characters and missions are consistently more engaging than any of the main game’s nonsense, and the urban areas are perfectly designed to make the parkour as fun as ever. If that was all The Following was, it would be great!

And then that buggy comes along and ruins everything. The world is made huge and empty just to fit it in at the cost of the already great set of mechanics Dying Light has. That problem’s made worse when even the slightest bit of fun that could’ve been had from it is let down by an arbitrary vehicle degradation systems that punishes the player for daring to have fun with it.

Sometimes ‘just more of the same’ is a good thing.

Review: Steam Controller

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My Xbox 360 controller and I have been through a hell of a lot in the seven years since I got it.

It survived a whole summer-long binge of Left 4 Dead, came with me on my move to PC gaming, been thrown against walls because of Dark Souls, had its handles lovingly taped back on after said incidents. It’s weird placing emotional fondness onto an inanimate object, but I think I can safely say my 360 controller has been there for me in my darkest of days.

It’s now been unceremoniously dumped into a box under my desk, because I got a Steam Controller and damn is it amazing.

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Steam Controller

Manufacturer: Valve

Input: 1x USB Bluetooth dongle (included)

MSRP: £39.99/$49.99

The Steam Controller is unlike any controller I’ve used before. It gets rid of the twin analogue stick design that’s been so common ever since the PlayStation 1 days, and instead opts for a single, small stick and two huge trackpads. At first, I wasn’t convinced this would be a very good way of playing games, seeing as playing anything on a laptop’s trackpad is about as useful as controlling the game from fifty foot with a joined up collection of bendy straws.

Despite that, the trackpads on the Steam Controller work really damn well, mostly due to the advanced haptic feedback system under the right pad that allows it to feel more like a second analogue stick than a laptop. I’ve discovered I can quite comfortably play Team Fortress 2 (and get kills!) using the controller, which is something I never liked doing on my 360 pad.

The rest of the buttons also work really well, too. I love the triggers, which are really chunky and have both haptics-driven soft activation and physical switch hard activation points, which just feels so comfortable to use. The soft and hard points can also be bound to different functions too, which I found is pretty good for stuff like aiming down ironsights or sniper scopes.

I’m a big fan of the back paddles, which are in just the right position for my hands to not require too much effort to activate, but give off a really satisfying *click* noise whenever they’re pressed. Most games I play on it have now been rebound to use the paddles to jump and crouch just because of how accessible they are.

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Speaking of rebinding controls, every button is entirely customisable for every individual game you launch through Steam, including non-Steam games. At first, the amount of options and settings Steam gave me to configure was totally overwhelming, but as I started using it more and more, I got to know my mouse joystick from my mouse region and was soon able to set up almost any game to control just how I wanted it to. There are also configurations made by members of the community, which is a great way of quickly finding optimal settings.

I’m still struggling to get some games to work, Left 4 Dead has weird sensitivity no matter what I do for example, but overall the sheer reconfigurability of the controller is a massive plus.

The biggest appeal of the Steam Controller is its ability to easily play genres not usually suitable for controllers: city sims, point-and-clicks, RTS, that sort of thing. I’ve not delved into these too much, as they’re not generally types of games I like to play anyway, but I did give Cities: Skylines a try and found that with a bit of tinkering and reconfiguring, it is an entirely viable (if someone tiring) way to play. The right pad works really well as a mouse control, and there are enough extra buttons on the controller to allow for more finely-tuned control. Even Crusader Kings 2 is playable on it!

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Ergonomically, the Steam Controller is by far the most comfortable controller I’ve ever held. The face of the controller is concave, rather than convex, which means your thumbs don’t have to stretch out to hit the farther out buttons, but instead just rotate how they would naturally. It feels strange to hold at first, but it definitely helps reduce fatigue with longer gaming sessions, especially for people like me who may have gammy hands to start with.

There are only two complaints about the physical design I’m able to make. Firstly, I think the small thumbstick on the left side of the controller is raised a bit too high and placed too close to the centre. I do feel some strain on my left thumb after a while, especially when swapping between it and the left trackpad, which is actually placed lower than the base of the stick.

Secondly, the haptics are incredibly loud. Using the right pad and its haptic-driven virtual joystick produces a constant, audible buzzing noise. While it is drowned out by the sound of the game, people who stream or record videos may need to learn to play with them disabled just to reduce audio interference.

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Other than those two problems, the Steam Controller is easily my favourite gamepad ever. I am a bit of a unique case because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome meaning I have specific ergonomic requirements, but even then I think anybody will be able to benefit from the comfortable design and versatile controls the Steam Controller supplies.

Sorry, Xbox 360 pad. I’ve met someone new, and it’s over between us.

This review was made possible by the generous support of my Patreon backers! If you like this sort of content, please consider pledging!

Review: Firewatch

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Before it came out, I was only vaguely aware of Firewatch. I’d seen a logo here, a bit of artwork there, but hadn’t really paid attention to it, what it was, or when it was coming out.

Now that I’ve finished it, I am so, so glad that I went into Firewatch completely blind. It’s a fascinating and lovely, if sometimes bumpy, experience that is definitely my first true contender for the best game of this year.

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Firewatch

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic Inc. and Campo Santo

Released: February 9, 2016.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4

MSRPG: $19.99/£14.99

Firewatch places you in the shoes of Henry, a depressed man who’s escaped from his personal problems to an isolated job keeping an eye out for fires in a national park. Secluded away in your tower, far away from any civilisation, your only line of communication is with Delilah, your sarcastic and confident boss.

The game is a quote-unquote “walking simulator”, where Henry must hike to various locations in his sector of the park to uncover a growing, dark mystery while also trying to prevent any potential fires. There are two major components to any good walking simulator: a beautiful world to explore, and a narrative that can really hook you in. While there is one area where the game stumbles, Firewatch manages to succeed on almost all fronts.

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The world is absolutely gorgeous, with its colourful and low-poly style. While I didn’t feel particularly drawn to explore like I was in something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the environments I did go through were often memorable and a treat to look at. This was emphasised by the really cool camera mechanic, which gave me a limited number of photos I could take that would show up in the game’s credits, and could even be bought as physical prints. Campo Santo knew how good looking Frewatch was, and they weren’t afraid to flaunt it.

The layout of the forest was also very well designed, with enough alternate routes to dampen the irritation that came with the often frequent backtracking. Over time I grew from having to frequently consult my obtuse map because I’d gotten lost yet again, to being able to traverse through it pretty much from memory. This fit pretty really with the game’s narrative, which takes place over roughly two months and sees Henry grow into his role as part of the firewatch.

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The biggest appeal of Firewatch by far were its characters. The game’s almost entirely carried by radio conversations between Henry and Delilah, and every single bit of dialogue I heard was written and acted impeccably. Stumbling across new conversation points was a delight, and they could deftly swing from being hilarious to emotional in only a few seconds. The chemistry between the two is so endearing, and I’d happily go as far as to say this might be some of the best writing and performances I’ve seen in a game in a very long time. I really hope we get to see some more of Henry and Delilah at some point, even if it’s just as a prologue.

Unfortunately, my biggest complaint with Firewatch is with the actual story itself. It’s not an especially long game – my run was about three hours long, which is fine considering how high-quality everything else is – but it still drags on a bit with the mystery’s build-up, only to follow it with a very unsatisfying and kind of rushed conclusion.

For the majority of the game I was completely engrossed in the mystery, only for it to all be brushed away with a naff explanation in the last twenty minutes or so, leaving me wishing I’d taken more time to explore instead of getting so caught up in the events.

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Despite that, I think Firewatch is a game that’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simply listening to Henry and Delilah’s conversations, listening to them work through their personal problems, and watching them grow to be more comfortable with each other while explore a beautiful park was good enough for me.

If you’re looking for a groundbreaking plot or deep mechanics, I’d recommend you look elsewhere because I’d argue that isn’t what Firewatch is really about. If you want a fantastic world to hike through with some exceptional dialogue that isn’t afraid to explore some darker topics, I absolutely and completely recommend you take a look at Firewatch. You won’t regret it.

Looking Back at 2015: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

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We’re only a month away from the endless onslaught of Game of the Year awards. In a month, me and plenty of my friends and colleagues will be drafting up lists of our favourite games of the year, while also thinking ever so slightly less of the many people who don’t agree with us.

Before that happens though, I wanted to take a look back at some of the games I didn’t get the chance to talk about at the time for whatever reason.

These are not reviews, some of the games I haven’t played for months. They’re also not necessarily my Game of the Year™. They’re simply the games I found interesting (for better or for worse), but never really discussed when they came out.

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This year’s been an utterly fantastic one for fascinating stories in games. Undertale, Life is Strange, The Beginner’s Guide, The Charnel House Trilogy, Emily is Away, the list goes on and on and on of stories I’ve really enjoyed. Notably, this year is finally the year where the quote-unquote ‘walking simulator’ genre finally clicked for mem and became something I can enjoyably play.

This is where The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture comes in. Set in a Shropshire village after the end of the world, when it came out I remember the gaming industry react incredibly weirdly to it. There were plenty of complaints about it being a slow, plodding game with a difficult to follow narrative, and, as a result, it was unfortunately left by the wayside as other games came out. I heavily, heavily disagree with almost every single complaint I’ve seen levied at Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

I’m from the Midlands in the UK, so not all that far from Shropshire; seeing how the area is represented in Rapture was incredibly interesting. I’ve walked through woodland and farms that looked identical to places in Rapture, and I even found furniture that looked surprisingly similar to things that are in my house right now. Exploring a setting that is often so close to my own environment was a weirdly memorable experience, and I’d argue that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the closest thing you can get to actually exploring the British countryside in a game.

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Maybe this is why I never had a problem with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s pacing. Some argue that the game was too long (roughly six hours), and a lot of time was spent slowly ambling from plot point to plot point. However, I simply enjoyed the wandering too much for it to bother me. The freedom of really having a sometimes very personal and invasive around a village that looks very similar to ones just down the road from me was fascinating. Being able to see how the people really around me might be living and working succeeded in keeping me engages through the slower portions.

That experience was made all the better by the game’s overall presentation. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the most hauntingly beautiful games I’ve played in a long, long time. Watching as the sun quickly sets over the church, or watching how the plants in the fields sway in the wind were very subtle effects that really made wandering through the game a pleasure.

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That’s not even mentioning Jessica Curry’s stellar soundtrack (which I’ve pre-ordered the vinyl release for, that’s how good it is). Watching lights fly through the sky while a choir sings in the background sent shivers down my spine. Seriously one of the prettiest games of the year in every possible way.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is your usual soap opera, and all the small-scale domestic conflicts they’re known for, wrapped up in an apocalyptic science-fiction story. It manages to dive seamlessly between an unknown and potentially alien threat wiping out the valley to dealing with more relatable problems like religion and euthanasia in a way that doesn’t feel disrespectful or limiting to either narrative. I found myself enjoying Lizzie’s romantic problems just as much as I did Stephen’s more frantic race against time, and I equally cared about each of the different plot threads The Chinese Room juggled.

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of those games that I wish had a bit more time in the limelight. While the game does sometimes veer more into being about that vague cultural concept of “Britishness” than actual realism, Rapture manages to handle effortlessly a large amount of plot threads worth discussing at greater length. Threads such as the religious debates present in Jeremy’s chapter, or how the game portrays a disabled character without ever actually physically showing them in Lizzie’s.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game that’s stuck with me in a massive way in the weeks since playing it, and I’m incredibly glad I took a chance on it.

Looking Back at 2015: Bloodborne

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We’re only a month away from the endless onslaught of Game of the Year awards. In a month, me and plenty of my friends and colleagues will be drafting up lists of our favourite games of the year, while also thinking ever so slightly less of the many people who don’t agree with us.

Before that happens though, I wanted to take a look back at some of the games I didn’t get the chance to talk about at the time for whatever reason.

These are not reviews, some of the games I haven’t played for months. They’re also not necessarily my Game of the Year™. They’re simply the games I found interesting (for better or for worse), but never really discussed when they came out.

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My least favourite videogame of all time is Dark Souls. I hate almost everything about it, from the massive lack of checkpoints and the clunky as all hell combat, to the obtuse stats system and the often unfairly punishing level design; everything came together and resulted in the game being an experience I can’t describe in any other way than complete and total loathing. I utterly, utterly detest Dark Souls.

Going into Bloodborne, I expected to feel much the same way about it that I do Dark Souls. I was totally prepared to hate the lack of a pause function, and find an endless stream of numbers that make no sense, or wind up being killed simply because Bloodborne is still fundamentally a Souls game. What I found turned out to be the most fun I’ve had with a From Software game ever, and one of the biggest surprises I had this year in gaming.

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Bloodborne differed from its Souls cousin in a few slight yet important ways. It was a much, much faster game than Souls, letting you dart all over the place more readily and get your attacks in more frequently. Weirdly, this speed made Bloodborne feel like a more forgiving game. Panicking, flailing, and thinking on the fly (often unsuccessfully) were a part of every encounter and the game expected you to make some input errors every now and then.

Where Souls needed laser-precise tactical thinking, Bloodborne was much more of a ‘go with your gut’ sort of game, and that alone made it a more enjoyable experience for me.

Another problem I had with Souls was the ridiculous distances you often had to go between a checkpoint and a boss encounter. Having to trek for minutes through hordes of difficult enemies, only to be killed by a boss a few seconds into the encounter and have to start that segment all over again, felt like an obnoxious and almost disrespectful waste of my time.

While Bloodborne did sometimes run into those same problems (the lead-up to the Cleric Beast early on in the game being a particularly annoying example that I remember), I noticed it was also more liberal with giving you interesting shortcuts that weren’t hidden in the arse end of nowhere.

This tighter level design compared to Souls meant having to fight your way back to a boss felt like it had a purpose, with exploration between point A and point B being more readily rewarded. Regaining ground lost in Dark Souls felt like being repeatedly kicked in the teeth, whereas in Bloodborne it felt like being encouraged to look at things from a different perspective.

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One of the few things Souls did well was teasing the player with a deep, often hidden lore through character designs and the setting’s architecture, rather than through any of the game’s immediate events.

Bloodborne was a bit more direct in its storytelling, but that doesn’t mean the fantastic visual and enemy designs that tell their own story weren’t still present. Just stopping a moment to take a look around, or studying how the various bosses link into each other’s stories was incredibly rewarding to me.

Bloodborne’s Gothic Lovecraftian setting was used to great effect. Yharnam felt like a real place, with bands of hunters marching down the streets with torches and pitchforks, and terrified citizens cowering in their houses. This was a massive improvement over Dark Souls’ Lordran, which while great at telling a story did also sometimes feel a bit game-y, with enemies placed into the world like pieces on a chess board, just waiting for me to be killed repeatedly by them.

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Ultimately, what I took away from Bloodborne was a realisation that the template From Software has used for their games since Demon Souls can work in a way that’s fun, challenging and rewarding, without being unfair or frustrating to play. Dark Souls was a bad game, but Bloodborne proved to me that it didn’t have to be a bad game. That’s a really reassuring thought with the “Soulsborne” series seemingly becoming an annual occurrence.

I could still do with a basic pause feature though. Playing for more than 20 minutes is murder on my wonky hands.