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7:04 PM on 08.12.2011

East vs. West: Cheering on the Underdogs

Despite a strong argument made by no less than the Pet Shop Boys, I choose East.

Normally, I can`t say no to a man in a helmet that awesome.

I love Western games, and your stereotypical Western game packs a lot of FPS or TPA (3rd-person action) punch. Big, meaty shooters with solid explodin' and tough dudes.

But sometimes, too much is just too much. Tautologically speaking.

I've struggled somewhat with this blog call, because outside of a JRPG, I have a hard time determining a stereotypical Eastern game. Western games, even those with RPG leanings, tend to incorporate a great deal of shooter and action elements - there are very few triple-A titles that don't include these to some degree. Open-worlds are also de facto for my stereotypical Western title.

But what of the Eastern stereotypes? Yes, JRPGs typically contain spiky-haired orphans with large weapons defeating an anthropomorphized representation of an ancient, fundamental evil force. But what about shmups? What about dating sims? Horror games? Metal Gears (which wear their Western-inspirations proudly emblazoned on their sleeves)? There are tons of Eastern games that share few similarities across them.

It is somewhat fitting that the embodiment of all evil has a clown nose.

So, let me define my stereotypes:
- main character is typically a strong or capable soldier type (either military, or extremely proficient like Uncharted's Nate).
- the main character drives the story, which is typically extremely high-stakes - the one super-soldier that is responsible for saving all of humanity from being annihilated.
- typically structured so that difficulty progresses steadily throughout.
- has a multiplayer component, which may overshadow the single-player.
- narrative may be free (first-person) or cutscene-heavy.

Something like this. Might need more ladies.

- a underpowered or (nearly) helpless main character
- an epic story that involves the player, but doesn`t revolve around the character. Typically one that sweeps up the player, as opposed to one starring them.
- a game that typically provides a high level of challenge, and has noticeable difficulty spikes (that stab you).
- a game that has a strong focus on the single-player campaign.
- unafraid to use tons of text. Not afraid of using copious cutscenes.

Um, maybe this? Seems Easterny.

So, in the end, it seems to boil down to whether I prefer games about empowerment/badassery (Western) or games about overcoming challenges/adversity (Eastern).
Broken down into these terms, I have to Go East.

It breaks my heart, too. WHY MUST WE DISAGREE?!

I'm not above enjoying a power fantasy. They can be fantastic, adrenaline-fuelled adventures that constantly impress with spectacle. But the games I remember and love are the ones that strike deeper. Games where the characters resonated, or the story impressed, or games where I actually felt deeper emotions than "Dude! I totally shot that dude IN THE FACE WITH A SAWBLADE!"

Although that is badass.

I've replayed the Ace Attorney games numerous times. I am considering buying a Wii mainly to play Fragile Dreams. The Clock Tower and Fatal Frame games still give me pause when I play them. And I am extremely excited that I'll be able to play Ico when it's re-released. And I have been enjoying the even greater challenge of Demon's Souls on NG+.
Each of these games strikes me a being quite Eastern, as I have never felt completely in control during any of these titles. They force the player to predict, to react, and to accept vulnerabilities in various ways. And by forcing the player to do that, it makes success so much more exciting.

No one expects Dom or Master Chief to fail - it may take many respawns, but you`re the big badass. But when Phoenix Wright pulls through a trial by the skin of his teeth and numerous surprise turnabouts, or Rei manages to find out the meaning of her tattoo, or my Temple Knight finally triumphs over the False King Allant, it makes that much more of an impression because it was never assured. I, the player had to overcome all of the obstacles presented in addition to the inherent disadvantages of the character I was inhabiting. By succeeding where there is no implied guarantee of success, it makes the eventual victory that much better.

I haven't just beaten the game - I've prevailed. And that is why it is fitting I choose East over West - West may have all the advantages (size, strength, regenerating health), but East has heart.

And if you have heart, you get to hang out with blond Russian chicks. Also monkeys.   read

1:32 AM on 07.21.2011

Downloadables: Outland Rover

I have been gifted with the powers of creation and destruction, to wield both in order to reinforce the balance of all things, and hopefully to put my nighmares to rest. I must use these powers to struggle a vast and hostile world, with creatures born from these energies running rampant and mighty warriors stalking across the forbidding and desolate landscape.

I am playing Outland.

Facial features coming soon as DLC.

Outland is a downloadable title produced by Housemarque. It plays as a side-scrolling action platformer, with your character traversing numerous highly-stylized worlds (all darkly shaded yet contrasted by bright and striking backgrounds) using a variety of acrobatic moves and fast-paced combat. In essence, it plays like a faster-paced Prince of Persia game, crossed with Ikaruga`s colour-shifting mechanics, with enemy designs a cross between Mayan designs and Tron. If you are still this reading after that sentence instead of buying this game, in the words of Bad Religion, "I can't relate to you".

The backstory is fairly simple - you're a chappie who, due to constant dreams about an ancient conflict, seeks out a shaman to explain what's going on. You're a reincarnated hero, and have to deal with the Sisters of Creation (one of whom controls Light, one whom controls Dark). And so, you sneak off to do battle with, well, everything.

Oooh, pretty!

As with many games, Outland starts the player off with little more than the ability to attack, but as you progress you gain additional abilities, including channeling both light and dark energies (controlled by a bumper), new attack methods, and movement abilities (e.g., sliding).

Your Energy alignment has multiple effects - when in Light mode, you can absorb Light projectiles and wound Dark creatures. However, you are vulnerable to all kinds of melee and cannot harm Light-aligned creatures. As the game progresses, stages become bullet-hell like affairs that require the player to skillfully switch alignments while navigating stages, combatting multiple enemies of both alignments simultaniously, and avoiding various traps.

Enemies are colour-coded for your convenience. Also, murder.

All of these elements come into play majestically for the boss battles. Most are multi-stage affairs, with bosses changing their attacks, changing the environment, or throwing additional wrinkles into your assault. Each one requires careful attention to enemies' alignment, as well as how best to use the environment to your advantage. Thankfully, the controls are smooth and extremely responsive, which is critical as stages become more complex.

Boss battles are impressive affairs.

In the end, while there are better 2D platformers, Outland stands out due to excelling in both style and substance. It constantly manages to impress, entertain, and occasionally surprise the player. It expertly blends concepts found in numerous disparate games to provide a unique and visually impressive experience. And it makes good use of its mechanics to create some memorable and dramatic boss battles. Finally, Outland possess numerous additional modes, including a variety of co-op options and a time-trial mode (with Leaderboards) for the story stages, giving it a great deal of staying power.

To hearken back to the Digital Distribution blog call, Outland also reflects the benefits that can result from digital distribution. As it encompasses an "archaic" game design (the 2D platformer), it would undoubtably struggle at retail. In addition, it isn't overly long (or so it seems, I have yet to finish it), but it appears to have avoided needless padding (as some retail games do). For $10, you get a solid, well-paced platformer that looks and plays beautifully. That alone speaks well of digital distrubution's potential.

So VERY pretty.

Outland is a creative and well-designed endeavour that deserves a look. If nothing else, I encourage everyone to download the demo. It's always fantastic to see a new IP show such a strong and entertaining debut, and Outland delivers.   read

10:11 PM on 04.28.2011

Aamaazing: The Little Touches

I love challenging games that embrace a survival mindset. The feeling of tension created by having to make sure that you're playing the game to the best of your ability adds a sense of drama and excitement that, to me, forms the core of the experience. The additional challenge imposed by the implmented limitations of the particular game style, be they limited time, limited resources, risky combat choices, etc. increases the sense of achievement and accomplishment one feels by overcoming those challenges.

Most games have some sort of survival requirement - some set of obstacles that the player is required to overcome (which may or may not include a time limit). However, the difference hews from the source of tension - with more survival oriented games, the tension is a constant presence, and often reinforced by the game and level design. Misleading corrridors, vague clues indicating how to progress, multiple enemies requiring you to risk combat or use scarce resources (e.g., bullets) - the player is constantly forced to evaluate how best to approach a situation, lest the game become essentially unwinnable.

You can "complete" this game. You cannot win this game.

Demon's Souls is a great example. It forces the player to constantly learn not only from their missteps, but the missteps of other players (via messages and bloodstains - unless you're playing offline, in which case, you are missing out). There is an overriding sense of tension in that each and every enemy may be your end, not to mention the considerable environmental hazards (traps, poison swamps, etc.). Each and every step your avatar takes brings them closer to another encounter that will test them and you, and by doing so will force you to consider exactly what the best path would be. Fantastic.

These kinds of games specifically force the player to develop their skills, through their tight restrictions (time limits, limited resources, or similar mechanics). They often create extremely frustrating experiences due to the generally strict challenges imposed. However, due to the increased level of difficulty, the sense of reward is similarly increased when one overcomes these obstacles. Beating a boss in Demon`s Souls is typically an extremely frustrating experience, yet the feeling of finally beating one (through refinement of technique, proper item selection, and developing a successful strategy) is hard to match.

And yet, the game I found Aamaazing looks nothing like this on the surface.

This game.

Scurge: The Hive was a GBA title ported to the DS early on. As I understand it, it was originally developed for the GBA, but its design made it a perfect fit for the DS. The hallmark of this title for me was the infection mechanic - early on in the game, you are infected with "The Scurge" - a nasty virus, which is then ever-present in your system. Your infection level is indicated by a percentage at the top of the screen - if the infection reaches its critical level (100%, natch), it quickly starts reducing your health, killing you. Only through the use of decontamination stations scattered around the complex (which double as saving points) can you reduce the infection to a 1% basal level (which then starts climbing again).

Ignore these numbers, and your number's up. PUN!

This was an interesting change in a survival game - you don't have to ration ammo or health so much as your time. You cannot be overly cautious in your explorations, and you need to be quick to overcome the various environmental puzzles (which typically consist of moving objects to reach higher objects). These challenges forced an impetus to continually refine your skills - you had to be mindful at all times of how far away the decontamination stages were, what level your infection was at, how many enemies you have to deal with (and what their relative strengths and weaknesses were) AND what you had to do to progress. It's a lot of information to process, and if you failed to do so, you died.

I was also impressed that the infection mechanic was kept during boss battles. I'm sure the temptation was there to halt the spread, but it keeps climbing as you fight. This makes the battles tense, yet also constrains the boss battles to a reasonable length - there's not a lot of waiting for the boss to leave themselves open after one attack, instead it's a constant flurry of attacking while dodging. It keeps these encounters dramatic and exhilarating - and from overstaying their welcome.

In addition, the release of Scurge on the DS highlighted the handy aspect of the Dual Screen in these types of time-sensitive games - having the map prominently displayed throughout. The GBA version (as I understand it - I never had that version) would require one to continually open the map to check where one had to go, which would be quite frustrating due to the need to constantly check where you were and how far one was from the decon station. It was a great application that helps to keep the infection mechanic from becoming too frustrating.

I`d say the infection possibility is quite high.

I know other games have used time-sensitive mechanics, usually changing the ending one receives if you faffed around too much - Simon's Quest has a (ridiculous) time frame that changes the endings, Splatterhouse 3 has time-based narrative changes, Dead Rising games have time-sensitive missions that affect the story. However, the reason that Scurge: The Hive really sticks in my mind was that unlike many other games, the time rationing is immediate - if you faff about, you die. If you take too long figuring out an environmental puzzle (instead of decontaminating), you die. If you fail to use your wepons effectively, strengthening your enemies because you didn`t manage your time effectively, you die. But if you manage to get a handle on managing your infection, your arsenal, and your map, you will succeed long enough to make it to the next section.

This simple mechanic made a rather mediocre exploration shooter (Explooter? Yeah, I'm gonna run with that) into a game that was memorable in its well-crafted coupling of its infection mechanic with good level design and a well-integrated enemy strength/weakness system. While it wasn`t the greatest game ever produced, it was certainly engaging, and the time pressure it put the player under made every action meaningful. You couldn’t simply sit and turtle through tough sections, or apply brute force trial-and-error to environmental puzzles; you had to be effective and efficient at all times.

Nothing can possibly go wrong here.

Amazement should never be reserved strictly for those overwhelming or inherently notable situations – sometimes the most amazing things are when you find how well certain pieces fit together, be they notes in a song or spices in a flavourful dish. The infection mechanism in Scurge: The Hive is amazing in this quieter manner – it doesn`t force the player to sit up and take notice of spectacle or set-piece. Instead, it simply sits in the forefront of the game`s design concept providing that extra bit of inspiration that makes the game memorable. Aamaazingly, it works.   read

11:00 AM on 03.28.2011

Technical Difficulties: Bad End!

This month's musing has had some wonderful blogs so far, and rightly so. One of the biggest complaints of classic videogames was the insane challenge required to succeed at these games, requiring players to memorize enemy patterns through repeated playthroughs. One of the greatest steps taken toward accessibility by the industry was the widespread introduction of difficulty levels.

Even with their most basic implementation, I like difficulty levels. They allow less experienced players to avoid considerable frustration, or give more experienced gamers the chance to breeze through games for fun or for obtaining collectables or achievements. I have replayed games on an easier difficulty simply to enjoy the visuals without having to be overly mindful of enemies - I did this for the Bionic Commando remake, and it was quite satisfying. The best implementations are when one can change difficulty "on the fly", in the case where one bit off more than they can chew. It`s a great way to avoid alienating players in a game where the difficulty curve has a notable spike, allowing people to smooth out these spikes if needed removes a great deal of frustration. There's a fine line between challenge and frustration, and the crucial point is that that line varies for each player.

Difficulty levels are important for gamers of all stripes.

Some players prefer more difficult games, especially if they've played numerous games of that genre. Which is why I cannot understand the bizarre trend of locking out higher difficulty levels in games. I have yet to hear a good reason for designers to bar players from the highest difficulties at the start. As long as the player has the choice to make things easier, they should also have the freedom to try the hardest difficulties. The main arguments for restricted upper difficulties is that it increases the replay value or that it ensures that players don't abandon the game by starting a game on too high a difficulty level. Both of these are poor design decisions.

First, let`s discuss the value of preventing players from starting too high. First of all, the default (or normal) difficulty should be reasonably low. Second, many games offer a chance to switch to an easy difficulty if players struggle too much early on. Simply put, this entire argument is rendered irrelevant if the game allows the player to modify game difficulty. You should respect your customer's intelligence – if they want to play on an Impossible difficulty, let them. Just make sure they can drop it once their hubris quotient is met.

Second, replay value. This is becoming a ridiculous box-back bullet point, and has led to considerable cheating on the parts of developers. If a game is enjoyable, and well-designed (which often go hand-in-hand), people will replay it. If you force people to replay games simply for achievements/trophies, that's a poor incentive (playing through Eat Lead once was entertaining. Twice was less so). However, this gets worse with one of the most detestable design choices regarding difficulty – blocking the player from content. The classic example of this is the standard easy difficulty results in a bad ending (or the even worse, now try again, only with some challenge), whereas beating the game on super-ultra-mega-nightmare-pain difficulty results in the good (and typically CANON) ending.

Fatal Frame games have no such thing as a good ending.

Now, I am a big fan of multiple endings, if handled correctly. If I take different actions, have different approaches, or develop differently, why shouldn't the ending change? It makes sense, and rewards the player for playing the game differently. What I have always found monumentally upsetting as a player is when the game ending changes simply because my enemies are wearing a bit more armour, start paying attention on patrols, and I suddenly became a heamophiliac. I have done nothing differently, except died much more often (and arguably had a more entertaining experience). And to touch again upon the issue of alienating one's players – if a gamer cannot beat higher difficulties and is therefore stuck with the bad endings, how would you expect them to react? I highly doubt most would say "Well, that certainly fills me with the fire to beat this game on the new, super difficult level I just unlocked so I can see the end I SHOULD HAVE ALREADY GOTTEN for beating this game! ", or at least say it without sarcasm.

This is one of the most irritating parts of the Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth game(which, despite its faults, is well worth playing) – the "true" ending is only unlocked by playing through the game extremely fast AND with a minimum of saving. This makes seeing the true ending feel like less of a reward for good playing than as a punishment for enjoying playing through the game (thankfully, there is a patch that corrects this). Similarly, you have to play on the harder difficulties to unlock Chapter Zero in Fatal Frame II, which can change the ending you receive. Again, I find this detracted from my enjoyment of the game.

Imagine seeing this when you were seven.

I understand that in this day and age, developers spend less time on the endings than the intros – after all, only those dedicated to finishing the game will ever see the ending. So, why frustrate people that DO complete the game by giving them a lesser ending? Why not simply put those resources into developing the best possible ending, and allow anyone who beats the game to see it?

Beating a game on the most difficult levels should be its own reward – a self-imposed challenge we accept to test ourselves. It should reward the player by its very nature. The player consiously chose to make things harder than they had to be, and succeeded - what other reward is necessary? Above all else, it should not serve as a gate preventing all but the most dedicated players from accessing the game's content.   read

8:38 PM on 02.17.2011

Groundhog Day: Now and forever.

As a wise man once sung, "Time is fleeting" (just before launching into the Time Warp). Due to its ephemeral nature, and the fact that each encroaching birthday takes more leisure time away from me, I find more and more often I do not have the time to revisit the games I'd like to. Most games take a lot of time to replay, and many do not age gracefully.

However, there are some titles that I find it hard to avoid replaying - they possess that perfect combination of length, nostalgia, replayability, and challenge that draws me in. One in particular. One that continues to haunt the nigh-deserted remains of modern arcades, tucked in the darkest, dankest corners of bowling alleys and pubs, and whose iconic music will forever reign in my heart. A game that brings to mind memories of numerous shouted curses, sore wrists, moments of intense panic, and shared comraderie.

A game called Ms. Pac-Man.

Insert your own screw-related puns. I wouldn`t dare mock her.

Ever since I was old enough to reach the controls (which wasn't that old, since the local bowling alley had one of the sit-down models), I would play Ms. Pac-Man - on my own or against friends and family, or watch others, trying to see how their strategies worked. It was my highlight of each bowling visit.

Even as I grew up, I would still play the game (and Pac-Man as well, although that was far less common). One of my fondest memories is going on a week-and-a-half-long family road trip, and playing Ms. Pac-Man against my father EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. The best part is that we never had too look too hard for a machine - most hotels had one somewhere, and if not, we would find a local arcade. We had a running competition, and would play several games back-to-back. I lost more than I won, by not by that much, and it led to much sassing of each other during the trip.

It plays Ms. Pac-Man AND holds your beer - it's a miracle machine!

During university, there was a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet perversely located close to the bus stop. I'd often miss a few buses after classes due to playing it for only a few minutes (i.e., when I ran out of change). Even now, whenever I see a Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man cabinet, I get the urge to play another game, and I cannot see this ever changing.

Sure, there are other games I replay, on computer or console, and most are much better games. But long ago a jaundiced siren captured my heart and challenged my reflexes, and I've never looked back.

Ms. Pac-Man is the game I will always go back to, due to its place in my memories and the fact that it's always around. It may be mostly out-of-sight, but it's always out there - in that bar down the street, tucked away in that pool hall, and hopefully a little farther down the road where you'll stop for the night on your trip. Waiting to welcome you back, and send spirits to hunt you down and destroy you.

I wouldn't want it any other way.   read

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