Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sooooo, about Nintendo’s E3 Event

I honestly don’t think I’ve heard anyone actually say they enjoyed Nintendo’s E3 digital event.  At most, I’ve heard people decry the severe backlash that has been launched toward Nintendo via Twitter and the like.  And I mostly feel disenchanted with Nintendo as well right now.  There wasn’t anything that I can honestly say that I’m unqualified excited.  There were definitely a few games that piqued my interest, but even those I have a heavy amount of hesitation toward.

I was at work when the show hit YouTube, so I couldn’t tune in during the initial viewing, but I did keep an eye on the reactions through my phone.  Man, was that an unpleasant experience.  That said, I think I was able to enjoy the show when I got to watch it, because I already knew what was going to be announced.  The power of lowered expectations is a merciful thing sometimes.  While the games announced and presented were….unfortunate, let’s say, I did enjoy the puppet show and the developers’ stories.  These Nintendo presentations have become rather theatric, and I thought the skits with the puppets were quite cute and funny.  I really feel sorry for whoever had to go through all the effort to get that thing together, since an otherwise fun presentation will forever be overshadowed by the harsh reaction to the games shown.

The thing is, there’s a lot of anxiety in Nintendo fans right now, and this showing didn’t do anything to assuage that.  The company is quite clear that it is in the process of changing the way it does business.  And with new hardware hitting possibly as soon as next year (which might be a successor to the 3DS or Wii U or potentially both), I think a lot of people are questioning if their Wii U was a good investment if it’s going to swept under the rug so soon.  Personally, I’m worried about that as well.  If NX hits next year as a replacement to the Wii U, I don’t think it would be too bad, as I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of the system with games like Splatoon, Mario Kart 8, Mario 3D World and quite a few others.  But I’m not inclined to buy consoles at launch (I wait until I think they have a substantial library that is worthwhile), and my fear is that there’s going to be another Twilight Princess situation with Zelda U becoming a timed exclusive for the new machine.  I think that would really hurt.  I hope Nintendo stays true to its promise.

Well, with all that said, I’m going to get straight into it with my thoughts on some of the games:

Star Fox Zero

Seems like this is meant to be their big game for the final months of the year, filling the hole that Zelda U left.  I’m a huge fan of Star Fox 64, and I really want to be excited for this game, but….. well, it just looks very low budget.  It weirdly reminds me of a late-90’s PC game.  Back then poly-counts were still low, but since PC’s had relatively enormous amounts of RAM compared to consoles, you got simple 3D models and environments that were plastered with these really elaborate textures.  This game just feels very sparsely filled and empty, like the only thing that’s evolved since the N64 is resolution.

Graphics aren’t everything, of course, but, man, there’s a limit to how much I’m willing to pay $60 for.  I can only hope that the action turns out good enough that it overshadows the bland visuals.

Mario and Luigi/Paper Mario Crossover

I’m a huge fan of Mario RPGs, even though they’ve waivered a little bit lately.  It’s a series where the highs are incredibly high (i.e., Paper Mario, TTYD, Superstar Saga), so when you have an entry in the series that is merely “good,” it ends up being a being a big disappointed.  I think that could be reasonably said about Super Paper Mario and Dream Team.  Sticker Star Story, on the other hand, was just flat out boring.  This game is being done by Alpha Dream, the M&L developer, so I have reasonable hopes for it.

I have to say though, the last thing I was expecting for the series was a crossover.  On the other hand, Nintendo seems to be on a weird, crossover kick lately with SMT x FE, Hyrule Warriors, Puzzle & Dragons x Mario, and Mario Kart 8, so I guess it wasn’t unthinkable.  Seems to me that it will have an M&L style battle system, but now with Paper Mario supporting the duo.  I guess this is the game I’m most excited for from the conference, as it was the only announcement that wasn’t met with immediate bewilderment.

3DS Co-op Games: Metroid Prime Federation Force & The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Guardians

These were probably the two most controversial announcements during the event, co-op focused games in both the Metroid Prime and Zelda series.  The Metroid Prime game has become particularly controversial, presumably since Metroid has been put to rest for a long while now, and this was really not how the fans wanted the series to return.  There’s even an acrimonious petition out there to try to get the game cancelled.  Which is insane.  Even if Nintendo does cancel the game, it’s not suddenly going to make a real Metroid Prime entry materialize out of nothing for release in the near future.  Federation Force is being made by Next Level Games, who actually released Luigi’s Mansion 2/Dark Moon, which I really liked quite well.  The developer is really the only reason I’m interested in this game at all, otherwise I would have dismissed it out of hand.

The other game, Triforce Guardians, is being made internally by Nintendo.  I think this one was swallowed a little easier by fans since there was already a co-op focused Zelda game(s) (Four Sword Adventures), and it wasn’t too long ago that the excellent Link Between Worlds was released (not to mention the remake of Majora’s Mask).  Honestly, I don’t know where this sudden co-op push for 3DS is coming from, though.

Ultimately, I’m glad 3DS is getting some attention by Nintendo again.  2014 was not such a good year for 3DS, and games for the system were barely talked about at last year’s E3.  2014 was especially bad considering that 2013 had been such an amazing year for the system with a ton of great games like Zelda, Luigi’s Mansion, Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, etc. seeing release.  I’m glad the system apparently still has some life left for it, even if the new games are oddball spin-offs that seem to indicate that it’s starting to die down.

Super Mario Maker

Mario Maker looks cool, but I don’t think they showed anything new for it here.  I did enjoy the short developer’s story they had with Miyamoto and Tezuka to go along with it.  Also, I’m a bit surprised at the $60 price tag.  Is this justifiable considering the game will heavily depend on an unknown quantity, the community, to make it a great experience?  I’m not sure.  However, they are packaging the game with a book detailing Mario level design philosophies, so that makes the price a little easier to swallow.

Animal Crossing

I’m not a hardcore Animal Crossing fan.  I’ve only played the 3DS game, but I liked it well enough. I think a lot of Animal Crossing fans were hoping for a Wii U entry, but, of course, they didn’t get what they want.  Two Animal Crossing games were shown, one focuses on home decoration and the other is a board game.  I mention these only because it strikes me that, odd as they are, they might be the type of games that transition well to mobile platforms.  Are we actually seeing some of the soon to be Nintendo mobile games here?

Devil’s Third

This game was not shown in either the pre-recorded event or on the E3 show floor, but it recently got a release date for Japan and Europe.  No word yet on an NA release.  I wonder why this could be?  NoA has a long history of showing indifference toward anything that isn’t a part of the core Nintendo properties, and I hope we’re not going to get shafted on this one.

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The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me

Aeris

I have to say, I didn’t think it would ever happen.  While they’ve remade all the FF’s between 1-6 as well as X and Tactics, they mostly seem to be content skipping over what is the series’ arguably most popular era.  I wonder what finally clicked to make them decide to go ahead with this undertaking?  All I can think is that Sony might have made a big push for it, considering how competitive the console race has been lately.  But then again, it’s not a Playstation exclusive, so that can’t be the only reason.

This game means a lot to me, and I always forget that it means a lot to me until I happen to see it in action.  This was an insanely popular game back in the day, and I think that was because it hit at the right time, and it introduced a generation of young gamers at the edge of adolescence to a type of “mature” game that would ignite their developing interests and propel them to continue playing games beyond their childhood years.  I know that’s how it was for me at least.  The game’s story centers on themes of fighting against a world that has tacitly come to accept oppression and corruption, and I think that resonates with youths of a certain age who are achieving new levels of moral awareness for the messy way our world actually works.  Furthermore, most games cast you in the role of a lone hero, like Mario or Sonic.  But RPGs like these focus on being a part of a team, and what those team members mean to each other is a major part of the story.  At an age of social awakening when a person is trying to find their place in the world and amongst their peers, these themes can be very powerful.

I think these reasons made FF7 very popular in its time, but the insane popularity came with a very strong backlash.  The thing about FF7 is that while it’s a good Final Fantasy game, if you take it out of the context of its time, it’s not really an exceptional one.  There are a lot of good Final Fantasy games after all, and the disproportionate popularity of FF7 is where I think the backlash against it has originated.  Even in the wake of FF7’s release, it quickly became the “cool kid” thing to say that you preferred FF6 as the series’ high point.  I think the backlash was, of course, somewhat deserved when FF7 was hogging so much of the spotlight, but I think now when nearly every title in the series has seen multiple rereleases, fretting over the inordinate popularity of this one entry is obsessing a bit too much over the past.

The running feeling I got through E3 this year was excitement tempered with heavy skepticism, and FF7 was no exception.  I will probably write more on that topic later.  The rational part of my brain is quick to dismiss this remake since Square has had (for a while now) a huge amount of trouble getting Final Fantasy games out the door.  Between FFXV taking soooo very long, FFXIV’s catastrophic false start, and the protracted Lightning trilogy that not even hardcore fans asked for, it’s really hard to have faith in Square as a developer to achieve greatness in their games as they once did.  But while I consider myself a pretty rational person and want to dismiss the game for these reasons, I can’t help but get excited when I see Barrett and Cloud walking through the slums.  Like I said, the game means a lot to me.  So while I have a heavy amount of skepticism, I still really want this game.  I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t turn into another console-generation spanning debacle like Versus XIII.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 2

This is the second part of my recommendations list of lesser known titles for the 2015 Steam Summer Sale.  You can find the first part and a more complete introduction to the list here.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Gemini Rue

Regular Sale Price: $2.99 (-70%)

Gemini Rue is a noir+cyberpunk indie point-and-click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye, whose prodigious Blackwell Series made last year’s list.  While most modern point-and-click adventure games have started to dispose of the heady puzzles that were the genre’s anathema in the ‘90s, Gemini Rue (as well as most Wadjet Eye) games still features a fair bit of cogitating over the erudite uses of your inventory dispersed within its multi-faceted story.  These puzzles are on the harder side of modern adventure games, I feel, but they’re still not nearly within the realm of perplexity that caused the original wave of adventure games to go extinct.  With enough patience and experimentation, I found myself able to progress without an inordinate amount of frustration.  That said, even if you do find yourself having to run to GameFAQs once in a while, the story that unfolds still makes playing the game worth it.

The story features Azrael Odin (….yes, I know what you’re thinking) an elite, interstellar assassin on a mission to the urban decaying, crime-ridden planet of Barracus searching for his missing brother.  As he navigates the underworld crime rings of Barracus, the story of his brother’s captivity in a mysterious government-controlled research facility plays out.  Beyond that, I don’t want to go into more detail.  Needless to say, I thought this was one of the more interesting story-driven games I’ve played in the last 5 years.  I recommend this to those who might be looking for something more elaborate than the soap opera-style Telltale games that have become fashionable since The Walking Dead arrived.  Not that I don’t like Telltale games, it’s just that sometimes their stories have a very “made for TV” quality to them (I wonder why?) that I think sometimes stunts what they’re capable of achieving.


Half-Life

Regular Sale Price: $2.49 (-75%)

Half-Life is a mostly forgotten FPS from the late ‘90s that was unfortunately overshadowed by contemporary releases like Unreal 1 and Sin.  It had one sequel which was accompanied by two downloadable “episodes,” but apparently the series didn’t sell all that well because there was never a Half-Life 3, and the story remains unfinished.  You may be surprised to find out that the developer behind Half-Life is none other than Valve, the proprietors of Steam.  That’s right, this was the first game developed by the company that made Dota 2!

The story features Gordon Freeman, a scientist who becomes involved in a teleportation experiment that goes awry and cracks open the barriers between dimensions.  Aliens start invading his super secret lab, and I know what you’re thinking, the story is a total ripoff of Doom!  And you’re right.  But it’s still a good game.  Also, the Opposing Force expansion pack is pretty good too (or at least I thought so 15 years ago).  Blue Shift, on the other hand, is not so good.  I wouldn’t waste my time with that one.  Anyway, if you’re looking to take a break from something like Counter-Strike: GO, then Half-Life is definitely a good palette cleanser until you’re ready to get back into online socially-connected multiplayer games.


Full Bore

Regular Sale Price: $5.09 (-66%)

Full Bore

Oh look, an indie puzzle platformer with big pixel graphics.  You don’t see many of those!  I’m being sarcastic, but I actually do really like this game.  You play a boar (as in the wild pig) who lives in a world of sentient boars and a few other animals.  One day while frollicking through the forest, the ground falls out from underneath our protagonist and he finds himself trapped inside a large, empty vault.  When he emerge, he’s accused of being the one who emptied the vault and is sentenced to hard labor, digging in the mines to pay back what has been stolen.  As you can probably begin to tell, the story here is very off-beat, but in a sincere way, not in a cloying “look, how crazy we can be!” kind of way.  And while it seems very simple at the onset, the events that begin to transpire afterwards are actually really quite amazing.  Honestly, I really didn’t expect the story to take off like it did.

Proving that indie developers can (and will) take any popular concept and mesh it into any imaginable genre (see roguelikes), Full Bore is actually what might be best described as Metroidvania block pushing puzzle game.  You travel across this open 2D world in a fairly non-linear fashion and must basically figure out ways to reach treasures within the mines that are not easily accessible.  The environments are composed of big pixel art with a ton of creativity and detail put into them.  There’s a wonderful amount of variety here.  And the music is also quite good as well.

The indie puzzle platformer genre is incredibly saturated, no doubt.  But I think Full Bore actually does stand out amongst the crowd.  And aside from the well-designed block puzzles, the bizarrely unexpected story, the splendorous images and music, there’s actually a whole lot of content in the game.  I don’t think you’ll be left wanting more, and I mean that in a good way.


The Longest Journey

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

This is an oldie, but a goodie.  The Longest Journey is a point-and-click adventure game that arrived well after the first wave of the point-and-click adventure genre had come and gone.  This game was the first game that I ever saw that had a 1 GB install (and to my knowledge it was the first game to actually have one).  That was a big deal in the year 2000.  When you combine that fact with a title like The Longest Journey, I was expecting this game to be huge.

…It is a reasonable length.  I mean, it’s not a short game.  Howlongtobeat.com says it averages between 17-20 hours in length.  But that also means it’s quite a bit shorter than some of the RPGs that were coming out around that time which could often require >50 hours to beat.  Back in the day, on completion, I remember being a tad bit disappointed by the game’s “brevity.”

But really there’s nothing to be disappointed about here.  It tells an amazing story that manages to successfully combine both elements of scifi and fantasy.  April Ryan is a young artist living in a technologically-advanced world that is culturally not too different from our own, known as Stark.  Events lead her to discover that she is a rare being that is capable of travelling to the fantastical realm of Arcadia, a parallel world that is governed by magic rather than technology.  These two universes exist in a delicate balance and once formed a single plane of existence.  But after arriving in Arcadia, April and those around her soon come to believe that she is destined to play a pivotal role in protecting the fate and stability of the two diametrically-opposed dimensions.

The story here gets huge props.  April is one of those characters that just doesn’t conform to the standard lone warrior trope that overshadows vast portions of gaming.  And instead of violence, she’s forced to use her wits, determination, and luck to advance toward her goals.  I always liked her for being such a relatably human character.  And the characters around her, whether human or fantastical, come together in a way that compliments the heartfelt story in a very naturally.

As for the gameplay, it’s standard point-and-click fair.  You have to find the right combination of items or figure out the right thing to say to the right NPC to progress.  I think most people have a long lingering fear of the genre’s potential for impenetrability, but really for these types of games, I’ve resigned myself that if I have to go to GameFAQs, I will.  The story is really the main draw here.  And like Gemini Rue, while the puzzles in this game can get hard in the context of modern adventure games, neither are really as baffling as what the genre offered in its darkest days.


Pid

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

Indie platformers by and large tend to be puzzle-focused, but there are a few that are more technique-based challenges like Super Meat Boy and BattleBlock Theater.  Pid falls into the latter category, although at first you might think it falls into the former.  The game follows Kurt, a school-aged youngster who falls asleep while taking the space bus home from school.  Waking up at the last stop, he then finds himself trapped on a planet caught in a bizarre centuries-long holding pattern where the residents go about their tasks as if they have no end.  This includes waiting for the bus off the planet, which means Kurt is effectively trapped.  While exploring for an escape, he stumbles upon a treasure which gives him the power to create repulsor beams on the ground that allows him to cross difficult to traverse areas, and he sets off to find a solution to the world-engulfing malaise that bars him from going home.

What precipitates is a charmingly off-beat story where the oblivious Kurt seeks escape but is actually threatening the shadowy power that has inflicted the purgatory on the planet.  As I mentioned, it’s a technique-driven platformer, where progression is more based on how skillfully you can maneuver with the repulsor beams rather than trying to test out your spatial reasoning skills.  I think the game was received poorly on it’s XBLA launch, mostly for what was considered it’s exceptionally high difficulty.  While I think this game can be challenging, I don’t think it’s unreasonably difficult like some claim.  It’s not in the same league as something like Volgarr the Viking or 1001 Spikes.  I think the problem most reviewers had lied with the 360 controller not being appropriate for it.  Analog sticks are simply too sluggish for the quick reflexes required by this game, and the 360 d-pad is just too poor  to be an option.  I hated playing this game with the 360 pad, but found it to be a lot of fun when using the keyboard or a dual shock controller.  I recommend those as the way to go for this game.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 1

The Steam Summer Sale is here at last!  This time it appears to be running until the 1:00 EST on the 22nd.  (That will be when all the deals will be taken down.)  I always find this a great time to take advantage of the low prices to try games that I might not usually be inclined toward.  It’s a great way to expand and develop your tastes!  Last year, I wrote up 10 games that I thought were underappreciated gems and were also steals during the sale, and here I am again with another list of recommendations.  Of course, the 2014 list is still just as valid during this year’s sale.  This is going to be a long post, so I’m splitting it in half.  The second half will be available very soon.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Rise of the Triad (2013 Reboot)

Regular Sale Price: $3.74 (-75%)

Rise of the Triad is a rebooting of Rise of the Triad: Dark War which was a somewhat forgotten FPS in the era immediately post-Doom.  You really don’t need to have played that game to enjoy this one, but you do need to have an appreciation of the early styling of PC FPS.  The story is that you are an agent of HUNT, an elite, multinational anti-terrorist organization that is launching an assault against the fortified hidden headquarters of a Nazi secret society.  And that’s basically all there is to that.  It is a game that is intensely action-driven.  And this game is fast.  Like really fast.  While the game has controller support, I think most prefer the precision of KB+M for a game this quick-natured.  I almost always play action games with a controller nowadays, but KB+M just felt way more natural for this game.

There are a lot of games that claim to capture the feel of old-school FPS, but this is probably the one that actually lives up to that ideal the most.  I think anyone who might have fond memories of adrenaline-charged, run-and-gun action games should not pass this one up.


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Regular Sale Price: $9.99 (-50%) (will go lower on daily or flash)

I’ll say this upfront, I’m pretty sure this game will go down to $5 during a flash or daily deal at some point.  It’s been that low before, so I would wait for that price.  This is actually the second Sega-themed racer put out by Sumo Digital.  The first game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was actually a fairly decent kart racer, but Racing Transformed really just completely stomps all over it in quality, design, content, and ambition.  While its predecessor was a kart racer, Racing Transformed is really more an arcade racer with a fantastical and whimsical bent.  The track are far more creative and grandiose than what had been seen in the first game.  Racing Transformed borrows the Mario Kart 7 idea of having transforming vehicles (as the name implies), so you’ll be racing on wheels, water, and through the air.  In addition, it’s not just the vehicles that transform, but most of the tracks will transform in some way between laps.

Really this game leans heavily on Sega nostalgia with characters and tracks built around themes from not just popular Sega series like Sonic and Jet Set Radio, but also deep cuts like Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, and Space Channel 5.  I think one of the strengths of the sequel is that it avoids relying so heavily on Sonic themes and more evenly uses Sega’s massive catalog of brands and characters.

I think any Sega fan will probably get a kick out of it for just for how well it makes use of the many Sega worlds it dives into.  And even if you’re not a long time Sega-fan, it’s still a fundamentally good racer that focuses more on “arcadey-ness,” which makes it pretty unique considering how serious racers have become over recent years.


Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Do you like to hack?  Do you like to slash (preferably while hacking)?  If either of these things sound appealing to you, then Ys: The Oath in Felghana might be up your alley.  For those who don’t know, Ys is a long running action RPG series from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom, and Oath in Felghana is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest chapters.  Ys follows the travels of Adol Christin and his bro Dogi as they perpetually stumble into conflict with long-dormant ancient evil entities  It’s not so much an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, which focuses on loot, grinding levels, and randomized dungeons, rather its more like if Zelda became entirely combat-focused and got rid of all its puzzles to have something that’s focused just on tearing through hordes of enemies.  Like I said, it’s for those seeking a fast-paced, hack+slash experience.

I will admit that I haven’t played through the Steam version, but I’ve beaten the game on PSP, and the Steam user reviews are “Overwhelmingly Positive,” so I’m confident it’s a good PC port.  I will say, though, that if you’re looking for a  traditional JRPG, Ys might not be it (which might be a relief to many of you).  It’s not a very story heavy game, but concision works to its advantage.  Falcom works with an anime artstyle, but it’s a rather tame anime artstyle that avoids becoming the over-embellished mess that most anime artists lose control to.  In addition, the story and characters are rather heartfelt and mature.  The writers of the game expertly avoided the anime tropes that most people find obnoxious.  But then again, there story is not really all that elaborate.

*Often Ys has a series sales as part of a daily/flash deal, so I would keep a look out for that.


Gateways

Regular Sale Price: $1.49 (-70%)

Gateways is a small, but fun little 2D puzzle platformer that I think went entirely unnoticed when it was released.  It’s basically Portal in 2D.  Here, you play as a mad scientist who has lost control of his lab and must use his inventions to regain power.  That’s really all there is to it.  Your primary ability to tackle the obstacles you face is your portal gun, but it goes a step beyond what Portal does with its mechanic and allows the portal gun to be upgraded with a number of offbeat functionalities that cause the puzzles to reach far more mind-bending states than what you see in Valve’s series.  In addition to just point to point teleportation, there are portals that shrink or gigantify the protagonist, portals that shift gravity, and, by far the most impressive, portals that allow for time travel.

The time travel in this game is by far its most mind-blowing aspect.  Many video games, like P.B. Winterbottom, make use of “time travel” by allowing you to “record” a time clone of yourself that will repeat your actions, but Gateways actually has portals that connect two points in recorded time.  That is, the portals connect both a recorded “past” and the (constantly moving forward) “present” state.  I have a hard time fully articulating how it works in words, but it is a mechanic that is utterly unique in a world of puzzle platformers who often derive their mechanics from a handful of commonly recurring archetypes.


Binary Domain

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Binary Domain is a bit of a peculiar title from the 360 generation.  From an era during which action shooter games pave-rolled over the Japanese domination over consoles, Binary Domain is a fairly earnest attempt by Sega’s Yakuza team to not only try to crack into the genre but also inject some new ideas into the saturated field.  I think it’s a fairly good action game.  It doesn’t reach the same peak as Vanquish, but it doesn’t fall into an abyss like other Japanese shooters of the time like Quantum Theory and MindJack.

The game features an international team of peacekeepers who have been sent into Japan to arrest the leader of the Amada Corporation who has been creating illegal human-like robots.  Of course, the mission doesn’t go that easy, and you end up fighting his vast army of robots through the streets of cyberpunk Japan.  The game’s main gimmick beyond the gunplay is that the team members have a dynamic interaction system, and you can respond in various ways to their conversations using the d-pad (I strongly recommend a controller for this game).  Depending on your responses, each team member will either grow to like or hate you, which will influence their actions in the heat of battle.

The story gets a bit…ummm… anime weird, for lack of a better word.  It’s an okay story I think, but I have a hard time following the characters’ motivations sometimes.  When the villain finally revealed his ultimate evil plan to the protagonist, I really didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing.  It seemed really innocuous, maybe actually good for the world.  Still, I enjoyed my time with the game.  The gunplay is merely competent, but still fun.  And even though the story turns into a poor imitation of a Philip K. Dick novel, I really enjoyed fighting alongside the cool characters that made up my team.  After all, one of your partners is a  French karate robot who might as well be voiced by Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.

*Since this game comes from a major publisher, I fully expect it to go lower on a featured deal at some point.


Well that’s all for Part 1, make sure to keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon!

Rayman!

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I remember when I first got my Playstation, a long time ago.  A Christmas gift, I was at first a little surprised that it wasn’t an N64.  My family had been occasionally renting the local video shop’s N64 for the weekend to play the very early N64 games like Mario Kart 64, Cruis’n USA, Star Fox 64 (!), and Mario 64.  As for Playstation, the first time I had seen one set up in real life was as a demo kiosk in a Sears (or some such store), and I was completely puzzled by the existence of it.  I was so young at the time that I think it was odd to me that anyone would want to buy a video game machine from Sony.  Sony was a boring company that made grown-up stuff like cassette players and radios and TVs, whereas the companies that were great at video games, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, etc., were fun companies that had histories making games for both the home and the arcade.  What did Sony have that could compete with Mario and Sonic?  Looking back over four consoles and two handhelds, it amuses me how severely wrong my initial impression of Playstation was.  The PSX would eventually end up becoming probably my favorite console.

It also strikes me as to how I don’t remember being disappointed at all by the appearance of the Playstation in my house.  I mean I loved Star Fox and Mario Kart, so maybe it should have been a little disappointing that I wouldn’t be able to play those at home going forward.  But I guess new games were new games.  I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed by the Final Fantasy VII commercial running at the time (you know, the one that was entirely pre-rendered CG with no actual gameplay shown), so I think I was ready to dig into that game.

The other early games I had for that system were Crash Bandicoot, 2Xtreme, and Rayman.  Of those four, Rayman was clearly the odd man out.  The arrival of the Saturn and Playstation heralded the polygonal era, after all, and the lush hand-drawn visuals of this 2D sidescrolling platformer made it feel like that one guy who always goes in the wrong direction on the way to a party.  I know there’s a lot of admiration for the 16-bit generation, and that many people think graphics should have stayed 2D for a while, but personally, I was ready for 3D gaming at the time.  I was really getting tired of all the mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and shoddy Mortal Kombat clones that were overwhelming the market, and 3D environments were introducing entirely new gameplay possibilities.

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Thus, Rayman was an amazing curiosity.  A sidescrolling platformer in an age where platformers were competing to see who could best establish themselves in 3D.  But even though it made no use of polygons, Rayman was thoroughly a game that belonged to the Playstation-era.  The game sported lush handdrawn sprites and backgrounds that took up roughly 85 MB of the CD (or so I gather from the PSN version).  85 MB doesn’t even come close to filling a CD, but it’s a gargantuan size compared to the available cartridges at the time.  Some years ago,  screens of an early SNES version of Rayman was dug up, and if you’re interested, you can Google image search it.  I don’t want to show it here!

The music is also worthy of likewise praise.  I don’t often get into orchestral scores in games.  Usually they’re kind of boring and just sort of fade into the background of my attention.  They typically aren’t as catchy as the chiptunes of the early era of gaming.  In a way, chiptunes had to be lively and attention-grabbing, as they were an important supplement to the crude visuals of that era in setting the atmosphere and tone of a game.  But just like the gorgeous artwork, Rayman aims to impress with its CD-quality content, so I imagine an orchestral score was an obvious choice for them.  And like I said, it’s an exciting orchestral score, with tons of great compositions that have stuck with me to this day.

At a fundamental level, Rayman is just a good platformer with a very traditional “lone hero sets off to stop badguy” story.  This was the age when gaming really started to get story heavy (to a gregarious extent), and as in so many other aspects, Rayman mostly shunned the emerging trend of the time.  The story in the game is really mostly just the opening cutscene in which we are told that The Evil Mr. Dark has defeated Betilla the Fairy and stolen the great Protoon and scattered the electoons which orbit around it.  As a consequence, the natural order of the world is beginning to go awry.  Rayman sets off then to defeat the villain, and travels across a world map divided into worlds such as the Dream Forest, Band Land (themed around musical instruments), and Picture City (themed around art supplies).  The final world is set in the (The Evil) Mr. Dark’s lair, the Candy Chateau, a terrifying fortress whose name is only spoken of in hushed whispers.

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As for the gameplay, Rayman is in some ways a really great platformer, but also a really tedious one.  The truth is Rayman is a tough game that requires very tight and exacting platforming skills.  But while it can be a challenge, beating each level isn’t too frustrating.  The platforming requires precision is all.  It’s not unfair like some of the earlier super-tough platformers.  You’ll never have to fight against the collision detection or need to deal with unpredictably respawning enemies, for instance.

But here’s the catch and what can make the game tedious if you’re not prepared.  To unlock the Candy Chateau and beat the game, it’s not enough to beat all the levels.  You will need to free all six cages of electoons hidden in each level before a path to the Candy Chateau will even open on the world map.  Essentially, it’s like needing to find all the KONG coins in DKC to be able to fight the final boss.  Some of these electoon cages are easy to find, hidden within plain sight of the main path through a level, but sometimes they are in spots that can be fiendishly difficult to reach (i.e., they are life wasting death traps).  Many can be quite difficult to find at all, sometimes requiring you to take leaps of faith to offscreen platforms to reach.  Exacerbating this issue to its maximum frustration level is that Rayman has a finite number of lives and continues, and you will need each and every one of them (and probably more) to get all of these electoons.  I honestly am baffled by how anyone could finish doing it the proper way (i.e., not using cheats or abusing the save system to bank lives).  I certainly can’t, and even using cheats for infinite lives, it’s still a struggle.  I think I started this game a boy, but by the time I had gruellingly forged my way through the halls of the Candy Chateau, I was a man.

Ultimately, despite the fact that actually beating the game is a tremendous effort, I still think incredibly highly of this game.  It’s one of those things that’s more about the journey than the destination.  Most importantly, I treasure this game because it showed me the value of 2D gaming.  I realized that 2D games weren’t just an evolutionary stopgap until 3D could become technologically feasible, that they were a valid form of game design in their own right.  I’ve heard many express this sentiment about Symphony of the Night, but for me, it was Rayman that hammered that point home.  Rayman would see a sequel a short while later, but I’ve never played Rayman 2.  It makes the jump to a Mario 64-style platformer with full 3D environments, and honestly, at the time, I was disappointed at this.  2D was what made Rayman unique and special!  But I’ve heard in recent years that Rayman 2 is actually a really good game, so I may pick it up at some point.  Rayman would eventually make a glorious return to lovely 2D worlds with Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the former of which I found myself liking a whole lot (the latter of which I haven’t gotten around to yet).  But Rayman is still the highlight of the series for me, mostly because it sparked a lifelong love of 2D gaming.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

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There was a time when I didn’t really think much of Bethesda as a publisher.  Their Bethesda Softworks developed games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series were great (especially the Obsidian-outsourced Fallout: New Vegas), but their publishing arm was falling flat on its face with failures like Rogue Warrior, Brink, Hunted and Rage.  The latter was most disappointing as it was a long awaited project from the well-established id Software.  But over the last few years, my opinion of them has really changed.  Seems like things started to turn around with Dishonored, and since then they’ve released the The Evil Within and Wolfenstein: The New Order, both of which have been far better received than their earlier output. With such output, I guess it only makes sense that they plan to have their own big announcement show at E3 this year.  I hope we’ll see some hints that they plan to continue the Wolfenstein series after the spectacular entry last year, but if not, at least they’ve released some new add-on content for the previous game.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is the new standalone expansion content for The New Order, a game that was amongst my bright spots of last year.  Seemingly, Machine Games originally intended to release two DLC add-ons for The New Order but instead have ultimately combined the two add-on packs into a standalone game available on digital storefronts for $20.  Honestly, it’s a move that makes sense.  In a game like New Vegas, it makes sense that the add-on content isn’t standalone, because it requires you to have a preexisting character from the main game.  For The Old Blood, nothing carries over from New Order’s campaign, and, consequently, there’s really no reason to exclude anyone who hasn’t played the original campaign.  Of course, I recommend playing The New Order first if you haven’t already.  Even though it’s a more expensive game, the additional price is worth it if you like non-open world, heavily story-driven action games.

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The Old Blood is a prequel to The New Order detailing B.J.’s mission to Castle Wolfenstein (here called Wolfenstein Keep) to collect intel that will precipitate the assault on Deathshead’s fortress that kicks off at the start of The New Order.  The Old Blood’s campaign is somewhat curious as it actually seems to finally break the tortuous Wolfenstein timeline.  The New Order ostensibly takes place in the same timeline as Wolf3D, with Robo-Hitler dead after B.J.’s assault on the original Castle Wolfenstein, and the mad scientist Deathshead left in control of the fascist forces of Germany.  However, The Old Blood seems to imply that this is B.J.’s first incursion into the titular fortress, and considering that the end of The Old Blood sets up the beginning of The New Order, the original game thus seems to have been taken out of the currently existing timeline (as well as all other pre-Bethesda Wolfenstein games).  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Considering that Castle Wolfenstein is the series namesake, I would expect B.J.’s mission there to be a little more epic than what is appears in this installment.

The New Order was a heavily story-driven experience, a product of Machine Games whose members can boast such titles as The Darkness and Assault on Butcher Bay as part of their CVs.  If you’ve heard anything about The Old Blood, then it’s probably that narrative takes a big backseat in this new content.  The story is a throwback to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, focusing more on the Nazi’s experimentations with the occult than the retro-futuristic sci-fi bent of The New Order.  It’s incredibly noticeable that The Old Blood was originally intended as two DLC packs, as you can easily tell where the game was split down the middle.  The first four chapters feature B.J. escaping from Wolfenstein Keep and facing off against the iron-willed Rudi Jager, while the second set of chapters noticeably translocates the action to a Nazi archaeological dig led by the obsessed Helga Von Schabbs.  I think the villains are definitely memorable in their depravity, and there are a few interesting characters you get to meet along the way, but in general, the story of The Old Blood is a very straightforward mission of elude the bad guys and steal the intel you seek.  The heartfelt characters, the desperation of their struggle, and the glory of their victories and brutalities of their defeats gave The New Order a beautifully compelling story, especially so when you considered that it was found within such a bombastic action game.  Those story elements are lightly touched on again here, but if you found the primary draw of The New Order to be its (relatively) complex and sympathetic narrative, then The Old Blood is probably not going to be for you.

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It’s a good thing that the action gameplay is still good!  Like it’s predecessor, The Old Blood is just a very good, fluid shooter.  As I mentioned in my review of the previous game, while aim-down-sights is an option, it’s hardly necessary in this game.  It has the sensibility of a traditional PC game with fast but functional shooting while still maintaining a focus on mobility.  Cover is a big part of the game, but instead of docking to a surface as in most modern shooters, it gives you the ability to lean in any direction (even up), so you can shoot from behind obstacles.  Leaning feels very natural and doesn’t work to slow down the action as the sticky cover systems of most shooters do.

The enemy variety is okay, nothing particularly great.  The two main enemies you fight are your standard Nazi with a machine gun and a variant of heavily armored shotgunner.  The shotgunners are not easy to kill head on, but if you take time to aim for their explosive backpacks, you can take them and a few surrounding enemies out in one hit.  This interestingly lead me to using the sniper rifle a lot (and in relatively close quarters).  In addition to these two main enemy types, there’s also some super soldiers, snipers, drones and a few novel one-off enemies sprinkled in.  Some might consider this a spoiler, but considering the occult subject matter it’s not hard to predict that there are Nazi zombies thrown in the late game as well.  This makes for a few interesting three-way battles, but I don’t think it’s an idea that’s used as well as it could have been.

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Finally, just like in it’s predecessor, stealth is a major component of the game, but it’s entirely optional.  When B.J. enters an area, the enemies are often unaware of his presence, giving him the opportunity to pick them off from the shadows, either by getting a takedown from directly behind or by using the silenced pistol to deliver headshots.  Other than one section early in the game, stealth isn’t necessary.  If you want to go in guns blazing, then it’s still entirely possible to progress via that route.  As before, most areas are patrolled by “officer” enemies whose positions are revealed on the HUD.  If these officer enemies are aware of B.J.’s presence, they’ll radio in continuous reinforcements until they’re eliminated.  This provides the primary incentive for the stealth approach, as killing the officers stealthily avoids having to deal with respawning waves of enemies, but the respawning enemies aren’t so numerous that it’s not possible to make a direct assault at the officers to cut them off.

For me personally, I just like to play it via stealth.  I’ve always enjoyed games that allow me to play as a predator hiding in the shadows, the aggressive type of stealth seen in The Last of Us and Splinter Cell: Conviction as opposed to the ghost-like stealth of, say, traditional Splinter Cell which rewards being completely unseen and unheard.  I snuck through most sections at least until I took down the officers.  One thing though, once B.J. is spotted, he’s spotted, and every enemy in the area becomes aware of his exact position at all times.  There’s no way to hide because they just know where you are, kind of like the stealth in the latest Tomb Raider.  I’m not sure if this is because the developers didn’t want to have to create additional AI behavior for the enemies, or if they just didn’t want the hide-and-seek seen in most stealth games to slow down the flow of the game.

As a side note, I’ve heard and read a lot of people get discouraged with one of the earliest sections of the game.  Very early on in the game, there is a 30 minute or so stretch where B.J. only has access to a broken pipe for a weapon.  The ensuing section is stealth-heavy, and B.J. must sneak past a series of super soldiers tethered to power-rails because he’s not capable of taking them on directly with just the pipe.  The super soldiers can be shut down temporarily using timed switches that kill electricity to the rails that the super soldiers get power from.  A lot of people seem to be having trouble with this section, but I found it to be very light.  A few tips I can think to give people is that once the super soldiers are shut down, they can be permanently destroyed by coming up behind them and using the pipe to tear off the power tether.  Also, their guns can be picked up and used on other super soldiers (although movement is greatly encumbered when carrying this weapon).  If you aim just above the super soldiers’ heads, you can destroy the tether permanently deactivating them that way.  When they are destroyed, they drop lots of armor to collect.  And if everything else fails, you can also run away from the super soldiers since they’re confined to their rails.  They’ll eventually forget about you since they have short memories (the only enemy in the game that does).    2015-05-19_00003

In short, I really enjoyed my time with The Old Blood.  It doesn’t reach the same highs as its predecessor, especially in story, and I wouldn’t recommend this game to someone mostly into Wolfenstein for Machine Games’ storytelling prowess.  But the action design is still there, even if it isn’t particularly advanced over the predecessor.  If you think of The Old Blood as a DLC add-on pack, it’s easier to appreciate the game, I think.  After all, it seems to me like it’s so rare for DLC packs to really offer up anything substantial to a game.  I finished the game after 6-7 hours (or so Steam tells me), and I definitely think I was satisfied with what was there.  I recommend the game, but not highly so.  If you’re on the fence, maybe just wait for a Steam sale.  It’s worth playing, but not worth wasting money on if you’re unsure.

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