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.