Some Short Reviews of What I’ve Been Playing in January
Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition (PSVita)
Duke3D was not only released this month for PS3 and PSVita, it was also of no charge to PSPlus subscribers. I bought a Vita back in December to occupy my time during my holiday travels, so I decided to give the handheld version a go. It actually works pretty well on the Vita. The Vita’s sticks are quite a bit shorter and don’t have as much range as the traditional Dual Shock-style controller, so it takes a little bit of getting accustomed to them for a first person shooter, but once I did, I found aiming to work pretty well in the game. In addition, the game’s simplicity, especially when regarded against modern shooters, makes it a good fit for the small screen, handheld experience. I’m one of those people who have the bad habit of playing games in attention-deficit mode, where I play a game on a handheld or laptop while Netflix or something is streaming on my TV, and Duke3D on the Vita is pretty ideal for that.
I’m actually not the biggest Duke3D fan, and what I mean by that is that I don’t have a particularly long history with it. My first time playing the game was the XBLA version that was released a long while ago. I liked it well enough then, but I just sort of dropped it halfway through the second episode after I lost interest with it. I’m hoping to beat the Vita version though. To be honest, I find Duke Nukem to be kind of an annoying character, and the themes of strippers and hot babes being abducted by alien invaders is something only the lowest common denominator of the newly pubescent could appreaciate. There was a time in gaming during the late nineties where this sort of game was considered “mature” and edgy, and I understand why that was the case. Gaming (or mainstream gaming at least) was growing up at the time, and part of growing up is going through an awkward phase that is clouded by gratuitous attitudes towards sex and violence. Regardless of these themes though, I think that the action game that underlies all this immaturity is still quite good, and thus I continue to play it. It has that quality of unfettered run and gun adrenaline that you just don’t get in today’s heavily “cinematized” FPSes.
The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)
This is probably the game I’ve spent the most amount of time with this month. I rented the original PS3 version out of Redbox when it came out, but I only got a little ways into the Summer chapter before returning it. I was just too busy at the time to commit to playing it. When talking about a Naughty Dog game (at least post-Uncharted 2), it seems most people immediately fixate on the storytelling. To be honest, I don’t find the storytelling in the Uncharted series to be particularly interesting, and I’ve always been amazed at the amount of praise that they receive. I don’t find it bad, just unexceptional. The plots of the Uncharted games all feel very common to me. They are all relatively standard action movie plots that don’t do anything particularly unique for that genre. I do feel, however, that Naughty Dog is good at creating characters that are a great deal more likeable than the standard action game hero who is designed more to embody a masculine power fantasy than feel like a human being. And beyond the story, I feel the Uncharted games aren’t exactly the pinnacle of TPS design, although they are adequate. Uncharted 3, in particular, I think has serious problems with much of it’s design.
With regards to story, I feel that The Last of Us is more or well the same. Plot-wise it is tracking through very well trodden ground, and it hits many of the same beats and tropes that recur across modern dramatic zombie fiction a la The Walking Dead. It’s very predictable. This is particularly a problem in the beginning of the game. I found it picked up quite a bit though toward the middle, however, with a well designed arc that, despite following another template of the genre, did manage to create some genuine suspense.
In addition, I’ve found The Last of Us to be a significantly more compelling game to play than the Uncharted series. It is generally more focused on aggressive stealth action, similar to Splinter Cell Conviction, with the player character using stealth more to set up ambushes rather than sneak by unseen. There are a number of ways to attack a given situation, as the game allows the player to take down enemies from a behind the back sneak attack, use them as human shields, snipe them silently with arrows, use a wide variety of throwable explosives, or just simply take them out in a blaze of gunfire. It’s quite a bit more stimulating and thought-provoking than the Uncharted-style encounter design where they just pour a bunch of dudes into an area of chest high walls and tell you to “don’t stop shooting until nothing’s left moving.” I do have a big gripe about the crafting system, however. It’s not so much about having to craft items, rather, I feel that the way the game makes you root around in so many little side rooms for crafting ingredients puts a drag on the pacing. In addition, the AI characters would often walk off without me while I was collecting crafting items, but I could vaguely hear them in the distance still talking to me or each other. It made me continually feel like I was missing important dialogue and story information. Still, I’m looking forward to finishing the game soon.
Brandish: The Dark Revenant (PSP, PSVita Compatible)
This was a quiet release during the month of January. I’m a huge fan of the Ys games that XSEED released on PSP, and seemingly out of the blue they have released another PSP port of one of Falcom’s classic series. Brandish: The Dark Revenant is a PSP remake of the original Brandish, somewhat similar I think to how Oath in Felghana is a remake of Ys III. Falcom is really good at designing great action RPGs, but although Brandish and Ys both belong to this genre, they play very differently.
Brandish is technically a dungeon crawler, tasking the player with reaching the top of an underground tower, but this is not the type of dungeon crawler that focuses on grinding for loot and levels. The levels have been crafted by the developer instead of being randomly generated, and there is more a focus on puzzle solving, careful exploration, and arranged combat encounters. The closest modern analogue to this game I can think of is the Legend of Grimrock series, although Brandish is played from a top-down perspective and lacks a party of characters. Another commonality that these games have is that while actions occur in real time, movement is confined to a square grid.
The story in this game is nothing particularly special. In fact, it doesn’t just take a backseat to the action, it’s locked in the trunk. The game starts with your character being ambushed by a bikini-clad sorceress seeking revenge on behalf of her master (or at least I think that’s what’s going on). An earthquake occurs during the confrontation, and the two characters fall into a crevasse and become trapped in a long lost underground kingdom. The player is then tasked with ascending a monster-ridden tower to return to the surface. Every so often, you cross paths with the sorceress and a small confrontation occurs, but otherwise there’s no story to speak of. If my description of this story sounds so exasperated, that’s because it’s just a very thin aspect of the game. This is definitely not a title for gamers looking for a story-dense experience.
The gameplay is actually fairly fun, fortunately, but it starts off a bit too easy. I think the description in the PSN store says that there are 40 dungeon floors to the game, but for about the first fifteen or so, I found both the puzzles and the monster to be an incredibly light challenge. I stopped playing the game for a little while, because the lack of difficulty was making it feel more like a chore than a stimulating experience. Fortunately, it does start to become quite a bit more challenging, and I’ve begun pouring a lot more time into it as a consequence. In addition, one cool thing about the dungeon design is that on most floors there are optional areas that require some extra-tough puzzle-solving and secret hunting to gain access to.
I have a feeling I won’t finish this game anytime soon. This is probably more of a positive than a negative. The lack of story kind of makes it a game that is easy to come back to after having put it down for long periods of time. Ultimately, I think this is an easy recommendation to any fans of Falcom’s other action RPGs. It’s a PSP game, but it is compatible with and looks great on the Vita’s screen.
Games I’m Looking Forward to in February
It seems that I haven’t beaten a single game in the month of January. I have a feeling though that I’m not to far from the end of The Last of Us, and, as I said, Duke Nukem and Brandish are games that I’m going to be coming back to for a while. There are a few games I’m looking forward to picking up in February. First up is Resident Evil Remake HD. I’m a big fan of the Resident Evil series, particularly the first two games, but I’ve never been able to play this version due to lack of a Gamecube. It’s always been a bit of a fascination for me though, as it makes the mansion look and feel like a much more sinister entity than what it was in the original games. I’m super excited to play the just released uprezzed version.
I will also definitely be getting into Majora’s Mask 3D. As I didn’t own an N64, Ocarina of Time 3D was my first experience with that game, and it left a big impression on me. I had always sort of doubted the fanfare around that game when it was released, since game-starved Nintendo 64 fans tended to play up every game that came out for that system as THE GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!! But after having seriously played it on the 3DS, I completely understand OoT’s popularity. I realize Majora’s Mask is a very different game from OoT, but I’m still excited to get a hold of it.
I’m also considering getting into the re-release of Grim Fandango, although the talk I’ve heard about the absurdity of the puzzle logic it possesses kind of makes me cautious. And, looking over what I’ve written, I’m recognizing a running theme of re-releases dominating my playlist. I’m thinking maybe I should spice things up with something more contemporary. After all, I believe it’s okay to have a healthy appreciation of the past, but obsession with those past experiences at the expense of rejecting the arrival of new experiences is what will turn you into an old man.