Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Legend Of Grimrock

Written as a love letter to the dungeon crawlers of the 80s, Legend Of Grimrock will not appeal to everybody... People expecting this to be like Dragon Age: Origins (2 wasn't as much of an RPG as 1 was) or even Diablo 1 will find themselves very, very disappointed because this is very much like an 80s dungeon crawler, just with graphics and sound quality that feel 2012-y. As much as I feel like making a reference towards a certain group of talentless hacks who rip off every 80s thrash metal band and claims that it's new music (hint: it's Evile), this feels more like it was done by a band who knew about the limitations of old school thrash metal and still tries their hardest to make it work in this day and age and actually do a damn good job of it (ie. Havok).

If you play games for the story, you'll be disappointed to learn that setup aside, there isn't much to experience here. Basically, you and three others are trapped in a dungeon or in the pit of Mount Grimrock. Reason being, you've all committed crimes against the king. From there, you're all guided by a voice through the dungeon, slaying monsters and solving puzzles along the way. Also along the way are notes from a previous explorer who talks about the dungeon, like how it's meant to be explored or leaving some clues to puzzles and/or hidden loot. It's always pretty cool to get some info on the place you're in during the game, but beyond that, this isn't an epic quest to slay the evil dragon while growing to care about your characters; it's just about escaping from a dungeon. Nothing more; nothing less.

But if you think the story isn't all that complicated, then you'll hate the tutorial, which is very tight lipped. Essentially, it'll teach you the very basics and then leave you to your devices. Now, that's fair enough if it teaches you about stuff you'll need to know, but it's not fair enough when it leaves out a few important details, like - oh, I don't know - where you need to click in order to attack! Come on, even Dark Souls threw me a bone and that game was designed to be way too fucking hard! So in other words, the first hour of play will be spent experimenting with how to actually play the game. It's not like I need to have my hand held by developers, but if you're going to bother with a tutorial, make it so that it actually tells me how to do some basic shit! Thankfully, if you stick with it, you'll find yourself actually enjoying this game.

Anyway, as you'd expect, you start by creating your characters. You have four races to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each race has three classes to choose from and while you don't necessarily have to be too fussy if you're having humans in your party, the other races specialize in certain classes, like how minotaurs are quite the bruisers if a bit slow, while lizardmen are more about speedy hits and hoping they don't get hit. Then you have insectoids, who are more into magic but they can't carry a whole heap of loot. Mind you, you could select other classes for these races, and if you're looking for a challenge, you should mix and match, but... well, that's if you're not looking for a challenge by playing this game in the first place. This isn't an easy game, kids, and even though you can level up as you kill enemies and put some skill points into different sorts of skills, the further through the dungeon you go, the harder enemies will hit and the harder you'll need to hit.

The combat in this game is a matter of clicking on the weapon or spell icon on your characters' status screen while facing an enemy. After an attack, that character will enter a period of cooling down, meaning that he/she/it won't be able to attack for a little while. In addition, party members who are at the back can't use physical attacks - only frontline infantry. At first, it feels like a minor inconvenience, but eventually when you start fighting heaps of enemies, you'll need to use plenty of strategy and time your hits wisely, all the while using the area around you to move around and not get hit in order to survive and progress. What makes things trickier is that your movement is locked onto a grid, meaning that you move forwards, backwards or sideways by a square - no diagonal movement and no quick turning. All turning around is done by holding the right mouse button and moving it around.

Well, you came here for a retro experience, did you not? I mean, holding the right mouse button instead of simply moving the mouse to look around does sound silly in this day and age, and moving on a grid sounds very stiff, but the way this game does it makes it less tedious and limiting than you think. The game is designed in a way to take advantage of the grid-like movement and make it feel like second nature after a little while, and on that same token, looking around also becomes second nature after a while. I usually hate it when people say "oh you'll get used to it", but here I am, saying... that you'll get used to it, except while most people use it to justify a game being shit, I'm using it as a means of saying that underneath the surface really does lie a great game. It's a good thing too, because the combat itself is passable at best. Oh, you'll learn new moves every now and again, and the possibility of dying at any wrong turn is what keeps things exciting, but without that feeling, clicking on weapon icons and waiting four or so seconds to use it again isn't all that interesting.

But it's not all about nuanced designs, because there are also some puzzles to solve. You'll figure that that's the case either by the writings on the wall, or by finding tiles that look a little weird. Now, usually when puzzles get praised by professional reviewers, I'm quick to assume that they're either really tedious block pushing puzzles (ie. Ocarina Of Time), really easy puzzles (ie. Wind Waker) or they were just paid a handsome bribe to suck its dick (ie. Uncharted), so to find some legitimately tricky puzzles is surprising. Sure, it starts off easy enough with you needing to find some levers to pull and things to put on pressure tiles, but eventually, you'll be dealing with riddles, portals and all sorts of shit that will be hard as fuck to figure out. A lot of puzzles are optional, but the prize is alluring enough to make you want to do it anyway - what, lots of rare and powerful stuff can't hurt, especially if it gets you out of a jam later on!

While it's easy to criticize the lack of variety in the visuals, you'd seriously look stupid because while the floors generally look the same, it's a samey look that really fits and grows onto you. It's dark, it's dank, and when you add the fact that enemies can kick your ass if you make one false move, it makes for a tense trekking through the dungeon. What helps is that the halls tend to be tight, meaning that escape is not always possible and that fighting is the only way out, should you get stuck between some enemies. The lighting really adds to the experience as, like I said, it's dark, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and while torches aren't ever stationed at the end of this tunnel (if they were, then you'd probably be without one for a good 15-20 hours), there are torches which can help you see through the dark depths. It's from there that the lighting really starts to look impressive, as the darkness shrouds everything ahead, forcing you to take baby steps (or step forward one space) to make sure you don't get raped. It's no picnic with the Care Bears - you're in a fucking dungeon!

But what's a creepy dungeon without some creepy sounds? Well, it'd just look creepy and you'll see right through its fa├žade. So what happens here is that you'll hear some noises that'll keep you on your toes. Big steps from bigger enemies or small steps from scurrying little enemies are one thing; a disembodied voice speaking at certain points is another, and the lack of music amplifies the ambiance. So really, the atmosphere for this game is spot on. It all brings this deep, dark dungeon to life, like you're in it! The fact that it's in first person view is the icing on the cake.

I originally went into this game, thinking that it'd be yet another throwaway "retro" experience. What I got out of it was a fantastic game that knew exactly what it was doing with the old school formula and still constructed it in a way that makes it possible for newcomers to hop aboard and enjoy it. In saying that, the tutorial sucks and its stiff design does take a while to get used to, but stick with it, and you'll find that you'll fall in love with it. Whether it's the atmosphere, the dungeon's design or the puzzles, Legend Of Grimrock is just a hell of an experience really only hampered by a design that'll take a while to get into.

8.5/10 (Great)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Tales Of Graces F

The Tales series is one that I've always wanted to admire... but no, I had to be born, raised and living in the wrong country to actually experience these games. I'm not sure if Namco has no faith in the Tales series selling well in Australia or in general, because in Australia, we only have Tales Of Symphonia and Tales Of Vesperia available. In fact, had it not been for the fact that the PS3 is region free, I would never experience Tales Of Graces F, and although I would definitely say that Symphonia and Vesperia are better games, Graces F is still a good game that is well worth your time.

It starts off with Asbel, heir to the lord of the city Lhant, his brother Hubert, and their sickly friend Cheria finding an amnesiac girl by the name of Sophie. They also meet up with prince Richard, despite Asbel's father telling him not to go anywhere near him, which has him basically tell Asbel that he's a reckless little terror who doesn't think about the consequences. Naturally shrugging it off, Asbel and company do eventually find themselves in trouble, coming close to death. From there, Asbel leaves to be trained as a knight, and seven years later, he comes back into the world... during a war between three nations of differing leaderships – one of monarchy, one of democracy and one of dictatorship. You can imagine why they're fighting each other...

I do have a couple of issues with the story. First off, the story itself isn't a particularly engaging one, and after a while, it becomes all too easy to ignore. Hell, the game doesn't give it much mind, only developing it every now and again to remind you that there is, indeed, a story. It's not terrible, don't get me wrong, but it's not really that good, either. The other problem is that the first five hours are practically a snoozefest because not a whole lot actually happens. The idea is to set up the characters for the rest of the game so that they can develop as it goes on, but a lot of the time, I just wished that it would move on. Like, I get it, they want to establish the characters and the events to come, but given that it moves at a snail's pace, well, let's just say that it's better not to play this near any pillows.

But from that comes a huge strength – the characters. I've found myself really getting attached to them as the story progressed due to the development put into their relationships. Since Asbel basically abandoned his brother and friends over a seven year period, he has to build his relationships back up because when he goes back out into the world, they give him the cold shoulder. As well as the development of their relationships, you have how they all interact with each other, and that's where the skit system comes in. Every now and again, you'll be prompted to press select to listen to the characters talk amongst themselves about stuff, like their current situation or themselves, leading itself into character and plot development, but most of all, it tends to be humorous. It's just how these characters interact with one another and how well their personalities play off each other that keeps the game engaging, plus with themes such as friendship and protecting your friends cropping up a lot, you better hope that the characters are good, and that they are. Not quite Resonance Of Fate good, but we're getting there.

While the story steps more into familiar territory, the gameplay has actually changed a fair bit. For one thing, the overworld is scaled down to one big island and it isn't as big as you'd expect it to be. While it's not like Final Fantasy XIII's ultra linear world, it is easy to lament the loss of a much more open world in a Tales game. There are little nuances like "Discoveries", which basically give you items that are often accompanied by skits. Beyond that, the overworld doesn't offer much and backtracking through it without transportation items is a chore and a half.

Combat is quite different too. While the other games had you mashing the attack button for combos and pressing the special attack button while moving the left analogue stick for special attacks (or Mystic Artes as they're called), this one has more rhythm and strategy to it. See, there's this thing called the Chain Capacity, which basically replaces TP (or MP if you will) and not only depletes when you use Mystic Artes, but also regular attacks. What this means is that you'll need to make sure your attacks will work, lest you lay your CC to waste. Thankfully, it is easy to replenish it by guarding (well, standing still, really, but guarding is usually what you'd do), though that's not the only way to replenish CC. See, you can do this thing called sidestepping, which has you dodge an enemy's attack, though that costs CC to use. Thankfully, you can profit from it too, especially if you time it just right.

Mystic Artes have had a sort of overhaul as well... well, not the Artes themselves, but rather, the means of acquiring them. Rather than getting to a certain level and using certain special attack(s) often enough, you learn them through equipping titles (which not only gave you special attacks, but also stat increases), and then using SP (or Skill Points) to actually learn them. Then there are special Mystic Artes, which are much more powerful than regular Mystic Artes, but can only be used when in Eleth Burst mode, activated by filling up the Eleth Guage through attacking and getting attacked. These Artes can only be gained by equipping special titles or through events in the story.

Dualizing is a new feature... funny how it took the series this long (and by this long, I actually mean 2009) to let you fuse items together, but better late than never, I suppose. Whether you're fusing weapons or armor together or with gems to upgrade them or raw food ingredients to make a juicy snack/drink, it's a system that works. What makes it even sweeter is the Eleth Mixer, which will give the combined item a bonus if you fulfill a certain condition in a battle. This makes getting the best items – whether it's in terms of equipment, consumables or stuff you can pawn off for quite a lot of money – easier than just finding them out on the field or some dungeon... just as long as you're at a shop or at certain other locations, because that's the only place where you can do it.

For a Wii port... actually, even if it wasn't a Wii port, it's a pretty good looking game. A misnomer is that the textures aren't that good because it's a Wii port, but actually, it's just that the cel shaded anime style doesn't allow much room for realistic textures without looking out of place. Besides, it still looks pretty good. The colors help create a vibrant world full of life - even if the camera can't be controlled to get a good look at it, there's still a sense of scale, like there's a big world to explore, full of people that need saving. But where the graphics shine are in the battles, with plenty of flashy effects and colors to make them look as fast paced as they are, which is quite fast. Not to mention, the skit style works very well. It doesn't stop with just showing character portraits instead of putting heads in boxes – it starts from there, gives them a wide range of different visual emotions, and uses them all to great effect, helping to make each of the skits very entertaining. If there is anything I can criticize, it's that the character models tend to look like plastic dolls, with big heads and small bodies, and wide open glass-y eyes. Although it's a traditional design choice, it's just really distracting here because their heads just seem bigger and their eyes wider... ah well.

But I'm going to be honest in saying that the soundtrack... is pretty underwhelming. Not terrible, per se, but more often than not, a song just doesn't have the oomph that it needs to really stand out and make a situation really go off. I'm sorry Motoi Sakuraba, I know you tend to compose great soundtracks (especially the soundtracks to Tales Of Symphonia and Resonance Of Face), but I think you were just having a bad day here. Each song suits the situations finely, trying to convey the right mood, but without the oomph, it's just suckling on hind teet. The voice acting is pretty hit and miss. Some, like Pascal and Sophie, sound excellent, especially Pascal, who really draws me into each cutscene with her vocal patterns matching her hyperactive personality. However, stinkers like Richard are painful to listen to, sounding like an obnoxious announcer anytime he has to put even the slightest bit of emotion into his performance. As for the rest, they work okay, but half the time, I'm aware that I'm playing a video game as their performances tend to feel phoned in. Overall, not the best this series has to offer.

Don't get me wrong, Tales Of Graces F is a very good game, and besides the sound design, whatever flaws it has are small and are easily ignored because they're sandwiched between what makes this game shine. Linear exploration in a worth without much to do and with backtracking? The battles and skits you'll encounter are a lot of fun and the graphics will more than make up for that. The first five hours? The payoff for enduring them is well more than worth it when they blossom into excellent characters with entertaining exchanges between each other. The story not having much to it? Hey, the characters are well more than enough to keep you entertained. But it's not just good stuff compensating for the bad stuff – the battle system and skits are all very well crafted and a lot of fun to go through. Perhaps it's not the best in the series, but it keeps up the Tales tradition of not having a bad game in the mix at worst, and is still a fantastic game at best.

8.5/10 (Great)

Review: Pokemon Conquest

I don't know about the rest of you, but the idea of a Pokemon game that played out like a turn based strategy game ala Fire Emblem was one that got me jumping for joy. I mean, they've already done turn based fighting like Final Fantasy and they've done dungeon crawling, so hey, why not an SRPG? I will admit, it is odd to have it set during the Sengoku period, but to my knowledge, it's Pokemon crossing over with an SRPG franchise known as Nobunaga's Ambition, and eh, anything to promote the latter is always a good one as not a whole lot of people know what Nobunaga's Ambition is. At the end of the day, Pokemon Conquest is a game that's a lot of fun, but just lacking in a few areas.

For one thing, the story is pretty dull. I mean, it has a pretty good setup, but that's about as far as it goes. Times in the Ransei region are rough as it's wartime and everybody knows only two things - kill or be killed. But legend has it that if a warlord was to conquer all 17 kingdoms, the creator will return and bestow the chosen one with its power, and Oda Nobunaga has already started his conquest to gain this power to take over the world. You, a new warlord, must stop him. That much is enough to get you into it, but from there, it doesn't do anything interesting. It just plods on with maybe amusing at best dialogue that only gives you bits of the story... which would be fine in a bigger RPG, but not in one that only takes about 10 hours to beat. It's not at all a good story, and considering that the Sengoku period had a lot of juicy material for a potentially good story, it hurts to see it go to waste for a generic, underdeveloped and flat out fillerific coming of age story. Sadly, even the post-game has bugger all in terms of storytelling... yeah, here, you can control the different warlords. Too bad that they're not that much more interesting. Really, it's about as throwaway as it gets and it's a shame, given the source material.

Then again, Pokemon has always been about the gameplay and here, it really shows. The idea is to invade all of the enemy kingdoms by defeating their warlords. To do so, you and your warriors get out your Pokemon and fight theirs'. You will commanding your Pokemon to move along a grid and to attack enemy Pokemon either on a space next to it or from a square away (depending on the attack). Individual Pokemon have passive abilities that can either raise its power when its HP is low or lower the enemy's power in battle, among other things, and individual warriors and warlords have their own abilities that can be activated before using that individual's Pokemon to increase a stat or heal it... or something, depending on what it is.

However, Frozen Synapse, this is not, because what it boils down to is the good old elemental rock paper scissors we all know and love, as Pokemon have different types, like Fire, Water, Electric and so on and so forth, and each are strong against some, weak against some more and neutral to others, with very few being immune to some. Adding onto that, each Pokemon only has one attack. Thought four was limiting? That's nothing - try one! There's simplicity, and then there's limiting, and let me just say that it can feel very limiting having to deal with Pokemon who only have one attack, which is usually an attack that's their type (ie. a Grass Pokemon would have Vine Whip, a Fire type would have Ember).

Thankfully, some attempts are made at making things a bit more complicated. Battlefield hazards, like boulders, lightning towers and the like, do add an element of strategy as you have to think about movement a bit more than just heading to the next enemy Pokemon, and a decent amount of the major battles will give you the objective of occupying all of the flags and sometimes keeping them occupied for a set amount of turns. On top of that, you'll be given a set amount of turns to complete battles in, but they only really have an impact on the later fights because they start to incorporate more hazards and powerful Pokemon into the mix, and that's not to mention the post-game, which can get hard at times. But as you can tell, Pokemon Conquest's combat is light on strategy and the crappy enemy AI isn't about to help matters. Put simply, they'll sometimes attack the right Pokemon and use the battlefield hazard to their advantage, but more often than not, they just go straight for a brawl with whoever they can because hey, why not?

Capturing Pokemon here isn't a matter of weakening them and then throwing a Poke Ball at them. Nope, actually, what you do is that once you've conquered a kingdom, you can head inside and check out an area with Pokemon in them. Some or all of them will have warriors in there, and if you go in there and beat them within 4 turns or with a super effective attack, you can recruit them. Not only that, but after you get a little into the game, you'll be given the option to let your troops link with wild Pokemon by getting their Pokemon to walk up to it and use the Link command, then press the A button at the right times to establish that link. Now, this can get a little needlessly complicated, because Pokemon work at their best with certain warriors, but you can't tell who is best suited to be that Pokemon's master... unless you look it up on the internet or save before capturing Pokemon. Even then, it's one Pokemon per warrior in any given battle, so you'll have to choose between his default Pokemon and the one that he established a link with. Mind you, you'll still have a functioning Pokemon, but if you get the wrong combination, you'll end up with a subpar Pokemon... and if you're wondering, link also refers to experience points, so the more you battle with it, the more you two will link together, or the more it powers up, and getting that high enough (and sometimes fulfilling another condition) will allow them to evolve.

Now, one thing that could've been really big is the management of the kingdoms that you've taken over. The idea of this is to recruit a bunch of warriors so that they'd be able to keep watch over your property while you proceed to take over other kingdoms. But what should make this interesting is that any enemy warlord can storm in and take over one of your kingdoms, which is where your other guys come in. Well... don't expect this to actually happen until you finish the game and get into the post-game. Throughout the entirety of the main campaign, I think I only got invaded once. Even then, it's easy to reclaim it by defeating that warlord. Even if your kingdoms did get invaded, managing them is easy anyway. The most that you'll ever have to do there is find warriors to recruit and mine for gold, maybe make some improvements here and there... but it's all rather basic and feels like an afterthought because hey, Nobunaga's Ambition has this, and we want to make a game like that... but for kids!

If there's any saving grace, it's this... Pokemon Conquest is a fun, fun game to play. Game Freak have made a killing on games that are tons of fun to play because of their simple pick up and play nature, and really, this game is no different. It's easy to get into and it's easy to sink a lot of time into because, despite some oversimplications, it's still requires you to put together a decent team - or in this case, a bunch of decent teams of Pokemon - and working on keeping them strong enough to take down enemy kingdoms. Really though, it won't be all that fun until you're done with the first few kingdoms, before it gets harder with more objects that can force you to think a little more strategically. Plus, there's the post-game, which ups the ante in this department. Ordinarily, this could completely redeem a game - how else do the Pokemon games stay alive for crying out loud - but not here. It just gives the game a leg to stand on.

The graphics are pretty good. There isn't much in the way of animation with simple movements (as in, rocking back and forth, ready for battle), but there are plenty of pretty pictures, especially the portraits. The characters look like samurai warlords with armor and robes keeping them covered - thankfully with none of that fanservice crap, although there are a few anime inspired designs, like some who don't have much armor and instead look like some random anime antagonist/protagonist walking into the wrong building and being well drawn doesn't exactly excuse them. Then again, being really colorful is a bit out of place, given what this is meant to be based off of... then again, this is Pokemon, and darker colors would give kids nightmares or something. The Pokemon themselves look good - their portraits are also well drawn with a good amount of detail, and their in game sprites are fair approximations of what they'd look like if you looked at them from a long distance away. Basic designs, sure, but it works. In fact, a lot of it works if you think of it as a Pokemon game - it's bright, colorful and simple, and yet, it looks great! Thinking of this as a Nobunaga's Ambition game or even thinking about the setting, however, will just make you a negative Nancy, and god knows I've done enough of that already... or have I...

What may strike as a surprise is that the sound design is actually pretty dull. Usually, Pokemon games and the anime have great music that will be stuck in your head for days, weeks, even years. Here? I'm struggling to remember any of the songs, and they didn't really aid me in immersing me into the region of Ransei. It just felt like it was there. The only other way to describe the music is that it has that feudal Japan feel to it, in that it's meant to go with epic samurai battles. Eh, it didn't do much, especially for the Pokemon battles. The sound effects are also fairly pedestrian, not really doing much, although they're at least more memorable than the songs. At least the Pokemon cries are still there... but yeah, pretty middle of the line, which is pretty disappointing for the Pokemon series. Ah well, you get dealt a bad hand every now and again.

Fun is fun, but it doesn't do as much to make up for the lack of Pokemon attacks and silly AI as it could've. SRPGs are a very different beast from regular JRPGs and dungeon crawlers, requiring there to be more tactical options than just "move to enemy and use the one attack your unit has". This makes Fire Emblem look like Frozen Synapse, and while it's still fun, the lack of depth can be really bothersome. The lack of a compelling story is also a bit of a bother. The lack of a good soundtrack is not only surprising from a Pokemon game, but also very disappointing. To be fair, none of its flaws outright destroy the game because like I said, it is fun to play, but it really does make you wish that more could've been done to make it a better game. Ah well, at least they tried, and at least they showed that the SRPG style CAN work... just give it some work, make a new series out of it and viola, a series we can all get behind. At this point, what we have isn't bad, but it could be a lot better.

6.5/10 (Above Average)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Lollipop Chainsaw

As much as I enjoy Suda 51's work (either for being over the top or for being really fucking weird - yes, I'm talking about you, Killer7), a shitty game is a shitty game, and Lollipop Chainsaw is no exception. Suda 51 isn't someone I praise for excellent gameplay because barring maybe Shadows Of The Damned (which I'd consider #9 for my top games of 2011), none of his games have the best gameplay mechanics in the world. It's really just the blend of style and just enough substance to go by that makes his games tick, particularly the style, which tends to be over the top blood and gore splashing everywhere on the screen, set the music you'd expect to hear in gay dwarf porn or something (well, not really, but he does make some oddball choices and the results do feel like that at times). But in the case of Lollipop Chainsaw, the substance is rice paper thin and the style honestly isn't all that stylish. Perhaps my expectations were set too high after such a great game, but even when you look at it as some game done by a random person, it still doesn't really feel like a good game... just like a terrible game, if I'm being perfectly honest.

It's Juliet Starling's 18th birthday, and she turns up to school... which happens to be infested with zombies because some goth kid wanted to top the Columbine High School massacre by raising the dead. She saves her boyfriend Nick from a zombie bite by decapitating him, and instead of him dying, he's still alive somehow to provide sarcastic running commentary on what's going on. Whilst this has a decent setup, it all goes to hell in a handbasket from here, and it's not just because the development of the plot and characters are more anorexic than the average supermodel (trust me, we're not getting another Killer7 anytime soon), but also the fact that most of the jokes suck ass. Like Shadows Of The Damned, it's more about taking situations and cracking jokes about them, but while that game was more subtle than not, this game is one step away from being the next Friedberg/Seltzer movie... I mean, at least there are jokes here, but they're all about how "sexy" Juliet is and a whole host of shit that only 13 year olds and drunk 30-somethings find funny. But seriously, the reason I even bring up those two troglodytes who wouldn't know a funny joke if it kicked them in the balls is that there sure are a lot of references to Hot Topic stuff like Katy Perry or My Chemical Romance (oh wow, these guys are relevant again? who knew), and really, it's as funny as you'd expect... not at all, in case you can't figure it out (oh wow it's funny because I've heard of it). There are some funny moments, like the interaction between Juliet and Nick - that's what really works in this game's favor, but beyond that, it's hard to care for a story that only cares about shitty jokes.

Unfortunately, that's not the worst part - nope, that dishonor goes towards the gameplay, and good fucking god, its so shit that it almost causes physical pain at times... almost. Basically, you go through linear hallways and slaughter groups of zombies. Really, it should be a recipe for success because I actually enjoy games like Dynasty Warriors, but what Dynasty Warriors had that Lollipop Chainsaw doesn't is the feeling that you're a real badass warlord taking down 5789892758275976 soldiers at a time. In Lollipop Chainsaw, you fight through like 10 or maybe 30 zombies with a clunky combat engine that makes Medievil feel like Devil May Cry. The idea is that you're meant to use light acrobatic cheerleading attacks in order to herd the zombies together and/or to weaken them, ready for the big finish - that is, the heavy attack, in which you cut their heads off with your chainsaw... would you believe that I snickered a little when I typed in quick attacks, because they feel slow and clunky, almost like the chainsaw attacks - hey, heavy attacks are allowed to feel slow because it's not like you wouldn't use the stronger attack if it was faster than the weaker one. Oh, and you have two different projectile attacks - your chainsaw can double as a shotgun, and you can kick Nick's head at enemies. That's it. No extra weapons, no real upgrades (extra combos isn't really enough), and most importantly, sweet sweet fuck all in terms of anything worthwhile. Even the bosses, who are at least dripping with personality, aren't all that great as it all boils down to hit and run tactics, and the bosses don't really do much to make their fights interesting... or do much, period. Expect to find combat more boring than a more recent episode of The Angry Video Game Nerd.

Oh silly me, there's more to this game than shitty levels and clunky combat, for there are mini games to be played! Some of the mini games range from running zombies over with a tractor, to cutting up thrown zombies baseball style, to cutting off heads and throwing them into basketball hoops, which are about as silly as you'd expect and are pretty much there for the sake of being there. I don't think a single one of them was fun in the slightest. It just felt like unnecessary busywork, and what kills them is that they repeat. You'll be doing them multiple times throughout the game, and honestly, they're no Mario Party mini games. They're just drab.

But while the mini games tacked on and sometimes frustrating depending on what you're doing, kicking Nick's head onto a headless corpse and getting it to move is just really poorly implemented. Instead of using the left analogue stick to move, you have to press the button that's on the screen to move him. Whether this was conceived after a night of Japanese cocaine binging or cough medicine overdose is up for discussion, but I think we can all come to a consensus on the fact that tacked on quick time events are shit. Like... what's the point? They're not even good, that's the part that hurts the most. Better than those found in Asura's Wrath, sure, but nothing about them is anything more than that. There is a huge sense of urgency to them, but sometimes, it feels like they come at you and leave way too quickly, giving you no time to react, and one failed button press leads to instant death. No redo until you get back to that section or anything, it's right back to the last checkpoint. If they were slowed down by a second, I'd actually say that these are good, if really fucking pointless and there for the sake of being there quick time events. The idea of Lollipop Chainsaw is to replay the levels on harder difficulties to get higher scores (usually through combos, killing zombies with style and not dying), but if playing through them the first time sucked balls, what makes you think repeated playthroughs are going to be any better?

Hell, even the graphics aren't that good. The styles presented throughout the game are, but it's the technical aspects that are very underwhelming. The textures look like they came straight out of a PS2 game and a good deal of the scripted events and animations don't seem to make any sense in their movement, like they're on their own plane of existence. Maybe there are too many frames that are played at a slow frames per second rate? I'd say so. But where it's technically mediocre, it's stylistically good. As expected, decapitations result in blood spewing everywhere, topped off with pink sparkles and hearts and all that other girly shit, which goes well with her character... I mean, she is a blonde and "sexy" cheerleader, after all. Then there are the bosses, which have various musical styles like punk, electronic and psychedelic, and the look is just right. Whether it's a stage or a room full of fluorescent colors, while the battles themselves may be dull, at least it looks good. The colors are washed out, yeah, but sometimes, it works because those moments would be ruined by vibrant colors... sometimes. Overall, there's a good sense of style, but everything else feels underwhelming.

The sound design is great, though. Unlike the rest of the game, it feels alive. The voice acting is exciting, sarcastic - whatever tone it has to be in any given situation, especially with Tara Strong as Juliet. She really brings her character to life as a ditzy cheerleader with every word that comes out of her mouth. That's not to discount the rest of the cast, but really, you could say the same about all of them. The music is lively, dreary, and whatever else would be fitting! Akira Yamaoka is back for his second Suda 51 game, this time aided by Jimmy Urine (lead singer of Mindless Self Indulgence), and the two of them compose... well, a Mindless Self Indulgence album. Lots of rock, punk, metal and electronic music strewn throughout, but it all fits well with the game world - not only because if it you put this in any other game, it'd sound bizarre (whether it's Silent Hill or Brutal Legend), but also because it helps accentuate the visual style for the bosses, or because it helps give out the feeling that we're a cheerleader in a zombie apocalypse of sorts. But then whenever Juliet enters super mode (which, after killing a good amount of zombies in a row, basically lets you one shot kill more zombies and fuck up bosses), Mickey by Toni Basel plays, which really goes with the fact that you're a cheerleader because, well, it's a very cheerleader-y song. If nothing else, the music does sound pretty good.

It's understandable that Lollipop Chainsaw has its fans, but I am not one of them. While other Suda 51 games aren't really known for having good gameplay, they have decent enough gameplay to go well with an excellent sense of style, and for that reason, they are still good games. Here? It's like he held back a bit on the style and the gameplay is just flat out terrible with some really crap attempts at variety because the core gameplay is boring and nothing attempts to mask that fact or kiss its booboo all better. Ultimately, Lollipop Chainsaw is an extremely underwhelming game that really accentuates what could really go wrong with the average Suda 51 game. I suggest skipping this one and just keeping an eye out for what he does next.

2/10 (Shit)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vektor's highs and lows of 2012 so far

Whilst Gryzor provided a solid list, I thought I'd provide my own spin on what's come out so far in 2012. Maybe some similar opinions will rise, maybe some will contradict his - that's the beauty of this shit, everybody is so different that it offers itself up for discussion and what have you. So with that said, let's dig into it all!

Worst of 2012 so far: Amy
At first, I thought that this would at least be a decent game, but then I played more of it and then I wished that I could get a refund. For 10 or so dollars, you can get a buttfucking, a root canal and having the bottom of your lip be pulled over your head to the back of your neck while passing a kidney stone. Anybody who defends this game is considered crazy.

To put it simply, it feels clunkier than the average PS1 survival horror game. Let that sink in - clunkier than the average PS1 survival horror game. In 2012, clunky controls, regardless of the context for them, are unacceptable. Poorly laid out stealth missions are garbage (there's only one, but still). I mean, I guess the co-op elements worked okay, but in the end, I just got frustrated by how poorly executed it was. To say I'd rather play Enslaved is testament to how poor Amy really is.

No excuses. This game sucked.

Dishonorable mentions: Blades Of Time, Lolipop Chainsaw, Risen 2: Dark Waters, Syndicate

Most disappointing of 2012 so far: Asura's Wrath
Holy shit, a heavy emphasis on quick time events like Heavy Rain? An interactive anime that doesn't look like pedo moeblob shit? Sign me right the fuck up!

*plays it*

And now give me back the 89 dollars I wasted on this fucking garbage! Basically, it's a game that's afraid to walk the steps Heavy Rain did. Instead of setting up intense quick time events, you press triangle... sometimes mash circle. Couple that with insultingly simple and mediocre brawling and shoot em up segments, and you have yourself a fucking sub par puddle of piss.

Most surprising of 2012 so far: Binary Domain
At the surface, it looked like a generic third person shooter, but the further you progressed, the more it opens up. Sadly, it takes about 3 hours for it to open up, which is both unusual and actually pretty bad for a third person shooter where the first three hours were pretty mediocre with maybe one or two good moments. Not only do the set pieces and gunfights get better, but the story really, really starts to open up and it's actually a rather captivating tale not just about robots replacing humans, but also the relationship between two of our main characters. It doesn't seem that great at first, but it gets better and better as it progresses.

Best of 2012 so far: Max Payne 3
A natural evolution for the series while feeling like a reboot... like, you don't really need to play the first two games because it gives you enough to go by, and the atmosphere feels warmer and action-y. While some have taken offense to that, I found that it had well more than enough ground to stand on because it was still tits.

Honorable mentions: Dragon's Dogma, Silent Hill: Downpour

Review: Max Payne

Back when it was first released and I was still too young to know what the fuck was actually going on, Max Payne was definitely one of my favorite games. I just couldn't get enough of going into bullet time and capping mobsters. That's all it was to me back then. Years later, I understood everything and it started to hit more at home for me. Now, this can mean one of two things - either the game will kick more ass, or it will suck ass. This falls into the former. Oh sure, it doesn't make the gameplay any better, but the gameplay was awesome anyway and the story is like that side dish that is just as satisfying to eat as the main dish.

The story is that Max Payne comes home one day from his job as a policeman and finds his wife and daughter murdered. From there, he lives his life wanting revenge on those who killed his family. Three years later, he has to work undercover with the Punchinello mafia family, who the DEA believe is trafficking a dangerous drug known as Valkyr. Remembering that the killers had been high on Valkyr, well, let's just say it's personal, and when he gets framed for killing a fellow DEA agent, he's not even sure what to think anymore. All that ends up on his mind is revenge, and throughout the game, he learns more about the drug and who's really behind it all. It may not sound all that original or great in theory, but the execution more than makes up for it. You'll feel more for Max as the game progresses as he pretty much has nothing to lose and everything to gain, especially when diving into his inner subconscious and monologues that not only describes his current situation, but also reminds you that, well, he has nothing to lose.

So how do his actions speak? Why, with grenades, molotov cocktails, pistols, sub machine guns, rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles aplenty, of course! Anything that resembles a blunt object or a gun is Max's for the taking as he jumps around and shoots down mobsters like a hybrid of Thomas Anderson and John Fucking Rambo, and even though every gun type is fundamentally similar, each of the guns in that type operate a bit differently. From firing quicker to firing stronger shots... it's all that's important during the heat of battle, let's just say that, and at least they're grouped together for your convenience as you select them either via numbers (1-6) or with the mouse wheel. The weapons work as they should - rapid firing weapons and pistols work best from a distance while shotguns fuck shit up in closer quarters, and pistols are basically there in case you run out of ammo for the other guns. 

Encounters consist of entering a room and shooting down all the mobsters. The shooting mechanics may not feel as tight as they would in modern shooters, but they still work well enough. However, under most circumstances, just plain shooting isn't the best option, because Max can't take too many hits before dying and painkillers can range from somewhat uncommon to something about as rare as a working copy of Cheetahmen 2. I mean, you can maybe take down one or two normally, but any more, and you'd be fucked unless you have a good amount of room - which is usually the case, but you'd be missing plenty of shots if you run around like a maniac. Oh, and did I forget to mention that unless you quick save after every encounter, you'll be starting back at the beginning of the level after dying? Yep, you create your own checkpoints because Remedy didn't want to. Silly developers.

But come on, the reason you bought Max Payne was because it had bullet time, which was the shit back in the late 90s and early 2000s, and for a game to have done this successfully would be a huge accomplishment. This makes avoiding enemy bullets and landing your bullets onto said enemies a lot easier as time slows down, not only giving you some room to breathe but also time to move the white dot onto them, fire, and hit them. You can either use it while standing still or when you're diving (like a forward/backward/side jump that's more about covering horizontal ground than being up in the air, though there is the option to jump in the air). For the latter, bullet time only lasts until you land, and it's preferable when you need to land those last few shots. For the former though, it's until you click the right mouse button again, and is most useful when you'd rather do as little moving as possible, though you'd do well to keep an eye on the hourglass next to the body silhouette. Running out of time means you can't use bullet time until you kill an enemy, which will recover a bit of it. This forces you to be more strategic with it, because you don't want to be using up too much, and like I said, shooting in real time isn't the most optimal solution unless you're really careful, can move around and shoot or if you're up against like one or two thugs.

So yeah, bullet time is not only well balanced, but also pretty fucking well implemented as while time has slowed down, your aiming hasn't, making aiming and shooting a whole lot easier in the heat of battle, and while you could argue that it makes it too easy, eh, you can still get shot by a few stray bullets and like I said, you can't abuse it because you can only use so much without killing enemies before you can't use it until you kill another enemy. Although that's the full extent of the gameplay, I don't give a fuck, it's still a lot of fun to do. Oh sure, they put in a few little platforming segments, which just have you jump up onto structures, and when they don't feel shoehorned, they're frustrating... simply put, you have to buy an engagement ring for each jump and whichever of the eight directions you're going in. Nope, fuck that.

Although it was no technical marvel even by 2001 standards, the graphics have an ambient edge that will continue to age like fine, fine wine. The dark corridors, the rusty warehouses, the dark sky, the constant snowing - it all feels alive and helps to really suck you into the atmosphere created by the story (which is dark and gritty if you forgot). In fact, I don't think the story would have as much of an edge if it wasn't for the colors and lighting... it'd still be great, but not as immersing. The comic strips - which serve as the bulk of the cutscenes - are the best when it comes to ambience. It actually uses live action shots of the actors and New York City and then they get drawn over with pastel crayons or something, but the way that they're done works pretty damn well, especially when darker colors are used. On the flipside are the couple handfuls of cutscenes using the in-game engine... not that they're bad or anything, but like I said, they're not really great either, and goddamn, these character models look goofy, especially Max, whose face looks like he's about to take a big shit, and their animations feel floaty when Max's isn't while playing the game. Yeah, I'm glad the comic book style is used for the majority of cutscenes because they're the ones that really suck you in.

Ambience doesn't end there - the sound design is fantastic. It's mostly silent, with only footsteps to occupy your ears (and for its credit, it does at least sound convincing). Music only plays when something happens, like fast paced techno-y stuff during action segments to get you pumped up or more sombre, violin and piano driven music during a cutscene that accentuates the sadness of Max's circumstances or the darkness of Max's tale. It works at its best during the latter moments as it really draws you into his tale, but the former is no slouch either, nor is the voice acting. I dare say this is when voice acting started to be taken more seriously, because every spoken line of dialogue, especially from Max, makes it feel like you're really in the game, or like you're watching a really good movie. It allows you to really get immersed into the story as everybody sounds on key. Whether it's the melancholic tone of Max's voice or even the stereotypical mobster accent, you'll be further drawn into the story.

Max Payne is one hell of a game. Whether it's the fun as hell shootouts with the well implemented bullet time mechanics or the dark, gritty and compelling story, there's no way you can deny how fantastic this game truly is. A lot of games tend to excel in just gameplay or just story, and as much as I would gladly take the former over the latter, any game that can nail both and add a lot of ambience to really kick some ass is one that must be in your collection at all costs.

For the record, if you're buying this on a PC and you have Windows Vista or above, you'll need to read through this because if you buy it fresh off of Steam, it'll run like shit. For Remedy or Rockstar to not have done anything about this is a little disrespectful, but at least somebody else took action, so extra thanks to DarkjeThe2nd for making it possible for Vista and Windows 7 operators to enjoy this game the same way we did/would've on Windows XP.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)