Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Paper Mario: Sticker Star - Thoughts

The fourth entry into the Paper Mario series is what I might call a beautiful mess. Fans were understandably excited at the initial unveiling as it appeared to be a return to form after the divisive Super Paper Mario. However the previews for the game turned these opinions on their heads; gone were experience, badges, allies, items—nearly every gameplay staple was removed, save for the active jump & hammer options. Alternatively introduced was a sticker collection system, where attacks are dictated by the sticker you use, destroying said adhesive in the process. This distilled combat into a very simple (yet expansive) system where sticker management was the metagame and each combat scenario felt like a puzzle in resource management.

I delved into the experience long after fans' disappointment had been preached across various message boards, finding myself fascinated by the criticisms and hyperbolic vitriol regarding the entry. What I popped into my 3DS felt very true to Paper Mario in style, shrunk down for the handheld format: endearingly crisp visuals, charmingly crafted dialogue, and a lush, jazzy soundtrack. Apparent was the care and attention you'd expect from Intelligent Systems' pedigree, and while it wasn't a sequel I think anyone was expecting, it still held true to what made Paper Mario appealing in the first place.

But the creases began to show as I marched on.

Since stickers are your only weapon against Bowser's forces they are graciously sprinkled throughout the land, sold in shops for cheap and commonly dropped by enemies. You have a limit on the amount you can hold, with better stickers usually taking up more space in your scrapbook. As mentioned, the encounters are about optimization since you want to get rid of your foes with as few moves as possible, preserving your strongest abilities for emergencies or bosses. A roulette wheel becomes available later on to allow the use of multiple stickers, but this costs coins and any unused stickers at the end of the battle are discarded—an interesting little quirk that can change the tide of battle with a lucky roll.

Overall it's an uncomplicated system that gets a lot of milage thanks to the large variety of stickers available. I find that it retains basic MP conservation mechanics from RPGs but substitutes the "numbers" management for items instead (which are usually stockpiled de trop in most games anyway). The lack of experience points is unfortunate but understandable as you find better and shinier stickers throughout the journey, along with cardboard hearts to permanently increase your HP. By the end you'll definitely be more decked out than how you started the journey, your scrapbook transformed into a terrifying grimoire of warfare.

The game goes awry sometime after the first world however, once you realize that having a full scrapbook means that enemy encounters are completely pointless (especially if you've been keeping a good eye on your coins). You'll find yourself making a beeline for exits and sighing whenever a baddie bumps into your behind, their presence only serving to drain your stock. Not only that but the big boss encounters, where you'd expect your sticker arsenal to be put to the test, are especially baffling as they meander between frustrating and laughable. Nearly every boss has a "trick" to them that completely negates challenge from the fight, making these the simplest encounters in Paper Mario history, yet without these "tricks" the fights go on for an insufferably long amount of time. There's some neat ideas here like the world 3 boss that attacks to a spicy rhythm, but you'll struggle to find an enjoyable middle ground where you can do more than 1 damage but less than 30.

There are "things" that you can find throughout the land too—household appliances and tools that can be converted into special stickers. Unfortunately the game doesn't tell you what these do, and using certain ones in battle (like the fishhook) can result in a waste of a turn. Furthermore some of these stickers are needed at random points in the game, almost ensuring that you should bank all of them rather than test out their effects (although you can "buy them back" for a somewhat reasonable price). These were a hassle to deal with and I wound up keeping a walkthrough open to spoil which maps needed which "things" after feeling like I was wasting my time otherwise. Indicating what stickers are "level specific" or "boss specific" might spell out the solutions to the game's puzzles but I think it would've been a better idea than the current "trial and error" implementation. That, or at least finding a quicker way to turn the "things" into stickers without having to run back to Decalburg and mash through text every single time would've helped.

The locales and inhabitants are crisp and colorful but perhaps most saddening to me is that there are nearly no new characters introduced; allies, enemies, and themes have been lifted from prior Mario titles outside of the sidekick/guide Kersti (who came across as more irritating than amicable). Old foes and similar settings do have some new tricks up their sleeve yet fall short of feeling as fresh as something like the X-Nauts from The Thousand-Year Door or Count Bleck's twilight hideout from Super Paper Mario. "Freshness" may not seem like a necessary inclusion but the lack thereof dampens the spirit of the game, making it out to be somewhat uninspired entry in a series known for its peculiarity.

After finishing the story and closing my 3DS, I could understand the disappointment many eager players had for this game. I think it's far from being classified as "garbage" as it presents itself competently, but the gameplay doesn't hold up well compared to its brilliant predecessors, meandering off course yet not capitalizing on the ideas it brings to the table. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is worth a try if you're a big fan of the series but know that you might wind up putting it down and not coming back.

Images obtained from: mariopartylegacy.com,  Nintendofeed.com, destructoid.com, forbes.com

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Deadlight - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

When it comes to video games, I don't think it would be preposterous for me to suggest that zombie apocalypses are pretty par for the course nowadays. While undead titles have been saturating the film industry since Romero's Night of the Living Dead series, for games it was only in the latter 2000s that the epidemic began to spread. One title implemented into the Xbox LIVE's Summer of Arcade 2012 was Deadlight, an action platformer utilizing a heavy use of silhouettes; reminiscent of Limbo but with a modeling style closer to that of Shadow Complex. Besides a somewhat interesting setting for the game (I can't conjure up another pure zombie platformer off the top of my head), the adventure winds up feeling disjointed in both gameplay and story.

I played it for the first time recently and while there's plenty to laud regarding the visual aesthetic, the gameplay left me wanting. There's not much of it to speak of as it's mostly Newtonian basics: running, pulling, and jumping (you're asked to shoot now and then but these are in sparse, semi-forced settings). This worked well for the aforementioned Limbo and it's minimalistic world but there's less clarity here, rooms cluttered with objects that struggle to convey whether they're in the foreground or background. Such indistinction can be especially troublesome when you have to make a jump with salivating shadows on your back, suddenly to realize that the platform is incorporeal and you're now shaking hands with the reaper.

Death comes with almost Super Meat Boy frequency yet without the fun or "my bad!" moments of humility you'd expect, muddled by imprecise cues you must divine. For instance there's a moment where you're forced to jump to a slope and slide, narrowly avoiding the swinging spike traps above. But if you jump too early and slide, the game will outright kill you before the traps are even engaged. Rendering the rest of the character animation of sliding and avoiding the spikes, whether or not I could go the distance, would've provided a clear solution to me rather than the instant-death sector I kept bumping up against. Scenarios like this repeated through the campaign, whether it be by a helicopter with a minigun or a crumbling house, where I would instantly die before I could evaluate what I was doing wrong.

These situations are certainly frustrating but it's the zombie encounters towards the back half of the game that become tediously cruel. Droves of the undead are often used as artificial walls, making it unclear whether you're supposed to push through them or find an alternate route. When you do decide to engage the lumbering roadblocks in your way (often because there's no other option), you can quickly be tackled to the ground. A button prompt will pop up but resistance is ultimately futile as zombies crowd around and chain lethal blows to you during the recovery animation. You're incentivized to flee from the swarms—which is an aspect I actually like about this game—but once you're cornered there's really no other option than to resign yourself to fate. Even the melee weapon granted to you is mostly effective at draining your stamina and not much else.

Regarding what I should praise—Deadlight is steeped in symbolic intrigue that isn't present in other acclaimed zombie hits like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. There's a Rorschach skull on the title, collectibles ID tags of serial killers, lines of Dante's Inferno scrawled into the walls, and the protagonist's introspective diary is morbidly fascinating. Collecting its torn pages will paint a very troubled picture of a man otherwise hidden from cutscenes and dialogue—one who loves the mountains, hates communists, and is irritable towards the laughter of city girls and pompous professors. It's ripe with strange sketches (like a man carrying a bloody bag or bombs falling on people without limbs) and haunting lines ("Her eyes were like torches shining in the dark", "There are hundreds of suitcases and memories on the side of the road"), letting you piece together the history of Randall Wayne—disquieted park ranger. I was hoping the narrative would provide some sort of meta-commentary like Spec Ops: The Line—criticizing the populace's lust for such apocalyptic scenarios—or in the very least manifest a captivating explanation for the conceits it employs.

But no, the plot was a mediocre mess. A loose explanation is given for why the protagonist is without his family (only in his diary no less), thoughts on them being filtered down to MacGuffin phrases like "I have to find them!" in-game. The character portrayed in the prose sounds alienated from the condescending observer you control, with any side characters introduced being rudimentary plot devices (helpless girl, sacrificial cop, staunch veteran). One of these bizarre characters is the "Rat", an older man who rescues you only to test you, no elucidation given for why he spends all his time in the sewers building traps and collecting intel. These characters and settings come and go, and despite the Max Payne style memory sequences I can only express disappointment in the end; every attempt to expand on the world through "mystery" feels facile, especially considering the hasty introduction of the endgame villainous collective, the "New Law".

As if this isn't enough to dispel investment in the storyline, the tale fizzles out quite disappointingly with your gut guess ringing true—the protagonist murdered his family. This revelation, blatantly echoed within the first few troublesome pages of the diary, comes to light whilst saving a helpless girl who had previously held nothing but scorn for the protagonist. There's no large revelation regarding the symbolism mentioned above, just a cheap twist that the unseen, unheard, unfindable family was dead all along! I will give the game credit for implementing an alternate, darker ending for the Nightmare mode, but this reveal of the protagonist being a repressed psychopath and murdering all the survivors he came across coincidentally feels only loosely connected to the fiction woven. Perhaps it was an elaborate expectation on my end for a sense of fruition, but it really felt so discouraging to see hints like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and a dead turkey named "Nick" boil down to a cliche "he was a crazy serial killer all along!"

I wrote plenty more but this already covers the major issues regarding my time with it. Some additional minor points that bugged me were the length of the loading times required just to pause and how the game discouraged gathering collectibles by having your character prone to being attacked during pick-up. Admittedly there is a sense of urgency and grimness as you scour the disheveled husk of Seattle, running from residence to residence in a suburban neighborhood... but that experience is fleeting. Deadlight's great aesthetic and "promising" analogies only carry it so far, as in the end it winds up feeling just as dilapidated as the world it creates.


Images obtained from: daveandjoel.com, ripten.com, genuinegamers.com

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pokemon Y - Thoughts

To put it succinctly, it's Pokemon.

Indeed there are a lot of differences from this iteration compared to the last: Fairy typing, Mega Evolutions, four "rivals", clothing to buy, skates, and much more. The most important of these is arguably an array of easy online features implemented into the series letting you trade and battle against random (human) trainers. Metagame players will have to deal with additional moves and rebalances, but for normal players the game still remains very loyal to its core: Grass/Fire/Water starters, random encounters, eight single type gyms, HMs needed to snag goodies, a villainous Team Flare organization, Elite Four & Champion, and a heaping of post-game content.

People play Pokemon for a variety of different reasons, ranging from a serious addiction for proving team synergy to the simple whimsy of wondering what cute creatures are found this time around. I explore the series somewhat casually, focusing on becoming champion and then comfortably retiring with my sextet of award-winning gamecocks. Personally, catching pokemon after my limelight serves no purpose and I'm not inclined to test my might against trainers online. Therefore the way in which I judge Pokemon, and have always judged Pokemon, has been as a straightforward singleplayer RPG.

From that perspective I repeat what I've already iterated above—not much has mechanically changed. What I enjoy most in Pokemon is forming my team and deciding what moves to obtain or keep. Trying to cover all angles against a chart of eighteen types and a myriad of type combinations is a pleasant mental gymnastic, especially when you're aiming to fill your positions with pokemon you actually want. My final team was comprised of a Chesnaught, Aegislash (my MVP), Blastoise, Pangoro, Tyrantrum and, of course, Yveltal. While I wasn't completely rounded (Blastoise was often the only one who could withstand a super effective hit), this was the only Pokemon game where I've been content with my entire ensemble, each one deserving of their berth.

The lull between testing poke-mettle against gym leaders was filled with simplistic sightseeing and monotype trainers. The game started off with juvenescent awe but around the 20th hour of my journey that marvel was drained through repetition. The most notable offender would be Team Flare, whose entire entourage consists ~10 pokemon that you fight over and over and over and over and over. The final bout with them is egregiously plodding and outstays its welcome before it really even begins; I'm unsure why Game Freak seems fine with lending its villains a scrimpy set of pokemon, especially since this game had three regions to draw from. It wasn't as offensive as Team Rocket's handful of poison types, but I expect a lot more progress to be made in the seventeen years since Red & Blue's debut (this gripe extends to the other games as well).

While I grew weary of the predictable battles, I was entertained with some encounters—particularly the Elite Four. However by late game my team's arsenal was solidified and I didn't experiment around with new abilities, opting for an almost mechanical use of high power attack moves no matter who was up to bat. This is largely a fault of my propensity towards offensive types but conversely the game didn't demand that I change up my tactics, allowing me to take the Champion's glittering tiara by brute force alone. This samey-ness did wear on me by the end and I was glad the adventure ended when it did.

Besides the gameplay (which is what you spend most of your time experiencing) there are certainly other aspects going for this entry. Visuals are sharp and the transition to 3D is nice, as water glistens and cities bustle. On the battlefield the pokemon models are replete with their own set of animations (which is impressive given the vast amount of them), the only drawback being the stuttering plague of slowdown during bigger fights. Dialogue remains reasonably charming and the plot shifts from the moral ambiguity of Black & White back to a more traditional story, including a strange lore regarding a three thousand year old king that finds its conclusion shoehorned in come credits time. Oh, and healing at pokecenters is faster too, thank god.

X & Y are fantastic entries to jump into for someone that's only played the original games, and a great experience for those that skip every other handheld generation. But considering that Heart Gold & Soul Silver came out in 2010, Black & White in 2011 and Black & White 2 in 2012, I don't think enough of the mechanics have developed for me to lavish the game with high praise compared against its predecessors. Fans of the series will be steeled against such criticism and will most likely be left ecstatic, finding its breadth of content justifying the price tag. But for me, in the end, I'm left wanting just a little bit more.


Images obtained from: tenminutegamereview.blogspot.com, polygon.com, guardian.com 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ninja Gaiden Sigma - Thoughts

I finished going through Sigma for the first time, making it my sixth run through of the "original" Ninja Gaiden campaign (2x NG, 3x NGB, 1x Sigma). Besides wishing that harder difficulties were unlocked at the outset, I stand in complete reverence to the game mechanics each and every time I pick up the controller. At the core of the beast is the smooth-as-butter gameplay, where Ryu runs, rolls and slices the moment the player hits a particular button; while such a thing is easily noticeable in any action game, this is punctuated here due to the crisp speed of the animation. Needing to dodge or execute an attack at a moment's notice makes the player feel like they’re in absolute control of Ryu, not just conscious of where the block & heavy attack buttons are like various middling action games. This is complemented well since the enemies are fast, smart and aggressive, pinning the player to a wall with a spry lunge or popping up behind them for a not-so-friendly grab. Running a rigmarole of split-second calculations—like figuring out which combos you can execute on a nearby fiend in order to quickly nab a blue essence for a landing UT against an incoming Arioch—is what Ninja Gaiden truly excels at.

The high difficulty is another reason I enjoy delving into the shoes of Ryu Hyabusa, as it makes few attempts to coddle the inexperienced (even Ninja Dog mode still demands the understanding of core mechanics). The game doesn't just let you inhabit an avatar of great strength—it demands you make Ryu into the chill, dominant character he resembles in the cutscenes. It also plummets you headfirst into the action and refuses to let up, hitting hard with Murai, Masakado and the black spider ninjas. The inclusion of dozens of healing items sprinkled throughout the chapters does make the affair pretty manageable (if you can set aside frugal inclinations), but the fights themselves continue to have bite even on the sixth go for me. This is thanks to a large enemy variety, although how fun some of them are to fight may differ largely from person to person... like the Ghost Fish.

On this playthrough I tried to spice it up a bit by only giving myself the Dragon Sword for specific boss fights, opting to use the other weapons in Ryu's arsenal once I obtained them. Realizing the strengths and weaknesses of each weapon slowly over the course of the journey was personally fascinating and rarely frustrating; I felt like I had a wider array of ways to handle the encounters in each chapter (though the Dragon Sword still remains most versatile). It felt fantastic to get decent with the flails—a weapon I previously saved solely for the fishy aberrations—and learn how flexible the Dragon's Claw and Tiger Fang blades are, minus their achilles heel of a slow startup. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is when a moveset becomes embedded into your memory and can be used precisely when you want to; the fluidity of executing a perfect series of strikes as you nimbly block between flanking attacks is oh-so-satisfying.

Beyond the traditional gameplay I've grown accustomed to over the years, Sigma reintroduced me again to Rachel—or rather, her gameplay segments. They are, to put it bluntly, pretty terrible. I partly say this because I'm inexperienced to her playstyle and begrudgingly tolerate the War Hammer (my least favorite unique weapon in the game), but also because she doesn't move nearly as smooth as Ryu. While I understand the thematic reasons behind making her so specialized, forcing the player to jump from Ryu's story over to her forgettable segments broke up the overall pacing and felt needless. Making her sections optional, or side-missions, or at least selectable from the main menu would've helped, as I now dread a playthrough on Hard or Very Hard using her. I didn't ask for this, and I'm unsure who did.

The other changes from Black to Sigma are... interesting. The canals have been replaced with straighter, more streamlined tunnels, along with an obnoxious mermaid-like enemy that's difficult to confront as they dangle above water. Due to the forced fight with them in combination with the flying drones, this makes the entire area just about as boring as it would be in vanilla. Ore is no longer required to be collected for making the metal plate in the ice and lava caverns, and the fire worm section has been completely replaced by a sole fire worm battle (which has multiple of them hunting you with only one health bar requiring depletion). The most fascinating change to me is the deletion of the claustrophobic parasite-ridden temple with a trio of Knightmares, which are still the hardest enemy in the entire game for me (and therefore quite unfitting for a Normal playthrough). The other minor changes are enemy arrangements and chest goodies, which aren't really worth mentioning (although the penultimate chapter's tower only contains bulky enemies on each floor, which is somewhat dull to churn through). Music itself has taken some overhaul, with boss themes being changed out, including Alma's which seems like an odd decision. Most of these may seem like knee-jerk reactions from someone very accustomed to the original Xbox editions, and I must confess that I have no real defense against this particular criticism.

Besides those, it was a pleasant and entertaining experience overall. I think I still prefer Black upon review if only for the absence of the Rachel segments, but both games are nonetheless fiercely sublime (plus Sigma gets DC&TF which is a joy to mess around with). Looking back on this iteration fills my heart with a gentle warmth, partly because I know the days of Team Ninja's unparalleled workmanship are now behind us.


Images obtained from: thescrubdaily, cheatcc, ninjagaiden.wikia