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Spotlight: Games at E3

Spotlight: Games at E3

E3 tends to throw a lot of information––and games––at the public. D. Bethel has thoughts on a few of them.

Having been a console-first gamer my entire gaming life, I tend to pay close attention to the news and videos coming out of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). At this point, I don’t get particularly hyped about the games that get announced (I hear people that hit social media after a press conference exclaiming, seemingly in earnest, “I NEED THIS GAME NOW!” Chill, dude) especially since few games shown at E3 anymore are surprises, having been announced months or years earlier. If anything, being a guy who is way into process, I’m excited to see what state these previously announced games are in and what kind of games they actually end up being. It’s like a big public presentation of the middle portion of the transition from idea to final product.

With that in mind, there a few games really stood out to me, with a few that may have slipped under the larger coverage of the show.

Ghost of Tsushima – Sucker Punch Studios (PS4) – Release TBA

The games I discuss in Shortcast 59 are only from the Sony press conference. Though I’ll be broadening my scope for this Spotlight, there was one game from Sony’s exhibition really got its hooks in me.

Sucker Punch is a studio with whom I’m nominally familiar. I never played the Infamous series of games, having been an Xbox 360 owner at the time of their release, but the idea intrigued me enough and the general response to the series was always positive, nor had I touched a Sly Cooper game as 3D platformers never really appealed to me despite the series’ general good regard among the community. With that said, I hold neither Sucker Punch nor their upcoming game, Ghost of Tsushima, to any metric aside from what they show of the game itself.

And what they showed of Ghost is fire.

In fact, it seems like a game made specifically for D. Bethel. According to Sucker Punch creative director, Nate Fox, Ghost is a wholly linear, narrative-focused game that takes the player through 13th century Japan in the midst of a war with the Mongols. With that, teenaged Dan, the Japanese history nerd, perked up. Additionally, it’s a historical samurai action game with no supernatural elements whatsoever as Sucker Punch aimed for “a grounded game.” Comicker D. Bethel, who’s making a western webcomic with no supernatural elements, perked up as well. Combined with the deliberate combat that looked similar (though let’s hope it’s not too similar) to Bushido Blade and Way of the Samurai, super gamer nerd Dan became invested.

Like with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption before it, the idea of a AAA grounded historical game that isn’t simply a tactical war game nor an RPG seems like an avenue less explored by big studios; so to see Sucker Punch tackle it (and with Red Dead Redemption 2 out this October!), I’m definitely keeping my eye on this one where, before, it wasn’t in my field of vision at all.

Sable – Shedworks (PC only at the time of this announcement) – Late 2019

Here’s where I walk back my console cred and mention a PC game. E3 held what it called its “PC Gaming Show” that showcased upcoming PC games in the same manner that other press conferences showcased console-focused games. Tucked among those games was Sable, and I can’t believe it’s real.

Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract.

I’ve watched the trailer a few times and I know it’s a game, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of game it is yet. The visuals stunned me. Surely a lot of people are going to be calling this a “hand-drawn” game, which it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s doing some high-level and artistic cell shading that eerily––EERILY––evokes the work of French cartoonist, Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius). Most accurately, it seems to be an homage to his long-running Métal hurlant (a magazine Giraud co-created and was published in the US as Heavy Metal) strip, Arzach.

Pages from the first appearance of Arzach in the pages of Métal hurlant (1975). Source: Humanoids Publishing.
An image from Mœbius’ Voyage d’Hermés series (2011), created for boutique clothing company, Hermés. source: Hermés

Created by the two-person UK developer, Shedworks, their main source of inspiration seems to be from the strides in open-world development that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made than directly trying to interpret the work of Giraud into a video game space. Instead, the game apparently focuses more on the exploration and interaction with this breathtaking landscape rather than on RPG-like character growth and battle. Apparently, there’s no combat at all in the game, which is an intriguing proposition (No combat?! How is that even possible?!?!) that brought with it, to an extent, an internal sigh of relief. Finally, something different aside from just the visuals.

My joy doesn’t come from gleefully pointing out that this game seems to ape Mœbius’ style or comic at all––there’s no joy in that––but that this game vivifies his aesthetic perfectly. This must look like what the artist had in his head from which he could only capture still frames and arrange them on a page. Of all the games being written about, Sable genuinely gave me pause.

Sea of Solitude – Jo-Mei (PS4, XBox One, PC) – Early 2019

As an academic English person––albeit one who specialized in Composition and Rhetoric––whenever popular culture reveals a literary depth to it, it draws my attention with laser precision.

I heard on a podcast––sadly, I don’t remember which one, but probably Waypoint Radio––about a game shown during EA’s press conference that caught people off guard because Cornelia Geppert, the creative director of German indie studio, Jo-Mei, got surprisingly emotional and thoughtful when presenting the game, Sea of Solitude.

While “getting emotional” seems to be a highly subjective term––Geppert comes across as more nervous and genuinely excited to show off her game at the largest gaming trade show in the United States––her candor with the game’s themes and what they are trying to say with the game surprised me more.

A major argument in the discourse around games is that they are superficial entertainment, escapist power-fantasy exercises and that’s the baseline level of appreciation for them. Some even argue that such an angle should be our only appreciation of them (“Keep politics out of games!” “Keep your X agenda out of games!” “Games should be more like they were before!” etc.).

The problem with that is games are made by people who think very hard about their games. Like with any creative product (or any product), the consumer doesn’t usually see the majority of effort that went into making it. That’s part of why we are so quick to offer hot takes on games, movies, comics, toys, videos, etc. We are reacting to the product put in front of us, not seeing the complex web of thought, ability, and troubleshooting behind the shiny veneer. To an extent, good games look effortlessly made.

Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract. This has become more visible as creators have been more vocal with their process. From Hideo Kojima’s thematic and increasingly abstract approach to his Metal Gear Solid series to the small and decisively personal games like Brothers and Papo y Yo, consumers are seeing the level of critical and artistic effort creators put into their games.

Usually we hear these things after a game’s release. That Jo-Mei presented their literary ambition first, before the trailer, partly illustrates why I liked their segment of the press conference so much. This seems like a huge step forward for the developer whose previous games don’t seem like anything that really broke through to the larger critical discussion.

Luckily, the game looks stylish and fun––like LIMBO or INSIDE crossed with a post-apocalyptic anime––I’m excited because it piqued my academic interests while also being a game that––superficially––looks like it’ll be a fun time.

––––

E3 has been particularly exciting this year. After a year or two of the industry being hit hard by extreme successes (2017 was an outstanding year for games) and existential dilemmas (voice actor strike, labor issues, continuing GamerGate behavior), seeing good games at the show as well as developers tackling some of these issues (both positively and negatively) head on puts this E3 ahead in a lot of ways. At the very least, we get good games out of the static as developers, journalists, and players try to move the medium forward and upward.

Spotlight: ‘Masterpieces’ Are Better With Flaws

Spotlight: ‘Masterpieces’ Are Better With Flaws

Far Cry 5‘s muddled political message is better for gaming than a perfect one.

The announcement events and imagery set up Far Cry 5 to be a game with a lot to say about modern American politics. Image source: Ubisoft.

Upon its announcement last year, Far Cry 5‘s political promise attracted the liberal gamer base (and disconcerted conservative gamers) as it seemed to be aiming strictly at the American Christian fundamentalism and rural conservatism that have been at the front and center of the country’s political discourse since the last presidential election. With the game’s release and the reviews rolling out, it’s clear that while it is, mechanically, a fun game to play, it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of cultural political commentary.

Instead of taking a hard stance on the current political climate, it tries to straddle the fence, to not take sides and, instead, treat the threat of fundamentalist conservatism as an exaggerated skin draped over the ludic need for opposing forces to attack the player. In this game, the cannon fodder is simply “crazy cult member”,  similar to the shift Resident Evil made away from zombies to Othered, uneducated, Spanish, feral, rural villagers in the fourth game (which they doubled-down on in the fifth game by moving out of Spain and into Africa). They may have a different story and context, but they were basically just zombies to shoot down––targets to hit for a “higher score.” Despite oblique references to modern political situations (including a mission built around obtaining a “pee tape”), Far Cry 5 seems to play the politics off as a joke when it pops up at all.

The last few years have really seen an effort to fold political commentary into game narratives and, as it stands now, the results seem to be less than effective albeit provocative. From the nuanced existential dread of the indie darling, Papers, Please, to the hyperbolic but consistent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the efforts have been teaching us that developers, at the very least, are ready to tackle such subjects even if their hold on the language, narrative agility, or tools to effectively enact such commentary remains debatable.

This static speaks to the point that how to tell a good story in a game is nebulous at best as gaming is not––unlike books, movies, comics, and tv––a one-sided narrative act. Games are by their very nature interactive and, therefore, the success of the narrative quite literally falls into the hands of the players, be it their attention to the story as they play or the choices they make in-game and how they line up with the intent of the developers. Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.

Papers, Please largely succeeds with its politics, though its retro aesthetics, somewhat limited availability, and esoteric gameplay could keep it from a larger audience. Image source: 3909 LLC.

This results in a lot of “flawed masterpieces”––good games like Far Cry 5 that don’t quite stick the landing. The aforementioned Wolfenstein II offers distinct answers to the political problems it confronts, but can be undermined by its wildly shifting tone from the touchingly serious to cartoonish absurdity. Watchdogs 2 (also from Far Cry‘s developer, Ubisoft) was largely a success but dropped the ball in crucial instances that harmed the efficacy of its thesis. Most publicly, Bioshock Infinite had a huge backlash to its initial critical success as people ruminated on its message after playing the game and found a lot to be troubling. Mafia III, in contrast, seemed to have a strong, clear, and evocative stance on race in the sixties, but the game part kind of faltered. Similarly, Papers, Please had a strong emergent political statement that was powerful for those who played it, but its indie status and, perhaps, esoteric retro aesthetics (as well as limited availability) probably kept it out of the hands of many potential gamers.

Arguably, no game has hit the landing when it comes to political commentary. Something always comes along and taints the potential and lays the game down as a “flawed masterpiece.” If it were to happen, no doubt it would most likely be out of accident than design. Video game narrative is arguably still in a fledgling state, with detractors even stating that story is not wholly useful to the medium (which Andrew and I talked about in Episode 133). So, it’s important to keep in mind that the  growth of the medium (of any medium) includes heavy-footed attempts and stumbles.

Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.

As a whole, we are still learning how to tell stories in games. It’s problematic because the technology for game development continues to surge forward as well and the bouncing between the two often feels like a scrimmage rather than a handshake. However, the key word there is “learning.” The way we generally learn is through metacognitive reflection of what we have already done, examining our past missteps in order to make the next attempt better.

And that is where these flawed masterpieces are actually helping the community rather than harming the medium. When Far Cry 5, in this case, so overtly stated that it would be a game with something to say at its announcement, only to walk that back as quickly as possible, the final product’s failure to live up to that promise got the community talking about politics in games, much as games––flawed as they are––like Wolfenstein II, Papers, Please, and Bioshock Infinite did before. This conversation exposes the nuance in the medium and actually helps to establish a baseline of what the community wants, expects, and hopes for in the future. These missteps encourage the audience (gamers, critics, and journalists) to become part of the process instead of simply waiting for the developers to simply say what they want to say (or say what they think we want to hear) and wait with gritted teeth to hear if they got it wrong. While that very scenario was the impetus here, the resulting conversation seems productive rather than agonistic.

That the community is talking about how to tell a political story in a game narrative is generative and progressive for the medium and the culture. Even among gamers themselves, having a game act as the discursive crux around politics, gaming, and narrative shines a light of hope on a community that has done more than its share to darken the skies on those topics. Our culture has evolved us to a point where political discussion mimics sports fandom––picking a team and shouting at the competition. Productive conversation is less about right and wrong and more about looking at the successes and failures of an idea, pointing them out, and making decisions based on them.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus may have been over the top at times, but it inspired genuine conversation about politics in gaming. Image source: Bethesda Softworks

More importantly, the community needs to have these conversations with itself more than it needs an effective political statement in a game. If a flawed game gets us to not only intelligently critique and what-if a game but also examine ourselves as a community––to reflect on our goals and diversity––then I would rather have that than The West Wing of video games.

The fallout from Far Cry 5‘s narrative failure will fuel more nuanced and interesting attempts (that will no doubt fail in their own ways) in the future, but the point is that those attempts will be better. What effect does a “perfect” statement have? What benefit comes from the community just sitting back in admiration? What happens to the knowledge we gained from the experience if we treat it as something that has been checked off of a list?

Perfection is boring. Gaming, like politics, always changes as time moves forward. The conversation about the successes, failures, and potential of a game serves as inspiration to be and do better next time be it from Ubisoft, a competitor, or an independent developer––as long as it keeps us talking.

Spotlight: The Marvel Minimum – The Five Movies To See Before “Avengers: Infinity War” UPDATED

Spotlight: The Marvel Minimum – The Five Movies To See Before “Avengers: Infinity War” UPDATED

[This article has been updated by the author since seeing the film; the content remains spoiler-free. -D. Bethel]

When Marvel’s trailer for Avengers: Infinity War debuted, many comic fans, like myself, were excited. The culmination of ten years of dedicated movie watching will pay off in what MCU mastermind, Kevin Feige, has dubbed “[a thing] you’ve never seen in superhero films: a finale.” But being a self proclaimed comic expert, and even having my own YouTube Comic Book Show, means you become the person your friends text when they have questions. One that struck me after the trailer debut was “Who’s the purple dude that looks Hellboy-ish? The bad one who put a jewel into his knuckle?” The question is perfectly fair, although my response was a bit, um, charged:

“Um… Thanos? The Mad Titan. The ultimate villain that has been teased since Avengers ONE. WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHO IS THANOS?!!!!

WHO IS THANOS? Thanos is not amused. Source: Marvel.com

That simple question led down a rabbit hole of a discussion with my friend about the fact that they missed Thanos in all three of his movie appearances (two of which were post- or mid-credits scenes), and his mention in another. Then you have the Infinity Stones and how they fit in (literally and figuratively) with the Infinity Gauntlet and how all of this relates to the average moviegoer. When all is said and done, when you sort the movies out using those requirements, you have the following:

Thanos Appearances/Mentions

  • The AvengersMid-Credits
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – Only actual in-movie appearance
  • Avengers: Age of UltronPost-Credits
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Mentioned due to being Gamora/Nebula’s “adoptive” father.

Infinity Stones Appearances/Mentions

  • Thor (post-credits scene) – Tesseract/Cosmic Cube – Space Stone
  • Captain America: The First Avenger – Tesseract/Cosmic Cube – Space Stone
  • The Avengers – Tesseract/Cosmic Cube – Space Stone and The Scepter – Mind Stone
  • Thor: The Dark World – Aether – Reality Stone
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – The Orb – Power Stone and Aether – Reality Stone
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron – The Scepter/Vision’s head – “Mind Stone”, All 6 of the Stones were in Thor’s vision.
  • Captain America: Civil War – Mind Stone in Vision’s head
  • Doctor Strange – The Eye Of Agamotto – The Time Stone
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – mentioned Power Stone again
  • Thor: Ragnarok – Thor was looking for the Stones from when he had that vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

So, counting the above, in order to understand Thanos and the Infinity Stones (minus the Soul Stone.. WHERE IS THAT BAD BOY?) before going into Avengers: Infinity War, a person would have to have seen ten of the eighteen movies over the last 10 years just to understand everything that doesn’t have to do with our main characters. But is all that necessary? Could we shorten the list? Or, alternatively, how short can we make the list and still have it all make sense?

How many movies do you need to watch to even understand this promotional image? Where is Thanos’s helmet? Source: Marvel.com

Let’s start out with movies from above you could skip as they are unrelated to most of the Infinity War plot (either secondary mentions of Thanos/Infinity Stones or no mentions).

  • Thor
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Then let’s take out movies that can have single line explanations in Infinity War to remove the bloat:

  • Captain America: The First Avenger – By the way, the Cosmic Cube/Tesseract was the macguffin of this movie and is seen in The Avengers.
  • Doctor Strange – The necklace Stephen Strange wears and uses in this movie has time powers and is the Time Stone
  • Thor: The Dark World – The Aether (aka red mist) was from this movie and that is actually an Infinity Stone.

So removing those means that only four five movies in the MCU have to do with the actual events of Infinity War from an understanding of the villain, giant cast of characters, and major plot points.

[UPDATE]: After seeing Avengers: Infinity War I would recommend that you watch All NINE of the below films for the most effective enjoyment of this film aka THE NEW HOTNESS. My recommendation is less due to the plot in all nine movies and more attributed to the character arcs and relationships that help push the plot of the new movie forward. However as far as plot goes, Thor: Ragnarok has been added to the list as it leads directly into Infinity War.

  • The Avengers
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Thor: Ragnarok

Not bad. But let’s add in some movies to round out character motivations, and side characters that may be pertinent to Infinity War:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Arguably the best MCU movie and introduces The Winter Soldier who’s a pretty major character at this point.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – MORE GUARDIANS (for real they added another member to the team in this movie. Plus, BABY GROOT!).
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming – Gives you more information on Spider-Man and his relationship with Tony Stark.
  • Black Panther – Many of the locations and characters from Black Panther are sure to be important in Infinity War based on the trailers alone.
Clearly, Black Panther is important. Look at all that Black Panther stuff going on. Source: Marvel.com

In conclusion, here is this comic nerd’s list of the movies you should probably watch before Avengers: Infinity War. Additionally, if you swap Avengers: Age Of Ultron for Iron Man (the first) these may be the best movies of the 18 MCU films anyway. The list below is in viewing order (by MCU chronology) with bolded titles being the MUST SEE four films.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  5. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
  6. Captain America: Civil War
  7. Spider-Man Homecoming
  8. Thor: Ragnarok
  9. Black Panther

With all nine of these movies under your belt, anyone should be able to enjoy Avengers: Infinity War to its fullest.

Have any suggestions or edits to this list? Let me know in the comments below!


Taylor Katcher doesn’t like sand. It’s coarse and irritating and gets everywhere. But he loves comics, typefaces, and most other things to a fault…mostly. You can follow Taylor’s unbridled love for stuff on Twitter.

Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

This was written for and originally published on D. Bethel’s webcomic site, LongJohnComic.com.

Despite having missed last year’s Free Comic Book Day celebration at Empire’s Comics Vault, this year’s event passed like no time was lost. I’ll be honest, the main reason why I like to go back is to hang out for a day in a room with a bunch of people I know––some of whom I’ve known for years, a situation in which I rarely find myself. Personally, I looked at the event as a welcome reprieve as I had just collected about a hundred final portfolios from my writing classes (my day job) and had no problem delaying my head-first dive into them.

FCBD helped to delay the inevitable. D. Bethel at his desk with 97 writing porftolios. Photo by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I was tabled between old friend and fellow webcomicker, Melissa Pagluica (who makes Above the Clouds), and artist Julie Okahara. All of us in our row were pretty much chit-chatting the entire time which made the time pass somewhat quickly (most of us had arrived by 7:30 am; it was a long day).

Because of the early hour, Ben (the owner of the shop) had allowed us to set up the day before the event. I fretted quite a bit with my table setup, but I ended up pretty happy with the final layout. Tabling at a show is an art in its own right, relying on visual rhetoric and some fundamental grasp on 3D design; I know a little about the former and go by feel for the latter. Ultimately, I was pretty happy with how it ended up.

D. Bethel’s table at FCBD 2017.

This event marked the debut of the Logan-inspired print, “Legacy,” as well as my sketch collection, BackMatter (which is now on sale in the store!) and though “Legacy” may not have been the most appropriate piece for this all-ages show, most people got a chuckle out of the Long John, volume 1 cover with kids pointing in shock, joy, or horror as they waited in line to grab their free comics.

Ben also allowed us who setup early the chance to grab what we wanted from the FCBD offerings, so I picked through having only glanced at what the titles would be.

Dan’s haul of the Free Comic Book Day books. Clockwise from the top left: 2000 AD, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I Hate Image, Guy Delisle’s Hostage (from Drawn & Quarterly), Bad Machinery, Boom! Studios 2017 Summer Blast, and Doctor Who.

So far, I’ve only sat down and read through Skottie Young’s I Hate Image, a short story featuring the protagonist from his hit Image book, I Hate Fairyland, and it is hilarious especially if you are familiar with some of the faces of key players at Image Comics. I’ve read through the Doctor Who book as well and found it a rather clever use of art to delineate different Doctors within the story. Bad Machinery was a surprise for me because I have been a fan of creator John Allison’s work for years back when he did a webcomic called Scary-Go-Round which he shuttered and replaced with a spinoff, Bad Machinery. While still doing webcomics, he has found success with the print comic, Giant Days, which he writes for Boom! comics. So, it was nice to see webcomics represented in the mix of Big 2 (Marvel and DC) and other major publishers.

I also picked up the most recent two issues of Melissa’s comic, which you can also get from her Etsy store (where issue 6 is on pre-order).

Issues 4 & 5 of Above the Clouds by Melissa Pagluica.

Lastly, I indulged in the very generous sale the store was having and picked up some books I had my eye on for awhile but never had the guts to take the plunge. I have not been shy about my love for the work of Becky Cloonan. I first really saw her work when she did a fill-in issue on Batman during the New 52 run and was blown away by her style. Soon after, I found her store online and bought her stuff, focusing on her single-issue short stories that are rather opaque but beautiful. These comics were called Wolves, The Mire, and Demeter. Opaque may be the wrong word for it; they’re just very sparse and open for interpretation. Reading her work is challenging and begs for re-reading. However, she has done work in more mainstream comics (as with Batman) in between her creator-owned passion projects. One of her early forays into sequential art was a series called Demo for Dark Horse Comics. Written by Brian Wood, it is a series of 18 stories each about a different teenager with a power of some kind. Since finishing, it has been made available in a big omnibus collection which I picked up at reasonable discount.

Books bought on discount at Free Comic Book Day (left to right): DC’s Wonder Woman, volume 1 (New 52) and Dark Horse Comics’ Demo.

Also, with the Wonder Woman movie arriving in June, I figured I should not be a poser and actually read some Wonder Woman. Of DC’s initial “New 52” launch (many books were cancelled and new ones introduced later in the New 52 lifespan), I remember hearing very positive things about what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang were doing with Wonder Woman. At the time, I liked keeping my net shallow and the only New 52 book I read was Batman. But now that the New 52 is done and that story is completed, I figured that (with a sale, to boot) it would be the perfect chance to go back and check out this run on a classic character. I haven’t dug into it yet but Nicole––my spouse––has thoroughly enjoyed it so far.

I came away from the day exhausted with some good sales and even better conversations. With luck, I look forward to doing it again next year.

Spotlight: 2016 Mobile Games Year in Review

Spotlight: 2016 Mobile Games Year in Review

Although Dan and I lamented, cursed, and even sang songs about the year that was 2016, it was sort of a big year in one important way. The mobile game market has become a hot bed of gaming activity. 2016 (including the end of 2015, to be fair) saw a few big names throw their intellectual properties into the ring. Somewhere in that maelstrom that is pay-for-play micro-gaming, I got caught up in the ride. Although we’re already several days into the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to look back on all the games that I looked at, played, talked about, and otherwise engaged with in 2016.

Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes by Electronic Arts

Technically, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes was released near the end of 2015, but I did not get to it until much later. It was my Week in Geek in Episode 93 – The Clay Man Incident. Filled with many characters, locations, and ships from the Star Wars universe, this turn-based squad based battle game provides a vast amount of content. There are a lot of different characters from the movies and television shows that you can group together to battle.

Exciting squad-based combat featuring Star Wars characters!

Since I first started playing back in April, they’ve added a great deal of content. The game expanded beyond the simple five on five combat to include massive “raid bosses,” in which player-organized guilds fought to defeat a massive enemy in turns. More recently, they added a ship combat mode in which X-Wings and TIE Fighters shoot it out in an entirely new (yet surprisingly similar) game mode. Some of the more recent content has been viewed somewhat negatively; what started out as an effective “could be played for free but maybe I’ll spend a little” game has turned into a “if you can’t spend a huge amount, don’t even bother” game. Accusations of rampant cheating have also soured some paying players from participating (at least some of those that I have spoken to), an important consideration since so much of the game relies on playing against other players.

In the end, the biggest draws for Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes are still the ongoing stream of new character content and the powerful license. Even for folks that disliked The Phantom Menace (or the prequels in general) or don’t follow Rebels, the depth of Star Wars content in Galaxy of Heroes will keep nearly every fan interested for as long as they keep providing it.

Check out Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

DC Legends by Warner Bros.

Always interested in trying to do something as well as somebody else, Warner Bros. released their own squad-based battler in November. I discussed my initial thoughts back in Episode 114 – Su Gana. Very similar in feel to Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, this game features an array of heroes and villains from the DC Comics universe. Perhaps the biggest gameplay difference from the aforementioned Star Wars title is the presence of a loose story to tie the narrative together: “As the shadow of the Blackest Night prophecy falls on every world, sheer force of will alone cannot save the shattered DC Universe.”

All your favorite (or not?) DC comics characters come together to punch things!

Still in its first few months, most of the additions to DC Legends so far have come in the form of character and event additions. As with other freemium games, chasing the “hot new character” is an important part of the gameplay. The game has yet to do any major additions or changes, still relying on the basic gameplay elements to keep the game going.

With so many similarities to the slightly more mature Galaxy of Heroes, this title has a lot of catching up to do. The biggest driver for this game is the fact that you can have Black Canary, Sinestro, the Flash, and Zatana fighting together against… well, whoever gets thrown at you. At that point, it feels like it’s more a matter of what license do you want taking your money and time and less which game you think is better designed.

Check out DC Legends on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius by SQUARE ENIX

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius is the second Final Fantasy themed freemium mobile game that Dan and I both found ourselves playing (at least for a bit). We both discussed our initial impressions of this game in Episode 99 – Jaw-Jackin’. Since that initial release, they’ve added more content both in the way of the “story” mode and in semi-regular themed events. Compared to the previous mobile game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Brave Exvius brings a lot more to the “game” front. The “story mode” feels a lot more like something that might be a classic Final Fantasy game with a narrative, dungeon exploration, and the sorts of thing one expects. That being said, random battles have been replaced with a more “spend energy to explore” style freemium model.

Fighting battles with … Exdeath?

All that being said, it combines enough of “new experience” with “recognizable intellectual property” that seems to be essential to the constantly churning market that is freemium mobile games. The story introduces a new world with new characters, but connects it with the recognizable characters of classic Final Fantasy through the power of “Visions.” You build a party of characters from both the main characters and these collectible “Visions” and use them collectively in battles to explore new areas, discover treasures, and unlock additional content. Since its initial release, they’ve added some significant content updates that provides access to more things to do, additional things to unlock, and more items to craft.

Similar to Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, this game leans heavily on overall Final Fantasy nostalgia and probably has little appeal to people that don’t know much about the expansive worlds. Although essential in battle, these characters do not involve themselves in the story or have any contribution to anything; they simply serve as warriors to kill off the never-ending legion of monsters. However, as Dan pointed out, the characters are drawn and animated very well, giving a new appearance to many of the classic characters. If nothing else, they look good.

Check out Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

The Trail by Peter Molyneux and Kongregate

I first talked about the new Molyneux title, The Trail, in Episode 114 – Su Gana and followed up in Shortcast 19 – What Was Town? Although it didn’t stay too long on my play rotation, it did stand out from most of the mobile games on the current market. Whether due to the Molyneux involvement or, in the alternative, development by Kongregate, The Trail feels more like a collecting and crafting themed video game and less like a pay-to-play freemium title. Yes, the game still occasionally throws a “buy this special pack” splash page at you, but with nowhere near the intensity of most of the market.

Walking along a trail picking up garbage is an important party of any balanced game, right?

But, let’s be honest. Though it may feel like a collecting and crafting video game, it’s not a particularly great one. Specifically with the need (whether literal or perceived) to play for extended periods at a time, it makes it tough for this game to survive in a market that specializes in repeated, yet relatively brief, engagements. When you put these two together, it feels like the better option would be to try a different mobile game or get a more in-depth crafting game for the console or PC instead of mobile.

Check out The Trail on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes by PopCap Games

In the ongoing quest to play as many of the hot new mobile games as possible, this is one that pretty much came and went before I even had time to mention it. First released in October 2016, Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes is a fusion of the recognizable franchise that is Plants vs. Zombies with the mechanics of something like Hearthstone. In a sense, it’s tower defense meets digital trading card game. Players play as either a plant or a zombie, with a deck of cards built from a pool corresponding to your side and whatever sub-faction your “hero” is affiliated with. For example, the zombie hero Super Brainz can choose his cards from the Sneaky and Brainy categories of zombie cards. The game is played one-on-one, with a slight difference in how the game plays for zombies and plants.

A screenshot of gameplay (on the left) coupled with a screenshot of deck building (on the right).

There are a lot of different cards out their with which to customize decks, leading to a lot of variation in play. Of course, like any trading card game, it requires a certain dedication to the meta. Players can’t just be good at playing cards; they have to be good at figuring out which cards work well in which decks. Like Hearthstone, the deck-building portion is just as important as the actual play portion of the game. This puts it in a strange place with respect to the competition. It is not as deep or developed as a card game as something like Hearthstone and its likely too involved and complicated when compared to the original Plants vs. Zombies. Although I don’t personally know that many PvZ players, I suspect most of them were quickly turned off by the complexity of PvZ:H. We will have to wait and see how it turns out going forward.

Check out Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Store.

Fallout Shelter by Bethesda

This is another one of those “it actually came out in 2015” games, but it found its way back into my play rotation when I started playing Fallout 4. This is one of the few mobile games that Dan and I did NOT spend a great deal of time discussing on the show, mostly because it sort of “came and went” for both of us relatively quickly after its release (although Dan played it obsessively for a week or so). However, you can hear our friends at the Nerdhole talk about it here, in Episode 33 – Fallout Shelter.

Who is indisputably the most important person in Vault 101: He who shelters us from the harshness of the atomic wasteland, and to whom we owe everything we have, including our lives?

When released, Fallout Shelter was mostly a quick little “collect resources, build more buildings, grow more people, collect more resources” sort of game. Not much more than your typical aquarium “log in and tap” sort of game. Since its release, they’ve added some content meant to add more depth to the game. There is now a quest system, special outfits and equipment, and some new features added. It’s a nice improvement from the original title and worth the time for folks really engaged with the Fallout style. With Bethesda already moving to develop more smartphone and mobile titles in the future, it should be interesting to see where they take gaming to next.

Check out Fallout Shetler on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Marvel Avengers Academy by TinyCo

One of the more recent mobile games to make its way onto my smartphone, Marvel Avengers Academy is one of the many “aquarium” style games present in the market. I first mentioned it in Episode 111 – #CyclopsWasRight. It’s nothing complicated or fancy. Some even argue it’s not much of a game; it’s more just a thing you turn on every few hours and tap with some regularity. But don’t let that fundamental lack of compelling gameplay fool you! It can actually be quite an entertaining product, especially for people with interest in the characters upon which the game is based.

Nobody really knows what’s going on here. Except Maria Hill.

From a gaming perspective, MAA is probably easiest to compare to a worker placement style board game. There are fixed locations (Stark Tower, the Avenger Dorms, the Shooting Range), a set of characters with fixed actions that take different amounts of time, and a series of tasks or missions that need to be accomplished for prizes. Part of the challenge is finding ways to best (rather, most efficiently) complete the missions assigned. Inefficient play is not prohibitive to advancement, but it does slow down unlocking new characters, buildings, and actions.

Black Widow, dressed for spying. Or dancing. Or both.

What keeps the game changing is a constant stream of new special events. When I began playing back in October, they had just started a special Halloween-themed event. The Academy was under attack by the forces of Mephisto and an array of strange characters joined my Academy team, including Ghost Rider, Misty Knight, and Moon Knight. Shortly after that four-week event concluded, the Academy fused with Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum as the forces of Kaecilius attacked. With each new event comes new characters with novel new actions and animations. All of it is tied together with a somewhat organized storyline in which the origin of the Academy, the fact that most of the characters are in their teens, and the “truth” about what’s going on are waiting to be uncovered.

As a Marvel fan, it’s a cute time-waster that never asks too much. The narrative that they are slowly revealing is enough to keep me tapping and the ongoing array of new and interesting characters are sufficient to keep me coming for more.

Check out Marvel Avengers Academy on the iTunes App Store and the Android Google Play Shop.

Going Forward

2016 saw a lot of new content come to mobile and handheld devices. A lot of it came wrapped in massive licenses, whether they be comic books, video games, or movies. As we enter 2017, new games will be made, old ones will be upgraded, and some will just fall by the wayside. Continuing to find new ways to keep the gameplay interesting while not driving away too many players with paywalls will continue to be a challenge. Of course, there’s always the issue of micro-transactions and the lasting effect it has on player retention, but that’s a discussion for another time.