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3:27 PM on 08.14.2014

Yumi's Odd Odyssey



I have a weakness for cute anime things, especially if it looks like it's from the 80s or 90s. While I had heard of the Japanese Umihara Kawase series, I've never been too big into importing. All of the games have passed me by until the most recent Nintendo 3DS release, which was localized under the name Yumi's Odd Odyssey. 



Something that has stood out about the franchise even since it's original 1994 Super Nintendo release is the visual style of the games. While the characters are cute little chibi girls, the backgrounds instead take a more realistic look.  Paper doors, cross walk lights, wine racks, faucets, rubber ducks and tons of other everyday objects sit in the background often not even placed logically. Sometimes a paper wall will just float in the backdrop for no particular reason. The fish enemies fall somewhere in-between realistic and just goofy looking. They wobble around on their legs and have big buggy eyes. This is all set to a soundtrack that feels like it's out of the 16-bit era with a whimsical and relaxing vibe to it. 
 
The aesthetics create a strange and surreal environment, yet it doesn't feel out of place given the game's structure. There's no story outside some brief character bios, nor an overarching world. The game is based off a simple stage select screen. Each stage is a small self-contained box the player must navigate through.



Merely running and jumping on platforms won't get you far.  A fishing lure is your main tool for traversing the levels in Yumi's Odd Odyssey. After throwing the lure in one of eight directions, it will attach to a surface. You can then swing across gaps or simply hang in the air. I often hear the series get compared to Bionic Commando because of this mechanic. However, Yumi's Odd Odyssey offers much more freedom of movement when you're attached to a surface.

When hanging from the fishing lure, you can retract and extend your line. It may not sound like much but the speed you generate from doing this is ridiculous. You'll start bouncing around with only the lure keeping you from flying off in some random direction. Let go of the lure and off you go, hopefully not to your death. 


Yumi's Odd Oddsey is all about controlling the speed and angle at which you launch. The lure mechanics can feel unpredictable at times as there's a ton of factors in how fast and what direction you'll go. Even so, it still feels heavily reliant on the player's skill and timing.  



Early on you'll have to start throwing your lure mid-air to swing from one surface to the next without ever touching the ground. All of the platforms and interactive elements have a distinct look to them, so you'll never find yourself accidentally trying to latch onto background elements. Once you master the basic mechanics, you can start doing some advance techniques like wrapping a lure against an object to get a specific angle or to further increase your launch speed. 

You're not constrained to the set paths the levels seem to lay out. If you can use the physics to get to the end another way, the game's totally okay with you doing that.  Don't feel like dealing with spikes today? Swing yourself across the bottom of them, or try to throw yourself over the entire spike pit. The only barriers you'll meet are the borders of the level and your own ability to pull off these feats.  There are later elements like icy surfaces you can't lure onto, but those have their own uses that you can take advantage of. 



There are 50 levels overall, though you have to find secret doors to access most of them. The levels can be completed in less than a couple minutes. Actually completing them is the tough bit. Don't be surprised if you spend hours impaling the adorable little characters on spikes or having them drown at the bottom of the ocean. Surprisingly, it doesn't really come off as frustrating possibly due to the relaxing nature of the soundtrack. 

I hope interest in Yumi's Odd Odyssey starts to bloom over time. From what I can see, there's not much of a conversation going on about the game. It definitely deserves some attention after having to wait two decades to premiere outside of Japan. It's only available digitally on the eShop in North America, so it has a limited reach. $20 might seem a little steep for such a simple looking game, but the depth in the gameplay absolutely makes up for that.   read


8:45 PM on 08.10.2014

The Mysterious Murasame Castle



Nintendo has a weird interest in The Mysterious Murasame Castle. There's only been one game in the series, which was released for the Famicom Disk System in 1986. But it's a title that they keep referencing quite often in their modern games. Takamaru, the main character, has had cameos in a handful of titles. He's featured in a spin off mode for Samurai Warriors 3, he's a resident of the main island in the Japanese only Captain Rainbow and he's set to appear as an assist trophy in the upcoming Super Smash Brothers on Wii U and 3DS. The 3DS Virtual Console release is the first time the game has officially left Japan.



The Mysterious Murasame Castle is an isometric action adventure game, but with a heavy focus on action. Taking place in Feudal Japan, you play as Takamaru, a samurai apprentice, who is tasked with infiltrating castles that have been taken over by an evil power. This divides the game into two separate instances. Each level first has Takamaru navigating to the castle, and then he must retake the castle by killing the corrupted lord.

The game features some elaborate branching paths in levels, giving it an exploration aspect not seen in many action games from the time. However, you won't get much time to just stop and seek out secrets and hidden treasures. First, you're on a timer so you'll have to keep moving. Second, the game throws an avalanche of death at you. It's surprisingly just how much crap packs the screen while playing this game. Dashing ninjas, shurikens, fireballs, tornadoes, suicide bomber ninjas and all other sorts of enemies and obstacles fly across the screen at relatively high speeds.



The timer and rain of enemy death doesn't give you space to do much other than get to the castle or boss as soon as possible. It doesn't help that the longer you're on a single screen the more enemies and projectiles will fill it. Avoiding all of the enemies and projectiles is your first and foremost goal. Making it to the other side as fast as possible is your second goal. Actually killing enemies is the last thing on your mind.

It reminds a lot of shoot 'em ups since you have to mainly focus on evading projectiles while just spamming the attack button to take out the immediate dangers in front of you. Takamaru has a sword to deal damage in close quarters combat, but you'll largely use it to slay minion ninjas and deflect throwing stars that fly directly into Takamaru's face.

Your main offensive weapons are your ranged attacks. You start with a basic throwing knife, however you can power it up to a strong but short-ranged fireball, or a long-ranged windmill sword. These projectiles can be augmented with a variety of other power ups that can increase the throwing speed, multiply number of that can be thrown, and change direction as which they can be thrown.



You have a limited number of shots for enhanced projectiles, but ammo is dropped frequently so running out isn't that much of an issue. There are also a couple special moves that will clear the screen of enemies or make Takamaru briefly invincible.

All of Takamaru's attacks can be used while in motion, so it makes the game just a non-stop forward march death and destruction.

The Mysterious Murasame Castle can be punishingly difficult. Unlike a lot of 8-bit action games, there's quite a bit of leeway. You have a health bar and there's a plentiful number of health recovery items hidden in the world. Losing a life simply returns you to a powered down state on the same screen, but there are a lot of power ups scattered about to quickly raise your capabilities again. Running out of lives will return you to whichever area you were playing and the game even features a save function.



It's an intense game, something that the fast-paced soundtrack only amplifies. For $5, The Mysterious Murasame Castle is definitely an 8-bit gem worth checking out. It's just a shame it's taken so long to leave Japan.   read


1:11 PM on 06.07.2014

Onslaught Review



I've started panicking about the future of WiiWare's availability, so I'm turning around and purchasing WiiWare titles I've been dragging my feet on. Onslaught, a first person shooter on WiiWare, was one of these. Despite being an early title for the service and having to work with significant size limitations, the developers Shade, Inc. surprisingly squeezed in a decent experience.

Onslaught focuses entirely on shooting hordes of enemies. You play as a member of an expeditionary team on a deserted planet. Not too long after arriving, he finds that the planet is infested with massive genetically enhanced bugs. There are only a handful of enemy types and all of which  lack strength and have poor AI. However, they have numbers on their side. The player uses an assault rifle, submachine gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, grenades and an energy whip to tear through these foes. The arsenal is generic, but all the weapons are functional and serve their purpose. 



As with most shooters on the Wii, Onslaught controls via the Wii Remote's pointer. The player shoots within a bounding box on the screen and going outside of that box will turn the camera. The game is not the best controlling shooter of this style thanks to poor sensitivity for turning. However, the player is almost always moving forward, so it's rarely a issue. The motion controls overall work well with a few nice gimmicks here and there. For example, the player has to shake the nun-chuck to wipe the bugs' blood and guts off their screen to clear their view.

Across the game's 13 missions, players defend locations, navigate from point A to B, or just cause pure carnage by killing every bug on the map. The story is generally forgettable and cheesy, and mostly told through still images and dialog boxes. A few giant bug boss fights are in the game as well, but they normally come down to an annoyingly long encounter with non-stop strafing and shooting. The player is occasionally given a vehicle with mounted machine guns, but it's mainly used to simply slaughter even more bugs.



 It's easy to tell that the WiiWare's size limitations had its effect on Onslaught. Most of the locales look exactly the same and you'll be killing the same bugs non-stop from start to finish. Impressively, the Wii easily handles dozens upon dozens of bugs on screen at once. 

 Onslaught is mostly mindless shooting, but later on the game becomes much more challenging. In the past, online co-op was an option. Today that's no longer the case with Nintendo Wi-Fi now gone. Players have to rely on two computer controlled partners whom they can assign to shoot to the front,  the sides or behind the player. These partners seem just like some extra fire power early on, but later on these characters become key in helping the player reduce damage taken and for defending objectives from multiple fronts.

In all honesty, Onslaught is more of a technical surprise for an early WiiWare game. It works and was impressive given WiiWare's circumstances in 2009. That being said, if you do want a cheap, fun and largely mindless shooter, Onslaught delivers. Just keep your expectations low.

Score 6.0 / 10

Pros:
- Impressive number of enemies on screen
- Enjoyably mindless shooting with light strategy
- Fun small motion gimmicks

Cons:
- Repetitive environments, enemies and bosses
- Generic weapons
- Probably cooler in 2009   read


5:00 PM on 06.04.2014

Drakengard 3 Review



I'm not really sure what I expected coming into Drakengard 3. I've never played a main entry in the Drakengard series, but I fell in love with the spin-off title NIER. While NIER was far from a  AAA polished experience,  what made it stand out was how unique it was. NIER had standard hack n' slash gameplay, but the title constantly experimented by mixing in elements from other genres. Some of the most striking examples were the bullet hell-style boss battles and the text adventure sequences. The story had an amazing localization that perfectly portrayed loveable characters with playful and often foul-mouthed dialog despite being in the middle of devastatingly depressing world. 

 Part of me wanted Drakengard 3 to recapture what NIER was. However, Drakengard 3 is not NIER. So you can throw out most of those expectations.



Drakengard 3 focuses almost entirely on hack n' slash gameplay. Each level is mission based and incredibly linear with narrow corridors and small rooms usually filled with waves of enemies. Most of the foes you encounter do little beyond occasionally attacking, so they essentially just act as fodder. The difficulty slowly climbs, but rarely are there that many challenging situations. Stronger enemies and mini-bosses shift the focus to evasion, but theses foes are relentlessly recycled. It's a repetitive structure that is thankfully still somewhat enjoyable because of the game's variety of weapons. 

Early on the player has a limited arsenal of weapons and basic movesets, which makes the game seem frustratingly simple. However, over a couple of hours the player's options are expanded. There are four weapon types; swords, knuckles, spears and discs and each weapon has three different varieties with small, medium and large sizes. A large number of these weapons have different movesets which can be expanded through upgrading them using gold and materials. The player has the ability to carry one of each type of weapon with them, so they can swap between them mid-combat. Death is rarely an issue outside of carelessness, so it's just a matter of choosing which tool is most efficient for slaying enemies.



Certain instances and boss fights have the player mounting a dragon that can breathe fire, fly around and butt stomp to the ground. Piloting the dragon has its moments, but most of the time you feel like you're stumbling around an arena with awkward controls and camera angles. What should be an empowering experience always feels like a liability. The on rails shooting sections with the dragon fair much better and are a nice distraction from slicing up countless foes.

The overall gameplay experience just feels woefully average. There's no attempt to add any interesting mechanics and the game doesn't play well enough to be impressive for its action alone. Technically the game is a disaster with consistent frame rate issues that sometimes grind the game to a halt. Visually, it seems the least amount of effort needed was put into the graphics, although character models used in the cutscenes are impressive when stacked up against the rest of the game.

The actual game elements of Drakengard 3 just feels like a shell the developers used to hold the story and characters.  

The main story presented from the start is a bit underwhelming. I could bore you with the full details, but the core information you need to know is that you play as Zero who is trying to kill her sisters. These sisters are worshiped as living gods and each has a disciple that can help them summon an angel for combat. When Zero kills one of her sisters, she takes their disciple. This initial story takes up the entirety of the first play through, but rarely goes much deeper than its premise.



What makes Drakengard 3's story interesting is what happens after the first set of credits.  The story continues through multiple timelines that show alternative adventures that Zero takes.  A large portion of these additional storylines focuses on what I assume to be the overarching story of the Drakengard series. This plot involves the recording of multiple timelines and branches in reality. The story does eventually loop around back to the main plot, but not until much later. Without playing the rest of the main series, you can sort of enjoy this taste of a larger tale. Still, it feels like you're missing out on the bigger picture. 

The final branch of the story contains most of the key plot points to wrap up Drakengard 3. Despite this, it feels like the game tries really hard to keep you away from this branch. You'll traverse the same repetitive landscapes multiple times across all the story branches. The final branch in particular requires the player to collect all the weapons in the game to access it, which needs some grinding for gold. Finally, the last boss, while an interesting and cool surprise, is completely unforgiving. Only those who are lucky or just devote hours of time and energy into the fight will likely get past it. After 4 hours of attempts, I gave up and just went ahead and looked up the ending online like a true casual.

As interesting as the story becomes over time,  it isn't the real draw of Drakengard 3. Instead, the characters play a much bigger roll.



The game doesn't gloss over the fact that you are mass murdering soldiers. Zero is essentially a psychopath, who seems to enjoy slicing everyone into pieces. Her dialog is mostly verbally abusing her dragon and disciples, or complaining about how annoying a situation is.

The disciples that follow Zero are just as crazy. Dito is witty but as blood hungry as Zero is, Decadus is calm and priest-like but a masochist who moans at any thought of physical pain, Octa is wise but a sex freak and Cent is a lying asshole. All of this is rounded off by Zero's dragon Mikhail, who is charmingly childish and often clueless about the current situations and conversations. 



As you mindlessly slay through the enemies of Drakengard 3, your chatty party will talk almost non-stop. There's sex talk, threats, bullying and a lot of arguments, but these conversations are the highlight of the game. Everyone's perverted and obsessive attributes are what make them so likeable, even if they're a bit two-dimensional. Each disciple added to your party adds a new personality to the conversations. 

Even with the relatively simple main plot, these characters bend and defy the player's expectations of how they interact with each other and the world. The game is constantly crushing tropes and redirecting the storytelling because of it. What is mostly an average game and difficult to trudge through becomes quite enjoyable thanks to these characters. 

Drakengard 3 is a game of banter. Almost everything exists for the purpose of highlighting the characters and delivering dialog to the player. The gameplay simply acts as a sufficient distraction as you listen to these conversations. It's a couple steps shy of being a bad game, but its focus on characters is enough to make it a unique experience that's hard to regret playing. Well, minus having thrown your PlayStation 3 out the window due to the final boss.

Score: 6.0 / 10

Pros:
 - Solid combat
 - Wide variety of weapons with different weights and movesets.
 - Bizarre and entertaining characters and dialog


Cons:
 - Tedious gameplay
 - Poor visuals and consistent technical issues
 - Weak story   read


4:45 AM on 05.21.2014

Losing the Future of Retro Downloadable Gaming Starting with WiiWare



Recently Nintendo's Wi-Fi functionality across their Wii and Nintendo DS platforms were shutdown. In-game online services and downloadable content are no longer available. Thanks to Nintendo half ignoring online gaming over the last generation, the Wii and DS had the least to lose. The Wii's and DS's online experiences were passable at best and few titles embraced DLC. It's sad to see the online functionality and additional content disappear, but what terrifies me the most is what the future holds for the Wii's online store, WiiWare. 

For now, WiiWare is safe. Nintendo has not announced any plans to shut down the service, but it's inevitable. I'm sure only a few people are as distressed as I am about losing WiiWare. WiiWare never succeed like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade did, so many will be willing to just write off the service. Unlike DSiWare on Nintendo 3DS, WiiWare hasn't been integrated into the modern eShop store on Wii U. The service only exists on the original Wii and Wii U's backwards compatibility mode. Unless Nintendo bothers to integrate the Wii into the Wii U's main operating system, I can't see them merging the two stores as they did on the 3DS.



WiiWare is not a service known for its high quality games. The Wii overall is a system made up of experimental and budget releases. Wii games were often interesting to look at but were rarely polished enough to be AAA experiences. Like a lot of Wii's software, a large number of WiiWare titles are exclusive to the system.  Games like the wind based platformer LostWinds, the town and dungeon management Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King / Darklord, and the 16-bit style ReBirth series from Konami can't be found anywhere but on WiiWare and are largely considered decent games.

It's rare to have the money and time to play every single game you want to. Probably more than two thirds of my gaming budget and playtime is dedicated to games I've missed out on over my 24 years of existence and from before I was born. WiiWare is a platform I have yet to fully invest my money and time into, so I'm contemplating just dumping money into the service and hoarding games.

It will be a good while into the future, but eventually PSN's PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable support and the Xbox 360's XBLA will likely disappear. Many popular games will live on via ports across multiple platforms, but not everything will be salvaged. We already have seen this issue with current retro games that seemingly never get rereleases for one reason or another. In those cases, you can at least still buy an original copy even if it might incinerate your wallet's contents as prices on older games rise.



These services shutting down will end the ability to buy some of these games. There will be the option of not paying for them through hacked systems, emulation and piracy. As long as someone has a copy on a system that can be ripped, it can be preserved. I'm not a fan of piracy. Just thinking about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But without any alternatives, hacking and piracy might be the only way to save the future retro of digital download gaming.   read


9:21 PM on 05.18.2014

The Retro Retro Indie Game Cave Story



I'm finally giving up on ignoring indie games. They just won't go away. I've gotta deal with them eventually, so it's about time I start playing some. I thought it'd be fitting to make one of my first forays into the space with Cave Story, a title that pre-dates the modern indie movement.

Cave Story was more relevant 10 years ago thanks to using a retro style that had seemingly been abandoned by publishers. Now, there's no shortage of games that tickle that retro itch. But if you take all Cave Story's nostalgic elements and throw them aside, there's still an impressive game underneath.

Cave Story doesn't simply emulate titles of the past. A lot of retro side-scrollers weighed the player to the ground and reduced mobility, which would rack up the challenge. The small and relatively fast character you play as in Cave Story easily maneuvers between enemies. Later on there are opportunities to take advantage of vertical space with an upgradeable jet pack and a machine gun that can be fired downwards to propel the character into the air. The character's mobility adds some freedom from the ground and flying right over enemies while raining bullets down on them from above just feels good. I haven't played that many retro side-scrollers, but I haven't seen many games that offer the level of control that Cave Story does. 



Speaking of upgrading, the weapons in Cave Story have three tiers of levels. Collecting little shards that enemies drop upgrades your weapons. However, taking damage reduces the level of the weapons. The player has a health bar, but it almost becomes a secondary factor. Losing the upgrades on your weapons feels even more devastating than just flat out dying. It helps that the game is forgiving and saves your weapon levels at save points, but losing a level can completely throw you off in a pinch. This system creates a unique incentive for players to avoid damage to stay empowered. 

I didn't particularly like Cave Story's plot, at least not as much as the gameplay. It's about some bunnies that get experimented on to be used as weapons. The premise just didn't resonate with me. However, how it's presented is one of the game's strongest feats.



Early on, a lot of the characters are talkative as the scenario is being set, but the game drastically cuts the amount of dialog later. The story has a minimalistic approach by giving characters just enough lines to establish a likeable personality but keeps their purpose or goals from becoming overbearing. The dialog provides just enough information so that the visual storytelling doesn't come off as overly vague while still letting the player fill in the blanks on their own. All of this combined creates scenarios where a character's actions in the story become even more potent without any supporting dialog for them.

There's a lot more to cave story, but these elements in particular set the game apartment for me. Its presentation gives the vibe of retro love letter, but tearing away the pixely art and chippy tune music doesn't change the fact that there's a fairly unique game underneath.   read


12:02 AM on 05.15.2014

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island — A Disappointment that Redeems Itself



With the recent release of Yoshi's Island on the Wii U's Virtual Console, I thought I'd take the time to actually play the game, albeit on my 3DS instead. I was born in1990 and my exposure to the Super Nintendo was limited. I remember playing classics like Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Kart, but my tiny toddler brain couldn't really comprehend what was going on. Consoles like the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 are the start of my most significant gaming memories. I have a lot 16-bit experiences to catch up on, and playing Yoshi's Island was an attempt to cross one of these off my list. Despite all the praise for the title, I initially found myself underwhelmed.

It's underplayed in the game's title, but Yoshi's Island is a sequel to Super Mario World. The game plays very much like Super Mario World with a focus precise and challenging platforming, but goes well beyond with its presentation by creating essentially a virtual coloring book to explore. However, the early level design plays it safe with a large focus on standard platforming. New mechanics, like throwing eggs, are available to you, but aren't really used in any significant way in these early levels.



I’ve always been someone who hates more of the same in games and nothing was really pulling me in. I almost gave up on the game during World 3 and started questioning whether I was still interested in trying out 16-bit classic platformers. I just came out of playing Mega Man X a few months ago and I felt a bit lukewarm about that experience as well. What drove me to keep going was that Yoshi’s Island seemed to be laying the groundwork for Super Mario 64′s structure.

Some of the individual rooms have an emphasis on exploration and the developers play with vertical level design. The game doesn't even have a level timer, which does away with usual “just go right fast” mentality of most platformers. Fully exploring these zones leads to finding red coins and hidden flowers to improve your score at the end of each level. While I didn't take on the task of finding all these collectibles, it seems that getting all of them in each world unlocks more levels at the end of the game.



Beyond world three, the more open-ended nature of the levels becomes ingrained in the game's design. What really saved the game for me were the egg throwing mechanics. The eggs just seem like a convenient ranged attack early on, but in the latter half of the game you're avoiding enemy projectiles while carefully taking aim with your eggs. One of the bosses actually requires you to ricochet an egg off the wall and skip it across the water to hit his weak point. Towards the end of the game you start feeling vulnerable without eggs, which leads to another mechanic where you can re-catch your own eggs to conserve your egg ammunition. In some cases, egg management is essential to completing a level.

In the end I still wasn't blown away. Maybe my lackluster impressions comes from playing Yoshi's Island almost two decades after its original release. But, the second half of the game definitely grabbed my attention more than the tried and true gameplay at the beginning.

Please, don't kill me.   read


3:35 AM on 04.19.2014

Changing the Rules of Game Completion



I have a massive backlog that consists of over 200 games, which accounts for almost half of my collection. Depression and frustration overcome me when I open my closet doors. I've only added to this pile over the last two years. However, I have recently completed three games! Well, kind of.

Technically, I simply re-categorized a couple. While some games have clear endings where you've “beaten” them, others titles don't have clear cut completion statuses. I actually have this whole set of rules in my mind about what counts as beating certain games. For example, paying off my debt in an Animal Crossing game creates a win in my book. However, sometimes I end up changing my mind or bending the rules a bit depending on the game. 

Is that cheating? Maybe a little bit. I have my reasons though. Below are three examples of games I recently re-categorized and my reasoning behind each change.



Brain Age: Training Your Brain in Minutes a Day 
Unfinished to Beaten

I haven't thought about Brain Age for a long time and I don't really remember why I had it marked as incomplete. Upon further inspection of the game, I found that completing 20 days of training unlocks all of the training programs. I scrolled my game's calendar all the way back to 2006 to find that I finished 28 days of training in my teenage youth. That sounds like a win to me. 

The Sudoku puzzles included  in the game could be used as a benchmark as well, but the mode remains a side attraction to the brain training mini-games. Completing all the Sudoku puzzles would only add to an attempt to 100 percent the game.



Final Fantasy XI Expansions (PS2) 
Unfinished to Null

I used to play Final Fantasy XI on a PlayStation 2. For those of you who don't know, FFXI is an MMORPG and came with a hard drive that had to be installed into the old fat PS2s. After an incident where my PS2 was left on for almost two years straight (it's a long story), my PS2's hard drive finally fried. 

Despite continuing to play FFXI for another two to three years on PC, I never actually beat any of the expansion packs. The PC version of FFXI leaves a huge black mark on my record with 10 expansions and add-ons packs remaining unfinished in my collection. I removed the PS2 versions because I can no longer play them on my current still living PS2, which is a slim model. R.I.P. PS2 Fat.



Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution 
Unbeaten to Beaten

I didn't plan to reclassify Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution. Initially I positioned the game's Quest mode as the main campaign. Quest mode essentially has the player touring in-game arcades while completing challenges and competing in tournaments with AI players. However, a fundamental problem arose: I am awful at Virtua Fighter, more so than any other fighting game I have played.

In hopes to retain my sanity, I lowered the bar for completion to beating the  arcade mode on normal difficulty, which didn't really work out either. Like a true controller slapping casual, I lowered the difficulty to easy and claimed my trophy there.  Dirty? Yes. Realistically, I would never have had the time and drive to see more. Completing the mode on easy still rolls the credits, so I'll settle for that. 



These seemingly spontaneous changes to rules can backfire. Occasionally a game gets reclassified as unfinished if I feel my past reasoning was flawed. I'm also always finding errors in my game listings. For example, I recently found that I had a single listing for Dead or Alive Ultimate on the Xbox. However, the game is actually a compilation featuring a port of the original Dead or Alive and a remake of Dead or Alive 2. Mistakes like these sadden me as it sets me back on an already impossible task of significantly reducing my backlog.

With my limited free time, impulsive purchasing habits and slight addiction to Final Fantasy XIV, I'm struggling to tear down my list. Occasionally, it can feel like I'm cheating. But if it's justified, I can't really worry too much.

I think and write about my backlog way too much.

Why are you reading this? Go back to playing video games.   read


7:31 PM on 04.10.2014

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Video Game Review

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.   read


8:08 PM on 02.16.2014

Mini-Review: Dislike Final Fantasy XIII? Play Final Fantasy XIII-2



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.   read


3:37 PM on 02.14.2014

Seeing The Legend of Zelda's Future in A Link Between Worlds


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.   read


3:05 PM on 02.07.2014

Never-Ending Backlog: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers




The Crystal Chronicles franchise is one that has taken a few of different forms, but the most drastic change to its foundation was The Crystal Bearers, released on the Wii in 2009.

This video actually has been a long time in the making, so there are some inconsistencies in the footage quality. Most of it was recorded on my old 480i capture card. 

Grand Theft Auto inspiration info source: http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/x1v2ie/final-fantasy-crystal-chronicles–the-crystal-bearers-e3-09–producer-interview   read





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