Sunday, January 29, 2017

Titan Souls - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

A game like Acid Nerve's Titan Souls sounds like something that's right up my alley: a pixelated boss rush hugely influenced by Shadow of the Colossus, but with a Dark Souls approach to difficulty. So what's not to like about all of that? Well, as ironic as it sounds, it's that the game lacks a bit of an identity. Taking its laurels so directly from Team Ico's laconic masterpiece has the game feeling like a love letter more than its own ambitious attempt at the formula. And while the bosses play significantly faster than Shadow's slow and ominous encounters, they come with their own set of problems due to the game's most unique mechanic—one arrow, one hit, one kill.

To clarify, I really do like the design choice that Acid Nerve took with their combat: your diminutive archer can only fire a single purple-tipped arrow at his gargantuan foes, and if he misses he has to either pick it up or mystically recall it (by holding the attack button). One direct hit to the weak point of your foe is all it takes to slay them, but likewise the same applies to you, and its a task you'll find is far easier for your enemies than you. At first I felt indifferent on the archery mechanic (the thing I disliked the most was how disorienting the camera zoom-in/zoom-out was whenever you aimed or recalled the arrow), but in time I learned to appreciate the dynamism it added to battles, especially since summoning the arrow back to you doubles as a surprise attack. One moment I'd be clenching my fist in victory as I line up the killing blow, the next I'd be anxiously scrambling towards my arrow, rolling past projectiles like a tumbleweed caught in a tornado.

Though the combat system intrigues me plenty, answering whether or not it works well can be... difficult. Seeing as an Ironman mode is included in the game (and that people have no doubt completed it), I admit there's a lot more nuance to the Titan Souls than I'm likely to give it credit for. With that said, my first playthrough was littered with plenty of lopsided victories and losses. As per the "one hit, one kill" rules, encounters will play out pretty quickly, with either you or your enemy subdued in a dozen seconds or less. Most of the encounters will thankfully take longer than that as you die, run back to the boss arena, and then die again, but herein this cycle you'll learn that it's best to immediately strike as soon as you spot an opening. Since many of the battles open with the same gambit of attacks, you'll slowly grow wise to the shortest route to victory, firing your arrow in the face of oncoming danger in the hope of ending the battle before it ends you. On a couple of occasions the risk is absolutely worth it too, as waiting patiently for a "safe" opening doesn't bode well for your survivability—the mimic, yeti, and stone skull bosses in particular are best killed as soon as possible.

What's even more unfortunate than the encounters feeling so sharp and brief is that many of your victories may be aided massively by luck. In order to keep the bosses from falling prey to your first arrow, most of them hide their weak points or require you to do some fancy maneuvering so they'll reveal it to you. While the bosses that feel more like "puzzles" end up playing more fair, the ones that flash their weak point for only a fraction of a second are those that'll require such insane dexterity and precision that luck will inevitably play a role. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last boss, whom I could not figure out how to hit for the life of me—after a score of deaths the battle ended abruptly, with no discernible tactic employed other than "I hope he doesn't dodge my arrow this time." This particular fight is made especially disappointing in comparison to the secret final boss—which is by far the best and coolest fight in the game—but doesn't detract from the fact that Titan Souls opts to close on the most frustrating battle it can.

As you run to encounters over and over, there's a sinking feeling that will set in that this is all the game has to offer. Granted, you have some great pixel scenery to gaze upon as you trek back to a boss arena (with some cool music too), but there's something about the world that doesn't make it as mysterious or forlorn as the forbidden lands of Shadow of the Colossus. With such a simple control scheme and such itty-bitty animations its not really that fun to travel from setting to setting, and the story is so sparse and subtle that you don't really have anything to ponder during boss interludes. None of this is bad or boring, mind you—Titan Souls does its job admirably well—its just that it fails to stir emotions or demand any attention out of you other than "GO KILL BOSS". If the gameplay pleases you then this will only come across as a minor quibble, but if the combat isn't your cup of tea then it's best if you order another beverage.

Ultimately, I can't help but feel Titan Souls is somewhat unremarkable. There's undoubtedly talent behind its code and I don't regret the time I spent with it, but part of me feels really confounded by the whole experience. Outside of the secret final boss I'm not sure which encounters I thought were well designed or which ones I really enjoyed—some monstrosities looked more interesting than others (and the 3D models fit with the 2D aesthetic) but they by and large felt like an indecipherable mixed bag by the end. I wasn't turned off by the game, but I'm clearly not enthusiastic about it; Titan Souls is a solid effort by Acid Nerve that, like me controlling the small archer boy, arguably missed its mark.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I don't think Sandlot understands what makes Earth Defense Force so special. Mind you, this is not an easy claim to make: Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair is the biggest, craziest, most action-packed bug-blasting game they've made yet. It has four different classes with hundreds of weapons each, over twenty enemy variants, 4-player online co-op, and a staggering 80+ missions to complete across five difficulties—but quantity is not a good indicator of quality. The EDF series treads a thin line between being arcadey fun and mindless monotony, and the more time you spend with it the more you're likely to realize the games belongs to the latter category. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but the design decisions of EDF 4.1 serve only to bring its worst qualities to the surface.

This is a huge disappointment for me considering that I love Earth Defense Force 2017: it had the honor of being one of my first Xbox 360 titles and my virgin experience with EDF. I adored its bald-faced silliness and schlocky presentation, the game blatantly mimicking the melodramatic (and secretly patriotic) tone of the kaiju genre. I played it in those cherished years where I could blissfully waste afternoons farming for a single weapon drop on the couch with my brother, before hundreds of miles separated us and time became a rapidly diminishing resource. Earth Defense Force 2017 is a game that I admit is fully submerged in rosy nostalgia for me, but I had anticipated that my avidity for the series would carry me through Earth Defense Force 4.1 unmarred.

The first warning sign that EDF4.1 gave me was that nearly half of the game was an uncanny retread of the previous one. And I don't just mean EDF4.1 was following its themes or anything—enemies, locales, and mission structure were basically lifted straight out of the old game, the story eventually culminating in the same final fight against EDF2017's mothership orb. I understand that the entire series has always followed a similar story arc ("We're being invaded" -> "We can't beat them!" -> "We beat them!" [with a Godzilla knockoff somewhere in there]), but I expected a little more from EDF4.1 outside of fighting a couple of new enemy types. Instead of continuing what EDF2017 had built, EDF4.1 was content on regurgitating it ad verbatim, making me wonder what exactly I had spent my money on.

But thankfully, after Mission 40, a new menace had appeared! Covering the skies was a mighty iron curtain that dropped terrifying new enemies accompanied by a new type of dropship too! This is where the EDF4.1 gets considerably more exciting!... except that the game had been going on for so long that fatigue began to set in. Not only that, but the beats of the previous story arc were repeating once again here, the various "new" enemies replacing the role of the old ones (voidships instead of dropships, blue Hectors instead of regular ones, giant wasp queen instead of giant ant queen). The Deroys and Argo are super cool foes that are fun to fight, but I still feel the pacing of the game would've been improved had EDF4.1 started at the reign of the Earth Eaters, instead of piggybacking off of an experience I had already played to death.

Plus, the Earth Eaters are super lame. EDF 2017's mothership intimidated players with its screen-filling presence, the absurdly-named "Genocide Gun" on its underbelly able to destroy the player in a single hit if they got caught in its sweeping laser wave of death. The Earth Eaters on the other hand do... what exactly? They fill the sky above you, fire a handful of stationary beams, and release flying vehicles from a hatch... none of which capture "despair" as the game's title so readily implies (plus the latter two cells are easily destroyed). Only in two stages do the Earth Eaters come equipped with any sort of useful weapons, the second of which is the final battle of the entire game! It may seem silly to criticize a single enemy type so harshly, but part of what makes EDF great is that it captures the desperation of fighting off a purely malevolent alien army—so when you hear something like "the Earth Eaters have destroyed over half of the world!" and they're lazily sitting there ineffectually shooting two green lasers at a hillside, it shatters the absurd plausibility the game is aiming for. And don't get me started on how disappointingly flaccid the final boss is—the only good thing about it is the eerie sound it makes whenever you inflict damage.

While I've bemoaned a lot about the structure of the game, there are two additions to EDF4.1 that are extremely welcome: multiple classes and online coop. Thanks to these features I was able to play online with my brother as a Wingdiver, reliving the glory days of squashing giant insects together this time from high above in the sky. It's really neat that each of the classes significantly changes how you approach the game and its enemies (when you can fly dragons become harmless critters while Deroys can now melt you like butter), the Air Raider perhaps being the only class that's at an obvious disadvantage (air strikes still look rad, however). Unfortunately Sandlot even finds a way to pad the multiplayer out, separating the levels you complete in single player from the multiplayer campaign and restricting you from sharing your weapon & armor upgrades across classes. To 100% EDF2017, you need to play through the game 5 times in either single player and/or multiplayer, a task that took me 47 hours to complete; to 100% EDF4.1, you need to finish the game 20 times in both single player and multiplayer, of which a scant 2 playthroughs had already brought me to 37 hours. Couple this with the fact that the multiplayer feels skewed for four players instead of two (the final mission is a monster) and I could not clean my hands of this game fast enough.

It saddens me that I spent so much time airing my grievances for Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair rather than singing its praises. There's merit in EDF that's akin to the Dynasty Warriors series, offering the player a chance to turn off their brain and fight legions of baddies to their heart's content, with the game's self-serious attitude as another huge selling point. And to its credit EDF4.1 offers quite a bang for your buck, and at a stable framerate to boot (a first for the series!) It's just a damn shame that so much potential here is worn thin due to an excessive run time and retracing of old steps. Had half the levels been lopped off and a few tweaks made to the multiplayer, I probably would've been singing a different tune. As foolish as it may be, I earnestly hope that EDF5 takes a fresh approach to the series.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Super Mario Run - Thoughts

Mario is great! Ever since I was a kid I've loved the Bros. series, hailing the NES classics as the console's premier platformers. Few games truly capture the inventive, high-energy spirit of a pure platformer like Mario does (Rayman and Donkey Kong Country are the only other franchises that immediately spring to mind), and I think it's because the 2D Mario series grounds itself in two complementary mechanics: exploration and momentum. The Mario games are chock-full of small secrets to uncover, and the emphasis on mastering your momentum for accurate landings is a simple yet constantly engaging way to control the plucky plumber. A game like Mega Man isn't engaging to play in a vacuum because there's no complexity tied to its movement; Mario requires an awareness of your running speed at all times if you want to rescue Princess Peach and earn that coveted kiss.

And this is precisely why Super Mario Run works so well.

To specify, what I actually mean is "this is precisely why Super Mario Run works so well on paper". I think the platforming part of the game is great and fully justifies its $10 asking price, but the overall package is a strange fit for the mobile scene. On one hand you have this pretty simple but entertaining game that works great as a downloadable title on the Wii U or 3DS, but attached to it are these needless Toad Tickets and community building features that try to imitate the more successful products on the market—who exactly is this app designed for? The shallow town construction isn't going to satiate those addicted to Clash of Clans or Mobile Strike, and Toad Tickets serve no practical purpose since they're not monetized; it's like Nintendo wanted to make a half-step between "typical downloadable title" and "typical mobile game" but ultimately made something that's difficult to pitch to either crowd.

Even for as clever as the multiplayer component is, it's another aspect that's ambivalent on its target audience. Racing against another player's ghost through a stage and trying to snatch more coins than they can is fine in and of itself, but the addition of item boxes and layout rearrangements prioritizes randomization over memorization, something that's far better suited for real-time, head-to-head matches. On top of this, there's no way to see a player's high score or how skilled they are before you pick an opponent, only being able to "guess" their proficiency based on the amount of toads they've collected. Since you need to pay ten dollars straight-up in order to access the remaining levels, why not try and cater to the hardcore and institute leaderboards? If I feel like I'm the best 2-4 player around, why do I have to add friends from online message boards to see how I stack up? And why can't you let me race their ghosts in the multiplayer, or let me bet my toads in a one-on-one race, or practice the multiplayer stages before hand, or "favorite" players that I face in Rally Mode, or... anything?

Since toads are commodity tied solely to the town building aspect, it was easy to overlook that part of the game and simply sink my teeth into what Nintendo does best: make some damn good Mario levels.

Auto-runners are far from an untapped genre, so while Super Mario Run doesn't feel like a fresh take on the genre, it actually feels fresh for Mario fans. I was kinda unnerved by my foray into the title, finding it wholly unnatural that I couldn't turn around to pick up those few coins that I missed, but the more time I spent with Super Mario Run the more I adapted to this new style of play. And honestly, it's a lot of fun! Casual players get a taste of what speedrunning is like as they're pushed to complete levels with the fewest amount of mistakes possible, puzzling out ways to grab the most amount of coins while simultaneously having to execute perfect wall-jumps, aerial twirls, and koopa stomps. Those two key themes I mentioned before—exploration and momentum—are thankfully kept alive, as there are plenty of tricky ways you can nab a lot of coins by leaping off a foe's back or wall jumping to a secret location. Only a few stages feel dependent on enemy behavior and/or luck—the majority of the game plays well provided you play well, which is usually the mark of a tightly designed game.

If I am to gripe about the stages in Super Mario Run, it's that the game doesn't really have a difficulty curve, especially when going for a single type of special coin. The first world is basically as difficult as the last, which is to say that the whole game is a breeze to complete if you're only looking to topple Bowser. If you attempt to collect all the special coins, you'll unearth the real challenge this game provides, which is fairly no-nonsense for even the most hardened Mario vet. Collecting the black coins and surviving the black coin special stage takes the game to a whole 'nother plane of pain, something I relished greatly as a platforming masochist. I wouldn't say the game is worth your time if you're only interested in a single playthrough, but for those of us that have 100%ed all of the past titles, this is a game that absolutely cannot be missed.

I like Super Mario Run a whole lot, but the catch is that I would like it just as much had it been on any of my handhelds. There is no need for the game to be tied to the mobile market, and in some ways it's worse for attaching itself to mobile trends, unnecessary bloating the game with insidious monetization pitfalls that aren't even monetized to Nintendo's benefit! In spite of this, Super Mario Run is a great game to pick up and play for a bit should you find yourself needing to fiddle with something on your phone, the single player mode standing tall alongside its excellent New brethren. I would love to see a second stab at this somewhere down the road, because Mario and auto-running is a match made in heaven.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I still have to die a hundred more times to finish the black coin special stage (which has to be some sort of sadistic nod to Super Meat Boy, right?)


Other images obtained from: engardget.con,