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I am free to disclose that I very much like games. It apparantly follows that this makes me (and YOU, fellow game liker friends) an insane murderer-in-the-making, but so far my IRL body count is pretty low - I believe I'm on roughly the same score as Rolf Harris.
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The Backlog

Review 2- Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut- for Playstation 3



This game has not been on the backlog for very long, and is one of those games I have always wanted to play, more or less entirely thanks to it's cult status, and because of Destructoid's own Jim Sterling and other staff members singing it's praises.  However, I never had an Xbox and was unable to play it, until the Director's Cut came out.  After seeing it for a bafflingly generous discount only days after release, I picked it up and got to playing it.

Deadly Premonition is framed as a murder mystery investigation, with a beautiful young girl being brutally murdered in a small, rural American logging town, and the player takes the role of the FBI Special Agent sent in to investigate.

The opening cutscene of the game, which rolls before the title screen and depicts two young boys and their grandpa finding a body in the woods, is kind of a microcosm for the rest of the game.  The first thing you'll see are some truly terrible graphics, followed by some pretty awkward animations on fairly low polygon character models, and also some amusingly inappropriate facial expressions.  However, the scene being depicted is so unusual, and is presented in such an interesting manner, to be oddly compelling.  The image of the body in particular, which has been gruesomely opened at the belly and posed naked to a tree in a crucifix pose, immediately made me beg the question "what on Earth happened here".   This epitomizes the game for me- despite some serious flaws, the game kept me wanting to know what was going on, and from this moment on until credits roll, keeps presenting more and more things I just wanted to dig deeper into, from the mystery itself, to smaller details.

The game then starts in earnest.  You are introduced to the incredibly affable Agent Francis York Morgan, who you'll be playing throughout the adventure.  His introduction is very well done, and surprisingly got across quite a lot of character information about him right away, while also doing what this game does best- confusing you.  York talks to an invisible friend called Zach, who may or may not be real, and seems to be at once very professional and efficient while also not taking anything very seriously.  You find out more about him as the game progresses, and I found myself becoming extremely attached to and invested in this coffee guzzling, cartoon loving oddball (as my Avatar perhaps gives away).


                The trustworthy face of our hero.  You will come to love it.

All this before the gameplay even starts!  Let's discuss that, shall we?  The actual game itself is split roughly into two sections.   Your first experience is with the action sections, where you must navigate through a fairly linear environment whilst fending off creepy zombie-like creatures that boil from the shadows.  These enemies start out quite creepy, but you'll be seeing the same ones almost exclusively throughout the game and their charm wears out after a while.  You can deal with them with firearms,  where aiming will root York to the spot and allow him to use his laser sight, or use melee weapons, which allow you to move slowly while swinging and are more damaging, but make you get closer and can break.   

The combat actually has a little bit of depth to it, in that guns have an auto-aim that goes centre mass, but you can also free aim to try and get slightly trickier headshots which takes enemies down quicker and gives you bonus points.  The melee weapons offer a risk-reward proposition due to forcing you closer to enemies.  Unfortunately, this depth is not really explored too much, due to the lack of enemy variety, their low threat level, and the fact that you'll get indestructible melee weapons if you do only a couple of sidequests that more or less break the combat.  These sections also tend to be unrelentingly linear, and the odd puzzle is just a mask, since you just have to keep going and find the clearly marked item that will allow you to come back and open the locked door, or occasionally solve a really simple numerical or block puzzle.

Far more successful in these segments are intermittent encounters with the Raincoat Killer, the mysterious, glowing eyed antagonist of the game.  You never actually fight him as such, but he occasionally chases you down a corridor and you must perform quick time events to get away, or he will corner you in a room and you must hide to avoid him.  For the most part, these encounters are very tense, even if some of the quick time events can be awkward.  You will quickly have a Pavlovian fear reaction to the sound of axes grating as they are dragged along the floor.

Fortunately, however, combat is not really the point of the game, and is more of a roadblock to the other sections of the game.  Most of your time is spent in what could be referred to as exploration sections, where you are free to explore the town of Greenvale more or less at your leisure.  York can walk or drive about the rather large town, which is a sandbox environment in which the supporting cast live.  They have rather impressive routines built in that see them going to work, doing their shopping,  and stopping to prepare or go out for meals. Some of their behaviour even changes depending on the weather.  Very few games even attempt this level of fidelity in terms of having their setting and characters make sense logistically, and it pulls off quite a good illusion, especially since it will take players a while to truly grasp just how detailed the routines of the characters can be, and how it even occasionally can allow inference or deduction of character information.


  Fishing is one of a few side activities. Of course, it's as surreal as everything else.


Navigation is a bit problematic to begin with, as the map is quite useless.  It necessitates opening the menu a lot, and even then the orientation of the map can be inconsistent, meaning looking at it can make you even more lost.  In a weird way, this kind of works to the overall feel of the game, though.  In the plot, York is a city-slicker outsider for the first while, and it oddly makes sense that he'd have trouble getting around at first.  The town has enough land marks that by the time York becomes more acclimatized in the plot, you'll know your way around.   That said, it's hard to imagine that this was by design, but as I'll elaborate on further, this is one of those things that ought to be an issue and yet the game convinces you to overlook it and even appreciate it.

Speaking of the plot, this is delivered mostly in "mission" segments, which begin by having York attend a certain place at a certain time of day.  This usually triggers a cutscene and will advance the plot in some way.  I won't elaborate on any details, but these scenes range from awkward to hysterical to genuinely disturbing, and as the game goes on and the stakes are raised, become gripping and emotional, even as the game throws more and more silliness at you. Although the story itself is linear and the player has little agency, it is surprisingly well told with a lot of detail, and offers up sufficient information and intrigue to keep you asking questions about what it all could mean. Many of the characters also slowly reveal themselves to have interesting depth and motivation, despite initially seeming one dimensional or stereotypical, with York himself undergoing quite the arc.   The plot is one of the two pillars of the game for me, and is what keeps you wanting to forge on. 


                               This grisly murder acts as impetus for the plot

The other pillar is harder to describe, but I suppose it could be summed up as "charm".  This game has so many moments that are strange, baffling or weird, and above all just so different from what one normally sees in games, or in any other media really, that it quickly engenders a comforting feeling.  Cute little things like York being perfectly willing to eat smoked salmon he finds in a haunted lumbermill, to a weaponized guitar, to a set of keys themed after non-differentiable squirrels add to the charm.   Even at its darkest, the game never broods or  feels like it is taking itself too seriously, and this underlying tongue in cheek tone, combined with a growing sense of familiarity with the town and the characters, and with York himself, culminates in making the player feel a sense of belonging that is extremely rare in games.  This is bolstered further still by odd yet thoughtful details, such as York's beard growing in real time if you don't shave, and his suit getting dirty if you don't change and wash it.


                      Presumably York carries all of that $6541.24 as loose change


I'd also like to give special mention to the way in which we learn about York.  As mentioned, York speaks to an unseen friend, Zach.  Well, he talks to Zach even while alone, meaning you'll hear him pontificate about a lot of topics while you drive about town.  The driving on it's surface is quite slow and boring, even as you upgrade your car, but I found myself wanting to drive everywhere, even after getting a teleporting radio device, to hear more about York through his conversations with Zach.  Not to spoil anything, but this feature means you'll know a lot more about York's tastes and inclinations than you otherwise would.  These optional dialogues are similar to the codec conversations of the Metal Gear series, and achieve a similar level of success in fleshing out the characters and adding to the endearing nature of the cast.

I'd normally talk about the graphics and sound and all that jazz, but to be honest, I kind of stopped caring about those things.  The aforementioned charm of the game made these things stop mattering, and occasionally their ineptitude even enhanced the game by providing amusing moments where the soundtrack doesn't fit the scene, or where York will display a hilarious devil-like grin.  It's kind of hard to justify allowing this exception, but once this game get's it's hooks into you, it really does defy objective analysis.


            Much like this unbelievably delicious turkey sandwich, it's all about taste


To sum up, this is a game I began to enjoy in an ironic manner, much like one would with a "so bad it's good" movie like The Room.  However, as I kept playing, kept uncovering more plot details, kept seeing more strange events, and learned more about the odd cast of characters, the irony slowly faded and I was left with nothing but genuine affection for this game, and the unique experience it ultimately offers up, with a plot that keeps you wanting to know more, and exploration sections that allow you to learn more about the characters if you choose to take the time to do so. Like Columbo, even though it is pretty scruffy and might ruin your  day occasionally, you really can't help but love it and appreciate what it can do.
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I have a problem.  The worst problem a child trapped in the body of man can have.  My collection of video games has finally reached critical mass.  About fifty too many steam sales, good deals on eBay and nice pre-owned prices at Game have left me with more games than I can possibly ever realistically get through unless I stop buying, right now, and actually get to playing them.


                                               It's a cruel world


To facilitate this plan, and to control the buying impulses of my future self, I've resolved to set about finally playing all the games I've amassed, and to also write a review of them.  Hopefully this will allow me to engage a bit more with the games themselves, and prevent me from having to file for bankruptcy.


9 HOURS, 9 PERSONS, 9 DOORS

WARNING- I'm trying not to do spoilers, but I highly recommend playing this game and getting every ending before reading.  I'm not an experienced reviewer and may slip up or get overexcited in this regard.

This is one of those games I had heard of that had a "cult" following and supposedly had a very good plot and some nice puzzles, so when I saw it on eBay for a nice discounted price I decided to get it.

The game is of the "visual novel" genre, with the general premise that you have been trapped on a ship, and must solve a serious of devious puzzle rooms set up by an unknown mastermind to escape.  The player takes on the role of Junpei (not to be confused with the Persona 3 character), a 21 year old college student, who has been abducted and finds himself in a third class cabin of a cruise liner, and immediately must solve a puzzle to escape the room before it floods. Spoilers, he escapes, and after doing so he meets up with another 8 people- making up the titular 9 persons- who have also been captured, and who have each been assigned a number from 1 to 9 designated by mysterious watch-like bracelets firmly fixed to their wrists.  Their captor, zero, then tasks them with working their way through 9 puzzle rooms within a 9 hour time limit, or they will die as the ship sinks. Additionally, failing to adhere to some rules will result in a grisly death as a bomb inside the individual will explode.

I don't wish to spoil anything, so will simply say that the rest of the story is spent working your way through the puzzle rooms, and on the way finding out more about your fellow prisoners, and trying to work out why you've been captured, by whom, and  figuring out what is going on all while trying to escape with your life.  The story eventually culminates in a rather glorious, mind bending outcome that makes excellent use of the fact that the story is delivered as a game with multiple choices and possible endings.  I can't say much more without ruining it, but once you've achieved 100% completion (your progress is measured by how many of the 6 endings you've seen) you'll know what I'm talking about.


          My first theory involved a Metal Gear crossover.  I'm still hopeful.
 


The game itself is split roughly into two sections.  The most game-like of these are the escape room sections, where the player navigates their way through the puzzles.  The other is what the game calls "novel sections", where the main body of plot transpires, although occasionally some story pieces turn up in the puzzle sections.

The escape room sections put the player, usually alongside some of the other captives, in a locked of area of the ship comprising a few rooms.  You can't go back out the way you came, so your only choice is to solve the puzzle in the rooms and thus move forward. 

 The rooms are presented as 2D artworks, and are presented with sufficient detail that it is very clear what everything is supposed to be, and this is often supplemented by text descriptions as well.  The layouts are have sufficient coherency to mean that important items are delineated enough that you'll naturally notice and click on them during their investigations, without them feeling as though they've been modified so as to stick out to the player.   This adds to the feeling that you're working out the solution rather than having it handed to you on a silver platter.

Control wise, the player uses the bottom touch screen on the DS to click on objects that might be of interest, resulting in a description from Junpei or his companions, and might result in the item being picked up and added to your inventory, where it can be examined further and sometimes combined with other objects to make a new tool. Diligent exploration of the rooms will quickly lead you so working out where the exit is, and is normally quite clear on what needs to be achieved to get out- your job is finding the necessary clues, items and sometimes codes and manipulating the right objects to make it happen.  It is also worth nothing that each puzzle room is self contained, meaning you'll be using all the items you find in that area for that particular puzzle, eliminating the need to carry around items from the whole game, and allowing you to focus on each challenge as it presents itself, safe in the knowledge you won't break a future puzzle if you forge ahead.



      A lot of the puzzles are math based.  Fortunately, the game provides one of
               these bad boys for the mathematically disinclined among us

I found the puzzles to generally strike a good balance between being actually achievable while still being difficult enough that you didn't feel like the game was pandering to you.   That said, your companions can get a bit too enthusiastic with saying "good job, Junpei!" whenever you complete a simple task, and the rules of the game (by that I mean the game in the plot, not the game itself) are hammered in maybe a little too hard, but this is understandable as they underpin every puzzle, and are also important in the narrative and decisions you make there.

There are a couple of problems, however.  The game features quite a nice ambient hint system, where your companions will give their thoughts on some of the puzzles before you, which is generally fine, and adds credibility to the idea that you are not the only one actively trying to work out an escape route.  However, the threshold which prompts them to basically spell out the solution is arguably a bit low.  I found myself triggering it a few times just by clicking on objects in the environment to hear what Junpei had to say about them, only for the game to figure I was having trouble and giving me the solution.  Some kind of option to turn off the hints until you actually get stuck would have been nice.

Another thing worth noting is that the plot emphasizes that time is of the essence, and yet there is not time restriction on these sections.  Game play wise this is probably for the best, as the puzzles occasionally get quite devious and you might get stuck, but again perhaps some kind of option to enact a time limit would be good.  That said, though, a time limit probably wouldn't make sense as it would just result in putting the player back to the start of the area and forcing them to go through the motions of doing the steps they had already worked out again, so this omission actually makes a lot of sense.  Also, the soundtrack and quips of the characters also reinforce the idea of time ticking away, and the plot is so riveting I was motivated to get through these areas quickly to find out what was next. As such, the lack of time limit is justified even if it does result in a little cognitive dissonance.

This leads us to the novel sections of the game novel sections of the game, which is where the lion's share of the plot is delivered, and take the form of long sections of text, supplemented by similar background artwork to that featured in the puzzle rooms. Characters are represented by large cutouts with extremely limited animations.  Their actions are conveyed almost entirely by descriptions, and they only have a few poses, but these are generally sufficient to allow them to emote.

Despite the limited art in these sections, the presentation is ultimately successful due to the rather strong writing and the distinct personalities of each of the characters.  All of the cast quickly establish their mannerisms and temperaments, and the text is usually able to communicate via the words alone how the character is feeling and what their tone is, leaving the art to accentuate the story and characters, and act as shorthand to delineate who is speaking. 


                                     9 Doors.... I'm so sorry.


The only interactive element of the novel sections involve making decisions.  This is actually very important as it can heavily change the outcome of the game, and lead you towards one of the game's six distinct endings (well, 5 in truth, one ending is just cuts off early for some reason). These decisions succeed in being quite nerve wracking due to the aforementioned engaging nature of the plot, as you'll be trying to make the best decision based on what you think you've gathered from the events so far, even though it really is impossible for the first couple of decisions to even be able to make such guesses as you haven't had enough plot information yet.

Together, the puzzles and novel sections add up to really reinforce the scenario, and compliment each other very well, and their interspersion helps a lot with the atmosphere- just like the characters, you'll be living in fear of the next big puzzle, and while doing that, worrying about the ramifications of the decisions you've made.

This gives the game a nice flow, which is underpinned by wanting to know what happens next in the story.  The story is undoubtedly the best thing about this game, and it will compel you onward.  Great care has also been taken to almost constantly give the player new information about the characters and plot, and throws out red herrings and has characters say enough things that could be construed by the player as suspicious to make the player really engage with the plot and want to play more so they can discover more.  I was actively trying to work out what was going on at basically all times when playing, and was concocting theories about how certain people might be connected between play sessions.

The final aspect of the game is that it is really intended to be played multiple times to get all of these endings, and doing so is necessary to make sense of the whole thing as each ending offers unique information about the overall goings on and gets you a bit nearer the overall truth. This is good in that it makes the story a lot longer and multi-faceted than it first would seem, and also allows more time to flesh out the characters (even if some get more love than others). This intention for multiple playthroughs is also indicated by having your save file remember your previous choices by greying out the one's you've already taken, and allowing you to fast forward dialogue you've already read by holding right on the Dpad.

 However, it also means repeating a lot of sections as there is no option to pick up where you left off, and repeating a bunch of puzzles. You'll be doing the intro puzzle by reflex after a few times.  It does get rather old though.  Additionally, the decisions for getting the "best" endings involves a fairly specific set of requirements that are not necessarily that obvious, and it is quite possible to get the same ending multiple times without getting any new information. 

That said though, once it all comes together, working out how to get the best resolution was immensely rewarding, and really helps the game come together as it's own grand puzzle in itself, and is rather masterfully carried out..  It adds up to making a game that allowed me to become thoroughly absorbed by the story, even if, upon reflection, there were a couple of loose ends and things that didn't quite seem to add up (but I've yet to play the sequel and they'll maybe sort all of that out there).


                      9 Hours, 9 Personas, 9 Doors I'd buy it and eat the cartridge.  


If you like a good story, I highly recommend you pick this game up, as it spins an absorbing yarn and makes such good use of the format that it would be a good pick for an exemplar of why games can be art and can achieve things other mediums could not.  For a game featuring relatively little actual game play, the combination of interesting puzzles, strong plot, fascinating characters and intricate mystery, interspersed with player decision making, comes together to give this game a surprising forward momentum that makes it very difficult to put down until you've seen everything it has to offer. An excellent package overall.

(The image of Junpei and Junpei can be found at http://amm-fanworks.livejournal.com/5690.html)
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I think I have a problem. That problem is modahol.


Sweet nectar


I’ve become that guy, the guy who took chemistry in high school, and then thought he could make meth after watching Breaking Bad, and ended up getting in way too deep.

I previously had been partial to putting some simple mods in games. You couldn’t even call them mods, really, the were mostly fan-made patches and bug fixes that the designers had made very easy to install, even including executables to make it as though the game developer had officially released them.

My first experience with a real mod that actually changed something in the game was in Dragon Age: Origins. My favourite game ever (I will accept no challenges to this) is Baldurs Gate II, so I had been following Dragon Age closely and had seen every trailer. I found some characters depicted in FMV trailers looked nothing like their in-game counterparts. Some modders apparantly felt the same and made “face morphs” for those characters to resemble their original perception of how they should look. Carefully following readme files to the letter, I successfully installed these simple changes, and let me tell you, my friend, it was like opening my eyes for the first time, and seeing that I too could as unto a God! Well, not quite, but it certainly made me aware that there was more to by favourite hobby than I had previously thought. I ended up installing a couple of other very simple cosmetic mods, and even one that restored some cut dialogue. And so was lit the proverbial fire, although it lay dormant for some time since I was at the time mostly unaware of the sheer possibilities.



Oh yeah, look at that smug face. Pretty much sums up ol' Morrigan's character.


At the relevant time, I had a fairly decrepit computer, but whenever I came into a bit of cash I liked to look for deals on hardware and upgrade the old girl a bit. By the middle of 2010, it had gotten so useless I didn’t buy many PC games for some time, fearing I couldn’t run them. As such, games like New Vegas and Skyrim all came to my console. I found out soon after, though, that the PC experience with these games was much better thanks to modding, so when I finally upgraded my PC again in June 2012, I got my hands on digital copies of each of these games, via our trusty buddies at Steam. And so it began in earnest.

I got New Vegas, the ultimate edition with all the DLC included, first., Even in its vanilla state, with no mods at all, it is among my favourite few games of this generation thanks to having a focus on survival, how it handles factions, and how it allows for multiple outcomes in various scenarios, among other reasons. Nonetheless, I set about trying to install some mods.

If you go down this path, you should start where I did with the help of people like Gopher (http://www.youtube.com/user/GophersVids?feature=watch), a prolific modder and video maker who has made numerous user friendly guides on modding. In fact, the folks at Nexus and their attached forums are generally very friendly, helpful, and accommodating to newcomers, so I'd urge anyone with an interest to head over there at http://nexusmods.com/.

Following Gopher’s advice, I installed about 20 mods that made the game more realistic, added a new fully voiced companion more in-depth than what Obsidian had made, added back-packs for immersion, put in about 10 times the amount of original creatures, snuck in a bunch of dungeons, and made it possible to be a bounty hunter in the style of Clint Eastwood in a series of fully fleshed out quests.

I really should have stopped there. I lost control and ended up with almost 200 mods. I didn’t even need some of them, or even though about how I intended to use them- I just thought they sounded cool so I’d stick it on. I had also become somewhat literate, or so I though, in modding terminology, and knew about things like “load order” and the difference between an esp and esm.

Then the crashes started. Oh man, the crashes. This is the real problem. After the crashes start, unless you’ve been totally meticulous, it can be hard to tell why they are happening. It turns out my knowledge was very rudimentary, and was enough to get by and get the game working at first, but this is only because the mod community has made so many good tools, like Mod Manager, that does all the hard stuff for you. When compatibility and code changes come into things, you realize you’ve been drowning and hadn’t even noticed. I tried everything to fix them, but no dice. I uninstalled all the mods, but found I couldn’t go back to just a few mods, let alone vanilla. It just wasn’t the same, having seen the possibilities.

Here in lies my problem, I think. Once you have tried the game modded, it's almost impossible to look at the un-modded "vanilla" version ever again without feeling apathetic, but at the same time, playing the game in the state I had it meant that crashes to desktop- the letters CTD are forever burned into my retinas- were an ever constant threat that could strike any time, for seemingly no reason, and usually happened at least every 15 minutes. It was like having a friend who is super fun but randomly punches you in the face every so often, or eating a meal that explodes in your mouth after an undetermined number of bites- whatever enjoyment you might be having is overshadowed by that looming threat.



The aftermath of a CTD


I eventually got so fed up trying to get thing working, I have up on New Vegas, and moved on to Skyrim, which had gone on sale.

I told myself it would be different this time, that I would control myself and take notes of what I was doing. I had intentions to read more into the technicalities behind mods to get to grips with what was going on. However, the enticement to get things moving won out, and I started installing things. It was tentative at first, but once more, the mods on offer were of such high, game changing quality that I couldn't stop. They changed Skyrim from a game I found a bit disappointing out of the box to a somehow incredibly immersive, deep, and complete experience, particularly mods that introduced survival elements, deeper and more storied companions, realistic wildlife behaviours, and more complex combat and magic. It was like if Morrowind and New Vegas had a baby.


Gyah! Well, maybe not exactly like that.


Of course, the crashes came again. It turns out Skyrim is not an ideal platform for heavy modding due to some engine and memory related limitations. Once again, though, I assumed my improved mod literacy would see me through, but it made things even worse this time around! I was messing about with things like mod-combining progams, cleaning dirty edits off of files, and messing with lines of code and error logs. In the end, I ended up more or less destroying my install, with no idea what I had changed or what was causing issues. I even had to re-install windows, as in my desperation I had started messing about with some core files. It sounds silly, but the desire to end the tyranny of CTDs can drive a man mad, MAD!

Now I’ve become a hermit in terms of modding. I’m back to only using the lightest mods, and for older titles, such as graphical overhauls for the original Deus Ex and fan made patches for the first two Thief games. They don’t offer the glorious possibilities of the Bethesda engine game mods, but after all the frustration, at least they work gosh darnit!


It's hard livin', but good livin'.


So, heed this warning, aspiring modder, from someone who thought they knew what they were doing. If you are going to heavily mod one of the games I’ve mentioned, you really need to know your stuff in advance and back things up, or you’ll end up a gibbering wreck like me. I won’t offer any actual advice, as I think I’ve proven I don’t have a clue about what is going on under the hood, but rest assured a lot of chaps and chapettes out there know their stuff. As mentioned, Nexus is a great place to start, and it was recently voted as one of the best community sites! Perhaps one day, my good friend, you could even become the next great mod author and finally combine New Vegas with Morrowind more convincingly than I could with MS Paint, and perhaps you'll recall this cautionary tale as having helped you watch your footing on the road ahead.
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