Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Half Yearly Exam - the highs and lows of 2012

With the year being halfway done, I feel the need to make some sort of summary of gaming pre-E3 2012. This can either be the most uneventful half of the year or... I guess a tad less eventful. Either way, let's look at it all so far.

We'll start with what's good so far.

Binary Domain
Starting off this list is a cover based third person shooter from the same team who make the Yakuza games. At first, it just felt like an ordinary third person shooter, but then you enter the second half, and its brilliance truly shows with excellent writing and some pretty damn intense fights... not that the intensity was low in the first half, but the second half was muuuuch better in that regard. With that said, I don't like the fact that this game is a slow burner. When it comes to shooters, you pretty much want to start off strong and keep going strong. If it had even a good beginning, this would be my pick for game of the year, but given its mediocre start, it's not quite there.

The Darkness 2
Yeah, it's not nearly as good as the original game, but that game was fucking excellent and easily one of the best games in this generation. However, this sequel is still worth buying. It puts in a good effort to continue the story, and even though it's not nearly as interesting or emotional, it's still one that you'll be absorbed into. The structure of this game is like that of any shooter - linear hallways, bang bang bang. The Darkness itself does make things interesting at least. Overall, a good game, but nowhere near as good as the original game. Plus it's a bit short.

I Am Alive
Another potentially disappointing game - this time, because it went from being a full retail game to a downloadable game due to what I assume was shaky development. Not to worry, because it is still a good game. One thing that always bugs me about the Resident Evil series is that while it gets survival down to a tee, playing it is a pain in the ass. I Am Alive gets the survival aspect down to a tee by not leaving too many items around, forcing you to play conservatively in a world stricken by disaster. The platforming may seem like Uncharted or Enslaved in which most (if not all) is done with a simple press of the button, but with the addition of the stamina meter, it makes things much, much more tense. That's what I Am Alive is all about - tension and survival. Perhaps it is a bit clunky, but nothing that you can get used to (yeah, I hate using that argument to justify shit controls, but these are not bad - just a bit clunky and the rest of the game is good enough to make it easy to overlook). Overall, definitely worth a purchase, though I do wish it was the retail game it could've been. Ah well.

Dragon's Dogma
This is certainly an interesting game. It's basically a WRPG done by a Japanese developer (Capcom), and while the story is pretty mediocre and the lack of fast travel eventually makes backtracking a bore and a half (not my fault that I don't play games 24 hours a day unlike those who praise the lack of fast travel), the game is pretty fucking good. The combat is fluid and tons of fun to engage in, and the bosses are fan-fucking-tastically designed. God, I just love the combat in this game and the Pawns have some pretty good AI... which I guess makes up for the lack of co-op multiplayer... ah well, it all works out well in the end and what you'll get out of this is a game that'll really impress you. Expect this game on the end of year list.

Max Payne 3
This is how you make a reboot - take the old game, and modernize it! Max Payne 3 has most of the Max Payne feel, which is John Woo style shooting with bullettime up the ass and you needing to use it strategically (you know, unless you want to die), but it has the cover system we all know and love from other third person shooters, plus it just feels a lot tighter in general. The mood itself is different - instead of the melancholic tone of the first two games, it feels more like an action movie with hints of said melancholic tone thrown out there throughout. But if you see that as an issue, you probably also see fun and excitement as a bad thing, throwing terms such as narrative connection and all this other psuedo-intellectual bullshit nobody actually cares about. No, what I see an issue with is that you can't skip the cutscenes, which can be fairly lengthy. Fine for the first time through, but pretty shitty the second time through. Beyond that, it is a fantastic game. Also another game you should expect on the end of year list... at least, I'd hope so.

However, we've had our share of shitty and just plain disappointing games, so... here they are.

This is, like, the OPPOSITE of what Max Payne 3 did! Instead of taking an old formula and building upon it with modernizations, Starbreeze (yeah, I had to quadruple check that - I thought they were better than this) went "fuck it, strategy games aren't cool, it's a first person shooter". Now, I would have absolutely no problem with that if it wasn't so fucking boring! This is about as by the numbers as it gets, folks. Go through corridor, bang bang bang, corridor - you get the drill, and unlike The Darkness 2, it does fuck all to seperate itself from its kind. Even the powers are lame. I just couldn't give a fuck about this by the numbers game. That and the neon color scheme (which actually does irritate my eyes after a while) is what really holds it back.

Blades Of Time
Did we really need a sequel to X-Blades? X-Blades was, at best, a guilty pleasure. It felt like a bad Devil May Cry clone, but it was fun enough to justify existing. Mind you, I'd sooner buy Bayonetta than X-Blades, but whatever. Blades Of Time is a shitty hack and slash that isn't fun. It's drab, boring, and I just can't fucking play this shit anymore.

Lollipop Chainsaw
Clunky is the best way to sum up Lollipop Chainsaw. Really clunky. Like it doesn't control all that well, flow too well or even feel alright. It just feels like an early PS2 hack and slash not named Devil May Cry - awkward and about as fun as watching paint dry. Oh, and the quick time events... they suck. Just feels like they're put in there because, well, what game doesn't have them these days? Thanks God Of War! Not all the funny dialogue in the world can save this game from being pretty fucking clunky!

Soul Calibur 5
It'd be so easy to simply say "rush job" and end it right there, but then there'd be little reason to put this here. No, my issue lies with what it could've been. This takes place 17 years after the events of the last game. Alright, we have a bunch of new characters and a new-ish setting, so what do we do from there? Well, let's only give two of the new characters a story each, let's make the stories terrible, and let's have the storyboards serve as the visual. Genius! Not only that, but let's turn the fighting engine into some sort of half assed Blazblue clone! Let's make half the characters unbalanced as fuck, especially Nightmare and Siegfried with their comically big swords and the fact that they're fast as fuck in their huge amounts of armor! Hell, fuck the single player - it's all about multiplayer! Now, yeah, that is normally the case for fighting games, but last I checked, even the first Soul Calibur game had a good amount of content for single player... Does rush job sound any better, people? Because it is.

Pokemon Conquest
Unimpressive is the word best used to describe this. Mind you, there are only two real flaws - the AI is dumber than what you'd find in the generation 1 games and it does everything in its power to not feel like baby's first SRPG. What I mean by the latter is that there are plenty of different systems put in place, but they're either explained poorly or not at all, and yet, when you get right down to it, it's a really basic strategy game. Perhaps the ditzy blonde AI contributes to it feeling like an easy strategy game with little of the actual strategy? Or maybe it's the fact that your Pokemon only have one attack and can completely change from being melee attackers to being ranged attackers upon evolution? I don't know, but I thought this game was pretty mediocre and a huge disappointment. Damn, I really wanted a Pokemon SRPG, too...

The absolute worst game of 2012 so far is...
Anybody who thinks the reception for this game was exaggerated for any reason... hasn't played it. If this is a real survival horror experience, then thank fuck this genre died. I don't give a rat's ass about clunky combat or anything that you'd come to expect in survival horror games. What I do care about, however, is the lack of polish. Not in the graphics, though they aren't exactly the prettiest around either (even by Xbox Live Arcade standards), but in the game itself. I've had moments where I died and lost something that I needed to progress... which is fair enough, until you realize that you can't backtrack... at all. You're stuck and you have to reset. A lack of playtesting coupled with broken mechanics and feeling more bored than scared... this isn't just the worst game of 2012, but also the worst game of this generation.

The absolute best game of 2012 so far is...
Silent Hill: Downpour
Talk about the complete opposite to Amy! Like Max Payne 3, it takes the old formula and modernizes it without it feeling too different. In this case, why not take the clunky old survival horror thing and improve the controls? Wow, I didn't know what was so hard! Yes, combat is a bit clunkier than it was in Homecoming, but it's never a nuisance, unless you're forced to fight multiple enemies at once. Unlike Amy, there is always the feeling of tension, the feeling of suspence, and real legitimate horror, and as you'd expect from the Silent Hill series, you're never sure if there actually is something around the corner or not, but the sound design just fucks with your mind (and yeah, I know it's the composer from the Dexter TV series doing it instead of Akira Yamaoka, but this guy definitely knows what he's doing), and then when you're given the Otherworld, fuck, the visual designs don't let up in terms of suspense and scares. It keeps the series's tradition of deep, character driven storytelling, showing us a sort of Dante's Inferno as they travel through Silent Hill to go toe to toe with their mental demons, and it is very compelling as Murphy is a very likeable character whose journey you'd really want to see from beginning to end, changing as he goes... a little thing called character development if you will. Yeah, this game is just fucking fantastic, and if you haven't got it, go get it. Now!

Well, that does it for this half of the year. Tune in next time for when I do this sort of thing for all the games instead of just these games! I may have missed a few, but that's either because I haven't played them (pretty much anything on the PS3), or they didn't really do as well or as badly as those found on the list (Kid Icarus: Uprising and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City). That, and Xenoblade Chronicles was released in 2010 in Japan and last year here in Australia. So yeah, hope you enjoyed this list, and if you don't like it, well, sorry, but Amy did suck really badly.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: Kid Icarus: Uprising

As much as I feel like saying "holy shit it's Capsized all over again", I can't, because I gave this game more of a chance than I did Capsized. Why? Because Kid Icarus: Uprising is possible to control and at times, it's a lot of fun to play, whereas Capsized just pissed me off to no end with its horrible controls. There are some flaws here and there, but overall, this is a pretty good game despite the piss poor controls.

The story is that Pit, under the orders of Lady Palutena, has to stop the forces of darkness from destroying the world of the living. However, one of Medusa's commanders, Pandora, creates a dark clone of Pit, but since Pit interferes with the cloning process, Dark Pit doesn't serve Medusa; he serves himself, meaning he's neither good nor evil. That's... about as far as I would like to go because holy shit, this story is a mess. Shit happens, Palutena (and other characters) crack jokes at Pit's expense and Pit tries not to look like a dickhead, then more stuff happens - development is NOT this game's strong suit whatsoever and trying to make sense of stuff will only hurt your brain. Basically, it goes in one ear and out the other. In fact, what I described... is all that I can remember off the top of my head as far as a cohesive narrative goes.

On the other hand, the dialogue is excellent! Throughout the game, they'll crack jokes at each others' expenses and constantly reference (and take pot shots at) the original game, but not in a tasteless manner. The writing is done in a way that makes each joke flow, hit hard with their punchlines and just feel funny, or at least make the game feel light hearted. At its core, it's a revival of a game series that hasn't had a game in like 20 years, and rather than be all dark and edgy like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies or dull and mediocre like Rocket Knight, it felt more like Splatterhouse in that yeah, there's a plot, but there's also some witty banter that needs to take place between Rick and the Terror Mask - why not give Pit and Palutena that kind of relationship? In the end, it takes an otherwise shitty story and makes it seem good.

Gameplay is split into two sections - flight and ground combat. In flight, you'll find yourself shooting down waves of enemies while Palutena controls your flight pattern (since Pit can't fly on his own). They start off simple enough by having you shoot down enemies, but after a couple of levels, the designs start to incorporate obstacles and have Pit go faster, which can make things hectic... like a shoot em up ought to be! But if things get too hectic, you can use an attack where you destroy everyone on the screen at that moment by touching the blue orb on the touch screen. With that, things feel a bit easier, and that attack is balanced by having you wait until that orb fills back up, so it's not like you can just spam it. Based off of this, it's easy to assume that it's a lot of fun, which it fucking is.

On the ground is another story. This is when the controls feel like shit. For one thing, why are the shoulder buttons used to attack? The combat is done in a way where you'll find yourself mashing it, and these things feel a little too fragile to be mashed like that. The other thing is the camera. Since you're using the shoulder buttons as your attack buttons, sadly, the touch screen serves not just as your reticle, but your CAMERA! You move the stylus around to move the camera or flick the stylus across the screen to turn it 180 degrees. It's like they felt that they HAD to incorporate the touch screen in some way, shape or form, which is SO 2004. Come on, this is the motherfucking 3DS, not the DS...

...but even if the controls were good, the ground sections just aren't as good as the aerial sections. The idea is to rush through a bunch of halls and shoot up or beat up a bunch of monsters. That's the basic gist of it. Oh sure, there's a bit of exploration for some optional stuff, but for the most part, you're going through halls to kick some ass. There's nothing wrong with it besides the crap controls, and a lot of the fights that take place in thin corridors can be quite intense, but a lot of it just comes down to how long these sections can get. The aerial segments last about 4 or 5 minutes but never really feel that long; the ground segments last between 5 and 15 minutes, but they feel like they take about 20 minutes because there are heaps upon heaps of enemy encounters and most of the enemies just feel the same. There isn't a large variety of enemies and the combat really boils down to hammering the L button and dodging some attacks from other enemies. Most other games have something that keeps the combat interesting – Devil May Cry had enemies that could gangrape you with fast and effective attacks; Ninja Gaiden had the same thing going for it and added a very technical combat engine to it even more interesting; Kingdom Hearts has a large variety of enemies. Always a thing that keeps you going. Kid Icarus: Uprising has... umm... a large variety of weapons... wow, that's just fucked.

I guess I'm being hard on it, but here's the thing – it can still be a lot of fun, but it's the fact that you'll be spending more time than necessary dealing with a simple combat engine and a very small variety of enemies throughout most of the second half of the game that makes it hard to stomach. It feels like either more could've been added to the combat, or there could've been less enemy encounters. Either way, the ground sections just aren't that great in their current form. The only way they redeem themselves after getting boring is through the boss battles. They are fast, frenetic and actually fairly tricky as they can dish out quite a bit of pain. Perhaps their attack variety isn't huge, but what they have is more than enough to send Pit to the deepest circle of Hell if he doesn't do anything, even the earlier bosses. Believe me when I say that in the second half of the game when the ground levels start to get obnoxiously long, it's a fucking treat to fight a damn good boss that's also quite tricky.

I bet you're wondering what I meant by a large variety of weapons. Well, what I mean is that you'll have a large, large variety of weapons at your disposal. A lot of them fire different projectiles, like rapid fire, a big blast or weighted projectiles, and they have different melee capabilities, like quick slashes and hard hits. As you collect weapons throughout the levels or buy them from the store with hearts (earned through killing enemies), you can fuse them together to create entirely different weapons with balanced stats... like say one weapon is proficient with one thing and is shit with another, and the other weapon is the inverse of that. The final product is a balance of both, which can be both a detriment and an advantage. Oh, did I mention that they have special abilities like extra speed or power (among much, much more)? You can have certain abilities from both combined to make the special abilities in your new weapon. You can try them out in a training mode and see if they'll work with your playstyle.

There is one thing that is very fucking impressive, and that's the way the difficulty levels are balanced out. When you enter a level, you can select a difficulty level between 1 and 9. Basically, the higher the difficulty, the more enemies there will be and the more punishment that they'll take, but with risk comes reward as you'll get even more hearts from killing enemies and even better treasure like better weapons, and the levels have doors that will open if you are playing at a difficulty setting or higher (say if it has a 5 on it, then if you set the difficulty to 5 or above, you can access that room and reap the rewards and kill more enemies). I mean, it does a better job of explaining why I don't find the ground sections that great – the enemies are more about how much punishment they can take than forcing you to develop a strategy beyond dodging the occasional projectile(s) – but in terms of balancing, I think it does a fantastic job.

When it comes to the visuals, this game looks excellent. The models are clean and crispy with some rich colors that just looks great, and it doesn't lag, so . That's not to mention the size of this game – there is a clear eye for scope as it is a biiiig game. If this was on an HD console, you'd be able to see how big this game really is. There are plenty of big levels like the city in the first level, or the war that takes place during the next few levels, and that's just the appetizer. What really helps it feel big, though, is the 3D. There is a huge sense of depth as it feels like everything is flying towards you in the aerial segments, or stuff is coming at you, and since that's the idea of 3D, I'd say it works well.

Sound design also has that sense of scope. The songs are big, juicy and epic, and they really get you into the game by matching what's going on. Whether it's an intense shooting level or a moment where they're talking, each song really suits the moment and just pulls you in. Then again, if you're going to have a thunderous orchestra do your soundtrack, you better have that kind of effect or you're just wasting their time. Then there's the voice acting, which is also very well done. Each bit of dialogue is given a lot of conviction and manages to draw you in as a result.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a fine, fine game that feels grand and epic while being a ton of fun to play for the most part. It's just that the ground levels wear out their welcome, the story itself is poorly paced and feels like a mess, and the controls on the ground are an even bigger mess. But looking past that, you will find a game that has some fast and frenetic aerial combat and boss fights, which when combined with the sheer size of the graphics and soundtrack on top of some fine stereoscopic 3D makes for quite an experience that's not to be missed.

7/10 (Good)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: The Elder Scrolls II Daggerfall

Hands down, my favorite RPG of all time is The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall. I loved every minute of this game, even the parts that would annoy me in other games, mainly because what it does right, it does absolutely right, even if given the limitations of the PC in 1996, and especially since it has such a big world to explore. That's the beauty of this series – there's always so much to do with a lot of space to do it in, and I felt that Daggerfall capitalized on this concept the best. In short, I love this game. In fact, this review isn't as much of a review as it is my love letter to Bethesda for making this game, or at least to the boys and girls behind Daggerfall.

After you've done creating your character (as in, naming your character, choosing your race, choosing your class and tweaking various base stats), you'll find that your character had been shipwrecked in the country of Daggerfall. After escaping from the dungeon, you'll find that there are two quests that you need to do – first, you need to free the ghost of a dead king, and secondly, you must discover what happened to a letter you got from one of the emperor's spies. The letter is about a means of ressurecting a powerful iron golem... so having it fall into the wrong hands is not a good idea.

I have to say that while it can be rather intriguing at times, the story isn't exactly good. You'll be given enough story for it to function as a cohesive whole, and giving it multiple endings will further motivate you into replaying this game (you know, besides just trying out different classes), but it's nothing that will set you alight. It just works. Besides the main story, you can get involved with different guilds, who have their own little sidestories, plus there are important characters who have their own quests. Besides that, a lot of the sidequests you'll be given involve killing monsters. So yeah, the amount of stories to go through is impressive, but the storytelling itself is definitely not Daggerfall's strong suit... nor is it the series' strong suit in general. It just gives enough to get by
No, the strong suit is the exploration! I have to say, Daggerfall has got to be the biggest video game land ever created. There are plenty of cities, fortresses, temples, dungeons, and other such places to explore, and you can spend days upon days just finding new areas. In fact, it's so big, that a fast travel feature was included (so yeah, ignorant Oblivion haters, fast travel is not a casualization – Bethesda just forgot about it in Morrowind), and it really, really, really helps in the long run, just in case you have to get to an area you've already been to that's a bit too far away to simply walk towards. In fact, fast travel is imperative if you want to experience everything, because Daggerfall runs on a timed system, meaning that certain events only occur at certain times. The later games, especially Skyrim, isn't as time heavy as this one, so it can be a bit disorenting at first, but eventually, you'll get the idea.

But what really gives it its edge is how much of it is randomly generated. From NPCs to quests and dungeons, it's not as if you're going through the same dungeon twice in succession, and the only repetition to be found (besides the structure of quests, but come on, that's how it goes in life) is in the NPC models. I will admit that the dungeons can feel rather samey, but the fact that their designs and the enemies inside are randomly generated will ensure that it never feels old. Generally speaking, they're maze-y in design, and given that you're in a first person perspective, you'll find that you'll need to walk around a lot just to find your way to the objective – usually a boss monster or the big, valuable treasure an NPC needs – so they were like “hey, why not leave some items and stuff lying around”. Various weapons, including bows and different sizes of axes and swords to name a few, as well as various sorts of armor... let's just say that you'll need to do a fair amount of mixing and matching to get the best results to go with your class.

It's not just the dungeons, though. You may remember that I've mentioned guilds... well, you can join up different guilds, like the knights guild, the thieves guild and the dark brotherhood, to name a few. Joining one guild will make you an enemy of the other guilds, and not being a loyal member of your guild may make you a target for them too, so it's usually a good idea to be a good little member. With that not only ensures that you will live to see the next day, but also some neat weaponry, armory and gold, which can be used to purchase more weaponry, armory and even a horse and carriage, a ship and a house to store your stuff in... what you get from the guilds are obviously relevant to what kind you've joined, like the mages guild will net you some spells while the knights guild deals with weapons and armor. There's just a lot of choice with this game and I feel that the guilds offer the most in this department, as you'll need to think about which one you should join and all that sort of stuff.

However, travelling isn't without its woes. First off, it seems like Daggerfall was too big for Bethesda's own good, as even with the patches you can get off their site, it's still a fairly glitchy place to be. In fact, if you were to have played this after Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, you'd think that the creater screwed up the creation of a machine that lets descendants relive the memories of their ancestors from Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim and ended up creating this “mess”. What I mean is that at times, you'll find yourself getting stuck between two polygon objects with no way out... besides suicide. There are times when you're given a specific monster to slay... and you wind up in a dungeon full of that monster, meaning you'll have to slay every single one of them just to get the right one and be done with the sidequest. Then there's the infamous void – oh no, it's not a place, but a glitch where you may find yourself falling down a tile, never to return. This makes dungeon crawling a nightmare at the worst of times. Plus it has a tendency to crash for no reason. It doesn't do it often, but it happens enough for me to document it, so... yeah, I'd suggest saving often, lest you want all of your time spent playing to go into the void.

So how is it possible for me to bitch about the glitches and yet give this game a very positive rating? I will admit that it does require a certain amount of patience to deal with, but above all else, I'd say it's because if it wasn't glitchy, it'd be the perfect game back in 1996 and still a pretty darn good game today. Even the combat in this game is good... I mean, given the limitations of the PC back then, simple sword swings and projectiles were all they could do, and while I had a bit of an issue with simplistic combat in Skyrim, it's not really an issue in Daggerfall because Daggerfall is a first person RPG that was more about exploration than combat, while Skyrim was leaning more towards combat and thus I had higher expectations for its combat engine. Oh, and Skyrim was the fifth in the series – surely, they could've done more by then!? But that's just me. Actually, what I find funny is that you have to do more than just click in Daggerfall, as you first have to unsheathe your weapon, then hold the left mouse button down and move the cursor across the enemy... whereas in the later games, you just clicked and prayed that you win.

There's more to it than that. For instance, you can make your own spells by taking basic spells and adding abilities to it, like longer range or more power, among many other things. Same thing with equipment. Constantly using spells and equipment will allow you to level up those statistics so that you can become more proficient in them or bulkier in that armor. You can also summon monsters to gain powerful artefacts in exchange for doing quests for them. You can become a vampire by becoming infected and dying. You can become a werewolf or a wereboar, which is just badass if you ask me. I'm just scratching the surface here, guys – there's just so much to do, even in the combat. Too bad that the further along Bethesda got with these games, the less options they gave you... you can't even turn into a wereboar in Morrowind. Screw you, wereboars are awesome!
The graphics haven't exactly aged well. This was back when 3D graphics was starting to becomg a big thing in gaming, and it really shows. Everything has jagged edges and looks very pixellated, and putting in 3D models with 2D landscapes just doesn't sit right with me unless both look good... which is not the case here. The 2D graphics actually don't look too bad, but when stacked with the 3D graphics, they just don't quite look right. It's a shame, because at the time, it didn't look half bad. The sprites had a fair amount of detail in the coloring and designing, and the monsters didn't look half bad either. The buildings... it's like a Frankenstein project with them, having 3D modeling and 2D texturing. But yeah, the graphics aren't very good and they're only tolerable on an aesthetic level... which is a shame, because I can see a lot of people skipping this game just based on that, but again, what this game gets right is worth going through what it gets wrong.

The music may seem a bit weird at first as the timing seems to be a bit off, but given a minute or so, and it'll not only start to sound right, but also sound great! Each track always seems to fit the mood, like an uplifitng tune for the tavern, a calm tune for the towns and a subtly forboding set of tunes for the towns at night and the dungeons. Not to mention that these are quite memorable tunes. Perhaps it's because they sound like the standard for each of those kinds of themes on steroids? I could say so. But if you expect your Elder Scrolls experience to be in a more organic, orchestral format as opposed to being all MIDI music, I don't think you'll enjoy the soundtrack as much as I did, which was quite a lot actually. Ah well. It's still a very good soundtrack.

The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is just... wow. Glitchy perfection doesn't even begin to describe it. It is the pure essence of a role playing game. You choose your race, your class, your guild and just go out exploring. You can basically do whatever you want in such an open environment. In fact, if the glitches were gone and the graphics given a huge overhaul, you'd pretty much get a perfect game on your hands with this one. As it stands, it's the epitome of Western role playing games, the standard that they will be measured on (can't really do this with Japanese role playing games on the grounds that the Japanese do things rather differently with their role playing games). I mean, I don't expect an exact replica of Daggerfall, because it was a product of its time. No, what I expect is role playing on the level of Daggerfall because of the sheer amount of decisions that can define your character...

In short, I love this game and it certainly gets my blessing, glitches and all.

9.5/10 (Fucking Excellent)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Dark Cloud

It's funny when you look back on certain games - like what seemed like one of the best games you've ever played is actually just an above average one at best. It's not so much that Dark Cloud has aged badly because I think it's actually aged pretty well, but rather, it's just me really looking at a game and realizing that some things could afford to be a lot better, or that some things could be abolished altogether. That's just what Dark Cloud feels like to me - it wants to be a masterpiece in the rough that's the early PS2 lineup, but all it felt like was a game that tided you over while you're waiting for Final Fantasy X. Not bad or even mediocre, but there's always the feeling that it could be so much more than what it is.

The Dark Genie has been resurrected by a cult, and the first thing it does is destroy the world. But the Fairy King manages to save everything, though besides our hero Toan, everything is confined into spheres known as Atla, which have been spread throughout the dungeons in the world. The Fairy King gives Toan the power to interact with Atla by putting a gem known as the Atlamillia onto one of his gloves, and gets him to save the world. Pretty much up until the last dungeon where the plot really starts to thicken, the most you'll get out of this story are some sidestories about the area you're in or an ally you'll get in that area, and while they do their best in at least giving you something to give a shit about, they're pretty dull and half assed at best. A few times throughout the game though, you'll bump into a character who seems to have survived the Dark Genie's attack and wants to stop him because he keeps on getting possessed by him, and he does offer some foreshadowing for the last dungeon, where the plot thickens. So basically, you have to wade through what could be considered an excuse plot to get to a point where the plot actually starts to exist. It does give you something to look forward to, but it's pretty fucking cheap if you ask me! Fuck that.

You'll spend most of your time in dungeons. Each floor has a randomly generated design, although there is still a sense of difficulty and progression as you'll get stronger enemies as you get closer to the boss floor. But yeah, they're randomly generated, meaning you'll have the same simple goal(s) throughout each floor. You have to find the key to the next floor either by killing a certain enemy or opening a certain chest. Since you have no indication of where it is, you'll be encouraged to kill every enemy and open every chest, and since that benefits you with weapon EXP and items, shit, you should be going through everything to be as good as you can be. You'll also have to hunt down and open up every Atla sphere in all the floors so that you can restore the towns that have been destroyed. My biggest problem with the dungeons is that there are too many fucking floors. What could've been a somewhat entertaining romp of 10 floors feels like I'm just slogging along 15/20/even 30 floors at one stage, and at the end, I'm just like "why" because it feels like I'm doing busywork more than actually having a good time playing it. None of the designs of the floors are particularly special either, so it just begs the question of why bother with heaps of floors if you clearly don't give a shit? It's a shame, because it does start off rather fun. The enemies may be simple in that they have one or two attacks and all you really need to do is dig into them at the right time, but it's still fun to kill them. Not "holy shit fapfapfap" fun, but just "cool" fun. Too bad that as the dungeons drag on, so do the enemies, and while there are different designs, they're all essentially the same and as such, all the fights feel the same. This borders on Assassin's Creed 1 repetition at the worst of times, particularly the last dungeon (and don't get me started on the optional 100 floor dungeon... if you've beaten that dungeon, you must not have any better games to play).

Thankfully, the bosses are worth slogging through eventually boring dungeons to get to. They, too, are simple in design - a couple of attacks, nothing fancy here, but what makes them work really well (besides the fact that you only have to fight them once) is that they're actually somewhat of a challenge to fight! It's not just a matter of doing a lot of damage to you; there are also patterns to consider, like one boss will try to freeze you while you have to take her shield out before you can get to her (gee, I wonder where Square got their influence for Vexen from?), or blow away a dark figure to attack its coffin. It may all sound basic, but it works to its advantage in this case because it still requires some cognitive effort to beat them. In fact, boss fights can be downright intense at times, depending on how much grinding you've done throughout the game. The difficulty curve is a little bullshit though - the second hardest boss in the game (besides the optional one) is the third boss, yet the fourth boss is actually the easiest with the only hard part being that you must use a useless character... at least his ability to conjure a light breeze from spinning his staff doesn't have to deal much more than like 1 bit of damage to actually do something.

There is an RPG aspect in this game, and that's in making the weapons stronger. As you progress through dungeons, you'll find weapons in big chests that you can make stronger by kicking ass. Now, you can level up your default weapon as well, but why level up a shitty weapon when you can access a better one? Anyway, as you kill enemies with a weapon, it'll gain EXP and once the little blue bar underneath its HP fills up, you can upgrade it to, say, Bone Rapier +1. But there's more to it than that. Throughout the game, you'll find gems with elements and attributes, which you can attach two of to a weapon to give it extra properties, like extra Fire damage or more power, and when you level up that weapon, it'll absorb the gems, letting you attach two more. But this isn't just to make that weapon worth more than one that just levels up - you can also upgrade certain weapons into certain stronger weapons with different names and much better stats depending on how you level it up. It winds up becoming an interesting system as you can customize your weapons while working towards the goal of making it the strongest sword or whatever that it can be... Just don't break it. Oh yeah, for some reason, they gave weapons HP, meaning as you strike, it'll lose HP, and if it breaks... bye bye weapon. What a stupid idea. Imaginary difficulty at its finest - yeah, I know combat isn't complicated, but you know, rather than insert stupid shit like weapon HP, why not make the combat better? Otherwise, well, there are better games to be played without such ridiculousness. Oh, and just because there's Weapon Powder, doesn't meant I suddenly think this is a good concept... because it's not. At all.

In all honesty, don't be surprised if you're not playing as every character, as only two are really useful. It probably doesn't help that you have three melee attackers and three ranged attackers, with the ranged attackers only differing in how much damage they deal... fuck, at least the melee squad has speed, special abilities (usually a stronger attack, though one has that spinning thing I mentioned before) AND power to deal with. Sadly, this game thinks that you'll be using all of these characters, and the dungeons will make sure of that because there are specific floors where you can only use that character. It's not so bad early on, but good luck in the final dungeon using a character you've probably only used like once.

But don't forget that you're not just stopping the Dark Genie - you're also rebuilding the world, and he's where the power of the Atlamillia comes into play. Using the Atla you've collected, you have to first fill in the slots (like putting people and objects in a house or shop or something), and then place it on the ground. At first, it's just a matter of assembling things together, but once you complete the dungeon, you'll have to talk to the people and ask them how they'd like to have their houses positioned - usually by the river or near a certain person, among other things, but the point is, you have to take their suggestions into consideration so that you can get a rare item from them. Actually, there's more to it than that, as some houses have to be finished before you can complete the dungeon - in fact, one has to be done at the halfway point - because these tend to have items that you need in order to progress. There is a sense of open endedness with this, but that's if you don't want the super special awesome item from the townsfolk. Funny enough, besides the bosses, this is probably the most fun you'll find in the game. Just trying to get the exact locations right is one that, while it won't rack your brain, will make you think at least a little, and I like to think that it's a fun little exercise.

There is practically little replay value to speak of. I mean, I guess you could continue to work on upgrading your weapons if you haven't already gotten the strongest one, and then go through the 100 floor snoozefest of a dungeon... no thank you. I didn't have fun going through even 15 floors, why would 100 floors sound appetizing? Oh, and there are back rooms in each floor, in which the enemies are much stronger, but there are rare items to get. But I have to say... in the 10 years I've been playing this game, I've been to about 10 back rooms because the items needed to access them are fucking rare!

The game looks good for its time, there's no denying that. Actually, it still looks good to this day, but let's get the elephant in the room out of the way - the look of the environments get really old. Like the dungeons themselves, they're fine for the first 10 floors, but afterwards, it's very easy to start wishing they'd do something to give it more pizazz because you start to realize just how bland they really look. Nothing pops out or even looks good, and the biggest offender is the dull color scheme for them. It's funny, because - and here's the awesome side of the coin - the character models are actually fairly colorful! They're bright, they're vibrant, they stand out and they look excellently crafted, even by 2001 standards and even when stood next to Final Fantasy X's models! The animations flow pretty well and don't really have any unintentionally delayed frames, nor does it lag at any time throughout. Overall, yeah, it has actually aged well... too bad the dungeons start to look redundant after a while and aren't that good looking to begin with.

Much like the environments, the songs get tiresome after a while. At first, the songs sound good and even pretty catchy at the best of times. They all suit their environments pretty well as well, but the real shitkicker is that each song is a 30 second loop, and after a while, it grates on your nerves and when you remember the songs (which is possible), yeah, it sounds nice, but after a while, you just feel like bashing your skull in against the nearest brick wall until you can remember an awesome tune. The sound effects are underwhelming, but not nearly as underwhelming as the voice acting... of which there is none. At all. Besides grunts, there is no voice work, and I'm not sure whether to say it's a blessing or a curse...

Dark Cloud is, by no means, a bad game. It's simply a game that gets tiresome after a while. It's like Level 5 gets an idea in their heads that sounds at least kind of fun and drag it on forever, eventually making it feel redundant to the point where it stops being fun and starts feeling like work. When a game starts to feel like work, the only reason you bother to keep playing is because you have hope that something fun will pop up, and when you face a boss or work with restoring the world, it ranges from refreshing to quite fun and makes the banal dungeon crawling worth it.

6/10 (Above average)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: Assassin's Creed 2

Assassin's Creed, while not exactly a good game by any sense of the word, was pretty fucking successful. It sold plenty of copies and managed to keep Ubisoft afloat (long story short, they were about to be bought by EA, but then came Assassin's Creed to give Ubisoft a financial backbone). Add in the mid game plot twist-esque ending, and Ubisoft would be pretty fucking stupid to not make a sequel, and you know what? Assassin's Creed 2 is a huuuuuge improvement! While some would disagree due to not liking the story as much or not liking Ezio period, you have to admit, the gameplay is a lot better, and that's what a sequel is meant to do – take the first game, and work on what didn't work to make it work. Assassin's Creed 2 is a fine, fine example of that.

Taking place right after the twist ending of the first game, Desmond is broken out of Abstergo with the aid of Lucy, who had worked with the doctor from the first game to get closer to Desmond and use him in the ongoing war between the templars and assassins. She gets him to a safehouse and along with her buddies, she hooks Desmond up to the Animus 2.0, which will allow him to relive the life of another one of his ancestors – this time, Ezio Auditore. Although Desmond is actually given a reason for existing in this game, you don't see quite as much of Desmond as you did in the first game. Then again, anything to build up the next game in the seires...

So for the time being, here's Ezio's story. Ezio lives a carefree existence of seducing women and getting into trouble. But one day, his family gets involved in a conspiracy and his dad and brothers are hanged for “treason”. Out of anger, he causes a ruckus by trying to kill who he reckoned was the conspirator, but from there, he becomes the most wanted person in Florence, so he flees with his mother and sister. They stop at his uncle Mario's villa (or mansion, if you will), and Mario tells Ezio that he must take on his father's role... as an assassin. With a newfound lust for vengeance, he travels around Italy to assassinate political figures that are linked with the conspiracy.

I definitely find this game's story to be a lot better for many reasons. For one thing, it uses the theme of revenge as a means of developing Ezio's character. He starts off with red in his eyes, wanting to kill those who have wronged him and his family, and when he kills his first major target, he loses control of his emotions and Mario has to calm him down. Eventually, Ezio learns to control his temper, and further along the line, he stops doing it for the sake of vengeance and does it to help mankind. Another thing is Ezio himself – he's just a more captivating character than Altair was. Altair may have had a decent amount of depth to his character, but his cold personality and his lack of development made it hard to care for him, while Ezio's more carefree and... well, I've already explained his development, and with both in mind, he becomes a likeable character. The final reason I feel like giving is that you get more immersed into Ezio's story as you're not constantly jumping back to Desmond. Oh, you'll jump back in the middle somewhere, but besides that, once you enter the Animus up until the end, you'll be in Ezio's world, and with the added length, there's more time to bask in its glory.

The issue with the story is the pacing. Like the first game, it gives you plot and then it just fucks about. There's less of the latter this time around, but that doesn't mean I should excuse it, because when they don't work on advancing or developing the plot, it's just boring. Yeah, Ezio's a good character, but that doesn't stop the filler from feeling like it was there to pad the game – and this time around, it's about 20 hours long, which is twice as long as the first game. At 20 hours long, I felt that it was a few hours too long, and while the non filler stuff did keep my interest, the filler managed to numb my attention span, and the 2 DLC sequences (which come with the Game Of The Year edition) were mostly useless from a storytelling perspective, as you could (and do if you have the original copy with no DLC) skip them and the final sequence will work on the same level that it'd work on if you had played the DLC sequences.

And holy shit, again with the mid game plot twist-esque ending? I'll give this one props for making sense and being told in a way that'll hype us up for the next game instead of just making me go what the fuck is this, but it loses points simply because it feels like something that'd be put in the middle or at the last third of any other game! I won't spoil it, but let's just say that you'll probably feel gypped again.

The basic gameplay formula is similar to that of the first game's – in that you'll be in big, open cities, you'll do missions and you'll have to assassinate someone. However, there are plenty of improvements that will make this experience a lot better. For one thing, it's easier for Ezio to keep a low profile thanks to a notoriety system. Simply put, stealing and killing will fill up the octagonal bar, and once it's full, you'll be notorious and guards will attack you on sight. You can lower this by removing posters, bribing heralds or killing officials... while they sound silly (oh yeah, removing a poster will surely drop ones' notoriety), the notoriety system is one that works out quite well. In the first game, it was a matter of dodging the guards and that's it. Here, you have to make yourself anonymous, which means sneaking past or around guards, or killing them, just to lower your notoriety. I've also found that the guards are more lenient – in the first game, running through town will result in a cavalry chasing you, while here, you just kill the wrong person or run on a roof and maybe they'll chase you. I could bitch about this, but for reasons I'll explain later on, I'll say that this is an improvement.

Oh, and the missions actually feel like missions, like there's some importance behind them. That's the big thing that makes this game so much better than the first. There isn't a huge variety – most of them involving killing this guy, following that guy and running to that place, but each of them have significance to the story, and not only that, but they are actually surprisingly engaging. Maybe it's because of the reasoning, maybe it's because it's actually possible to give a shit about what you're doing – I'd say it has to do with the fact that each mission has its own identity. While their basic formulas are very similar, the actual missions do change things up like how you go about it, and due to this, it never really feels like you're doing the same mission every five minutes. Because of that, I actually found myself looking forward to every mission, even if the story wasn't really awake at that moment.

But hey, in case you don't feel like doing story missions at the moment, you can do different side missions, and even these feel like they have more variety than the ones found in the first game. You can beat people up, deliver items to people, go through a series of checkpoints, and of course, kill people. Okay, I will admit, beating people up gets pretty fucking old because fist fights are... just that, but that's about it. Playing delivery boy isn't much better, although they do at least require basic knowledge of the city you're in to get from Point A to Point B in as little time as possible, while running through checkpoints requires you to be able to figure out the best routes on the fly in as little time as possible.

But come on, who wants to do those when you can do assassination missions? Like in the first game, you have a target to kill, and you have to find them using Eagle Vision, which highlights people. If you find a yellow person, that's your target. It was in the first game, but it wasn't really useful... I don't think I ever used it actually, yet here, when I'm given a mission like this and need to find the target, there I am, using it. At times, you'll be given a condition, like don't get seen by the guards, or don't get seen by anybody pursuing your target. These conditions really give these missions more backbone because that's what assassination is all about – killing without anybody else knowing! But it's not all about sneaking around – in cities, you can find factions that'll distract the guards. Whether it's through combat or wooing them, you'll be able to use certain groups of citizens to aid you in kicking ass without anybody knowing it was you.

That leads to money. Throughout the game, you'll collect money, which can be used to hire distractors or buy stuff. Usually, it's equipment like swords and armor, but there's also ammo for your sidearms (like throwing knives and a pistol that you'll unlock later in the game), needles to restore your health and pouches to increase the amount of whatever has a quantitive limit. At first, you'll find yourself looting incapacitated or dead bodies and stealing from citizens, but once you're able to profit from rebuilding Monteriggioni from the ground up, so long as you build enough up, you can profit from it enough to not need to steal and just rely on what you get at the end of missions. But hey, if you rebuild certain buildings in Monteriggioni, you'll get discounts from those buildings all across Italy, so that's a pretty good incentive to rebuild it, eh?

Sadly, the combat is still not good. I will acknowledge improvements such as enemy variety which will require different tactics besides button mashing. For instance, bigger knights require you to disarm them as trying to counter them with your sword will not help. For that matter, your hidden blade can now function as a weapon, and you can use daggers like swords, which result in quicker attacks than you get with your sword. You also have items like poison (which you add to your hidden blades), smoke bombs (to escape or kill with ease) and medikits (to heal), and while it can make combat good, it doesn't, because you can pretty much use the same strategy as you would in the first game – either molest the square button or hold R1 and press square at the right time, which makes combat something to dread due to it just being this tedious repetition of... well, that, and trying different tactics isn't much more fun.

Like Assassin's Creed 1, this game has great buildings and environments, but lackluster character models. Now, the character models here are better designed, no longer looking like unfinished or underendered, but they still feel behind the times, especially compared to the rest of the visuals. Not so much the main models – Desmond, Lucy and Ezio look fine, but everyone else just look a bit muddy, and as if they need one more texture to look complete. Seems like a nitpick, but everything else looks so good that it stands out. But yeah, the buildings look pretty damn detailed and everything else looks fucken neat, like it almost jumps out at you... until you notice some framerate stuttering and screen tearing because it's probably too fucking good for the PS3 to handle. In that case, it looks damn pretty in screenshots, but in motion... just try not to have too many people in view or move the camera around heaps and you'll be fine...

Once again, the sound department does little for me. I mean, it does more for me than the first game's did, but it still doesn't really get much of a response. The soundtrack has little precense during the game. It felt like it was just there because it never really made any scene particularly powerful, nor did it ever make any fight feel intense. It was just... there, and none of the tunes were memorable, save for like one, which was used during the checkpoint missions... and in Soul Calibur 5. Beyond that, nothing. The voice acting is a lot better this time, though. I can't really name any performance that was bad... in fact, I'd say that it was good across the board. It all felt clean and natural, sort of like watching a good movie!

Assassin's Creed 2 is what a sequel ought to be – it addresses the problems the first game had and fixes most of them. It carries on the same good ideas the first game had, and capitalizes on them. As a result, you have a game that's actually well worth going through. It just does everything in its power to draw you in, from having missions that relate to the story to having the story itself really draw you in... more often than not. Sub-par story pacing and combat aside, it's an excellent game that should be in your collection.

8/10 (great)