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I like action-adventures, RPGs, fighters, and platformers most of all. All genres are open to me as long as the game is good.
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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.
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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.
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   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.
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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.








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?










Ok so I'm a complete noob at blender, and I should've posted this earlier, but I hope it looks good enough for a novice effort. Any constructive criticism in the aspects would be appreciated, but hopefully nothing that would take 5 hours to do or anything. I used Blender because it is free open-source or whatever and because I took a basic 3D modeling course haha

I tried to get the geometry as accurate as possible while looking at screenshots of the game, since i didn't have the game with me during creation. The lighting tends to differ in areas, but I mostly tried to get the shadows of the window frames projected onto the floor by the light...something the original game didn't do. And I drew the window frames as accurate as I could squint at the low-res textures of OoT. Also, sorry for the weird lens choice, I forgot it might look distorted when the camera pans.

This was probably my favorite area in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I bet others share the same sentiment. Give feedback if you can!

Includes: crude model of young link, a hookshot (my favorite item though it doesn't belong in child era), Navi, 3 spiritual stones, Master Sword, courage, power, and not enough wisdom.