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4:27 PM on 06.19.2011

Enslaved: A Thorough and (Slightly) Retro Review

I’m sure many of you glossed over Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West when it came out last October. I know I passed up its release in order to save some cash, but having finally gone back and played it I’d say it’s a shame that anyone missed it.

As you may know the story is a futuristic take on an ancient Chinese Buddhist text called Journey to the West, which centers on a mischievous monkey god who is forced to accompany a Buddhist monk on a journey to retrieve sacred texts from the dark and dangerous “Western Regions”.

The monkey – known as Sun Wukong – is fitted with a magical headband that shrinks upon the monk’s command, should the rascal get out of line. So in order to be freed from his bondage he must protect the monk on his journey, and return him safely home.

As you can guess from trailers, replacing the monk in this modern version is a young girl named Tripitaka, or “Trip” for short. And our hero “Monkey” is a capable vagrant with enough jaded resentment for the world to keep them both afloat in its murderous fathoms.

After a few harrowing one-offs in a sequence where the pair flees a slave ship and the controls and premise are introduced, Monkey awakens amidst the rubble of a crashed escape pod with an enslaving headband fitted to his skull, and a young girl watching him warily from a safe distance. Here the fun begins.

The first thing that stands out about this game is its characters, and that may seem obvious as they’re the central focus, but surprisingly few games present characters that are both likeable and believable. It’s a right smart thing when the player feels like the character acts exactly as they would in given situations – when their responses are lifelike and sensible.

“Get this thing off, or I’m gonna rip your head off.”

First calm words out of Monkey’s mouth when Trip tells him she enslaved him in his sleep. And the voice acting is phenomenal. Granted, Monkey consistently sounds like a mix between Mel Gibson and Steve Blum, but all of his lines are delivered pitch-perfect in terms of his personality and situational contexts.

Monkey is scarred, burned, ragged, but most of all – built like a freaking Panzer. His character design is a great interpretation of Sun Wukong. Long, gorilla arms, tail-like sash, and even the weird red war-paint the monkey god wore across his eyes. His history is left vague – where he acquired his staff and “cloud” (reference to Wukong’s Nimbus) isn’t delved into. But we know what we need to – he had a rough past growing up in the wilds, and had to fight to survive. That’s what makes him capable.

Trip also has a fantastic design in my opinion. She’s not just another bra-mannequin fresh out of the skank bank. Aside from her girl-next-door green eyes and freckles, she’s got a fitting personality – Tech-wiz from a small village, vulnerable but resourceful, scared, but packing #!@&-loads of ambition. This makes her less escort and more asset, which is a nice break from RE4 and more reminiscent of Knight’s Contract.

Yes, she’s attractive. Yes, that’s brought up. But not focused on. She’s not a sex symbol, she’s a flower in a schoolyard of bullies who hate flowers and like to stomp on them. And you’re the grumpy groundskeeper.

(Kinda puts you in a protectin’ mood, doesn’t it?)

The animation of these loveable survivors is great as well. Monkey reacts to every explosion shielding his eyes and trying to catch his balance, and Trip scrambles to pull herself up the other side of every ravine Monkey tosses her over. Much of the environment is even destructible, coming apart as you attempt to scale or hide behind it while under attack. The graphics aren’t top notch, but the visuals are phenomenal. Despite this being the post-apocalypse there are colors everywhere. “The War” was over 200 years prior and nature has reclaimed much of the urban sprawl, making for a lush vista at every turn.

You’re encouraged to explore this detailed environment by the orbs that can be collected to upgrade Monkey’s abilities. They’re sprinkled all around in every corner, giving you incentive to clamber up every random pipe and scout every dark corner the developers so painstakingly rendered.

Another thing I love about this game that many other games disregard is grounding in reality. This may sound odd to say about a game featuring a monkey-man tearing apart giant mechs with his plasma staff, but I’m speaking here of subtleties.

When Monkey is fitted with the headband he can see his and Trip’s vital signs, as well as the status of his shield, and the number of orbs he has – essentially, his HUD. Trip hacked it to present him with all this information visually, as well as to create an audio uplink between them, explaining why you can hear her far away. It’s a small detail, but I love when games give a reason for the strange things going on, rather than hiding behind suspension of disbelief.

I’d much rather believe that Monkey knows which enemies have vulnerabilities because Trip scanned them and transmitted the info to his headband, than that he has great intuition, or they happen to have glowing orange kidneys he has to punch.

This brings us to the meat and potatoes of the game – combat and platforming. I had heard from some other players that the combat in Enslaved: Mel Gibson Goes to New York was repetitive and the platforming too easy. But while I can see why they might say that, I have to disagree to an extent.

The mechs do regularly present a similar threat, but even fights with them are created as puzzles. There are about five types of mechs with different abilities that are confronted in varying situations. Usually one has a weakness that you can exploit in order to more rapidly defeat them all, rather than slogging through mashing the square button ‘til Monkey’s arms fall off. And oftentimes I was surprised at the difficulty of a seemingly simple encounter because I was overlooking the puzzle elements of the fight and focused on swinging my staff all over their metal faces instead.

The fights also require you to utilize all the varying moves you can learn instead of relegating the upgrade system to useless-fluff status. You will need to block, counter, evade and stun if you hope to survive against clusters or larger mechs with an affinity for pugilism. And it is incredibly satisfying when you context-kill a big demolition mech by literally ripping his arms up through his own shoulders.

And the “ease” of the platforming is excused in my opinion due to the necessity of its being easy. Too often are you required to swing up and across a series of handholds before Trip’s decoy runs out and the machine-gun mechs tear your monkey ass to ribbon. If Monkey had to have the patience of Nathan Drake in his platforming, this would be a very short and very sad game. Instead, rapid swinging was implemented to ramp up the harrow-factor of clambering around as a jungle man dodging plasma bursts in the wilds of Old New York.

There are also lots of good puzzle sections interspersed with the action. Your classic “room full of moveable bridges” and “get the power back on in the right sequence”. None are terribly difficult, but they’re a nice change of pace. This and the game’s humor are a nice reprieve from the normal itinerary of “kill they ass ‘til all they ass dead”.

There’s plenty of humor in the game, often in the form of Monkey playing punching bag and Trip apologizing profusely after the fact. But it’s ramped up later when the third player, Pigsy, is introduced. A reference to another character from Journey, Pigsy is a fat junkyard man with the hots for Trip. There are some great scenes of Pigsy delusionally trying to compete with Monkey for Trip’s attention that doubled my love for the whole cast.

(“Monkey can I ask you a question. You use a lotta hair product?”)

The story’s progression is mostly swift and satisfying, with only a few hiccups that cause it to drag here and there. I found myself not wanting to stop when it was time to go to bed, and was profoundly curious about how it would all wrap up. I won’t spoil it here – it’s too good. Consider this a long-winded foreplay, intended to get you in the mood. Pick it up, try it out – it’ll cost you a few dollars and a few hours and it’s totally worth your time. Then, if you like, come back here and discuss ;)
This game does its predecessor a great modernizing service, and I’m thinking I might go play it again, real-life obligations be damned.

Can't seem to embed the video but check out the trailer here if you're not familiar with it already.   read

11:20 PM on 06.15.2011

Breasts rule everything around me, BREAM.

The “Girls in Games” debate is a tired one, to be sure. In decades past we’ve seen armies of pixelated DD breasts developed, perpetuated, and fought over. Always the argument boils down to progressives calling game females hurtful stereotypes and setters of unrealistic standards, and more traditional gamers asserting that it’s all in good fun.

To be honest, I don’t know where I stand on the debate. The logical rationalist side of me believes that the media we are subjected to does change our opinions and views of the world we live in, and that being regularly bombarded by images of girls with “perfect figures” could have a negative impact on our perception of reality. But then the high-fiving Neanderthal of a 22-year old male gamer side of me – well, he loves boobs.

This is a trend of course that exists not only in the world of games, but in the world of movies, television, magazines, and comics. OH MY GOD does it exist in comics. I grew up reading X-Men and Spiderman and the occasional Punisher but it wasn’t until I was in about high school that I started to really pay attention to the pattern. Girls with pencil-thin waistlines and cantaloupes on top, and guys with cobblestone abs and biceps like Cool J.

(Emma Frost, telepathic prostitute with skin of diamonds and breath of Courvoisier.)

The only person in the entirety of the X-Men universe who isn’t cut like Brad Pitt is Blob, and that’s his fucking superpower. The way Bruce Banner and Peter Parker are drawn they’d be pulling super models in the real world, and they’re supposed to be the dumpy nerds of their respective universes. So there you go guys score one for you too, shed a tear of hurt inadequacy at your objectification.

What I want to know is not whether this is a problem, or whether people are upset about it. I know full well it’s a problem, and you’re fucking right people are upset about it. Girls are starving themselves over toilet bowls to look like Cosmo models and Supergirl for guys who are hiding from them because Chris Redfield and Wolverine called them pussies and stole their lunch money.

What I want to know is – can anything be done about it? Has this train gotten so far from station that everyone’ll jump off if it turns around? Lots of us are crying out for more realism – we want to play people like us so we don’t feel like jerks for not hittin’ up the gym on a Thursday night. We want our boyfriends and girlfriends to stop swooning over people who have the advantage of having been created on CryEngine 3 with sex-hotness in mind.

(Steroids for breakfast, steroids for lunch.)

I admit I applauded (no not actually out loud you jerks) when I read about the Lara Croft reboot – it sounded like a very mature and interesting direction to go with a character who has practically led the booby charge since 19DD. But I was surprised to see some of my fellow progressives go even further with their demands. “She still looks like a super model,” they said, “it’s still incredibly unrealistic.”

Friends, there are SOME pretty girls in the world. And some of them DO actually do things besides rub on Hugh Heffner, that lucky fuck. In fact I know some pretty badass chicks who not only love rock-climbing and shooting guns, but are also extremely hot and love rock-climbing and shooting guns. Am I dating any of them? Nooo, but then I didn’t say the world was perfect now did I?

(Awesome girls being awesome.)

My point is I don’t think we need to go so far as to demand that every character is made to be hideous and inferior to us in order to boost our own egos. I personally think of it as a little incentive. We all have a drive to be like the people we idolize. We try in subtle ways to emulate them, whether it be their attitude, their hair, or their physical fitness. If you hit the gym a couple more times a week so you can try look like Chloe Frazer or Solid Snake (sans the mullet), I honestly don’t see that as a problem. So long as it doesn’t get out of control. There’s nothing healthy about obsession.

(Though I could see how someone could be obsessed by her.)

Suppose we did try to make EVERYTHING more realistic. And all the X-Men had kind of a ponch, and Nathan Drake’s fingers didn’t have the strength of Zeus to keep him glued to all those thin ledges. Suppose we all had to watch Lara Croft’s freshman-fifteen jiggle in her spandex “pants” as she huffed around some island looking for cell phone service.

There is a line for the suspension of disbelief. On one side of it there are women who by all rights should be wearing back braces to support their titanic bust. And on the other side there are couch-potato heroes saving the world by sheer force of happening to be the protagonist. Do you see what I’m saying? There’s always a compromise.

(Dear Christ don't let this happen.)

The gaming and comic industries have been around for a long time, and their content has never exactly been as concerned with realism as it is now in the age of Hi-Def. These days we can even be made to feel guilty in 3D. So the argument that people’s self-esteem may be at stake is justified, as is the argument that we have always liked it this way.

So what do we do? I think developers have been making good strides toward a standard of fairness and sensitivity overall. We’re seeing more Elena Fisher and less Sonya Blade. People Can Fly’s Trischka went through several transformations before Bulletstorm’s release in order to end up with a much more reasonable yet still very attractive final product.

But I’m curious to hear what others think about the direction we’re headed. Is it the right thing to do – cuttin’ in on everyone’s booby-loving fun? Or is it a dose of the future, and is that future a homely one indeed? Supposedly the voice of the people can change things, and Destructoid here has given us the opportunity to do just that, so speak up ;)

But seriously Cosmo, Dove, L’Oreal – quit airbrush and jaw-line editing all your models. You’re cheating. That’s called cheating.
[embed]203865:39457[/embed]   read

2:52 AM on 06.10.2011

It's a pirate's life for... Square Enix?

So a few years back I played Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII and Level 5’s Rogue Galaxy within a few months of each other, and noted a disturbing number of similarities between the two. Most of my friends hadn’t played Level 5’s game so they couldn’t see what I was talking about, but the coincidences were just eating at me so for the sake of my sanity I compiled a list. Here are some of the more glaring overlaps between the games that have me thinking Square was straight pilfering their little brother’s pocket on this one.

I’ve read before that the two companies have in the past collaborated on titles - which makes sense being that they work in the same genre vein - but I don’t know of any besides Dragon Quest which was really just more of a hand-off. I don’t believe they collaborated on either Rogue Galaxy or FFXII, but they must have been working on them at the same time, because Level 5’s title released in December of 2005 and Square’s dropped a few months later in March of 2006.

At the beginning of both games you are introduced to a young, sprightly protagonist going about his daily chores in a town surrounded by desert. Both are teen boys with spiky blond hair and an affinity for baggy pants and wrist-guards. Also, they are both orphans, and have been left to the care of charitable men in the form of a priest and a shop owner respectively. Meet, Jaster Rogue and Vaan… uhh, the urchin.

(Seriously Square the princess gets to be Ashelia B’Nargin Dalmasca and your protagonist gets just the one syllable?)

So from here the two youths do what youths do best - fuck shit up and get in trouble. Vaan steals something a pirate wants and Jaster pretends to BE something a pirate wants. Either way, pirates. Vaan teams up with the carefree sky-pirate Balthier and his Playboy bunny companion Fran, and Jaster is swept aboard the good ship Dorgenark. Here he meets the carefree space-pirate Zegram, and a jungle lady as similarly tan, sexy, and scantily clad as Final Fantasy’s viera. Mind you, everything that happens here was in Level 5’s game first.

(Bows and boobs. Killer combo, apparently.)

About this time, both of our protagonists meet a young lady who is to be part of their ragtag band of outcasts. Sounds familiar, here comes the love-interest right? Wrong! Totally platonic. And maybe here’s why – they’re both secretly princesses! Shittin’ bricks yet? Try this picture on for size: Meet, Kisala and Ashe.

(Maybe Square figured this was okay because they had the upper-hand graphically.)

Okay, surely that’s it right? Certainly we can’t use the Airship/Battleship travel method as a point of accusation. But how about the villains? Final Fantasy – Evil scientist. Rogue Galaxy – Evil science *corporation*. But don’t worry neither of these was the real threat throughout the whole game. No, both were revealed to be a tool controlled by… an evil monster god? This isn’t new territory for RPGs, or any game really. “Oh no, bad guy wasn’t half as bad as completely un-introduced *badder* guy!”
But here’s the rub, check out Mother, and The Undying.

(Mother and… Son?)

I mean, Square, you’re not even trying at this point. What happened? I looked up to you. Level 5 looked up to you. You’re our big bro! Now Ubisoft’s smokin’ you in the CGI arms race and BioWare and Bethesda are crushing ‘em outta the RPG park where you used to be home-run king!

Even the “innovative” battle system from XII feels ripped off after playing Galaxy. And they had the added coolness of synthesizing your own weapons and being able to actually see them on your characters as they ran around - in alternating costumes I might add!

I saw your name on MindJack and Mario Sports Mix. Where’s the integrity? You’ve gotta pull it together, for the childrens. No more rippin’ off the hard-working folks at Level 5, and no more slappin’ the brand-name on crap games. Give us gamers some credit, we can tell the difference between new and used.

(Changing “Inazuma 11” to “Samurai 11” a new game does not make. Tsk tsk, Mr. Wada.)   read

7:18 PM on 06.08.2011

P2 Press Start: P2? P2!!

Gamers are often associated with the stigma of being pale, anti-social creatures dwelling alone in Mountain Dew lairs on Cheeto-stained furniture. But while we may love ruining our arteries and our sleep schedules, we love it even more with company - and many of us are actually quite tan.

Gaming like most things is only improved when shared in by others. I grew up kicking friends' butts in Burnout and Super Smash Bros., and clearing dungeons with them in Diablo and Champions of Norrath. So in this modern age of gaming I'm left to wonder, where has all the multiplayer gone?

I purchased my shining idol of a Playstation 3 in early 2009 and got down to brass tacks with GTA IV and Burnout Paradise. But while both provided easily accessible and admittedly fun online multiplayer, I couldn't help but miss the in-person gloat factor that makes victory all the sweeter.

Of course, the Playstation library these days isn't quite built for multiplayer - what with titles like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid filling the shelves. But in my opinion there are some gleaming opportunities that have been missed.

On PS2 Free Radical Design brilliantly implemented co-op multiplayer in their TimeSplitters series (particularly Future Perfect). No matter the level a second player could always jump in as someone from the period to assist the protagonist. This option never hurt the experience by being a necessity or an annoyance, and it was well-explained unlike the "Two Chuck Greenes" phenomenon in Dead Rising 2.

Many games will provide a host of main characters but neglect the opportunity to make more than one of them playable. Last year I became a Battlefield: Bad Company 2 addict and had fun dinking around through the campaign when I wasn't smashing through walls online. But the whole experience would've been much more enjoyable with a buddy playing as Sweetwater or Hags.

Sure multiplayer requires more work on the part of the developer, but it's not like it hurts story cohesion at all. Gears of War allows a second player to jump in as Dom, and I had a blast defeating the locust horde with my Xbox friend. Why couldn't my Playstation friend and I take turns leashing the butt-cheeks off mini-bosses in Bulletstorm? Or at least split a screen to play Anarchy online with others.

I've heard before that developers exclude local multiplayer in order to sell more units, or so that players don't have to share a screen (which I promise we haven't minded since Goldeneye 64). But either way I think that's crap. We're already getting stiffed on multiplayer by the likes of EA forcing us to spend extra cash on new copies of games instead of saving a few meager bucks by buying pre-owned.

Gearbox struck gold by making Borderlands multiplayer both locally and online. I've probably invested more hours in that game than any other RPG to date, and although I've beaten every possible aspect of the game released, I would still go out and buy it again if I ever lost my copy. My friends and I spent entire nights sniping and soldiering psychos and Crimson Lance soldiers online and on the same couch, and can't wait for Borderworlds to get an official announcement.

Likewise Saints Row 2 became my new favorite sandbox game, blowing GTA out of the water when I discovered its ridiculous hilarity had story multiplayer instead of just online, and that we could even play as our own characters, not a copy of one protagonist.

I'm not saying that every game needs multiplayer. Infamous probably wouldn't be much fun for the friend that gets stuck pushing Zeke's fat, winded arse around Empire, or drowning themselves as John Marston's horse. But who's to say Uncharted wouldn't be more fun with someone controlling Sully (or Elena or Chloe), or Killzone improved with some playing as Rico or Natko or Narville. Hell, even L.A. Noire might've been improved with the partner on your couch being your partner on the case.

It's hard to think of many games that *wouldn't* be more fun with a friend by your side, so why don't more developers make that a reality? Maybe there aren't enough gamers crying out for it. Or maybe - but hopefully not - developers and their publishers are more concerned with the promised profit of consistency than with the fun and satisfaction of breaking the mold. Time will tell if a change will be made, but until then we're left refreshing the community levels in LBP2.   read

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