Oculin, known in the realm of the living as Benjamin Toy Yoder, is a college student majoring in journalism and professional writing. He likes to pretend to be a vidjya game journalist and, at the very least, has successfully tricked a few people into believing him, landing him gigs at VGChartz, Classic Game Room Empire and TheSpeedGamers.
Digging for gems in unknown or poorly received titles is what Oculin games for. He places a large emphasis on entertainment, rather than just polish. He also has an unhealthy interest in creepy Japanese idol games, despite never playing one.
Anime, visual novels and manga are also hobbies of his, although he is incredibly picky and very rarely takes recommendations.
This review was written for my editorial and critical writing class.
The Castlevania franchise dates back to 1986 with its original release on the Nintendo Entertainment System. In the last decade, the series' popularity started to dwindle until the 2010 reboot Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 reinvigorated the franchise. Western developer MercuryStream changed the series' direction from an exploration-focused dark fantasy game to an action game more in line with traditional fantasy seen in Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings. It was praised by reviewers for its polished action and more serious approach to a Castlevania story. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 builds off that foundation, but not always in the right ways.
Traditionally, the Castlevania games follow a vampire hunter, usually within the 15th to 18th centuries, who is trying to either destroy or prevent the revival of Dracula. As a series first, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 puts Dracula as the main playable character. A modern-day setting provides fresh locales for the franchise with dark alleyways, laboratories and the city streets to explore. Flashback levels take place in a traditional castle environment, but are a bit dull when put up against the new modern setting.
Despite being the “good guy” in this game, Dracula remains a cruel being. He gives no second thought to drinking the blood of innocent citizens, but Lords of Shadow 2 positions him as the lesser evil compared to Satan, who is trying to take over the world.
Lords of Shadow 2 opens with the back story from the original game and the spin-off Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate and heavily invests in the lore of these titles. Playing at least the original helps with understanding Dracula's motivations and his seemingly ridiculous role as the hero.
Playing the original game can also harm the player's experience. The combat remains essentially unchanged in Lords of Shadow 2 from the original. The Lords of Shadow series emphasizes performing combos, evading enemy attacks and timing defensive blocks. Playing well without taking any damage restores energy to fuel special attacks. These attacks either boost the player's damage output or allows for Dracula to drain health from enemies. The title rewards the ability to react quickly and play skillfully.
Upgrading attacks through experience points generates a high level of satisfaction as these upgrades are often substantial improvements. However, Lords of Shadow 2's abilities are near identical to the original's. Worst of all, it actually takes all these abilities away at the beginning of the game, forcing players to rebuild their arsenal of attacks. Taking away these moves after just presenting them all in a tutorial level leaves the combat feeling incomplete during the first few hours of gameplay. For those who have already built their character up in the first game, retreading the same ground hurts the overall sense of progression.
Most of the enemies found in Lords of Shadow 2 are orc-like vampires that rely heavily on close up melee attacks, similar to the original “Lords of Shadow.” These enemies can perform short smaller strikes that the player can block, or hard hitting single strikes that the player must dodge. “Lords of Shadow 2” does introduce modern-day military units who are heavily armored and have a wide variety of weaponry. Soldiers fire on Dracula from a distance, lay mines and use jet packs to distance themselves from Dracula's ground attacks. These enemies require new strategies to be developed from the standard vampires normally slain, and the change of flow in combat helps freshen up the experience.
Lord of Shadow 2 introduces new mechanics but as separate stealth missions. Players have to avoid conflict with large soldiers who can almost instantly kill Dracula. Dracula can posses rats, soldiers and scientists to navigate from room to room by unlocking doors or traveling through small holes. These section act as a nice side attraction, but become repetitive throughout the experience. Dracula gaining the ability to transform into mist later on is the only significant addition to these sections, and this power still amounts to hunting down holes in a wall to proceed.
These stealth sections limits the player's actions and removes their ability to fight, which feels like a cheap trick. It's performed under the guise of Dracula being too weak from his reawakening to combat heavily armed soldiers, but later feels unjustified when Dracula is fighting towering beasts and large mechanized military armor yet is still unable to engage these soldiers.
That being said, Lords of Shadow 2 should be played without taking the game too seriously. While the original Lords of Shadow followed a holy knight's descent into darkness during service to God, Lords of Shadow 2 has a scene where Satan flies into outer space while riding upon a giant demonic worm. This ridiculous, almost B-movie quality, harkens back to older Castlevania titles and clashes with Dracula's seriousness carried over from the first game.
Lords of Shadow 2 falls short compared to the original as some of the layers added were left a bit rough. However, the stealth segments and modern-day setting offer refreshing variety that wouldn't be in a run-of-the-mill sequel that Lords of Shadow 2 could have been.
Bring up Final Fantasy XIII and you'll generally get a group of disgruntled moans from around the room. The title built up a bad reputation for itself that seemingly gets worse over the years. Final Fantasy XIII branded announcements are met with cries for Square Enix to abandon the series and start anew.
Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII sits on my list of to-play titles for this year, so I can't talk about Square Enix's more recent outing. However, I can tell you that if you disliked Final Fantasy XIII, you should at least give Final Fantasy XIII-2 a try.
Starting Final Fantasy XIII-2 seems like a mistake, so you'll just have to trust me on this one. It opens with this weird cutscene that serves mostly as fan service for the first title's main character, Lighting. The rest of the game follows Lighting's sister, Serah. Then you have to deal with her annoyingly whining for the first half of the story about Lighting's disappearance from the world. It gets better as the plot focuses more on Noel, who is one of the last surviving humans in a future world, but sometimes it feels like the game would be better without Lighting and Serah's story at all.
Undoubtedly, the biggest improvement of Final Fantasy XIII-2 are the areas in the game. Gone are the linear hallway level designs in favor of locales with more variety. Large open areas with winding paths take precedence here, along with an emphasis on exploration to find treasures as well as keys that open gates to new areas. These levels are frequently reused, but often they have some sort of gimmick or change of atmosphere to freshen up the experience.
Both the main line story quests and side quests require players to track down items without too much guidance given. Having freedom from an ever-guiding hand is appreciated, but sometimes the developers can leave players in the dark about where an item is or how to get to its location. It's a pain if you don't have time to search every corner and path. However, there's a simple solution to that: Use a guide. There's no shame in that. I used one, and I approve of you using one, too. It's our little secret.
The battle system remains largely unchanged from Final Fantasy XIII, but gives players full control from the start. Players immediately have access to three major class roles, and the combat focuses heavily on quickly changing between offensive and defensive formations, like in the original. The player's battle performance is ranked, which provides awards and gives incentive to optimize strategies even within normal battles. One annoyance is that random battles return, but they can be avoided if the player outmaneuver an enemy in time.
A couple of hours into Final Fantasy XIII-2 unlocks the ability to essentially train the series equivalent of a Pokemon to fight in your party. While there are some strategies in choosing specific monsters, for the most part they simply fill an additional slot to complete a three person party.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not the greatest JRPG or Final Fantasy, but the changes to the pacing, level design and some of the story remedies many of the most hated aspects of Final Fantasy XIII.
Like many 3DS owners, I sat down with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds over the holiday season. My first Zelda title was A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo, but for some reason the two-dimensional, isometric gameplay never resonated with me. The fully 3D titles, from Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64 and beyond, have always impressed me with their larger sense of scale and more in depth combat features.
So while A Link Between Worlds fails to light a spark of gaming love in my heart, it makes me excited for what the next console entry in the Zelda series may have to offer.
The Legend of Zelda series has been in a rut on the home consoles, which became a noticeable issue with Twilight Princess for the Wii and Nintendo Gamecube in 2006. The game is essentially the traditional 3D Zelda formula on steroids. It is cumulative of everything that came before that, but now bigger, better and prettier. However, it did little to add to the franchise, unless you count blinding players with bloom lighting.
Skyward Sword, released on the Wii in late 2011, did take some steps to add new aspects to the series. The game introduces a larger cast of memorable characters, implements a crafting system to upgrade equipment, and focuses on new enemy designs to make use of Wii MotionPlus, yet it fails to shake off the shell of older Zelda titles and retreats to the standard formula.
Most of the new cast is phased out out mid-way through the story in favor of focusing on Link and Zelda, the item-based dungeons persist and less enemies in the later half of the game have elements tied to the sword controls.
A Link Between Worlds succeeds at freeing the Zelda franchise where Skyward Sword was unable to, and acts as Twilight Princess' near polar opposite. Outside of the setting, A Link Between Worlds breaks down what would often be considered fundamentals of the Zelda franchise. The dungeon and item cycle has been completely reworked. You can now tackle dungeons in almost any order and essential items are available through stores. Instead dungeons feature optional pieces of equipment.
These optional treasures have to be tracked down by the players on their own, where before they'd be led to them through a sequence of linear events to a mandatory treasure chest. Dungeons built around specific items still exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Free-form dungeons take precedence, allowing you to tackle them with whatever set of equipment you desire. That's not even mentioning Link's ability to merge with walls which challenges players to throw out their expectations when it comes to traditional Zelda problem solving.
Unlike Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword ,which take hours to truly begin, A Link Between Worlds is quick to start and the entire overworld is available almost immediately. That is something that hasn't been a part of the series since the original The Legend of Zelda released nearly 28 years ago. It doesn't even force you to get a shield, which is often considered an essential aspect of Link's arsenal. It brings back memories of being able to skip the sword in the original release.
My desire for franchises to significantly evolve or change with each entry isn't shared by many, as apparent by the current yearly franchise grind of the gaming industry. So it makes me glad that A Link Between Worlds' changes are so well received. Much of the negative criticism about the title stems from the fact that it's a sequel to A Link to the Past, but I'm fine with that if Nintendo needed a safe foundation to be willing to take the risks that they did.
Now that they have broken down that barrier, I'm hoping it has given them confidence to take the next console entry and continue to tweak and turn aspects of the series to create drastic differences the game's design. A Link Between Worlds may not be my favorite Zelda game, but it's yet another step in building a better future for the Zelda franchise.
It's been almost four years since Cing went out of business. In over a decade of its existence, the company created multiple point-and-click adventure games for Nintendo's platforms. Being a fan of Hotel Dusk: Room 215 on the Nintendo DS, it was sad to see them go as they finished work on the sequel, Last Window: The Secret of Cape West, which only released in Europe and Japan. I imported Last Window years ago, but have saved it for when it felt right to dive in. I finally sat down and completed in a couple of flights over the holidays, and realized I was more disappointed than I should have been about Cing's closure.
Obviously it was a shame to those who lost their jobs, and I hope by this point they've all found some form of employment. But as much as I enjoyed Last Window, the title did little to broaden their horizons.
Cing's DS and Wii experiences always stood out thanks to their novel use of Nintendo's systems and their features, often requiring you to think outside of the game's boundaries. For example: One puzzle in their Wii title, Another Code: R -- A Journey into Lost Memories, requires you to open the Wii's Home menu to reveal the solution. It's a refreshing and sometimes frustrating experience as it requires you to mentally break the fourth wall, often on your own.
After finishing Last Window, a thought crossed my mind: “I could go without playing another title like this, at least any time soon.” Their games didn't evolve after their second release for Nintendo, Hotel Dusk. Sure the novelty puzzles continued to be unique to their games, but they were an expected feature by their fourth title.
Comparing their earlier DS games, Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk, it's easy to see there are some improvements and changes between each release. Hotel Dusk streamlines puzzle elements and the user interface, as well as gives players a more natural view of their surroundings through a first person perspective, where Trace Memory had been isometric.
The tone changed significantly between them. Both are point-and-click adventure games focusing on solving complicated mysteries, but Trace Memory is viewed through the eyes of a young girl trying to find her father. Hotel Dusk is from the perspective of a seasoned detective, and often dealt with more mature and complicated themes.
Their following title, Another Code: R, revisited Trace Memory and felt like a step back, often undermining the player's intelligence with hand holding and dialog that assumes you have an attention span of less than five minutes. Thankfully this was an issue unique to this entry.
Instead of building off their past successes after stumbling, they simply returned to the Hotel Dusk formula. Sure Last Window had a new story and new characters, but the actual game shell containing it and the story's themes remained unchanged.
It's hard to fully blame Cing. They worked under short development periods and they obviously didn't have room to take risks, or at least that's what I assume as they went bankrupt soon after the release of Last Window. It wouldn't be surprising if it was simply an attempt to stay afloat, hence its safe nature.
I love the story, themes, dialog and characters of Cing's titles. If Kyle Hyde from Hotel Dusk and Last Window was real, I'd have a giant man crush on him and his manly back.
I'm actually curious where the developers went following Cing's bankruptcy. I haven't gone searching for them yet, and I'm not sure if any of them are high profile enough to be tracked.
There has been a renaissance in the point-and-click adventure genre in recent years. Most of the newer titles seem to be based off western developed releases of the past, but I do hope someone takes time to look at Cing's work and build off the foundations they set.
The Wii was my favorite console the last generation. That's not a ridiculous proposition if you think about all the first party successes the platform had with Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and other big Nintendo franchises. Where my love of the system does get a little strange is that I prefer the Wii's third party titles over other consoles.
When it comes down to overall quality, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had a consistent flow of AAA third-party content, especially in the later years of their life. Most third party Wii titles ended up being these B or C level experiences that needed more time to come together, or were just a bad combination of ideas from the start.
What set the Wii apart was not only a new control scheme, but a whole new audience for the market. Most consumers bought the Wii for Wii Sports, and were largely inexperienced beyond those four mini-games. Third party publishers took a lot shots in the dark, hoping something would stick with this unknown audience. Without a large variety of successful blue prints to work off of, a lot of different styles and approaches were taken to find a hit. It was reminiscent of early 3D games, as developers were trying to figure out what worked best for this new system.
The Wii's hardware sales built a promise of an untapped market many publishers were drawn to. The majority of this new gaming audience was happy with just Wii Sports, but third parties didn't know that at the time.
Some games were aimed at bridging a casual and more traditional gaming experience, often intending to act as a stepping stone between these two experiences. These titles used simple and approachable mechanics, wrapping them in a complete adventure with cut scenes and an involving story.
Dragon Quest Swords was one of the first titles to attempt this style on the Wii, following the simple tale of Blade and his companions to face the evil demon, Xiphos. The title relies on a simple set of skills that you learn to master. The end of the game surprisingly requires an extensive amount of precision using the infrared pointer on the Wii Remote. It's a light experience that hardly lives up to the main Dragon Quest series, but doesn't try to. It was essentially the Wii's Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
Before PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade fully came into being, the Wii offered an escape from the growing budgets on other platforms. This allowed for a slew of creative titles.
Lost in Shadow combines two-dinensional combat, platforming and puzzle solving, then designed those mechanics around light sources. The player is trapped in the shadow world and can only traverse in the background from the shadows cast off physical objects, which need to be manipulated to create a path. It replicates ICO's visuals and atmosphere, which makes it a treat on the aging Wii hardware.
The controller itself captured the imaginations of many developers, despite the original Wii Remote being a limited device. The Wii MotionPlus came a bit late, but helped developers fully deliver on the ideas that they had since launch.
Ubisoft's first person brawler, Red Steel 2, in a lot of ways was better than Nintendo's own first party Wii MotionPlus offerings. Motion controls look ridiculously awkward as the player flails about, but Red Steel 2 makes you feel like a bad-ass while doing so. It takes your basic motions and transforms them into a variety of special skills: launching enemies into the air and slamming them to the ground, counter stabbing enemies behind you, and performing a wide variety of executions using your sword and guns. It was the sword fighting Wii game we all wanted, albeit three years after the fact.
It's sad that most third party Wii titles are likely to be forgotten, even though the platform lives on through the Wii U's backwards compatibility.
To avoid falling into a depressive Wii fan coma, there were some titles that received recognition. No More Heroes in particular put the light on Suda 51. The cel-shaded visuals helped with the Wii's technical limitations and matched Suda 51's bizarre style. It features a smart use of the motion controls, where the player uses a satisfying flick of the controller to finish their enemies. It also helps that the game featured some of the most entertaining characters in gaming history.
In a lot of ways, newer consoles are picking up certain elements of the Wii. Kinect is bundled in with every Xbox One. Download services have taken on the burden of strange or experimental releases as the generation has closed out. The Wii remains unique with the system's focus being on its combination of control scheme, broad audience and lower budgets. All those elements came together to help inspire third party publishers to to tackle content with a specific mindset: If Nintendo can do it, we can to.