I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Hello everyone…or at least everyone who remembers me!
Hope you’ve all been well – as you might be aware, I still pop in here regularly to look around and comment, it’s been some time since I last blogged myself. At this point I feel it’s high time to catch up a bit, and let you know what I’ve been up to: why now? There are a few reasons, but one particularly strong motivator wills me to write about gaming at this particular point in time:
The first four months of 2011 have saddled me with perhaps the most densely-packed new release schedule I’ve EVER experienced.
In a nutshell, I’m even MORE backlogged, broke, and over-stimulated than I’ve been in a long time: simultaneously, of course, I’m also in the mood to celebrate. Most gamers end up feeling “the crunch” around the holiday season, when publishers try to take advantage of audiences out gift shopping for each other, but for an aficionado of the offbeat these sudden gluts of interesting stuff can pop up just about anytime, especially when compounded by delays or other schedule changes – it’s already tough for my fellow weirdos and myself to prioritize one’s precious gaming time (or even keep track of all that’s out there), but it’s impossible not to feel a bit warm and fuzzy (and raring to blog!) at times like these.
So off we go: for anyone interested, I’ve cobbled together a list of all the new releases, import and domestic, that I’ve picked up from this past January through April, in order of their debuts, plus a handful of impressions and other thoughts about each. I haven’t played the whole batch to completion, obviously, but hopefully any curious onlookers will have a better idea of what’s going on after reading about one. Though I guess the video embeds will probably help too. Anyhow, as always, feel free to ask questions afterwards if I’ve neglected something!
Prinny 2: Dawn of Operation Panties, Dood!(Jan 11)
As you can tell from my review of the first Prinny, I want to like those dopey, explodey critters more than I actually do, but an excess of rote memorization and finger-killing button mashing kept me from doing so the first time around. At first glance the sequel appears to have made a few well-intentioned concessions to the less-masochistic among us: the various “tricks” and exploits necessary for success are more clearly explained at the start, and more importantly the “combo” meter is no longer utterly useless.
However, as noted by a fellow c-blogger, these improvements are largely rendered irrelevant: Prinny is, of course, still a weakling, and a single misstep is often enough to send him (and you) hurtling backwards, right off a platform and into a pit. To prevent this from happening, many areas still require a very specific sequence of actions on your part, and when little random things start popping up everywhere to throw your rhythm off, that’s a recipe for disaster – too much disaster for my liking. I suggest platforming masochists stick with Super Meat Boy. (DToid review here.)
DoDonPachi Dai-Fukkatsu Black Label(Feb 3)
…er, I think I’ll just abbreviate it DFKBL and be done with it. Anyway, the “regular” edition of Dai-Fukkatsu came to the (Japanese) 360 a few months ago, and I was honestly a bit underwhelmed by it: the DonPachi shooters are favorites of mine, but this latest entry just came across as excess for the sake of excess, and didn’t feel as well-tuned as its illustrious predecessors. When a “Black Label” revision was announced soon afterwards I was skeptical, but decided to give Cave a second chance: thank goodness I did. The stages, ships, and modes are much the same (save a few welcome tweaks, including the ability to turn the “auto-bomb” off), but the game system itself has been granted a necessary near-overhaul.
First and foremost, you can now fire your “main” and “laser” shots simultaneously to inflict extra damage, but doing this fills up a “rank” meter: the higher it builds, the angrier enemies get at you. At the same time, of course, your scoring possibilities also skyrocket, so the idea is to spend as much time at “P.O.’ed to the max” settings without being utterly flattened; easier said than done, naturally. Hypers (which allow your shots to cancel enemy bullets) can now be “shut off” early to save energy, but aren’t as abusable when it comes to building chains. Oh, and if you buy the retail version, you get an exclusive “Arrange” mode which takes all this stuff and dollops the proximity system from Ketsui on top: yeah, it’s pretty bonkers. This is an expensive add-on, and region-locked too, but for those with the means to snag it this bad boy definitely comes recommended.
Marvel vs Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds(Feb 15)
It’s a crying shame that this cross-promotion never actually happened, but considering how bleak prospects once looked for another Marvel/Capcom crossover one can’t complain TOO much. I’m hardly a fighting game expert, but I enjoyed MvC2 for what it was, though I obviously never got into the “whoever blinks first gets caught in an infinite” tournament mindset – this followup seems to take at least a slightly more “reserved” tack, with a smaller and better-balanced cast (though certain roster choices did make me scratch my head), which at the end of the day (along with glitch fixes and other patches) I’d call a decidedly wise design decision.
I’m not as huge of a fan of the new control scheme, as I tend to have an easier time keeping track of attacks clearly marked “punch” or “kick” as opposed to vanilla “weak” and “strong”, but it’s hardly an impossible adjustment to make – even on a pad I can generally do what I mean to do, though I’m nowhere near fast enough (or proficient enough on a joystick) to pull off anything impressive. A more in-depth “training/tutorial” mode would also have been appreciated for n00bs like myself, but I can say that about pretty much every fighter except Continuum Shift – all in all, it’s good to see these two perennially pugilistic universes beating the tar out of each other again. (DToid review here.)
Hyperdimension Neptunia(Feb 15)
Crossover RPG Trinity Universe was, I thought, an encouraging step in the right direction for much-maligned developer Idea Factory – while far from perfect, it partially overcame the company’s infamous penchant for burying bountiful surface appeal underneath layer after unnecessary layer of ill-conceived gameplay systems, and was fun enough for me to see through to the end. Then came news that a modified version of its base framework would appear in a new game, starring anthropomorphized characters spoofing the current generation of consoles: is there any way to make a hopeful nerd more excited? Then it came out.
To the credit of publisher NIS America, they did a darn good job on the localization: the uniquely Japanese sense of goofiness is intact, but everything flows nicely for English speakers in terms of dialogue and characterization. Tragically, the rest of the game doesn’t keep pace: the still-second-rate presentation I might have been able to forgive, but the limited cast (plus the extra sting of DLC characters, a trend I dislike, to put it mildly), one-step-forward-one-step-back battle system (no manual healing? really?), and baffling inventory setup go a long way in rendering the title’s gloriously pure geek appeal null and void. That said, Neptunia isn't a total tragedy, but IS a truly shameful waste of potential: a sequel is apparently in the works, but I’m running seriously low on patience at this point (yes, even in the face of a laser-breathing Inafune). IF, you’ve done this enough times now that you should be getting it right a lot more often. (DToid reviw here.)
Radiant Historia(Feb 22)
Atlus definitely knows how to hype a game, so when this one popped up seemingly out of nowhere I was a bit suspicious – having been disappointed by the similarly-sprung Hexyz Force (Sting, what happened?), I watched from a distance for awhile before finally deciding to take a chance and go for the pre-order: happily, I ended up bringing home perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year so far. For starters, it’s one of the rare RPGs you can put down for awhile and then resume without being totally lost: as you work through the timeline a perusable record is kept of all the game’s major events, and your allies all retain their levels and equipment no matter how many times you dimension-hop, so if you hate that nagging feeling of “maybe I oughta just restart…” give Historia a try.
The aforementioned time-travel theme and grid-based battle system are both well-implemented and fun, but what honestly impressed me most were the characters, both playable and NPC: it’s been a long time since a JRPG truly nailed a more “low-key” style, where everyone seems at least somewhat grounded in reality and don’t go out of their way to be “memorable” (which, in all likelihood, would just make me want to forget them). Kudos to the localizers and translators for doing a bang-up job on this front. Listen to Wry Guy, and pick this one up - encourage Atlus to make more like this! NOT THIS! (DToid review here
Ys 1 & 2 Chronicles(Feb 22)
Xseed did some mighty fine work with Ys Seven and Oath in Felghana late last year, so this one was obviously on my list too, especially since it was slated as superior to the DS compilation from a year or two earlier. It is a pretty impressive package, with nicely-revamped graphics, three (awesome) soundtracks to choose from and a handful of other extras, but I’ve also got a caveat for anyone considering a purchase: these are REALLY old games.
That’s part of the appeal, of course – “combat” is primarily running into enemies at particular angles, if you need a general idea of what you’re in for – but other recalcitrant “old school” elements, like super-obscure means of progression (especially in the first Ys) and an abundance of quick, “what just happened” deaths, tend not to endear themselves to modern gamers so easily. This state of affairs is understandable, since TOO many updates and adjustments would have resulted in purists crying foul, but if you’re curious about the Ys series I’d personally recommend starting with Oath in Felghana or the PS2 version of Ark of Napishtim, and deciding how far back in time you’d like to go from there. (DToid review here.)
Muchi Muchi Pork! and Pink Sweets(Feb 24)
If there were two Cave shooters seemingly destined to remain obscure arcade exclusives, these were it: kooky, fan-servicey, and Freakin’ Tough, neither were ever destined for mass audiences. Lo and behold, the developer suddenly decides to bundle ‘em together on the 360, with a nice load of bonuses in tow: alongside the original “Arcade” modes for each game are tweaked “1.1” versions and all-new “Arrange” variations, plus first-print buyers can download a “Matsuri” version of Pork! which adds some bosses from Pink to the recipe.
The graphics haven’t been enhanced at all, but they’re still lookers to be sure, and once you’ve got a handle on how everything works both titles are lots of fun, but their limited commercial viability means that Cave didn’t devote enough time to getting the details right: the “Arcade” modes for both are imperfect, scores from them and “1.1” modes are not separated, and several other annoying omissions exist (oh, and forget about the “infinite lives trick” in Pink if you were counting on that). Still, this is a package well worth picking up for shmup fans, and it’s region-free, so get importing, ALL of you!
I’d actually just finished up the first Okami on the PS2 not long before this came out, so at first the timing seemed ideal to take this one for a spin…as fate would have it, though, I’ve actually devoted less time to this one so far than any of the batch o’ new stuff covered here (sorry, but I really AM overloaded!). From what I’ve seen of it up to this point, though, it’s about as good a “conversion” (for lack of a better term) of Okami to the DS as one might expect: this, as it happens, is both its best and worst aspect.
While the cel-shaded “ink painting” style still looks like a million bucks on the small screen, the lack of a second analog stick makes moving around and seeing what’s going on more cumbersome than in its big brother. The amount of reused assets (guess who needs another drying pole?) doesn’t help matters either, though, again, it’s impressive from a technical standpoint how much they were able to do with the hardware (albeit with some additional loading). I can’t say a heckuva lot more than this at the moment…except that, yeah, that li’l puppy bugger is stupidly cute. I’m man enough to admit it. (DToid review here.)
Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel( Mar 15)
If you ever check out the pair of writeups I did on Ar Tonelico II, then you’ll know I’m a pretty big fan of the series: despite being aimed squarely at the “otaku” brain, its world is unique and well-realized, and treating your party’s physically- and magically-inclined characters as separate “groups” adds a neat dimension to combat. II’s ending suggested a sequel, and here it is: once again, the West is lucky enough to get a shot at it, but despite serving (presumably) as the saga's conclusion this one is sadly the weak link of the bunch.
The primary culprit here is the ill-fitting, real-time Star Ocean-esque battle system: ally AI is non-existent, with no way to alter your comrades' behavior, and physical attacks are so clunky and inconsequential that their only real use is to build up the Reyvateil’s powerful songs for the killing blow whilst spamming healing items. The attractive art and setting are still here, and the “diving” mechanic remains intriguing, but the “naughty” elements are also starting to cross the line from “oh Japan” to “eww, Japan”. If you’ve tried the Ar Tonelico games before you already know if it’s worth your time to see the tale through to its conclusion: if you’re not sure, start with the first two and you’ll quickly find out. (DToid review here. As a side point, apparently the trigger to obtain the “true” ending is rather obtuse, but I managed to stumble onto it without knowing what it was. Make of that what you will.)
Monster Tale(Mar 16)
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure is one of my favorite DS titles (heck, one of my all-time favorite platformers, period), so when I heard that several of the people involved with it were working on a sprite-based “Metroidvania” title, I was nothing short of ecstatic. The end result is both all I hoped it would be and a victim of my probably-unfair expectations: starting with the bad news, the charming pseudo-British Hatsworth cast and art style have been largely supplanted by a decided “white guy trying to do anime” vibe (this is why I hate conventional marketing wisdom so much), and the interconnected areas, while attractive, are not expansive or secret-ridden enough to match their more established competition.
On the bright side, Hatsworth’s controls and combat were top-notch, and they’re even better here: your main character can still freely mix up close- and long-range attacks with a little timing practice, and the addition of a monster pal, whose special techniques can be activated pretty much at will, opens up even more options to smack your adversaries silly. Encounters play out as continuing “experiments” to try and beat the most loot out of everything and evolve your buddy into new forms, making the required backtracking much more bearable and giving the game more bite than its focus-grouped veneer suggests. I do wish a more challenging extra mode unlocked after finishing: it would have suited this game much better than the already-taxing Hatsworth’s brutal “Gentleman Mode” did. (DToid review here.)
A few of you might be aware of Judgment Silversword, a fan-made shoot-em-up that eventually earned itself a physical (and very expensive on the secondhand market) release on the Wonderswan handheld; few have tried it, but those who have give it nothing but effervescent praise. If that line caught your attention, note that this 360 shmup is a spiritual sequel, featuring the same original programmer and publisher: though its graphics are laughably outdated, the rest of the game (and its region-free status) make a strong case for your import dollars.
Basically, across all modes you’ve got a “narrow” shot, “wide” shot, and limited frontal shield, which must be used in tandem to plow through the legions of aliens between you and the end credits. “Standard” mode keeps things simple: kill every enemy onscreen, and do it fast, for the most points. “Advanced” makes things more interesting: here, you can power up your shots, but this weakens your shield, which you’ll want to use to cancel bullets for extra points, so you’ll have to strike a balance between offensive and defensive power to excel. Both modes have three default difficulty variations, alongside “Time Attack” and “Endless”: oh, and did I mention that Judgment Silversword and its “remix”, Cardinal Sins, are included on-disc as bonuses? If you’re hankering for a shooting experience that harkens back to the good old days, look past the unattractive exterior and pick this up.
Bullet Soul(Apr 7)
5pb, known primarily for its visual novels, hasn’t exactly endeared itself to shmuppers lately: Cave hired them to port DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou Black Label to the 360 a few years back, and the result was a semi-disaster until they brought in outside help to patch it much later on. Seemingly undaunted, however, the company soon announced an all-new shooter, developed entirely in-house: to call me and many others skeptical was an understatement. Then, however, I headed to the game’s official page, and was promptly knocked on my tuchus by more 80’s-style cheesiness than one could shake a sparkly neon glow stick at: not long after this, it was confirmed that 5pb was reaching out to international buyers by making Bullet Soulregion-free. Against my better judgment, I decided to give these guys one more shot at winning me over.
In terms of over-the-top insanity, the final product certainly doesn’t disappoint: ludicrous characters, boatloads of evil robots and alien bugs, big loud explosions, screen-covering homing lasers, huge “BONUS!” messages popping up all over the place, it’s all here, in spades. Despite how busy it is, the basic idea is pretty easy to grasp: you’ve got a “normal” and “focused” shot, plus a supply of smart bombs, and killing any enemy cancels all their bullets into “souls” which cannot harm you. If this makes the game sound easy, it is, until you try for a high score: to rack up points you have to destroy enemies up close, which forces you to be much more efficient with your kills to avoid being point-blanked. What’s here is fun, but it’s a little sparse: apart from a few “trick kills” there are no other scoring aspects to practice (the “souls” do absolutely nothing), and the only additional “modes” are single-stage score attacks. There’s DLC on the way, but that’s rather cold comfort: I recommend downloading the demo on Japanese XBL before plunking down the cash.
Portal 2(Apr 19)
The day I finally picked this one up officially marked the end of “Utterly Bonkers Gaming Glut 2011”…phew. That said, the original Portal is one of the few first-person games I’ve ever been able to get into, let alone (eventually) finish, so I was quite excited about the prospect of another like it, though some of the nutso stuff shown in the trailers made me feel even more inadequate: against all odds, as it turns out, I managed to make it through the single-player mode with few problems (and if a doofus like me can do it, so can anyone). The new elements do complicate things a bit, but there tend to be fewer choices of where to place portals than before, so you don’t have to fumble around as much when looking for a solution: this does take a bit of the “edge” off of the experience, but I’d say it was largely a necessity.
On other fronts, GLaDOS is still a hoot, and I ended up liking the dimwitted Wheatley more than I thought I would: Aperture founder Cave Johnson also gets a good performance from That Guy From Law and Order: SVU, but I found some of his script lines to reek more of “sledgehammer wit” than anything else (seriously, nobody likes a good jab at ethics-free corporate science than I do, but it does need a bit of, y’know, nuance to really hit the mark). I don’t go online much so co-op is probably destined to sit idle (unfortunate, since it’s supposed to be good), but it can’t really be helped: I do hope Valve supports the community on all three platforms, though I ended up buying the PS3 version (which is linked to its PC counterpart) just in case…aaaaand naturally, the PSN goes down. (DToid review here.)
Well, there you have it: the list of games I've picked up at launch these past four months. These aren't all I've played, of course, but I won’t go much deeper into that here: what I WILL devote a bit of space to is a short rundown of a few new games from this period that I was also watching, but eventually passed up to make room for the rest…and why I ended up deciding as I did. Feel free to take me to task on any of the points I bring up: as you can see from the above section, my resistance to the prospect of another offbeat product to add to my collection is pathetically weak!
Lost In Shadow – The nifty visual style and concept perked up my proverbial ears, but the second I heard the platforming and combat controls compared to the original Prince of Persia’s, that was it for me. With so much else crowding my gaming schedule, I just couldn’t see myself devoting much time to an interface that would in all likelihood drive me nuts, even with some redeeming elements surrounding it.
de Blob 2 – I generally enjoyed the first de Blob on Wii, at least for the 15-buck price tag I eventually got it at, so when a sequel appeared at a slightly reduced price point I decided it deserved at least a quick spin. Good thing I tried before I buyed…er, bought – it’s still colorful, bright, and full of infectious energy, but the edges are also still rough, from weird-feeling jumping and camera controls to irritating glitches (when a beach umbrella opened up and trapped me inside it, that was when I decided to pass). I expected a bit more polish from a sequel…though I am still a bit curious as to how the DS version plays.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – As someone who spent a decent amount of time with the first Ogre Battle, those pre-order tarot cards looked mighty tempting, but I was forced to lay off: to state it plainly, I just don’t have the same time or patience to devote to twenty-character, 45-minute battles as I used to, even if the experience is a “high-quality” one. I'd be ashamed to admit how many SRPGs I have languishing on my shelf, thanks to my hesitance to ever start one with the intention of finishing it...and I thought my attention span might actually improve as I got older.
Phantom Brave: The Hermuda Triangle – To put it bluntly, despite the handful of extras I’ve already bought this thing twice, and am in no hurry to do so again, even for a measly twenty. Also see my previous comments about my…malleable relationship with SRPGs.
Jikandia: The Timeless Land – Apparently some of the same guys behind Half-Minute Hero worked on this, so I became immediately interested: the PSN demo, however, left me mostly unimpressed. The visual style and theme are endearing, but the platforming and combat are bone-simple: that’s not necessarily a negative, until you apply the “time gimmick”. Basically, you can choose to have a stage run from 3 minutes to a half-hour, or anything in between: nice in concept, but the longer you choose to stay in a level the better loot starts popping up, so you’re forced to repeat the same landscapes until you’re sick of them if you want the best stuff. Not a wise decision to actively push players into going against what the game does best.
The 3rd Birthday – Weirdness is my thing, and Parasite Eve is definitely weird, but third-person shooters (even weird ones) usually aren’t, especially on the less-than-ideal PSP format. Maybe I’ll give it a rent at some point, but I don’t see my inherent curiosity leading me a whole lot farther than that, unfortunately – Square, for Pete's sake, stop doing this to me!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – As much as I like Falcom and JRPGs, any of the latter which even flirt with the “generic” label are an instant turn-off to me these days: from what I hear Trails is very well-crafted and got a great localization, but I just can’t get past the exterior layers and combat system, both of which I’ve seen a million times before, when I could be playing something like Shadow Hearts instead. Part of me hopes that the game sells well and that the sequels follow it here, but I’m afraid that if this happens it won’t be any of my doing.
Mamoru-kun is Cursed! Widescreen Edition – I’m glad to see the regionless PS3 finally getting a little shmup support, and certainly don’t mind the prospect of getting the DLC characters for free here, but I DO already own this game on the 360, and despite its charms I’m in no big hurry to fork over another wad for pretty much the same thing. A bunch of reported freezing bugs doesn’t exactly stoke my enthusiasm either.
Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection – FF4 was my very first RPG (as FF2 on the SNES, of course), and will always hold a special place in my heart, but as I said in the Trails segment above, at this point I’ve played so many of the darn things that they really need to do something different to keep me interested. Prettified graphics (well, minus some of those character sprites, which look more deformed than the originals) and the After Years bonus stuff is all well and good, but I think I’ll wait ‘til the price comes down a bit, at the very least.
I guess that about does it concerning my semi-relevant gaming thoughts and experiences for this year so far - hopefully you’ve encountered something of interest in there someplace. As you might expect, while the rest of 2011 doesn't look nearly as crowded for me, there ARE still several items coming down the pike that I'm watching intently (and, in some cases, have already plunked down money for). I plan on discussing those too...
…in my NEXT blog entry, which should be showing up here pretty soon.
Thanks for reading everyone, it’s good to write a little for you again: oh, and if you come back for Part 2 of “What I've Been Up To”, you might find a little surprise waiting there! :)