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3:27 AM on 03.15.2014

REVIEW: Thief - Missed opportunities

Thief was released on February 25, nearly 10 years after the last entry in the series – Deadly Shadows.

As a longtime fan of the series, I was excited to see Square Enix revitalizing the series after so long a time. Unfortunately, the newest entry in the series fails to meet the high standards set by previous entries.

Thief can be breathtaking, even in the most mundane moments.

Before diving into the gameplay, it’s worth mentioning that the eponymously titled Thief is essentially a reboot of the series. Some of the names, places, and even symbols may be the same as the original trilogy, but the newest entry takes place in a different universe, with a different Garrett.

This becomes a problem in Thief because its plot is almost criminally underdeveloped, forcing it to to lean on the established Thief universe, which this entry doesn't fit in.

The game starts as Garrett, an experienced thief, realizes that he has been given the same job as his former apprentice, Erin. After the job goes wrong, Garrett finds himself back in the City with no recollection of how he got there, though it is apparent a great deal of time has passed.

Much of the ensuing plot involves uncovering what happened after the job went wrong, not just to Garret but to the City as well.

Almost immediately, however, the game fails to make the player feel a connection to anything happening in the game world and simply rushes things along into plot twist after predictable plot twist.

The bulk of the game’s plot spins off of Garrett and Erin’s mission together, but this segment is never really that well developed to begin with. In what is essentially a tutorial, the player finds out that Garrett and Erin have different methods of thieving but that about it. Erin mostly scampers on ahead, waiting for Garrett to catch up, until the job inevitably goes wrong.

Thief's plot sometimes feels rushed, especially towards the beginning and end of the game.

After Garrett’s return to the City, the initial focus of the plot is on uncovering what happened to Garrett and why the Watch and the Baron are acting so evil. Again, these are elements that are underdeveloped at the beginning of the game, so we never get a true idea of how bad things are in the City other than that they are “worse now” when Garrett returns.

Unfortunately, the story is not the only place where Thief is a major step back for Thief as a series.

In general, the new Thief boasts what you would expect from a modern action/adventure game: parkour, stealth, an inventory wheel full of different weapon choices… But it never really goes above and beyond what you would expect from a modern day checklist. In fact, for Thief in particular, it’s a step back.

Unlike other Thief games, you can no longer jump freely. Instead, jumping is linked to a context sensitive parkour button. Sometimes the player might find what they thought was a good jumping opportunity, but no. No jumping there. A good example of this is on certain ledges, especially with low rails, Garrett will simply insist on not jumping. Garrett will also refuse to jump off of a rope in certain scenarios if there is not a close enough platform. Other times, Garret might run around in circles beneath a rope within arms grasp, refusing to grab on, until the player finds the proper ledge to jump towards the rope from.

At first it feels like Garrett’s jumping-phobia was added as a way to keep players from falling to a cheap death, but no, that will still happen quite a bit. If the player jumps from too great of a height, or gets too near a ledge, Garrett can still plummet to his death. So limiting Garrett’s jump feels all the stranger.

The selection of weapons in Thief, or rather arrows, also feels a bit more limited for the series. Water arrows, fire arrows, choke arrows, and the like, all make a return. Strangely missing from the set are the moss arrows, however. In past games, the moss arrows have allowed the player to create a patch of "quiet ground" to tread on. Thief seems to make such an emphasis on sound reduction that the lack of a moss arrow seems idiotic. In the new Thief, segments with broken glass strewn on the ground or with nervous dogs and birds (all of which can alert guards) makes the exclusion of the moss arrow all the more painful.

Fortunately, rope arrows make a return in Thief though they have been majorly nerfed. Essentially, rope arrows can now only be used at select points in the City and in missions. There are only a couple dozen locations where the rope arrows can be used and it feels like a major step back from the original “if it sticks, climb it” mechanic of the original game from 1998. (For those that don’t know, in the original Thief, the player could literally set up a jungle gym of ropes to swing on, provided they had the right surface and enough rope arrows.)

At times, there's a real Dishonored vibe going on in Thief, which is weird considering Dishonored borrowed from the original Thief.

Garrett’s blackjack also acts as both his stealth weapon and his melee weapon in Thief. If Garrett gets into a fight, he must push back attackers with the blackjack rather than pulling out a sword, which feels like an odd choice.

The stealth aspect of Garrett’s blackjack also lacks the same nuance as it did in other entries of the series. Now, the player must come in close to enemies and wait for a “takedown” prompt before pressing the button and knocking out opponents. The automated takedown simply doesn’t feel as special as aiming the blackjack at a guard’s head as you silently stalk him.

Thief does add three new tools to Garrett’s arsenal this time around, with mixed results. Early on, the player can buy an assortment of upgrades ranging from health buffs, to bow balancing, etc. One of best investments is a wrench which can open ventilation shafts, giving Garrett more places to sneak around, as well as opening alternate paths. Later on, a razor for removing painting from frames also becomes available. The razor is fun to use, but never has a major impact on gameplay other than stealing a dozen specific paintings. Disappointingly, the player can only steal those EXACT painting, and the razor is never used for anything else like finding a false wall inside a house or slashing wanted posters. On a more practical level, Garrett can also purchase wire cutters to disable a variety of traps and alarms but this also see limited use throughout the game.

Thankfully, one of the biggest Thief elements makes a return – the light gem which alerts the player to how visible Garrett is to enemies. A dark gem means Garret is hidden and the lighter the gem is, the more easily Garrett can be seen. As a supplement to this, Garrett has two new abilities: swoop and focus. Swoop works similarly to blink from Dishonored, allowing Garrett to dash from shadow to shadow. Focus can impact a variety of gameplay elements depending on how the player spends his “focus points,” though the focus ability is entirely optional. By default, focus allows the player to highlight points of interest such as enemies, traps, and treasure. The player can spend focus points to enhance the focus ability making Garrett’s sight better, his blackjack more damaging, allowing him to slow down time, allowing him to see through locks, and so forth.

Thief plays out in three separate areas: the City – with semi-open world exploration and some side quests that are mostly underwhelming, story missions, and client jobs.

While optional, some focus abilities can help out in a pinch!

The City is fun to explore to a degree and Garrett's friend Basso has jobs available to steal specific items from throughout the city. This is one of the more open parts of the game and it is fun to evade guards on patrol and steal trinkets hidden away in various locations. A lot of the City just feels empty though. The majority of the jobs Basso gives you will revolve breaking into unoccupied houses to steal a specific treasure. These missions feel compelling at first with a brief mission description and Basso commenting about the jobs’ difficulty, but the missions mostly fall flat as Garrett enters an empty house through an unlocked window, picks a locked dresser, and find the treasure. The end. Mission over.

Many of the story missions are not much better. At first the player may be excited to see the option of a air vent, an open window, and a heavily guarded path with flickering lights. Which way will Garrett go? Well, it doesn’t really matter. Largely, whatever path Garrett takes, he will end up at more or less the same place. Fortunately, there are a few well hidden “unique” treasures throughout each chapter that do required a bit of thinking and a bit of exploring to uncover. But ultimately, the conclusion of each chapter just ends with a hint of where Garrett should head next to solve the mystery of what happened to him.

As the game progresses, the story missions do open up a bit, but it’s not until the over halfway into the game that the player’s choice in direction seems to matter a bit more. Taking a different path finally might take you somewhere different, even if it’s only a few rooms away.

Hello! I am trying to locate Sweeney Todd's barber shop...

In Thief, the story missions mostly just feel like a missed opportunity and a rush towards the end of the game unfortunately.

At one point, Garrett finally heads to a high security building hinted at for hours only to find no guards and a series of scripted hallways. This is the new Thief. Doors without doorknobs. Hallways without purpose. A story that feels rushed and unfinished.

In that vein, the story “boss” encounters are extremely underwhelming. Essentially, the “boss fights” boil down to a CG sequence where Garrett gets caught by one of the main bad guys he’s tracking down and then he has to evade guards that are on a default alerted status. That’s it. No satisfaction of taking down the bad guy or anything. Just Garrett being an idiot, followed by him running away.

The eventual ending to the story is no more satisfying, with a modified version of the “boss” encounter followed by a terrible CG ending.

Near the end of the game there is one true boss battle that also has its problems. The game suddenly offers you the moral choice of killing the boss or not, for no apparent reason. If you choose to kill the boss, Garrett makes a speech about how he doesn’t kill people unless they REALLY deserve it… Except that Garrett could have put an arrow through the head of a dozen sleeping guards at this point if the player so chose. While I understand that Garrett by canon is non-violent, this is not necessarily the case for the player’s Garrett, leaving the speech and the boss fight in general feeling intrusive and unneeded.

Each story mission and client job gives you a score at the end of the level. You can go back and play each mission whenever you want which adds a lot of replayability. Or you can set up a custom difficulty for a new playthrough that will give you higher points than any of the default difficulties.

One of the saving graces of the games are the client jobs. These missions are a series of non-story related missions that take place on their own maps. Currently there are a handful of client jobs to complete for a sideshow owner and an Engineer. The engineer has Garrett steal a series of parts to create his perfect automaton. While the sideshow owner has Garrett recover some of the attraction that were stolen from him after the Watch impounded his boat. Both clients have missions with level designs, dialogue, and treasure which are all better than any of the story missions. It’s simply unfortunate that the levels themselves are so much smaller than the story levels. The bank job DLC is also well done and a joy to play if you decide you want to check it out.

Overall, Thief is not a terrible game, it’s just a terrible Thief game. If you’re a fan of the series, you’d be better off setting aside expectations that this might meet the grandeur of the previous three games. It does not. If you can treat Thief as its own individual product, you’ll find a decent stealth game with some fun stealing thrown in.

Thief has some good ideas and the client jobs hint at how good the game could have been.  In all honesty, I hope Thief gets a sequel. Even with its missteps the Thief reboot is still salvageable, but the odds are that Square Enix will push this series back into the shadows.

6.5/10   read

1:07 PM on 03.10.2014

REVIEW: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 - An unfinished finale

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 comes hot on the heels of LoS: Mirror of Fate and its HD counterparts. Since its inception, the Lords of Shadow series has met with mixed reception from both long time Castlevania fans and video game critics alike. Each entry in the series has ultimately found itself in meeting equal parts praise for every detraction.

For those unfamiliar with the series, LoS explores an alternate Castlevania universe where the Belmont bloodline is sired by Dracula himself, prior to his vampiric transformation.

The graphics in Lords of Shadow 2 are nothing revolutionary, but the level and monster deigns are well done and provide a great atmosphere.

Lords of Shadow 2 continues where Lords of Shadow left off, almost literally, with an aged Dracula awakening during modern times, weakened and missing his memories from the past thousand years or so. Soon, Zobek comes to Dracula and informs him that Satan is preparing to return. Zobek offers Dracula eternal rest in return for destroying Satan’s acolytes, thus preventing Satan return. With the two coming to an agreement, Dracula sets out to recover his full power and prevent the return of Satan.

As one of its strongest aspects, Lords of Shadow 2 expands on the excellent combat system from the original Lords of Shadow. Many of Dracula’s combat moves are very similar to those used in LoS, this time with a vampiric twist. Instead of the Combat Cross Dracula wields whips made from his own demonic blood. Instead of the light and chaos magic from the first game, Dracula has the Void Sword and Chaos Claws. The Void Sword can restore Dracula’s health with each successive hit, while the Chaos Claws increase the Dracula’s combat strength. Similar to the magic system from LoS, both the Void Sword and the Chaos Cross have their own pool of magic which can be restored by chaining combos, which drops magic orbs.

Chaining combos is not as easy as it sounds however, as even the weakest enemies have ranged attacks, as well as strong unblockable attacks. Thankfully, Dracula’s dodge and parry will mostly keep the player safe as long as they are mindful of enemy patterns. Lords of Shadow 2, like Lords of Shadow before it, shows the player no mercy when they fail to dodge or parry an attack. In fact, even with some of the weakest enemies, a failed dodge can mean getting hit by a string of unblockable attacks until the enemies combos are over. This can lead to a somewhat abrupt death if the player does not manage to restore Dracula’s health immediately.

Like Lords of Shadow before it, even the most common enemies can provide a significant challenge.

Combat does feel more forgiving in Lords of Shadow 2 this time around, however. For one, checkpoints are more frequent and areas before large fights generally have an artifacts which allow Dracula to recharge his health and magic before heading into the fray. Helping to make things easier this time, secondary combat items such as daggers no longer require collection and instead recharge after a few seconds. There are also a host of consumable items in LoS2 that do everything from restore health and make attacks stronger to slow down time and give unlimited magic. These items make the difficulty curve in Lords of Shadow 2 feel more manageable, despite its sometimes unforgiving combat.

The PC version has a decent amount of customization options, including an HD texture pack.

Unfortunately, the game is not always about its fantastic combat system. Sometimes, the game slows to a crawl as Dracula is forced to use stealth to proceed. These segments see Dracula using some of his abilities such as possession, rat transformation, and bat swarm to progress. At first, the stealth segments make sense as Dracula is weak and needs to possess either scientists or cyborgs to progress. As Dracula recovers his powers however, it becomes unclear why he is forced to sneak about. Dracula can destroy one of Satan’s acolytes but is unfit to face a simple cyborg? It makes little sense.

Expect to spend part of your time as a possessed rat, for some reason.

One particular stealth segment towards the middle of the game is particularly frustrating. Dracula is forced to sneak about a maze full of dry leaves as a boss actively hunts for him. If the boss hears Dracula step on the leaves, the boss finds Dracula and forces him back to the start of the maze, taking a portion of the player’s health. This is made worse by the boss actively pursuing Dracula regardless of the noise made, sending Dracula back to the start if he simply comes into line of sight. The segment is made all the more insulting since Dracula and the said boss fight almost immediately following the maze. What was the point of the maze at all? Why did Dracula run if he could simply stand and fight?

Some of the frustrations involved with Lords of Shadows 2 also stem from what should have been its greatest strength: the open world. Without spoiling too much, the game basically revolved around two semi-open worlds: the city and Dracula’s castle. The game looks beautiful and the levels are mostly well designed, but the navigation map struggles to keep up. Sometimes the player is left with nothing more than a vague arrow pointing somewhere off-screen. I found myself several times wandering in circles only to discover a small ledge I strained to see or a far off switch I was supposed to hit with a dagger. These moments can be frustrating, and may be played off as exploration/puzzles but mostly just feel like poor design.

In regards to puzzles, LoS2 is a little bit disappointing. While the volume of puzzles seems to have increased significantly from the previous entries, the quality seems to have gone down. Most of the puzzles boil down to pull this switch/use that power. Rarely do the puzzles reach the height of those in the original Lords of Shadow, if at all.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its inspired moments though. Part way into the game, Dracula unlocks optional arena style challenges where the player can put Dracula’s powers to the test. These can be a lot of fun and test the player’s skill by doing such things as banning the use of a specific power or setting a time limit to kill enemies.

Puzzles never quite reach the height of the original Lords of Shadow, but some of implementation is interesting in and of itself.

There are also moments where the game shines creatively such as a first person feeding segment, some clever sliding puzzles, and an interactive play. Equally enjoyable are several segments in the game where Dracula fights with a companion at his side. Dracula may be required to work with his companion to platform past obstacles or to solve puzzles, which really feels great. These moments are too few and far between, unfortunately.

On the more positive end of things, the boss fights in Lords of Shadow 2 are actually an improvement on Lords of Shadow and seems to take a page from Mirror of Fate. The fights feel more epic, with larger bosses, and fewer quick time events.  The QTE are mostly limited to escape animations but are sometimes used for boss finishers. Wisely, Mercury Stream has provided checkpoints before boss finishers which makes the QTE less frustrating. Wiser still, you can turn off QTE entirely if you so choose. With boss fights less reliant on QTE, the game flows a lot better, and it gives the player more of a sense of involvement during boss fights.

If you play games with kids in the room, you might want to wait till they go to bed to play LoS2. This is actually a low amount of blood compared to other scenes in the game.

As someone who actually enjoys the Lords of Shadow universe, I felt slightly let down by its supposed conclusion. While the ending was satisfying enough, it felt a bit abrupt and unexpected. The story also pays almost no attention to the events of Lords of Shadow, only vaguely referring to the game’s events. Instead, the game focuses more on events from Mirror of Fate. This combined with the sudden demise of some key characters and a lack of explanation regarding how the player comes to arrive at Dracula’s castle, make the story feel unrealized at times. This is further compounded by an ending that doesn’t necessarily feel appropriate for the series, especially given the general direction of the entire game’s story and portrayal of Dracula throughout.

As the player progresses through Lords of Shadow 2, they see Dracula coming to terms with the monster that he has become - how becoming Dracula has affected him, his family, and the world around him. Unfortunately, that character progression just doesn’t live up to the ultimate ending, leaving loose ends right at the moment that it seemed everything was going to be tied up.

Overall, Lords of Shadow 2 was an enjoyable experience despite some questionable gameplay additions and a lackluster ending. There’s a lot of content to Lords of Shadow 2 and a lot of fun to be had, including a New Game+ mode. Hopefully the upcoming Alucard DLC just ties up some of the loose ends that LoS2 left unraveled.

7.5/10   read

2:07 AM on 05.02.2013

REVIEW: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate is a Nintendo 3DS spinoff game based in the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow universe. Mirror Fate serves as an interquel falling between the original Lords of Shadow and the upcoming Lords of Shadow 2, which will release later this year on PlayStation3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Mirror of Fate sets the stage for Lords of Shadow 2 by explaining how the Belmont bloodline continues and how Alucard came to be.
To give context to the gameplay, it helps to understand where the story begins in Mirror of Fate. For those that haven’t played the first game, I highly suggest you skip the rest of this paragraph. *SPOILERS* While attempting to rid the world of evil, Gabriel Belmont is corrupted and becomes the dreaded Dracula. The Brotherhood of Light foresees Gabriel’s transformation so Marie (Gabriel’s wife) delivers Gabriel’s child in secret, without his knowledge. The brotherhood takes the child, Trevor Belmont, as a baby and raises him as an elite vampire hunter in hopes of someday having him defeat Dracula. Trevor does not learn that Dracula is his father until he is an adult and has a family of his own. Ashamed of his origins, Trevor sets out to Dracula’s castle to avenge his family name, leaving a fragment of a mirror to his son Simon. Trevor does not return from Dracula’s castle and the following day Simon escapes into the woods as his mother is murdered by Dracula’s monsters. Simon spends the rest of his childhood growing up in the woods, living with barbarians. When Simon becomes an adult, he sets out to Dracula’s castle to avenge his mother’s death and find out what become of his father. *SPOILERS*

Mirror of Fate is divided into a prologue and three chapters. In the prologue, players get to briefly play as Gabriel Belmont on a mission hunting a demon. In the following three chapters, players take on the role of Simon Belmont, Alucard, and Trevor Belmont respectively.
All three characters share the same experience, level progression, and combat moves, however, they all play wildly different due to their individual power-ups and sub-items: Simon is a sluggish barbarian that focuses on absorbing damage rather than avoiding it and his power-ups (which can be turned off and on with the D-Pad) enhance this sensation. Early on, as an example, he unlocks a spirit which can absorb damage for him by draining his magic. Simon also obtains an axe sub-items that work exactly like axes in older Castlevania titles. Alucard on the other hand focuses more on sleight of hand evasion, using his mist form and other vampiric power-up. While Trevor uses light magic to restore his health and shadow magic to do more damage. Gameplay wise, Trevor comes across as the ultimate vampire hunter, with his chapter focusing more on player skill and timing than the use of items and power-ups.
While the idea of playing in the same castle as three different characters might sound boring, it’s not. Each hero’s power-ups lend themselves to unique terrain and obstacle traversal. Additionally, even though all three characters explore Dracula’s castle it’s never really the same castle. True to the series lore, the castle is physically different for each character. There’s a grand sense of déjà vu while wandering through the castle, “Didn’t Simon pass through this hallway and none of this was here?” Castlevania lore talks about Dracula’s castle being alive, and this is very much the case in Mirror of Fate.
Much like its direct predecessor, Mirror of Fate does not play like the typical Metroidvania style Castlevania games that many people are used to. Yes, you are free to explore Dracula’s castle. Yes, you obtain power-ups and level-up. But largely, Mirror of Fate is a linear game like older entries in the series. Your goal is to make it to Dracula’s throne room and Simon, Alucard, and Trevor all attempt to take the quickest possible path there. Along the way there are setbacks that see them plunging deeper into Dracula’s labyrinthine castle. The heroes all get stronger and gain new skills as they push deeper into the castle, but there is a sense of commitment to pushing forward rather than a driveexplore the castle’s mysteries. This is further compounded by the use of teleportation devices that appear before each chapter’s encounters with Dracula. The teleportation devices allow you to quickly return to previous parts of the castle and grab goodies that you couldn’t unlock until this point in the game. This means that exploration is essentially pointless until you come across the final power-ups that allow you to pass each blocked path.
One of the main things that might upset Metroidvania fans is the fact that characters' unlockables are limited to increasing maximum health, maximum magic, and maximum sub-items. Players won’t be finding awesome new weapons or some crazy secret no one knew about. To its credit though, Mirror of Fate does have a considerable amount of lore to be unlocked via scrolls found on dead knights and bestiary cards hidden throughout levels. Scrolls give an interesting look into the Lord of Shadows lore, as do the bestiary entries which unlock 3D models of creatures and brief entries about their history.

One of the strongest features of the game is its awesome boss fights. The battles themselves are very unique and interesting, and the bosses are equally well designed. Sometimes a cheap death can occur, but thankfully Mirror of Fate has a great checkpoint system that actually saves progress mid-fight without making things overly easy.
Another strong feature, at least for Castlevania fans, is the huge assortment of nods to older entries in the series. From the return of certain sub-items such as the axe and stopwatch to new takes on classic monsters such as mermen, flea men, and zombies; I always found myself looking to spot an adaptation. Old locations like the clock tower also return, with new enjoyable twists.
The graphics in Mirror of Fate are pretty terrific for the most part. Playing with the 3D on is particularly incredible as ghosts and other creatures sometimes wander around in the background. The only real drawback to this is that sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate the foreground and background unless you are playing with the 3D mode on.
Sounds wise, Mirror of Fate is probably one of the more subdued Castlevania entries. The music is more classical and not as noticeable as other entries like Symphony of the Night. The subdued music allows for some truly great sound and moodiness, however. You can often hear enemies shambling, rattling, or flying around before you even see them. That aspect of the sound was quite enjoyable and different.

On the negative side, the excellent fast paced combat of Mirror of Fate does have its draw backs, namely unblockable attacks and a lack of a way to avoid them at times. Quick time events are also present, but are not terribly difficult or annoying. The biggest drawback, however, is that there is no true “master map” for the castle, allowing the player to see how each level connects on the pause screen. This can be confusing and frustrating when trying to obtain an item that require traveling from one level into another, as level connections are often more so implied than truly visible. Additionally, load screens between levels and between deaths can sometimes be quite long. Not terribly so, but enough to mess up some of the game’s momentum at times. It also worth noting that the regular ending for Mirror of Fate is somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. The secret ending obtained on 100% completion is is quite good though and gives an idea as to where Lords of Shadow 2 will begin.
For players that are willing to play a non-Metroidvania style Castlevania game Mirror of Fate is one of the better Castlevania games that has been released in a long time. The Lords of Shadow series does a faithful job of adapting existing Castlevania lore and attempting to tie it into a simpler, more easily understood plot. Mirror of Fate is an excellent entry in the series, so it’s a shame then that this title will likely go overlooked by some self-proclaimed series purists.

8.5/10   read

4:10 AM on 01.28.2013

DmC or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Video Games

I just beat DmC. It was a great game and I’m glad I played.

First off, let me say that I was in the original crowd of people that went apeshit when the first announce the game back in 2010 and subsequently showed his new design.

It was going to impurify my precious video game series.

However, over the past year or so, after seeing some in-game footage I felt a lot more comfortable with the concept of DmC. It may not have been a “true” Devil May Cry game, but it looked like it was at least trying.

I picked up DmC the day it came out via PSN. I went into the game not really knowing what to expect.

The opening title screen implied that Dante was getting a blowjob and watching the opening cutscene for the first mission did little to instill greater expectations.

“I get it,” I thought, “Dante has sex and can says ‘Fuck’ a lot. Edgy.”

DmC (whether knowingly or not) gets the worst out of the way up front. Dante is at his most annoying when the game first begins. If you were worried about DmC having Dante be a sexed-up, annoying, asshole, then the opening scenes will give you little solace.

Without spoiling the plot or some of the later gameplay: Dante evolves over the course of the game as both a playable character on screen and as a character in the more traditional sense. I soon found myself hating Dante less and less, and liking him more and more.

I’m not saying DmC is the best game ever written. It’s not. The story is well written, however, and the characters are not as two-dimensional as many other games. DmC does an excellent job of showing Dante grow as a character and showing you why he had that growth.

DmC could have easily gone terribly wrong with clunky gameplay and Duke Nukem Forever one-liners, but it didn’t.

It’s an incredible game, with brilliant art direction and some interesting level design.

While the combat difficulty is dumbed-down quite a bit from say Devil May Cry 3, the combat is easily as difficult as Devil May Cry 4 and it’s actually a lot more fluid and well put together.

As a package, the levels, art, combat, and story just flow a lot better than any of the other Devil May Cry games. DmC has not dethroned Devil May Cry 3 as my favorite Devil May Cry entry, but it is a much more cohesive package.

I can remember the entire plot for DmC. The plot makes sense to me, or at least as much sense as a good video game does.

DmC tells the story of Dante discovering who he is and how he evolves as a person. The story is compelling enough to keep the player coming back, and the missions generally end on somewhat of a cliffhanger television episode.

DmC kept me coming back to snack on the 20 to 30 minute bites each mission takes. I would often find myself thinking, “Just one more mission.” Not unlike opening a bag of chips.

I was driven on to find out what would happen next, what abilities Dante would unlock next, or what strange places he might visit.

I found myself invested in DmC as a world, and not just for individual elements.

The ending was done well too, for a game that will inevitably have a sequel. The final boss didn’t rise from the ashes as the screen faded to credits. It was a little more subtle than that and not necessarily what Western audiences might be used to.

DmC is worthy of the title of Devil May Cry. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to Marvel, DmC is a unique adaptation of a series that is brave enough to venture into its own territory while maintaining the important piece of identity that still make it a Devil May Cry game.

I think that the next entry of DmC will only be better.

My suggestion, maybe next time there can be more Jason and the Argonauts references.   read

1:56 AM on 10.25.2012

The First Few Hours: A Game of Dwarves (PC)

I wasn't sure what to expect from A Game of Dwarves when I first picked it up. I had heard comparisons to Dungeon Keeper, but that didn't tell me much about it. There are just too many nuances in games today to compare them directly. A Game of Dwarves is many games: a resources management game, a (dwarven) life simulator, and a city/fortress building game.

The game starts out pretty much the way you might expect: The dwarves used to have a giant kingdom and many allies, but a sinister force of orcs and goblins controlled by a group called the Mages appeared and wiped out all but the last of dwarves. It's pretty much what we've come to expect from a generic fantasy world.

Don't let the generic plot drive you away though. The developer knows that they're borrowing from other sources and they wear it on their sleeve. And they change it up a bit by adding in some comedy and pop culture references.

You'll soon dive into the game, playing as the son of the King Father and as it turns out, you're kind of a lazy asshole. So the King Father kicks you out into the world and tasks you with creating your own clan, and eventually reclaiming the former dwarven kingdoms.

There is a decent in-game manual that explains some of the basics, that I recommend reading before diving in. Odds are though, you won't understand how a lot of the game works until you actually start playing. Which is okay, because the first settlement you are tasked with developing in the game is a tutorial that the King Father walks you through. There's still a fair bit of head scratching in the beginning but there's generally enough help to get you moving.

At its core, gameplay basically boils down to three different modes: Dig to explore and create (or discover) new rooms, build new objects to develop your settlement, and train dwarfs and research tech. It sounds basic, but when everything is running all at once it gets more complicated.

In the digging mode, you tell your dwarves to carve out specific blocks creating a honeycomb of hallways and rooms, eventually digging further down vertically. As your dwarves dig, they can come across different resources: gold, iron, silver, fertile soil, etc. These resources are limited so how you choose to use them is going to greatly affect your settlement. The fertile soil tiles especially throw a kink into things, since they are destroyed forever if you dig them up and they are the only way you can grow resources like food and wood. You might be intent on mining further for gold, only to be hindered by a large patch of fertile soil. Do you leave the soil to farm on later or destroy it and search for more gold?

Once you have enough resources you can begin building: Dwarves need beds to sleep in, tables to eat at, and food put on those tables. Managing the dwarves’ happiness is not unlike The Sims. That's just the basics though. There is plenty more in depth building both functional and aesthetic. The are a variety of dwarf jobs classes and some of them are more effective if you build them items: fighters can train by fighting dummies, scholars can research at research tables, etc. The aesthetic items serve a purpose as well though, they make your dwarves happy, and when they're happy they work harder. After all, wouldn't you rather work in a marble hall with badass banners than a dirt hole? I thought so.

After you have your settlement ironed out and your dwarves all running like a well oiled machine, you can begin to expand your research into various tech trees. Scholars provide research points that can allow you to do things like upgrade your fighters to archers or knights, build more effective objects, dig faster, place traps, and so on.

Of course, at some point your dwarves will probably accidentally dig into a pit filled with goblins, orcs, or some other nasties. That's why it's important that you actually train some fighter dwarves at some point. A nasty orc or goblin can make short work of a poor digger dwarf.

Each level has an objective that is stated at the beginning. Generally the objective (at least for me so far) seems to revolve around reaching a specific room buried somewhere on the map. This might seem like a simple objective, given that you can dig in any direction, but it’s not. There are blocks called undiggium (or something to the effect) that your diggers can’t (as you may have guess) dig through. So you can’t simply dig straight down fifteen blocks into the objective. Generally, you will have to dig and spiral down, discover rooms, unlock doors, and finally reach the objective. Fighting whatever evil creatures you unearth along the way. Even then, simply completing the main objective and moving on isn’t the wisest move. Each level has a series of “side quests” where you might have to unlock a certain tech tree, build X or Y, have a certain type of dwarf, etc in order to complete the side quest. And there’s reason to do it! After you beat a level, if you completed certain side quests, you unlock “influence” that allows you to upgrade the prince. This can range from making the prince better in combat, getting more money at the beginning of each level, or being more effective at research. It seems well worth the trouble!

There’s a lot that can happen in A Game of Dwarves, and all of that is further complicated by the fact that every level is randomly generated. Luckily, there is a freeplay sandbox mode, for those of you that might want a more laid back game. The mode allows you make a custom game by determining the size of the map, the number of discoverable rooms, the amount of resources, and the amount of enemies. You could even turn the enemies off all together, start with a maxed tech tree, and the ability to create non-dwarf items. Granted, if you wanted you could also create a map loaded with enemies and few resources. The idea of the mode though (aside from adding more missions and play time) is to allow people to create the giant dwarven settlement that they dream of from scratch! Don’t want to worry about enemies and gold while you build your giant underground castle? No problem!

That’s not to say that the game is without faults though. By most accounts, the game is pretty ugly. While I like some of the artistic cartoony design, there’s no getting around that at least some of it is probably due to a low budget. The dwarves especially are pretty homely looking… And their animations are even worse, surprisingly. Sometimes the dwarves literally float around; like the game somehow forgot they were supposed to be walking. There’s also very little voice acting outside of a few grunted sentences and phrases. The opening cutscene is voiced, but outside of that, you’re going to be reading everything else. The camera also get's a little bit wonky at times as the the levels fill up with winding tunnels and labyrinths, but nothing too bad.

Overall though, the game is fun despite a few bugs and a learning curve that’s steeper than it really had to be. I could see some people who love Minecraft getting carried away building the perfect settlement all the way from the surface to the bottom of the map. I can easily see this game becoming a cult classic for those that put the time and love in!

If you enjoy any kind of city building or resource management game, A Game of Dwarves might be worth a look! It may not be the prettiest game, but it’s fun and there’s a decent amount of content. And it’s only $10!   read

3:21 AM on 07.30.2012

REVIEW: Kung Fu Strike - The Warrior's Rise

(PC [reviewed], Xbox 360)

Kung Fu Strike is an arcade beat ‘em up mixed with a fighting game, with some light RPG elements thrown in for good measure. The game itself is the Western version of a game called HurricaneX2, which was developed by an actual Kung Fu practitioner. The developer wanted to create a martial arts arcade game that focused on timing and countering, rather than mindless button mashing.

The game begins with the player as General Loh, insisting that he must talk to Master Mo at a temple in the mountains. Master Mo’s pupils don’t take kindly to Loh bossing them around and Loh soon finds himself fighting his way to Master Mo (at least for the first few stages, anyway).

Kung Fu Strike is split up into 28 stages and the story is told through comic panels at the loading screen for each stage.

The game starts out a little on the easy side, though there are three difficulty levels. In the first few stages the game will walk you through the basic gameplay, and due to this, it actually takes a few stages for the game to become interesting. The first stages will have you master striking, blocking, rolling, jumping, and doing special moves. Later you will also unlock the ability to call backup NPCs to help you in battle (for a price). Though the controls are simple, the difficulty soon ratchets up and you will find yourself dying quite a lot unless you master blocking and evading.

The way that the difficulty ratchets up in Kung Fu Strike reminds me a lot of classic arcade games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Metal Slug. In fact, I found that by the 16th stage I had to turn the difficulty down in order to even progress. Unfortunately, with the influence of great arcade games, some of their annoyances come along as well: Bosses will call for back up, some enemies will have regenerating health, and some enemies will one-shot kill you right at the end of a stage.

Kung Fu Strike doesn’t make battles completely unfair though: Blocking and evading will (for the most part) save you entirely from damage. If your health gets too low, a small amount of it will regenerate as long as you avoid damage. Defeating enemies also randomly drop health, chi (used for special moves), money, and horns (used to call backup). You will also unlock money at the end of each stage and occasionally new moves and equipment. You can then spend your money at the stage select screen to unlock new moves, equipment, and health/chi upgrades.

Graphically speaking, Kung Fu Strike is not the prettiest game. The graphics are at the level of something you probably would have seen five years ago. However, that’s mostly forgivable since the art style is similar to Okami or Street Fighter IV which helps create its own believable atmosphere. The colorful graphics help easily differentiate between different enemy types, letting you know which fighting style you should use. Enemies range from monks, bandits, monsters, and even an old man. New enemies pop up often enough to always keep things fresh and force you to change your fighting style. It’s also worth noting that the game runs incredibly well with no slow down, even with dozens of enemies and projectiles on the screen at the same time.
Sound in the game is ultimately forgettable. There’s no real voice work other than the grunts and groans of battle. The music is equally forgettable. I literally can’t remember any of it. Overall though, the sound works well enough, forgettable as it is. All of the sounds are appropriate and serve to enhance the sense of action.

The main story in Kung Fu Strike will probably take you 4 to 5 hours at most to complete. It will take you longer to unlock all of the different moves, backup troops, equipment, and upgrades. It will take longer still to get S ranks in every stage or if you decide to play through the campaign again in local co-op.

Kung Fu Strike is a great twist on the classic arcade beat ‘em up. The battles are awesome and satisfying, though sometimes extremely frustrating. Whether or not you enjoy the game will ultimately depend on how patient you are, but there’s a great game to be found if you can get past its frustrations.   read

5:24 PM on 07.26.2012

REVIEW: Warlock: Master of the Arcane


Warlock: Master of the Arcane is the latest sequel to the cult favorite Majesty series. However, other than sharing the world of Ardania and its lore, Warlock is very different from Majesty. Warlock looks like Civilization and that’s because the game borrows heavily from it in terms of basic gameplay. While it would be easy to quickly dismiss Warlock as “Civilization with magic” at a glance, you would be doing yourself a great injustice.

Starting the game for the first time, you will be confronted with a selection of options: defeat conditions, map size, difficulty, number of rival mages, etc. The defeat conditions range from defeating all rival mages, defeat an avatar (god), cast the unity spell (the ultimate spell), or capture 50% of holy grounds. You can toggle on or off whichever ones you want. You will then be tasked with choosing either a preset mage to represent yourself, or customizing a mage from his abilities, default unit type (human, monster, undead), etc. Once the game gets going, the story is pretty bare bones, but that helps you jump into the action. (There is plenty of lore to be read about on pretty much anything you can click though, so don’t worry if you wanted there to be an fantasy rich environment.) You will begin the gameplay at your capital, deciding what to focus on economically, and then begin to expand and explore. In a matter of turns, you will have likely developed one or two towns and possibly have discovered a rival mage. Your progress likely won’t be stopped by another mage at this point, however. You are more than likely going to be forced to strengthen your units and expand your towns economies, because there will be insanely strong neutral monsters roaming between you and your rivals (dragons, golems, krakens, etc).

This is where Warlock begins to make its differences from Civilization clear. If you want to expand any further, you are going to have to become strong enough to defeat monsters and sometimes even gods (should you anger them in some way). The two best ways to go about this are by building new structures in your towns or by having your units fight battles they can win: Each town is based around a castle which can be defeated in order to take over the town. New structures can be built on hexes surrounding the castles, depending on the size of the population. Some structures require special resources on a hex to be built (water for a port, iron for a refinery, gold of a mine, etc). New structures will almost always lead to some kind of buff that can be purchased for your units (armor, health, experience, etc) or the ability to produce a new unit (vampires, eleven archers, minotaur, etc). The really nice thing is that that units produced in the town with the buff will automatically get them, units from other towns have to pay a small fee for the buff however. If you use your units regularly (and don’t get them killed), they will level up, adding new buffs. OH, AND DID I MENTION THAT ALL THE BUFFS STACK!? This means that there is a heavy emphasis on keeping units alive so that they become nearly invincible!

Now that you have your strong units it’s time to begin attacking other mages towns or ridding open areas of dangerous baddies. Many of the strong neutral monsters in the game either already exist on the map, spawn at random (you usually get a notice at the beginning of your turn: eg “Elementals are Invading”), or they come through a gateway that connects to a dangerous realm. This means that if you are going to begin developing towns in “dangerous” zones, you will usually have to dedicate strong units to protecting that area, even after the baddies have been dealt with. Not that your towns are incapable of protecting themselves: The castles at the center of each town can shoot arrows at enemy units and the capital can cast magic missiles. Additionally, you can build towers or magic towers to help defend your town.

If you decide to attack a rival’s town, you should be sure that you are attacking with units that won’t be wiped out in one shot. This means that if you are attacking a town surrounded by magic towers, your character better have a strong resistance to magic or high melee resistance if the town is protected by soldiers. Once you have captured a town, you gain access to its race, so if you are playing as undead and capture humans, you then have access to human buildings and units.

Battles play out somewhat like Fire Emblem, with an estimated damage indicator for each side before you decide to attack. This is especially helpful since identical unit’s strengths can vary greatly due to buffs.

If at some point you find yourself in a difficult battle or short on food, money, or mana (the three economies in the game), you can simply cast a spell that will help you since you are a mage! All spells require mana. Spells (besides your default ones) must be researched before they can be cast. You can also randomly receive spells by looting monster lairs or by completing certain favors that gods ask you to do (build an altar, defeat their enemies, etc). Spells vary from giant firestorms, plagues of locusts, summoning ghost wolves, to spells that weaken or buff units. Each spell takes a different amount of time to research, depending on how strong it is and how many buildings you have dedicated to research. The thing you are going to either hate or love about the game is that you can only research one spell at a time, and the spells you can research are completely at random (starting with weaker spells). At first this annoyed me, but I believe that it is there for balance so that you can’t choose the spell that will lead to a giant fire spell right at the beginning of the game.

It should be noted that Gods play a significant role in the game. They can greatly help you if you do their bidding. However, if you piss them off, they might just come down and start destroying all of your towns.

Another huge part of the game (and a nod to Majesty) is the inclusion of lords. They are essentially very strong mercenary units that have a high upkeep cost. These units can also equip special items to enhance their abilities, which normal units can't do. Winning a battle can often come down to whether or not one of your lords is participating.

There are also some light diplomacy elements which allow you to negotiate with rival mages. You can declare peace, war, non-aggression, or trade. The diplomacy isn’t very detailed, but it does affect how rival mages perceive you, if they will allow you cross their land, and if they will attack you.

Technically speaking, the game gets the job done well enough. Sounds are great and satisfying; the clash of metal when soldiers attack and the sound of arrows hitting are spot on. Each lord has their own voice actor that helps give them their own personalities. Some of the units are also voiced, with the human units generally having comically over-done heroic lines. Graphically, the game is pretty and has its own style, but ultimately isn’t anything that’s going to blow you away. It’s nice that you can zoom right up into the action though and get a semi-detailed look at your units. There are lots of varied landscapes (snowy mountains, deserts, swamps, etc) and each of the races has their own structures that make them easily identifiable.

My first game on normal difficulty on a medium sized map, took me 15 hours.With the amount of content and beta multiplayer just starting, the game is a steal at $20! If you enjoy sending units off into unknown lands behind the fog, building up your army, and conquering anybody that dares stand against you, this game is a must buy! It’s definitely a “Just one more turn...” game that will keep you up later into the morning than you probably want.   read

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