Today we’re looking back at some of our favorite video game sequels. Lots of video games are sequels, so what makes a good sequel? Let’s find out!
Welcome back to Push to Smart. Today, we’re going to be looking back at some of our favorite sequels. With most of the biggest games being preceded by a number or a subtitle, what sets the best sequels apart from the pack? In our quest for the best, we found that good sequels improve upon their predecessors, while great ones invigorate them. A good sequel might perfect a winning formula or turn it inside out. This week we’re highlighting five games that do just that.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
The original Uncharted helped launch the Playstation 3. It was as much a technical demo for the new console as anything else, relying on developer Naughty Dog’s well-worn platforming roots and stellar writing. The elevator pitch was probably something like, “interactive Indiana Jones,” and the game looked and sounded great for its time–in no small part due to the innovation of having all of its voice actors record lines and mocap together. However, it also remained very much a relic of its time–a launch title that was fundamentally limited. Uncharted 2 took Uncharted’s template and showed just what could be done with it.
…That being humongous set pieces. Uncharted 2 figured out that, in order to capture the feel of a movie, you didn’t just need great cinematic sequences for players to watch; you needed cinematic sequences for players to participate in as well. By introducing big actions set pieces like a collapsing building or literal train wreck, Uncharted 2 introduced a new angle to the spatial puzzles common in platformers. Here is a giant movie set piece where everyone knows the blocking but you. The player, as actor, must figure out where to go, and where to be in order to complete it. While this could sometimes be frustrating upon repeated misses, when it worked, it really worked. When Nathan Drake incredulously yells, “holy crap, did I do that?!” in response to a collapsed tower, he’s saying it with the player. At it’s best, Uncharted 2 feels like the tightly choreographed impression of barely controlled, globe-trotting mayhem of the best Indiana Jones films. While later sequels got away from the “tightly” bit with a wandering plot, Uncharted 2 stands as an impressive marriage of cinema and game.
Final Fantasy X-2
Back in 2003, Final Fantasy was a series of loosely-connected games with stories, systems, and mythologies that circled each other but never quite touched. Final Fantasy X-2 changed all that as an honest-to-goodness sequel. It continued the adventures of Final Fantasy X‘s heroine, Yuna, as she deals with the consequences of her own world-changing actions.
FFX-2 was the sequel I never knew I wanted, after the faith-shattering events of the original game, Spira is left to pick up the pieces of a world that once revolved around a false religion. Many JRPGs end with a final battle against a god-like figure (or actual god), but rarely do we get to see the fallout of what this means for the people who populate the game world. The world was opened up via a mission system that allowed you to help the citizens of Spira and see them change over the course of the games five chapters. The game implicitly encourages you to revisit side characters in each chapter to resolve their story as well as the main conflict. These missions show the far-reaching effects of Yuna and player’s actions in the original game, and gives the player the opportunity to help the people of Spira on their new path.
Final Fantasy X-2 has a markedly lighter tone than its predecessor. This is most evident in the game’s Dress Spheres, a unique spin on the class systems established in Final Fantasy V and Tactics, that is equal parts Jpop, and 90s girl power. While the game dabbles in camp, the hero at its center, Yuna, refocuses it.
In Final Fantasy X, Yuna was shown as capable and selfless, a hero who would do anything in her power to help those around her. From a young age she was prepared for a pilgrimage that would ultimately lead to her death. After the events of Final Fantasy X, Yuna is given a life she never expected to have. Final Fantasy X-2 is an exploration of that life. Throughout the sequel, we are shown time and time again how Yuna redefines herself in the face of an ever-changing world. After the bittersweet events at the end of Final Fantasy X there was nothing quite like experiencing Yuna’s journey to chase after her own happiness, and maybe just make the world a better place in the process.
Resident Evil 4
By the time Resident Evil 4 rolled around, we kind of knew what to expect from the iconic horror series. Namely, zombies–but Resident Evil 4 surprised everyone by not even having those. By dropping the zombies, the tank-controls, and the set camera angles that defined its predecessors, Resident Evil 4 re-invented a genre. Unlike his exploits in Raccoon City, protagonist Leon Kennedy is no longer scraping by; he’s armed to the teeth and ready to blow through a village full of monsters. Enemies are fast, and so is he. Changing the way players and Leon fundamentally read and move through the space meant Resident Evil 4 needed to find new ways to scare us. Enter fantastic sound design, and quick, reflex-testing challenges that ended in delightfully gruesome deaths when failed.
Unfortunately, while it laid the foundation for a future genre, it’s also firmly rooted in the politics of the time. 4 ushered in a new, even more conservative perspective into the world of Resident Evil. Where Resident Evil and its first two direct sequels still played the Clinton-era politics, Resident Evil 4 was firmly W. Bush. It shipped its protagonist abroad to a hostile land rife with racism and xenophobia, something the developers would haphazardly continue to do in several more sequels.
Resident Evil 4 ultimately earns a place on this list because its DNA can be found in the over-the-shoulder, cover-based shooters that ruled a generation. And its important to remember and unpack how it might be wielding these actions and images irresponsibly as well.
Dragon Age 2
There is no blight to vanquish in Dragon Age 2. The Final Boss is not an old god who has taken the form of an evil dragon. The sequel set aside these iconic genre creatures and conflicts to make room for a far more intimate story that gave priority to personal stakes.
In the absence of darkspawn, Dragon Age 2’s conflicts are less apocalyptic, more social, and each of your companions takes sides. Like in the first game, characters will approve or disapprove of your decisions; Dragon Age 2 takes this a step further by introducing a rivalry system. Now with a system that allowed characters to disagree but still be friendly, players could potentially explore a greater range of relationships. You could vehemently disagree with Fenris on mage rights, but still respect each other–or romance each other, thanks to the choice to make all companions romanceable to both playable genders (another improvement on the original).
Characters grow independently of the player. Throughout the game you’ll see their professional lives progress, like Aveline’s rise to commander of the guard, or Anders positioning at the head of the mage rebellion. Where Origins’ companions were responding wholly to you, Dragon Age 2’s have motivations outside their relationship with Hawke, motivations that can often take precedence and alter the course of the game. These upgrades give the player a sense of authorship that is unique to the sequel which other sequels have not yet been able to replicate.
Silent Hill 3
Before we get into this, yes, Silent Hill 2 is arguably the best Silent Hill has to offer; it sets a precedent for storytelling but not necessarily on its merits of being a sequel. For that, we’re looking at Silent Hill 3.
While the previous games established the tone for the series, Silent Hill 3 acts more as a direct sequel to one of the previous games–the original Silent Hill. It continues the story of Cheryl Mason and the cult that haunts her from the original game, and its genius lies in the fact that it doesn’t necessarily tell you any of that from the onset. Silent Hill 3 might have a big, glaring number ‘three’ in its name, but it’s more of a stealth sequel than anything else on this list. For all intents and purposes, protagonist Heather Morris appears to be an original character ready to star in her own adventure. It’s not until several hours into the game that Heather and the player discover the original game’s protagonist, Harry, dead in his living room and Heather’s true identity. From there, Silent Hill 3 takes advantage of familiar nightmares, taking you back to locations from the original game and re-contextualizing them. Remember that silly gimmick where “taking notes” was the diegetic sheen for the game save interface? Well, now those strange red notebooks are actual notes, and Heather and player can read what Harry was scribbling down while we were busy shuffling memory cards. Silent Hill games are most successful when they marry narrative stakes to what we’re doing–for instance, going from a to b becomes infinitely more important when carrying a video tape that could contain all the answers through a run-down, haunted hotel. Silent Hill 3 takes this a step further by taking our actions from a previous game, and injecting those with powerful new meaning. It turns out Harry was taking notes to help whoever came after him, and that unfortunate traveller happened to be his own daughter trying to find answers after his death. That’s pretty big, and that’s something only a game sequel can do. Silent Hill 3 excels at it.
These are just a handful of important sequels. Next month we’ll be rounding out our list. In the meantime we want to know if you could make a sequel to any game, what would it be? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on all our latest discussions and the conclusion of the Games Club.