Almost a week has passed since the Nintendo Direct showing of Super Smash Bros for Wii U and 3DS, so I've gathered my impressions and sorted them in casual Good/Bad/Ugly stacks. I've also separated the contents in the same basic order that they were shown in the presentation. I'm genuinely looking forward to trying this game since the Direct left a positive impression overall, so take the negatives with a grain of salt.
Release Info The Good: 3DS-but-not-Wii U owners can get their hands on the majority of the game without feeling like they're missing out for not owning a next-gen console. The fewer Wii U owners around can host traditional multiplayer sessions on his/her couch when friends decide to get together starting in Winter (and after they're practiced on the 3DS). Also, any criticisms toward the 3DS may cause last-minute changes to the console version for the better.
The Bad: The 3DS version may cannibalize the WiiU version so people who've "had their fill" by the end of 2014 may not care to buy their own console copy. This may hurt one of Wii U's biggest chances at a system seller.
The Ugly: Nintendo may be pulling a mini-Ground Zeroes and testing if people will double dip on the same big game (which they could easily exploit in the future). The Wii U version may be seen as the main attraction for some, but it's hard owning a 3DS and trying to hold off on the appetizer for half of a year.
Battlefield will look visually appealing in any form
3DS VS. Wii U Differences The Good: Same roster confirmed. Different stages will add some visual variety and identity for each system. Battlefield confirmed for both. Melee's double-music track for the 3DS and (even better) Brawl's music customization for the Wii U is great to hear.
The Bad: Some may feel "why not make every stage on both systems?" because this isn't going to work like a Pokemon Red/Blue social trading mechanic anyways.
The Ugly: If the Ice Climbers are giving the 3DS version trouble, then they also won't be on Wii U which would be a shame.
Stages The Good: Stages for both consoles look fun and nicely detailed. Also, Jungle Japes returns once again. Boss characters and the Yellow Devil seem like a neat twist.
The Bad: Sakurai stated last year in an interview that players won't be able to turn off stage hazards because "you'd find yourself with PSASB". I'm not sure why he'd avoid this option logically. Many people love the layout/geography of certain stages yet dislike certain damaging hazards (like Norfair lava or Arwing lasers).
The Ugly: Ridley was implied to be a boss, which means he won't be playable. Although I personally don't desire the massive dragon, I'm betting many are let down. Sakurai could just be teasing though, as it was only a shadow. Also, dual screen 3DS stages would've seemed like a neat opportunity but none have been shown.
Online Play The Good: Sakurai directs people to try their best to find a fast connection. Lag was a significant issue in Brawl's online world, so hopefully Nintendo (and some of its new-to-online audience) has learned since. For Fun & For Glory is a step in the right direction, and at least separates the two primary attitudes in a series that's essentially a buffet of options. For Glory is a major plus because it acknowledges the competitive fighter audience, something that Brawl did but in a not-so-appeasing way. Between this and allowing EVO 2014 and MLG Anaheim streams for Melee recently, Nintendo has been upping their reputation by throwing the passionate minorities a bone as of late. Multiple skins in the Final Destination style is nice, yet who knows how much variance they'll have regarding stage size, blast boxes, or walls beneath ledges. The normal Final Destination looks awesome, with some Namco/Soulcalibur influence apparent. Code of Conduct with banning is a pleasant surprise, and should cut down on the inevitable trolls and whiners. I'm not sure how big of a hit Global Smash Power will be, or how it'll work, but I guess fans who go hard on solo play will appreciate the rankings.
The Bad: The anonymous online matches in both For Fun & For Glory modes indicate that the match settings for both will be stock-less "timed matches". I personally don't know anyone who plays under this default setting (all my friends switch to stock), but it would've been better to show off a series of branching lobbies that cover major preferences like Stock, Stock with Time limit, Team Battle, etc.
The Ugly: Sakurai's use of Final Destination as the Glory stage implies that he derived his impressions from Brawl's (somewhat unpleasant) Wifi world or "that meme", and probably not the hardcore tournament scene. Current tournament Smash matches can mostly be seen on stages with platforms, so it's weird that Sakurai didn't choose series' signature Battlefield as the For Glory stage (or at least a choice to vote on pre-match). Nevertheless, if this new Smash has been balanced under a no-platforms environment which doesn't result in super-skewed matchups, then Final Destination should be fine. In the end, playing with friends or anyone offline will allow fully adjustable rules as always.
Items The Good: Some old favorites are returning, with updated designs. The Back Shield is a cool idea, the Beetle is brutal, the Fire Bar is spicy, Bombchus and fairies are perfect for Smash, the Ore Club is a 'heavy' close+ranged weapon, the X bomb comes in 2 directions, the Hocotate Bomb seems like a warp star out of control, the Rocket Belt resembles R.O.B.'s recovery, and the Steel Diver is an alternative to the ray gun. Seeing Skull Kid, Midna, and Dark Samus makes me glad that they'll at least see some light on the field. The Master Ball carrying legendaries brings me back to my constant replaying of Melee's Event 37.
The Bad: Palkia used Spacial Rend on the Mario Galaxy stage! It's not very effective...
Returning Characters The Good: Zero Suit trolling was done pretty well. The separation of transformation characters is something I prefer. Transforming was a unique mechanic, but in practice wasn’t as widely used as Sakurai might’ve expected. Fully-fledged standalone characters should be more fulfilling and easier to balance, like the Trainer’s Pokemon in Project M. Sheik’s side special being changed was a smart decision, as the Chain in previous titles was extremely poor. Dedede throwing only Gordos (albeit nerfed ones) and Olimar pulling ordered Pikmin removes unnecessary randomness that may affect competitive play. Lucario’s comeback factor (a trend often criticized in modern fighting games) is eased by the risk of self-destructing upon powering up too much. Olimar’s collective “weight” adds some neat strategy to his recovery. Like with Project M, Pit’s been given more offensive utility, and his new final smash gives hope to those wishing for a playable Palutena. Finally, Yoshi looks very well-animated, though I just need to know if he can jump out of shield.
The Bad: Kirby’s Hammer Flip is essentially Dedede’s down special. I expect a few different properties between the two, but I’m sure Sakurai could’ve been more creative (especially with his own character). Also, Captain Falcon and Ness not being shown yet slightly worries me.
The Ugly: Let’s hope appearance is the only thing Samus takes from Other M’s portrayal. High heeled jet boots are a bit weird but I think people will get used to them. It is unclear if Lucario’s mega-evolution is its own mechanic, but Mega-Lucario and Mega-Charizard being shown alongside Greninja’s final smash implies that both mega-evolution cases will just be final smashes.
New Characters The Good: Rosalina seems like a neat substitute for Ice Climbers, with potential for long-distance desyncs and cool combos. Unlike Nana, Luma seems to have different attacks from its master. Little Mac continues to seem like a hype character, with his power meter confirmed to be akin to super meters in traditional fighters. Wireframe Mac and male Wii Fit Trainer hopefully indicates more alternate costumes. Winning with Villager shall bring the same odd satisfaction as winning with Phoenix Wright in UMVC3. Mega Man’s moveset appears diverse and hugely fan-pleasing, especially his final smash.
The Bad: Compared to the other new characters, Wii Fit Trainer doesn’t seem nearly as interesting gameplay-wise. A damage strengthener and charged projectile don’t come off as compelling as Mac’s meter/armor, Rosalina's Luma applications, or Megaman’s arsenal of weapons.
The Ugly: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit too much Little Mac in For Glory mode, since there will be no platforms to avoid his crazy ground game. Only time will tell.
Would these cause severe imbalances, or help to counter existing ones?
Custom Movesets The Good: This seems like a neat side-attraction, and is sure to add more replay value on a character-by-character basis. I’m guessing there will be a pool of different “versions” of each character’s specials, and players choose their favorite combination. It hopefully will allow tweaking for more than just specials; I’d be thrilled to bring back directional air dodges if I could.
The Bad: None. More customization is always a plus in Smash.
The Ugly: This feature may go underrepresented if the procedure to customize moves takes annoyingly long in casual (or even competitive) environments.
Smash Run The Good: Augmenting power-ups, platforming, item equipping, and franchise-drawn enemies. All climaxing in a multiplayer match that rewards combat skill and (indirectly) dungeon efficiency. These are all elements that I’m a fan of.
The Bad: By its nature, I doubt we’ll ever see this mode added into the Wii U version unless 4 GamePads in one place becomes normal somehow.
The Ugly: There will most likely be noticeable imbalances between characters in this mode. Whichever characters can most efficiently navigate the dungeon and benefit from its power-ups are almost certainly going to become more frequent among fans. This is probably why Sakurai recommended the “random fighter” option anyways.
Kirby may be pink, but he's no ditto when it comes to copying Pokemon
Ending The Good: The orchestral arrangement of the SSB64 Credits + Character Select music was a major nostalgia bomb. The Pokemon reveal video was impressively choreographed and goes to show that Sakurai’s team makes the best trailers on the Nintendo side of the industry. Also Greninja’s final smash may be a coincidence or homage to similar finishers.
The Bad: With 4 standalone Pokemon in the game, I highly doubt we’ll see both Jigglypuff AND Mewtwo return. Smash purists would want Jigglypuff for its veteran status, and old school Pokefans would want Mewtwo for its series significance (plus the cool factor).
Hopefully a digital re-release for the old Gamecube classic can happen this year too.
For the Smash enthusiast, this presentation may rank at the top of the Nintendo Directs seen thus far. The dual-platform release ensures that more people will be able to experience the fun in either stereoscopic 3D or glorious HD. The game already looks like a massive improvement from Brawl, with more hitstun for combos and a lack of anything akin to random tripping. While wavedashing may not return, and L-canceling is still a mystery, I still think fights in this new game will play out at an enjoyable pace.
A final minor concern of mine is the title(s) of these games. I'm unsure if they'll be getting a subtitle (like Havoc or Unleashed) or a numerical value, yet there's also a small chance that each version will be named uniquely. In any case, I'd just like the announcer to shout "SUPER SMASH BROTHERS!" at the end of the intro movie, just like in SSB64 and SSBM. The new Smash game will probably be packed with at least as much content as its predecessors, and further customization indicates that the game will try not to leave anyone in the dust. Of course, I can't forget to mention that the HD graphics appear absolutely stunning. I look forward to the next Smash-centric showing, and possibly a 3DS demo to tide me over until release.
I finished Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies a while ago, but only recently did I complete the DLC case “Turnabout Reclaimed” after a break from the long run that was the main story. Now that enough time has passed, I figured I would leave some thoughts about Phoenix’s most recent foray into the courtroom, and how it stacks up for an Ace Attorney fan such as myself.
While it IS possible to play this title before other entries, I wouldn’t recommend it. Although the majority of the cases can stand on their own, the development of the overall series has always been sequential to a degree. Furthermore, there is little reason to make Dual Destinies a starting point considering the older games most likely hold up just as well today. Their text-heavy design is already a niche calling, so curious audiences will most likely be attracted to the series on the promise of quality writing rather than any slightly improved 2013 mechanics.
Dual Destinies is commonly referred to as “Ace Attorney 5” because it is the fifth main game in the series if you discount Edgeworth’s spinoffs (the Layton crossover will probably also count as a sidestory). It stars the titular Phoenix Wright, which may be a bit of a surprise for fans that thought Apollo would be taking the mantle for a new generation. I can only assume that Wright’s iconic presence was too much to let go, and that every future protagonist would have to share the spotlight with him in order for the majority of fans to be happy. Many people pointed out that Wright had an unexpectedly large role in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, and it seems that this newest game reinforces the blue lawyer’s mascot status. Combine that with the existence of Edgeworth’s own two games, and I can clearly tell that there’s a reverence for the franchise’s original rivals.
The result is a 3DS title under the direction of Takeshi Yamazaki, who previously worked on the Ace Attorney Investigations games. In a sort of compromise, Dual Destinies puts three attorneys in the playable spotlight: Phoenix, Apollo, and newcomer Athena Cykes. Playing as multiple characters isn’t new for the Ace Attorney games, but Dual Destinies makes this trio one of the focal points for the character development that ensues. It works quite well, and doesn’t end up feeling like a cheap option to safely please fans. Although most of the game is spent as Wright, players take on the role of Justice and Cykes for at least a full episode each which is more than enough time to establish their status as up-and-coming talented attorneys.
The storyline is divided into episodes like the previous games, with Episode 1 comprising of an introductory courtroom battle and subsequent episodes extending into detective/lawyer hybrids. While the main things I suspect most fans remember from each Ace Attorney game involve their final episodes, Dual Destinies does an excellent job at tying its earlier cases into a meaningful whole. While I anxiously awaited the inevitable higher drama of the last case, the game at least held me over well with its clever wit and charm throughout. Well, maybe except for Episode 2, easily the weakest case in the game thanks to a nonsensical villain plot and overly weird supporting characters. At least it was placed near the beginning of the game to introduce major characters such as a new detective and prosecutor.
The debut of prosecutor Simon Blackquill is a strong one. While he may not reach the heights of Godot, he’s certainly more engaging and entertaining than Klavier (and probably Franziska). Blackquill carries a mischievous samurai personality that often leads to humorous intimidation tactics, especially with his “SILENCE!” shout and pet hawk assaults. He lives in a strange position of being a prisoner who is actually allowed to stand in court as a prosecutor. This oddity ties into the “dark age of the law” state that Dual Destinies occasionally touts as the current issue with its fictional world. While this overarching problem doesn’t translate into anything as far as a gloomy atmosphere (nor a harder game), the perception of law in the game world leads to some interesting conflicts and moral quandaries for the characters. Episode 3 in particular benefits from the added weight of this state of mind, becoming arguably one of the best “middle” cases in the franchise so far.
It’s worth mentioning the DLC case too, because it certainly doesn’t falter in entertainment value. It doesn’t do anything drastically different (other than feature a wildly unusual defendant), but its quirkiness, likeable characters, and relatable setting make it a particularly strong standalone episode. I only wish it was implemented as part of the main game, since I suspect many players experienced it after the final case as a result of its DLC status. It takes place between Episodes 2 and 3, and would probably be better off being played as such (it doesn’t act like it exists in a vacuum). At the very least, it could’ve replaced Episode 2 to strengthen the core experience.
In terms of gameplay, not much has been altered from previous mainline Ace Attorney titles. I feel the investigation scenarios are a bit more streamlined and straightforward this time around, as there’s little-to-no forensic analysis manually enacted by the player. While some may see this as a downgrade, I honestly don’t miss it (though I do miss Ema Skye). One thing I greatly appreciate is the red circular indicator for individual objects in "examine" mode. It’s a minor visual difference, but prevents pixel hunting and accidental repetition. A neat side effect of playing as 3 protagonists is the altering roles that the lawyers assume depending on the case. I enjoyed looking through the eyes of both Athena and Apollo during investigations, as well as seeing how they fare as sidekicks to each other.
While Phoenix and Apollo still possess their respective magatama and bracelet powers, they aren’t utilized as frequently as in previous games. The courtroom’s biggest gameplay addition comes in the form of Athena’s signature power: the Mood Matrix. This electronic program allows Ms. Cykes to analyze the emotions she detects within a witness’s testimony. The emotions are represented by happy, sad, angry, and surprised mood markers which bleep in various signal strengths. “Pinpointing” contradictory emotions on certain statements will cause witnesses to admit reasons behind the mood in question. Additionally, “probing” involves tracing the source of an overloaded emotion via the recreated images of a witness’s recollection. Although there are no penalties for guessing wrong in the Mood Matrix, there isn’t a significant difference in challenge. Penalties and Game Overs have always been circumvented via constant saving in Ace Attorney titles, and the absence of that process with this minigame isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides, I’ve always had a sort of self-imposed embarrassment when I answer wrong in Ace Attorney games, which is punishment enough in the presence of a cynical judge and prosecutor.
As the first entry on the 3DS, the changes to the franchise’s presentation are mainly graphical. The biggest difference is the polygonal characters, which animate more fluidly and dynamically than I ever expected. The background locations benefit from depth, and not just the stereoscopic 3D effect. Players can now switch camera angles around a crime scene while investigating to get a better sense of place. There are also anime FMVs for significant occurrences or character introductions, and they’re even fully voiced for the brief times they last. However, the English voice acting (outside of Phoenix) isn’t exactly satisfactory, somewhat hindering the impact of these sequences. Even worse than mediocre voices are the striking number of typos in Dual Destinies. Typos are the #1 cause of broken immersion for me in a text-driven game, and it brings to question how much proofreading was actually done at the end of the title’s localization. Overall, the best aspect of an Ace Attorney’s presentation has always been its soundtrack, and Dual Destinies does not disappoint. While it doesn’t surpass the first game’s compositions in my opinion, the relatively high quality and endearing tunes possess serious staying power. The ending theme is an absolutely gorgeous reward for completing the story.
Even though Dual Destinies doesn’t peak as high as the original trilogy’s greatest moments, Yamazaki has proved to be a worthy successor to Shu Takumi (at least for the time being). Dual Destinies pays minor tribute to old features while updating the series with appreciable new ones such as a text review log and two separate save files. The trio of defense attorneys makes for an interesting and dynamic storyline with Phoenix as an older, mentor-like boss who still can learn much from his fellow lawyers. Apollo is stronger in this new entry than he was in his own dedicated title, and Athena makes a wonderful debut thanks to her lovable facial expressions and compelling arc. In the end, Dual Destinies soars high with a powerful narrative themed on the nature of truth, and enough over-the-top comic relief to make it fun all over again for “Objection!”-yelling audiences.
Relax, ye impatient gamers! Thy gameplay shall start soon, after 13 minutes!
[Spoilers for MGS4 and an early scene from Silent Hill 2. Also, this is highly opinionated and based on personal enjoyment of mentioned games.]
Recently I watched a strongly-told argument on the merit of cutscenes in videogames, linked to me by dannaz on his/her blog. TotalBiscuit informs his audience that cutscenes fundamentally disengage players from the game and turn them into spectators, something he assumes players don't want to be. He does make strong points on the stance. I've heard the "interactivity is the #1 priority in game storytelling" argument before. It's championing the signature ability of videogames as a means to do it all. In many places I actually do agree with TotalBiscuit. I understand the sentiment, but I don't consider it law.
When he says "The player expects to be the hero, that is kind of the point, that's the point of gaming in general....it was all about me being the hero, me me me" he's only drawing from his own expectations of gaming. Anything that goes against those expectations runs the risk of derailing "the point of gaming" on his terms. And most of all, he seems to be basing this on the traditional structure of action-adventures or shooters. I can say right now that I've played too many games that eschew this seemingly 90% interactive-action-threshold, yet STILL turn out compelling.
It's true that there was a "disconnect" when Silent Hill 2's James tried to hide from Pyramid Head with his flashlight on and gun blazing, but that was the result of a moronic action and would cause disconnect in a horror movie format too. If James had done something smarter, I would've been all for it. With Bioshock Infinite, I was in full control of the protagonist the whole time, but that didn't help my connection because he was unlikeable, unsympathetic, and cutscenes wouldn't have really mattered. Final Fantasy VI, conversely, had me taking control of several characters, often switching around them. Yet they were all so endearing and sympathetic that I couldn't help but cheer them on no matter if their actions/dialogue were up to me or linearly set in a well-directed cutscene. If a game has the confidence that it'll lead me along one of the best stories ever, in a linear manner, then by all means! That doesn't mean it shows laziness or incompetence, especially in a gameplay engine designed to focus on walking and slashing evil things.
"I want different things from shooters than I want from RPGs". This is genre expectation, and classifying game genres is already mega-subjective, what with hybrid titles experimenting all over the place now. He even acknowledges this as a curious case with Mass Effect. But by this logic, hypothetically what happens to the girl who buys ME expecting it to fit the 3rd person shooter genre she loves? She's going to flip out at all the hours of pace-breaking dialogue and cutscenes that she didn't expect out of the game. What happens to the boy who buys ME expecting it to be an RPG, and ends up with "WTF I didn't ask for Gears of War in my dramatic role-playing game!"
The man who buys ME not expecting anything genre-wise will get the most satisfaction for what it is as a whole. It executes its downtime "cutscenes" with smart writing & finesse (even though the paragon/renegade system could be better) and its shooting isn't bad either.
"You will enjoy this entire game without dual-analog, because we make it work" -Retro
Pidgeonholing genres into what they can/can't be made out of limits the industry's creative range, especially since genres aren't and shouldn't written in stone anyways. When developers have the balls to break these imaginary chains and gamers decide to open their arms wider, we get stuff like Metroid Prime: a genre-bending 1st-person game with shooting that doesn't control like an FPS and is not 95% about shooting. Hence the never-ending debate on its official (ha!) classification. But nearly everything it does, it does excellent...unless you come into it from a strict FPS perspective in which case you ruin it for yourself on those terms.
Likewise, pidgeonholing videogames into what they can/can't tell their stories with limits the industry's creative range. And likewise, when developers have the balls to break this imaginary priority, and gamers open their arms, we get stuff like Metal Gear Solid: a medium-bending title that doesn't give a damn about prioritizing cinematics or interactivity. Hence the love-it or hate-it status especially with ludology-purist gamers. I'd argue it does nearly everything excellent...unless you come into it from a strict Interactivity perspective in which case the game butchers itself on those terms.
You either hated this sequence for being a meaningless show, or you loved it because it was just plain awesome.
He also says "We seem to be losing what makes a good story in a videogame versus a good story in a TV series or movie, it is not the same. Principles are being applied from movies that are not actually relevant in videogames." I can't agree on that in absolution. There are fundamental storytelling techniques and tools that totally have the ability to carry over to different mediums and still have impact, provided they're handled well. The use of theater actors for fiction plays has been carried over to fiction films, the 3-act structure you learn in theater class can work in a book or film's story, the 1st-person narration of some literature has been utilized in noir film. And of course, film's signature camera work can and has effectively been used to enhanced many games.
When film was introduced, it was all about the "motion picture", and the communication of things through a purely visual means in the frame with time passing. Fast-forward to movies like The Jazz Singer featuring audible synchronized talking, and the realm of possibilities in film opened up considerably. Some people were naturally nervous about films losing their perceived identity as "motion pictures", because pictures don't talk. If a picture is worth a thousand words, why do we need them to fall back on actual words? "Grrrr we don't need no audible dialogue! Now they just be copying plays, they don't know how it's supposed to be done!"
A game that practically champions the idea of emotion through interactivity, still uses emotional noninteractive cutscenes.
As you can guess, I think audible synched dialogue is pretty freakin' relevant in movies now. Nobody loses their cool when we hear live actors yell, sing, whine, beg, and flirt in front of the camera. Nobody says "go back to theater where you're actually relevant." People are still impressed when you can visually show/communicate something of course, but nobody I know by now wants synched sound discouraged across the whole medium.
"Games do not look better than movies...why on Earth would you try to draw that comparison...a cutscene will never look as good as it would in a movie" is once again a point well-established within the context of Max Payne 3, but doesn't account for all games. A Naughty Dog PS3 game may look better to some than a grainy 1940s movie for example. And yet, this means nothing when it comes to overall impact of a technically inferior scene. A 1940s movie may pack more punch than a modern film with similar themes. Snake and friends have had plenty of cutscenes that absolutely destroy comparable action films in emotional weight, yet the MGS games as they are can only have existed on a gaming platform.
They could've made any of these non-dialogue scenes interactive even within Brawl's sidescrolling engine. That doesn't mean they'd be as well-animated, stylish, humorous, or charming though, especially with said engine.
Sometimes works of art are "forced" into the gaming realm by virtue of containing ANY bit of interactivity that a DVD remote can't provide. That doesn't mean that a title with 90% cinematic or novel-like sections is automatically a bad game. It all hinges on the effectiveness and uniqueness of the final product. Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations is my favorite DS game ever and has a very low interaction rate relative to its manga/anime-like scenes. Games like these feature good writing and cutscenes presented mostly in a linear manner, and use the tools of interactivity to put a twist on the tale. Just because a title feels like a book/movie much of the time doesn't mean it actually CAN be a book/movie. The minute you place interactive elements as part of the structure of your visual piece, you probably will have to call it a game. But you shouldn't be obligated by the almighty Videogame gods to use interactive elements any more than you should.
I think the final battle of MGS4 exemplifies what the Metal Gear Solid series has done for cinematic games, and why its fans have loved it for what TotalBiscuit may dismiss. From a cynical view, it is an unnecessary choreographed cutscene fight immediately preceding the interactive fight, and only the latter should be relevant in a game space. It's true that the cinematic first half could've been completely deleted and affected nothing of the plot, but personally I wouldn't have traded it for anything....not even paltry quicktime prompts for the sake of interactivity. The way the blows gradually synch up, the sweeping pace of the camera shots, the pain and determination on their faces, and the perfect timing of the music are just some of the feels that interactive sequences (as of now) cannot provide. And yet, MGS4 lets you have your cake AND ice cream, because the cutscene fight beautifully concludes with the growth of health bars and transitions into a nostalgia-fueled interactive duel. It's Kojima saying "This series is tied down by neither movies nor games; this uses both indiscriminately and you loved every minute of it." The cutscene fight may not have affected the plotline, but it affected the mood and by extension the entire battle.
TotalBiscuit claims "if a game has solid enough mechanics, I'm gonna enjoy it regardless of the story" (Doom)..... yet I can also claim that if a game has a solid enough story, I'm gonna enjoy it regardless of the mechanics (Silent Hill 2). TotalBiscuit neglects to mention the latter and goes so far as to say that Max Payne 3 is straight-up "not a good videogame" as a result of failing to let you "experience the story at your own pace, on your own terms as the player - not as the viewer". Maybe the game just plain sucks.
This has been quite a long-winded counterpoint in order to essentially say "do whatever works", but the important thing to take away is that we should learn to accept the presence of established narrative techniques that cross medial boundaries, because our favorite mediums are blending together anyways through technology. A ludology-purist may not consider the Ace Attorney series to be his cup of tea, but he cannot deny that the franchise has a loving fanbase and simply wouldn't be the same in old-fashioned anime format.
You could give me 10 more minutes of this guy and I wouldn't be complaining.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid. Both of these titles were lauded for their narrative, yet on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The Half-Life games accomplished their storytelling in TotalBiscuit's ideal way, so why is it even possible that I became more attached to the Metal Gear storyline despite its insistence that I put the controller down 40% of the time? I think it has more to do with the fundamental content of the narratives than the origin of their techniques. It could be that my fingers aren't itching to control my character (or simply press something) at all times. If I can passively watch AND enjoy the content of a disc spinning in my DVD player, then I can do the same for a disc spinning in my Playstation. As long as it's good.
It's great to encourage the unique abilities of gaming's signature contribution to the world of art, but we mustn't get so caught up in the advocacy that we discourage or even condemn the mere usage of older, proven techniques.
Recently I finished Silent Hill 2, and as a newcomer to the series I thought I’d leave some quick impressions of what many consider to be the series’ peak. I played the Greatest Hits Edition of the game on a PS2 with an old (but big) TV and in the dark at night. Also, I started and finished during the week of Halloween; I thought it was the perfect time to get into it. I didn’t play the original Silent Hill because it was basically spoiled for me during a lecture in my university’s Video Game culture class. I won’t give away any major spoilers in this, so fellow newcomers interested in Silent Hill can safely read on.
The game follows James Sunderland (the protagonist) as he drives to the titular town in search of his wife Mary. Mary apparently died 3 years prior to the game’s setting, but James recently received a letter implying that she was waiting for him at Silent Hill. Puzzled by this, James parks near a grimy bathroom and is forced to walk to different areas of the town (overlooking a large lake). For the most part, James is alone in this adventure, but he encounters a few other characters that periodically show up from hour to hour and may even accompany him for a time.
Silent Hill 2’s plot is the main reason to play the game, and I suppose it is why the game has received so much praise and hype from survival-horror fans throughout the years. The objective is simple, intriguing, and uninterrupted, yet none of the supporting characters with different agendas are wasted for a second. Throughout his journey, James encounters several monsters that plague the town of Silent Hill, but each type of creature is brimming with symbolism and imagery that give the game depth beyond “infected undead”. In fact, the entire game is loaded with embedded narrative that lessens the boring burden of having to explore every nook & cranny for items. Books, logs, and wall-writings are all simultaneously eerie and relevant if not to the town, then to James himself. By the 2nd half of the game’s 3rd “dungeon”, I couldn’t stop playing and simply wanted all questions to be answered. The writers definitely knew not just how to create an intriguing premise, but how to pull players further down the rabbit hole with every new cutscene and persona introduced. The game has several different endings (all of which I’ve looked up on Youtube), but I’m going to go with my gut and say that the ending I received is the most fulfilling of them all. These different resolutions are achieved through different playstyles and replays, so players shouldn’t feel disappointed for obtaining one or the other.
In terms of horror, I’d say Silent Hill 2 is most effective upon introducing new places or enemies. There are a few jump scares, but they’re more due to enemy placement than scripted sequences found in other games. However, when walking into a new location, the darkness and unfamiliar layouts can build a slight anxiety for the player, especially if a map has not been obtained (or is under-detailed). I thought the game could’ve used a few more enemy designs, if only because the ones present are quite excellent. Still, for a survival-horror game I never found myself in danger of dying except at one boss encounter. Maybe it’s because of my urge to dig deep for items and ammo, but I honestly think once James gets a gun the game becomes much easier.
Speaking of digging, that’s essentially the gist of Silent Hill 2’s gameplay. James explores the town in search of a hint or key to a spot on the map (which he superbly marks as he explores) and then comes across an item which he must insert or combine to further progress. While these treasure hunts occasionally lead into traditional “adventure game” puzzles or riddles, I found them few and far between. The thematic implications of the puzzles were interesting, but overall I’ve certainly seen better in tangential genres.
The combat in Silent Hill 2 is extremely unwieldy at first, with melee weapons either slow to start up or being swung with uncertain range. This may be a trope common to old survival-horror that I’m simply unconnected to, but I’m not quite ready to say the game’s melee combat holds up in 2013. Thankfully, James can at least aim guns at a foe from a few feet away, so there’s no real reason to not use a gun for the majority of the game. Since I had to search all over drawers and corners for necessary items, I found myself picking up sufficient ammo and never ran out throughout the whole game (at least on medium difficulty).
Graphically, the game definitely holds up and never looks outright laughable. I think it’s because the developers restrained themselves quite a bit in the early days of the PS2, so the visible aspects of the environment don’t carry much in the way of flaws. There are occasional CG sequences, but they never lend a sense of inconsistency to the package. Even though the fog from the Silent Hill series was originally born out of technical limitations of the original Playstation, I think the decision to keep it around for the sequel worked for the most part. The only real issue with the massive level of fog in the outdoors is that it forced me to constantly switch to the map in order to see the exact door/entrance I chose to make my destination. When that theoretical destination of mine was sometimes not exactly correct, it would lead to a bit of frustration. Indoors, the game succeeds with extremely dark corridors and rooms, usually only lit by James’s pocket light that he receives early on. Since there’s no massive draw distance inherent to indoor buildings, the game creeps out players via pure darkness.
The camera is both a blessing and a curse for the old survival-horror genre. I’m familiar with the old Resident Evil games (but never finished them) and their combination of pre-rendered backgrounds with tank controls, yet I never thought that this was an appreciable way to scare players. As someone who loves Resident Evil 4 to no end, I think that ridding of the variable camera angles remedied any problems with tank controls. Silent Hill 2 does not feature pre-rendered backgrounds, yet still doesn’t place its camera in relatable spots like other 3rd-person games. Some interior areas can yield frustrating enemy encounters that have James blindly shooting offscreen just because his portable radio made static noise (indicating enemies). There are a few workarounds to these issues, but none can detain the initial effects. Players can press L2 to orient the camera behind James, but this seems to only respond in certain places where there’s enough room (outdoors, halls). There’s also an alternate control-stick option that orients James’s walking from the camera’s POV, but the shift in camera angles (especially within the same room) breaks this convenience during dungeons. In the end, players can still manage to muscle their way through Silent Hill 2’s almost-archaic maneuverability and explore the true haunting beauty of the town. I’m just glad that recent horror games have found more natural ways to disempower players beyond unwieldiness.
Aurally, the game stays true to its name and keeps quiet for the most part. Sound effects are spot-on and ambient in all the right places. The music never gets intrusive or overstated during gameplay, yet at a few points there are some very memorable piano/guitar themes that definitely stick. I have to mention the voice acting most of all, because I think that most people would write it off as imperfect, 2001, flat performances. While at first the dialogue hit me as oddly-exchanged, I started to feel an obvious unease and uncertainty within the characters through their awkward lines. If this were executed intentionally, I wouldn’t be surprised considering how smart the storyline is. Between unorthodox writing and half-emoted acting, Silent Hill 2 lends a special sort of artifice to its atmosphere, which (for a psychological horror title) works well in my book.
In addition to the main scenario, there’s also a sub-scenario in the Greatest Hits version. Born From a Wish is essentially a short chapter on the side where players control the character Maria for about an hour. It includes a dungeon and a bit of walking around the streets, but the payoff is certainly worth an extra night of trekking through Silent Hill. It doesn’t take away anything from the main story and gives some nice supplementary insight into Maria’s character. I recommend it to players who have finished the main quest.
Silent Hill 2 left a positive impression on me, and in short I’d recommend it to anyone with a thirst for psychological twists and turns. As a horror game, it managed to spook me despite my recent completion of the original Amnesia. Best of all, I found myself coming back to its many narrative metaphors despite the uninviting grime of its world. It also contained an amazing atmosphere that reminded me of the mystique of Termina mixed with the melancholy of Midgar. Being my first Silent Hill game, this particular entry worked as a standalone tale and I can absolutely see why it is seen as a true classic in many eyes today.
OK, my take on this situation! (spoilers for....Ocarina of Time?)
So Ross spoiled a pretty big part of Justice for All in the first paragraph of his review, his only warnings being "previous entries" and "in its final case". If you could stop reading there, congratulations. If you read 7 more words for trust that Ross wouldn't actually say the specific twist...you were screwed. There's no arguing for one side or the other's ability to stop reading. It was a matter of how fast you read and how cautious you are with every sentence, which don't go hand in hand.
What is arguable is the expectation of readers going into reviews. What Ross was trying to do was express the importance of the main theme in the game by illustrating its buildup in prior entries. He uses, admittedly, good examples of the theme's increasing focus throughout the series. Unfortunately, one of those examples was a major spoiler for a 6 year old game, which pissed off those who never played that title. I think the opening of Ross's review is well-written and (being a series veteran) illustrates his point concisely. The problem with doing this is FORM OVER FUNCTION. The review begins like a neat essay keeping its form and pacing, but sacrifices its function as consumer recommendation.
Now I've seen plenty of pieces that call themselves reviews but are full of spoilers in order to get things across. Matthewmatosis is the best analytical reviewer on youtube because he dissects games beginning to end with 40 minute videos, but he gets no flack because he has a spoiler warning for the first few seconds. Even for his brief recommendation video for Ghost Trick, he admits to only showing footage from the beginning of the game. I think spoiler warnings can be disruptive in the middle of an essay like "blah blah blah [spoilers!] blah blah blah" but setting one as a preface is an acceptable compromise if authors want to keep their writing look seamless. I chose to preface my Zero Escape series review with a warning of possible spoilers for series newbies in the Virtue's Last Reward portion of the piece, because I believe knowing the sequel's basic concept can ruin a big part of 999. The 1st half of the review was completely safe for everyone though.
Ross's review of a sequel to a continuous saga comes hot off the heels of Sterling's review of The Stanley Parable HD, which reveals nearly nothing and then says "How do you discuss it, analyze it, and recommend it? That's quite simple. You don't."
Jim is correct; We can't truly discuss something and recommend it to someone at the same time. I played the original mod, so I can see where Jim is coming from, but there's always an off-chance that some clueless person will click the review and go "WTF Jim that's lazy!" But I'm betting if he keeps inquiring about the title and gets teasing recommendations from friends or cryptic Facebook statuses on how it "blew my mind zomgbbq!" then perhaps the reader will be even more curious than ever!
Reviewing is a balancing act in this regard, so it's the author's job to communicate what his/her target audience is. Going too in-depth will send newbies on the fence into a frenzy. Keep it too shallow (How the game works, what you do, end) and there's no point in series veterans reading it (the discussion of themes in the game and setting after AA4 was interesting for me personally). If I had to, I'd probably lean toward the latter as there's no bigger bitch than a spoiler for the newbies.
The biggest challenge is figuring out the threshold for each individual subject. Where do we draw the line? The fact that young Link becomes an adult in Ocarina of Time is at once a major selling point in promotions and reviews, and a massive unexpected twist for those who played the game "raw". Smash Bros Melee literally spoils Shiek's secret for those who never played OoT in the 3 years it had been out before the Gamecube. If you watched the recent Emmy's, you logically know who survives at least past Season 4 of Breaking Bad. Here, let me start writing a consumer review for Majora's Mask....
'Majora's Mask begins with young Link riding through the Lost Woods searching for a lost friend after he had saved the land of Hyrule from Ganon-------'
That right there is already a spoiler for the guys still playing catch-up with the first N64 Zelda. If the reader came into the review for a direct sequel to a game he hasn't completed, the simple sentence I wrote will imply that Link does not keep his adult form at the end of OoT, which may ruin an aspect of OoT's wonderful ending.
So barring the unavoidable situations in popular culture, or implied through a sequel's promotional material/premise that we cannot shut down, I think we should do our best to avoid FURTHER spoiling stories for our friends offline and online. Writers and "series vets", please be mindful of the magnitude of what you reveal about a game whether on a review, daily hotness, etc. There's no objective threshold for what ruins an adventure, but a CLIMAX of a game (new or old) is probably not the best scene to discuss without a spoiler warning. Readers and consumers, please be cautious when you venture into continuity sequels or ancient franchise territory....read intentionally slowly and be prepared to turn away at a moment's notice if the subject heads down a path you don't want to be unveiled.
The Zero Escape series is comprised of two games (soon to be a trilogy) that somewhat fit into the “Puzzle”, “Adventure”, and “Visual Novel” genres, usually seen more on handheld and PC platforms. I finished both games earlier this year and have had more than enough time for impressions to sink in, especially after all the chaos in my mind had settled. The first game, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, was released for the Nintendo DS in 2010. The sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, was released in 2012 for the 3DS and Vita. This review will cover both games one at a time, but I suggest not reading the section for the sequel if the first title hasn’t been completed (possible spoilers).
999 is an interesting story-focused DS title that utilizes 1st-person dialogue, 3rd-person narration, 2D environments/characters, and numerous puzzle rooms to break up the key events. I’d consider the story of the horror/mystery genre as a result of its basic premise and intentionally unsettling atmosphere. Half of the gameplay consists of reading and pressing the “A” button, but with a few “choose-your-path” instances that can determine where the player goes and how the story concludes. The other, busier half of the gameplay involves particular rooms designed to be solved by the characters. As a whole, there’s not much to the mechanics of the game other than reading text and whipping out the stylus for puzzles when “Seek a Way Out!” flashes on the top screen.
The story revolves around 9 supposed strangers being kidnapped by a person named Zero, and forced to play a dramatic game in order to escape from the giant ship they’re being held in. Zero calls it the “Nonary Game” while the rules are spelled out to the kidnapped victims through speakers in the lobby. The 9 victims are told to seek a door carrying a painted “9” in order to escape, the problem being that they only have 9 hours of the night to do so before the ship is to sink. Furthermore, there are several other specially painted doors throughout the halls, each carrying numbers 1-8 that branch out to different areas. Finally, there’s a bit of math involved with who can enter which doors, adding some extra limitations for the characters. Each character has a forced bracelet attached that effectively assigns them a number 1-9, an aspect that combines with door limitations to create interesting matchups between the victims. The player can choose these matchups when multiple doors are presented to the numerically-branded party. While the characters basically calculate the math for the player, I found the concept of “Digital Roots” easy but just unconventional enough so that I wasn’t constantly planning out my matchups ahead of time.
The narrative is the main reason to play 999 as it soon becomes apparent how much effort went into constructing the plot and its startling twists. The player acts as student protagonist Junpei from a 1st-person point of view on the top screen, while 3rd-person prose is detailed on the bottom screen during story sequences. Besides the interesting Saw-like premise and the mystique of the Nonary game itself, 999 also features some diverse and developed characters. The protagonist, Junpei, may be an ordinary college kid with an occasional blend of sarcasm and heroism, but his fellow kidnapped victims range from emotional teenager to a nervous wreck of few words. All of these characters are much more than they seem, but players will need much more than a single playthrough to open them up. That’s where replays come in.
Being a game built on multiple paths and doorways with no turning back, 999 doesn’t have to beg the player to come back for seconds again and again. I finished my first playthrough in a single day, but the 5 days afterward consisted of me staying up late at night to go down a different path and match Junpei with different character combinations. I say “late at night” because 999 works best as a horror/mystery tale and the moods can swing from sympathetic and sad to gruesome and terrifying. Players shouldn’t be surprised if one particular ending leaves them a bit scarred. I will say, however, that the payoff for replaying the game multiple times is an unconventional and completely mind-blowing element that stands as one of the most unique things I’ve seen in a videogame. It may make or break the game for different types of people, but rest assured 999’s mystery as a whole is definitely one worth delving into for fanatics of the genre and beyond.
With that out of the way, 999’s actual gameplay levels occur when Junpei enters painted numbered doors that contain puzzle-laden rooms supposedly designed by Zero. While the plot urges the characters with the whole “9 hour time limit”, no pressure is placed on the player as time apparently freezes during these sequences. The puzzles typically involve some tapping around the 2D rooms to find or interact with an object. The player can combine or examine integral items on the touch screen menu, and even input numbers for puzzles requiring unorthodox math results (no calculus or algebra here, but I admit I’m still slow). The puzzles are of medium difficulty overall, with some neat usage of electronics and varied room types. At the end of the day, I’d say these segments don’t feel like filler simply because they are a great way for Junpei to warm up to the few other characters he’s confined with. Puzzles act as downtime for the most part and are the main reason I can’t see the iOS port measuring up to the DS original.
The graphics of this “visual novel” are distinctly 2D, with 3D models for puzzle items and not much else. The backgrounds are pre-rendered and the characters are drawn in manga-style sprites with a bit of animation to their emotions. Pre-rendered backgrounds are typically fine and detailed, but in some puzzle rooms it can be hard to find a crucial small item which can lead to frustration (pixel hunting has been far worse in other games though). There are a few instances of full-motion video, with special mention going to the Resident Evil door-opening clips that add to the atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, 999 excels at creating an intense one through music alone. The soundtrack is well-composed and, more importantly, extremely effective at the spectrum of tones the narrative falls into. I insist that this game should be played in a dark room with speakers up (or headphones), as the music is practically flawless in its mission.
But where 999 does have flaws is in its pacing and delivery of certain necessary elements to build the bigger picture. The most obvious turnoff would typically be the fact that one must replay the game several times in order to get the most out of the tale, forcing repetition. However, thanks to a convenient fast-forward-text command (on repeat playthroughs), repeated narration/dialogue is never much of an issue. Instead, 999’s biggest flaws can basically be outlined in the very first puzzle room that Junpei wakes up in. First of all, the narrative indicates a rush to escape the flooding room, but the player is casually asked to seek a way out with no timed penalty (Junpei even has time to stare in the mirror and try to recall his misfortune). This carries into the broader game as well, as characters will sometimes chat away strange stories or make jokes with a lacking incentive to run their asses to the next room. If I were in their situation, I’d waste no time exploring the ship with the 9 hours of time given. The chatter may consist of necessary plot developments, and the humor may be used to lift everyone’s spirits occasionally, but the way 999 visually presents these awkward moments left me wondering whether the characters were implied to be efficiently walking/scouting while talking or just wasting precious time.
Secondly, the text can drag at times, especially when lines of directions are given during a puzzle segment that players can figure out how to operate in half the time. This is made worse by the act of replaying certain puzzle rooms (especially the mandatory first one) over and over again with the baggage that had already interfered the first time around. Outside of these annoying instances, players will also have to get used to the occasionally weird 3rd-person prose that can point out things already visually apparent or downright stated by the characters on the top screen. When I handed my friend the beginning of 999, the first thing he said was “Why is it telling me about this bunk bed while clearly showing it on the top screen anyways?” Apparently the developers thought it would be safe to show AND tell things rather than prioritize one over the other.
While the flaws do stick out and sometimes make the package feel amateurishly constructed, they aren’t enough to detract from the high strengths of 999. Any other gripes would probably be found in personal taste of writing style and/or genre. I recommend it to DS owners who have previously accepted or shown interest in story-driven adventure games with no action mechanics. 999 isn’t for everyone, and I doubt it’ll ever replace my favoritism for the original Phoenix Wright trilogy in the mystery/novel game sense, but anyone who enjoys suspense and subversive twists should give this tale a shot in the dark.
Virtue’s Last Reward, the sequel to 999, is another visual novel and puzzle-filled adventure with a heavy emphasis on narrative as the main draw. I played the game only on the 3DS (without encountering the save bug), but I assume the Vita version works just fine in its own way. While I’ve heard some consider VLR to be perfectly playable without finishing 999 first, I’d hesitate to recommend it in that fashion. Although VLR doesn’t sit within 999’s satisfyingly concluded tale, it’s no Legend of Zelda storyline either. I don’t think it would be easy to jump into this barely self-contained story and receive maximum impact. I can imagine a series newbie feeling decent suspense throughout the game, but I can’t imagine him/her getting the satisfaction of connecting the plots. VLR doesn’t show any mercy in leaving 999’s story in the dark either, so players with a DS system should sink a week into the 2010 adventure first to enhance the experience of the whole series.
VLR’s structure resembles 999 in more ways than one, but the changes made ensure that the sequel feels like a different beast from the beginning. The 3rd-person text from 999 is gone, as the creators smartly realized that they shouldn’t devalue 999’s dual-screen twist. The visuals are now almost entirely 3D, with a few neat exceptions that I won’t go into. And unlike the first game, the supporting characters have voice acting to round out the aesthetic changes. The gameplay still revolves around advancing text, debating the occasional “choice” event, and solving the designated puzzle rooms. Needless to say, VLR won’t win over anyone who didn’t enjoy its predecessor’s genre tropes.
9 victims are once again captured and forced to play a twisted game of exploration and puzzle-solving in order to escape their indoor purgatory. The new “Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition” that the kidnapped victims must play differs quite a bit from 999’s version. First of all, the location of choice seems to be a large facility with at least 2 floors, warehouse rooms, and confusing hallways leading to other spaces of interest. The “host” of the game is a mysterious CGI rabbit that instructs the players via a projection on the central warehouse area’s wall. Finally, the tension comes not from a 9-hour race to the exit but a race for points.
To understand the Ambidex portion of the new Nonary Game, one must be aware of the bracelets forced on the player’s arms. This time around, the bracelets represent 3 important game elements: points, color, and pairing. Points represent how close to victory each individual is. Everyone starts at 3 points, but achieving 9 or higher will allow one to open the steel “Number Nine Door” and escape. Color represents which “chromatic” doors each person can enter and who they can enter with, similar to the numbered doors in 999. Instead of calculating digital roots, the mixing of people’s assigned colors to match the doors is the limiting factor for matchups here. Finally, 3 people are designated solo while 6 others are placed in pairs of matching colors. Paired players must stick together while choosing a solo person to mix with in order to enter the chromatic doors.
If this sounds more complex than 999’s Nonary Game, it’s because it is. The characters are deliberately thrown off and under-informed about the rules, prohibiting their rational thinking until relationships have already turned sour. This is all in service of the Ambidex game, or AB game for short. This mini-game occurs after the characters match up, go through chromatic doors, solve puzzles, and obtain key cards to play the AB game. This process repeats until escape is achieved by someone. Once inside one of six idle voting rooms, each pair votes on the fate of the solo person they just solved puzzles with, and vice versa. “Ally” and “Betray” are, fittingly, the only options in the AB game, but they determine how players obtain or defend their bracelet points. Mutual allying benefits both pairs and solos, while mutually betraying neither helps nor hurts anyone. However, it’s when the votes differ that the heaviest drama goes down, since the betraying party gains more points while the allying party loses some. The prisoner’s dilemma comes to mind, but in VLR, a full loss of points results in lethal injection (courtesy of the automated bracelet).
More a game about unwarranted trust than about the number 9, Virtue’s Last Reward offers more interactivity in the “choose-your-path” fraction of gameplay than 999 ever did. Everyone wants to escape, but the kicker is that the exit door (presented in plain sight this time) only opens once…and shuts soon afterward. Only those with 9 points or higher can pass through, and asking strangers to wait for everybody to reach 9 is futile once the first “betray” is selected. Lethal injection is less frightening than stomach bombs, but this time automatic death activation isn’t just used for rule-breakers. Contestants can indirectly kill their “opponent” by betraying them, whether out of greed or self-defense. It’s a compelling system for a videogame, and offers a closer sense of agency than what players got in 999.
The protagonist, Sigma, is a college student (like Junpei in 999) that never feels too strongly about anything, yet also has a random humorous side. I found him to have a bit more personality than Junpei, and also interpreted his demeanor differently depending on my choice of “Ally” or “Betray” in each round of the Nonary/Ambidex Game. The supporting cast is just as colorful as the last game’s party, with familiar archetypes like sweet girl and old fart potentially misleading Sigma’s impression of them. However, special mention must go to Zero III, the AI rabbit that introduces the game elements to the participants. It steals the show in every scene it’s in with a freakish look and nonstop puns that mix to create an absurdly bunny yet menacing presence.
Like its predecessor, VLR is a replay-heavy game that subverts the concept of multiple playthroughs and integrates the mechanic into the narrative. There are a few major differences in the sequel, not the least of which is the appearance of the pathways. VLR is completely upfront about the importance of its multiple endings right from the start. There is an easily viewable “Flow” icon that players can select at any time in order to see a flowchart of the branching storyline, almost like flipping to the Table of Contents in a book. It should come as no surprise for players of 999 that this flowchart is not the typical replay mechanic it may appear to be in other games. It’s immediately obvious once one playthrough ends that a lot more information is going to be needed to unravel the mystery of the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition...a LOT more.
Virtue’s Last Reward exists on a scale much bigger than 999’s, with a more complex story and quite a few more possibilities to explore. Instead of just having 6 endings, this time there are over 20 with a wider variety of fates and discoveries. VLR also expands on the “Coffin” ending logic of 999, causing some paths to lock up with “To be continued” if not enough information is known. Only by traveling down a different route can more information be obtained to possibly solve a stump in the story. This sentiment actually encompasses all of VLR’s general ambitions, as the game expects players to treat the narrative like a complex Zelda dungeon. In place of keys are pieces of verbal/physical evidence and instead of weapons there are manipulations. It’s a prime example of using story AS gameplay, and in one of the most unusual ways ever pulled off.
The replay system in 999 was a marvelous concept hindered by a few necessary evils in having to replay the puzzle rooms while sitting through fast-forwarded story sequences. The flowchart screen in VLR fixes this controversial aspect by allowing players to jump back to any major junction in the story (e.g. chromatic door matchups) and select another choice. This alters the fragile relationships between characters, thereby forging a new timeline in which different secrets may be disclosed. In the case where one pathway bears identical dialogue that players have read before, a convenient icon allows players to fast-forward the familiar text while automatically stopping for any brand new words.
Even with all this convenience however, I felt that the flowchart’s friendliness took off some of the potential weight of my decisions within the game. The consequences of my AB game choices could all-too-easily be undone if the results turned sour for Sigma. In my quest to see all possible endings for VLR, flipping through the “choose-your-path” scenes eventually felt more like routine than something methodical. However, it’s worth remembering that being a buddy can be just as beneficial as being a backstabber in hopes of sparking revealing conversations. The flowchart is undoubtedly a nice addition to the Zero Escape interface, but such mechanical convenience is countered by emotional hindrance. I think that after about 2 endings, the game expects players to realize the importance of the bigger picture rather than trying to seal a permanent friendship with another character. So while VLR doesn’t provide the Mass Effect sensations of weighty moral choices on a role-playing thread, the peculiar disconnect one feels from surfing through various versions of events definitely yields a rarer feeling.
In terms of overall power, this feeling amounts to a gradual change in connectedness with the characters over the course of many hours. In a normal storytelling line, I would expect to gain a greater sense of affection, hatred, or both the longer I go on with the characters. But in VLR, this viewpoint generally only lasted for the first or second playthrough. As I scrubbed through the nonlinear diagram of plot threads, twists, and turns, I became more of an objective detective than a subjective Nonary Game participant. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, since particular scenes of dialogue/exposition can feel shocking or moving regardless of perceived permanence. One of the “normal” endings may even come across as more powerful than the true closing of the game, though that’s in part to VLR’s deliberate setup for a sequel. 999 ended with a grand feeling of satisfaction, but VLR chooses to leave players knowing that not everything is finished. Time will tell if the third Zero Escape game brings proper closure to the factors found in the second. Like the game itself, VLR’s climax is much more complicated than 999’s, and with every sensible revelation there’s also an awkward twist that players may not approve of. I did appreciate that the script took the time to ruminate on the various happenings and consequences of potentially confusing plot points, rather than simply exist to bewilder players.
Not much has changed in the puzzle-solving department, as these sequences are still kept in confined rooms that must be solved in order to be escaped. The rooms range from a science lab to a recreational lounge and players must experiment with dice, memory cards, ice, darts, books, electronic programs and more in order to succeed. The interface on the 3DS seems a bit cleaner than VLR’s DS predecessor, especially now that almost everything is in 3D so exploring the environment feels streamlined. The difficulty of the puzzles has been ramped up, but players can opt for an “easy” mode if they feel stumped for too long (in which Sigma’s companions give more hints). Each room’s main goal is to learn the password for a safe that contains the exit key in addition to a few notes or key cards for the AB game. There is also a secondary goal in every room to obtain a “Gold File” that details elements of the plot further, not available through “easy” mode. More importantly, collecting every Gold File unlocks an epilogue of sorts, which I consider somewhat mandatory to view for a story-centric game like this. By and large, I felt that the puzzles in VLR were much more substantial and fulfilling than those found in 999, and the best part is that the game’s structure rids of the need to repeat puzzle rooms.
Graphically, VLR chooses to embrace polygons over its predecessor’s 2D artwork. The characters have too few animations but still get the job done regardless. I personally don’t have a preference for the polygonal models or 999’s 2D sprites, but it isn’t something fans of 999’s art can’t warm up to. The real benefit to the graphical change is the environments, with a nice sense of depth and smooth camera panning during the puzzle rooms. Once again, there are FMV sequences for certain startling actions, but they are used sparingly and never last for more than a few seconds. The least visually appealing moments of VLR are occasional sequences that show a dot (representing Sigma) traversing a map of the facility as he moves through the halls. Speaking of the facility, one thing I noticed about VLR is a general lack of creepiness in the atmosphere. While the ship in 999 contained a few eerie 20th century rundown environments and a looming time limit, the setting for VLR features higher tech and isn’t assumed to be in the middle of the ocean. While there is sufficient tension in VLR, there’s little primal fear of death and I can’t help but attribute this to the flowchart system. This is why I categorize 999 in the horror/mystery field with bits of sci-fi, and VLR in the sci-fi/mystery field with bits of horror. This isn’t necessarily a worse focus, since I’m glad that the developers didn’t try to scare me again with the same setup.
The audio can still tingle the spine, though, with haunting tracks that exacerbate the game’s unnerving events. Although some songs are reused from 999, they remain some of the most effective tracks at doing their job that I’ve ever heard. Besides the music reserved for story sequences, I found the puzzle room tunes catchy and cool, perfect for VLR’s general downtime. The biggest change, aurally, is voice acting for all supporting characters. Every character is fully voiced in the story sequences except Sigma himself, which takes some getting used to (but melds well with his occasional silent thoughts). The puzzle sequences don’t feature voice acting when characters decide to speak, but it doesn’t affect the presentation’s consistency too much. The big thing to note here is that the voice actors (at least in English) perform excellently and really carry the tone of each line, made more impressive when considering that VLR is full of dialogue paced by the player’s text-advancing speed. Zero III perfectly encapsulates what I originally imagined Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka to sound like, with a gleefully hoppy attitude that dips and rises between sentences. In case one isn't pleased with the English voices, there's the generous option to switch to Japanese instead.
Barring a few typos (which are kind of unforgivable in a visual novel), Virtue’s Last Reward is the slicker and buffer of the two Zero Escape games currently out. The sequel is longer (I clocked 50 hours), deeper, and expands upon the concept of multiple playthroughs. But while the creators appear to have greater awareness of what they were doing with the replay system, so does the player. This transforms the life-or-death dramatic impact of 999’s endings into something more about judgment and possibilities. I ended up using the game’s handy notepad to remember crucial codes and couldn’t stop thinking about the story until one of the many room puzzles distracted me from it. Virtue’s Last Reward is a terrific and maddening sequel that challenges players both mentally and philosophically. Its setup may resemble its predecessor, but its focus is different enough to maintain a unique identity of its own. In an odd way, it provides significant ludonarrative harmony while also managing to fit a few easter eggs and inside jokes into its text.
Virtue’s Last Reward is a riveting, tense, and introspective puzzle/adventure title that should be played by fans of the series’ first entry willing to jump down the rabbit hole for a second time.
As a bonus, I've decided to share the latest video I've uploaded: a piano + ocarina cover of one of the franchise's signature tunes. Anyone who has played 999 should definitely remember this song. Thanks for reading and/or listening.