There were moments in Spider-Man: Miles Morales that made me forget the realities of New York City in 2020. The game, a spin-off of the 2018 Peter Parker-led Spider-Man, is arguably the most-anticipated title in Sony’s line-up for the newly released PlayStation 5, and it’s not hard to see why. While Spider-Man was a great looking game, Miles Morales is absolutely gorgeous, featuring a beautifully detailed, densely populated Manhattan that’s a genuine joy to jump and swing around in for hours on end. While New York is hardly the ghost town that our soon-to-be-former president has claimed, there’s been a clear reduction in foot traffic. It’s strange to walk around Chinatown at 7 p.m. on a Friday and see only a handful of others, but that was my experience last week.
Miles Morales’s Chinatown, on the other hand, is bustling. But instead of making me yearn for the Before Times, it’s almost like I got to relive them. And sure, I can’t go into any of the buildings, but also: I’m Spider-Man… and that seems like a worthwhile trade-off right about now.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
But the dirty little secret of Spider-Man Miles Morales and nearly every game launching alongside Sony’s newest console, the PlayStation 5, is that they are simultaneously releasing for the PlayStation 4 as well. Of course there are the third-party titles like the new Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, which are available on PlayStation 4 as well as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Series X/S. But even most of the PlayStation-exclusive games launched alongside the Playstation 5 aren’t exclusive to the new console. If you have a PS4 or PS4 Pro, then you can also have that Spider-Man experience; it just won’t be as nice to look at. The question is then: Are any of the games in the PlayStation 5’s launch lineup worth shelling out at least $400 for the system alone then?
The last console generation changed the way that players experience their games. With the release of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X—consoles far more powerful than their base iterations but requiring full backward-compatibility—developers began to offer players a choice in how they’d want to utilize the extra capabilities: do they want to prioritize visual fidelity, or frame rates? This is a choice that has always existed on the PC because games needed to cater to all types of hardware, but consoles are more straightforward. Excepting one-offs like the Nintendo 64’s Memory Pak, developers have had a single configuration to work with, so they would choose a target and work tirelessly to make sure they hit it. (This is why games have always looked better on consoles than computers with similar on-paper hardware.)
And while both versions of the PlayStation 5 have the same capabilities, player choice is being clearly embraced in this new generation. Most of the games launching with the system have at least two different graphical options to choose from, with others having as many as four. In Miles Morales, you can choose between ultimate visuals at 30 frames-per-second, or still-great-but-slightly-reduced ones at 60. And the choice will depend on both the game and the person. Where movies can feel uncomfortable when shown in high frame-rates, games feel better because your inputs are reflected onscreen in half the time. And it doesn’t stop there: some titles are even offering a 120 fps mode, such as racing game DIRT 5 and action game Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition. These require additional graphical compromises and are only supported on new, high-end televisions with HDMI 2.1 inputs… but in games with fast-paced action, there’s real appeal.
So why would anyone choose a lower frame rate? In a hyphenated word: ray-tracing. This beautiful but hardware-intensive method of handling lighting, shadows, and reflections is one of the clearest differentiators between this console generation and the last, and it’s arguably the most substantial jump in graphical technology in years. New York City, with its mirrored skyscrapers and tiled offices, is a perfect showcase. Even if it’s not quite as fluid, it still feels great to get from Points A to B, so I felt the extra fidelity was well worth the trade-off.
But that’s not always true. Case in point, one of the few true PlayStation 5 exclusives available at launch: the remake of From Software’s Demon’s Souls. This 2009 release paved the way for 2011’s Dark Souls, which was easily one of the most influential games of the last decade. But while Dark Souls has been rereleased many times over, you’ve always needed a PS3 to play its predecessor—until now. The game has been completely rebuilt, and it both looks and feels fantastic. With its reliance on precision and timing, the latter is much more important, so it makes sense that Demon’s Souls defaults you to that 60 fps mode, and I almost wonder why they bothered offering both. I only switched once, just to say that I did, and I could feel the loss of control, exemplified by an almost immediate death at the hands of a nearby soldier. No amount of traced rays is worth that.
But Demon’s Souls also exemplifies another PS5 improvement, which is truly the game changer of this generation: the loading times. These new consoles have super-speedy internal storage that means games boot up faster and keep you in their world longer. Even older PS4 games played via backwards compatibility have impressive reductions in load time oftentimes exceeding 50 percent. And the games developed with the PS5 in mind are better than that. In Demon’s Souls, when you die, you’re back within seconds. This dramatically changes your relationship to death in a game that is all about dying and retrying; you go down, and you pick right back up and give it another go. There’s no time to think about whether you’re wasting your life, so death feel less punishing. It remains brutally difficult, but the technological improvements make that easier to swallow.
For those who don’t want the challenge of a Souls-like game but like how those games trust the player to figure things out, The Pathless is an unexpectedly low-key adventure about slaying a god-killing demon. You’re an archer who, alongside a trusty eagle, must solve puzzles strewn around the world in order to cast out the darkness that plagues it. But there’s no arrow pointing you from one area to the next: you must find them yourself. The act of traversal is unique, with your speed determined by a meter at the bottom of the screen that only fills up when you shoot floating symbols strewn around the world with an arrow. It took me some time to get into the proper rhythm of both movement and the overall structure, but once I did, I was hooked. It was a nice way for me to unwind, even if the occasional boss fights turn up the heat a bit.
The Pathless also takes full advantage of the improvements in the PS5’s DualSense controller. When I first played the pack-in game Astro’s Playroom, which is a fun little showcase for all of the controller’s capabilities, I wondered if and how other developers would take advantage of it all. In The Pathless, it’s used to replicate the experience of firing a bow: The trigger button pushes back on your right finger as the archer pulls her string taut, meaning you can feel when it’s ready to fire, and as you release, the left side rocks your hand. It’s gimmicky, sure, but it worked for me.
Sackboy: A Big Adventure
For those who like a little more direction and want someone else to get in on the fun, the best option is Sackboy: A Big Adventure. “Sackboy” is a little knit doll of sorts that first appeared in 2009’s LittleBigPlanet, and Sony has been trying to make Sackboy into a cutesy mascot ever since. He’s never really broken out the way Mario, Sonic, et al have, but now he’s got a whole story-driven 3D platformer with his name on it. Maybe it’ll work this time.
Where Demon’s Souls is for the hardest of the hardcore, Sackboy is meant for anyone and everyone, and it works. I know this because I played alongside my girlfriend, who hasn’t touched a video game controller in literal years, and we had a genuinely great time together. Playing alone, I found the floatiness of the physics frustrating, but it clicks when another person comes in and you start throwing each other around. There’s an element of competition as well, as each person aims to get more of the little orbs littering each level, and at the end, the winner gets a photo, which my girlfriend got a kick out of sabotaging any time I won by punching my Sackboy into sadness, while looking triumphant in her own when she had. Also, the costumes are adorable. She was very excited to be a Yak.
Which brings us to easily the strangest game to grace Sony’s platform: Bugsnax. This is the new title from the developers of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, which blew up on YouTube a few years back because of its wild premise—an octopus dad trying to hide the fact that he’s an octopus from his loving family— and frustratingly silly gameplay. Bugsnax is weirder… and also kinda disturbing. You take on the role of a journalist after the next big story: bugs that look like snacks and you can eat them and when you do, your body becomes part snack. The game sees you investigating a broad mystery about a missing explorer as well as catching these bugs and feeding them to the muppet-like “Grumpuses” of the island. When you do this, you get to choose which food turns which of their limbs into a pineapple or French fry or hot dog or whatever they ask for or you just decide to force on them.
I don’t know what phobia it triggered in me, but I absolutely hated this whole transformation thing. Standing face to face (in first person, no less) with a big purple grumpus that has a popcorn kernel for a foot made me feel uncomfortable, and knowing that I was the one who put it there just made it worse. If I had to guess, it has something to do with how detailed these characters are. Their fur is lovingly rendered, their eyes big and expressive. They seem completely unfazed by the fact that their arm is a bone-in rib, but it just looks wrong.
The game is also pretty janky, with awkward animations and a needlessly convoluted control scheme. It lacks the polish of the other games discussed here, and yet it’s still very pleasant to look at! Its art style is distinct, colorful, and teeming with personality. And I think that, despite the wobbliness, the game is actually useful as a launch title of a new console generation, because it helps to determine the baseline. Like The Pathless, Bugsnax shows what a small studio can do making a cross-generation PlayStation game. And I’m impressed, if not necessarily blown away.
On day one, the PlayStation 5 has shown that it can make things look and feel better than they could have on older hardware. That’s great, but it’s also the bare minimum. I’ve been having a very nice time with my PS5 over the past few weeks, swinging around New York City and crossing precarious paths with my girlfriend and even getting knocked down chasms by hidden demons, but are any of these reasons you must own the latest Sony console? Frankly, no.
So, here’s hoping that 2021 brings the titles that really show off what this thing can do.