Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow - Mirror Of Fate

The reboot of the Castlevania series, Lords Of Shadow, was met with mixed reception – people enjoyed it for its refreshing take on the Castlevania series while people whinged about it for being a reboot, being too unoriginal and/or – and this is classic – not being a real Castlevania game. Really, I thought that this was about as close to being a true Castlevania game as it got, and by true, I mean more like the NES/SNES Castlevanias than being Symphony Of The Night. However, Mercury Stream thought that people wanted Symphony Of The Night with Lords Of Shadows' combat engine, because hey, it's on a Nintendo handheld and by law, it better be like Symphony Of The Night! Well, too bad that, more often than not, it just doesn't quite work as well in their favor as they would like it to. It's not so much about striking a middle ground between 2D and 3D – I mean, there are a couple of instances where that sticks out in a bad way – but it's more about the design choices in general. Really, this could've been a great game, but it feels like Mercury Stream didn't quite capitalize on much, if anything that they had at their disposal here.

Before you play Mirror Of Fate, you're basically required to play through Lords Of Shadow on the PS3 or 360 because its story revolves around the plot twist at the end of Lords Of Shadow. Yes, I'm aware that the beginning more than fills you in, but really, everybody should play through Lords Of Shadow. It might not have the best puzzles or beast taming mechanics, but the combat, the bosses and the story are all fantastic, and since they're the focal points of the game, then have at it! Besides, other than filling you in on the story of the previous game, this game barely has any real story. Basically, it boils down to Gabriel Belmont setting up the scene, which then boils down to Trevor/Simon Belmont needing to take down Dracula. Seriously? I get that this is a sidestory that takes place between Lords Of Shadow and its eventual sequel, but a little more oomph wouldn't hurt. There was plenty in Lords Of Shadow and it was a compelling narrative because of that; this is more like Mirror's Edge and Dishonored where there is fuck all to it, except some shit about the Mirror Of Fate and souls and really, I just lost interest in the story. None of the characters are particularly interesting and the story is just boring. Compounding this are unskippable cutscenes. No, fuck you, this is 2013, not 2003; this shit is inexcusable.

Mirror Of Fate is just weird. It wants to play like the 2D Castlevania games, but it has the feel of the 3D Castlevania games. It wants to be like the Metroidvania games in that there's a huge castle to explore, but given that you're playing as three different characters at three different time periods, some downsizing had to be done. As a result, it hardly feels like you're actually exploring the castle; instead, it feels more like you're a gerbil in a linear maze with a few small nooks to give the illusion of open endedness. A lot of the time when you're presented with a seemingly impassable obstacle, you're usually required to get a new item that you'll find at some point in the parts of the castle that you can explore. Even then, you'll only ever really find HP and MP upgrades, sub weapon ammo and experience points you can use to purchase new attacks. You can also acquire experience points from defeating enemies, but more on enemies in a sec – a lot of the time, it feels more like a superfluous detail than a legitimate design choice.

It wants to be like the Metroidvania games but it, more or less, has the linearity of the first Castlevania game on the NES, but yet it has lots of backtracking like a Metroidvania game... it feels like they couldn't quite think of a way to create an ingeniously designed set of castles so they just went “fuck it” and did the first thing that came to mind. “Exploring” this castle feels like a chore, like it would've been better suited as a set of levels rather than one big level that changes when the game decides to arbitrarily change your character every few hours. Before anybody cries “it's on a handheld”, I'll just say that Aria Of Sorrow, which is my second favorite Metroidvania game for what it's worth, was on the fucking Game Boy Advance and it had a much better designed castle than this hunk of shit! In fact, it was a better game on the whole, and that's because it understood basic game design principles, something Mirror Of Fate didn't quite get.

While we're talking about design, it's pretty cool that you can use your whip to swing on chandeliers, although it seems more like a cool afterthought than anything else as it doesn't require anything more than basic timing. In fact, platforming as a whole seems more like an afterthought than an integral design choice. I've played Kirby games with more demanding platforming! But hey, at least it's a cool afterthought, which is more than I can say for the sub weapons and special powers each character can possess – not even going to bother listing them because you'll either only ever use them to get through parts of the castle that you couldn't get through by other means or you'll use them like once before resorting to using the whip. Well, I guess I'd be willing to use Trevor's super speed more to make the one or two backtracking sequences less boring if it lasted for more than like 5 steps. Nope, it's just there to jump gaps, but you'll probably forget because you never really use these abilities. Oh... did I mention that you don't use each character for longer than maybe 3 or 4 hours? Don't get too used to them, you hear? Probably explains why they fight with the combat cross (or the whip as I kept on calling it) eerily similar to one another...

The combat is such a mixed bag, that it almost hurts the game in a way. For one thing, combat happens at pre-determined points. Instead of fighting enemies along the path, you'll get into what would appear to be an arena setting and fight a group or so of enemies. Another thing is that defense oriented gameplay is somewhat encouraged. Much like Revengeance and the original Lords Of Shadow for that matter, Mirror Of Fate isn't above letting the enemies pummel you into dust if you don't either dodge or parry. Thankfully, parrying is as simple as pressing block at the right time and then allowing you to let it rip while dodging has you press left or right while holding the block button. It can be easy to get cornered though, so watch your footing.. or rolling in this case. However, I did say that a defensive style of play is only somewhat encouraged; unless you notice that you're about to get hit, you can pretty much mash the X and Y buttons, only blocking or dodging before you get hit. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit too clear that this doesn't quite work on a 2D scale, mainly because when I look at the 3D graphics and watch the dance of life that is the combat, I can't help but want to dodge anywhere but towards and away from them. Not just that, but between getting cornered at times and just plain being locked on a 2D scale fighting mobs of enemies that magically appear as opposed to fighting enemies as I travel through the castle, fighting enemies is just... boring.

Look at it this way - in Aria Of Sorrow, you fight enemies that roam around the castle – whether they're shuffling about or flying from the sides, there's always something to fight, even if you don't expect it. There was always this whiff of tension to it, like you never know what's behind that door. But there was always a chance to escape or bypass the enemy on your way to the next room... maybe even the save room to heal up and then take that big bad living doll down while Medusa Heads come from the sides. But in Mirror Of Fate, you fight mobs of enemies and you have to kill them. Oh don't worry, there's a checkpoint/autosave system in place, and it's one of the most liberal checkpoint systems I've experienced in a while – for fucks sake, during boss battles, if you die, you simply respawn and they don't regain much if any health! However, none of the enemies or bosses really do anything interesting to warrant giving a shit, and even though you learn new combos via levelling up... there's hardly a need to use them.

Oh, and this game employs quick time events. Not that a single one is used for cinematic purposes or anything; they're just slammed onto the plate because hey, it's the cool thing to put into games. I especially love the ones encouraging the player to mash a button, because the 3DS can take it, right? It's not like these buttons are small and somewhat fragile, right? Oh wait... this drives me insane because the bosses are easily the highlight of this game. They hit hard, which encourages you to dodge and parry if you can while you seek the best time to wail on them. But then two things happen. One, liberal checkpoints that make the fights easier than they should be; and two, it takes like a million hits to beat any given boss, making each fight feel more like a test of your patience than a test of skill. Hey, you want to know how to make these fights challenging while making them fun? Get rid of the mid-fight checkpoints, lower their HP, and get rid of the quick time events! Just thinking out loud here obviously...

But hey, at least this game looks and sounds... alright, at least. In fact, Mirror Of Fate looks amazing on the 3DS, with some high quality textures and highly detailed models seriously showing off the 3DS's graphical capabilities. Needless to say, I was awestruck by the amount of detail put into everything, especially the animations. I didn't say “watch the dance of life that is the combat” for no reason; the animations are very, very smooth and detailed, which goes well with the defensive gameplay that Mirror Of Fate encourages. Not to mention, it's just plain mesmerising  like the Batman Arkham games and Sleeping Dogs, the animations manage to really suck you in. The scenery seems more like a castle featured in the Lord Of The Rings series rather than a piece of gothic architecture like in the older games – I mean, there are parts that are reminiscent of the old gothic atmosphere, but then there are parts that are plain and, despite the staggering amount of detail that surprisingly doesn't result in lag (unlike a certain other game I know of, right Kingdom Hearts DDD), it just isn't as immersing as it could've been. It's a shame – our characters' clothes and a lot of the monster designs are what you'd expect in old vampire slaying movies with maybe a few ripped from Lord Of The Rings (sorry, but Lords Of Shadow did make me think of Lord Of The Rings with its setting at first and that impression carries on here). Ah well.

The soundtrack at least has that gothic vibe, but it's more in the background than anything else. I guess it could've worked as the best haunting soundtracks are ones that lay in the background, ready to pounce – ask Akira Yamaoka! But where Silent Hill had masterful sound design, Mirror Of Fate simply has competent sound design. Well, okay, that's not entirely fair nor even true as the voice acting was good. Most of the vocal deliveries were convincing enough to work with a couple of scenes showcasing great voice acting, and some characters who could've been better. Simon Belmont is a standout amongst the crowd as he has an impassionate voice that suits his fiery demeanour  Most everybody else sounds good, but nothing noteworthy. It's a bit of a shame nothing else stands out because usually, Castlevania soundtracks – from the gothic yet upbeat NES games to the jazzier variants found in Castlevania 4, to even the Lord Of The Rings inspired Lords Of Shadow, there were tracks that stood out as fantastic, especially that one song in Castlevania 2 – you know the one I'm talking about. Here? Umm... it... doesn't blow every dick in a five mile radius...

Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate is Mercury Stream saying “you losers wanted old school Castlevania, well here you go – enjoy your shitty old Nintendo game you fat geeks!” - you know the type of attitude; that grizzled look on their face, with the somewhat gravelly tone in their voice or that loud, hoarse voice depending on how pissed they are with their fanbase, all the while thinking to themselves “those idiots will learn to love my style if I blend it into the style that they love”. It's odd however, because even if I was somebody who can't accept change and think Symphony Of The Night is what Castlevania should be, Mirror Of Fate just doesn't get it right as it's pretty linear despite giving the illusion of open endedness, like most SNES/PS1 JRPGs. As somebody who did enjoy Lords Of Shadow while also quick to consider making love to the Sorrow duo, I found Mirror Of Fate to be a rather... underwhelming mishmash of the styles and an overall mediocre game.

5/10 (Average)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Cave Story+

I'd love to go up to Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya and get him to teach independent video game developers how to make a fucking video game, because Cave Story is a damn fine game that blows the competition out of the water before it even existed. Before Braid's success lead indie developers to believe that pretentiousness was synonymous with quality, Cave Story lead us to believe that beneath the smoke and mirrors that began to form with AAA games lied independently developed games with genuine creativity, ingenuity and a sense of wonder that came with games in the past. A passage through an immersing game world full of things that'll kill you and things that drive the adventure further, Cave Story relishes in old school tropes without essentially being an NES game on your PS3. Instead, it's a retro game with modern touches that actually matter, becoming an experience of its own that still has yet to be topped.

A good video game is one that doesn't waste your time with unnecessary bullshit. If it did, it'd be Assassin's Creed 3, which is a bad game. But Cave Story plops you into a cave with no recollection of how you wound up on what would eventually be revealed to be a floating island. No overly long exposition or anything - BAM, onto the island, you wake up, you explore a bit and you find out from some friendly natives that you have to stop the evil Doctor from taking over the world. It sounds like the setup for the plot of most 90s JRPGs. But like a good 90s JRPG, the story opens up as you progress through the game. There's more to the Doctor's plan than simple global domination which gets revealed towards the end of the game. The characters you meet along the way are all connected in a way that leads to these chain of events. Tragic events will happen, but like any good hero, you'll right the wrongs that have been committed. Even though this game is like five hours long, there's plenty of depth to be found in the story and it becomes a rather enamouring tale of stopping a power obsessed lunatic from achieving his evil desires. For reference, it does in five hours what a typical post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game tries to do in 30-40 hours. I sometimes forget that this is an indie game because it's just trying to tell me a story instead of shovelling pseudo-philosophy down my throat and expecting me to believe that it's art. Cave Story has a damn fine story with brilliant pacing to let nailbiting dilemmas and big events happen with enough breathing room between them to let them sink in, all within its five hour length.

It's downright insulting how retro inspired games are either fucking I Wanna Be The Guy trial and error bullshit or Braid “man this is soooo deep” crap, because games like Cave Story gets shit fucking right! It takes Metroid, makes it a bit more linear without it being obvious that it's more linear (sounds like Pixel's been playing some Half Life on the side), and makes backtracking not feel like a chore! Shit, even the best Metroid games can't do that! But I'm getting ahead of myself - Cave Story is a sidescrolling adventure game where you run, jump and shoot your way through a game world that expands as you find items that allow you to access areas that you couldn't before, unless a story event plops you elsewhere. Imagine that, a sidescrolling platformer that's driven by the plot. You'll be revisiting some areas at times, but you'll find that things have changed; enemies have gotten stronger and the terrain is a bit different. You may even fight a boss that wasn't there before! Now, it might not sound like much, but given that it's rooted in Metroid-like gameplay, backtracking is sometimes a necessity and as such, it's nice to see some change so that it doesn't get monotonous. That's not to say that all backtracking is like this – there's one part where you have to go back and forth from getting an item and using it on something a little while away, and then going back to get the item and using it on something on the other side of the map. That part was tedious. But that's the exception to the rule – you'll often have to revisit the central village area but it usually contains the next part of the plot. Towards the end, you'll revisit an earlier area, but it'll be massacred and full of stronger enemies. That about covers how much backtracking you'll do in this game.

The levels aren't massive and a fair amount of the game is pretty linear, but it doesn't stop you from exploring the different nooks and crannies to find health and ammo upgrades. It also doesn't stop the game from doing a splendid job of giving off the illusion of open level designs. It's done to a tasteful degree, so there's no wasted space and doesn't feel like an empty sandbox, and since there are some goodies, it rewards players for being curious. Hell, at some point in the game, depending on what direction you take in a level, you'll either have a shot of getting the good ending, or will have to content yourself with the not so good ending. Deceptively conning the player into believing that this will be a linear game with big worlds, only to drop a bombshell of not only multiple paths but also multiple endings can either be clever game design or bad game design. Thankfully, Pixel is a fucking genius and managed to integrate this in a way that feels natural. Obviously, some areas will be more linear than others; obviously, some areas are going to have branching paths and obviously, some areas will be inaccessible if you don't do certain things right. What that means is that replaying the game is encouraged in order to get the other ending. Getting it is a bit cryptic, but if this game has taught you anything at that point, it's that curiosity is rewarded with neat stuff.

It's not all about exploring as you'll be required to fend for yourself. Whether it's against the wildlife that attacks you first or the forces of evil, you'll have to shoot them down. You're given a decent variety of guns – you start off with a blaster and along the way, you'll find a bubble launcher, rocket launcher, machine gun, throwing swords and the motherfucking BFG. Each of these weapons have their uses, like how the blaster is good for your first weapon but your machine gun is just generally better as it has rapid fire for quick and easy damage. The throwing swords deal a fair bit of damage if it lands on an enemy, although you can only throw them at a medium distance. As a plus, it repeatedly deals damage for a couple of seconds. The rocket launcher deals a good amount of damage, although it doesn't have much ammo. As you kill enemies, you can collect experience points and upgrade your weapons, which will make them even stronger, although getting hit – because we can't have blood or anything – will result in you losing some experience points, so... don't get hit. More often than not, it's not too hard as it's generally easy to read enemies' and bosses' patterns after a while, though some of the bosses are just pricks and will annihilate you unless you have a specific weapon upgraded, but since it has a good chance of hitting you, well, all that needs to be said is good luck. At the very least, the difficulty scales at an incremental rate (except for this one boss about three fifths into the game), they get craftier and more damaging with their attacks. At the same time, the fights can get rather exhilarating as they attack you quickly, methodically and with the intent of deflowering your sphincter, especially on the hard difficulty mode where you can't obtain any health upgrades. Due to this, the boss fights are fantastic and wind up being the most exciting parts of the game, especially the final boss guantlet.

This game gives you the option to either play it with the old school graphics from the original freeware game, or with tweaked up visuals. While the old school graphics look good, the retuned graphics are definitely better looking as the character sprites are given more details and the shading is applied more smoothly. In fact, the newer version looks smoother in general. The old school graphics look good when you consider that Pixel was originally going for that 8 bit but not quite 8 bit look as there's a fair bit of shading on each of the sprites and backgrounds/foregrounds, but given the choice between blocky graphics and not so blocky graphics, choose the latter. Yes, the former may sound the most like it'd give you feelings of nostalgia, but the latter, like I said, is just smoother around the edges and gives everything more detail, which should also cater towards feelings of nostalgia. In general, Cave Story's graphics is an example of fantastic pixel art in motion.

For the most part, it's the same thing with the music – you can either listen to the old school soundtrack, a remixed version and an original soundtrack. The old school soundtrack goes well with the old school graphics, but if you're playing with the touched up graphics, the remixed soundtrack is more suitable because the remixed soundtrack, while it has some chiptune parts, is given a more modern touch by having mostly uncompressed instruments like painos, bass guitar and drums. Either way, the songs are short-ish but they manage to really get you going. During gameplay, it's peppy, it gets you pumped up and makes you want to fuck shit up, and it only amplifies for the boss themes! Then the music that plays during the cutscenes are moodier, with some ominous stuff to foreshadow a terrible event and more sinister stuff for the reveals of evil plans. Oh and yeah there's this new soundtrack but it eats dick. Instead of being catchy and upbeat, it's generic and does about fuck all for the game. Plus it doesn't really suit the look of the game; feels more like it's meant for a game that's not meant to be retro than one that celebrates retro tropes. Did I mention it blows ass? Yeah, head for the remixed old school soundtrack immediately.

In a scene I often feel lethargic about, Cave Story is a damn fine example of getting it right. It's a fun experience full of upbeat tunes to keep you going while you keep on coming back for the intriguing story. That's the kind of game I ask for – one that doesn't fuck about with bullshit that doesn't work. Most games in general can't seem to get the idea that you ought to show and not tell, to eventually reveal the story as the game progresses, to make proceedings either as enjoyable or as riveting as possible, and finally, to make sure everything is delivered in a way that keeps things fresh. This is even more evident with the indie scene – some games get it right like Limbo, Shank and Deathspank, but most other indie games really bugger that up by being made for psuedo-intellectuals and wind up boring the everloving crap out of me. Sure, it might not sound right, but that's because modern day mediocrity and quasi intellectual bullshit has sprayed me with rum over the years... so yeah, support good games by buying a copy of Cave Story and playing it.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: The Cave

The Cave is an interesting game. On the surface, it appears to be a platformer with point and click style puzzles and witty dialogue that will keep you amused, entertained and even capture the very essence of your soul. It even offers multiple characters, of which you can use three of in order to offer some co-op puzzles between them and even some unique puzzles here and there for each individual character. But there comes a point where you're going “that's it”, mainly because it never feels like there's enough content in the game to go along with its large aspirations. It feels like a game that's finished, but without the polish and creative measures necessary to call it a full experience. A five course meal where each entree course lessens in taste is the best way to describe it...

It'd be better to explain it in full, beginning with the best part of the game – the story. Deep within the recesses of the cave lies riches beyond ones' wildest dreams. Enter our eight “heroes” (well, seven actually as two of them are twins you control at the same time), who wish to explore this cave in order to fulfil their deepest desires... which basically amounts to money. Now, you might be thinking “but we're playing as a monk, a time traveller and a chivalrous knight, maybe they're just going to use the money for the greater good”. Well, if by greater good, you mean for their selfish desires, you'd be absolutely right. Adding onto this is the disembodied voice of the cave itself. It provides snarky, humorous commentary over specific moments, often having to do with these characters and their not so good intentions. While the narration itself is funny, the situations of which the characters are placed under in order to progress through the cave, like grave robbing or altering with time itself, makes for even funnier situations, then you add the narration and it just makes for some rather humorous moments. So where it lacks in detail, it more than makes up for it with a combination of witty writing, morally reprehensive characters and unfortunate circumstances, all for the amusement of both the player and the cave itself.

The Cave is one part point and click in the form of a sidescrolling platformer, and one part just plain sidescrolling platformer. What I mean by point and click is that a lot of the puzzles will require you to use items to interact with parts of the scenery. Whether you use a single item to interact with a complicated mechanism or you combine items in order to demolish an obstacle, you'll be tasked with first collecting items and then using the three characters – each switchable with a press of a direction on the d-pad - you have control of to solve the puzzles as a lot of them require multiple characters working together. A vague example I can give is that there'll be scenarios where one character will need to activate a mechanism to unlock a door for the other two to get across and then they activate a conjoining mechanism so that the one activating the first one can follow the two. Most of these puzzles aren't complete brain busters and require simple logic in order to solve (insert rod A into slot B), but there are a few that can at least make you think a fair bit. Either way, the solutions for each of these puzzles make enough sense to keep you immersed into the experience. At no point does it feel like you're merely playing a video game; you're only doing what feels natural with what you have. You could make this argument for any game, but like games such as Broken Sword and the Zelda series, The Cave goes the extra mile by implementing these in a way that feel natural. Probably helps that some of these puzzles are downright funny.

But what's a game using multiple characters without abilities? You'll be given options like a character who can temporarily gain invincibility, a character who can hold his breath underwater for as long as he wants to, a character who can hack into computer terminals, a character who can use her whip to swing across gaps, a set of characters (or twins) who can leave shadows of themselves, a character who can use telekinesis and a character who can go through thin walls... the latter, I don't quite understand, but as this is the time traveller, apparently, in the future, people can walk through thin walls. Anyway, given that you have different abilities at your disposal, there are parts where you can utilize their abilities to solve puzzles. Whether there are parts of the cave where only that one character can traverse through (like a fantasy themed section only the knight can traverse through, or a laboratory only the scientist can go through) or you can use their abilities to solve a puzzle differently, there are a few opportunities to use their unique abilities to give the gameplay even more depth, and given that the logistics behind their usage makes sense, it aids in immersion quite well. I keep making a point of immersion, but really, when a game is about exploring what you could assume is unexplored territory, the discovery of new and exciting places is what keeps you playing, and puzzles with sound logic can keep that up.

Seeing as how you're given three characters to control out of seven per playthrough, the idea is that you need to replay this game in order to fully explore the cave. With that in mind, the cave changes its structure to benefit these characters in an attempt not make subsequent adventures feel so redundant. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that go against this design choice. For one thing, there are a fair amount of areas that aren't character specific, and given that the idea of this game is to explore a previously unknown place, it loses its luster upon repeated playthroughs. The other thing is the third playthrough... in order to experience the last character's specific areas, you have to repeat the other two's specific areas. Unless you're either going through each playthrough with quite some time in between or your memory is bad, this is dull due to the fact that a puzzle simply isn't as exciting nor satisfying to solve the second time as it is the first time you do it. That feeling of “yes I did it” just isn't there the second time. I guess you could consider it the speed run? That's the only way to make that run fun while you explore the parts of the cave exclusive to that one character that you didn't use.

Then again, each playthrough is about five or so hours long, so it could be a lot worse. Still, I feel that there was a good reason why The Lost Vikings and Trine only had three characters – so that they can put more care and attention into the level design. Given how limited in quantity the character exclusive areas are though, it makes you wonder why they even bothered with these different characters. It always felt like more of these sections could've been added, you should have control of all seven characters so that the cave can be designed in a way that requires you to think about how you can use each of their powers to navigate through an increasingly tricky cave, or less characters should've been given to you; and you know, for a game that wants to play like a platformer, it sure feels like crap when you have to do some platforming. The controls are looser than a Vatican daycare and given that backtracking and repeated playthroughs are necessary in order to complete the game and get everything out of it, it can get rather annoying – the only reason it doesn't outright drive me crazy is because when you die, you'll respawn like right before the pit you fell down. I guess that makes up for the sloppy controls... it doesn't, but it's a lesser of the evil of possibly resetting an entire part. Bloody hell! To make things worse, this game is linear – outside of some parts here and there for different characters, there isn't much to it outside of what you go through the second time after your first time through. So while replaying the game is encouraged, it just isn't as good the second or third time around!

The Cave sports a cartoony visual style, giving the cave some smooth and chunky edges, vivid colors and rich lighting that amounts to a sharp look. It's quite a treat to look at, especially as you go through quite an array of different environments despite still being inside a cave. One minute, you're going through some empty caverns; another minute, you go through places that'd host underground societies, and then there's a part where it's like you're inside a volcano. That's not even mentioning each characters' exclusive environments. With them looking as great as they do, it's just amazing. Top it off with some hilarious animations, and it only gets better. The animations are important; the characters may interact with one another, but they're all mute. How else can you communicate but via charades? Like how they can use their hands to perform gestures or even move their bodies. Even better are some of the amusing walking animations, like the hillbilly flailing about while he moves or how the twins may as well be conjoined. Where it hurts is twofold – the framerate can often chug, and you can sometimes find yourself getting stuck in solid platforms which require you to reset the console. Thank god for frequent autosaves...

The music manages to provide the appropriate ambiance. Whether it's the mesmerizing echoes of the cave, to the accordions of the carnival themed places (like when you're introduced to the hillbilly or you're at one of his exclusive portions of the cave), each piece of music manages to fit well with the surroundings and draw you into the experience. Unfortunately, there aren't really any standout pieces, perhaps outside of the James Bond theme sounding song during one of the scientist's exclusive portions involving a laboratory and some sneaky stunts. The voice acting from the cave is fantastic as his voice just drips with sarcasm, complimenting the dialogue with aplomb, and the people you meet along the way also have great voice acting that oozes with personality.

It's amazing how The Cave is a game that revolves around replayability and discovery – while the discovery portion is great, the replayability portion leaves a lot to be desired. The first playthrough is excellent outside of some crap platforming elements, but each subsequent playthrough just isn't as interesting. Most people don't replay the likes of Broken Sword too quickly outside of speed running because discovery, whether it's the solution to the puzzle or possibilities of a solution, is something that only exists during ones' first playthrough. Having a lot of different characters is excellent on paper, but execution is what matters and the execution does leave a fair bit to be desired once you realize that these characters just aren't used as well as they could've been, nor that the cave is as well designed as it could've been, even if it seems like it was well done the first time you go through the cave. At the same time, I would happily recommend that you play through this game, if only for the first playthrough.

7.5/10 (Good)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Skulls Of The Shogun

There isn't a whole lot in the turn based strategy genre in this generation... on consoles, at least. Sure, Vandal Hearts: Flames Of Judgment existed and turned out to be a good game, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a good game too, but... I think that's about it, and no, I don't count Disgaea 3 and 4 because quite frankly, 1 is the better game in terms of story and characters. So when Skulls Of The Shoguns unleashed itself to the unwashed masses in the form of a trailer back in 2010, it got reactions and some people were psyched. But then it got delayed until January of 2013. At least it got the Deus Ex: Human Revolution treatment of teasing us for a few years before release and not the Final Fantasy Versus XIII/Duke Nukem Forever treatment of seemingly never getting fucking finished. It's not quite as good as Deus Ex: Human Revolution (and before anybody uses the apples vs oranges argument... well, maybe I prefer a bit of that juicy, succulent apple over eating that average looking orange) and in terms of overall quality, there's no real hook to it other than good game mechanics that don't falter it, but at the end of the day, it's fairly good.

You begin the game as a recently slain Fuedal Japanese army general, raising an army of the dead to wage war against the guy who killed you. Okay, so there's not a whole lot to the concept, coming across as bare boned as a Final Fantasy game, but the effort was clearly put into the dialogue. No, not thought provoking dialogue and not emotional dialogue that'll make get you into the characters, only for them to die partway through and make you cry like a little bitch; I'm talking about pop culture references. Yeah, shit that'll be dated within the next year, if it isn't already. Now, there are some legitimate jokes in there, but it's mainly of the loud, crude, insane, “I really want to be Ren And Stimpy or Rocko's Modern Life” variety that can elicit some chuckles, but never really goes above that level. Maybe I've become so jaded at this point that I need to snort unicorn ashes to get so much as a buzz, but as far out as it attempts to be with its humor, it winds up being restrained to try and be more like a sitcom you see on TV; not going balls out to make you laugh your head off. It's not bad and as I said, it does make you laugh a bit every now and again, but it basically reeks of lazy writing with more pop culture references and internet memes that won't be funny ever again (if at all) than there are actual jokes.

The idea of the game is to move your units from one point of a map to the other, killing enemies along the way to the end goal point. Instead of moving along a grid, you instead move around within a circular area, not unlike Valkyria Chronicles. But where it works in that series, it doesn't quite in this game. Well, it does when you use archers (one of three primary classes you can use at the beginning of each level) and the monks you can acquire when you conquer shrines as they use long ranged attacks, but when you use infantry and cavalry units, it's not quite as easy to line up their physical attacks at it would seem because you often have to be at the right place to do so. But given the more fluid gridless movement system, it's a bitch when it turns out you're like a millimeter away from your desired target. Grids are a tried and true system because it helps you line up each units' attacks with precision, which is absolutely necessary in a turn based strategy game. Moving within a circular area only really works if everybody uses long ranged weapons like arrows and guns. Oh, and memo to future game designers – if you're going to include a mechanic where having two units next to each other reduces the damage they receive and doesn't knock them back when they're hit, make sure that not only do individual units do not require you to be meticulous with the cursor to select them, but that they also look different enough to distinguish without the need for a fucking magnifying glass. Thanks, it'll make selecting the right unit in a tactics game a lot easier.

That's about the extent of the game, but there are some other mechanics to play with along the way. Like I said, you can conquer shrines in order to acquire some spellcasters like a healer, a fire mage and a wind mage, but you can also conquer rice paddies, which are used to pay for new archer, infantry and cavalry units. There are also skulls that units can eat. These skulls are the remains of enemies that have been killed and although eating one takes up an action – of which you get five per turn – it can also heal the unit that eats it. If a unit eats three, then they will essentially level up, allowing them to hit harder. These mechanics insert some technicality into an otherwise simplistic system as there is a fair bit to think about. I mean, a lot of what this game revolves around is moving towards the enemy and then hitting them until they die unless you can push them off of a cliff (there's knockback included in each hit). Resource management allows you to call in for reinforcements and acquire some supersoldiers to protect your general because, powerful as he is, if he dies in battle, you lose automatically.

The mechanics do work out finely for the most part as you can move your soldiers about and execute commands with little to no problems, and the whole multi unit wall mechanic is an interesting one that I've found myself using quite a lot to make things a bit easier on myself when fighting a barrage of enemies. On the whole, fights do feel balanced as they rely more on brains than on powergrinding. Nothing complicated as a lot of this is baseline shit, but what's there works well in that pick up and play kind of way. That's what this game's true aim is – being able to pick up and play it. This is perfectly exemplified in the multiplayer mode, where you can face up to three other players either locally or online to see who's the better tactician, and who can make the best of their five actions per turn with what options you're all given. Things can get especially chaotic with multiple people playing. Nothing beats a good old fasioned alliance with another player, only to backstab him to gain an advantage in the long run.

It's actually funny the more I think about the single player campaign – this game feels like it could've worked better as an RTS than a turn based strategy game. From the gridless movement, to the wall system, to resource management, not to mention the fact that it seems to move at a snail's pace at the worst of times, it's begging to be in real time. A lot of the time, the game will trick you into thinking you've won the battle, only to send in some reinforcements. This was cute the first couple of times, but after a while, it really feels like these battles drag on. With baseline mechanics, you have to make up more inventive reasons to drag on battles than “oh there are hidden reinforcements for the fifth time oh golly”. So cool, we get to fight the same enemies we've already fought like five seconds ago. When is this mission over? Oh, and you want to know the funniest part? This game is about five hours long. No, I'm not kidding, just five hours. When five hours feels too long, you should probably head back to the planning stage. But then I think back to the multiplayer mode and think about how well the system works there, which lead me to the conclusion that there was, indeed, no creativity put into the battle scenarios – just the fucking dialogue. Barely.

I've already made a remark about the fact that a lot of your units look similar to one another with subtle differences, which clashes with the wall mechanic, so unfortunately, we've hit a bit of a snag in the graphical department in terms of a lack of creativity in individual unit type design. It's a shame, because it is a good looking game. Sure, it looks like a Flash cartoon where they bob about like bobble heads at times, but the crisp, colorful models are very well animated and the locations look beautiful. They all look like they're inspired by feudal Japanese art with all the cherry blossom leaves and shit. Considering the subject matter, it's also very fitting. Also consider the soundtrack. While there's some electronic beats in there, you'll also hear some traditional Japanese folk melodies in there. It's mainly put in for ambiance during the battles, but it still sounds good all the same.

Skulls Of The Shogun is the kind of game that likes to believe it's a fun loving game with its colorful visuals and wacky dialogue, but while the visuals nail it, the dialogue alternates between chuckleworthy and unfunny, given that it'd rather make references than tell actual jokes. The gameplay itself simplifies the turn based strategy formula mainly for ease of congestion, but while it works either in heated matches against your mates or for a little while in the single player campaign, it works against itself as each level drags on longer than it has any right to due to a lack of creativity put into each of the battles beyond “oh here are some units go kill them now”. Given that enemies are generally balanced and each of the missions do get incrementally harder, it really is just a lack of variety in the missions and units that drag this game down. Boredom does eventually settle in and all of the charming visuals and dialogue in the world can't save you from it. Consider this a tepid recommendation as the mechanics themselves are finely tuned and the multiplayer mode is fantastically done... just wish the campaign was more tightly paced.

6.5/10 (Above Average)