Saturday, December 27, 2014

Five 2014 Games I Enjoyed in 2014 - Opinion

With 2014 on its way out the door and a variety of media outlets publishing what games they did & did not like in 2014, I figure I could loosely collate the games I found to be notable. Know that the order is relatively loose and are subject to change, and above all else, that numerical list-making is a largely fatuous pleasantry that shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of opinions. Besides that, here are my following top five 2014 games:


5 - MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR
Shadow of Mordor adds yet another tally to the long list of licensed properties that have been surprisingly excellent. While the game treads ground thoroughly molded by the likes of Batman and Assassin's Creed, the Nemesis is the driving force here; as long as you're willing to use your imagination and play around with the orc captains, a lot of hilarious & crazy moments can pop up. It's one of the few instances where the organic experiences are native solely to the medium, and this is hopefully a sign for things to come. I wish that the combat was a little more invigorating towards the end, but that aspect doesn't mar just how entertaining the whole journey is. RIP Grublik.


4 - DARK SOULS II
It's hard living in the shadow of your more popular older siblings—Dark Souls II can well attest to this. At times it looks to rise above the legacy crafted by Demon's and Dark, but ultimately plays it too safe for its own good. Despite this, the Souls experiences are few and far between, and I walked away from Dark Souls II feeling like it was a worthy successor to Dark Souls—it's certainly the most consistent in quality out of the three games thus far. The only thing keeping me from placing it higher on the list is that I haven't touched the DLC yet, and I look forward to diving into those waters come Scholar of the First Sin in 2015.


3 - SHOVEL KNIGHT
Being a child of the 8-bit era, there were a lot of things that Shovel Knight could've done to upset me. Thankfully, Yacht Club's knew what made the NES classics click, and their kickstarter baby is a massively fun package from start to finish. From the music to the visuals, the powerups to the bosses, and the level design to the shockingly great story, Shovel Knight is a fantastic entry that earned itself several playthroughs from me. Shovel Knight is the best oldschool throwback fans of the NES have gotten in a long time.


2 - WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER
The New Order delivers a solid one-two punch of both action and masterful writing. Not since The Last of Us have the two been married so thoughtfully together—and from a Wolfenstein game, no less! The bulky BJ Blaszkowicz may be out of his era but the dystopian narrative is stronger than it's ever been, and the gunplay is immensely satisfying too. It may be a game that doesn't do one particular thing exceptionally well, but the entire package is just so polished and riveting that I had to place it high on my personal list. It's one of the few games this year that, as soon as the credits started rolling, I thought "there's absolutely nothing they could have done better".


1 - FAR CRY 4
Far Cry 4 earns its place at the top of the heap a bit undeservedly—much of my adoration for the game stems from my time with Far Cry 3, which was my true (non-2014) game this year. However, that still doesn't take away from the fact that Far Cry 4 does what it knows best; the freedom offered to the player in the combat and the world are still greatly unmatched in FPSs today. There's multiple instances of fast-and-loose combat combined with spontaneous hilarity (like when you're sneaking into a base and a random boar has you [and only you] on its hitlist for some unknowable reason), which solidified it as my favorite game this year. On top of that, the gunplay, story, fan-made content and general moment-to-moment fun of this title is something that many games strive for and few achieve, and I have to bow painfully low just to express just how much gratitude I've had for a series that has given me some amazing, spontaneous memories. And it has an ending that, just like with Wolfenstein, is pitch-perfect.

HONORABLE MENTIONS



GREAT GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - FIRE 'N ICE
Fire 'n Ice is a great, great puzzler. There's really not much to add behind what I already said in my "Thoughts" entry—the mechanics are simple but wise, the puzzles are numerous and challenging, and the presentation is charming and cheerful. I honestly got very excited every time I turned on the NES to dive back into this title, and even with its +100 levels, I still hunger for more. Plus the game continues to teach you new mechanics even after you've finished it!


WORST GAME I COMPLETED THIS YEAR - FAHRENHEIT
I railed against this title last week but I have to say it again—Fahrenheit is not good. If you have to pause the game and ask yourself "why would a human being write this?", then it's likely that there's little the game can do to turn itself around. Fahrenheit goes so far beyond the pale that whatever strengths it had going for it are etched away, and all that remains is the baffling, puerile nonsense that's left bubbling beneath. Heavy Rain's silly plotholes ain't got nothin' on this behemoth.


GAME I WISH I PLAYED THIS YEAR - DESTINY
So much controversy! I'm a sucker for anything that can get people gossiping and bickering loudly, so I'm a little sad to miss the Destiny train this year (though I know it'll be around for quite some time). I've listened to a lot of discussions regarding its grindiness and lack of depth, but experiencing the gameplay first hand and knowing just how Strange Coins and Helium work within its currency is still something I wish I had knowledge of. Perhaps I'll get around to it eventually, or just cut my losses and jump in on the series whenever the inevitable sequel launches.


WHAT'S MISSING? - BAYONETTA 2
Bayonetta 2 deserves to be on the top 5 list, but unfortunately isn't—yet. I've split time between the first and second titles messing around with the combat and trying to get a good feel for Dodge Offset, which is taking a while. Seeing as I have yet to tackle anything above normal, or complete all the optional side arenas, it feels improper to try and place Bayonetta 2 on the list above with so much left to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed the Umbran Witch's return to form, but this is something I have to invest a bit more in before I can properly come up with a summary on what my thoughts are. Safe to say, it's definitely the best action game I've played since Ninja Gaiden 2.
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Other images obtained from: kekkai.org, gamesradar.com, joystiq.com

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fahrenheit - Thoughts


[contains spoilers]

I like Heavy Rain. I like Beyond: Two Souls. Both of these games have glaring flaws, but they allow the player to live out scenarios of both the mundane and extraordinary. The intense decisions you have to make as a father in Heavy Rain can lead you to question your own morality, and the day-to-day tribulations of a girl forced to endure the malevolent whims of her ghostly companion in Beyond are intensely compelling (well, before it delved into the whole military thing). Say what you will about the "gamey" aspect of these titles; it's a rare occurrence in video games when you're placed into a girls' shoes and are forced to determine what to wear, make, and listen to for a romantic dinner with your teenage crush, and just for scenarios like that, those games are a welcomed change of pace.

With that said, I will warn you that the following will be a relentless diatribe against Quantic Dream's sophomore effort, Fahrenheit. If I was to liken David Cage to a writer (though perhaps film maker would be more apt), I could easily compare Heavy Rain and Beyond to something like thriller novels that dip into the supernatural, while Fahrenheit is rushed, middle school-grade drivel. I mean that whole heartedly—the story is a disheveled, untangled mess of half-baked ideas.


Where to begin? The start of the game is the best part of the experience, opening with a very enticing scenario—you awake after killing a man in an unexplained altered state, and now must clean up the evidence before the police arrive. There's a bit of a twist here as you're allowed to play as the detectives after the scene, picking up the trail of the main character and hunting him between perspective shifts. The protagonist/"antagonist" push-and-pull system would later be utilized to a much more clever degree in Beyond, but I must credit Fahrenheit with originating this inspiring idea. However, this is about the best the game has to offer, and begins its downhill tumble into madness just an hour in.

I was fully onboard for the spirit possession murder mystery at the start—pondering as to why the vicarious killer severed the arteries to the heart was quite a conundrum. Once the murders were explained as part of an ancient Mayan ritual, I still remained interested despite the odd Mesoamerican twist. But then the spacetime-bending super powers were thrown in, and the tip of the iceberg melted away to reveal more and more unconscionable lunacy. Whether it be the baseless prophecy that leads to global cooling, random zombification of the main character, the Mayan oracle serving the Illuminati, the blind mystic revealing herself to be an unchained artificial intelligence (not a robot; a personified AI), the celestial pool of boundless energy that gives the power of prophecy to embryos, or the shy child that could whisper God's secrets—merely the inclusion of one of these would render a story as inane, let alone all of them in the final two hours. The difference in information between the very first cutscene and the very last cutscene is so vast and unimaginable that it's hard to accept that they belonging to the same game.

And that's not even touching the minor details sprinkled throughout the story that just sour the experience further. Besides being torn directly from the 60s, Tyler's character remains a giant question mark on the plot, barely contributing anything to the story other than a few smarmy smirks at a pretty consistent rate. The romance between Lucas and Carla comes directly out of nowhere, as one cutscene shows him (weakly) convincing her to trust him and the next shows the two waking up after a night together. This is made more absurd as she admits her love to her zombified boyfriend despite the paucity of onscreen time or chemistry between the two, making Ethan & Madison's relationship in Heavy Rain seem like an exquisite saga in comparison. Visions of irradiated bugs and marble angels attack Lucas without proper explanation, and super powers are only used whenever the plot deems them fit (the Mayan oracle can teleport and possess people with a word, but a locked door is too much for him?). Pentagrams adorn Lucas' apartment for no reason, cars try to drive into Lucas for no reason, men that dress as hobos know the secret workings of the universe for no reason, and the AI, oh lord, the inclusion of the 80s-born AI that "continues to haunt the net" even after it explodes into luminescent confetti in a mock-Area 51...


While I feel I could write forever about just how awful the narrative became in the game, I do feel its important to mention its dull mechanics. Granted, Fahrenheit was impressive for the time due to its cutscene integration and split interface during many of its key moments, being one of the first big in-game rendered "movies you can play". The controls are unapolegetically terrible however, ruining any kind of "cinematic" feel you could experience behind the wheel. The camera is the key offender in this drunken struggle you'll have with your characters; there were multiple times where I found myself holding down to go up, or right to go bottom-left. Rare few games are honestly as bad with player controls as this one. Not only that, but when you are prompted to perform actions in the game, they'll be one out of a handful of gimmicks that go on entirely too long, making you wish you were watching a movie rather than required to input a series of loosely-tied Simon Says joystick directions. And when it's not that, it's stealth segments that have some of the worst design I've experienced, complete with a minimap that fails to properly convey just how far guards can see. Sure, there's a few fun moments in here (like putting Theory of a Deadman on after your ex-girlfriend takes her stuff back from your apartment), but it's drowned in monotonous and deadening gameplay.

I praised the general design of the game at the start, but that poisons itself eventually too. Playing both sides of the investigation was interesting, but since the game had multiple fail states for Lucas getting caught by the authorities, it becomes frustrating figuring out what you're supposed to do. In one specific instance, Tyler is interrogating Lucas at his job and the player is given no context about what they should do—to proceed, Lucas must lie to Tyler to avoid going to jail, but when the player controls Tyler they must find evidence that will incriminate him. This ambivalent struggle continued for far too long in the game, pushing you on with the detectives when you know getting caught will end the game, yet failing to get caught will also end the game, until you reach the unspecified point when the two team up.

The dialogue design is interesting at first, but letting you choose only 50% of the answers becomes irksome when you're trying to understand the story. Every group that says they can explain what's going on, from Agatha to the Mayan oracle to the Invisibles, only answers a few questions, leaving many things in the dark (I will never know why an elderly chinese man at an antique book store was using a fake accent!). Ironically though, even when they do try to explain the plot, concepts like The Chroma and The Wave are mentioned briefly and then taken as common vocabulary thereafter. I could also write about how the mood meter, lives, and amount of restarts spoil the games pacing and drama, or how direct movie ripoffs from Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ruin the game's ingenuity, but I think my penance for this entry has been paid.


Though there are experiences I've been disappointed with this year (like Lone Survivor and The Wonderful 101), I can still recognize the merits beneath their rough exterior, the good ideas shinning through like illustrious pearls. Fahrenheit has no such silver lining—it is a rotten product through and through. It's a great piece of fiction if you enjoy absurd/unintentional comedy (at times it's like The Room given video game form), but otherwise it's largely unplayable today. Perhaps more baffling than how this product was made and shipped out the door, is the critical success it achieved from reviews and gamers alike at release. If not for Heavy Rain and Beyond's general solidity and competence, I would have been tempted to write David Cage off as a buffoon. As for now though, I can only hope Quantic Dream's next project never comes near what I just suffered through.
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Images obtained from: stopgame.ru, shacknews.com, metzomagic.com

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Iridion II - Thoughts


When Shin'en was considering what the sequel to Iridion 3D would be, it must have been clear from early on that their peculiar flying perspective had to be scrapped. Yet they probably didn't want to abandon their knack for making gorgeously fluid scrolling backgrounds, so they settled on an isometric perspective for Iridion II instead. The game suffers no sophomore slump compared to its idealistic sibling, featuring more levels, more weapons, infinite continues, tighter controls, better design, and a challenge mode in addition to its campaign and arcade routes. Though I do prefer Iridion 3D for purely sentimental reasons, I admit there's few better shmups you'll find on the GBA than this one.


In a way, however, that speaks largely to the GBA's lackluster library of shooters, as Gradius Galaxies is the only other one I can think of that's worth looking into. Iridion II is a good game that's marred by a few errors here and there (a constant conclusion I come to with the Iridion/Nano series as a whole). As I stated above, having a lot of levels (15!) and shot-types (6 with each being upgradable twice) do a lot to make it feel like a well-realized shmup, taking a good hour and a half to chow through. Level diversity is exceptionally strong, with some stages focusing on enemy gimmicks like proximity mines or bouncing shards of ice, while others favor static hazards like windmill-operated doors or screen-filling cruisers menacingly floating by. There's a great pool of bosses here too, many of them featuring simple—but creative—attack patterns (except for that atrocious orb that surrounds itself with barricades).

I wish I could say the same for the weapons, but the game flubs up a bit here. Iridion II is great at letting you choose between multiple abilities to upgrade, giving you a personal preference that was absent in the last game (where it was more "powerup du jour"), but one minor aspect keeps you essentially locked into using one ability per level—whenever you pick up the item that lets you upgrade a shot-type, what the game fails to tell you is that using said item on a maxed-out weapon will refill half your health. Since continuing after death is check-point based this time around (rather than being continuous), stocking up on a couple of these items is very important as they basically serve as extra lives. Therefore the best thing to do is to find the shot-type you think does the most damage and just stick to that; they all do relatively the same amount, so you at least have some flexibility in your choosing.


The only thing I can think of that Iridion 3D might tout over its successor is graphical fidelity. While both have gorgeous backgrounds, the use of sprites directly separates them: Iridion 3D merely had to enlarge sprites as they got closer to you, while Iridion II's isometric perspective means that they have to be enlarged and change depth accordingly. A flat sprite is—typically—very unmalleable, so at times it may seem like an object is just scrolling along an invisible conveyer belt toward you (as evidenced by my first screenshot). In addition to this, bullets can travel along a hard-to-determine path due to the isometric perspective and the general blockiness of the player's ship—this issue is especially prevalent whenever a boss decides to fill the screen with amethyst pellets. For the most part the perspective is fine, but the ambiguity may leave you cursing sporadically.

The music remains just as whimsical, thankfully. I'm not exaggerating when I say one of the best things about the game is the title screen, where you can mix different tracks together to form your own favorite main theme (or play around with changing it little by little every measure). There's a couple of old tracks that make a comeback here but it doesn't feel forced or shoe-horned, given that there's such a dizzying amount of tunes. I personally found myself leaning more towards the cool/hip/jazzy tracks like "Spiral Bliss", though the majority of them are positively fantastic (like one of the opening tracks, "Two Years Gone").


There's not really much else I have to say regarding Iridion II. By buffing out the bumps and ugly marks of its former title, the game remains very consistent and enjoyable throughout, a necessary title for the GBA if you're craving quirky STG action. In a way it feels less "remarkable" than Iridion 3D but if that comes at the cost of the game feeling more balanced and fun, it's certainly far from a bad trade.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wonderful 101 - Thoughts

I come away from my time with the The Wonderful 101 feeling very... ambivalent towards it. I've greatly enjoyed every Platinum entry I've played, including the slightly shallow MadWorld, but this title has left me more stupefied than impressed. My issues with the game only partially lie with its unique combat system; the bulk of transgressions involve the design of its larger whole, specially the "mini-game" sections. The Wonderful 101 feels more like a collection of half baked ideas than a solid character action game, stifling its quirky gameplay with diversions better left on the cutting room floor of development.


Summarizing the game's style isn't the easiest thing to do; essentially, The Wonderful 101 is Bayonetta meets Viewtiful Joe, smoothly blended with a reverence for collectible action figurines and Super Sentai programs. It's gaming's closest analogue to Gurren Lagann, and though the bar isn't set all that high, it does feature Platinum's most engaging and entertaining story thus far. The plot is very character driven so there are some unfortunately loooong cutscenes, and the individual members of the Wonderful one-double-oh are bombastic stereotypes that veer between being entertaining and annoying at times. Luckily the highs outweigh the lows (mostly), and for every vexing Luka segment there are a couple of excellent Vorkken moments (I could listen to him chide "Blunder Red" all day).

The central tenants of character action games are present here—dodge, parry, ways to extend combos, points to spend on upgrades—but the way in which you execute the combos in The Wonderful 101 is a bit trickier than its kin. To utilizing different attacks, the player is forced to get very comfortable with drawing shapes or using the right analogue stick with blistering precision. While at first it may seem shallow (there's not much beyond a single string of combos for each weapon), combat can be surprisingly dexterous once you get a handle on it, allowing for some absurdly impressive ways to weave attacks together—provided you can draw them fast enough. I found myself personally enamored with ending everything in Unite Tombstone, not being this obsessed with a vicious finishing attack since Ninja Gaiden's Izuna Drop.


Where the gameplay falters for me is in a few aspects. I'm a huge fan of Viewtiful Joe but I admit that it cruelly locks fundamental mechanics behind an upgrade system (the Ukemi most notably). The Wonderful 101 takes this error and pushes it further; almost everything that makes the game fun is quarantined off behind expensive gates, and it's not until you're about halfway through that you have a chance to fully explore the options available to you. Being deprived of Hero Time or the Speed Charge is practically criminal when you're trying to learn the basics of the game, which ties into my next point—combat is too punishing.

Two factors contribute to the cliffside-steep learning curve: how fast the Unit Gauge is drained and the stun duration of your allies once you get hit. I understand and respect the implementation of the former—after all, you can't have the player pulling out massive attacks willy-nilly—though I feel the recharge rate on the batteries could be a bit quicker. But having your troops be stunned really drags the game's frenetic energy into a bog. All of your abilities are based on whether or not you have buddies by your side, and a single attack against you can not only waste your Unit Gauge but render you helpless before the enemy. This is especially prevalent at the final Vorkken fight, where his attacks cover half of the screen, meaning that if you fail a proper dodge or parry you'll be completely at his mercy for a few seconds. I know it's purposely meant to be penalizing, but flinging your allies afar seems to serve no purpose other than widening the gap between amateurs and good players.

Though I take issue with the combat in this regard, at least it's fun when you start to grasp the mechanics. What isn't fun is the amount of "flashy" gameplay shifts sprinkled throughout each mission that makes the prospect of replaying the game a chore. While they were present in Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, they're dragged out in excess here, largely devoid of depth and at times very cheap (many of my deaths could be attributed to the isometric shooter sections). Mission 007-B is perhaps the utter nadir of this whole ordeal, and I found myself mentally comparing it to the werehog stages in Sonic Unleashed in terms of length and spiritual exhaustion. I know trying out different gameplay styles can add some variety to a game's pacing, but doing it in a title where the action and enemies are robust and demand a lot of experience to understand, diverting from this seems wholly unnecessary.


The only place where I finally found myself having some decent fun was in the first two parts of Mission 008, and it was clear why—minimal dialogue intrusion, a straight action focus, and reasonable level length. It was only there that I was able to see the glimmer of the true game I was playing, having finally honed my skills so that I could enjoy the challenges set before me. And then it devolved into some more wild and goofy gimmicks for its final mission. Looking at clever combo videos on Youtube gets me salivating to learn more about the inner-workings of the The Wonderful 101, but the missions being so heavily bloated drives me away. Perhaps I'll come back to it after spending some time away, but so far it's clear to me that Bayonetta 2 is the Wii U's premier action star.
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Images obtained from: nintendo.com, operationrainfall.com, o.canada.com, newgamenetwork.com

Saturday, November 15, 2014

eXceed: Gun Bullet Children - Thoughts


When you tell someone that you're playing an "indie game", the term can be a tad misleading; the range of quality "indie games" can cover is frighteningly vast. This category includes a decent amount of gorgeous, exquisitely refined titles, but in contrast, it's also littered with a countless number of boring, uninspired titles churned out nearly every day. Finding a diamond in the rough can feel like a taxing endeavor, but it's rewarding to discover a game that the developers put a lot of love and care into crafting. Well-made games fading into oblivion is a terrible fate, so I always feel it's important to publicize underrated gems whenever I can, hoping they'll eventually receive their just due.

eXceed: Gun Bullet Children is, unfortunately, not one of those games.


Before beginning the bulk of my exposition, I believe it's best to confess my STG cardinal sin—I don't play for scoring. This is partly due to being raised on console ports of Gradius and R-Type, where the goal was more about beating the game than what my (impermanent) highscore totaled to, but I would also contribute it to the fact that I find too hard (read: impossible) to 1cc most of these games. I could still play for score nonetheless, but seeing as most games dump the majority of their points on the final level, it seemed fruitless to focus on highscore if using a continue nullified it in the process. So if I quickly brush by a scoring mechanic or fail to see its importance in any shmups hereafter, you can attribute it to my general ineptitude.

Anyway, if you scour about the internet you can find plenty of doujin STGs—so what is it that makes eXceed stand out? From a glance, the pointed enemy designs, crimson bullets, and gothic undertones help to distinguish its style, but other than that... not much. Most of the mechanical features here are genre staples: powerups, bombs, extends, and a distinctly visible hitbox on your character. Even the most interesting mechanic—charging a powerful attack by way of bullet grazing—is a feature that has been present in other games prior. The adolescent magic-imbued characters are also cookie cutter anime tropes, and the plot is fraught with frivolous Christian vernacular (Church, Fallen Angels, Holy Land, God) that the Japanese are oddly keen on weaving into lore.


Besides these basic appraisals, the actual gameplay is pretty lackluster. Enemy bullet patterns aren't all that engaging and even worse is the enemy placement, with some phases throwing a single type of enemy at you over and over again, despite the player knowing how to adequately deal with them from the first encounter. Bosses on the other hand run the gamut of "tolerable" to "insane", with certain patterns being largely indecipherable due to how similar each of the bullets look (which got me to appreciate the dual color system in bullet hell games more). There's a couple of good/interesting patterns in here, but as you do damage to the boss they become too overcomplicated for their own good (or to enjoy it as an amateur).

Not everything in the game is subpar however. The game easily stands above something like Aegis Wing or a variety of repetitive NES shooters, as you can identify moments where you're actually enjoying it and thinking "I'd like to get better at this". It's also imperative to mention that the music is the most compelling draw of the game—hands down. It doesn't immediately catch your attention, but in the heat of battle the electronic compositions gel nicely with the eXceed's style and pacing. "Stage1" and "Space Janitor" are the best examples of how the songs synergize with their respective levels, with the latter being a surprisingly uplifting-yet-intense final boss theme.


With its clunky interface, ho-hum art, and droning gameplay, eXceed: Gun Bullet Children is undeniably rough around the edges. I wouldn't go as far as saying that it's lazily designed, lacking heart, or a terrible game in general, but it certainly doesn't do much to stand out from its peers; it feels entirely unremarkable except for the soundtrack. It's a decent purchase if you're looking to own every shmup released on Steam, but otherwise there's a lot of alternatives that are far more worthy of your attention.
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Logo obtained from: exceedseries.com

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Lone Survivor - Thoughts


Jasper Byrne's stylish 2D survival horror game Lone Survivor is a puzzling product. It finds itself wedged between the likes of Silent Hill and Clock Tower, being a game about minimal combat, psychological trauma, and the collection of a wide variety of items. It has a very distinct personality and flavor, but I can't exactly say it offered me a platter I enjoyed. By the end of the journey I felt very alienated from the author and his message, uncertain if it was worth the time I sunk into it.


Make no mistake—the game is competently programmed and very frightening. Despite being comprised of colorful pixels, the post-apocalyptic world you explore evokes an unsettling atmosphere thanks to some smart lighting and disturbing monster design (audio especially). Areas feel cramped and dim as you wander around, and you're never sure whether turning on your flashlight is going to reveal a hidden goodie or pull nasty nightmares lurking in the dark to your position. At first I found the blown-up resolution unbecoming, but wound up appreciating how much space the game occupied, constantly being in your face at every moment. The use of the dithered display is quite clever as well, and conjoined with some spooky sequences, Lone Survivor can get easily get under your skin (the use of intestinal imagery in one of the endings is fantastic).


Yet the survival aspect of the game is both less evident and unrefined. In the genre, I believe the most important conditions you must prime players on in is what they need to be monitoring for their survival. In Resident Evil, it's things like ammo, herbs, and ink ribbons—each being necessary to stave off the player's doom. In Lone Survivor, your goals are far more obscure. You have health, but no health bar (outside of a flashing red screen). There's food, but no way of telling how hungry you are. You also have to manage sleep, flashlight batteries, and ammo on top of this, all without knowing what penalty you'll receive if you happen to run out of any of these. On one hand, it keeps the player from obsessively checking a stat screen to make sure they're in the clear, but on the other it can be aggravating trying to determine whether a warm meal or crackers would sate the main character's (noisy) appetite. All of these factors tie into what ending you receive too, and it was a bit disappointing to find that out only after the story was over.

Speaking of, it's a somewhat unspoken idea that horror games are, to a degree, dependent on their stories. Though there are spooky games bereft of exposition like Slender: The Eight Pages and Kraken, a lot of horror games can become significantly more disturbing due to their lore, such as Five Nights at Freddy's and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. However, Lone Survivor is far too muddled in its own madness to make any kind of coherent sense. The game has five separate endings and not a single one clarifies anything that happens throughout the plot (in fact they only serve to compound it), and when the credits roll around I was left asking "that's it?". Perhaps the subtlety of the story went over my head, but when you can't make heads or tails on whether the main character is absolutely bonkers or not, the plot winds up feeling like a string of trippy scenes from Twin Peaks, just without the nuance or payoff.


Lone Survivor may be worth a playthrough if you love the ruthlessly dark and oppressive atmosphere that games like Silent Hill and Clock Tower ascribe to, or prefer to unravel its mechanics by your lonesome. But if you're looking for an interesting story fraught with complex symbolism, you'll have to dig inconceivably deep and make some mental leaps that I'm concerned the text doesn't support. Byrne showcases some really neat ideas wrapped up in an intriguing style, but Lone Survivor is too abstruse to ultimately avoid its exasperating disappointment.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor - Thoughts


I'm not a really big fan of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. This is partly due to how invasive his brand of lore has become in the fantasy setting, essentially establishing the archetypes of dwarves, elves and orcs. I didn't feel like exploring this universe in an action game, but with the glowing reviews Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor kept getting with regards to its Nemesis system (an AI ecosystem where enemies vie for power in their military caste), my interest was definitely piqued. Even if the lore has no pull on you, there's a really fun game in here that gives the player a lot of power.


I'm not going to spend any time discussing the story, since it barely registers as anything more than background noise during the majority of the journey (a Tolkienite would likely have more to say on Monolith's implementation of the lore). Playing past the tutorial, you'll find yourself in an open world with a lot of UI and mechanics similar to that of the Assassin's Creed series, with a splash of Arkham Asylum's combat thrown in. If you were to look at this under a critical lens you may find the design uninspired and lacking ingenuity, solely implemented to cash in on the brand name and success of its progenitors. But Shadow of Mordor only retains this stigma in its early hours.

Once the Nemesis system becomes available to you—along with a wealth of abilities and unique runes—the game really comes into its own. The ways in which you can conquer a stronghold or engage in side missions only keep increasing as you progress, and due to the myriad of skills each orc leader can possess, you'll often find yourself in some really entertaining situations. However, Shadow of Mordor's most significant failing is that it eventually propels you into a godhood-like status where almost no encounter can deter you from victory. The optimal solution once you're fully leveled is to vault over an opponent and strike at them a few times, allowing you to build your combo quickly (which is cinch if you're timing your hits) and spam execution or branding attacks against those around you. The gap in difficulty between the first set of warchiefs and the second set is astounding, and by the end of the game it becomes a bit inconceivable how you could possibly lose.


But as long as you don't care about trampling over the endgame, Shadow of Mordor is a blast. It's pleasing visually (especially the second area), sounds great, and the combat never gets stale. The orc leaders are especially fun to interact with; thanks to their character models and the pugnacious quips they spout, many of them feel like their own unique characters (despite being a combination of randomly chosen attributes). There's also a gritty glee to be had in how outlandishly violent the game is, avoiding any kind of genocidal guilt since all your opponents are monsters anyway (well, without reading deeply into any subtext). Sometimes it can be annoying to run into a dozen captains when you're just trying to kill a single one (especially if he's fleeing), but otherwise the Nemesis system is an invigorating and worthwhile addition. Sure, it becomes trivialized when you get so strong that no one can stop you, but it doesn't stop it from being the best part of the game.

I'm going to close this entry out by regaling the short-lived tale of Grublik the Stout:


During the initial hours of the game, I undertook a mission to interrupt an orc captain's festivities. He yelled at me about how he was gonna drink grog after he gutted me, but I didn't care, striking at him swiftly with my blade as soon as he shut his yap. Unfortunately another captain stumbled upon the struggle, and the amount of troops he brought into the battle meant that I had no option other than to retreat. As I was turning to leave, Grublik—a tall, shield-weilding uruk—gave me the fatal blow. After I died he was promoted for slaying me, and I was eager to seek revenge on this audacious amateur. I took a side mission to engage him while he was battling a fellow captain, but the big blue doofus was hopelessly outmatched. I took pity on him and vowed to alter his destiny—I would help Grublik to become a warchief, and then take his life.

Grublik's ascension through the ranks wasn't hard to fulfill. Besides intentionally avoiding him whenever he'd pop up at various missions and strongholds, the dopey orc quickly rose through the ranks due to his oafish charm. That, and his competition had been cut into pieces. Despite a small detour I took to finish the campaign, I returned post-game to the Black Gate to check up on my old pal. I decided to congratulate Grublik on becoming warchief by paying him a visit. Drawing him out was simple (20 kills without being detected), but what was difficult was trying to decide how I wanted this to go down. Stab him stealthily from behind? Draw some caragors in to wreak havoc on his forces? Brand his captains and have him betrayed? I decided finally upon fighting him like a man one-on-one, though he was annoyingly persistent on calling more nameless soldiers in during our duel. It didn't matter though—vengeance was mine in the end. The first monster to kill me was the last one to die in my game (well, one of the last).


This is just a single example of the wild yarns that can be spun solely through the game mechanics alone. People can't stop talking about how good Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is for good reason. It joins Wolfenstein: The New Order as an unexpectedly competent and brilliant entry in 2014 for me, and I'm curious what Monolith will work on next.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Iridion 3D - Thoughts


I have a strange soft spot in my heart for the somewhat janky Iridion 3D. It was one of my earliest GBA games and the first handheld title to really awe me with it's visuals—the pre-rendered backgrounds are still the most striking feature of the game today (especially in motion). Shin'en's shooter aimed to blend Star Fox's 3D perspective with more shmup/STG influences, but it ultimately mutated into an awkward combination of both, serving to showcase how unsuccessful 3D rail shooters can be if handled poorly.


Besides the visuals, the first thing you're likely to notice is how wonky the collision is. Star Fox wisely allows objects and enemies to traverse the foreground (behind the Arwing), giving the player a good handle on the game's perspective, but here you're pretty much a sprite slapped onto the front of the screen. Though your ship appears to take up a small amount of space, it acts more like an interstellar rectangle, as you're likely to notice bullets colliding against your lean wings (or the empty space above them). This can make dodging projectiles quite tricky, as your bulky size negates any mobility you might have (the stage 2 midboss and stage 6 enemies are astoundingly difficult to defeat unscathed). Luckily you'll only suffer one pellet of damage if a purple bullet touches your hitbox, but crash into any solid object and you'll lose five. With only twelve points of health and limited lives for the entire journey, you'll find that an enemy veering into your ship at the start of a level can pretty much end the entire run—it's a frustrating thing that happens a bit too often.

The game thankfully has passwords so it's easy to restart a stage, although the passwords keep your lives and power-ups intact (meaning you can screw yourself over if you're careless). The power-ups are also a little haphazardly implemented, reducing your power when you die and when you switch abilities. This pushes the player to sit on a single power-up and be potentially punished for their choice if the stage doesn't feature their specific weapon. Conflated by the fact that certain power-ups (green, purple) don't fire in a straight line—making it hard to hit certain enemies—I think it's demonstrably clear that the gameplay of Iridion 3D is too imprecise to be considered a good shmup.


Yet despite those detrimental factors, I still contend that the game can be an enjoyable experience. If you strap yourself in knowing that the shooter has its share of gameplay issues, I think the variety and atmosphere it offers overcomes a lot of its failings. Each stage is beautiful and distinct from the one before, containing a series of quirky little challenges. There are some frustrating parts here and there (the entirety of stage 4 is a collision nightmare), but the experience is a cohesive one with a good difficulty curve.

I've said that the visuals are the premier aspect of Iridion 3D, but I would be remiss not to boast that the music is the most phenomenal part of the game. Out of the entire soundtrack there's only one dud (stage 6 boss), the other compositions being extremely catchy and atmospheric. I think this accomplishment is made all the more impressive considering how utterly lackluster the GBA soundchip is, as many good games were a bit stifled by the garbled audio. Shin'en's custom GAX sound engine went a long way in achieving this, although I'd argue that Manfred Linzner is a competent composer as well. Seriously, some songs are pretty amazing.


I tend to visit the clumsy shooter title biennially, tapping into feelings that have long since been overwritten by a multitude of mundane etchings. From the large bosses to the captivating music, I still hold a lot of admiration for Iridion 3D. I can't excuse how poor and repetitive the gameplay can get at times, and I must confess that nostalgia is a significant factor in my enjoyment. Yet I don't think much will change me from looking back on Iridion 3D as a flawed game with a lot of heart.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rygar - Thoughts


It may be a bit weird that I'm an ardent fan of the Ninja Gaiden trilogy on NES, yet have sparse experience with other Tecmo titles. To be frank, their non-sports games are few and far between, and not much else seemed to hook me like Fire n' Ice upon initial play (though I'm still determined to one day complete Solomon's Key). So picking up Rygar for the first time felt like a fun experiment—I wanted to see how the developers handled platforming before they mastered it with Ninja Gaiden two years later.


The journey begins immediately, thrusting the player into a wasteland crawling with critters. Here you'll come to learn Rygar's modus operandi—spawning enemies with an incessant annoyance a la Kung Fu. Combined with the fact that you have only a single method of attack, combat distills into a pretty basic formula of determining whether your closest foe is to your right or your left. Thankfully the gameplay often switches between top-down and left-right perspectives for some variety (though the top-down view is fraught with strange issues like how jump-attacking means you have more mobility PLUS a longer attack range), and there are a few spells you have available (though the energy pickups for them have an abysmal drop rate). The game is also slightly nonlinear with handful of upgrades, fleshing out its sense of adventure.


What I thought was most revolutionary about Rygar was that it incorporates character stats that persist through death. Every enemy you slay can add to your strength or vitality (which are denoted by TONE and LAST for some peculiar reason) and at unstated intervals you'll gain an increase to your damage or health bar. This means that you'll rarely be stuck fighting a boss, as a bit of grinding can lead you to wipe the floor with monstrosity in a minute or two, even if you die repeatedly while farming. The final boss in particular is especially subject to this consequence, as I had spent so long exploring his palace that I was able to kill him in roughly ten hits, closing out my journey with an uneventful climax. Finally, the game is also not nearly as archaic or cryptic as Adventure of Link or Castlevania II, so even if you haven't played before it's not too hard to figure out where to go.


I really can't say I adore Rygar but I certainly wasn't put off by it; the Argoolian journey is a simplistic romp that would have enhanced had I any nostalgia for it. The gameplay fits somewhere between the questionable design of Mighty Bomb Jack and the flawless artistry of Ninja Gaiden, incorporating some interesting mechanics that are surprisingly subversive in modern games nowadays. I think the infinite continues, stat carry-over and relative brevity of the entry all help to make it an entertaining title, but it's hardly one I'd suggest to those that aren't NES fanatics. In a way, the 2002 sequel Rygar: The Legendary Adventure echoes the essence of the original very well—an interesting game unfortunately outclassed by everything that came after it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wolfenstein: The New Order - Thoughts


[contains slight spoilers]

While I concluded that 2009's Wolfenstein was fairly unremarkable, 2014's sequel Wolfenstein: The New Order is quite the opposite. Machinegames took a big gamble by altering the standard formula, adding a pulpy edge to BJ Blaszkowicz's formerly plain narrative—but it succeeds! Europe's alternate future is a grim, dystopian world where the Nazis have infested every corner, the resistance against them diminishing slowly day by day. Despite ludicrous advancements like cyborg dogs and lunar bases, it's a setting that remains horrifyingly lifelike as well as tremendously engrossing. Oh, and the game is a ton of fun to play too.


The New Order shares Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's unfortunate folly of greeting the player with a turret section of all things (possibly the worst way you can open your game), but past the linear prologue the action really takes off. Scenarios will alternate between stealth, shooting and bouts of dialogue, the designers carefully making sure that each portion never overstays its welcome. After large fights you'll be treated to some captivating discourse and the moment your bloodlust begins to wax you'll be back in a concrete compound with some soldiers to slice up. There are some miscellaneous issues that will unavoidably stand out: cutscene transitions are jarring, stealth sections are largely shallow (Nazi soldiers make murmurs of curiosity upon finding an ally's corpse rather than trigger an alarm), and the lack of manual checkpoints means the game will send you struggling through difficult hallways over and over again. While these issues slightly mar the experience, The New Order remains fantastic at its core.

At this core sits the riveting gunplay, being one of the most holistically satisfying shooters I've experienced. Weapons are large and have a good weight to them, there's a smart judge of how much ammo is allotted to each gun, and upon being shot enemies animate as if they feel the bullets shattering their bones. Even with a small arsenal available (there's about six arms) it never becomes grueling to switch back to the standard assault rifle and burst into a room, both guns blaring raucously. A couple of minor variations exist to shake-up the routine FPS load-out—the shotgun is less powerful than you'd expect but holds 20 shells, the assault rifle has a rocket launcher add-on, and your laser cutter becomes stronger as you find enhancements. The rifle is perhaps the only useless armament, bereft of bullets for the majority of the journey and being outclassed by the multi-targeting the laser cutter, but it gets plenty of screen time on the moon.


Despite its Nazi-crushing exterior the game is shockingly heartfelt, with many of Blaszkowicz's inner monologues and interactions feeling strikingly thoughtful. From important story beats to some of the small conversations you'll overhear, there's an interesting array of subjects touched upon. At one point I was traveling through the sewers and overheard a man talking to a woman, telling her about his vacation in Africa with his wife, and the woman asks whether or not her favorite animal—the elephant—was still there. The man replies that he didn't see any, and the dialogue ends; the potential extinction of elephants in Africa is an extremely minor detail added to the world but paints a great picture of the Third Reich's recklessness towards anything but their own progress. Foot-soldiers are also commonly portrayed as nothing more than privileged men in a uniform, abstaining from using childish, dehumanizing derivatives. Of course it doesn't excuse their crimes, and there's some utterly demented commanders in charge of their forces, but it's nice to see the game approach something like Nazi infantry with such honesty.

The plot also does a good job at changing scenery changes often, ferrying you from one great locale to another. From a ruined bridge to a mock-concentration camp you'll engage with legions of soldiers, and from murky aqueducts to a surreptitious Hebrew hideout you'll spend time exploring and poking at the scenery. The comparisons to Half-Life 2 are surprisingly apt in this regard, as the game does its best to tell a story while keeping the setting varied, ending the tale on one hell of a heart-pounding climax. In direct contrast to Wolfenstein's final boss, The New Order's mechanized monstrosity shows how to make a nod to the older games while adding flourishes of its own, especially regarding the intense final phase. The melancholy ending that comes afterwards is pitch perfect, and caps off the experience most appropriately.


You'll find few big budget games in 2014 as full of charm, brutality and heart as Wolfenstein: The New Order (let alone a combination of all three). Machinegames did the impossible and made the bulky meathead of a protagonist actually likable without peddling some kind of sob story background, rarely forcing his emotions throughout the hardboiled journey. The guns take center stage despite the minimal assortment of them, although this isn't too surprising given the developer's pedigree. The New Order is a solid, frantic outing through and through, and quite possibly the best Nazi-killin' game yet.
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Logo obtained from: edge-online.com

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dino Crisis - Thoughts


If you've ever thought to yourself "gee, the old Resident Evil games sure do sound cool, but what it really needed was dinosaurs!" then you may be in luck. Directed and Produced by Resident Evil's very own Shinji Mikami, Dino Crisis is cut from the same virus-infested cloth, switching out the brainhungry undead for bloodthirsty lizards*. Compared to its cousin, Dino Crisis feels eerily similar in control, interface, and progression... to a serious fault at times.

I mean, the game has the same exact jump scare in a windowed hallway early on!


I initially thought that the fossilized beasts would be used in ways unique to their biology but they roughly act as speedy zombie surrogates most of the time. Despite the exorbitant amount of parallels between the two games there are a couple of minor variations here and there. A larger amount of items are available to mix together and anesthetics play an important role, allowing you to put down a raptor momentarily instead of wasting precious ammo on them (which, if you play on Easy like me, doesn't become much of a problem). Rather than giving you a bottomless crate to store goodies in every save room, you get keys to open up either ammo or medical boxes, forcing you to choose both where your storehouses are and what equipment you'll receive. This makes your inventory a bit more cluttered as you can go long stretches without bumping into any of the boxes you can use, forcing more components to be mixed together until you're sitting on top of L++ medical supplies. Photorealistic backgrounds have been removed in place of smooth rendering, letting the camera move around freely as you're running down corridors, akin to Silent Hill. These are admittedly small touches but I think they're kinda neat.


The tank controls don't gel as well in this game as compared to Resident Evil. The zombie thriller was more about lumbering enemies ambling towards you, but dinosaurs (as you'd expect) are significantly quicker—pterodactyls are nigh-impossible to snipe out of the sky and it's difficult to out-maneuver a velociraptor. You're better off pumping the anachronistic carnivores full of lead when you see them (unless you know where you're going), as kiting them is a suboptimal solution (especially in later areas where two of them can stand shoulder to shoulder to block your progress). I'm a little bummed there's not more variety (there's basically one boss and five enemy types), but the journey is relatively short so the enemies don't overstay their welcome either.

The story may be a mixed bag for some people; one of the most important aspects for a B-themed medium to capture is possessing a self-serious tone despite the poor presentation, and here Dino Crisis doesn't falter. From the overly long computer introduction to the internal drama between teammates to some of the eye-roll worthy one liners, the game certainly has a quirky charm to it. Perhaps the biggest disappointment throughout Regina's journey is that every time the mighty king of the dinosaurs shows up, he's used in pretty poor gameplay segments—he can kill the player so easily (instantly!) that he becomes more frustrating than terrifying. Otherwise the plot is a predictable, yet mindlessly entertaining affair.


Dino Crisis is novel only in conception, taking far too many notes from the Resident Evil series to do anything on its own. Yet there's plenty of creative tweaks within these systems; a peculiar kind of fun can be found from blasting anesthetic darts from shotgun at a raptor. These are short diversions from the issue at hand, but if the dearly departed classic design of Resident Evil is still something that tickles your fancy (especially since the tank control scheme has gone extinct), Dino Crisis is a wonderfully droll substitute.


*dinosaurs are not actually lizards
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Images obtained from: capcom.co.jp, fullgameshub.com, relyonhorror.com, retrogamer.net