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