Category Archives: Reviews
I guess I’m a fairly big classic Sonic fan going back to the games on Genesis. It’s hard to say that because the series hasn’t been on a good trajectory since then, but I still think highly of those old games. However, after a long wait, I’ve finally found a reason to be excited about Sega’s old mascot again. Sonic Mania has basically beat all reasonable expectations and finally delivered something we’ve all wanted for a while: a classic Sonic game that not just evokes our memories of those old games, but builds on them in a meaningful way to move the series forward.
Sonic Mania bills itself as the true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, ignoring the existence of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 that was released a little while back. In practice, it’s not entirely a full sequel. The game possesses a combination of remixes of old zones collected from the best of the Genesis games to brand new zones crafted specifically for Mania. I will say the mix leans more toward revisiting older zones rather than newer zones. I found that rather unfortunate as I hate it when game series start focusing more on trying to relive older content rather than moving forward with brand new stuff to experience. (Final Fantasy has become an egregious offender of this.) But, on the other hand, Sonic Mania does a good job at picking the best of those old levels to bring back with favorites such as Chemical Plant Zone, Oil Ocean Zone, and Hydrocity Zone. Probably my least favorite zone is the one they start off with, Green Hill, which I just honestly think has become perfunctory and played out.
To be honest, though, as I played the game more and more, the fact that they brought back so many old zones started to bother me far less. The levels in Sonic Mania aren’t mere facsimiles or even remixes of their Genesis counterparts. They are entirely new interpretations of those levels which just copy the aesthetic design and some of the iconic elements of those levels. Otherwise, the level layouts are almost entirely new and even feature new gameplay elements that were absent before, but still manage to mesh will with the theme of each zone. For instance, Chemical Plant Zone now features pools of a gelatinous colored substance that bounce the player around based on their color. Sonic can hit switches that drops chemicals in these pools and changes the color of the substance and the height of the bounce. Really, I thought they just did a good job with breathing new life into these levels and not just overly relying on nostalgia to make them appealing. And of course, the new zones turn out to be excellent additions, themselves.
One thing that really stood out to me in this game were the boss battles. I think the old Sonic games always did a really good job at having exciting boss battles, and Sonic Mania continues the tradition. It’s actually one of the few things that I think Sonic had over Mario at the time. To be honest, I don’t think any of the 2D Mario games have had particularly interesting boss fight. I think the Koopa Kids are cool as characters, but when you fight them, they’re always really simplistic. Meanwhile, Robotnik always had really interesting and memorable contraptions to go up against. Another thing is that I’ve always found that those boss fights made me appreciate how Sonic games used the collectible rings as a health system. There is a ton of tension in those Robotnik fights when you find yourself down to one last ring and every time you take a hit you have to scramble to get that final ring/safety net back.
The music in Sonic Mania is really bang on. Those old games always had great music, and Sonic Mania takes that legacy and just really steps it up. It has great remixes for the old zones they’ve brought back, but also the new zones have amazing new tracks specifically composed for them. Personally, I think the theme to Chemical Plant Zone is probably one of the top 5 video game tracks of all time, and the remix they put together for its appearance in this game is also amazing, although perhaps not my favorite remix of that specific track. They’ve also brought back Sky Battery Zone from Sonic and Knuckles and I’m a huge fan of its background sound and the Mania remix, as well. Of the new zones, Studiopolis probably has my favorite track. The original soundtrack is something that I’ve been listening to separate from the game, and that is something I rarely do these days. Unfortunately, they haven’t released the soundtrack for download or on Spotify, something I really wished they’d do. Right now, I’m stuck listening to a SoundCloud playlist because that’s the only place I can find it.
(Just before I posted this, I found out that they had added the OST to the major digital music stores this week. Unfortunately, Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone were removed due to presumable rights issues. The lack of CP Zone is a huge bummer.)
Sonic Mania is now probably my favorite Sonic game. That’s saying a lot since I grew up with the Genesis games, and this newcomer must contend with the nostalgia of those fond gaming memories. But to be honest, there are just parts of Sonic 1, 2, and 3+K that I just really don’t like. There are specific zones and sections that I find I just really hate having to play through. Like in the first game, I really hate those slow-moving platforms you must ride across the lava in Marble Zone. I also really hate those elevator blocks in Spring Yard Zone that will kill you if you try to jump through them too soon. Sonic and Knuckles has the tedious Sandopolis Zone, the only zone in the entire series where I consistently run out of time in, and Sonic 3 has those awful bouncy cylinders in Carnival Night Zone that I could never figure out when I was young. (I would literally spend minutes just mashing randomly on the buttons until I finally lucked out and got through those things). Sonic 2 is probably the Genesis game I have the least complaints with. In the case of Sonic Mania, however, I really think I enjoyed all the zones and acts the game had to offer. It was a great experience from start to finish.
I love Picross. But I also kind of hate Picross. Picross is Nintendo’s version of nonograms, a type of pencil-and-paper puzzle similar to crosswords or sudoku. That might sound boring at first, but there’s something about nonograms that make them more interesting in video game form than crosswords or sudoku. Perhaps it’s the Nintendo touch, but it might also be that the relative complexity of this type of puzzle makes it work better in an electronic format.
Picross starts with a square grid of unfilled tiles with each row and column bordered by a series of numbers. The idea behind picross is that you fill in uninterrupted blocks of tiles in each row or column based on the numbers that line the grid. So if a row has a 3 5 next to it, that means you need to fill in a string of 3 tiles followed by a string of 5 tiles with at least one unfilled tile in between these strings. The trick is that the tiles you fill in for that row or column must be consistent with the requirements of the columns or rows that run through it. The game is called Picross because each puzzle should make a crude pixelated image when the tiles are filled in correctly.
I think like most people in the U.S., I was introduced to Picross through Picross DS. I have to confess something now. I have a secret dark history with the Picross series, specifically, Picross DS. There were a few weeks of my life that I was maybe a little too hooked on that game. I would sit down after coming home in the afternoon and open up my DS and tell myself that I would only play for fifteen or twenty minutes, but before I knew it, hours would go by and the entire evening would have evaporated. I would complete one puzzle and would tell myself, just one more!, and keep going and going. I guess the dopamine rush I would get from solving each grid just made me not want to stop.
Eventually, I sort of triggered on the fact that spending so much time with the game was probably unhealthy. I considered just throwing the game in the trash to deprive myself of the addiction, but I ultimately decided this would be wasteful. I distinctly remember pulling the game out of the DS and sticking it back in its case and then burying it deep within my closet so that it would be hard to get to. And with that, my obsession with the game just sort of dissipated.
Since then I’ve been more successful at playing new Picross games, although I haven’t played them all. I’ve been able to avoid falling down the rabbit hole that I did with Picross DS. But each time one comes out, I still get a little suspicious that it might make me fall into the old habit. I especially liked Picross 3D and a few of the Picross e games that were released on 3DS. Pokémon Picross I thought was interesting, but I’m not a big Pokémon guy and didn’t really feel the need to pay to unlock the full game.
The latest Picross game that I’ve hopped on board with is Picross S, recently released on the Switch. Unlike games like Picross 3D and Pokémon Picross that attempted to inject new ideas into the series, Picross S is a fairly standard expression of Picross. There are two modes, standard picross and mega-picross, each which I think have 150 puzzles a piece. The standard mode is Picross according to its most basic ruleset, while the mega-picross mode changes up the formula by having hints that span adjacent columns or rows. Mega-picross has been featured as a side mode in previous editions, but I think this game has the largest collection of mega-picross puzzles in the series yet.
To be honest, even though I’ve been a picross addict in the past, something about this version just wasn’t doing it for me. The standard version of Picross just felt rote and boring. I got fairly deep into this mode before realizing that I just wasn’t really enjoying it all that much. My guess is that my lackluster feelings are more a result of me burning out on Picross and less a result of the quality of work they’ve done on this game.
As the monotony of the standard mode set in, I turned my attention to Mega-Picross mode and……wow, I got more than I expected out of it. Mega-Picross has been featured in some of the past editions, but I don’t think it has ever been given equal focus to the standard mode like it has in Picross S. It’s always really been a side mode. Personally, I’ve never really messed around with this variant of the game much. I guess I’ve really just been too lazy to learn it. The new rules can be quite intimidating at first. But after really taking some time to understand how it works, I could immediately feel myself getting hooked again like old times. The new dimensions of logical reasoning this mode adds were a real shot in the arm for the Picross formula.
Picross S is a good package. With just standard picross and mega-picross, it’s far from the most innovative or ambitious title in the series. While other releases (with the exception of Picross 3D) were also heavily focused on vanilla picross, they did try to introduce new side modes and mechanics to experiment with the formula. But Picross S fortunately makes up for its lack of adventurousness with just a lot of content. I don’t think any of the picross games on 3DS delivered this many puzzles for $8.
Honestly though, I don’t think I’ll be going back to anything that is simply vanilla picross. It’s just gotten old to me. While mega-picross has been satisfying, I think it’s time they come up with another major reinvention of the game like they did with Picross 3D. Hopefully, picross will see as bright of a future on Switch as it did on DS and 3DS, and we will see something revolutionary materialize.
This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series. I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony. When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued. You want to know something weird? The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did. I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.
Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn. Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series. While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.
I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood. Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience. The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members. It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.
The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come. As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush. From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize. Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.
Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook. The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers. The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used). The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes. There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me. I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill. The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them. True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.
Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology. Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre. Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion. I think it’s the head tracking that really does it. There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before. When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.
Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares. Cheap jump scares at that. And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways. Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on. In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game. The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me. I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen. I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.
Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly. Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty. To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension. Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.
Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time. I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares. In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic. But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points. Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience. And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.
For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar. The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger. From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo. And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist. But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo. The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.
Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them. However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different. Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister. But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes. The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him. Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.
The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects. Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game. Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment. Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages. Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.
One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error. That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died. Some people disliked this, some were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t mind. The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo. With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo. Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common. As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.
A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there. I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax. There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside. And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming. Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball. If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.
Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution. I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act. Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments. Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.
Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much. I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason. I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo. Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.
A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many. For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game. A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough. I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.
But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game? Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside? My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks. But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true. The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions. The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output. I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.
Inside is a cool game. While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit. It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel. Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.
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.
With October here, I’ve decided to devote myself for the month to playing through a list of horror games I’ve been meaning to play but haven’t gotten around to yet. Horror games are interesting in that they run contrary to the grain of most gaming experiences. Most often, the player takes on the role of a hero that is powerful, fearless, and indomitable, usually a one-man walking army that can take on an entire legion of enemies all on his/her own. In a horror game, on the other hand, the player character is often meant to be confused and vulnerable (or at least feel that way) with regards to the oncoming threats so as to facilitate suspense and tension. I think that contrast is what makes horror games attractively unique in the world of gaming.
The first game up on my backlog-clearing list to knock out is The Last Door. The Last Door is an episodic point-and-click adventure which began (and is still available) as a free flash game via the developer’s website and is now also available in a purchasable “Collector’s Edition” through Steam. As of the time of this writing, the first season of the game is completed with the second season arriving soon. Set in late Victorian Era England and Scotland, the game focuses on player character Jeremiah Devitt’s investigation of former schoolmate Anthony Beechworth’s cryptic death. Devitt quickly links the events which initiate the game to the occult experiments he and his circle of friends performed as teenagers. If one were to ascribe a specific horror genre to The Last Door, it would likely fall in line with a similar category as the writings of Lovecraft, focusing on strange supernatural intelligences whose nature comes across as utterly alien and cosmic. As a game, The Last Door is fairly slow-paced and places a heavy emphasis on building cryptic mysteries rather than violent confrontations with malevolent enemies as would a conventional survival horror action game. This is the type of point-and-click adventure game where there’s no way to die. Yet despite this lack of direct danger to the player, the developers succeed quite well at building dread and tension. Mainly, this atmosphere is achieved in the excellent sound and graphics design (more on that below) as well as several well-placed scenes and story moments that come across as truly disturbing and spectacularly alarming. There are also just some good old fashion jump scares. It is very much a story-driven, rather than mechanics-driven, experience.
The first thing most people will notice about The Last Door are the striking, retro-modern, big pixel graphics. These are the type of pixelated graphics that evoke the pre-polygonal era of gaming without actually looking anything close to what pixel art of that time was like (or was capable of). Some might shirk away from this aesthetic stylization, as it has become arguably overused in the realm of indie game design, but I think it’s quite appropriate for The Last Door. There was a time not too long ago when I thought that advanced graphics were necessary to create the atmosphere required by horror games, but recently games such as The Last Door and Lone Survivor (another excellent pixelated horror game) have changed my stance. Pixel art allows for a level of abstraction of the forms it’s presenting that challenges the imagination of the player. It has sort of the same effect a lot of horror movies are going for when they only show monsters (or killers or whatever boogey man is involved) in obscured shots because revealing the monster in full detail would take away its mystique. The fear of the unknown is far more powerful than the fear of the intimately understood. The abstracted, pixelated graphics of The Last Door evoke this effect as they create a barrier of perception that forces the player’s imagination to run wild with fear of the perplexing but also somewhat recognizable visuals of bewildering supernatural horrors.
The gameplay of The Last Door is fairly in line with the standards of the point-and-click adventure genre. It is more like Monkey Island than a modern Telltale-style point-and-click game, as it tends to focus on inventory/item and dialogue puzzles as opposed to being a sort of interactive movie that eliminates most of the challenge and “gamey” aspects to focus on efficiently delivering a narrative experience. I found the difficulty level of The Last Door to be just right, though. The puzzles are not particularly easy to solve, but they aren’t really as show-stoppingly hard as some of the game’s old-school counterparts. I got stuck on a few puzzles, but never long enough that I had to run to GameFAQs for help. And throughout disentangling the mysteries of The Last Door, the wonderful atmosphere of dreadfulness, dismay, and apprehension never lost its grip.
One last thing I would like to mention is how awesome the music and sound design in this game are. With the aesthetic design being what it is, you might think that The Last Door would go for chiptune style music, but it actually goes with a far more moody and impressive classical score. I was really impressed with the music employed here, and the soundtrack was a vital piece of the game’s presence. The sound effects and design were also incredibly spooky and largely and effectively unnerving.
This is a very light *SPOILER *, but, in the end, the only real problem I had with The Last Door is that its story is not completed in the final episode. Instead, the final episode ends with a set-up for the planned Season 2 which is already being advertised on the developer’s website and will hopefully begin arriving soon. Regardless, I still highly recommend The Last Door to fans of more unconventional and unique horror games (i.e., not typical survival horror action games) and especially if you happen to be looking for a good point-and-click adventure game with an emphasis on well-designed puzzles.
The Club Nintendo rewards program is something I’ve finally started to keep up with this past year. Previously, I had never bothered with it, as I had never really bought enough Nintendo products within a single year to really qualify for any rewards. But last year, I picked up a 3DS XL(which was an excellent time to get into the 3DS) and a handful of games, and, consequently, decided to register everything and fill out the multitudinous mimetic surveys in the hope of accruing enough points to finally get some free stuff. And free stuff I did get, although nothing overly exciting. Not managing to reach the highly exclusive, super-elite “platinum” tier, I instead was treated to the reward options of the lowly “gold” tier, which consisted mostly of virtual console games. To be fair, they did choose some cool virtual console games to offer members at this level, but it still felt a little anticlimactic after filling out all those surveys and copy-pasting into the suggestions box my go-to request of “PLZ BRING GBA GAMES TO 3DS LOL!” In the end, I settled on nabbing Super Mario Land 2, a game I had a blast with when I was younger.
As with its predecessor, Super Mario Land 2 feels a little off-beat for a Mario game. This is on account of it being the product of the team that masterminded the Game Boy, Nintendo R&D1, as opposed to the team behind the monumentally significant console titles, R&D4. I’ve heard that internally the Nintendo development teams were fiercely competitive with each other, a behavior which was greatly encouraged by Nintendo’s upper management. It shows in SML2, because R&D1 was clearly not interested in simply trying to make an imitation of the console games but rather venture into creating a Mario title that feels very unique and idiosyncratic. But, on the other hand, they did succeed in creating something that has the feel of a Mario game which cannot be said about Super Mario Land 1. You can definitely tell that they had mastered developing for the portable’s hardware by this point. The game possesses the polish, length, and creative flair of a “real” Mario game. As is classic to Mario, you run, you jump, and you stomp on enemies and ram your head into question blocks for powerups and coins. But there are a few little tell-tale differences that clue you into its origins. You don’t attain a 1-up after collecting 100 coins. Rather, your coin count keeps going up after 100, and you use the coins to gamble for lives and powerups in a minigame available from the overworld map. (Using coins to gamble for prizes would be a major part of the Wario games which R&D1 later developed.) The game also breaks from the standard Mario level themes and allows travel to the moon, a submarine, a haunted cemetery, a giant clockwork Mario robot, and several other original locales. Also, I find the bosses are somewhat “out of left field” for a Mario game. I don’t think Mario games have ever really had notable bosses aside from Bowser and the Koopalings. In Super Mario Land 2, on the other hand, the boss fights get a little strange and include battles against the three little pigs, a witch, a giant rat, and Tatanga (the boss of the original SML) amongst others. The game climaxes with a battle against Wario, who sees his introduction in this game.
One thing I think gamers who played this game as a kid will notice when picking it up on Virtual Console is that the game is really easy. After replaying this game, I had the same sort of revelation I had after replaying Final Fantasy VII a few years ago. For both of these games, I actually found them very tough when I was much younger, but now as an adult, I find them to be absolute pushovers. I was particularly amazed at the ease of FFVII. I remember grinding for hours in that game as a kid to prepare for difficult bosses like Air Buster, Reno at the top of Sector 7 pillar, and the Materia Keeper. During my replay, I blew through all of those bosses and the rest of the game with incredible speed. I can’t understand how I could ever have been so bad at that game to need grinding, especially considering that it’s turn-based. But that’s how it goes I guess.
That leads me to wonder how new players to Super Mario Land 2 would receive it today. Despite the ease, I still really enjoyed replaying SML2, as I did with FFVII. But a lot of that has to do with how important the game is to me. The only Nintendo console I owned as a kid was the NES, so the Game Boy provided a valuable link to Mario, one of my favorite gaming series, during the Genesis and PSX years. For new players with perspectives not clouded by such personal attachment, they may find the game simply too easy and too off-beat for a Mario game (especially if they are comparing it to modern titles in the series). But I feel that some may appreciate the off-beat nature of the game because it is the result of there being a fairly large amount of creative levels and enemies on display here. The music is also really great, truly on par with the mainline Mario entries. And while the game may not be particularly challenging, there are a fair few secret exits in the game which open up hidden levels on the overworld map. The secret exits aren’t extremely well hidden, but you won’t stumble upon them unless you’re specifically hunting for them. These secret exits are good at creating an impetus to take time and explore the levels, instead of just blowing through the areas because they are so easy.
In the end, I think new players with an interest in exploring retro gaming will probably find a lot to appreciate in this game, but those not so attracted to gaming antiquity likely won’t be as absorbed. As for me, I find that I still rank SML2 among my favorite Game Boy games. The only other game I feel that could possibly compete with it for my number one favorite on the platform would be, of course, Donkey Kong.
Wolfenstein has always kind of been the less popular big brother to Doom. Whereas Doom has a deep permeation in the public conscious, the Wolfenstein brand is not really known much beyond committed gamers. Strange enough though and with a total of six mainline titles, Wolfenstein has seen more releases than it’s overshadowing successor series, and while development of Doom 4 drags on at a sluggish pace, Machine Games has managed to deliver another incredibly worthy Wolfenstein entry with The New Order.
The setup for The New Order has us once again returning to the boots of American one-man army B.J. Blaskowicz. After successfully killing off robot Hitler way back in the original Wolf3D, the Allies now face an even greater threat in his replacement, the viciously genius Wilhelm Strasse, better known as Deathshead. Although most of the previous games have focused on Deathshead’s experiments with the occult, The New Order instead shows his more scientific side. Having outfitted his evil empire with powerful new scifi weapons, cyborgs, mutants, and really big robots, the Allies are quickly finding themselves outgunned. Their hope of victory rests in one last all-out assault on Deathshead’s compound, which forms the first chapter of the game. Long-story short, B.J. and his comrades fail, resulting in Deathshead’s successful global conquest. After a timeskip to 1960, B.J. gets back in the action, rejoining with the Kreisau Circle to finally bring down the seemingly insurmountable hold the fascist empire has on the world.
From what I’ve read, Machine Games appears to be composed of a lot of ex-Starbreeze talent, who’s most popularly known for their Riddick titles and the first The Darkness game, both series which have been lauded by fans. If you’ve played either of these series, you know that Starbreeze places a large amount of focus on storytelling, not just using cutscenes but also in-game sequences that are controlled by the player. Put another way, they do not make very “shootery” shooters. Large portions of those games involve the player doing activities other than taking down everyone in sight. The New Order follows in a similar vein. Composed of 16 chapters, there are more than a few levels which actually involve very little action.
At first this seems like a strange fit for Wolfenstein to me. When I think of this series, I think of an oldschool, nonstop run-and-gun, and, although Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein have incorporated a bit of story in them, they have primarily been action-focused affairs. Of the game’s 16 chapters, ~4 of them have you exclusively (or almost exclusively) interacting with your fellow resistance members back at the base, doing various tasks for them. I found these chapters to be rather plodding, but ultimately necessary as the characterization they gave to the resistance is important in the game’s final few chapters. Often games start off really well but fall apart during the ending. This game definitely does not have that problem, and while the story elements feel a little overbearing in certain parts of the game, it all comes together in the final few chapters to create an amazing finale. Otherwise, perhaps my only big problem is that a fair few of the action-focused chapters are kind of short. In these chapters there’s maybe only 3-4 firefights total in the level, although they are really big firefights.
I’m not the world’s greatest game reviewer, so I’m going to be blunt and list all my pros and cons here:
*The game requires you to use a fair bit of cover, but not through a system where you dock to surfaces. Instead, you hold a button (L1 on controllers) which makes you lean in the direction you push the left analog stick. Yes, that’s right, leaning is back. Actually, this is probably a better way of making a cover-based shooter than a system where you magnetize to a chest high wall. It’s better for level design, since the levels aren’t simply open areas littered with the aforementioned chest high walls. Also, it doesn’t really slow down the run and gun side of the game, since you can more fluidly switch between charging down enemies and peeking out from behind cover.
*Speaking of the run and gun side of the game, aiming is very tight, even when using a controller. I rarely had to rely on aim-down-sights, which makes for much faster paced gameplay.
*I don’t want to spoil much, but I’ll just say that the levels are very varied in style and design. You get into some interesting places.
*The villains are truly deplorable. As you would expect of gloating Nazis, these people are remorseless, pitiless, cruel, vain, conceited, and hateful. You will hate these guys and everything they stand for, and victory will be all the more sweater.
*As I mentioned before, the story comes together for a great ending.
*There are a few areas where B.J. is armed only with a knife, and he must methodically sneak through an area and dispatch guards. This is somewhat true to the original Wolfenstein, which, unlike Doom, the enemies did not know B.J. was nearby unless they caught sight of him. If you were out of ammo, then you would have to rely more on sneaking up to enemies with the knife to take them out. The problem in this game is that the stealth really doesn’t have much tension. In the sneaking areas, the guards are usually only armed with knives themselves, meaning if you’re caught, the guards will slowly approach you and engage in a very simple knife fight. Considering their previous work and how significant these sections are in the game, you would think Machine Games could have implemented a more sophisticated and satisfying stealth system.
*In the first chapter of the game, B.J. is forced to make a choice that will affect the story for the rest of the game. This creates two “timelines” which can be seen in the chapter select screen. The story and levels play out differently between timelines, but my impression is that the differences are not very significant. It does create an appeal to replay the game, however.
*The game leaves a very clear loose thread hanging which would likely factor into the setup for a possible sequel.
*This is a “cross-gen” game and I only played the PS3 game. There are a few technical weaknesses in this version. Load times, which occur each time you die, routinely take ~25 seconds, so if you find yourself in a difficult firefight, you may be spending far too much time at the loading screen. Another issue I had was some really severe texture pop-in, although most of this only occurred back at the resistance base. Finally, in some of areas it can be difficult to spot far away enemies, which may be a symptom of the low native resolution. Again, I only played the PS3 version, and running the game on a competent PC or a next-gen console may mitigate these issues.
*As I mentioned before, more than a few of the chapters felt a little brief with only a handful of firefights. I associate Wolfenstein with being a little more bombastic, and more extensive action sequences would have been more appreciated.
*Some of the character models have really weird eyes. Most of them are fine, but some, including B.J., have the beady-eyed look to them.
In the end, I really enjoyed my time with the The New Order, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these blockbuster cinematic single-player action games.