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3:04 AM on 12.28.2014  

The Last of Us review - Escaping a quarantine

The Last of Us reminds me a bit of Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, internally as well as externally in the gaming universe. Both were released around the end of their initial console’s lifecycle, both were AAA high-profile titles with third-person shooting mechanics, both were graphical marvels at the time of release, both starred a combat-experienced man escorting a younger girl, both featured not-quite-zombies with horror elements, and both were critically praised across the board. What separates Naughty Dog’s product from Capcom’s 2005 masterpiece is the identity of a brand new intellectual property as well as a serious effort to avoid almost all notions of gaming campiness, lending to the idea that perhaps the medium is about ready to embrace such an endeavor.

Videogame silliness, including subtle camp which I often take for granted, has long been an integral part of how the medium retains appeal and fun even amidst the efforts of more grounded factors meant to draw emotional responses. Naughty Dog’s previous efforts on the Playstation 3, the Uncharted games, were prime examples of over-the-top circumstances surrounding well-acted, likeable characters. As Nathan Drake embarked on three wild treasure hunts aboard the PS3, the hundreds of human enemies he blew away could easily have been written off by conditioned action game veterans as expected, everyday obstacles fulfilling the need for consistent interactivity. Depending on one’s perspective of Uncharted’s realistic-but-exaggerated world, Nathan Drake would come off as either a charming adventurer or an insensitive maniac.

The Last of Us takes the impressive technical aptitude, cutscene direction, and acting standards of the Uncharted games and converts them into a valiant digital drama of a much more believable nature. The tone is set with a dark prologue that introduces protagonist Joel and his daughter, Sarah, to the fungal outbreak that would soon take over civilization. This highly scripted sequence has players controlling the latter character initially, and after completing the game I can thematically see why this choice was made. However, the switch from controlling Sarah to controlling Joel feels a bit too sudden, especially in the middle of an altogether brief 15-minute portion of the game. I can safely guess why the developers had Joel carrying Sarah through a desperate scene, but a simple car crash may come off as an insignificant or jarring excuse for a character transition, at least for first-time players. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion of the chaotic scene hits about as emotionally as I could hope an apocalyptic prologue to do.

The aforementioned scene stands out because The Last of Us eventually becomes a surprisingly lengthy game that takes place across a post-apocalyptic United States, yet all within the span of approximately one year. Joel is twenty years older in this era, residing in Boston, and works as a smuggler experienced in dirty work. After a few rocky operations, he is given the objective of smuggling a teenage girl to a rebel base outside of the quarantine zone, but a few twists expand his mission into an expedition of larger consequences. The story’s main hook sidesteps the nearly-tired zombie trappings in favor of establishing a chemistry between Joel and his new teen companion, Ellie. It never got to the point for me where Ellie usurps Joel as the most significant protagonist, but The Last of Us certainly accomplishes the task of developing the pair’s delicate compatibility and its budding implications for their actions.

While the plot may or may not contain several familiar tropes depending on one’s experiences with post-apocalyptic tales, it is difficult to deny the expertise in which Naughty Dog conducts their particular spin. Neil Druckmann proves to be an excellent creative director for this type of game, and his writing consists of impactful dialogue even amidst a setting that naturally retreads old ground. Special honors should go to the actors and animators, as their efforts do a remarkable job producing characters that emote telling expressions and natural voice performances. In my experience, there wasn’t any “uncanny valley” feeling in the cutscenes, which is a huge plus for the identification factor. In fact, I’d say the acting in The Last of Us can occasionally reach heights comparable to great modern cinema, and not just impressive by videogame standards.

Perhaps surprisingly, The Last of Us plays great by videogame standards as well. It’s a healthy mix of Stealth, Survival-horror, and Third-person Shooter, arguably in that order of significance. This combination has me leaning toward labeling it as an Action-Adventure, even though I’m sure that subgenre has already been attached to death amongst an endless variety of games. Regardless of which element seems more dominant at any given time, the main theme pervading the gameplay sequences is “survival.” The limited amount of resources (akin to series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill) encourages efficient stealth kills, which are typically as rewarding as each particular level design causes them to be. Yet it also makes the shooting aspect relatively intense, since it consequentially lends the combat sequences (or failed stealth instances) a feeling of “every shot counts.” It’s quite remarkable how these tried-and-true subgenres have been fine-tuned to complement each other in a fairly balanced manner, resulting in a gritty, uninviting world that somehow manages to feel fun to conquer.

Playing the game on Hard mode net me an occasionally challenging, but thankfully fair gameplay experience that had me collecting just enough resources to survive even throughout the approximately 15-hour main campaign. Resources would include temporary smoke bombs for stunning enemies to permanent gear like guns. Personally, I found the frequent appearance of bottles and bricks to be a bit too overpowering within the realm of stealth. When not holding the “aim” button, they auto-target an enemy’s head and can lead to an overly easy strangle or stabbing kill, depending on Joel’s position. While they’re definitely satisfying the first few times, I would’ve liked to see a bit more variance within Joel’s use of environmental projectiles. The world is constantly presented as filled with junk, but it seems underwhelming to only pick up a limited list of items. There are subtle statistical differences between bricks and bottles too (melee durability, noise), so I believe there could’ve been an opportunity to create at least a half-dozen more variations of these one-time projectiles, including small aesthetic differences.

Other items are a bit rarer to come by, as the player will have to make them on their own through the game’s great crafting system. While it may not be the deepest alchemy pot in the world, Joel’s method is never complex, creates the essential health kits, and can build five different offensive weapons for multiple ranges. Since ingredients are limited, players are forced to make a choice every time they want to build one thing and not the others. Blade, binding, rag, alcohol, explosive, sugar, and melee weapon certainly aren’t the only materials Naughty Dog could’ve thought of for survival, but I’m thankful they kept it simple to ensure the real-time crafting is smooth for most players (even during a harsh fight or sneak). Right beside the crafting menu is an upgradeable skills menu, though it never caught on for me as anything engaging. If anything, it looks out of place, since the feeling of collecting medical supplements to permanently increase Joel’s stats seems at odds with the survival limits that The Last of Us focuses on. Rather than the common encouragement of “make yourself powerful,” this game is at its best when it demands players to simply “keep yourself viable.”

With this slight uphill mentality, players are encouraged to lean toward stealthy takedowns or quiet avoidance. Being a third-person POV game, The Last of Us allows its players to peak around corners even with Joel in no position to see what the camera sees. It’s naturally at odds with the otherwise grounded world of underpowered survival, but the game takes things a step further with “Listen Mode.” This ability allows Joel to strangely hear enemies through walls by seemingly concentrating harder. While I appreciate the general feature, as videogames can’t truly capture all of human hearing, I think the silhouetted enemies provide a bit too much detail and make Joel into some kind of superhuman at listening/seeing. Luckily, there is an option to turn off the ability, though like Batman: Arkham Asylum’s detective mode, it may create a conundrum involving forced trial-and-error portions of levels (especially in dim areas).

The levels themselves are diverse enough to carry the stealth and shooting gameplay without getting too repetitive, since there aren’t many enemy types to mix things up on their own. I don’t consider this a flaw since shoehorning arbitrary enemy types into The Last of Us would be out of character, but at least the differences that the Infected bring to the table are distinct enough to instantly change the player’s mood. Human hunters act more cautious, take cover frequently, use weapons, and occasionally rear some disappointing A.I. flaws. Fortunately, the Infected introduce a bit of horror to the game’s enemy encounters, and even come in four stages of corruption. The main types consist of Runners, which resemble aggressive zombies (but a cut above Resident Evil 4’s foes), and Clickers, which blindly scramble around yet possess enough strength to kill Joel in one grab. The latter are by far the most memorable thanks to their unique design, even if their apparent use of echolocation often just equates to “very sensitive hearing.”

Despite possessing some of the finest graphics of its generation, The Last of Us periodically displays some minor blemishes that harm the immersion it works so hard to accomplish. Texture and/or environmental pop-in is rare, but its frequent appearance in a particular horseback sequence brings the draw distance limitations to light. Gameplay shortcomings not only include A.I. stupidity on the part of the enemies, but also instances where Joel’s companions (sometimes loudly) walk into plain sight during stealth sequences, yet remain unseen. Attempting a nearly full-game escort mission is likely difficult enough for programmers, but trying to make it all work within complex hide-and-seek mechanics is probably too ambitious to flawlessly execute with the levels Naughty Dog had built. An inexcusable, non-technical sour point, however, occurs during the scene when Ellie is scripted to back Joel with a sniper shot, but doesn’t fire until Joel gets caught at least once. When I try to be efficient as possible yet can’t advance until I engage in open combat, it damages the game’s balance of realism and cinematic storytelling. While these tricks and imperfections are present in other videogames, they become highlighted especially in The Last of Us, where suspension of disbelief is typically less necessary.

Finally, there’s the optional DLC adventure Left Behind, available for a medium-sized fee on PSN or as part of the Remastered package on PS4. This single-player story follows Ellie in both past and present, switching between prequel and an untold chapter preceding the Winter season (which is arguably the best section of the main game). The past portions lack much action, but understandably dedicate time to fleshing out Ellie’s relationship with her friend Riley via an abandoned mall run. It turns out to be a prime setting for showing off the girls’ playfulness, and wonderfully contrasts with the struggling Ellie in the present. The present portions have players controlling Ellie through a parallel mall, where the tone is much more dire and combat is forced on her. In fact, combat in general may seem somewhat forced in this DLC, and it gets tough to imagine someone like Ellie having the strength/luck to take out as many foes as she singlehandedly does. Fortunately, players do get treated to the intriguing possibilities of fighting hunters and the Infected simultaneously (a missed opportunity in the primary campaign), adding to the open-ended approaches of an otherwise linear game.

The Last of Us, for me, represents a transition in the status of AAA gaming’s ability to deliver on goals of seriousness. If Uncharted was Naughty Dog’s Indiana Jones trilogy, then this is their Saving Private Ryan in more ways than one. The PS3 swan song utilizes the team’s refined pacing, acting, visual artistry, and writing to demonstrate how to properly funnel last generation’s defining attributes into a meaningful product. While their title isn’t flawless, it achieves a somber, emotional tone for the vast majority of its narrative, and handles its post-apocalyptic subject matter with an earnest proficiency that many other studios don’t manage to reach. Like what Resident Evil 4 accomplished years ago, The Last of Us pushes the boundaries of its debut console in seamless, detailed, brutal, and memorable ways that set a significantly higher standard for zombie Action-Adventure videogames. Yet on its own, Joel and Ellie’s engrossing trek through the obstacles of a ravaged America shows that weighty cinematic cutscenes and balanced, intense mechanics still work very well together under tight direction and a relatively uncompromising thematic vision.     

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3:33 AM on 05.22.2014  

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds review - Painting present from Past



It’s difficult to write about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and still contribute anything valuable to the discussion of its quality. Much has already been said about the game, and opinions are expectedly not unanimous. I suppose it’s because the Zelda franchise generally carries itself with the little things, or miniscule design aspects that add up to more than the sum of each title’s parts. While this newest adventure in Hyrule makes some big changes to the direction of the series, I find it is still the simple joy of high-quality puzzles and discovery that make A Link Between Worlds succeed.

A Link Between Worlds shares the same world as the SNES classic A Link to the Past, and supposedly takes place later in that same timeline. References to the 16-bit Link’s adventure and subsequent victory over Ganon help set up a connection between the two related titles. I believe it’s entirely possible to play the 3DS entry without needing to complete A Link to the Past, but veterans will surely enjoy a few nods to past Zelda adventures (not in terms of plot, but more in the cameo and “wink-wink” ballpark). Since there aren’t only A Link to the Past references, fans of the series will no doubt be pleased to find the occasional easter egg relating to other Zelda titles before and after the 16-bit era.



The story is arguably the weakest part of A Link Between Worlds, even though it’s probably intentionally basic to a degree. I never found A Link to the Past’s narrative as rich as some of its successors, but I’m guessing the designers didn’t concentrate too hard on that factor back in 1991. In keeping with the priorities of that game, A Link Between Worlds makes it clear that it’s going to have a relatively traditional plot early on, and does most of its expository work in the first hour (which isn’t much) to set up Hyrule’s current status. Essentially, it knows that the player knows how things go, and cuts out most of the now-unnecessary development about the world.

It almost comes off as a self-aware quest, and I basically gave up on expecting anything new or emotionally resonant out of the game’s plot-driven scenes. The villain, Yuga, is essentially a mix of Ganondorf (thievery) and Ghirahim (flamboyant mischievousness) without much intimidation factor. There aren’t many endearing NPCs or supporting characters important to the main storyline, and time spent with them is minimal. Without a companion like ghost Zelda, Tatl, or Midna, Link traverses the land alone (albeit uninterrupted). The writing for each character is still charming, however short each encounter may be (Irene is particularly likeable). Even though there isn’t much substance to the story, the ending definitely surprised me with a couple delightful twists and revelations. Nothing becomes as thematically strong as what the N64 titles were capable of, but A Link Between Worlds at least carries that classic Nintendo charisma where it counts. 



A Link Between Worlds, as a portable action-adventure, mainly focuses on swift, minute-to-minute entertainment that keeps a steady pace throughout. It achieves a blend of easygoing (but not childish) puzzles and loads of side objectives/secrets to discover. The overworld takes a decidedly different direction from the grand scope of recent Zelda titles and returns to a more condensed Hyrule. This ensures that every few steps will lead to what is likely another hole in the wall, underground cave, or even minigame. It’s distraction heaven, though isn’t really any better or worse than the more expansive worlds of The Wind Waker or even Ocarina of Time (both of which had their own plethora of secrets simply spread out further from each other). Unlike Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, this 3DS entry actually has an overworld that compliments the portable nature of the game. As was the case with A Link to the Past, the isometric/top-down combo helps mask the relatively small scope of this version of Hyrule, whereas a free behind-the-back camera (a la Ocarina of Time) wouldn’t have been able to benefit from far horizons or more natural geography.

One of the biggest changes to the formula is the ability to rent key items from house-guest/intruder Ravio. All of the usual suspects are present, from the hookshot to the hammer. And while the tornado rod and sand rod may be thought of as limited versions of the Roc’s cape and Sand Wand, I think they are balanced neatly for the obstacles present in A Link Between Worlds. Ravio’s shop allows Link to rent any item at his leisure provided he has 80-100 rupees per rental, though the term “rent” is a bit loose. Link only loses temporary possession of these items upon death, which adds incentive to not be reckless. Although I died a few times exactly because of that bad habit, I found that I could often just reload a save at the most recent weather vane I visited (avoiding a re-rental). Of course, this tactic wasn’t worth it in situations where I hadn’t saved within 15 minutes of puzzle-solving, but it’s still largely viable in a game with fast-travel and mid-dungeon warp points.



The nonlinearity of this system is different but ultimately not flawless. While it’s neat to choose one’s next dungeon, the difficulty doesn’t meaningfully scale after the first 3 of them. The majority of the dungeons make it very clear which item (if any) is needed to proceed through the entrance and, by extension, the rest of the rooms. This results in a Metroid-like feeling of finding a location first, and then coming back to it when the right item is acquired. Unfortunately, this feeling is diminished when players know exactly which “series staple” item is required, what it does, and where it can be found (Ravio’s shop). Furthermore, the dungeons are practically forced to not mix item usage, though having extra utility occasionally helps in combat.

The most pleasant bullet point in the design of A Link Between Worlds may be attributed to the wall “merging” mechanic. This core power is given to Link early on via Ravio’s bracelet and an encounter with Yuga, who utilizes the same magic. The ability to seamlessly merge into walls and walk around as a cave painting lends a greater feeling of freedom than either the new item shop or the loose dungeon structure. Gaps that normally get players only thinking about switches or hookshot targets can sometimes be overcome by finding the right geography on the sides. The best effect that wall merging has is the resulting expansion in environmental thinking; that something as traditionally limiting as a wall can be the new factor of mobility is a testament to the ability’s innovation. There are limitations, however, such as being able to only walk laterally from the same altitude Link merged from. There is also limited time Link can stay a painting, as merging drains the same slowly recharging meter that he must balance his item usage with (ammo is an absent mechanic). In dungeons, this concept is almost always used to some degree, especially in conjunction with the verticality of different floors. In the overworld, merging can be useful for obtaining bonus items and discovering hidden caves, hideouts, etc. More importantly, strange fissures in the walls can only be passed through via Link’s special power.



These fissures act as warp points to the game’s Dark World, named Lorule (with pun probably intended). Lorule features a darker palette, the return of the iconic “Dark World” theme, a few minigames, and the majority of the dungeons. Lorule has its own versions of Hyrule’s terrain, with most of the major sectors being divided by missing land. This forces players to explore it by transferring ‘between worlds’, which in turn leads to warp point hunting. Thankfully, the hunting is never tedious since the compact layout doesn’t favor artificial play time, and I’m assuming most players will run into fun distractions anyways. One of my favorite distractions has to be the StreetPass function, which pits players against passing profiles who appear in various locations as Shadow Link. The CPU-controlled opponents are fought in multiple isolated arenas, with their gear/hearts determined by the players’ profiles prior to StreetPass encounters.

If the look of A Link Between Worlds can be described as any one word, it would be “smooth”. The models of characters, enemies, and several objects seem to have soft curves with relatively simplistic textures. These factors do a great job at channeling imagery of A Link to the Past, but the real smoothness comes from the frame rate. Having 60fps running on a handheld action-adventure like Zelda, even in stereoscopic 3D, is a much bigger deal than it sounds. Speaking of stereoscopic 3D, much of A Link Between Worlds is evidently constructed to push players into turning the slider up. The layers in the game’s isometric/top-down perspective become much more distinguished with the 3D effect on, a perk that comes in handy during particular platforming sections.



The soundtrack is a gathering of many favorites from A Link to the Past (plus other Zelda titles) and worthy original tracks that compliment characters and scenarios well. From the Vader-esque intensity of “Death Mountain” to the soothing acoustics of “Kakariko Village,” Composer Ryo Nagamatsu certainly demonstrates his competence at rearranging many of Kondo’s classics in updated fashion. There are even a few diegetic performances of recognizable songs included solely to please fans (priced at 10 rupees each at the Milk Bar). Aside from new renditions of old melodies, the collection of original tracks impress as memorable character themes and atmospheric dungeon tunes (the main Lorule dungeons surprisingly feature the same motif).

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds supplies both the familiar and the fresh to its generational audiences, acting as a link between generations by nature. To some, it may leave a “what’s old is new again” impression, while for others it may be the most novel entry the series has seen in a decade. For me, the enjoyment stemmed, like usual, from the core level design and its many subtle touches. Videogames rarely reach the ingenuity that Nintendo employs with their Zelda franchise, gimmicks and nostalgia notwithstanding. While portions of the adventure can be disappointingly easy (a few bosses are pushovers), the only subject being handheld throughout the journey is the 3DS. It’s a welcome change of direction that will hopefully stay with the series beyond the inevitable structural and graphical alterations. With fantastic, streamlined gameplay still at the heart of this newest Zelda installment, A Link Between Worlds may well be remembered for its finely balanced representation of the franchise’s past, present, and possibly future.   read


12:39 AM on 04.15.2014  

Smash Bros Direct - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly



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.


Too funny

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...

The Ugly: Waluigi.


Skyloft is Yoshi's newest island

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).

The Ugly: It's okay Mewtwo, at least you have Project M....


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.   read


1:01 AM on 01.07.2014  

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies review


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.   read


6:09 PM on 11.26.2013  

I Enjoy Good Cutscenes, Keep'em Coming


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.


Goddammit James....

"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.   read


5:16 PM on 11.10.2013  

Silent Hill 2 review - A newcomer's impressions



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.   read


11:29 PM on 10.24.2013  

The Ace Attorney Spoilers & Dangers of Miscommunication



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.   read


3:59 PM on 09.26.2013  

Zero Escape series review - Plus piano/ocarina cover



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.   read


5:48 PM on 09.10.2013  

Journey review - It's worth it

During the PSN sale that went down during the PAX week (or around then) I had the pleasure of picking up Journey, made by the same people behind flOw and Flower. While I've only played flOw before (spending about 30 minutes on it), I'm willing to bet Journey is thatgamecompany's most ambitious and fullest project yet. Journey came out last year and received much attention for its aesthetics and "emotional investment". It was an indie title that won many GOTY awards and top honors throughout 2012. An "art" game, if one would want to use a pretentious term.



I'll keep this review a bit short, not just because the game itself is short but because there isn't really much to say about it in text. Journey is basically a "journey" through a series of ruins and environments that almost imply a post-apocalyptic setting. You play as a nameless bipedal/cloaked creature with two eyes, but it's clear that you aren't the only one of your kind. The goal is seemingly to reach a distant mountain with a shining beacon sprouting out of it. It's cleverly the very first thing the camera points to you when you're given reign of the controls. Another thing about Journey's narrative is that it's all showing, not telling. This may raise concerns about the difficulty to interpret the meaning of its embedded world, but in my view it's perfectly fine to see the story however one wants. I believe the only words in the entire game are at the title and the credits (unless of course, you pause the game). While there are cutscenes, they are brief and simply serve as a break between what could pass as "levels" in the game. Overall, Journey's narrative is not about revelation or drama, which takes the pressure off its true strength: place.

Journey's locations should probably go down as among the most beautiful environments the gaming medium has yet seen. I shouldn't have to argue that the visuals are one of the main attractions of Journey and do a great job to keep the player engaged throughout the entire adventure. The game consists of less than five "acts" (or at least what I label them as) but the quality of the architecture and terrain help the game's imagery become unforgettable. While I doubt the polygon count is high at all by PS3 standards, thatgamecompany has done a splendid job at melding impressive draw distance with spectacular lighting control. Play this game on a big HDTV with good speakers, and Journey will put most AAA games to shame in terms of aesthetics.



The other half of the aesthetics part is the audio, and it doesn't necessarily take a backseat to the impressive visuals. The sound effects and music blend seamlessly into the graphics, creating a comfortable synergy. Austin Wintory's grammy-nominated soundtrack isn't exactly composed of videogame-ish melodies that stick in the brain, but that's not a bad thing as the orchestral ambiance will occasionally give players goosebumps at just the right times. A smart use of percussion and strings complement fast and slow sections of the gameplay. I'd recommend the soundtrack for anyone reading, studying, or driving in smooth traffic.

The gameplay consists of jumping, flying, and walking. Besides those basic actions, the protagonist has a "sing" ability that functions as an action button. The "sing" ability is used to interact with various flying cloth objects around the environment, all of which seem to feel alive and friendly to the player. While I won't say too much about the gameplay design, I should mention that these interactions are generally used for charging one's leaping/flying power (which may appropriate Journey as a platformer). After one understands that, it's smooth sailing from then on.



Journey is about two hours long, roughly the length of a film, which means it can and should be played in one sitting. I didn't know this and therefore played 70% of the game in one sitting before going off to work. I wish I started at a time that didn't hinder the perfect pacing of the adventure, so I highly recommend scheduling a playthrough with a couple hours to spare. The only instances where the length could extend is if one goes off searching/exploring for certain glowing lights that upgrade the protagonist's flight capacity. Even with the short length, I can see myself replaying this game once next year and maybe a year after that, as long as my PS3 is still active.

The last aspect of the game I'd like to touch on is the online component. Journey innovates in neat fashion by making the connected players anonymous. From time to time, players may encounter one another in a level as they turn the corner, and depending on mutual feelings they could play through the game side-by-side. Two players may help one another via the "sing" ability to recharge flight, or simply by showing each other the way forward. No traditional communication methods are enabled, so the journey remains quiet and peaceful.



Quiet and peaceful isn't absolute in Journey however, as the levels do make time to mix up the highs and lows players experience. Journey is surprisingly engaging and diverse for the minimalist style it appears to exude. While I won't spoil it for those who haven't played the game, be assured that there are other familiar game pleasures at work besides the usual run-and-jump aspects. What I love about this game is its delight in showing players the joy of "drifting" and interacting with the game world, and it does so in a pure sense that few titles demonstrate. Traversing a wide, almost barren landscape toward a mysterious destination would bring me back to the days of riding around in Shadow of the Colossus or certain Zelda entries. 

I'd say Journey is quite worth the price listed on PSN, especially in the event that it's on sale. The game is accessible to anyone, from young children with plenty of time on their hands to casual or older adults with little time on their hands. Pick it up, play it, and let friends/family give it a try. Even if it doesn't emanate the same level of emotional punch for some players that more centrally story-focused games do, it will certainly remain one of the most unique gems in the medium.   read


1:17 AM on 08.31.2013  

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow review


  
   Recently I finished the somewhat controversial Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a title from 2010 that some may be picking up now that its “ultimate edition” is on steam. I played the PS3 version which, I heard, overcomes some of the xbox 360 problems in stutters for the most part.

     I’ll admit I’m not a big Castlevania fan, but I have played through all 3 of the Nintendo DS titles and enjoyed their balanced platforming, action, and Metroid elements. For additional measure, I’ll mention that I’ve played every God of War game except Ascension, which is important considering that LoS is probably more GoW than Castlevania. Apparently the series has had a hard time transitioning into 3D, but Konami’s stayed more reserved with the series than say, Sonic Team. While I wouldn’t call LoS a failure of a 3D transition, I have a hard time calling it a proper evolution when it barely resembles its franchise.

   The game is divided into 12 chapters, each with a few sub-chapters inside. The story revolves around Gabriel Belmont attempting to revive his murdered wife and defeat the 3 Lords of Shadow, who each have a piece of the God Mask which holds great power (and may be able to bring her back somehow). The process and tribulations he must endure take a toll on his mental state and there’s a nagging feeling of corruption as he proceeds through the game with new powers and relics. If this sounds like Shadow of the Colossus, it won’t be the last time.



     The narrative is told through a mix of cutscenes and Patrick Stewart’s narration preceding each sub-chapter. The former are pleasant simply because important stuff happens, and they are well-directed with admirable voice-acting. The latter is neat at first but quickly becomes unnecessary since not much actually occurs between most sub-chapters. Having Stewart read a paragraph or two every single time seems like a necessity they burdened him with instead of genuine development of the plot. Stewart plays the role of Zobek, a fellow Brotherhood member who probably spends more of his time stalking Gabriel with telepathic clairvoyance than actually helping the man out. I don’t have much insight into what exactly Zobek does on the side, but it’d all be a lot less risky for both of them if they stuck together. Maybe I’m just missing something about the gravity of the Brotherhood’s split duties/paths. His narration also implies that he feels Gabriel’s violence and anger quelling up inside toward the latter half of the game, yet the game barely ever shows evidence of this. Showing-over-telling apparently isn’t a priority in LoS.

     This bleeds into the gameplay design. LoS is a self-explanatory action hack-n-slash game for anyone who has touched one before. It’s fine to help out with the controls and such during the first couple chapters, but the messages just keep on coming. Some messages are so blatant that they ruin the excitement of experimentation with a new mechanic, or make you feel treated like a child during puzzles. “Looks like crow flocks don’t like to share their posts….The crows flew somewhere else” stand out as a couple dumb messages late in the game. If the designers were unconfident in their ability to communicate some things, they should make it clearer visually so that players can feel smarter for inferring things above the 1st-grade level.

     That said, the combat is the game’s tightest gameplay aspect. It speaks God of War everywhere from the use of a whip-chain in 3D space and grab fatalities, to upgrades that mirror gorgon eyes and phoenix feathers. This isn’t a bad thing if one hasn’t played a GoW game in a while, or just wants something a bit different to kill than Greek monsters. Gabriel can swing his “combat cross” directly for stronger moves, or in a sweeping motion with lesser damage. Combining these two buttons in various ways, both aerial and grounded, leads into the game’s extensive combo system. These can be bought in a menu with EXP, and it’s nice that if you have sufficient points, the cursor will default to the Skills page at the end of each level. I never looked back on the controls for these combos because I honestly got by just fishing/mashing techniques I knew I purchased (but hadn’t memorized). Players will find ones they like and stick with them. Gabriel’s moves are more extensive and less streamlined than those of Kratos, yet still visually satisfying.



     Gabriel also has access to the item button, which can activate one of four different items. He begins with boring daggers but later acquires “stun” fairies that home in on enemies, as well as water flasks that vampires are weak to. The final item is a dark crystal that must be assembled before being used, yet summons a very powerful creature that can obliterate a screen of enemies depending on their health. These items are what Gabriel commonly receives after killing enemies or smashing things in the environment, so you’ll never lament using them up.

     Light and Shadow magic are two separate modes that Gabriel can activate his body with. Attacking with light magic on drains your blue meter, yet each hit on enemies restores Gabriel’s health. Shadow magic drains the red meter, but each hit deals extra damage. There are also bonus benefits to these modes, such as exclusive attacks for each mode, or a modified effect on the items. All in all, these modes aren’t game-changers to the familiarity or fun of the combat, but they are definitely something players need to utilize throughout the game.
     
     Then there’s the other obstacles, like puzzles and platforming. True puzzles are few and far between, and rarely tested my noggin for more than a minute of thinking. If the player hates these sequences, they can opt to “buy” their way out with EXP, yet it just shows unconfident game design in blatant ways. I’d much rather “buy” my way out of the platforming. The game has a fixed camera, which doesn’t help the case that these sequences are often the most tedious in LoS. Gabriel’s jumping feels too stiff and not designed for these types of challenges. The game gives him a double jump eventually, but it happens way too late in the game and could’ve had much more potential if done with variety. I’m still surprised LoS didn’t imitate the function of the Icarus wings from God of War 2. Platforming often consists of climbing, which I can usually get by even if they aren’t challenging at all (like in Uncharted). However, the rappelling function of the whip-chain includes a major flaw: it doesn’t make clear what Gabriel’s threshold for climbing down is. I often rappelled down a step too far only to let loose and fall to my doom. I know this is all LoS trying to add some variety to its 15-20 hour linear design, but the developers should refine these extra aspects before trying to implement them, especially when gamers have high standards for these conventions nowadays.



     Lords of Shadow is almost at its best with boss fights. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the fights that focused less on size and more on fighting/dodging. I’ve never cared for boss sizes in action games mainly because they usually aren’t any harder than smaller ones. Lords of Shadow splits its boss fights into two types: the duels and the titans. Duel bosses, as I like to call them, are fit for the GoW style gameplay and feature some excellent thrills (the Evil Butcher stands out). There are only 3 titan bosses, but I found them rather dull compared to their immediate inspiration. While Shadow of the Colossus bosses felt organic and puzzle-infused, Lords of Shadow’s titans feel like automated climbing with clear button prompts that tell players when to grip. Nevertheless, both smaller and bigger bosses are Lords of Shadow’s most memorable points when it comes to action.
 
    The greatest strength of the game, however, is its graphics. There are lush greens, rocky ruins, and massive towers to look at, among many other areas. If the gameplay started to bore me, I’d keep going just to see what lies around the next corner. One of my biggest gripes with God of War 3 was its art and environments not matching up to God of War 2’s locales, even with the massive polygon count it gained. Lords of Shadow combines the best of graphical power and artistry to create one stunning canvas after another. Sometimes the camera is perfectly placed to let players admire the scenery, and I love it when downtime is used that way.

     The sound is decent, but nothing to write home about. Castlevania’s music is well-known for being one of gaming’s heavy hitters in composition, but you won’t find much in LoS except some dynamic orchestration that does its job and not much else. The sound effects are fine but could’ve used a bit more punch (other than the gauntlet attacks, which are awesome) in violent situations. It shouldn’t bother anyone though, as the visuals are what kept my eyes distracted from my ears.


     
     Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a decent action game with stupendous visuals and an occasionally intriguing story. The epilogue is truly excellent and might just tempt me to check out the upcoming sequel, where they will hopefully have fixed the many issues present in this first entry. If you’re a Castlevania fanatic, think twice before getting this game unless you’re also a God of War, Devil May Cry, or hack-n-slash fan. There’s a bit of backtracking shoehorned into the game, but I was never intrigued to go back and acquire bonuses since I knew this wasn’t Metroidvania anyways. The game starts off slow but thankfully becomes better mechanically toward the last third. Overall, Lords of Shadow’s eye candy prevents it from being entirely obsolete in its genre, and I can only hope LoS2 imitates less and innovates more.   read


5:05 PM on 08.09.2013  

Assassin's Creed IV and its shameful new gameplay mechanic

Assassin's Creed IV. I'm really starting to hate this game even before playing it after that Shark news the other day, an announcement that was revealed as if it was cool or something. The hunting and poaching of sharks for petty, unnecessary ingredients is the primary reason why they are going extinct so fast after millions and millions and millions of years of evolution. If this attitude toward them keeps up, then they will be gone in a decade or 2 in our lifetime. That's just sad.

Didn't think Ubisoft would stoop this low, but I was half-expecting some sort of shark "danger" element after i knew there was ocean swimming in the game. It's fine if you have to fend off the occasional curious attacking shark with a punch, or swim stealthily without the thrashing that obviously excites sharks. There have been tolerable gameplay elements before in games, especially more cartoony ones. But harpooning and murdering sharks on a boat for its skin and "crafting" is NOT cool, and anyone who is down with this mechanic should be ashamed. These are some of the most graceful, sleek, and evolved animals of all time, and celebrating shark hunting (especially during shark week Ubisoft) is monstrous and destructive to our ecosystem. 

Even if you don't lovingly dedicate a large portion of your life to the study of sharks and marine life (like me), you can objectively know that sharks are vital to the Ocean food chain and balance as apex predators. Sharks are supposed to coexist with humans at the top of the food chain of their respective environments. They do not intentionally hunt us and we should not intentionally hunt them for fishermen's pride and useless material. They reproduce extremely slow and are dwindling faster than they ever deserved. Jumping into a boat and stabbing them until death is uncalled for and perpetuates the notion that these are man's enemies/trophies (when they are not). I know that this is just fantasy and not real life. I get it. But this is art and it has the power to change or accent existing notions especially as a AAA release worldwide. Back out of this gameplay aspect Ubisoft. You should know better.   read


4:12 AM on 02.06.2013  

Reflecting on God of War 2 on the eve of Ascension

Am I the only one who feels the franchise peaked with the 2nd game? I mean, this series has a place for me, but its mostly the fresh feeling I got from the PS2 games back when it was new. GoW2 is in my top 50 favorite games ever, in fact! God of War 1 was bought because I heard good things and cuz I was craving an Action-adventure with combat and puzzles and quality presentation. The unrelenting angry mood was innovative and the music was 1st rate.

GoW2 came out and took the level to 10. The kills were cooler, there were finally more bosses, big and small, you could wield multiple weapons, the music was even better, and the puzzles were tighter. Two things to note - For one, the plot introduced a higher stakes goal of changing fate, when I heard I was supposed to go after the Sisters of Fate of all mythological beings, I was like "oh shit just got real". Also, your new enemy was Zeus and Olympus, while you sided with the mothafuggin Titans of Greek mythology. All the while Athena was kinda on your side just to spice things up. Simple plot, but awesome stakes for those with even the slightest knowings of Greek mythology.

The 2nd notable thing was that the locations of this game were better than all other GoW games before and since. You start off at Rhodes in the series' trademark great openings. Then we get a flying sequence, to pitstop at the Ice Titan's lair. We even fight the dude, sorta. Then we do another flying sequence to the Isle of Fates. While this Isle was basically the rest of the game, it had more diversity in visuals and tasks than Pandora's Tower from GoW1. Plus, a detour to Atlas underneath for a portion of the game. In GoW3, I felt Mount Olympus just wasn't as compelling, and I think they stuck in Hades Underworld for the 3rd (?) time just to add a little more diversity. The handheld titles' areas were fine (and had good final acts), but didn't come close to GoW2.

To top it off, after going through boss battles with several notable names including Perseus and the Barbarian King and the Sisters themselves, we get one of the best (if not the best) cliffhanger endings in gaming. A very literal cliffhanger, but still, that scene was done so well, just rewatch it on youtube to see what I mean. Maybe it's the magic rainbow that sprinkled upon basically every game that happened in 2007, but I was seriously impressed by GoW2 above the other entries. I hope Ascension brings back the diversity of areas found in GoW2, and even if Kratos doesn't travel much, I hope the location he spends time in is comparable to Isle of Fates.

Also, with Ascension being the 3rd/4th entry to go "backwards" in the timeline, why haven't they made a game with Kratos as a normal Spartan, before he slaughters his wife and child. If they're gonna make a prequel, I'd want to play that chapter. Have him slightly disempowered, an above-average Spartan human who leads an army, doesn't use Blades of Chaos for once, swears to Ares at some climactic point in the Barbarian battle, gets the blades and we're in business, does stuff for Ares, meanwhile conquers lands for the glory of Sparta, then ends in a tragic slaughter of wife/child...and possibly have the player do it themselves...even better if the game finds a way to make you do it on accident. I mean, GoW3 did succeed in tricking me into beating up Zeus for 3 minutes straight out of primal rage, not giving him a chance to breathe and making sure I do the most damage I could (damn I feel horrible typing that). I think it could work if done right. A prequel before the family slaughter would have a much different tone, and a less powerful Kratos who only grows more noticeably superhuman throughout.

So am I alone in loving GoW2 the most? Or was the 1st game's freshness more valuable than the sequel's improvements. Or did the franchise figuratively "Peak" with the 3rd game's journey up Mt. Olympus?   read







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