Last Seat on the Xbus

A PlayStation lifer finally subscribes to (PC) Game Pass and dives right in

Last Seat on the Xbus
Source: Xbox.

I knew it would happen someday. It's just too irresistible for any real gamer to ignore forever. As soon as it was announced, I knew I would succumb to the siren's song of Game Pass. And I finally have, to the PC version at least.

I've owned every PlayStation console except the PSP, and have owned or played something over 500 games. On the other side, I've only held an Xbox controller in my hands for less than one hour, ever. I've never played Halo, Gears of War, Fable, Forza, or any of the other exclusives. There has never been a game on Xbox consoles that made me want to take a second look at any generation of those boxes.

Yet here I am, with a $1 subscription to the first month of the service, and a desire to try as many games as possible. I will eventually get to the big X-clusives, but for now I'm going to be playing the filler that Microsoft has crammed into the service. That filler, games from indie publishers like Devolver Digital and industry giants like Electronic Arts, are games I would otherwise wait to buy on sale, whether from Steam or Sony's own store.

I knew I would need to limit myself in order to experience as many titles as possible. Thus, I plan to spend just two hours with each game before moving on to the next one. If a game hasn't grabbed my attention in that time, I feel safe in saying it isn't for me. This seems to mirror the gaming choices many of our dear readers also have to make when choosing those games they will play through to completion. Just keep in mind that my feelings are based on this admittedly small slice of the games that I will play, and make your conclusions accordingly.

So without further ado, let's jump into my takes on the first three games of my PC Game Pass experience.

Source: YouTube.

Trek to Yomi

As a fan of samurai and ninja games going all the way back to Ninja Gaiden and Tenchu, and culminating in the brilliant Ghost of Tsushima, I was completely in on Trek to Yomi. Samurai action in 2.5D with black and white visuals and a compelling revenge story seemed like the perfect follow-on to Ghost, so I eagerly installed it as the first game I would play on Game Pass.

Despite those high expectations, the game is enjoyable in the early going. The revenge story is nothing new, but the writing is good, the sounds draw you into the experience, and the visuals make you feel like you are in a Kurosawa movie, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The action is simple, with the expected light and heavy attacks. The game teaches you a little more with each encounter, blocking and combos and quick turns and the like, introducing a few different enemies as well. But this is where the action started to fall apart with me because I didn't need to use any of those other moves or even think about what I was doing. Every enemy who stood in my way was defeated with two or three light or heavy attacks. I didn't need to block or parry, I could simply step back until the enemy finished its attack animation, then step forward and swing a couple of times.

I certainly understand that a game like this can't be expected to have the depth of a game like Ghost of Tsushima, nor did I expect it to. But I was still left wanting more, something that stood out from other 2D hack and slash games, for despite the trappings of the game's setting, it is simply window dressing for a basic formula of run, fight, collect something, and run some more.

As a fan of 2D side scrollers, this should have been right in my wheelhouse given my love for the subject material. But I was left wondering why I would stay with this game instead of just returning to Tsushima Island to play the better version of the same experience. Had I played Trek first, I believe I would have been much more satisfied with the action. For those who like this genre and style but have yet to play Ghost, I can definitely recommend it. If you're coming to this after playing Insomniac's brilliant adventure, however, I'm afraid you'll be left wanting. I won't be returning to this trek again.

Source: Gamespot.

Carrion

Brought to Game Pass by the demented minds at indie publisher Devolver Digital and developed by Phobia Game Studios, Carrion turns the horror movie formula completely upside down. You are the horrifying tentacled monster with a mouth(s) of razor-sharp teeth, splattering the walls of the science-y facility with the blood of those who have created (maybe), imprisoned (definitely), and done who knows what else to you.

This game had me from the very first seconds, as you break free and immediately hear the (incredibly realistic) screams of those humans about to meet their doom. Right away the game sets the atmosphere and tone, and you know exactly what kind of experience this will be. Using your tentacles, you break through barriers and grab the helpless humans, throwing them against walls or pulling them into your blood-soaked maw, tearing them in half as their viscera splatters all around you.  

Carrion absolutely nails the most important part of a game like this: the movement. The way your tentacled beast moves through each screen feels incredibly smooth and kinetic, without question the highlight of the game. It is more like being a liquid, flowing from one space to another, using the various controller buttons to rip away grates to open passages, tearing doors from their hinges, and pulling switches to gain access to the next screen.

Source: NME.

The game handles teaching and progressions very well, with new enemy types introduced every so often that require more caution and different tactics to dispatch. The real fun begins with each new skill you acquire, handled here by breaking a container holding some nastiness that works to evolve your monster. There are more than 10 skills to evolve into, and each one changes the gameplay directly. The only two I encountered in my time with the game were web-shooting, which allows you to solve certain puzzles and temporarily disable human enemies, and a dash that allows for breaking certain barriers and knocking down human enemies.

Another interesting wrinkle to the gameplay revolves around your monster's biomass, which doubles as your health and the physical size of the monster. As you consume humans, your biomass grows, and you gain certain abilities due to that size. The abilities gained at higher levels replace those from the lower levels to the point where certain rooms require you to shed (and then pick up again) some of your biomass in order to access the skills needed to pass a particular obstacle. It adds another layer of strategy to the game that makes this much more than a simple gore-fest.

The only thing I didn't like about the game in my 2 hours were the sections that forced you to play as a human. Why, Phobia, why did you push this injustice upon us? Everything great about the game is zapped away in an instant. Human movement is slow and clunky, there are no offensive capabilities (though based on the control map, you eventually get access to weapons), and it just feels wrong after the delightful sensations of being the monster. As soon as I became a human, I instantly wished that I was back as the monster. It's like playing a superhero game and having all the awesome powers taken away from you. Fortunately, the two sections I encountered were short, but I hated every second.

Even with that caveat, I had a great time with Carrion and I will definitely return to it in the future. Anyone who appreciates 2D action games in the Metroidvania (Monstervania?) style and doesn't mind a bit of gore will find something to like here. Definitely worth a download from GamePass, and it makes me very happy that Devolver Digital is part of this ecosystem.

Source: Epic Games.

Death's Door

Few games have received the positive word of mouth that this game is enjoying since its launch, so as such my expectations were sky-high. Even with all that anticipation, I was absolutely blown away by my time with Death's Door, and I had to tear myself away from the controller in order to write this article.

In the fine tradition of indie masterpieces like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Celeste, Death's Door was created by a very small team and the result is so much better than it has any right to be. You play as a Reaper, a crow whose job it is to collect souls that have stayed past their time in the world, and send them to the afterlife. To do this, you will interact with various characters and traverse multiple areas, dispatching enemies on the way to the next boss.

While it sounds like a basic setup, the execution is the farthest thing from basic. The graphics are gorgeous, and I spent a good 10% of my two hours just wandering around looking at the architecture and colors. Your hub world, the Hall of Doors, perfectly evokes the drab bureaucratic office, beset by desks stacked with paper, depressingly grey except for a few bits of color. Progressing along reveals areas with bright gardens, stone gargoyle sculptures, buttressed bridges and wrought iron gates. Incredible lightwork, shadows and reflections on mirrored surfaces are the small touches that separate a good game from an amazing experience, and they are each here in spades.  

The level designs are stunning, both in their architectural beauty and their implementation within the gameplay. Many rooms have multiple pathways you can traverse, and vertical orientation is almost always important in performing the tasks that will allow you to progress to the next area. The character design is just as lovingly handled, each one highly detailed and incredibly well-animated. Vases sprout little legs and totter around their levels, wizards appear and disappear in a cloud of smoke, and mini-bosses show damage by slowly cracking or losing pieces with each blow.

Source: Eurogamer.

All of that would be just window-dressing if the gameplay didn't meet the same standard, but fortunately, that area of the game exceeds expectations as well. Controls are simple yet exactly what the action calls for: your chosen melee weapon has a light attack, and a heavy attack that can also be charged, while a ranged weapon or magic spell rounds out your arsenal. A dodge-roll complements your kit, and it feels superb to get in a few strikes, then smoothly roll out of danger at the last second. Movement and traversal are similarly enjoyable and responsive, such that you never feel like falling from a ledge or missing an arrow shot is anything other than your own fault.

The combat and puzzle-solving work together seamlessly, giving the game a fantastic feeling of flow and energy when you really get in a groove. Shoot an arrow through a firepit to light another fire across the way, opening a gate to a new area. Using your melee weapon in combat loads your "quiver" for the bow and arrow, never leaving you searching for ammo or stranded without the means for moving forward in the game. Arrows can also be used to trigger exploding pots, giving another means to dispatch enemies.

Excellent music and sound effects round out this stunning package, perfectly matching the mood and tone of the action and story on the screen. Effects, from the sound of crow feet on a ladder to the tinkling of pots as they are destroyed and put back together, and the scream of little green fireballs as you smack them back to explode upon the enemy who issued them, are all sublimely well done.

I cannot say enough good things about this game, and I can only wonder what delights await as I dive back into the adventure. Death's Door is available on Steam and all major consoles, so I implore you to play it right now. The only question is, will you be able to put it down?


And this ends my first look at the games of PC Game Pass. Stay tuned for the next edition, when I'll be telling you all about my first two hours with Citizen Sleeper,  Dodgeball Academia, and My Friend Pedro.

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