Sunday, April 26, 2015

Castle in the Darkness - Thoughts

Don't let the 8-bit aesthetic fool you—Castle in the Darkness is a lawless game. Developed by Nicolis's artist Matt Kap, this quiet knight's action-adventure romp has more in common with the Souls series and I Wanna Be the Guy than Metroid or Castlevania. This may sound titillating to video game masochists—and there certainly are some challenging moments—but there's also a notable lack of polish and refinement in the title. Shovel Knight it's not; Castle in the Darkness has its own quirky rules that you'll have to adapt to if you want to discover the delightful game hidden within.

Coming to terms with these rules will be easier for some than others. For instance, you can only access the menu at save points, meaning that you're unable to change equipment or check what your items do until you reach an angelic statue. Warping is only allowed at certain statues too, which can be very nettlesome when you have to backtrack through the game's mundane initial rooms or the demanding final areas just to look for cracks in the wall you may have missed. There's no map at all either, forcing you to rely on your memory to recall which paths needed what items—a somewhat rude design decision in 2015. Some save points are right next to bosses while others are very far apart, and the amount of instant-death spikes can easily get on your nerves. Sprite-flicker also needs to be mentioned for how obnoxious it can be when you get hit in midair and lose your position for a split-second, falling to your death after a long platforming segment.

I nevertheless had fun with it though; I'll admit I'm a sucker for rudimentary 8-bit action and this game has plenty. Bosses run the gamut from questionable to thoroughly engaging (like Ruth and the titan at the top of the Crystal Tower), and the finger-dexterity required when running to nab the ten pages can be quite a workout. It's nothing too hard, but it's likely to cause some hair-pulling for those that get frustrated from dying easily (I wound up with around 350 deaths by the end). There's a strong variety of weapons, spells, and armor included in the game, but unfortunately most of it is locked away until you've acquired the double jump—which is obtained over halfway through the game.

The fact that the game doesn't truly open up until the latter portion is a good indicator of the weird design choices at play here. There's also dozens of "gotcha!" troll deaths that you'll roll your eyes to, and blatant references to other video games (like the copy & pasted seaweed from TMNT, or Abobo from Double Dragon) which feel unnecessary in a game this well-put together (I had similar gripes with the abundant amount of memes in the otherwise excellent Guacamelee). Since the game doesn't have the ambiance of Metroid or the loot-depth of Castlevania, the backtracking can become taxing when you go for 100% completion, further emphasizing just how... rough the game feels.

Yet while Matt Kap's design decisions come across as amateurish, the guy is fantastic at everything else. The art is crisp and clean, the music is really catchy and energetic ("Path of Least Resistance" being my favorite), and the game—while jittery during screen transitions—performs well for the most part. The combat is a little strange (emphasizing spamming attacks over being cautious) but the amount of enemies and spells there are continue to keep things fresh all the way to the end. There's also a neat sense of mystery you explore each nook, not entirely sure what you'll come across next (a la the Souls series). I haven't poked my nose in any of the bonus content after I got all the achievements, but I'm happy that something as strange as old demos of the game were included.

It's clear that Castle in the Darkness was designed by a person that adores videogames. At times it feels like a throwback to the older 8-bit era, but thrown into a blender with the rudimentary design of a flash game. There's a ton of content here (over 50 bosses!), the journey lasting a comfortable six hours before you'll be fully done with it. While the philosophy here is quantity over quality—something I've rarely preferred—it's a decent adventure with a smart prince point, claiming no regrets from me.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Otomedius Excellent - Thoughts

I really like Gradius—it's a peculiar series, chock-full of some quirky tropes (Moai heads & feeble final bosses), a wide variety of customizability, and some absolutely brutal gameplay that demands an R-Type level of memorization. I also like the concept of Parodius, Konami's spectacularly bizarre way of turning Gradius into a nonsensical cartoon. Otomedius though... I struggle with. My first foray into Gradius-meets-moe is with Otomedius Excellent, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel on it other than embarrassed for its existence.

The idolization of young anime girls isn't something new to video games, and many STGs have veered into this area over the last decade—CAVE in particular has touched upon this with recent DoDonPachis and Deathsmiles. In some series like the eXceed or Touhou games, I don't mind the all-female cast seeing as the fetishization is minimal (arguably?). But my ideal anime girl involvement—if it must be there—is in something like Mushihimesama, where the protagonist is the token example. On most occasions I try to let the gameplay overrule the art style and/or character models (like with Castle Shikigami), but Otomedius Excellent is the prime example of a game that tests these boundaries.

The game is unabashedly eager to please the player right out of the gate. It opens with the an animated intro, showcasing its scantly clad, nonstop-grinning magical girls as they ride about on top of their ship like a hood ornament. It looks even more ridiculous in game as the model jostles back and forth as you steer it around, like she's trying her best to hang onto her cosmic chair. Each girl can only be leveled up individually, prompting you to pick your favorite and stay with her, and during the loading screens you can poke her with a pointer to induce cute catch-phrases and exasperated vocal foleys. The theme of the game stands somwhere between Gradius and Parodius, containing a self-serious story wrapped up in a bunch of nonsense like your sensei being a stage boss, unexplained time travel, and a gothic loli maid equipped with an armada-disintegrating doomsday laser. Visually it looks quite a bit like a PS2 game at times, being bright, blocky, and colorful.

One of the enjoyable oddities about Excellent is that it is a very newbie-friendly game. It can be easily 1cc'd on normal (as long as you memorize some of the safe-zones on the last boss)—a somewhat rare aspect for its umbrella franchise. Gradius-style games are frustratingly punishing if you die during the last couple of stages, with the arcade version of Gradius III being perhaps the worst I've ever experienced, so the tone-down in challenge is a bit surprising. It's still fun to play through because you don't have to attune yourself to the game like you do with 95% of other shmups, the 1cc victory feeling like a bite-sized reward for your efforts.

The game also has a maddening amount of customizability. There's a host of weapon types that I continuously unlocked for my chic pink-haired doll, and though I stick to most of the shot-types introduced in the first few Gradius games (Spread Bomb-4-life) being able to mess around with the goofier shot types is somewhat fun (I couldn't figure out whether I liked the Dagger laser-type or not). The stages are alright and the bosses aren't anything to write home about—the only thing that surprised me was the lack of the penultimate walker boss. Most of the achievements don't seem too hard to get either, but my cheevo-grinding days are well beyond me now.

On one hand, Otomedius Excellent is the best way to jump into the world of Gradius without having to endure its harsh arcade roots. On the other hand... just look at it. Perhaps I tend to wax too nostalgic on a series I always felt was "cool" growing up, but this rendition was really trying its best to humiliate me for playing through it. I became numb to most of it on my third go-around, but it doesn't detract from the fact that Otomedius Excellent as the newest Gradius game is unfortunate... or, as one could say, far from Excellent.

Images obtained from:,,,,

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Far Cry 4 - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Far Cry 3 was easily one of my favorite games that I played last year. It's funny looking back on it—after just the first hour with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, I was ready to give up on the series, whereas after the final hour of third installment, all I wanted to do was sing its praises to high heaven. Therefore playing Far Cry 4 was an absolute no-brainer; I was more than happy to hop back into Ubisoft's hostile world of improv madness, bow and C4 in hand. While the gameplay is not nearly as fresh as it was in 3, the younger Indian sibling improves upon nearly everything else—visuals, content, and story have been refined to create the perfect FPS adventure romp.

The gameplay in the Far Cry series is a well-established formula by this point, and Far Cry 4 doesn't stray far from the ruleset. This can be disappointing if the previous game didn't grab you, but I was personally thrilled to start from square one and amass my armaments and abilities once again. The world feels a bit bigger this time around, and while Kyrat is missing the seawater and tropical mood of the Rook Islands, it comes with its own (gorgeous!) mountainous landscape, riddled with native mystique and an absurd amount of quests. There's racing, sniping, hostage saving, bomb defusing, animal hunting, fortress-taking, and poster-burning, and none of these even advance the main story! Plus, despite the increase in quantity, the quality thankfully remains more or less the same (though many missions will blur together).

The most significantly change in gameplay for me came from the minor adjustment to your loadout—one of your four slots is now reserved for a sidearm, intended to be used during vehicle sections. My beloved tetralogy in Far Cry 3 was the bow, sniper rifle, shotgun, and assault rifle; I begrudgingly had to change up my arsenal, but it did lead me to experiment around with more weapons. I stuck closely to the sawed-off shotgun as my sidearm for a while but towards the end of the game I became enamored with the portable grenade launcher and various LMGs. Nothing wound up topping the bow however, as that trusty tool still remains the most invigorating to use when silently conquering an outpost (the sniper rifle makes the game child's play, even on the hardest difficulty). Most of my other gameplay insights have already been covered in the Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon entries, so I'll get on to (what I feel) is one of the most important things Far Cry 4 gets right—the story.

Honestly, the narrative was better than it had any right to be. I've voiced my disdain for Far Cry 3 quite extensively; the indelible Vaas deserved more exploration than he got before his untimely demise. The main antagonist of Far Cry 4—Pagan Min—is cut from the same luny cloth that Vaas is, but lacks the same level of appeal... at first. After the wild intro, Pagan Min takes a back seat to your two questionable allies in the game, Sabal and Amita, as the plot attempts to explore the rough paths one must take to ensure the success of a revolution in a war-torn country. Since both of the Golden Path leaders have different visions on how to achieve this (old vs. new), whomever you side with will determine the outcome of Kyrat in a way that's purposely ambiguous.

But this isn't the interesting decision in the game (well, it can be, but it feels a bit too contrived for me). At the end of the game you're given a choice of whether to kill Pagan Min or not—a decision that would be a no brainer to most players. Yet the kicker of the whole shebang is that Pagan Min does nothing to fault you. Sure, he's the leader of an army of people willing to shoot your head off the moment they smell your American cologne, but while you're killing his lieutenants, stealing his treasures, and smashing his idols, all he tries to do is plead with you over the radio to come to an understanding. The guy has done some obviously heinous things since he was instated, but he's never done anything to personally attack you. When I walked into the final encounter I was fully expecting a QTE shootout with him after what I've done, but instead the two of us just sat down to dinner and he asked me to rethink my choices.

Far Cry 4 is brilliant because it succeeded at the subtle meta-commentary that Far Cry 3 struggled with. The ultimate question posed to the puppeteer behind Jason Brody was, "are you trying to play this game realistically or do you just enjoy killing dudes?", but it was abandoned during the Hoyt arc until a hasty revisit at the end. Here, its presence is finely woven into the story. The first (and only) blurb of cutscene text is from your mother telling you where to lay her ashes to rest, and as soon as Pagan Min captures Ajay, the player's very first instinct is to go out and blow stuff up. So when the end of the game comes around and Min poses the initial task yet again—will you do what you came here to do or continue to be a blood-thirsty maniac?—the player is given Far Cry 3's dilemma without the hamminess of slice your girlfriend's throat. Pagan Min is an evil eccentric but would having Sabal or Amita in command be entirely different? The decision is arguably arbitrary but what's more important is whether or not the player feels they have a responsibility to honor their mother as Ajay would; shooting Min brings the player no closer to Lakshmana than at the very beginning of the game, but it instead satiates this weird, unnecessary bloodlust that he/she revels in throughout the entire journey (seriously, watching bodies ragdoll out of an exploding vehicle is pretty entertaining). I just found it so fascinating that the game handed you essentially one objective to keep in mind from the start, but by its closing you're left to decide if you even care what the game (or any game!) tells you to do.

Most of the plot threads outside of the main path are cute, but not nearly as interesting. Hurk and the stoner twins get too much screen time considering how shallow their characters are, whereas I would've liked to hear more from dialogue Noore and De Pleur (I had an especially strange moral dilemma regarding whether to kill Noore or not, and I wish I read more about her character other than her various perfectionist demands regarding the arena). Rabi Ray Rana is the most affable out of the entire cast and I enjoyed piecing together The Goat notes, though it's disappointing that that thread didn't lead anywhere. I was trying to get a better understanding of just who or what The Goat was, at times wondering if we were perhaps the same person, but by the last mask it seemed as though it was nothing more than another checkmark collectible. These activities, like with the holy land segments and drug trips, were interesting diversions that added a little more color to the world at least.

The biggest fault I can find with the game is that it is too similar to its previous title; Far Cry 4 lies somewhere between an expansion pack and a true sequel, retreading ground with a similar core theme and symmetrical gameplay. I can discredit the game for that, but the problem is that it's so much fun that the repetition hardly becomes a bore due to the numerous ways you can go about playing it. The story being as thoughtful and interesting as it was is precisely what I wanted from a sequel to 3, and though I was lukewarm on the plot during the outset I hold no shame in thinking it's one of the best AAA tales of 2014 along with Wolfenstein: The New Order. I think if Far Cry 5 fails to change things up I'll likely burn out on the series (especially since the games contain so much content to wade through), but so far Far Cry 4 hits all the right notes and feels like the definitive experience.