Thursday, August 4, 2016

My Month In Games: July 2016

Furi - PS4

I'm not going to be able to hold back my enthusiasm for this one, so I won't even try. Furi is an incredible game and easily my current front runner for Game of the Year. The core gameplay is so tremendous, and the overall vibe so strong, that whatever faults it might have barely even registered for me. To my surprise however, Furi has been receiving some middling review scores from a few major publications, so after I tell you a little bit about the game and my experiences with it, I'm also going to tell you why those other guys are dead wrong about this title.

In its most basic elements, Furi is a hack 'n' slash/shoot 'em up combat game that features ultra tight gameplay, a distinctive, neon-tinted art style, and an impeccable soundtrack. What really sets it apart however, is that it consists of boss fights only! You play as a prisoner attempting to free himself from a nine-level "jail world" along with the help of a man in a bunny suit (!?) who fills you in on the story beats between fights. Each of Furi's nine main levels and one (not so) hidden final stage features a challenging boss "guardian" who must be dispatched before moving on to the next one. Gameplay consists of a mix between timing based hacking and slashing, "bullet hell" inspired shooting/dodging sequences, and a few quick time events thrown in for good measure. Dodge, parry, then unleash a flurry of quick sword attacks for big damage, or hang back and use your automatic handgun to chip away at the enemy's health. Each boss has several attack phases you must learn, and most phases contain both close quarters and ranged combat sections.

"Bullet hell" sections are often as beautiful as they are dangerous.
I won't mince words here, Furi is a very challenging game that definitely put my reflexes (and occasionally my patience) to the test. There are no weapon upgrades and no special moves to learn as you progress; you have every move at your disposal right from the outset, and the challenge comes from learning the boss' attack patterns and reacting to their moves so that you can deal the most damage in return. The beauty is that when you finally beat a boss there's a real sense of accomplishment. Even the really tricky ones can be taken down with enough practice and dedication, and your reward for victory is that you truly do feel like a champion gamer! It's tough but fair, and so enjoyable that failure only spurred me on to try again and again until I was in control. The feeling was intoxicating!

The fast-paced action, distinctive visuals, and top-notch synthwave soundtrack add a tremendous amount to style to the proceedings.
Professional criticism of the game has struck me in a way that feels unfair, so even though I don't normally do this kind of thing, here are a few examples from a couple of major reviews that I considered to be particularly off-base along with my reactions:

From Kotaku:

"Combat is brutal. You can slash, shoot, parry and dash, mechanics that, for me, usually inspire a state of flow regardless of a game’s difficulty. The key, it seems, is memorizing bosses’ animations and training your reflexes to adequately respond to their attacks. No problem — but the delay on your dash mechanic (intentionally, I’d imagine) makes it extremely difficult to time when dodging an area-of-attack blow."

This is mostly inaccurate. Yes, the difficulty can be "brutal" at times, but there absolutely is NO DELAY on the dash mechanic. How it works is that the dash doesn't trigger until after you LET GO of the button; the reason being that it is possible to charge your dash in order to cover more ground. If the dash move triggered just by pressing the button then the charge mechanic wouldn't be possible, and there would be less depth to the control mechanics. Just like anything, you have to get a feel for it first, but once you do you're fine. Also, dodging area-of-attack blows is not "extremely difficult" relative to any other aspect of the game. Tap the dash button quickly and you're good to go.

Your rabbit-suited companion provides story exposition and context to the action. Also, Furi = furry? Hmm...
From IGN:

"Losing three lives during a single phase of each fight restarts the whole thing, which means trudging through three or four phases just to return to the part you were having trouble with, with no opportunity to really practice until you get back to that point. During these do-overs — which force you to repeat linear sequences that, on the second or third try, feel routine rather than rewarding — I often felt like I was just going through the motions of a boss fight as opposed to defending and reacting against a dynamic opponent. Add to this the fact that the parry mechanic feels functionally inconsistent in arena mode, where trying to block and run at the same time sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and Furi can go from fun to frustrating pretty quickly."

Look dude, the game is all boss fights. If you game over then you have to start the fight over again. Yes, sometimes that means that you have to trudge through an earlier, more linear section of the fight in order to get back to the part you're having trouble with. It is a minor form of punishment and provides some incentive to work your way through the challenge. It's a lot like Punch-Out!! in that regard, but unlike in that game most of your opponents in Furi can and do throw curve balls at you to keep things feeling fresh. Also, who says you have to feel "rewarded" for making it halfway through a damn fight? The feeling of satisfaction comes when you win. If the opponents were more "dynamic" you'd be whining about the increased difficulty that would bring, I suspect. Also, the parry mechanic is not "functionally inconsistent". If you're running away from an enemy and they attack you from behind, you can't parry. Turn to face your opponent and the parry works.

Not every battle takes place in some kind of future-disco.
Also from Kotaku:

"In more direct combat, if you land three successful slashes against an enemy, your character goes into an automatic attack animation. It’s a reward for rare successes, but also made me feel like I had less agency over my character. It’s distancing, but looks excellent."

Untrue. There is no automatic attack animation that triggers after you land three successful slashes against an enemy. There is an optional auto attack (which lasts about 2-4 seconds) that can be unleashed after a perfectly timed parry attack, but if you prefer to have more "agency" over your character you can back off and nail the boss with a charged sword slash or simply wait for it to recover...which is generally a bad idea.

Some battles subvert expectations and require more patience. The only way to hurt this guardian is to destroy his protective barriers first while dodging your own reflected shots.
And one more from Kotaku:

Although “Promenade” (easy difficulty) isn’t significantly easier than “Furi,” (normal difficulty) it does offer you more lives. You’re shamed for picking it, which made me wonder why it was included at all. Really, you’re not only shamed for picking it as much as you’re shamed for being the kind of person who would pick it: “Anyone will be able to enjoy the universe and the story, but the game will be much shorter and very easy. Does not unlock trophies, the Furier difficulty and the Speedrun mode.” After you select “Promenade,” Furi warns you again that you’re a wimp: “Are you sure you want to change the difficulty? It will prevent you from feeling the rush of combat... Once you have changed the difficulty, you can’t go back to the current difficulty.” Ouch.

Sounds more like a fair warning and less an insult to me. To be sure, Furi is most certainly a niche title and was clearly designed to be challenging. Players who cannot get down with its difficulty curve will have a tough road ahead of them, but I just don't think it's fair to ding it for being upfront about its overall level of challenge. I'm sorry that you felt "shamed" by some informative text at the difficulty select screen, but let's be professional about this, huh? That said, the only thing I encountered that did feel a little cocky to me was a message at the very end of the credits after completing the game's hardest difficulty. It was something along the lines of "Thank you for playing through the hardest difficulty. We appreciate the time and effort that must have taken. Congratulations for playing the game it was meant to be played." That's a little arrogant, sure, but you only see that message at the conclusion of the game. While playing, I actually found the game to be pretty encouraging, as it gives you a little pep talk each time you game over. Not all games are easy, and there is a market for people who want a challenge. I understand that there are people who have become accustomed to the fact that games tend to be easier nowadays, and I also get that there is an annoying cult of gamers who look down their noses at people who don't find difficult games to be all that much fun, but again, I think it's shortsighted to blame a game for staying true to its intentions or because your feelings got hurt by a menu screen.

This cat hits hard and his fighting area is cramped. Stay focused!
After all of this, I gather that you have a good idea of what Furi is all about. I LOVED it, but I can recognize that it's not a game for everyone. If twitchy, stylish action with a somewhat steep but rewarding challenge is your thing, you really should give this wonderful game a look!

Grade: A

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