Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gryzor's Top 5 Best and Worst Games of 2013

With 2013 well and truly behind us, let's look back at the video games that made it stand out in a good way, and the video games that were total shit and almost set the medium back a decade.

The Highs
Let's start on a positive note with the games that rocked the house last year!

Fire Emblem: Awakening
You can always rely on Fire Emblem to perform on all four cylinders, folks! I was going to put this higher on the list, but between its mediocre graphics and often feeling like a grindfest (though definitely not as much as Disgaea does), it's more of a case of whatever it does right is done right to a fucking tee! I'd say the same for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but Fire Emblem: Awakening does the strategy RPG thing much better than Revengeance does the hack and slash thing.
Grand Theft Auto 5

I just think that it's amazing that they managed to make Grand Theft Auto fun again after the overly serious Grand Theft Auto 4. Was a bit disappointed by the lack of metal in its soundtrack and that they didn't use the three character structure to its absolute fullest potential, but fuck, when the city feels as alive as it does here with people, news stations and such reacting to everything that happens including missions, as well as there being a wealth of shit to do and a lot of fun missions, I'd like to think that it's easy to ignore the bugger ups.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Holy shit, a Zelda game in 2D that actually plays like A Link To The Past, but still feels modern enough (which actually isn't that different - it's just that fucking timeless of a game) for people to get into without shitting the bed in regards to classic stuff! Makes up for years of mediocrity, I'd say! I mean, when was the last time a Zelda game had halfway creative dungeons and bosses instead of bullshit designed for an item - with said item likely being designed first? As much as I like Majora's Mask and Wind Waker, one more reminiscent of A Link To The Past and the good bits of the original is much more preferable.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
Although I find it strange that Blood Dragon is the subtitle for Far Cry as only the mechanics are similar, fuck it - this tribute to those cheesy 80s "futuristic" action movies is a fucking good game and easily one of the funniest I've played in a long time! It'd be easier to look at this as more of a parody than an actual video game if the mechanics weren't all that tight; but since it controls finely and really lets you reel in that chain of badass kills you've just performed with ease, it's a game that more than satisfies my no-no places.
Papers, Please
This was quite a pleasant surprise! I mean, a game where you're a member of border security, making plane rides safer by making sure you don't let those pesky Essendon Bombers on board with their performance enhancing drugs! But really, it's the kind of game that manages to really make you consider all that's laid on the table and make your decision based on that. But then you also have to consider moral dilemmas such as letting a wife see her husband even if the passport's faker than Jessica Nigri's tits. A surprisingly refreshing take on what boils down to simple paperwork, but given the job, it makes perfect sense. Indie games doing what they do best right here.

The Lows
But they can't all be winners; here's a few stinkers from this year:

DmC: Devil May Cry/Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow - Mirror Of Fate/Lost Planet 3
Technically, these aren't bad games, but what they are, are horribly disappointing games from otherwise great series (or in the case of Lost Planet, a series with heaps of potential). The problem with these games is that they play like faceless interactive products, rather than anything that's given their own identity. Furthermore, even if these were new IPs, they'd still feel really fucking mediocre as outside of DmC's visual style, nothing really stands out as good. It's all passable, but it's clear that there's no real reason to waste your time with shit you've likely played better versions of (be they Heavenly Sword, Gears Of War, the first two Lost Planet games, and Symphony Of The Night).

Beyond: Two Souls
Not using the "not a video game" "criticism" or whinging about there being no consequences to your decisions - it wouldn't even be on this list if that was the case because it would simply be mediocre and not shit. No, the problem here is that in trying to be some David Lynch type of interactive movie, it instead comes across as a series of missing Home & Away episodes with Ellen Page making cameo appearances. Hey, the events in the game are tied together with such little care that it makes the overarching narrative a fucking mess that's next to impossible to follow. Just watch a David Lynch film instead, kids.

Adventure Time: Appeal To Stoned Hipsters
Oh hey guys, I'm being loud, random and ironic, am I funny yet???

No; it's humorless and so is this game. In fact, I'm convinced that it sucks all the fun out of any room that it happens to be played in. The dungeon is more repetitive than Tartarus, the gameplay is begging for more interaction than a simple timed block, and the jokes are begging for punch lines.

Flashback (2013)
Oh fuck me, this is just shit. Where DmC and Lost Planet 3 were horribly generic games that just so happen to be named after good games (mm that brand recognition), this shit is based off of an old game that was quite good (I mean, it was included with this remake) and tries to make that look like shit with unpolished mechanics, game breaking glitches, getting stuck on the floor and OH MY FUCKING GOD PLAY TEST YOUR SHIT GUYS!

The Walking Dead: The One That Wasn't Made By Telltale Games
ARRRRGH OH MY FUCKING GOD WE'RE NOT YOUR FUCKING GAME TESTERS!!! This actually had some great ideas and you want to know why I think that? Because later on in the year, The Last Of Us implemented most of them and did a good job of doing so! Play that instead!

The absolute worst game of 2013 is...
Ride To Hell: Retribution
That 1% you see on the box? That's how much of a fuck the developer gave during development - at least judging by what goes on in the game, anyway. Between the "mash X to win" fighting engine that does such a buttfucking awful job of emulating Arkham Asylum's combat engine that now the Arkham trilogy and Sleeping Dogs leave a bad taste in my mouth, ultralinear motorbike riding sequences with laughably shit quick time events and dry humping that I swear made my dick shrink quite a bit, it's clear that this game is almost as bad as Superman 64. In 2013, that's fucking pathetic.

The absolute best game of 2013 is...
Metro: Last Light
This game is the textbook definition of a game doing what it gets right really fucking well! What I mean is that in comparison to Metro 2033, it's not quite as hardcore - you always feel at least somewhat safe with a decent amount of ammo, air and supplies, and stealth was a bit easier to pull off as it didn't take too long to figure out the trick. With that being said, its mechanics are well fucking done. The shooting feels on point, the stealth still makes you feel like a badass, the atmosphere is still stronger than Atlas, the graphics are still fucking pretty in their own gritty way, and the story is still one of the most immersing pieces of work in this medium - which says about fuck all when you think about it really, but it's actually quite good! It's hard to deny that this game gets shit right and even with some omissions, it never feels like a shitty sequel unlike Dragon Age 2 - more like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, except way better. It's just fucking brilliant, really.

That ends this year's countdown. Some honorable mentions include The Last Of Us for going the way of Metro 2033 by placing emphasis on resource management and stealth in a survival horror environment (way better than arbitrarily limiting the player - something only Silent Hill did right), Pokemon X/Y for really pushing the Pokemon formula forward and polishing it up to a tee (not on the list due to lame post game content - get back into that for the inevitable Pokemon Z, Game Freak), and Rayman Origins for being a lot of fun (that would've made the list if not for Toad Story). Sadly, I do not own an eight generation console (unless you count the 3DS as one) - not that it made listing the best and worst much harder, but I'm sure you guys would've wanted me to sing the Wii U's praises and slag off the Playstation 4.. or something like that, I don't know. What I do know is that there are more games to come, and Sign Far Beyond is off of its hiatus as we all work on new shit. We promise to not be quite as inactive, you dig? As always, I wish you all the best for 2014!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: Guacamelee

The life of a luchador is never easy. On a daily basis, you have to wear a colorful mask that makes you big and buff, punch, kick, throw, headbutt, aerial uppercut, ground pound, switch dimensions, turn into a chicken, run up walls and save the world from the undead on a daily basis so that a prophecy that'll destroy the world or some shit cannot be fulfilled. I was certainly not up to the task when it was initially offered in April, but when the offer was available to PC gamers in August, I honestly couldn't resist. No, I don't know why putting it on Steam for five or so dollars less than the PSN version was what make me buy it. All I know is that it's a pretty good game and I feel like a jackass for skipping out on it earlier due to how good it is.

Initially, I thought it was going to be one of those lame retraux games – you know the sort; 2D graphics, safe platforming gameplay that wouldn't offend your grandma let alone the retro game purists, chiptune music because it's all about that authentic retro experience, some video game references and internet memes (oh golly we're so relevant guys!!!), and just the feeling that I'd rather be playing an actual retro game like Mega Man 2 or Actraiser instead. In a bizarre twist not even M Night Shyamalan could come up with, it has all of that (except the chiptune soundtrack bit; there are some chiptune-y sections in a few songs but otherwise, all the trumpets, maracas and acoustic guitars are uncompressed), but does such a fucking good job of it that I really don't care that it uses those lame retraux elements. Not only that, but it kept my attention for all five or so hours that it took to get through the main story plus a few more hours trying to get all the bonus shit for Steam achievements. Just going on a side rant for a sec here – I hardly ever try to go for achievements/trophies/what have you because really, who cares except for you? A game has to be pretty good for me to want to do that, and you know what, Guacamelee sure as shit is one of them!

The story won't exactly be winning any awards, but it doesn't really have to. The actual concept is that of a farmer named Juan turning into a luchador who is neither alive nor dead (or something) as he can travel through the realms of the living and the dead through some supernatural shit. Juan has to rescue El Presidente's daughter from Calaca, an evil skeleton who wants to merge the two realms together. There's some shit about prophecies, but the story itself is pretty lame. Where it has any semblance of a backbone is in its humor. Internet jokes aside, it's a good time because it really doesn't take itself too seriously. I mean at one point, you have a chicken that's going "you're halfway there" and then another goes "just kidding" a bit later. One of Calaca's sidekicks is jealous of El Presidente's daughter and every time you run into her, it either boils down to that or her making advances on Juan. At that point, shots are fired at the fact that he's a silent protagonist. The story goes between filler and being a catalyst for jokes. You got those Chozo statue looking things from the Metroid games and a goatman who looks after them. He gets increasingly annoyed as you smash them and he begrudgedly teaches you new techniques just because those statues contained mystical powers. This game feels like a game made by gamers for gamers, more or less with the kind of humor that they'd expect from a game under these circumstances.

But fuck, this game is no laughing matter. Once you start acquiring some abilities, you'll find yourself doing platforming puzzles where you have to not just do wall jumps, but know when to do uppercuts to get up higher, forward punches to get further horizontally and even switch dimensions so that certain platforms appear and disappear for wall jumps, running up walls and launching from a wall. Sounds crazy? Well, it can get crazy, but it does ease you into things thankfully. For one thing, new abilities are spaced out by a fair bit, giving you ample time to get used to what you just got. The other thing is that there are enough situations for you to learn to associate certain things with certain abilities. After that point, when it starts getting crazy like in the last area or the optional areas, it won't seem as intimidating because you already have an idea of what to do. Honestly, in tandem with the combat, this is what keeps the game interesting. Rather than be content with some cookie cutter platforming segments like certain other games seem to be, Guacamelee raises its middle digits and does what it wants.

Speaking of combat, there's a fair bit to combat, but like the platforming, it eases you into it. You'll start by dealing with grunts that just attack if you get close by and grunts that throw bones at you (whether it's their own bones or the bones of their fallen comrades, I'm not sure of). Eventually, you'll deal with their more skittish cousins, elephant-looking anteaters that roll into you, Ridley's children, big guys with big clubs and guys who shoot lightning at you. Oh, and they'll occasionally sport barriers that either require a few hits before you can start laying into them, or colored barriers that can only be broken by specific special attacks. For instance, you can only lay into them once you uppercut their red barriers off, or ground pound their green barriers into dust. While it often indulges in the arena style battling where you get to a room, get barraged by an entourage of enemies and can't leave until they all die, you'll also occasionally find enemies on your way to the next arena room.

Usually, that kind of thing can work out well. In a Metroidvania game like Symphony Of The Night, this works because Alucard will find a fair amount of enemies and while he's strong-ish, he has to reserve his strength because it's not like he knows where the next save room is and if he goes too hard, the next room may be his tomb. In Guacamelee, though, eh, the enemies can give Juan reasonably big health recovery and on their own, they're pretty weak and predictable. In arena settings where you have to deal with heaps, they can give you a run for your money if you're not careful (especially in the last level where there are heaps with all sorts of barriers). Unlike Symphony Of The Night, save spots in Guacamelee are fairly common, and dying in combat will just put you back at the beginning of that room (nobody dies platforming; you just teleport back to the last platform you were standing on). A lot of the difficulty is found in the arena fights where you fight heaps of enemies. That's also where a lot of the excitement is found simply because there's often a lot to consider and you have to stay on your toes. Thankfully, the abilities you gain can be used effectively in combat to create long combos, and rolling can keep the flow going as it bypasses attacks. Due to the options you have at your disposal and the enemies you face, combat can get intense and by the end of the game, shit just gets exciting as fuck!

You'll occasionally face a boss.. and by that, I mean you'll face four in the entire game, the final boss included. Then again, they're good bosses at least. The first boss seems more like a test to see if you really understood the whole colored barriers thing while making sure you pay attention to her dimension shifting (you don't have it at that point, by the way) so you don't get stuck in a spike pit. Meanwhile, the other three simply barrage you with attacks and you have to dodge them and then counterattack them. They're pretty trial and error heavy, requiring you to pay attention to their animations to see what attack they're going to use and then rushing in to deliver a combo attack or two... and then dying a couple of times because you weren't paying attention. Once you have a rough idea of how they work, these fights most definitely serve as highlights... highlighting how robustly Juan can move. Well, okay, Juan being controlled by a keyboard is kind of iffy when it comes to precision platforming and all that happy go lucky shit (it's lucky the mouse is around for first person shooters), but fuck, when your bosses can highlight how awesome a combat engine can be, they must be doing something right!

I have to wonder though... why use the Metroidvania style of progression? No, really, what is up with there being like a hub level and then a bunch of areas all around it that can only be accessed by getting upgrades? Because of upgrades? Why not have more isolated levels? Beats having some hub level with a handful of shitty fetch quests that net you some money, a heart/stamina piece and/or a Steam achievement. I mean, the basic idea is that you're trekking through a desert, up some mountains or whatever long, platform heavy path lies before a temple, then you go through the temple to get the power ups necessary to get to either the boss or the story event at the end. Most of these levels are designed with the abilities you get at those points in mind, with some half assed additions to make it feel like you can use your newer abilities to get collectibles, like most of them fucking matter. I feel that the village hub level is best reserved for the beginning and then when you're first in the realm of the dead just to establish some sort of tension, like you have to save these people from the apocalypse!

Guacamelee has a clean cartoony look ala Samurai Jack. Everything has this clean, simplistic and colorful look to them. What surprises me is that despite a lot of the designs consisting of lines constructing shapes, they can still look smooth. Whether it's through careful linework or the colors and shading, it amazes me how a linear art style can conjure up some rather beautiful results. Okay, I guess a lot of it has to do with the colors – from the pleasantly shaded backgrounds to the vivid, lively foreground objects, everything just pops out and looks really good. Granted, the designs aren't exactly the paragons of creativity (oooooh skeletons, Ridley children and anteaters), but for what they're worth, they definitely work. Supernatural monsters and skeletons working for a dead guy that's trying to kill everyone, that works just fine. What stands out is the way that they differentiate between the realms of the living and dead. The former has happier colors while the latter is a bit more depressing or foreboding, depending on where in the world you are.

As far as the sound design is concerned, it's largely consistent of Mexican sounding music. From the acoustic guitars to trumpets and maracas  there's a definite Mexican flavor. To add a bit of spice, there's some chiptune-y rhythms. They're mainly there to add some tension or energy, either to fights or to just you exploring the world. They differentiate the moods a bit from the two dimensions – while the realm of the living is livelier  the realm of the dead plays host to more downtempo music, which is a pretty nice touch, not to mention suitable to the colors in those dimensions. In general, the music in this game is enjoyable in the same way that music in general makes... I don't know, creative writing enjoyable. It's background music that has your attention, adds a layer of depth to the room you're in and just makes you want to keep going because you don't want to stop the music. The soundtrack itself is fairly good and I'd recommend giving it a listen on its own terms as the songs are nice and catchy, but in the context of the game, well, it just makes the downtime between combat and platforming more exciting.

When this game came out, I thought that it'd be like Outland in that it ends up being a fucking sick game that hardly anybody would play. Well, a fair few people have played it – certainly enough to warrant a PC release that includes some optional challenges testing your skills in the arts of combat and platforming (I personally thought that some of the combat ones were just total horse shit because they felt more like arbitrary limits than a legitimate challenge but hey, maybe I need to "git gud"), but it doesn't reach Outland levels of excellence. Instead, Guacamelee is a fun, fun game that never stops the music. Whether it's the combat, the platforming or the actual music in question, there's just a lot of things to look forward to that'll keep you playing. It never overstays its welcome and in fact, it only gets better the further along you go, ending on a high note. A few niggling issues like the side content being of inconsistent quality (ranging from fun to fucking worthless) doesn't stop it from being something that I'd recommend to you, dear reader.

8.5/10 (Great)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Final Fantasy 4

If I was just judging the first five hours of this game, it'd be an instant 10/10. Seriously, it's such a large jump from the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Warrior games in terms of storytelling that it's amazing how we were able to play them (outside of any that let you make/change classes – that shit's fun) without feeling underwhelmed by a lack of detail in the overarching narrative! The Red Wings lead by Cecil, our main character, raid a village for one of the crystals not to save the world, but because the king of Baron is a greedy piece of shit who wants to use the crystals to increase his power level. But Cecil wonders if he's doing it for the good of Baron or if there's something more sinister afoot. So after essentially defecting from the Red Wings, the king sends him and Kain on a mission that appears to be a simple delivery to the village of Mist. However, shit goes down with Kain being sent elsewhere and Cecil, alongside one of the survivors of the horrible events in the village of Mist, needing to head to a nearby village to recover. Unfortunately, the Red Wings frivolously chase Cecil down as he finds a way to repent for all of the evil things that he'd done during his time as the captain of the Red Wings. Seriously, this is a great way...

...to start the game. However, there's still quite a bit of game ahead of us, and it's clear that the rest of the story just couldn't quite keep up with the first third of the game. That's not to say that it's bad or anything - it's still good, but whether it's due to a nuked translation or Square literally making it up as they go along, Final Fantasy 4 (or Final Fantasy 2 outside of Japan because the real 2 and 3 didn't get released internationally for years) seems to just have you go to these places because Square said so and apparently, it's a part of Cecil's revenge scheme... you know, because. Now, you can say that it is a part of Cecil wanting to right his wrongs; it's just that it seems like he and his comrades are pulled right underneath the world because there just so happen to be some macguffins there. Whatever, I can roll with this. But then comes a near endgame plot twist that makes one think that Square were just trying to pad the game out and went through a list of things that they wrote down after a night of huffing paint fumes. Not that I don't mind when writers decide to bust out some hallucinogenic drugs – after all, would Killer7 be worth anything if it wasn't such a bizarre game – but there's being weird, there's being over the top and ridiculous, and then there's just being stupid.

Maybe it's just me, but any time there's a character that appears out of nowhere that tries to establish itself at a main character at the last minute, all I can think is "are they trying for shock value or is this supposed to be a legitimately good plot twist". Usually, it's the former, and that's just stupid. Despite what shitposters on 4chan and hack writers will tell you, good plot twists not only shock you, but they're also well written and have at least vague hints towards that. That's why Who Shot Mr Burns worked so well! Even on repeated watchings, it's like "aww shit I didn't see that coming" because the writing's so good that I could, for a while, suspend prior knowledge and just sit back and enjoy it. Here, on the other hand, it's like "oh okay" with a deadpan expression, it's that lame. Okay, so we didn't quite foil Golbez on Earth... LET'S GO TO THE MOON-- oh there's more to it than that, that's cool I guess. It's a shame because the rest of the story was actually pretty good.

But shit, maybe this is a character driven experience, right? Well yeah. It is mainly about Cecil realizing the error of his ways and wanting to right his wrongs by saving the world. Another thing to consider is Kain – he's jealous of Cecil's success with the Red Wings and the ladies (well, just Rosa, but still), and given that he feels inferior, he's ripe for dark forces to take over him, especially if it means taking Cecil down. If you've played the Kingdom Hearts series, he's kind of like Riku, only it's original characters and not Disney characters either manipulating or supporting him. Cue Kain becoming Golbez's second in command and becoming something of a foil to Cecil, mainly because Golbez is quite a smart cookie and knows what he's doing. Okay, these two are deceptively simple characters and given what they do in the story, they're pretty good. What about the rest? Well... they're basically one note characters, but they're great one note characters, so there's no problem there. Whether they're quirky, boisterous or innocent, they manage to convey their personalities in ways that make them rather endearing, even if they aren't quite as interesting as Cecil and Kain.

But even with my criticisms in mind, one thing that cannot be denied is how groundbreaking this form of storytelling was – much like how Half Life popularized a method that allowed the developers to tell the story without the need for cutscenes, Final Fantasy 4 sure as shit pushed forward the idea that stories and characters were actually worth a fuck in the grand scheme of things by giving them extra care and attention... even if bits and pieces don't age that well. It doesn't end there, folks. Characters can and will leave your party either because they have to or because they sacrifice themselves to save Cecil from impending doom. You know, Cecil's got it made – not only does he have a hot chick to bang, but he also has people willing to die for him! Then again, during battles, he's willing to protect them and even take a blow for them, so I guess they're just paying him his dues. Except in battle, death is temporary... and sometimes outside of battle, death is temporary... fuck, I don't know, the writers just did a whole bag of blow each towards the end.

Regardless, THIS is how you do RPGs. This game places emphasis on the G portion of RPG as it plays pretty well, not like a fair amount of RPGs where the game itself is inconsequential compared to the role playing you do and would bore the fuck out of the player if there was no role playing (looking at you, Skyrim). It's the first in the series to use the ATB system where it's kind of turn based but it's kind of in real time as well. The best way to put it is that it's based on speed. Turns for your characters pop up throughout the battle and you have to select a command... and be quick, because enemies can attack at any time. Mind you, if you're picking a spell to cast, the fight stops so you can make your decision... I guess time stops while Rydia's trying to figure out the method of which she'll melt your face off – with the Fire spell she was once so afraid of, with acid or with the summoning of motherfucking Bahamut! Yuna, Lulu and pretty much every other mage in this series have wet dreams of being Rydia, folks – her only flaws are that her HP is kind of low and her more powerful spells can take a fair few seconds to cast, but she'll be performing fiend genocides well before that truly becomes an issue! Besides that, the change of pace keeps you on your toes a bit because enemies can and will wear you down, all so that they can prepare a grand feast for the boss of the dungeon.

Because enemies can chip away at your health, dungeons get a bit trickier to go through than if you were to play with a traditional turn based system. But things get trickier from there, and that continues with an erratic encounter rate. For a bit, it's like every step you take will has enemies guarding them, and for another bit, you'll be relieved to not be running into too many enemies. The further into the game you get though, the more that it's not so much you spotting them and wanting to take them down, as much as it's you blindly walking into monsters and in response, they pimp slap you in the dick. In other words, there'll be times where you'll get a lot of "surprise" encounters where enemies will attack you first. Thankfully, you can get the jump on them and attack them before they get a chance... not that you don't do that more often than not anyway unless you pussy out and run away from every fight and thus don't level up. Regardless, you have enemies chomping away at your hit points and you'll never know where they'll pop out, not to mention that you can only buy so many Cures, Heals and Ethers (potions, remedies and ethers respectively), so at least they give you a moment of reprieve by offering you a save room where you can use a tent that you bought from a shop to restore all your HP and MP.

That's mainly where the challenge comes from – utilizing what you have to beat the dungeon, and adapting to changing strategies. Each of the bosses and eventually enemies will play off of the ATB system by counterattacking you right after you hit them, whether your attack's element was strong against them or just because you hit them with your stick. At times, the bosses will force you to use certain tactics such as quickly switching your formation as you're attacked from behind to using an attack, getting one of the four Elemental Fiends out of its powerful Tazmanian Devil form, and even having to find a way around a dungeon's magnetic field rendering your metal equipment useless to fight a boss at the end that takes advantage of this. Of course, the infamous Magus Sisters with their deadly Delta Attack will be there to stop you, though thankfully, this isn't the trio that use Delta Attack on the first turn and every hit does 99,999 points of damage...

...but ridiculously overpowered superbosses that require 5000 hours of grinding aside, these bosses use real tactics to take you down. Counterattacks, strong attacks, capes that absorb elemental spells (Rubicante is cooler than cool, kids), and just generally making use of the new found fast pace thanks to the ATB system. Hell, the enemies smarten up as you progress, and before you know it, boss monsters become random encounters... ah well, it's the final floor of the final dungeon, might as well have Mystery Antagonist X throw the kitchen sink at you with a relentless assault of Behemoths and... various types of gasses that inflict status ailments to hopefully screw up unprepared players before they fight it. But really, while this game starts off easy enough, it stops fucking around a bit before the last third of the game. Enemies will be dealing more scratch damage to soften you and your bag of supplies up, and there's little you can do about it. It's a bit shit when you input a command and then the entourage of six attacks you, so you pray to the nine divines that you survive. Best case scenario – a healer is a healer, not an attacker... unless she has good arrows equipped. Don't forget that you can trapped in a certain dungeon after an epic scene and can't leave to repack – well, unless you reload your last save right before that scene. Wait... you did save right before that scene, right?

Speaking of scenes, Final Fantasy 4's graphics are passable, but nothing great or anything. It looks like an NES game but with 16 bit details like more shades and more colors to give off the feeling of depth. The overworld sprites are mainly squished in versions of their battle sprites. In fact, it's amusing to see that Cecil and Kain look like suits of armor with eyes. Even their battle sprites aren't too different from that description, though at least there's a bit more detail in those. The backgrounds are about the same – not too bad on the overworld, but definitely better in battle as there's just more to them. More color, more details; there's just more on offer. Sure, the overworld has a bit of mode 7 when you enter an airship, making it look like you're flying over the world, but that's probably the only possibly good thing about it. There isn't much else that stands out about it; neither positively nor negatively.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is where shit gets intense! While the songs are fairly short and simplistic, they're also pretty well composed and can get emotional when necessary. We're not just talking about ones that are sad during tragic events; we're also talking tense during those moments where it's like "oh shit they're doing what" or "will they really do that"; we're talking about songs that make the player feel like a badass as they either march through the final dungeon or when they set out to foil Golbez before he takes over the world (that Red Wings theme, guys); we're even talking that ominous feeling you get from that moon song as you explore it! Surprisingly, my favorite tunes are the ones played during battle. There's just a lot of excitement in these tunes, especially the one played against non-Elemental Fiend bosses (not that their's is bad – their's is more like an epic battle), and especially the final boss song. While later Final Fantasy games – particularly 6 and 7, as well as Chrono Motherfucking Trigger - have technically better soundtracks, there's still a high level of admiration to be placed towards this soundtrack.

It's easy to say that this game hasn't aged as gracefully as Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. Very easy. Those games had much more compelling characters with more depth (though Golbez is a much better antagonist than Kefka and Magus), more compelling stories, tighter battle mechanics and other things that enthrall players. But Final Fantasy 4 is special. It not only pushed RPGs more in that direction, but for how long it is, it has just the right amount of substance and then some to keep you playing and enjoying yourself. Granted, I thought the moon arc was fucking stupid, but that was only because everything before that was well done. In fact, my main issue with this game is that other JRPGs just took their cues from this game and did it better. Maybe they're easier games to play through via not challenging you quite as much, but it's the way that they're constructed versus how this was done that does this game in. On its own terms, this is quite a good game with some niggling issues and a braindead story arc towards the end. But ultimately, this is required playing for anybody who has anything resembling an interest in RPGs.

8.5/10 (Great)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: Duke Nukem 3D

Here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, Duke Nukem is both a celebration and a parody of 80s and early 90s action movies, and Duke Nukem 3D is the same thing, only with 90s first person shooters. It doesn't take itself seriously; it revels in stereotypes and exaggerates bits and pieces in the name of humor. With references to cult films such as Big Trouble In Little China, Army Of Darkness (even going as far as to have the cover look like the movie's cover), They Live and many others, That isn't to say that the game is Doom with a more colorful protagonist – in fact, this was one of the first games of its kind to have more colorful, urbanized level designs along with sci fi settings and just a lot of attitude in general. Sonic The Hedgehog may have gotten the kids, but Duke Nukem got the teenagers and adults! Doom, Quake and a lot of their contemporaries – past, present and future - were gritty and serious, but Duke Nukem 3D was more lively in its setting, look, feel and the unserious nature of the whole situation.

I mean, it starts with aliens invading Los Angeles and shooting down Duke's cruiser! Outside of a cutscene at the end of each episode (of which there are three in the original version and four in the Atomic Edition), it's largely unimportant and simply serves as a backdrop to the gameplay. Then again, it is about an alien invasion, which opens up the floodgates for some rather fun shenanigans, and being both a celebration and a parody of 80s action movies... well, I think that ought to speak for itself. In terms of fun shenanigans, it's Duke Nukem who jumps through the glass and opens up a massacre with a one liner. A lot of it is very tongue in cheek. At the same time, it does at least try and serve as a deeper backdrop than Doom's “kill the cyberdemons” and Quake's “kill the aliens” plots, so there's that to consider. Not to mention, it does offer more variety in its locales than dinky dungeons and creepy castles – you'll go through a strip joint, a movie theater, a movie set, a subway, a hotel, a supermarket and outer space in an effort to stop the aliens from taking over Earth. In that regard, it has more creativity and ingenuity than the shooters of its time, making it a world that you really want to save in comparison to some dark, dull dungeon or whatever.

But Duke Nukem 3D is no mere celebratory parody; it actually manages to improve on a lot of the mechanics present in 90s shooters. Not only can you use the mouse to aim, but you can also freely use the Y axis. No more will you need to circumnavigate your pinky finger to the Page Down and Page Up buttons to use the Y axis if you need to look at something above or below you (the guns have an auto aim on the Y axis). Nope, now you have to have good aim on both axes. Thankfully, the aiming is smooth and the response you get from each of the guns is spot on. Damn, does it feel satisfying to shoot enemies with your arsenal of automatic pistols, small chainguns, shotguns and various alien weaponry like shrink rays, lasers and an automatic rocket launcher – seeing aliens either blow up or look as if they're about ready to decompose is exactly what Duke's looking for. The most satisfying is when Duke rips off a boss's head and shits down its neck. After having to fire enough bullets to stop herds upon herds of aliens, nothing beats using the boss' neck as a toilet - especially if the fight itself involved having to circle strafe to avoid constant fire, collecting resources once you start to run low thus running the risk of getting hit, and then blowing your load all over them.

Really, the crux of the game is shooting up aliens and pigs wearing LAPD – sorry, LARD shirts whilst finding your way from Point A to Point B, with the last level of any given episode involving an intense boss fight. Actually a lot of encounters can be intense as you have to shoot down your foes without getting shot, although your foes are trigger happy if you're visible to them. While the game's level layouts are reasonably straightforward, there are also a fair amount of branching paths and secret areas to look for. Said secret areas tend to hold health, ammo, weapons you may or may not have and items. Items add a layer of depth to the gameplay as you can either apply a first aid kit or steroids (the latter of which increases Duke's running speed) in the heat of battle, or strap on the jet pack to fly around and either attack from above or scale across gaps. More often than not, it simply leads to rooms on the beaten path with some ammo and health pick ups, but there are some points where it'll be necessary in order to progress. But nothing beats the scuba gear as there are sections of levels where underwater traversal is required – thankfully, you'll have your trusty scuba gear to rely on.

If I was to pick on the game for something, it's that it's touchy about interacting with objects underwater, which can be a pain when you have to interact with doors while swimming away from aliens (usually, you don't have enough time to stop and shoot – keep moving to the next place with air or Duke will drown). On land, it's easy enough to align your cursor with a switch, a door or something that you wish to interact with, press the interact button and something happens; underwater, the touchiness of it all combined with Duke's limited air supply can result in mind annoyances as you have so many directions to aim your cursor, especially underwater where there is no ground to stand on. Another niggling annoyance is the game's reliance on key cards. Now, I understand that it's a shooter from the 90s and as such, every area is like a secret government building or something where you need color coordinated key card security. Needless to say, these parts can either feel like an afterthought or just not feel right in general. The door is either somewhere nearby or on the other side, and when it comes to the latter, it can result in aimlessly wandering around for a while, trying to either remember where you may have seen that door or even just looking for the key card in the first place. It doesn't usually last too long, but it happens too often for it to be a mere coincidence.

It's a bit of a shame because the levels are otherwise very well designed. It's easy enough to follow whether the path is laid out to you blatantly or through looking around and using basic logic. While I criticized the key card puzzles for often devolving into running around like a headless chicken, I'm quick to praise the game for making you use your curiosity and noodle to figure out where to go. The not-so obvious parts of the level are never that cleverly hidden as each section flows well enough with one another. In that regard, it's never a hassle, plus exploring big levels full of things is always fun and it becomes rewarding when you quickly manage to find your way through. Finding secret sections is especially rewarding as it's like “ooh I found something cool”, especially if said cool things are items, ammo and health kits that'll help you out. Having interactable objects like drinking fountains, toilets and strippers you can tip are some rather nice touches as they give levels more of a personality than the bland, bleak dungeons found in Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. Bit of a shame games don't do this anymore unless it's a part of some cinematic set piece...

The game sports a mix of 2D and 3D graphics, with the scenery being in 3D, the ground having 3D textures and the enemies and yourself being in 2D... like cardboard cutouts. It can seem a bit off at first as the enemies can appear to be paper thin, not to mention it's a bit jarring to see huge pixellated sprites on top of 3D environments whose textures aren't nearly as pixellated, but give it a few minutes and they won't seem so bad. At the very least, they were designed rather well. The traditional weapons looked as they should, the alien weapons look like they were lifted out of some cheesy sci fi movie and the obligatory badass weapon... well, let's just say that it's the last thing people will see before they die; people behind you should duck and cover, it's that badass. The settings look like what you'd expect them to; places you'd find in cities like strip clubs and theaters look like actual strip clubs and theaters, and spaceships look as they would based on what one would see in sci fi movies (rooms with alien technology and full of gray). Admittedly, the city levels are much better looking than the oftentimes drab looking space levels as there's more variety in locations and color schemes. The aliens, either looking like something out of HP Lovecraft or John Carpenter's “The Thing”, gives the game a bit of that creepy sci fi vibe. Speaking of vibe, Duke Nukem's design makes you feel like a badass as you have builging muscles, sunglasses and blonde eraser hair.

Keeping in tune with vibes, John St John gives Duke the kind of voice that just works so well with his character. There's quite a bit of bass in his voice and the way he says his dialogue feels just right. It captures just the right attitude for not just the dialogue, but his look and the situation. I'd even say that the sound effects feel just right as the aliens scream in pain as you shoot them down with your bassy sounding guns. It just makes you feel powerful! I can't quite say the same for the soundtrack. It veers between a tense song that's like as if you're skulking around an alien world... and a nondescript one that doesn't do much. Now, a nondescript song always feels like background noise that can still give a level life if it's not meant to be silent, so it's not all bad; just that I've always felt that the soundtrack could be so, so much better than what's on offer here. For instance, Doom has At Doom's Gate, which is an energetic way to begin a game from an aural standpoint given its fast pace. Duke Nukem 3D just sort of drones on by, and while it can often provide a solid unsettling ambience, it also tends to just exist. It's also a bit jarring when the game revolves around blasting aliens to oblivion, rather than doing what you can to survive. It's a bit more fitting for something like Alien than something like Aliens.

At the same time, it's hard to deny everything that Duke Nukem 3D did right. It took first person shooting outside of the gloomy depths of some hellish piss stained fortress and put it into a more urban environment... intersperced with alien motherships because hey, it's an alien invasion! It added another layer of interactivity to the mix by making most of any given level's objects interactable, and curiosity will lead you to secret rooms, items or at least a cool little detail. Hell, even with the firmly established mechanics, it feels a lot tighter than its comtemporaries, making each gunshot feel like an extension of Duke's general badassery. If you were to look at what this game did right, Duke Nukem 3D coule easily be a fantastic game. However, its excellence also highlights the issues that it and similar games have with sensitive interacting controls and a reliance on lame key card puzzles. In other games, it wouldn't be a big deal, but here, it's like there being a few too many freckles on an otherwise attractive girl's face – whilst it doesn't hurt the game, it does stick out and it can be bothersome. But hey, you've probably played this already and you're just reading this because you feel like playing it again and want to know if it holds up. Well good sir, it fucking does! Go play it.

8.5/10 (Great)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Second Opinion: Mark Of The Ninja

Made by the same boys and girls who made the Shank games and eventually Don't Starve, Mark Of The Ninja carries a very similar philosophy in that it rides a singular note, but my god, it'll do everything it can to kick your ass until shit comes out of your ear. Unlike Shank, it doesn't flat out fail in every other department, but it's clear that Klei Entertainment pick a main style of play, focus most of their attention on that, add a dash of smooth Flash cartoon looking visuals, and then come up with some other shit at the last minute. In Shank, it was about beating enemies up with a different assortment of weapons; in Mark Of The Ninja, it's about stalking fortresses in the night, sneaking up on your victims until their backs are turned or they're left dazed and confused. From that moment, you draw your sword and stab them in their cold, black hearts, or jam your sword up their jaw bone and right through their cranium. Or both. Either way, nobody has to know that you did it.

From there, it becomes clear that Mark Of The Ninja is a game where you play as a ninja and you have to *gasp* use stealth! I mean, a ninja sneaking around, making sure not to get caught, and killing whenever it's necessary? Holy shit, what a unique concept, I've never seen that before! Seriously, what ninja game besides the Tenchu series can hold such a claim that you play as an honest to god fucking ninja!? Most ninja games focus more on being a badass one man army like Joe Musachi or Ryu Hayabusa, and here's Klei Entertainment, the one company you'd expect to make a sidescrolling Ninja Gaiden-esque game, making a game that feels like a sidescrolling version of the Tenchu games! Mind you, Tenchu actually lets you draw your blade in direct combat while Mark Of The Ninja forces a karate chop combo onto you in a vain attempt to knock a guard down before killing him. But then part of me thinks that it's not only Klei trying their hardest to deviate from the Shank series' blend of relentless, downright badass action (I mean holy shit, he stabs his foes with a running goddamn chainsaw), but also their response to how in the shit the stealth genre is – and how appropriate that it's released at roughly the same time as Dishonored (essentially the yin to this game's yang), Hitman: Absolution (basically Splinter Cell: Conviction with a half broken disguise system) and Assassin's Creed 3 (which was just really, really fucking boring)!

But yeah, to kick things off, the story is... okay. It revolves around an unnamed ninja who must defend his clan from a corporation who had just attacked them. He's branded with a tattoo mark with special ink that sharpens his senses and gives him shaper reflexes, but it comes at the cost of his sanity, meaning that he has to kill himself once the mission is over. But there's more to this mission than meets the eye, and the plot twist in the second half makes you wonder “whoa, what are they going to do next”. Well, just wait for the ending – or should I say, one of two endings, where you'll either find yourself in amazement over what the clan is really about and how badly the ink really screws with you... or just wonder what's going on. At the same time, the last mission is where everything truly comes together; every moment of the story is building up to this entire mission and by the end, you'll be wondering if the story itself was any good, or if it's just the euphoria derived from the last mission. Then you realize that the story, prior to that point, felt like filler. Not counting the mid game plot twist moment, each scene just felt like justification for carrying on your mission without really turning into anything resembling a compelling story. I suppose that's just Klei being Klei, but one day, they'll manage to string together a 100% compelling narrative.

So while it flounders in the story department, it more than makes up for it with the gameplay. As I've mentioned, you basically sneak around and either slip past or kill guards so that you can make your way to Point B. Now, you may be looking at a screenshot and wondering how in holy hell stealth works in a two dimensional setting. Simple – using cones to signify lines of sight and lighting (and that's another thing... lighting, in a MODERN stealth game? Are these guys the most off the rail cunts or what!?), as well as the addition of a run button that'll let you move faster at the expense of silent movement (and soundwaves are generated as clear circles), turns a simple game of hide and seek to a somewhat more complex game of chicken. Should you risk getting seen in the light while running and potentially either distract your foes or get caught and have them call reinforcements onto you, or should you sneak up to them using background objects to hide behind and go in for the kill? Then Mark Of The Ninja throws you a curveball partway into the first level with the addition of darts, which you can throw at enemies or at objects to either shut off light sources and/or distract enemies before either slipping past them or killing them. Doors start to open at that point and then you have to make a decision on whether to use noise as your ally or to bug the guard by throwing a dart at them (they don't kill guards) to draw them close to their death or to at least slip by.

As you're given more toys to play with (either through progression or from buying them at flags found partway into levels and at the beginning of levels), the game further opens itself up and by the end of the game, you'll probably be able to equip what you think sounds good (so long as the game doesn't force something else onto you – not that it'd matter because they give you advice on how to use it) and be able to use it like it's second nature. That's the thing with games like this; it's only as easy as your mental capacity allows it to be. If you're somebody who can use the tools and the environment at your disposal, then it's a matter of timing, patience and knowing how to use everything around you to your advantage. If, on the other hand, you're a fucking idiot who can't learn from your mistakes, well, tough shit buddy, enjoy losing points from setting off the alarm before you die and get sent back to the last checkpoint. Unfortunately, this game does coddle you a bit – there are lots of checkpoints and the points reset to however much you had when you first got to that last checkpoint; can't really say it's 100% idiot proof unless said idiot is lucky enough to get away from the guards or kill them without getting themselves killed and just be 800 points short of what they could've had at the end of the level if they just didn't set off the alarm.

Mark Of The Ninja is both a throwback to when stealth games actually felt like stealth games instead of The Bourne Identity on bath salts, and an accessible game in the stealth genre instead of just trying to be a complete bastard. Because Klei Entertainment had to make sure that their effort felt genuine while having it be a sidescrolling game, they employ a lot of deceptively simplistic design choices to make it happen. On paper, the guards' AI is easy to exploit as they're attracted to noise and will investigate right about where the source of that noise came from; they will investigate where they last saw you if you're caught in a light and they're a fair bit away from you, meaning that you can make a clean getaway if you're quick enough; they hardly get suspicious of the ducts; they almost never leave the area that they're patrolling even when backup is called for (only the guards in the area and MAYBE ones that are nearby will jump in). In practice, you should just not tempt them unless you can make a getaway or kill them before they call for backup. I mean, you might as well just tempt a British royal guard while you're at it! Oh... did I forget to mention that you don't have much health? Did I also forget to mention that, unlike in Whose Line Is It Anyway, the points do kind of matter if you want to unlock everything?

Might as well talk about points, unlockables and all that jazz right now – there are a few things you can do to acquire points. You mainly get points from killing guards, but you can also get points for having them walk past you without you getting noticed, distracting them with noise and hiding their bodies. Just get the button prompt for killing right, because screwing that up means you'll get less points and they'll scream, and since they scream really loudly, you'll have guards around them rousing suspicion, so... don't fuck it up. Getting as many points as possible is great because at the end of each level, you'll be given between one and three honors based on your score. You'll also get points if you scour each level for artefacts and haikus – each haiku collected gives you an honor, by the way. But the third is obtained through a special course where you'll use the ancient ninja arts of climbing walls, pushing blocks, pulling levers and teleportation in order to navigate through lasers and open doors to the end point. They're not as tedious as they sound; they're actually rather cool brain teasers, testing you on how much you've actually learned from that point in the game. Would love to have some with enemies in them to really test ones' skill, but whatever. The third and final way to acquire honors is through mission specific challenges. From getting to an objective as quickly as possible to killing certain guards to restricting the usage of certain items, it really forces you to think outside the circle, especially since some of them force you to use methods that go against your usual stuff. If any of them sound tough, don't worry – the sections and even levels are designed in a way that'll help you (not coddle you, not spoonfeed you; just help you) accomplish each mission and checkpoints, like I said, are pretty forgiving so if you screw up, you can just reset to the last checkpoint and rethink your approach.

“What are these honors you speak of???” - they're currency for upgrades. But if I'm being honest, they range from worthless, to “why don't I have this already” to “oh wow at least this makes sense being an upgrade”. Like how Spec Ops: The Line, Tomb Raider 2013 and The Last Of Us shoehorned multiplayer because the developers thought every game needed it, not even Klei Entertainment is immune to shoehorning elements and making it clear that they're, indeed, shoehorning elements into a game. Not every game needs an upgrade system. Okay, cool, so I can buy a cardboard box and then buy an upgrade that lets me kill from insi-- umm why the fuck can't I do that with my purchase of a cardboard box? Better yet, a lot of methods of assassination have to be unlocked. Methods such as killing while dangling from your chain, to killing from a ledge up above, to killing through doors, to killing through shaft openings – wow what the goddamn shit guys, I should have this crap from the start! This isn't a question of making the game easier; it's a question of making the game more what it is, which is a test of your instincts. When you're dangling from a chain, you're running the risk of exposing yourself to a guard whose gun has a torch. When killing from above, you run the risk of being seen by other guards who may be nearby. Oh, and what kind of master ninja has to learn methods of assassination? Did Master Azai arbitrarily restrict us to only being allowed to stab enemies in the back until we become honorable enough to earn the right to use the other methods of assassination?

I'm sorry for railing on that for so long, but when a game gets damn near everything else right only to have something so jaw droppingly baffling, I can't help myself. Oh and defense upgrades are worthless, especially if you play the New Game+ mode where one hit kills you anyway. The lighter footsteps barely matter because you hardly ever need to drop from really high edges or run at the risk of enemies detecting you. The other upgrades though, like quieter spike traps, more lethal jacks and tranquillizer darts, remote noise making mines and flares and other such items, are worth it. I just get the feeling that they added in the rest or this feature in general because everybody else was. Don't forget X ray vision, Klei; I hear that's a hot feature to include in stealth games. But like I said, this seems like a sore spot in an otherwise fantastic game because not only does every design element congeal into a cohesive and immersing experience that forces you to use your instincts properly, but its deceptively simple design also allows Klei to focus on what makes it feel like a legit stealth game.

The presentation helps it feel like a stealth game – it's easy to tell when you're in the light and when you're in the darkness. In the dark, you're basically an outline, giving the feeling of being hidden in the dark, silent as a mouse with the visibility of somebody's imaginary friend... kind of like a ninja; but in the light, you're in color, giving you the feeling of being exposed to your enemies if any happen to be around. Then you get to the killing, and boy oh boy, I think Klei's animators went above and beyond on this one as each of the animations look pretty fucking brutal. Okay, so on one hand, you have a back stab. On the other, you stab their back, rush right in front of them and slice them up their abdomen. Want more hands? Try stabbing their brain from their chin! Hey, we can go further if you want – let's include the chain by having it wrapped around their necks... after getting stabbed, of course. Look, the point is that these over the top, verging on performing riverdance on their nutsacks style killings are very well animated, with fluid transitioning between frames to give off the feel of a quick, brutal slaying. In general, the game's pretty easy on the eyes with its clean tablet drawn Adult Swim Flash cartoon look. Special props go towards the last level's imagery – fuck, it looks impressive with just the right scenery and colors to give off the impression that it's trying to give!

As for the sound design... well, the voice acting won't be winning any awards, but the soundtrack works pretty well with the rest of the game. The sneakier sections have this quiet sort of Japanese folk music in the background – that, or some quiet symphonics. Each of these songs also give you that feeling of being watched, or the possibility of getting spotted and killed. Then you eventually got spotted (or you're in one of those moments where you have to escape from a building) and the music picks up with either these loud tribal drums or this intense violin track that inspires you to either kick ass or get out of there. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot to really say about the soundtrack because despite its limited quantity, it's something of a forgettable affair. But man, I swear, the last level was where Klei really pull out all the stops because the sound design there is just fucking brilliant! Like the visuals, it really gives off just the right feeling and given the amount of weight that particular part has, you bet your ass it's a damn good final level!

One question you'd probably be asking yourself throughout this review is “why are you gushing so much, it just sounds like you enjoy the novelty of a sidescrolling stealth game that reminds you of old school stealth games” - it's the fact that what it does right, it does fucking right! Oh sure, the story's a drag until the end and half the “upgrades” seem like filler, but then you get into actually playing the game and it pulls out all the stops. Its brand of stealth is not only something I miss, but it's also very well done with some deceptively simple techniques and multitude of options at your disposal, as well as some well designed levels that let you fully immerse yourself into the game. That's what stealth is all about; immersion. Allowing you to get into hiding in the darkness, only killing your prey when they don't see it coming and stalking through fortresses as if you were never really there. That, my friends, is a true ninja. Look, I love Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi too, but sometimes, you have to remind yourself that ninjas are the assassins of the night, not John Rambo in a robe or tights with a sword. Mark Of The Ninja does just that, and then some.

9/10 (Fucking Awesome)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Mark Of The Ninja

In October came two stealth games on the PC – one was Dishonored, which was heavily flawed and, had it not facilitated its mechanics towards a more straight up action game, would probably wind up being a bad game. The other was Mark Of The Ninja, which honestly feels like a 2D version of the Tenchu series where you played as an honest to god fucking ninja – the assassin of the night. Funny enough, Assassin's Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution were on their way... and did absolutely nothing to make you feel like an assassin, at least not without overpowering you to the point where stealth feels like a waste of time when a direct confrontation would lead to a much more favorable result at a much quicker pace. So really, Mark Of The Ninja is a refreshing sight to behold – a stealth game where being stealthy is encouraged? Where direct confrontation might get you killed because ninjas only have a black garb and not heavy armor or superhuman abilities like Ryu “I Can Swim In Lava” Hayabusa? Where staying out of sight and sound, having patience and a well timed strike, concluded with a quick getaway or repositioning to kill the other targets is the preferable method, all supported by the overall design of the game?

Pinch me, because I must be in heaven.

Well, I suppose the story will be doing that for me because it's mostly... blech. You play as an unnamed ninja who is branded with a tattoo that sharpens his senses and reflexes, which is tantamount to being some sort of hero to the unnamed clan of ninjas that you serve. However, it comes at the cost of it chipping away at your sanity, so the precaution to branding such a tattoo is that you commit suicide once the madness begins to take hold, or as you're told by master Azai, when you complete the mission. The mission is to take down a group of people who have attacked the dojo. There is a twist that begins the second half of the story, but it does little to really... matter. It serves as justification for why you're going through a series of strongholds to kill certain people, but to call it a compelling masterpiece would be quite farfetched. I suppose a good story wasn't really Klei Entertainment's intention, but I don't know, if you're going to have a story, at least make it worth a damn. Actually, they do try to make it worth a damn with the last level where everything that's said and done comes down to a decision that you have to make, and while it's brief, for a moment, you believe that you're experiencing a strong ending that makes it all worth it... that, or a crappy ending that makes virtually no sense, depending on your decision at the end.

Thankfully, everything else makes up for the lackluster story. For instance, the gameplay is simply wicked. The idea of a sidescrolling stealth game may seem perplexing at first, but once you start playing through the first level and get an idea of what's going on, you'll catch on quickly. The idea is that you either have to sneak past or kill enemies, making sure that nobody knows you're even anywhere near the area. You're given a sword, a killer karate chop and darts at first in order to carry on your mission. But given that it's on a 2D plane, how would a ninja sneak past his prey without killing it? You're occasionally given pots, dumpsters, doorways and other background objects to hide behind/inside, and at times, you're given alternate pathways. For instance, you can either enter through the front door (so to speak) and try to sneak through lights, praying to the nine divines that you don't get caught (technically in the light, you can get spotted; it's just that a guard will investigate that area rather than outright setting off the alarm – it's when you're close to the guard that they'll call for reinforcements) and get to the next area; or you can enter a ventilation shaft and skip a few lights or even the room altogether. While the game is linear in the sense that you're going from Point A to B, the levels are quite big and there are often some nooks and crannies that allow you to bypass certain areas or cause more trouble for the guards than the main path, and some even have collectibles such as scrolls and artefacts, so it's worth exploring the levels. Not to mention that the way it goes about sound is simple yet effective – walking is quiet while running is noisy, so try not to run unless you intend to distract them.

Speaking of scrolls, you'll earn honors through finding the three scrolls found throughout each level, as well as doing three optional missions and getting a high score. Now, by optional mission, I actually mean that you carry out the main mission, only you do certain things or do it a certain way. Stuff like not breaking a single light or not using any distraction weapons – look, the idea of being restricted may sound like a drag, but the levels are designed in ways to allow you to easily accomplish these missions if you put in some effort. Sure, it might seem tricky to not be able to destroy lights, but if you look around, hide from enemies and get through portions with grace, you won't need to destroy lights. There are plenty of opportunities to hide, stab enemies and hide their bodies (or avoid them) and make your getaway without any issues. This applies to the other optional missions. If you can't accomplish them, then you can simply try again and rethink your approach to it. Mark Of The Ninja offers you, the player, a series of choices as to how you can cover each level. Get all stabby stabby, distract enemies, use traps, go through one of two or even three routes when given the opportunity – it all depends on how you'd rather cover things. It's really refreshing to be given a choice of what you can do in a generation where you're forced upon a set of ultralinear hallways with set pieces and combat zones to look forward to.

Now, you probably just read that last paragraph and wondered to yourself “score? huh?” - well, you acquire points for doing things throughout the level that benefits you. It's not just by killing enemies that you get points; whether enemies walk past you without sounding off the alarm, get distracted by you, get their dead carcasses hidden by you or crap their pants and go crazy by the sudden deaths of their companions... through traps or hanging them with your chain; simply finding dead bodies will have them call for reinforcements. That brings us to when a guard needs his buddies. When you get caught or they suss out a dead body and successfully manage to sound off the alarm or radio some reinforcements, you lose a lot of points. If you're OCD about points, you'll make a point to never get spotted, but for those who don't care about points, all you have to worry about is possibly dying if guards do manage to find you as unlike Corvo from Dishonored or Connor from Assassin's Creed 3, you don't have superpowers or a million hit points. Hell, you don't even draw your sword in direct combat; you just have the karate chop combo. So many times, I just wanted to slice up a guard. I wouldn't even mind if it gave me less points to kill guards upfront like this because that's what the Tenchu games do, but what Mark Of The Ninja does instead is have you use the karate chop combo to maybe knock them out and then stab them for half the points you'd get if you did a stealthy kill, which is half of what you'd lose if you get caught or they find a dead body and call for reinforcements. Thankfully, you do acquire smoke bombs partway into the game, which can aid you in making a getaway.

That's another thing – you're given an arsenal of equipment that can be used to either kill or distract enemies while you make your way through each level. Each of these items have their own distinct use, like killing an enemy as they walk past, making them go “oww my toe” as they step on some three corner jack looking things, make them stare into a pretty light and make them hallucinate, among other things. But of course, what game would be complete without a cardboard box, am I right? To be fair, it's quite useful when dealing with guards that move back and forth, and when you upgrade the cardboard box, you can kill them from inside of it. That's one thing I don't quite like about this game, though; you have to unlock methods of assassination. Seriously? I get unlocking the other bits of equipment; I get upgrading my health and defense; I get upgrading the lightness of my feet; but needing to spend honors just so I can kill enemies from inside a cardboard box, or from above, or from the other side of a door? I don't know, it just baffles me, but it's a minor inconvenience and once you get an upgrade, you keep it forever until you erase your game or install it onto a different PC, so nothing worth getting pissy over.

This game has some replay value, don't you worry if, for whatever reason, 8 hours is too short for you. The New Game+ mode presents a trickier challenge in that your sight is limited to what's in front of you, you have to use your instinct to gauge whether destroying or throwing noisy stuff will get the guards' attention or not as there's no visual on that, guards' field of vision is invisible and you die in just one hit. From there, you're basically forced to further sharpen your instincts, choose your equipment carefully (you can only carry one distraction item and one attack item or trap as I like to call them – same deal in the regular game, by the way) and judge whether your next move is one that'll get you to the next area or six feet under. Liberal checkpoints do make things quite a bit easier as you don't have to redo too much upon death, and you know what, games like this need liberal checkpoints. Leave me starving for checkpoints in games like Thief and Hitman where each and every event is a link in the chain that is the level, influencing events to come in said level; Mark Of The Ninja, even as a score attack game, works best when you're not repeating – frankly - fragmented sections of a level because this one fragmented section had a guard or a laser sensor that caught me by surprise. Each part of the game has its own challenge; repetition of earlier challenges just feels like a waste of time when it's this one you're trying to get done.

Now, if there's one thing I love about Klei Entertainment's games, it's their visual style, and with Mark Of The Ninja, they're in top form! It's very cartoony with some vibrant colors and very smooth animation. It's at its best when it comes to the kills, which look very brutal. I mean, you got this ninja who grabs you, stabs you either in the heart or up your skull, and then either lets you down without alerting so much as a dust mite or slices your abdomen. Naturally, blood splatters everywhere and the way that it spreads is also very well animated. Besides the animation, I found the lighting rather impressive, or more specifically, how they handled the lighting. When you stand in lights, you're fully colored, but in the darkness, you're just a silhouette with a gray outline. It's simple, but it's rather effective in determining whether you're in darkness or not, and hey... at least it matters whether you're in the dark or not unlike in Dishonored! Where the visuals really shine is in the final level... oh my god, it's just so beautiful.

The sound design is also rather good. The voice acting tries to carry the ultimately uninteresting (until the end) story by at least sounding competent enough to work, but nothing about it really stands out in a positive way. Instead, the music is what kicks ass. While you're sneaking around, the music is more low key, just staying in the background. It often sounds like traditional Japanese music, which goes well with the fact that you're a ninja. But then you either get caught or there's a scripted sequence where enemies are out looking for you after you do a mission, and then the strings start to blare out in a fast paced fashion to convey the feeling of excitement. Like with the graphics, the soundtrack truly shines in the final level, and like the visuals for it, the song is just beautiful. It's like a whole otherworldly experience that's like a dream... which I guess is the point when given its context in the story.

A point I made in the introduction was that the design choices were facilitated in a way that made you feel like a ninja. Honestly, with everything that you're given, you do feel like a ninja. Stalking your prey and gracefully moving through levels as if you were never there is about as easy as it gets while offering quite a challenge – it all depends on your instincts. You could either find ways to avoid conflict with enemies or murder all of them. You could graceful leap around and then climb up the sides of buildings to skulk through vents, or run through and murder everyone in your way. It all depends on what the area around you offers. All of this culminates towards an ending that, in and of itself, feels like a journey before the very ending itself satisfies your every orifice.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: The Longest Journey

I love me some point and click action, so when a game like The Longest Journey drunkenly stumbles itself into my life, I can't help but want to love it. Not in a way two drunk uni students would in the middle of the uni bar or two trashy bogans would in the middle of whatever pub they happen to be in; more in a way where we're both in my bedroom as we gently caress each other before we make love. In short, The Longest Journey offers naught but excellence in most any given field of not only basic game design, but also in how we truly play video games. For a lot of people, stories are either an arbitrary add-on to justify why we do what we doing in games or can add a layer of depth to a game... for a lot of people, video game stories can be seen as complete shit when taken on their own terms and it's a viewpoint I tend to agree on. Planescape: Torment, Red Dead Redemption and the Mass Effect trilogy may have great stories, but Final Fantasy games have the sort of story that'd bore readers to tears and only really work in context of being a video game. The Longest Journey is the kind of game where the story has more than enough depth to justify its existence, could easily work well in the form of a book and best of all, the setting and the gameplay compliments it to a point where the game flows at a natural pace, swallowing you into the world portrayed in the game. Many games claim to do this kind of thing, but very few actually succeed in truly immersing you into their worlds.

But what is this game actually about? It's about a normal everyday girl named April Ryan, an art student at the Venice Academy Of Visual Arts in the Venice district of Newport City. She is plagued by nightmares involving dragons and black vortexes - among other things – that take place within a world much more colorful than her own. The thing is however, the dreams are real enough to be real as you learn throughout the game that not only are there two parallel worlds, but that April has the power to shift between the worlds. The thing is that she doesn't realize it until she meets a guy named Cortez who reveals to her that there are two worlds and that she can shift between them. The thing is that Newport City is a part of an industrialist world full of gritty landscapes known as Stark. The thing is that outside of some flying cars, this is about as realistic of a portrayal of the future as it gets as while it seems not a whole lot has changed between 1999 and 2209, it just feels rather different given the more corporate landscape. The other world is Arcadia, a world full of whimsy and wonder. Both worlds are full of chatty people as, especially in the beginning of the game, people can and will talk your head off, although unlike a Metal Gear Solid game, the writing comes across as natural and with some genuinely funny lines (along with enough swear words to make Samuel L Jackson blush, though not quite enough references to sex and drugs to ban this in Australia), it never really impedes on the game's progress – if anything, it adds more personality and depth to the game.

The idea is to restore the balance between the two worlds, but throughout the journey, you'll watch April grow and truly develop into a truly amazing character. Her interactions with the worlds – including people she knows, people she doesn't know and each object that she can interact with – allows you to feel for April's character as her dialogue is rather witty and can elicit some chuckles. But where her character works oh so well is in her development. She starts off as a rather plain Jane (albiet one with a good sense of humor) who ran from home to chase her dreams in Venice... by working at a cafe, doing an art class at a school, finds herself annoyed by her best friend and life in a small room, and finds solace in small talk with her landlady while being ignorant of her powers; the world of Arcadia deeply intrigues her as it's vastly different from her own, almost dreamlike in appearance. It's like what she would paint, only it's real. Eventually, she meets a man named Cortez, who tells her about her powers. Over the course of the game, she'll find herself more confident with her powers as she has to restore the balance between the two worlds. Even thirteen years after release, April is still one of the deepest characters in the realm of video games and experiencing her journey is – as much as I hate to use the following term, I feel like it more than applies here – unlike many, if any that you've experienced before, both in the concept and the quality of the writing.

But good writing cannot succeed without some masterful voice acting, so here's some good news - the voice acting is fantastic. It excels where it needs to excel, and that's in April's voice. Goddamn, talk about fantastic voice acting – every breath of every syllable of every word from Sarah Hamilton brings April to life as her voice conveys just the right emotions for the situation at hand. Whether she conveys the humor at a fine tone or distraught at just the right amount without it being hammy, there's no doubt that you'll be more than willing to pay attention to everything she says. Same with a lot of the other voice actors. Sure, they're not quite as good, but they still do a fine job of bringing their respective characters to life and their interactions with April are certainly entertaining to listen to, especially in tandem with the excellent writing on display. If anything resembling a flaw exists, it's that it's rather obvious that multiple characters have the same voice actor, and even then, there are only so many voices out there that some are bound to overlap. So really, the voice acting is fantastic.

The music is just as good. It's not exactly melodic in the sense that you'll be humming it well after playing the game, but it's more melodic in the sense that enhances the emotion conveyed in each and every scene, or it provides the player with the appropriate ambience while sitting in the background somewhere. Stark's music tends to be more classical and feels like you're exploring a cave while Arcadia's music has more flutes and sounds more fantastical than anything else. The music during certain scenes tends to have chanting choirs to build up an epic atmosphere – and why not? The scenes usually depict big events like crossing over into another world or some other huge event. The choir does a fine job of making these scenes dramatic enough to feel significant without going overboard, which is something I can appreciate when games nowadays can hardly, if at all, get that right.

Speaking of the scenes, the graphics... to put it simply, it succeeds more in the mood that's produced rather than raw power. Mind you, they looked good by the standards of its time, but by 2013 standards, it's clear that they haven't aged too well. It's not because they put 3D models on top of 2D backdrops; it's the 3D itself. In particular, the in game 3D models are a tad on the “blech” side of the fence as they tend to look like they're lacking a few polygons, looking all blocky and whatnot, and the animations tend to be indescribably lame. The cutscene graphics scream late 90s CGI as they look more like claymation models than computer generated models. But then you look at the designs of the worlds and their inhabitants, take a deep breath and realize that The Longest Journey has a hell of a look to it. From ugly, grimy looking ghettos to cheery looking villages ripped right out of a Tolkein novel (or some other fantasy adventure novel), the way that everything is constructed manages to suck you right into the experience. The colors, the designs, everything – it all looks as you would expect their respective worlds to look like based on whatever's established by the characters and the music. It's the kind of game that other games wishing to be more then mere play things should aspire to be – ambient. Not just shallow eye candy.

To compliment the overall package is the gameplay – being a point and click game, it's more about interactivity. Whether you're observing objects, putting objects into your inventory for later or talking to people, there's plenty of stuff to interact with. As with any good point and click game, you're given a lot of incentive to interact with everything you can as you can find clues to the puzzles that you'll encounter throughout your journey. Plus... why not get immersed into the worlds presented in this game? The cursor will change its shape depending on what it's highlighting, whether it's broken to signify that you can'd do anything with it or a certain shade of color to signify whether you can simply walk or run there, exit to another screen, interact with an object or use an object that you've just picked up. To help people out a bit, when you've picked up an object, if it flashes when you're highlighting something with it, it can interact with that.

The puzzles are generally what you'd expect from this type of game where you'll either use items in your inventory or interact with objects around you to operate a mechanism or cause an event to happen that'll allow you to proceed. Whether you'll need to search for an item you've missed or combine some items in your inventory together to make a new one depends on what the puzzle needs. There are some puzzles with bizarre solutions, but unlike games with outright ass-backwards solutions like The Whispered World, you'll be able to find the solution if you think a little outside the box. On the whole though, it's not quite as hard as you'd expect from this genre. Besides the cursor highlighting what you can and can't interact with, Oh, and advice to newcomers – pay attention to what's being said, because you can find some helpful clues from their dialogue if an item or a piece of scenery doesn't clue you in as to what you ought to do next. If necessary, you can look up conversations (among other things like saving and loading files, settings, FMV scenes you've already viewed and her thoughts on what's been going on in the game) in her diary.

The best part about the puzzles is how they're integrated into the game. Each logic puzzle, each inventory puzzle, each puzzle that contains both – they flow incredibly well with the rest of the game. They're all based on their location – whether it's a room in Stark or a portion of somewhere in Arcadia, if there's a puzzle, it fits within the context of that location and whatever characters and/or objects just so happen to be there, especially since puzzles are either triggered by interacting with certain items or whenever an event happens. To put it simply, Stark relies on cold, hard logic as it's a science fiction world, and Arcadia's puzzles require more creative logic as it's something of an abstract fantasy world. Understanding these simple rules will allow you to understand what is necessary in order to solve the puzzle. Due to being more story driven than your usual point and click game, The Longest Journey's puzzles are hardly a challenge, especially when compared to some of the brain busting riddles you'll find in Myst and King's Quest games. But given their implementation in the game and its story driven nature, it's more than forgivable.

That's what drives The Longest Journey well and above the rest of its contemporaries – ambience. Every action, every interaction, every piece of scenery, every note of the music, every vocal chord; it all conglomerates into an experience that makes it stand above the rest of its competition. Clearly, the story was the star of the game, but everything this game offers placate themselves to help it further stand out. It's through a culmination of everything that's integrated into the game that it becomes an ultimately captivating experience second to none and sits atop the throne as one of the best games ever made. There's really not much more to say other than this – buy it and experience it. You won't regret it.

9.5/10 (Fucking Excellent)