Monday, May 13, 2013
I'd love to go up to Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya and get him to teach independent video game developers how to make a fucking video game, because Cave Story is a damn fine game that blows the competition out of the water before it even existed. Before Braid's success lead indie developers to believe that pretentiousness was synonymous with quality, Cave Story lead us to believe that beneath the smoke and mirrors that began to form with AAA games lied independently developed games with genuine creativity, ingenuity and a sense of wonder that came with games in the past. A passage through an immersing game world full of things that'll kill you and things that drive the adventure further, Cave Story relishes in old school tropes without essentially being an NES game on your PS3. Instead, it's a retro game with modern touches that actually matter, becoming an experience of its own that still has yet to be topped.
A good video game is one that doesn't waste your time with unnecessary bullshit. If it did, it'd be Assassin's Creed 3, which is a bad game. But Cave Story plops you into a cave with no recollection of how you wound up on what would eventually be revealed to be a floating island. No overly long exposition or anything - BAM, onto the island, you wake up, you explore a bit and you find out from some friendly natives that you have to stop the evil Doctor from taking over the world. It sounds like the setup for the plot of most 90s JRPGs. But like a good 90s JRPG, the story opens up as you progress through the game. There's more to the Doctor's plan than simple global domination which gets revealed towards the end of the game. The characters you meet along the way are all connected in a way that leads to these chain of events. Tragic events will happen, but like any good hero, you'll right the wrongs that have been committed. Even though this game is like five hours long, there's plenty of depth to be found in the story and it becomes a rather enamouring tale of stopping a power obsessed lunatic from achieving his evil desires. For reference, it does in five hours what a typical post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game tries to do in 30-40 hours. I sometimes forget that this is an indie game because it's just trying to tell me a story instead of shovelling pseudo-philosophy down my throat and expecting me to believe that it's art. Cave Story has a damn fine story with brilliant pacing to let nailbiting dilemmas and big events happen with enough breathing room between them to let them sink in, all within its five hour length.
It's downright insulting how retro inspired games are either fucking I Wanna Be The Guy trial and error bullshit or Braid “man this is soooo deep” crap, because games like Cave Story gets shit fucking right! It takes Metroid, makes it a bit more linear without it being obvious that it's more linear (sounds like Pixel's been playing some Half Life on the side), and makes backtracking not feel like a chore! Shit, even the best Metroid games can't do that! But I'm getting ahead of myself - Cave Story is a sidescrolling adventure game where you run, jump and shoot your way through a game world that expands as you find items that allow you to access areas that you couldn't before, unless a story event plops you elsewhere. Imagine that, a sidescrolling platformer that's driven by the plot. You'll be revisiting some areas at times, but you'll find that things have changed; enemies have gotten stronger and the terrain is a bit different. You may even fight a boss that wasn't there before! Now, it might not sound like much, but given that it's rooted in Metroid-like gameplay, backtracking is sometimes a necessity and as such, it's nice to see some change so that it doesn't get monotonous. That's not to say that all backtracking is like this – there's one part where you have to go back and forth from getting an item and using it on something a little while away, and then going back to get the item and using it on something on the other side of the map. That part was tedious. But that's the exception to the rule – you'll often have to revisit the central village area but it usually contains the next part of the plot. Towards the end, you'll revisit an earlier area, but it'll be massacred and full of stronger enemies. That about covers how much backtracking you'll do in this game.
The levels aren't massive and a fair amount of the game is pretty linear, but it doesn't stop you from exploring the different nooks and crannies to find health and ammo upgrades. It also doesn't stop the game from doing a splendid job of giving off the illusion of open level designs. It's done to a tasteful degree, so there's no wasted space and doesn't feel like an empty sandbox, and since there are some goodies, it rewards players for being curious. Hell, at some point in the game, depending on what direction you take in a level, you'll either have a shot of getting the good ending, or will have to content yourself with the not so good ending. Deceptively conning the player into believing that this will be a linear game with big worlds, only to drop a bombshell of not only multiple paths but also multiple endings can either be clever game design or bad game design. Thankfully, Pixel is a fucking genius and managed to integrate this in a way that feels natural. Obviously, some areas will be more linear than others; obviously, some areas are going to have branching paths and obviously, some areas will be inaccessible if you don't do certain things right. What that means is that replaying the game is encouraged in order to get the other ending. Getting it is a bit cryptic, but if this game has taught you anything at that point, it's that curiosity is rewarded with neat stuff.
It's not all about exploring as you'll be required to fend for yourself. Whether it's against the wildlife that attacks you first or the forces of evil, you'll have to shoot them down. You're given a decent variety of guns – you start off with a blaster and along the way, you'll find a bubble launcher, rocket launcher, machine gun, throwing swords and the motherfucking BFG. Each of these weapons have their uses, like how the blaster is good for your first weapon but your machine gun is just generally better as it has rapid fire for quick and easy damage. The throwing swords deal a fair bit of damage if it lands on an enemy, although you can only throw them at a medium distance. As a plus, it repeatedly deals damage for a couple of seconds. The rocket launcher deals a good amount of damage, although it doesn't have much ammo. As you kill enemies, you can collect experience points and upgrade your weapons, which will make them even stronger, although getting hit – because we can't have blood or anything – will result in you losing some experience points, so... don't get hit. More often than not, it's not too hard as it's generally easy to read enemies' and bosses' patterns after a while, though some of the bosses are just pricks and will annihilate you unless you have a specific weapon upgraded, but since it has a good chance of hitting you, well, all that needs to be said is good luck. At the very least, the difficulty scales at an incremental rate (except for this one boss about three fifths into the game), they get craftier and more damaging with their attacks. At the same time, the fights can get rather exhilarating as they attack you quickly, methodically and with the intent of deflowering your sphincter, especially on the hard difficulty mode where you can't obtain any health upgrades. Due to this, the boss fights are fantastic and wind up being the most exciting parts of the game, especially the final boss guantlet.
This game gives you the option to either play it with the old school graphics from the original freeware game, or with tweaked up visuals. While the old school graphics look good, the retuned graphics are definitely better looking as the character sprites are given more details and the shading is applied more smoothly. In fact, the newer version looks smoother in general. The old school graphics look good when you consider that Pixel was originally going for that 8 bit but not quite 8 bit look as there's a fair bit of shading on each of the sprites and backgrounds/foregrounds, but given the choice between blocky graphics and not so blocky graphics, choose the latter. Yes, the former may sound the most like it'd give you feelings of nostalgia, but the latter, like I said, is just smoother around the edges and gives everything more detail, which should also cater towards feelings of nostalgia. In general, Cave Story's graphics is an example of fantastic pixel art in motion.
For the most part, it's the same thing with the music – you can either listen to the old school soundtrack, a remixed version and an original soundtrack. The old school soundtrack goes well with the old school graphics, but if you're playing with the touched up graphics, the remixed soundtrack is more suitable because the remixed soundtrack, while it has some chiptune parts, is given a more modern touch by having mostly uncompressed instruments like painos, bass guitar and drums. Either way, the songs are short-ish but they manage to really get you going. During gameplay, it's peppy, it gets you pumped up and makes you want to fuck shit up, and it only amplifies for the boss themes! Then the music that plays during the cutscenes are moodier, with some ominous stuff to foreshadow a terrible event and more sinister stuff for the reveals of evil plans. Oh and yeah there's this new soundtrack but it eats dick. Instead of being catchy and upbeat, it's generic and does about fuck all for the game. Plus it doesn't really suit the look of the game; feels more like it's meant for a game that's not meant to be retro than one that celebrates retro tropes. Did I mention it blows ass? Yeah, head for the remixed old school soundtrack immediately.
In a scene I often feel lethargic about, Cave Story is a damn fine example of getting it right. It's a fun experience full of upbeat tunes to keep you going while you keep on coming back for the intriguing story. That's the kind of game I ask for – one that doesn't fuck about with bullshit that doesn't work. Most games in general can't seem to get the idea that you ought to show and not tell, to eventually reveal the story as the game progresses, to make proceedings either as enjoyable or as riveting as possible, and finally, to make sure everything is delivered in a way that keeps things fresh. This is even more evident with the indie scene – some games get it right like Limbo, Shank and Deathspank, but most other indie games really bugger that up by being made for psuedo-intellectuals and wind up boring the everloving crap out of me. Sure, it might not sound right, but that's because modern day mediocrity and quasi intellectual bullshit has sprayed me with rum over the years... so yeah, support good games by buying a copy of Cave Story and playing it.
9/10 (Fucking Excellent)
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
The Cave is an interesting game. On the surface, it appears to be a platformer with point and click style puzzles and witty dialogue that will keep you amused, entertained and even capture the very essence of your soul. It even offers multiple characters, of which you can use three of in order to offer some co-op puzzles between them and even some unique puzzles here and there for each individual character. But there comes a point where you're going “that's it”, mainly because it never feels like there's enough content in the game to go along with its large aspirations. It feels like a game that's finished, but without the polish and creative measures necessary to call it a full experience. A five course meal where each entree course lessens in taste is the best way to describe it...
It'd be better to explain it in full, beginning with the best part of the game – the story. Deep within the recesses of the cave lies riches beyond ones' wildest dreams. Enter our eight “heroes” (well, seven actually as two of them are twins you control at the same time), who wish to explore this cave in order to fulfil their deepest desires... which basically amounts to money. Now, you might be thinking “but we're playing as a monk, a time traveller and a chivalrous knight, maybe they're just going to use the money for the greater good”. Well, if by greater good, you mean for their selfish desires, you'd be absolutely right. Adding onto this is the disembodied voice of the cave itself. It provides snarky, humorous commentary over specific moments, often having to do with these characters and their not so good intentions. While the narration itself is funny, the situations of which the characters are placed under in order to progress through the cave, like grave robbing or altering with time itself, makes for even funnier situations, then you add the narration and it just makes for some rather humorous moments. So where it lacks in detail, it more than makes up for it with a combination of witty writing, morally reprehensive characters and unfortunate circumstances, all for the amusement of both the player and the cave itself.
The Cave is one part point and click in the form of a sidescrolling platformer, and one part just plain sidescrolling platformer. What I mean by point and click is that a lot of the puzzles will require you to use items to interact with parts of the scenery. Whether you use a single item to interact with a complicated mechanism or you combine items in order to demolish an obstacle, you'll be tasked with first collecting items and then using the three characters – each switchable with a press of a direction on the d-pad - you have control of to solve the puzzles as a lot of them require multiple characters working together. A vague example I can give is that there'll be scenarios where one character will need to activate a mechanism to unlock a door for the other two to get across and then they activate a conjoining mechanism so that the one activating the first one can follow the two. Most of these puzzles aren't complete brain busters and require simple logic in order to solve (insert rod A into slot B), but there are a few that can at least make you think a fair bit. Either way, the solutions for each of these puzzles make enough sense to keep you immersed into the experience. At no point does it feel like you're merely playing a video game; you're only doing what feels natural with what you have. You could make this argument for any game, but like games such as Broken Sword and the Zelda series, The Cave goes the extra mile by implementing these in a way that feel natural. Probably helps that some of these puzzles are downright funny.
But what's a game using multiple characters without abilities? You'll be given options like a character who can temporarily gain invincibility, a character who can hold his breath underwater for as long as he wants to, a character who can hack into computer terminals, a character who can use her whip to swing across gaps, a set of characters (or twins) who can leave shadows of themselves, a character who can use telekinesis and a character who can go through thin walls... the latter, I don't quite understand, but as this is the time traveller, apparently, in the future, people can walk through thin walls. Anyway, given that you have different abilities at your disposal, there are parts where you can utilize their abilities to solve puzzles. Whether there are parts of the cave where only that one character can traverse through (like a fantasy themed section only the knight can traverse through, or a laboratory only the scientist can go through) or you can use their abilities to solve a puzzle differently, there are a few opportunities to use their unique abilities to give the gameplay even more depth, and given that the logistics behind their usage makes sense, it aids in immersion quite well. I keep making a point of immersion, but really, when a game is about exploring what you could assume is unexplored territory, the discovery of new and exciting places is what keeps you playing, and puzzles with sound logic can keep that up.
Seeing as how you're given three characters to control out of seven per playthrough, the idea is that you need to replay this game in order to fully explore the cave. With that in mind, the cave changes its structure to benefit these characters in an attempt not make subsequent adventures feel so redundant. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that go against this design choice. For one thing, there are a fair amount of areas that aren't character specific, and given that the idea of this game is to explore a previously unknown place, it loses its luster upon repeated playthroughs. The other thing is the third playthrough... in order to experience the last character's specific areas, you have to repeat the other two's specific areas. Unless you're either going through each playthrough with quite some time in between or your memory is bad, this is dull due to the fact that a puzzle simply isn't as exciting nor satisfying to solve the second time as it is the first time you do it. That feeling of “yes I did it” just isn't there the second time. I guess you could consider it the speed run? That's the only way to make that run fun while you explore the parts of the cave exclusive to that one character that you didn't use.
Then again, each playthrough is about five or so hours long, so it could be a lot worse. Still, I feel that there was a good reason why The Lost Vikings and Trine only had three characters – so that they can put more care and attention into the level design. Given how limited in quantity the character exclusive areas are though, it makes you wonder why they even bothered with these different characters. It always felt like more of these sections could've been added, you should have control of all seven characters so that the cave can be designed in a way that requires you to think about how you can use each of their powers to navigate through an increasingly tricky cave, or less characters should've been given to you; and you know, for a game that wants to play like a platformer, it sure feels like crap when you have to do some platforming. The controls are looser than a Vatican daycare and given that backtracking and repeated playthroughs are necessary in order to complete the game and get everything out of it, it can get rather annoying – the only reason it doesn't outright drive me crazy is because when you die, you'll respawn like right before the pit you fell down. I guess that makes up for the sloppy controls... it doesn't, but it's a lesser of the evil of possibly resetting an entire part. Bloody hell! To make things worse, this game is linear – outside of some parts here and there for different characters, there isn't much to it outside of what you go through the second time after your first time through. So while replaying the game is encouraged, it just isn't as good the second or third time around!
The Cave sports a cartoony visual style, giving the cave some smooth and chunky edges, vivid colors and rich lighting that amounts to a sharp look. It's quite a treat to look at, especially as you go through quite an array of different environments despite still being inside a cave. One minute, you're going through some empty caverns; another minute, you go through places that'd host underground societies, and then there's a part where it's like you're inside a volcano. That's not even mentioning each characters' exclusive environments. With them looking as great as they do, it's just amazing. Top it off with some hilarious animations, and it only gets better. The animations are important; the characters may interact with one another, but they're all mute. How else can you communicate but via charades? Like how they can use their hands to perform gestures or even move their bodies. Even better are some of the amusing walking animations, like the hillbilly flailing about while he moves or how the twins may as well be conjoined. Where it hurts is twofold – the framerate can often chug, and you can sometimes find yourself getting stuck in solid platforms which require you to reset the console. Thank god for frequent autosaves...
The music manages to provide the appropriate ambiance. Whether it's the mesmerizing echoes of the cave, to the accordions of the carnival themed places (like when you're introduced to the hillbilly or you're at one of his exclusive portions of the cave), each piece of music manages to fit well with the surroundings and draw you into the experience. Unfortunately, there aren't really any standout pieces, perhaps outside of the James Bond theme sounding song during one of the scientist's exclusive portions involving a laboratory and some sneaky stunts. The voice acting from the cave is fantastic as his voice just drips with sarcasm, complimenting the dialogue with aplomb, and the people you meet along the way also have great voice acting that oozes with personality.
It's amazing how The Cave is a game that revolves around replayability and discovery – while the discovery portion is great, the replayability portion leaves a lot to be desired. The first playthrough is excellent outside of some crap platforming elements, but each subsequent playthrough just isn't as interesting. Most people don't replay the likes of Broken Sword too quickly outside of speed running because discovery, whether it's the solution to the puzzle or possibilities of a solution, is something that only exists during ones' first playthrough. Having a lot of different characters is excellent on paper, but execution is what matters and the execution does leave a fair bit to be desired once you realize that these characters just aren't used as well as they could've been, nor that the cave is as well designed as it could've been, even if it seems like it was well done the first time you go through the cave. At the same time, I would happily recommend that you play through this game, if only for the first playthrough.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
There isn't a whole lot in the turn based strategy genre in this generation... on consoles, at least. Sure, Vandal Hearts: Flames Of Judgment existed and turned out to be a good game, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a good game too, but... I think that's about it, and no, I don't count Disgaea 3 and 4 because quite frankly, 1 is the better game in terms of story and characters. So when Skulls Of The Shoguns unleashed itself to the unwashed masses in the form of a trailer back in 2010, it got reactions and some people were psyched. But then it got delayed until January of 2013. At least it got the Deus Ex: Human Revolution treatment of teasing us for a few years before release and not the Final Fantasy Versus XIII/Duke Nukem Forever treatment of seemingly never getting fucking finished. It's not quite as good as Deus Ex: Human Revolution (and before anybody uses the apples vs oranges argument... well, maybe I prefer a bit of that juicy, succulent apple over eating that average looking orange) and in terms of overall quality, there's no real hook to it other than good game mechanics that don't falter it, but at the end of the day, it's fairly good.
You begin the game as a recently slain Fuedal Japanese army general, raising an army of the dead to wage war against the guy who killed you. Okay, so there's not a whole lot to the concept, coming across as bare boned as a Final Fantasy game, but the effort was clearly put into the dialogue. No, not thought provoking dialogue and not emotional dialogue that'll make get you into the characters, only for them to die partway through and make you cry like a little bitch; I'm talking about pop culture references. Yeah, shit that'll be dated within the next year, if it isn't already. Now, there are some legitimate jokes in there, but it's mainly of the loud, crude, insane, “I really want to be Ren And Stimpy or Rocko's Modern Life” variety that can elicit some chuckles, but never really goes above that level. Maybe I've become so jaded at this point that I need to snort unicorn ashes to get so much as a buzz, but as far out as it attempts to be with its humor, it winds up being restrained to try and be more like a sitcom you see on TV; not going balls out to make you laugh your head off. It's not bad and as I said, it does make you laugh a bit every now and again, but it basically reeks of lazy writing with more pop culture references and internet memes that won't be funny ever again (if at all) than there are actual jokes.
The idea of the game is to move your units from one point of a map to the other, killing enemies along the way to the end goal point. Instead of moving along a grid, you instead move around within a circular area, not unlike Valkyria Chronicles. But where it works in that series, it doesn't quite in this game. Well, it does when you use archers (one of three primary classes you can use at the beginning of each level) and the monks you can acquire when you conquer shrines as they use long ranged attacks, but when you use infantry and cavalry units, it's not quite as easy to line up their physical attacks at it would seem because you often have to be at the right place to do so. But given the more fluid gridless movement system, it's a bitch when it turns out you're like a millimeter away from your desired target. Grids are a tried and true system because it helps you line up each units' attacks with precision, which is absolutely necessary in a turn based strategy game. Moving within a circular area only really works if everybody uses long ranged weapons like arrows and guns. Oh, and memo to future game designers – if you're going to include a mechanic where having two units next to each other reduces the damage they receive and doesn't knock them back when they're hit, make sure that not only do individual units do not require you to be meticulous with the cursor to select them, but that they also look different enough to distinguish without the need for a fucking magnifying glass. Thanks, it'll make selecting the right unit in a tactics game a lot easier.
That's about the extent of the game, but there are some other mechanics to play with along the way. Like I said, you can conquer shrines in order to acquire some spellcasters like a healer, a fire mage and a wind mage, but you can also conquer rice paddies, which are used to pay for new archer, infantry and cavalry units. There are also skulls that units can eat. These skulls are the remains of enemies that have been killed and although eating one takes up an action – of which you get five per turn – it can also heal the unit that eats it. If a unit eats three, then they will essentially level up, allowing them to hit harder. These mechanics insert some technicality into an otherwise simplistic system as there is a fair bit to think about. I mean, a lot of what this game revolves around is moving towards the enemy and then hitting them until they die unless you can push them off of a cliff (there's knockback included in each hit). Resource management allows you to call in for reinforcements and acquire some supersoldiers to protect your general because, powerful as he is, if he dies in battle, you lose automatically.
The mechanics do work out finely for the most part as you can move your soldiers about and execute commands with little to no problems, and the whole multi unit wall mechanic is an interesting one that I've found myself using quite a lot to make things a bit easier on myself when fighting a barrage of enemies. On the whole, fights do feel balanced as they rely more on brains than on powergrinding. Nothing complicated as a lot of this is baseline shit, but what's there works well in that pick up and play kind of way. That's what this game's true aim is – being able to pick up and play it. This is perfectly exemplified in the multiplayer mode, where you can face up to three other players either locally or online to see who's the better tactician, and who can make the best of their five actions per turn with what options you're all given. Things can get especially chaotic with multiple people playing. Nothing beats a good old fasioned alliance with another player, only to backstab him to gain an advantage in the long run.
It's actually funny the more I think about the single player campaign – this game feels like it could've worked better as an RTS than a turn based strategy game. From the gridless movement, to the wall system, to resource management, not to mention the fact that it seems to move at a snail's pace at the worst of times, it's begging to be in real time. A lot of the time, the game will trick you into thinking you've won the battle, only to send in some reinforcements. This was cute the first couple of times, but after a while, it really feels like these battles drag on. With baseline mechanics, you have to make up more inventive reasons to drag on battles than “oh there are hidden reinforcements for the fifth time oh golly”. So cool, we get to fight the same enemies we've already fought like five seconds ago. When is this mission over? Oh, and you want to know the funniest part? This game is about five hours long. No, I'm not kidding, just five hours. When five hours feels too long, you should probably head back to the planning stage. But then I think back to the multiplayer mode and think about how well the system works there, which lead me to the conclusion that there was, indeed, no creativity put into the battle scenarios – just the fucking dialogue. Barely.
I've already made a remark about the fact that a lot of your units look similar to one another with subtle differences, which clashes with the wall mechanic, so unfortunately, we've hit a bit of a snag in the graphical department in terms of a lack of creativity in individual unit type design. It's a shame, because it is a good looking game. Sure, it looks like a Flash cartoon where they bob about like bobble heads at times, but the crisp, colorful models are very well animated and the locations look beautiful. They all look like they're inspired by feudal Japanese art with all the cherry blossom leaves and shit. Considering the subject matter, it's also very fitting. Also consider the soundtrack. While there's some electronic beats in there, you'll also hear some traditional Japanese folk melodies in there. It's mainly put in for ambiance during the battles, but it still sounds good all the same.
Skulls Of The Shogun is the kind of game that likes to believe it's a fun loving game with its colorful visuals and wacky dialogue, but while the visuals nail it, the dialogue alternates between chuckleworthy and unfunny, given that it'd rather make references than tell actual jokes. The gameplay itself simplifies the turn based strategy formula mainly for ease of congestion, but while it works either in heated matches against your mates or for a little while in the single player campaign, it works against itself as each level drags on longer than it has any right to due to a lack of creativity put into each of the battles beyond “oh here are some units go kill them now”. Given that enemies are generally balanced and each of the missions do get incrementally harder, it really is just a lack of variety in the missions and units that drag this game down. Boredom does eventually settle in and all of the charming visuals and dialogue in the world can't save you from it. Consider this a tepid recommendation as the mechanics themselves are finely tuned and the multiplayer mode is fantastically done... just wish the campaign was more tightly paced.
6.5/10 (Above Average)
Monday, April 22, 2013
Throughout the years, I've tried to wrap my head around Final Fantasy X. It's my first Final Fantasy game, one of my first games with the Playstation logo on it, and one of my first JRPGs. It was the game that said to me “yep, the PS2 is miles upon miles ahead of the Nintendo 64 in terms of raw technological prowess”. I mean, that cutscene where Sin blows up Zanarkand? Holy shit, it looked so fucking real to my ten year old brain in the year 2002 that I had to buy it to experience more! However, graphics age, and like human beings, you start to see it for what it really is once its looks start to wither. In this case, it's a game with great ideas, bound together by hit and miss execution. Some parts work finely, but other parts work about as well as Sony's online security. Oh, and unlike human beings, games don't gain wisdom with age; they don't realize that we change when we're given additional responsibilities and expose ourselves to different personalities and whatnot at high school or college or whatever. Sadly for some games, when human beings gain wisdom with age, they just don't look so great. I guess you could say that they outgrow aspects of it, or the games entirely, and Final Fantasy X has its fair share of things that haven't held up to repeated playthroughs or the passage of time in and of itself.
To clarify, this isn't a bad game, but it does make some big mistakes, especially in the storytelling department. The concepts it presents are workable ones that can offer an interesting story, but poor writing, aimless directing and crap pacing ruin it. The story is that Tidus gets transported from his home in Zanarkand, to another part of the world of Spira... about a thousand years into the future. From there, he meets up with a group of people – in particular, the summoner Yuna, who he develops one of the most awkward relationships this side of any given human being's first relationship with. She and the rest of the group are on a journey to pray to the temples all around Spira on the way to the temple to the north of the world in order to acquire the final Aeon (or summon creature) and defeat Sin. To put things into perspective, Sin destroys entire villages and even futuristic cities by simply passing by and maybe shedding its skin. Because it's so fucking huge, it conjures up tidal waves. If it feels threatened, it'll fire a beam out of its mouth that'll destroy everything in its way. So yeah, you'd want to stop this thing as soon as possible... except Yuna's dad and various other summoners throughout the years have already done this. So this would only serve to calm down Sin for... what, a few years before he's back to destroying the world?
It's a story that serves to get worse as time goes on. At first, the worst that the story offers is a lead protagonist who seems more like a cocky yet whiny sidekick than, well, a lead protagonist. Wouldn't it have been more logical to make Yuna the main protagonist? I mean, it's basically her story – she's the one who has to save the world from Sin, and she knows maybe a teeny bit more about Spira than Tidus does. Other than that, you do admire the personalities of each characters, like Tidus's more positive traits (cockiness), Wakka's heart of gold (even if he sometimes says the wrong things because he's a bit of a dickhead), Lulu's intelligence laced with her kind heartedness, short fuse and lack of a smile, and Yuna's naïve kindness, practically humanitarian behavior despite living a sheltered life (eh, Kimahri just kind of exists). Eventually, the bad pacing starts to set in when they spend more time talking complete shit than actually progressing the plot or developing the characters. There's this one sub plot where they initially learn a bit more about their journey, and then the most transparently evil villain of all time wants Yuna's hand in marriage. Cue about 2-3 hours of her thinking about the decision while doing nothing else. There's the whole “it's about the journey and not the destination” argument you could use, but I'll retaliate by saying that none of the characters are all that interesting.
To go with the new direction of every scene being voice acted, characters are given maybe a tiny bit of character development, and then it's basically dropped in favor of plodding scenes that are more interested in boring you to sleep than giving you insight on the characters and whatnot. Long scenes aren't bad as long as they progress the story or provide the player with entertaining exchanges. However, they're bad when it says virtually nothing with characters that are wafer thin for the most part. They're even worse when they spend 10 minutes dramatizing something bad everyone except Tidus knew was going to have to take place anyway. That one scene that'll be unnamed for the sake of keeping this spoiler free, for instance, was painful to watch – it was long, it told me nothing that I didn't already know or couldn't figure out on dialogue prior to it, and it was just dramatic for the sake of being dramatic because at the end of the day, this is a really simple story with mostly simple characters – Auron breaks the mold by being that calm father figure and mentor type character to Tidus while trying to make up for the mistakes he made in his journey with Yuna's father. Simplicity is never a bad thing, but then you've never played this game until the end, haven't you?
See, you eventually get to a point where there's this big revelation that serves to make the plot more convoluted. The actual twist could've worked really well, but given that it comes in the form of a brief coma fantasy, it's just slapped onto the story, feeling like an afterthought. It's like Square went to themselves “you know, Metal Gear Solid is a best seller, let's try and be more like that by adding in some crazy plot twist that makes no sense because that's all Metal Gear Solid is apparently”. Fuck me, this is stupid and only serves to make the rest of the story irrelevant at that point because it did everything in its power to eschew anything remotely cool about the beginning. Oh, but it'll work itself into being a dramatic final act, eh?? Bitchin' – throw yourselves a fucking party Square, because no matter how good or bad that final act is, you've still officially lost me. Before then, you only had me going in and out because it ranged from plodding along to actually having something happen. But then you drop this bombshell that serves to confuse the shit out of me and make me wonder why in blue titties I should even care if you can just drop in more bombshells that come out of nowhere and exist just for dramatics without anything resembling good writing to back it up. The worst part is that it's a concept that could've worked and given the game something really cool to stand on from that point onwards... if it was competently integrated into the fucking story! Oh, and telling me to read the Wikia will result in an automatic “go fuck yourself”, because a game ought to be a standalone experience. Yes, there are interpretations you can make – that's why shit like Braid gets praised – but there's making your own interpretation of the story and then there's just stuff that feels randomly slapped on because hey, we have all these ideas but no idea on how to coherently integrate them into the overall game. Whatever good was found before is either gone or ignored. What a shame, but that's what mostly 1 dimensional characters and badly written storylines do to people I'm afraid.
Really, Final Fantasy X would've lost my interest long ago, had it not been for the gameplay. Funny how it's the gameplay that keeps me interested in a JRPG when it's just there to justify itself as a game in a story driven genre, but actually, it's pretty well executed for the most part. Okay, so a linear world map might not be to your taste, but neither is sex with a live human being so that solves that. Given what I've said about the story, it'd be a pretty empty sandbox if they went with the design of old where it's open for you to explore and whatnot. The more linear world map works because there's more emphasis placed on progressing the story – no distractions like sidequests (well, you can get started on a couple at a point in the latter portion of the game) and all that, but there are still people in this world to interact with to try and help you give a shit about it. It gives you a sense of cause-and-effect as you travel down the paths that make sense to travel down within the context of the story, which is meant to help immerse you into the world even if the story blows ass. It also helps to eliminate grinding as keeps you on track. Now, this might sound like a bad thing, but quite frankly, empty sandboxes are even worse – at least this stops the game from having to spend hours loading and actually forces Square to design bosses with legitimate difficulty instead of just relying on you to grind your way up.
The actual battle system is simple enough to get the hang of. Rather than the ATB system from the last bunch of games, it goes back to the traditional turn based system as seen in Final Fantasies 1-3, and encourages tactical gameplay. You can see who's turn is coming up next and when that character's next turn will come up depending on what attack they use next (cooldown time, to be precise). Besides that, it's all determined by their speed stat. The higher it is, the more likely you'll get the first turn and get more turns. For a while, that's about as far as it goes because a lot of enemies and even bosses just deal damage to you, sometimes inflicting poison onto you and rarely turning you to stone (if all three party members are turned to stone, it's game over – get some healing items out before this happens). But the bosses towards the end of the game will employ more status inflictions and tactics that work to their advantage if just annoying you with damage and like a buzillion status inflictions isn't enough. There are four bosses that especially love to do this, two of which are infamously tricky due to their tactics (both utilize a status infliction that makes it so that healing magic hurts you; one of them forces you to keep it or else you get a game over) and the other two not being much easier in that regard. Hell, the enemies get harder as you progress as they deal more damage and can inflict some status inflictions. Given that the idea is to give you a feeling of true progression, I have no issue with the fact that a lot of enemies are palette swaps – sure, it can seem tiresome fighting the same dogs, bats (WILD GOLBAT APPEARED!!) and lizards (two kinds actually – an armored kind and a more flexible kind), but at least they get stronger the further along the path you go.
Speaking of getting stronger, there's the Sphere Grid. Yep, instead of a straightforward levelling system, there's a more open ended one... at least, I want to think it's open ended, except it isn't exactly. Let me explain – when you begin the game, you're given a choice between the Beginner and Expert Sphere Grids. The Beginner Sphere Grid has a straightforward path for each character to level up the way that best suits their stats, and mostly goes on a line from their starting points. The Expert Sphere Grid bunches the characters together and encourages you to put them down whatever path you wish. Now, this doesn't work because each character is clearly defined. Tidus works best as a speedy attacker, Wakka works best as an accurate hard hitter, Lulu works best as a Black Mage (user of offensive magic), and so on and so forth. But when you go down any path that doesn't suit their base stats, it forces you to... grind. You know, that thing where you have to go back and forth in an area before the boss to fight the same groups of enemies over and over again as opposed to just fighting what's on the way because that's how the linear world map wants it to work? Sure, that's expected if you're trying to learn a useful ability and you're a level or two away from it, or maybe you're a level away from a strength level up and feel like you're not doing enough damage. Okay, fair enough. That much is acceptable (that is, if you're fighting everything on the way or just about everything). When you're spending over 15 minutes grinding though, that's when you need to realize either you're running away too much, or that the Expert Sphere Grid is a load of bullshit because it just doesn't work. It gives the illusion of open ended levelling, but it doesn't even remotely compliment the other fucking design choices! It's a good idea too – no doubt you'd be sick of a linear levelling scheme, plus it has more good ideas in the form of spheres that can fill in blank nodes and let you increase that stat! It's also pretty cool how everyone will eventually go through other peoples' paths (especially Auron's as his is where it starts, plus he has the most Strength nodes which is what will seem the most desirable for everyone not named Lulu and Yuna), especially when you engage in the sidequests involving the superbosses and require you to do a shitload of grinding just to stand a chance. But at the same time, it seems like a fucking waste! It makes more sense to either have more balanced base stats, or just have a linear levelling system! Good idea though; just sloppy execution.
That really sums up a lot of the side content on offer in this game. There's Blitzball, which is basically underwater rugby. It would be fun, but for some bizarre reason, it's got this awkward menu based style where you press square and then a menu comes up. Why? This is a fast paced sport and yet it keeps stopping so that you can choose whether to pass or shoot the ball. Oh and no Z axis? Nice one guys. Thank god you only have to play this once in the story and even then, you don't have to win... you'd have to be lucky to win anyway because the team you face are like a million levels higher than you, with better swimming, passing, shooting, tackling (or ninja kicking), blocking and goalkeeping stats. Blah. Then there are these other minigames where you ride chocobos (giant chickens) to dodge balls and seagulls, dodge lightning bolts, collect butterflies, play hide and seek with Cactuars (little cacti that are living beings) and fight bosses so buttfuckingly strong that you'll be spending the rest of your life grinding just to stand a chance. Aside from the latter, that's how you're getting your strongest weapons, which is paramount to your success in beating the latter sidequest. Eat my tits Square – I got other things I need to get done, like play the next Final Fantasy game! Oh yes, you're playing Blitzball in order to acquire Wakka's strongest weapon, and the items needed to upgrade it. You'll be playing a lot of matches, so I hope you got some time set aside to do this shit! In other words, the sidequests are basically an afterthought.
I've already discussed the graphics in the opening paragraph, but I feel like it bares discussion here too. Seriously, this game was un-fucking-real back in 2002. Those FMV scenes blew me away due to how much detail was put into everything. I mean nowadays, while the buildings blowing up and villages getting hosed by a tidal wave still look impressive due to the amount of detail put into everything, the character models look like they came out of a Pixar film at the time – for reference, this was before The Incredibles came out, so the humans looked a bit glassy eyed and mannequin-esque in appearance. Definitely hasn't aged as well as the models in their first – and only – film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Advent Children wasn't made by the same people). That's not even counting the in game graphics, which are still aesthetically presentable in the year 2013 with some decent textures, designs and whatnot, but some jerky animations, horrendous motion blurs during the slow-mo or shaky sections and bad lip syncing can take you out of the experience. Doesn't help that everyone in Spira dresses like they're cosplaying their favorite sci fi characters (although Auron certainly makes the Vincent Valentine trenchcoat costume look positively badass), and I don't even know what's up with Wakka's hairstyle.
Given that this is Final Fantasy, no shit the soundtrack is going to be good. Every song is beautifully composed to fit the exact emotion that the characters are trying to convey – especially drama. Let's be real here, the real drama comes from the dramatic songs because of their composition. The violinists play music that's either meant to be sad or angry, and while the feeling is mutual when you base it just on the music, the actual dialogue and whatnot conveys jack shit, but I'll get to voice acting in a second. Outside of that however, you'll have these gorgeous pieces that can send you into a sublime state, like one that plays in the Kilika/Macalania Woods (especially when played in the Macalania Woods alongside its dreamy blue forest landscapes), or one that plays towards the end of the game just as you're reaching the end of your journey. It gives off this feeling that you're nearly there and all that stands in your way are a lot of monsters. The boss theme isn't fast paced, but given its loud, bombastic composition, it's still able to instil a sense of intensity. Oh, and we can't forget the piano piece that's played at the beginning of the game. Holy fucking shit, it is such a beautiful piece. Those are just my favorite tracks; the others aren't bad, but they don't stick out quite as much.
The voice acting is pretty hit and miss. Tidus is voiced by James Arnold Taylor, known as the guy who voiced Ratchet from the Ratchet And Clank series from Going Commando onwards, and... ehh I'm glad he got the shittiness out of his system here because his voice can quickly grate on your nerves. I guess it goes with the whole cocky yet whiny personality Tidus has, but that's an irritating trait to keep up! Most of the other characters sound bland, like they're just in line for their paycheque, and I cannot fathom why the fuck Wakka has to have a Carribean voice – didn't the first nine games resonate with that audience enough? Eh, whatever, it doesn't even sound that good, like he was half assing his way through it all. Come on John DiMaggio, I know this game's story sucks, but I also know that you can do better! Feel like you've earned that payche-- actually, no, because I'm not sure what you were actually paid, especially versus what you probably gotten paid when you voiced Bender in Futurama back in the day (for reference, this was before everyone really got into Futurama). Really, only three characters have good voices – Seymour, who sounds slimier than those things that live in the sewers; Auron, who sounds cool, calm and collected, but can conjure up the kind of tone that says “don't fuck with me”; and Rikku, but come on, Tara Strong performing badly is like Dane Cook being funny, it just doesn't work.
It's odd; Final Fantasy X actually excels at one thing that its progenitors simply had as a good point, and that's the gameplay. No, not the crappy sidequests or the badly executed levelling system; I'm talking about the battle system. It's well crafted enough to keep you engaged, and the bosses are interesting enough to keep you playing just to see what'll come next. The fact that it's designed to make you utilize your characters' strengths instead of simply grinding for 7 hours is something I've come to find impressive. Mind you, Persona does a much better job of it, but Final Fantasy X does well enough to keep your attention, but that in and of itself is impressive. Add on the crappy story that only gets worse as the pacing deteriorates to nothing and the plot twists get just dumber and less cohesive to the overall narrative, and what you have is a simple yet exciting battle system with some interesting bosses. I can't actually give this game much more kudos because that and the presentation aside, it really could've been a lot better, especially in the storytelling department. JRPGs are best known for their stories, and while gameplay is often important as that's what separates games from movies and theater, a story is what keeps you engaged, keeps you caring about what's going on. I'm just glad battling is good or this would be a complete bust.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Damn, 2007 was a gooood year. Before the seventh generation became little more than corporate greed and generic faceless crap, there were a bunch of games that could give a lot of the previous generation a run for its money. Games like Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Crysis, Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy and the subject of today's review, Heavenly Sword manage to make PS2, Xbox and Gamecube games look like yesterday's news. Smoother, more detailed graphics leading to tighter game mechanics, with better sound quality to further enhance the experience – sign me up!! Heavenly Sword, unfortunately, had the displeasure of being released on the Playstation 3 and only the Playstation 3 because in this otherwise glorious year for gaming, “PS3 HAS NO GAEMS” wasn't just a simple obvious troll comment, but it was also an actual argument. It's a bit of a shame because Heavenly Sword is fantastic. Of course, it's easily to make claims like “too short” and “too much like God Of War” back then, but now, the former point isn't as relevant as it was back then because now, it's like 20 bucks instead of $60-90, and the latter point is irrelevant because God Of War ripped off Lament Of Innocence and made it into a terrible game, while Heavenly Sword took some elements from God Of War and worked them into a great game.
It all begins with the story. While the game opens up with a big battle between our heroine, Nariko, and thousands of soldiers with her dying at the end, it actually begins five days before the big battle. Nariko is seen as a burden to the clan as she was supposed to be the brave manly warrior who would wield the mythical, cursed blade known as the Heavenly Sword to save them from the evil of the Raven Lord. Instead, she just so happened to be born a woman. Hooray for sexism, right folks? Better get Anita Sarkeesian to do another 20 minute video where she basically reads a Wikipedia article while we pretend to care about what she says! But suddenly, Lord Bohan's army attacks their stronghold and takes most of the clan prisoner, including Nariko's father. While fleeing with the Heavenly Sword, Nariko gets ambushed by Bohan's army and must wield the sword in order to protect herself. Unfortunately, the Heavenly Sword's curse seeps within her body – she only has five days to live before the curse overpowers her body and kills her. From this point, Nariko has to save her clan and kill Lord Bohan before she dies.
While the story itself seems like a stock standard affair, the characters are brimming with personality. Not so much Nariko herself as much as the other bigger characters. Fellow outcast, Kai, is an endearing childlike character that balances out Nariko's more tragic motivations and serious personality, even when you have to play as her and slaughter a few of King Bohan's men. Nariko herself is the perfect tragic protagonist as she is mainly serious and doesn't take any crap from anyone, especially now that she has the Heavenly Sword that'll kill her in five days. But the stars are the villains, especially King Bohan. He's so charmingly over the top that you can't help but love to hate him, especially when you see the way he treats his bastard son, Roach. The other bad guys are also charmingly over the top and manage to play off of Nariko's straight laced personality – alongside Nariko's more snarky sense of humor, which helps make the scenes between them that bit more interesting while highlighting the more crazy aspects of the villains' personalities - while breathing life into the sequence of events on their own, but King Bohan does that like ten times over, making him the perfect main villain!
Heavenly Sword is a hack and slash with an interesting combat system. Instead of equipping one weapon at a time or at best, a main weapon and a sub weapon, the Heavenly Sword is actually three weapons in one, depending on what stance Nariko's in. There's the speed stance, where the sword transforms into two blades that offers a balanced mixture of speed and strength. There's the range stance, where the two blades are chained together like a whip that she flails about – it doesn't do quite as much damage, but it covers a wide area. Then you have power stance, where the sword transforms into a heavy sword and, while it's slow, deals a lot of damage with each hit. Now, this is the sort of model the DmC reboot uses and having played that game's demo before going through this game, I was worried that Heavenly Sword would be an unchallenging mess full of button mashing and cheap hits.
Well, it is and it isn't. It is when the enemies range from generic grunts to grunts with more armor and the occasional kunoichi, all of which aren't exactly tough. It's easy to figure out a way to kill each type of enemy by messing with stances and all but performing riverdance on their reproductive organs. It isn't, however, when you have to figure out a means of countering gangs of them. Strength is most certainly in numbers and while I would actually lambast a game for this, when one is as hypnotically engaging and satisfying as this, it's hard to really criticize this approach to combat. Add on the counter system – basically, you don't press anything except maybe R1 or L1, depending on what color aura is around the enemy when they attack, and you see Nariko really mess them up – and it becomes a combat engine that's very satisfying when you get the hang of it, not to mention engaging to watch and perform. I do find it silly that the only way to perform aerial combos is to launch an enemy up into the air, flick the controller up (oh believe me, I'll be giving the sixaxis its time in the sun in a bit, but let's keep it to one topic at a time) and then perform the combo. See, I've always been under the impression that you can jump in the air without the need for a launch attack, but Heavenly Sword doesn't even have a jump button. You can do some flips to dodge attacks with the right analogue stick, but that's about it, and you can't perform attacks that are built off of the momentum from your dodges. But hey, what we do have works very well.
Not only will you be fighting against groups of enemies, but you'll also fight the occasional boss. There aren't a lot of bosses, but what there are, are pretty good. Generally speaking, you'll be dodging their attacks and then performing combos on them when they're left open. At times, you can counter their attacks as like enemies, bosses' attacks are color coordinated, meaning that being in the right stance can mean the difference between an ass whooping and delivering the pain to them. The fights are refreshingly challenging, managing to offer a balance of them delivering strong attacks while never cheap shotting you into a combo you can't escape from, which is something a lot of games can't seem to nail these days. However – and this is where all of the God Of War comparisons come from – when you whittle down their health to a point where it's nearly empty, you'll have to perform a series of quick time events. Great, just what this game needs, some goddamn quick time events, because we sure love them! Whether you just press the direction on the d-pad or mash the button that's on screen, you'll need to keep your eyes firmly wedged on the center of the screen. Otherwise, you'll either die and have to fight them all over again, or just fight them all over again; it depends on where you fail. These can result in some cheap deaths, especially when you have to press on the d-pad diagonally. Yeah, cheap deaths against otherwise tough but fair bosses. Good job Ninja Theory.
But you don't just play as Nariko – you'll often play as Kai, who has a crossbow at her disposal. The idea is to have her backflip away from enemies and shoot them in the head. When you're in aim mode, it uses the camera setup also seen in Resident Evil 4 and Gears Of War, so you're thinking “ah you just have to aim your arrows at their heads, sweet!” Sadly, it's not quite like that. While yes, you can aim for their heads, the point is to use what Ninja Theory dub the “aftertouch” in order to get precise shots. To do this, you hold down the shoot button, and then everything is in slow motion while you use the sixaxis motion controls to move the arrow around. Besides the fact that this has no basis in logic (how do arrows go up one minute, then down the next, then up and towards the right the following minute), it feels very... gimmicky. You have to hold the controller in a way where the shoulder buttons are facing the screen to keep the arrow centered, and move the controller around to move the arrow around. I have no idea why they would do this when simply shooting would feel more natural. But hey, this is 2007 and we're experimenting with new technology to see what works and what doesn't. Granted, you can simply shoot by just pressing the shoot button – that could make everything I said against the motion control seem like needless bitching, had it not been for any segment where Nariko has to throw objects at switches or fire cannonballs at catapults. That's where you really need to get your aim just right, or you won't be able to solve otherwise easy puzzles that are in the game for the sole purpose of getting players to use the sixaxis controls. In other words, what should be simple things are made more complicated than they have to be due to the gimmicky sixaxis.
Now, when it comes to earlier games in a console's lifespan, the graphics age more like soft drinks than like wine. But Heavenly Sword has the distinction of still looked really good, even in 2013. That's mainly because it doesn't exactly use a realistic graphical style – it looks more like a smooth, high definition painting by hand. It shows it hand with its outdoor environments, with pastel details on the ground and in the sky with a painstaking amount of attention paid to every little detail in the lighting and intricately drawn lines. Speaking of painstaking detail, the facial animations are fantastic beyond belief. The lip syncing is pitch perfect with the voice work, and their emotions displayed on their faces are exquisitely animated, detailing the looks on their faces in a way that works really well with the voice work. I love how Heavenly Sword just casually has this detail going for it while LA Noire used it as a selling point because Team Bondi some high end motion capture techology. The rest of the characters' bodies are also really well animated, especially Nariko's swordplay which results in some hypnotic combo attacking against armies of enemies. It does lag a bit when you're fighting millions of enemies, but a bigger problem comes in the form of screen tearing, where parts of the screen will tear away during some bigger fights and more graphically demanding cutscenes that may take you out of it. Still, it doesn't completely detract from the fact that the game looks excellent.
It's complimented by grandiose symphonic scores – when there actually are some! During key moments, there'll be some big sweeping symphonics that'll make these moments feel bigger in scope. Whether it's the beginning or end of the game, or certain segments towards the end, you can tell that they wanted something more like what you'd hear in Lord Of The Rings or God Of War. But a lot of the time, it's just dead silence, except for the sounds that emit from footsteps and when attacks connect. It's a bit of an odd design choice to have fights that just consist of sound effects - even boss fights are lucky to have music to make them feel bigger. Ah well. The voice acting is top notch. The villains sound so devlishly over the top, especially King Bohan. Then again, kingy's voice by Andy Serkis, and his style is to be as fiendishly silly and yet still threatening at the same time, which goes well with the character's personality. Nariko's voice lends itself to convey her serious yet snarky remarks in a way that really makes them work. In general, every voice actor manages to bring the script to life, managing to make each cutscene well worth the watch as it deeply immerses you into the events that are unfolding.
While games like Resistance and Motorstorm showed off higher end graphical capabilities for those just entering the new generation, Heavenly Sword shows off how it can all be used to make a fantastic game that keeps you wondering how it can be topped. Although it also makes you wonder if there'll be somebody out there that can put the sixaxis to good use instead of it just feeling like a gimmicky afterthought - at least, it would've if you were one of a handful of people who had a PS3 back in 2007. But this isn't 2007; this is 2013, where there are plenty of people with PS3s who have probably missed out on some great earlier games like this. The only real problem comes from the sixaxis because when motion control isn't involved, this is a fantastic game. With a dynamic cast of characters and intense battles, it's hard to deny that Heavenly Sword is definitely one of the finest games in this generation.
9/10 (Fucking Excellent)
Monday, April 1, 2013
When it comes down to video gaming, Sony is best known for their line of Playstation line of video game consoles. You know, the ones that started off pretty cool until their ego and obsession with technological development got the better of them and decided to price their new console for 599 US dollars, followed up by the PSP GO that lasted about as long as a sneeze and a press conference about an invisible console? Yeah, well, they had their humble beginnings publishing games. They mainly published licensed game of varying quality - usually shitty - but they did also publish this hidden gem called Skyblazer. Made by a company who hasn't made anything else worth caring about, Skyblazer was a game that basically nobody played because it had no precense in the market at the time, nor does it have any right now. It's a crying shame because this is a fine, fine piece of 16 bit platforming. Not the best by any means as there are a few things that aren't quite as well executed as they could've been, but it's a great game nevertheless.
Sky is tasked with saving the kingdom and eventually a sorceress named Ariana from the evil Ashura. But because he isn't powerful enough and certainly not as strong as his father and legendary hero known as the Sky Lord, Sky will need to get stronger by defeating Ashura's minions and acquiring some magic spells. Okay, perhaps the story isn't all that great as it's little more than a set up for Sky to kick the shit out of some monsters rather than feeling like a journey, but hey, it at least sets up the events of the game finely enough within the first level. Sky heads inside a temple, finds monsters, punches and kicks them around and meets up with Ashura, only to get destroyed while getting away with the damsel Ariana, and he somehow winds up in a hut with an old man who tells him he sucks at life right now, only for him to embark on the journey to prove him wrong.
Now, when you first play this game, you'll find yourself thinking "well, it's good, but I can see why it was swept under the rug upon its release". It feels like your typical sidescrolling platformer where you'll run, jump and perform a punch-punch-kick combo to beat the shit out of enemies. Combat is especially unexciting when faced against regular enemies as it feels unpolished. Instead of having some bite, the enemies seem to have huge hit boxes as you can hit them from like a million feet away and even if they didn't have huge hit boxes, there's still nothing to it. A lot of it just amounts to getting monsters out of the way and even stopping their projectiles by power mashing the Y button. "But Gryzor, Devil May Cry 3 is nothing but mashing a button and you seem to like those games". The difference is that Devil May Cry 3 had bite and impact to its combat while Skyblazer is more like a sissy fight between Ivan Drago and King K Rool. The first level you play through doesn't have anything special in terms of level design, feeling like a generic platformer whose sole unique feature is the ability to climb along walls. Even when you enter the next level and notice that you can sink into tree leaves, it just doesn't feel like it does anything special. That, and I've noticed that the levels were rather short. Christ, even Super Mario Brothers 3 has longer levels!
But the more you play this game, the more of its majesty you'll see. Each of the levels have their own distinct designs that manage to give you more than a generic platforming experience. Levels can seem typically straightforward, but when you have levels that include thick foliage on the trees, maze-like designs including water currents leading either to salvation or deadly whirlpools (which, by the way, lends itself to being one of the few water levels in video games that's not complete shit) or gusts of wind that'll either blow you towards salvation or back to the beginning of the level, climbing up logs falling down a sand fall, and levels that make extensive use of the wall climbing feature. Hell, there are levels that aren't even platforming stages, like the occasional shoot em up level where you'll use a hang glider to fly through the air and fire energy blasts at enemies. They're not as brutal as your average shoot em up, but they can still be somewhat intense with some enemies bum rushing you in packs. There are also some pseudo-3D flight levels, which are more like bonus levels where you collect coins - I mean gems to rack up some extra lives. I've only scratched the surface, folks - there's quite a bit of variety between each level, and none of them feel gimmicky nor is there any wasted potential. Instead, each level is intricately designed with all of these different things well integrated for a more natural experience as you take everything up the chin. Because of this, the further along you get, the more you experience, and the more enjoyable the game gets as a result.
Another set of interesting designs are the bosses. From their methods of attack to your method of destroying them, each battle is distinct from one another, giving off that fresh feeling between each one, and like the levels, they're also well designed. The bosses will generally try to attack you, but it's not as simple as trying to run into you (old school Nintendo rules, guys). Whether they're rolling into you, trying to flatten you, breathing fire on you or draining your life away, they all keep themselves fresh, but it's not just them - it's everything around them. Besides just a square room, there'll also be holes and platforms which need to be utilized to dodge and/or attack them, so not only do they themselves feel different, but their fights also feel diverse. Now, I understand that you're all getting sick of me saying that everything is different as if every other SNES platformer is the same - not necessarily. I've already pointed out that this game has a generic beginning and I really don't want you to write it off as a generic platformer while thinking of the cleverest hate mail you can; what I haven't pointed out is that this is somewhat of an easy game that's rather forgiving with its semi-frequent checkpoints and many chances to get like a million lives as there are a shitload of gems lying about each level. Sure, each boss requires a fair bit of trial and error to figure out the best method of beating them - usually involving well timed jumps and magic spells involving full screen lightning bolt attacks, fireballs, flying across the screen and healing yourself - but given that you have heaps of lives, it's not going to be quite the labor of love to figure them out. Their attack patterns are easy to read too, it's the timing and your method of attack that you need to get down. Levels have a similar thing going on - because of their distinctness, you'll need to get the feel for them. Nothing in this game is hard and in fact, the enemies are a complete joke, but you may find yourself dying a fair amount of times to the levels' gimmicks and bosses due to some sections taking you by surprise. At the same time though.... there are the gems to recollect and get even more extra lives out of. In that sense, this game does have some difficulty inconsistencies, but with a bit of patience, there's a lot of fun to be had exploring these levels and satisfaction to be gained from beating them, especially ones with bosses.
On the aesthetic front, Skyblazer looks brilliant. The colors are sharp and vibrant, which helps to make each of the exquisitely detailed sprites and environments look fantastic. The mode 7 is tastefully used to either show you going around a tower or a boss, or to show bosses rolling like there's depth to their shells and such. Unfortunately, a lot of the mode 7's movement looks about as choppy as the average anime's animation. Speaking of animation however, the 2D stuff is very fluid, so it's clear that Ukiyotei's art designers just couldn't get the hang of mode 7 technology while their 2D stuff is just fucking brilliant. "But Gryzor, weren't you going on about that diversity crap a while ago" - well, each level not only has their distinct feeling while playing through them, but also their own distinct look. From castles to forests to deserts and everything in between, there's no shortage of different looking levels, each with painstakingly detailed designs and sharp, vibrant colors to help them stand out.
The sound design is also brilliant. On top of a typical MIDI soundscape is an Indian influence with some sitar riffs for that extra flavor. Of particular note is the overworld song (the overworld itself mostly being a linear affair, hence it not being mentioned), with a twangy sound compressed into a small loop as you wouldn't normally be on the overworld for too long. It gives off the vibe that you're about the enter the next area in your journey. Speaking of vibes, each of the levels' songs give off the impression that you're exploring parts of India, keeping you somewhat weary of the dangers ahead while being mostly uplifting. Some of the more indoorsy songs, like inside lairs and temples, have a more foreboding tone as you're exploring a dangerous place with a big, bad boss at the end. As for the boss songs are fast paced and exciting enough to pump you up for a boss fight while having an epic tone to it. Then again, it's basically a symphony orchesta backing them up, only it's compressed as fuck to fit on an SNES cartridge. Nevertheless, each song is so well composed that it fits the levels, not to mention that on their own, they're very enjoyable to listen to.
At one point throughout my recent playthrough of this game, I asked myself "why is this game so unknown to the public, it's really good". Seriously, I just don't get it - is it because the first level wasn't setting the world on fire and our natural instinct is to go by first impressions rather than actually giving the game an honest go? By giving it an honest go, you'll find yourself revelling in its marvelous designs. The levels and bosses each have their own distinct flavors and are very well designed to boot. Sure, enemy combat is lamer than Blink 182, but trekking through each level to soak in their glorious designs and hopefully fight a boss that'll test your reflexes and pattern reading skills is more than enough to keep you going. It has some trial and error going for it when you enter a new level and fight a new boss for the first time, but figuring out the best method to tackle each situation as they come and the satisfaction from overcoming adversity is more than enough to overlook that archaic form of difficulty. This game has no right to be virtually unknown. It has aged brilliantly and as a result, it's fun as hell to play through.
9/10 (Fucking Excellent)
Question - what is your favorite thing about the older Assassin's Creed games? If you say the assassinations, then you, my friend, will absolutely hate this game because outside of a heavily scripted sequence that'd give Valve and Infinity Ward penis envy, you hardly ever assassinate people, nor is there an ounce of satisfaction from assassinating on the two or three occasions that you do get to assassinate people. If you say the story, then you'll probably dislike this game because it has garbage pacing and a main character who is so boring, Marge Simpson would look at him and go "damn, that's boring". So what's left? Umm... the pretty graphics? Well, they certainly kept the part where it looks pretty to a point where they top Assassin's Creed 2 with some better textures and smoother colors. Whoop dee fucking doo! Like a lot of sequels released in the year 2012, Assassin's Creed 3 coasts on the glory of its progenitors while delivering an uninspired, mediocre experience that can be better summed up by saying "well... it's in the same series as Assassin's Creed 2". I'd say this is like Dragon Ball GT, but besides not having the same directors as their predecessors and being inferior to said predecessors... they're not that similar. I mean... I actually enjoy watching Dragon Ball GT, flaws and all. Sure, Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z fucking annihilate it, but eh, GT has its charm. Meanwhile, Assassin's Creed 3 has all the charm and grace of an obnoxiously fat guy doing a big fart in the middle of an elevator.
Speaking of obnoxious, Assassin's Creed 3's story starts off rather slowly. In fact, it seems to have about the same sort of pacing you'd expect from Naruto where it takes like 60 episodes to do what anything else - from 26 episode animes to any western show - would have done in about a quarter of that time. You'll start the game in the year 1754 as Haytham Kenway, who assassinates a guy in a VIP seating at an opera house and takes a medallion, which happens to be a key to a temple's inner chamber. The modern day plot happens to take place in this temple, but I'll get to that later, let's just stick with Haytham for now. From there, he boards a boat that takes him from England to America. After doing tedious errands for about three hours, the plot re-emerges as he rescues some Indians from a slave trader, learns that the medallion isn't actually the key to the temple but only its inner chamber, and develops a relationship with one of the Indians... I think. It's hard to tell because it seems like he treats her more like a colleague than a romantic interest. After a couple of hours, in comes a plot twist that'd make you go "aww shit" if you even had the energy to muster in order to mutter those words after spending most of the first five hours doing tedious errands and tutorials, occasionally doing something worthwhile.
But the torture never stops, my friends - you'll gain control of Ratonhnhaké:ton, the son of Haytham and the Indian chick he "developed" a relationship with. From there, you'll be subjected to ANOTHER FUCKING TUTORIAL by finding his friends before his village gets attacked by a Templar known as Charles Lee. You guys remember Charles Lee, right? That disgraced general who... wanted to be a commander but didn't become one because George Washington was the far better candidate. Later on, Ratonhnhaké:ton engages in yet another tutorial - one that's just useless unless you want to get 100% because you never need to hunt during the main quest except for this one part. After another hour of play, Ratonhnhaké:ton gets a message from one of the aliens that he is to be an assassin. Then he seeks out Achilles to become an assassin, which then has him participate in EVEN MORE TUTORIALS GODDAMMIT I'M OVER THESE THINGS ARRRGH. At about the eight hour point, Ratonhnhaké:ton - who is renamed Connor so that it's less likely he'll get a lynching - is finally an assassin, and for the next six or so hours, he takes down certain bad historical figures who dare to keep America under control of England and Indians under the white man's control.
Yes, for eight gruelling hours, you'll have to set up the assassinations to come while you do tedious errands and tutorials. Eight hours of not assassinating somebody outside of some set piece in like the first couple of minutes, and then six hours of rushing through each assassination because they went "oh shit, we gotta make the date before the supposed apocalypse, we can't have overly long cutscenes to set up each assassination". I've also noticed that there are parts that seem all chopped up, like they had intended to add in parts here and there if they didn't have to rush to make some arbitrary deadline. But it's not just that - it's also the fact that they spent so fucking long on setting up an overarching plot that wound up being forgotten like halfway through the point during which Connor is an assassin, taking down those evil nasty people who threaten the independence of America. What it basically amounts to is "kill these people because the game said so and the history books say that they're bad people". While I'm on the subject of American history, it feels like each character was presented like some dry version of what you read in your year 9 history textbooks. There's nothing resembling an interesting characteristic in George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. They're just.. there, existing for the sake of existing because hey, the other games have historical figures! Furthermore, it feels like a glorified tour through history as you go through all these events like as if they're exhibits in a museum, rather than them all being tied together in a cohesive knot. If this review seems incoherently tied together, heh, it's still better tied together than the second half of this shitheap of a story.
All of this brings up something I really miss - where in frontflipping fuck is the war between the assassins and the Templars? It's hardly there in Connor's story. In fact, it's only really there in name only. Like, I get that the assassins eventually became extinct and the Templars rule everything with an iron fist, but I assume that anything resembling exposition for these important details were lost when Ubisoft rushed this out the door for the obligatory November release date because that's all you get. "Oh, the assassins are gone and the Templars rule everything". No shit, that's it. Okay, let's waste everyone's time setting up plot points that are dropped like babies from pregnant housos, but let's not even attempt to give one seventh of a shit about anything actually important that is not only a pretty big plot twist, but actually ties the fucking games together - oh, but we'll tie them together by keeping this grade school science fiction shit about solar flares and aliens and 2012 being the end of the world in Desmond's story. Funny enough, that's all Desmond's story is - aliens and world going boom unless he accesses Connor's life through the Animus to find the secret to humanity's salvation. Trust me, you'll love the ending for one thing it does, and hate it for being really anticlimactic.
Assassin's Creed 3 is what happens when the series takes a joyride with Ninja Gaiden and Hitman to 1313 Lobotomy Lane - the formula is still there in a sense, but the execution isn't quite there and anything resembling nuance and/or a good sense of uniqueness is practically gone. There's still the basic idea of skulking around cities and doing various missions that'll lead up to the assassination of one of the big targets while making sense within the context of the story at that point. Whether you run to certain points and await further instructions (sometimes without being detected) or tail somebody who may know something, there's a semblance of immersion to be found, but not much. You can still do some free running to find vantage points to map out an area, and there are additions like hunting and naval warfare, but while it can all add to the immersion of any game to be able to do what you want when you associate things with actions within reason, it just doesn't feel right within the context of it being an Assassin's Creed game. As its own entity, I could see this being at least a decent set of events and mechanic ideas for a game, but I don't know, just having these things doesn't mean it's automatically a good game, nor does it make one worthy of the Assassin's Creed name and a refreshing breath of fresh air after two superfluous entries that marked the grave for said name. All it does... is just make Assassin's Creed 3 feel like it coasts on the Assassin's Creed name.
Before I continue to shit on this game, there are some good things about it. One thing I've criticized the first two games for is the combat. Before, it was slow and clunky. Now, it's fast, vibrant and feels more natural. Basically what you have to do, is press the circle button when you're about to be struck, and then either press X to disarm them or press square to wail on them. No need to hold the guard button and press X these days kids. Also, the redcoats seem to be a bit smarter by attacking more in droves than as singular units. Now you have to *gasp* pay attention to what's about to ruin your day. The combat is still easier than a pre teen hillbilly, but at least Ubisoft ironed it out. On another note, I was ecstatic that with muskets and trees, there'd be more emphasis on ranged combat or using the trees to your advantage. Nope, not quite. I mean you can use a bow and arrow and a rope with a pointy thing at the end to make their daily walk through the forest more painful, and you can jump from a branch onto them with your hidden blade dealing a killing blow, but you could also go up to them, maybe take a hit from a bullet if you're far enough away, and then wreck them. They're only remotely tricky if they have guys with swords distracting you while they line up their shots, and even then... you can simply restart from the last checkpoint that's like 10 seconds away and make sure to cleave them in the face, forcing them to use the pointy end of their muskets instead of being able to shoot you. But again, I at least appreciate the fact that Ubisoft ironed out the combat because it was easy to see it being a big thing in the game and I'd hate to use that clunky piece of shit system from the other games.
Another cool thing is naval warfare. You set sail for the vast, open oceans to fire your cannons at redcoat ships, collect their stash and there you go. There are two storyline missions that require you to do this, and needless to say, they're easily two of the better ones out there. You'll have access to swivel cannons that are operated with one shoulder button and a group of bigger cannons operated with another shoulder button. Swivel cannons are used against smaller ships, which you aim using the camera; the big cannons are used against big ships and are more in line with what's 90 degrees either left or right of your ship. The only means of defense is to call for your men to lower themselves down and you'll take half the damage you'd normally take if you don't call for them to duck. Sounds simple enough, and you know what, it's a hell of a lot a fun because of its simple approach to warfare! There are some nice little effects like wind, rainstorm and waves that affect the ships' movement and even interfere with cannon shots, which can turn the tide of battle in a different direction to what it'd be without these weather effects. This also helps to immerse you into each battles as it looks and feels real. Terrain also affects battle as crashing into islands can damage your ship... it can also damage the redcoats' ships, so cornering them towards islands could prove to be helpful. Really, the only issue to be found is that this is mostly optional content. There's nothing resembling assassinations here - just some good old fashioned team deathmatch between teams of boats that only sneaks into the storyline by way of making trips to other parts of the world. That's a minor nitpick of a very fun aspect of the game.
Finally, there were a few fine, fine moments. There's one moment where you have to listen in on a couple of guys talking about their war and political plans while keeping yourself hidden on a rooftop. From the moment they stop talking, you have to get back down to ground level, snoop around and kill some redcoats without anybody knowing. Another moment has you rushing through a battlefield, making sure not to get shot while you make your way to the target. Moments like this manage to get the adrenaline pumping as you rush through from cover to cover, making sure you don't die before your target. Another moment is when you're infiltrating a boat while making sure nobody noticed you. Now, there are a few moments involving this, but the last one in the game is where it gets it right by having you shimmy across boards while eavesdropping on conversations through windows, all the while sneaking through and around cargo so that the redcoats don't spot you. The final chase scene is also pretty good as, like with the battlefield scene, adrenaline is running through you to make sure you catch the guy without the burning building taking you with the burnt wood. If this didn't have the Assassin's Creed name, it was shorter and there were more moments like this, I'd be quick to say that this is one of the best games of 2012. Instead, these moments are few and far between, serving to disappoint you further when you go through tedious “walk around town” moments and engaging in combat that's easier than the high school slut, among other moments that, try as they might to do otherwise, are just boring due to how little risk there really is as well as how small the challenge is. You can breeze through a lot of this game and get nothing out of it except for regret that you've wasted so much time trying to beat it.
In reality, this game is a very, very splendid case of one that goes through the motions. Ubisoft went through the motions making this game, and goddammit, I went through the motions playing it. There are other sorts of sidequests to engage in, but after a while, I was more than willing to shove my private parts into a meat grinder than to engage into a time waster. See, while sidequests serve as a fun distraction, they're also a means of extending game time, and given that I'm more than willing to place my head inside a lake of fire than waste any more of my time playing this sack of shit than I need to, the sidequests were simply not worth the time. Then again, what I did experience either had me hunting for certain animals (which really consists of laying down traps and bait or stalking them in the treetops) just for a few pounds (money), killing a certain bigger animal, escorting some guys to certain areas, taking over forts and collecting almanac pages. There's also a homestead, where you can develop new items, send out convoys and earn riches beyond your wildest dreams. Folks there give you missions after you find and rescue them like fetching items and ambushing their enemies (usually redcoats). All for what, a couple of pounds, which I can use to purchase hunting equipment and some extra shit that I really don't need anyway? You can seriously beat the game without anything more than your tomahawk. So really, sidequests are just there so you can rack up achievements. None of them outside of naval warfare is particularly engaging anyway due to the fact that they basically hold your hand. Like I said, it ties into whether you want to elongate your experience with the game - not much point in extending your session with a game that just isn't very good, especially one whose sidequests barely have any ties with the main game or any rewards worth reaping the "benefits" of.
The big thing, however, is actually assassinating your targets. It honestly feels like you're just stealthily taking them down because hey, it says “Assassin's Creed” on the cover. I mean, the only assassin-like thing Connor has going for him is his agility, but given the massive overhaul of combat not to mention the fact that every single fucking redcoat and big bad historical figure in this game can be taken down all the same, there's hardly a need to go in for stealth kills unless the mission arbitrarily fails you for getting noticed. See, the only reasons you'll bother to be stealthy range from “because the mission fails if you get spotted” or there's an optional objective that tells you not to get spotted, and you guys know how I feel about optional objectives in a game that's not even good to begin with. Other than that, you're more likely to assassinate some random redcoats than folks like Charles Lee as you can simply wail on him with your tomahawk and wind up progressing through the game once the redcoats stop chasing you down. Now, yes, you can do it the stealthy way, but... would you really want to? Admittedly, Assassin's Creed never had the best stealth mechanics in the world, resting somewhere above Metal Gear Solid and every game's stealth segments but below Thief and Hitman, but at least there were ways to utilize their environments to use stealth in a way that makes it fun and exciting, yet give off a feeling of tension. Altair and Ezio weren't exactly combat aficionados and the staggered combat mechanics made being spotted undesirable, especially early on in their respective debuts. Meanwhile... ooh, Connor can hide in conveniently placed tall grass, around corners of conveniently placed tents and in hay stacks that just so happen to be there. But hey, what if there aren't any means of covering up bodies within a short radius? Whoops, you're fucked! Well, you would be if Connor wasn't so strong that he could win in a two on one handicap match between Chuck Norris and Rambo while kickboxing with bengal tigers and taking breaks to impregnate your mother!
That's something that really drove me insane while playing this game. What further drove me to want to just finish this so I can see how my should've-been-favorite series “ends” is the fact that it only really applies to like a couple of your targets. Those few at least have area designs that can be utilized for a stealthy approach to their demise. Everybody else... nope, effort was clearly not in Ubisoft's dictionary during development of this game – the 2012 apocalypse was upon us and dammit, we don't want Ubisoft to look like idiots who rely more on some shitty sci fi story than a boring retelling of America's history with some half black guy in a hood hastily shoved into it because why not. A lot of the time, the assassinations will either consist of inexplicably slamming them in the face or watching some flashy cutscene where he jumps down and plows a musket down their throat. While these scenes look “cool”, what feels more satisfying is when you can immerse yourself into the experience via the use the environment in a variety of ways that you see fit and surprise your target with a bladed kebab or a literal stab in the back with grace and subtlety – after all, this is called Assassin's Creed, no? Not Errand Boy's Creed, nor Sandbox Game With Shit Story? Now, excuse me while I play the first Assassin's Creed and immerse myself in the well designed levels that allow you some liberties with your methods of assassination, or the second to immerse myself into a story that's great!
It's really a waste of time to delve into graphics and sound design because Assassin's Creed is normally known for having strong production value for the most part anyway. But hey, let's dive into it anyway by mentioning that Assassin's Creed 3 looks great, has detailed textures, runs smoothly for the most part (I've noticed some framerate issues when too much is going on in towns or on the outskirts) and the animations are mostly hypnotically smooth. The townsfolk still look a bit muddy, but when the landscapes and main character models look exquisitely detailed, it's a minor problem. The soundtrack STILL does little for me – it doesn't really make the subtle moments any more subtle, nor is it exciting when it needs to be. It's just there, really. I don't mind listening to the songs on their own on Youtube or whatever because they don't sound bad, but for the sake of ambiance, it does nothing, and memorabilia is nowhere to be found either. It's just big for the sake of being big. The voice acting is mostly good, especially Connor's – it perfectly suits the fact that he has literally no personality whatsoever by sounding robotic as fuck, even more so when speaking his native Indian language. But for legitimately good performances, everybody else manages to sound the part with a lot of bite behind them and all that.
Wow, I don't usually get into this much detail whenever I review a game – instead preferring to talk about parts of games that stick out to me and itemizing why they're good or bad - but it goes to show how much this game disappointed me because all of this shit stood out to me. Assassin's Creed 1 had great ideas but not quite with the rosiest of executions, while Assassin's Creed 2 is a fine piece of work with a captivating story and mostly excellent gameplay. I love those games and all Assassin's Creed 3 did was serve to make me more grateful for them because it's so incapable of making you out to be a real assassin. Instead, you're an errand boy who'll occasionally be a ship commander and maybe sometimes be an assassin. It's all tied to the plot, which is so poorly thought out that it never really sucks you into the story. Whether it moves at the speed of a tectonic plate or sails on waters choppier than Dragon Ball Z's animation, it never, at one point, even allows you to give a shit. In short, this game is crap. I've made the point before that if it wasn't tied to the Assassin's Creed name, was shorter, had better plot pacing and had more cool moments, this would be game of the year material. Instead, it drags the tedium on longer than this review and will entice you to play the older games as a palate cleanser.
Same time next year Ubisoft?