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The Crash Comeback Part 2

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As I’ve discussed before, I’m a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot, or at least the games that came out for the original PlayStation (Crash 1, 2, 3 and especially Crash Team Racing).  After that time, I sort of fell off with the series, and I know its quality has seen ups and downs.  I was super excited to see the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy announced for PS4, which collects modern remakes of the original trilogy of games.  I’ve been playing the first game in the collection off and on since it’s release for over six months now and finally managed to beat it.  It’s matches surprisingly well with how I remembered it, and the remake is an excellent recreation that stays true to the original. 

In a lot of ways, Crash Bandicoot feels like a half-step between the types of games that existed on machines like the Genesis and the SNES and more advanced games of the time period like Mario 64, Bnajo-Kazooie, and Spyro.  I think most people who have played Crash have realized this at one point or another.  Crash doesn’t make as good use of the third dimension as something like Mario 64 does.  While those other games are about adventuring and exploring in these big open environments, Crash is really still about getting across a level from the starting point to the finish line in a rather linear fashion.  The player primarily moves forward into the screen without a whole lot of space to move horizontally or vertically.  Truth is that while I love those old Crash games, they’re really not as innovative as they could have been, they simply extrapolate games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario World into the third dimension.   But while playing the remake, I realized that this is especially true for the first Crash game, because a lot of the levels (and I had completely forgotten there were as many as there were) are played from a sidescrolling perspective, barely making any use of the third dimension at all. 

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Crash Bandicoot is also a much harder game than I remember.  One issue with this game is that it’s really hard to understand Crash’s position in three-dimensional space, making certain jumps and enemies harder to deal with than they should be.  There were plenty of times when the collision felt off, like I would die from touching a hazard but to me it didn’t look like I had even made contact with it.  I don’t think I noticed this issue with the original game, but that was probably more because 3D gaming was completely new at the time.  I chalk this up to the fact that you can’t move the camera in the game.  It always sort of floats behind and above Crash, and since you can’t reorient it like you would in other games, you have no tool through which to better gauge distances you might not understand so well.   

But more than that, I think the game is just hard at a core level.  I personally had no memory of the game being this hard.  Really, it’s just certain particular levels that stand out, while most of the rest of the game is fine.  The Road to Nowhere specifically stood out to me as being absurdly over-the-top in terms of difficulty.  It took me well over an hour (maybe two) just to get through that one.  I learned that for the remake the studio altered all three games to have similar physics as the third game.  I think what this essentially means is that they made Crash move and handle like he does in Crash Bandicoot 3, so that it would feel consistent across the entire package.  I think this may have ended up making the first game harder, since it was built around a more forgiving method of determining when Crash successfully landed on flat ground.  There are several articles and discussions out there which explain this better than I am, fortunately.

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Difficulty aside, so far this package has been a really great way to re-experience Crash Bandicoot.  (I say this having only played the first game so far.)  Crash Bandicoot was always a stunning game to look at, and I think that the graphics of the original game have held up fairly well over the years for a PS1 game.  When Uncharted 2 launched, Naughty Dog really became known for their powers at creating amazing graphics, but I think they’ve always had a visual edge over their competitors.  The Crash Bandicoot series always made amazing use of colors at a time when most PS1 games were very dull to look at.  And Crash himself is an extremely expressive character that is incredibly well animated.  I always felt that the exuberant animations of Crash Bandicoot in that original game always gave him a level of personality that characters like Mario and Spyro and Banjo never had. 

The new remastered collection completely rebuilds the games from the ground up, and I think they’ve done a good job of making a game with graphics that are up to modern standards while still recapturing the style and feeling of the original Crash Bandicoot.  They’ve stayed fairly true to how the games were meant to look.  Aside from staying true to the original, the game is just great to look at, having some of the best graphics I’ve seen from 2017. 

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I think this playthrough has really solidified Crash 1 as a game I think I love so much mostly because of my own personal history with it.  I still think it’s a good game, but someone who doesn’t have a connection with it will probably bounce off it as its nothing particularly special.  It has some great character to it, but, particularly later in the game, some of the levels can be maddeningly difficult, while others feel rather bland.  Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever really harbored any illusions about Crash 1, though.  I think I’ve always kind of known that it wasn’t a truly amazing game, and that its popularity was mostly boosted because it was supposed to be Playstation’s competitor to Nintendo’s Mario.   

That said, I’ve always felt its sequels were far better and much more worthwhile games.  As I finish the first game, its only made me more look forward to starting the second game, which I hope will be much more fulfilling.  Actually, I don’t have a lot of experience with Crash 2.  Back in the day, I only ever owned Crash 1 and Crash 3, and I rented 2 a few times.  I’m excited to finally have a real playthrough.  I know it’s a lot of people’s favorite game in the series. 

 

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Gravity Rush: Dazed and Amazed

The Playstation Vita has had a regrettably tough life as a consumer product, but you can’t blame that on lack of games, although that’s more in spite of Sony than because of them.  Nowadays, the only people that seem to be supporting the device are niche Japanese studios and indie developers making cross-platform titles.  Sony themselves have been clear that they have no interest in pursuing development for Vita any further.  I suppose when one of the handheld’s earliest hits, Gravity Rush, was announced to have a sequel in the works for the Playstation 4, Vita fans should have despaired at another lost potential title, but I guess we all saw it coming.

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I never actually played Gravity Rush on the Vita, but I did pick up the “remastered” version that was recently released for PS4.  This version seems to specifically exist to prep the uninitiated for the upcoming sequel.  Not having played the Vita original, I’m afraid I can’t really compare the two.  The graphics in the PS4 version are presumably better, but they are clearly from an upscaled Vita game.  The open-world of Hekseville is composed mostly of very angular polygonal structures with simple texture work, and there is a hazy fog that clouds the long distance view of the city, which is almost certainly there to hide a limited draw distance.  Furthermore, NPCs that roam around the city just sort of pop-in as Kat runs and flies around.  Still, I wouldn’t say the game looks bad.  It doesn’t look great, but it’s acceptable.

Gravity Rush tells the story of Kat, a young amnesiac woman who awakens to herself falling into the skyborne city of Hekseville.  Kat is accompanied by a mysterious black cat named Dusty, who grants her the ability to control the force of gravity.  Essentially, this power allows Kat to fly.  Soon after awakening in Hekseville, Kat realize that her powers are key to defending the city from the attacks of the Nevi, a species of amorphous, shadowy monsters who have been wreaking havoc on the city’s peace and safety.  However, as the story progresses, we come to realize that there are greater threats encroaching on this floating metropolis, and the Nevi appear to be mere pawns in a much greater scheme.

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The city of Hekseville lies in a world shrouded in mystery.  The cityscape hangs suspended in the sky, held aloft on the branches of a large, tree-like pillar which seems to extend both upward and downward into infinity.  The citizens of Hekseville seem to have no knowledge of the world beyond their city limits, nor do they seem to give it any consideration.  The mystery of Hekseville’s very existence is a central plot point in this narrative, and the player is slowly fed tidbits of information that hint at the true nature of this reality.  I found the existential mystique of this world to be comparable to what you would find in anime like Fullmetal Alchemist or The Big O.

The story is what I ended up feeling to be the main draw of Gravity Rush.  In addition to the existential enigmas of Kat’s world, the characters she encounters in her tale are incredibly charming and heartfelt.  Kat, herself, is a peppy, friendly, and incredibly sincere young woman, who you’ll want to root for as she takes on a super hero-like status amongst the citizens of Hekseville.  

Despite the fact that I found the story to be the best part of the game, it’s not without its faults.  The plot chaotically meanders throughout the game and is not content to focus on any specific story thread.  The game begins by introducing us to the threat of the Nevi, but subsequent chapters introduce numerous additional conflicts that Kat must contend with.  Hekseville starts off in chaos due to parts of the city being inexplicably swallowed into alternate dimensions by gravity storms.  A master thief named Alias, who seems to have a history with Kat and has the ability to control the Nevi, is threatening to steal the “Sacred Gems” which protect the city in unspecified ways.  Furthermore, there is also a rival gravity shifter, named Raven, who comes to blows with Kat.  These are just the conflicts set up in the earliest chapters of the game, while even more villains and mysteries are introduced as the story progresses.

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By the end of the game, I have to admit I was frustrated by a lack of any sort of resolution.  The early chapters set up so many intriguing mysteries.  “Where did Kat come from?”, “Who is Alias?”, “Why are parts of the city being swallowed into alternate dimensions?”  “What exactly are the Nevi?”  You would expect later chapters of the game to begin answering these questions, but, instead, they just set up even more mysteries, of which very few are given any sort of closure.  Ultimately, I was left with way more questions than answers.  I understand that the designers wanted to build a series out of this game, and that it’s smart to leave hanging some loose plot threads to build the story of future sequels on.  But Gravity Rush just left too much up in the air.

Gravity Rush might be described as an open-world game, as Kat is free to roam about and explore Hekseville between missions.  While exploring the city, Kat can take on challenge and side missions, talk to a few select NPCs, and collect gems which are used to level up various stats.  The main missions are generally relatively simple.  Kat goes to point A on the map, a swarm of Nevi appears, she beats them down, and then moves on to point B where the same thing happens.  Occasionally, there are simple tasks to complete on the way, usually stuff like fetching items or using Kat’s abilities to carry NPCs to safety.

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I’m afraid I never found the Nevi to be particularly fearsome enemies.  They tend to just sort of mull about and only become aggressive when Kat gets very close to them.  I guess the lack of pernicious enemy AI is probably the result of the game being designed for the Vita’s more diminutive CPU.  When engaged with a Nevi, combat is also pretty simple.  The goal is to target glowing magenta weak spots on the Nevi’s otherwise shadowy bodies.  If they are on the ground, attacks consist of mostly walking up to the weak spot and mashing the X button to do a series of kicks.  If Kat is attacking from the air, the player can tap X when targeting a Nevi’s weak spot, and she will zoom in for a kick attack.  All in all, this particular aspect of the game is nothing really exceptional.

Gravity Rush is at its core a game about flying…or more precisely falling.  Tapping the R1 button causes Kat to become weightless.  Point in a specific direction and tap R1 again, and the pull of Gravity on Kat will change to that direction.  In this way Kat can “fall” in any given direction, which essentially allows her to fly about the city and reach places no one else can.  She can also use this ability to run along walls and ceilings.  There aren’t really a whole lot of games about flying, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the game.

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It’s not without its problems, though.  Later in the game, Kat finds herself fighting a lot of flying Nevi, which requires her to take flight to fend off foes coming at her from every possible direction.  This gets complicated since you can’t possibly be aware of all the enemies in the space around Kat.  While the Nevi are kind of slow and not particularly aggressive (as I discussed above), some of the flying Nevi shoot homing projectiles that are difficult to evade once they get close enough.  This means that you’ll get hit by a lot of projectiles from off-screen since you can’t possibly be focused on everything going on around Kat at once.  The only real tactic I found that worked in this situation was just to prioritize defeating the ones with homing projectiles as fast as I could.   

Worse yet, after doing a flying kick attack, Kat bounces off the enemy in a way that often made me lose my frame of reference in the environment.  This left me completely disoriented at times.   This particular issue I feel could have been easily solved by having a button to lock the camera onto targeted enemies (like Zelda).  Hopefully, this will be remedied for the PS4 sequel.  While this game mostly featured very basic and simplistic combat, because of these issues, it could often devolve into a spastic and frustrating mess later in the game.

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And that’s basically Gravity Rush.  A game that starts off with lots of momentum due to both intriguing gameplay and story elements.  But ultimately, the game just sort of falls flat, as it has no idea what to do with what it started.  Regardless, I really enjoyed the world of Hekseville, and I have high hopes for the next PS4 entry.  They really need to step things up a few notches for this upcoming sequel, but I think this first game serves as a good foundation to build upon.   While I’m a huge fan of handheld gaming and the Vita, I hope that the more technically-sophisticated PS4 platform will give the developers the ability to fully realize the promise that this initial installment has shown.  

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn

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The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc.  And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases.  As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead.  There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.

Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie.  The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach.  The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies.  Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist.  The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this.  You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent.  So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.

Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain.  The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy.  This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner.  This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed.  The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned.  And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor.  Can you see where all this is starting to go?

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The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car.  And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past.  You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates.  Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking.  She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations.  Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes.  There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc.  But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes.  For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict.  Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope.  And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.

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Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters.  Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording.  Rather, I just think they’re very realistic.  They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments.  The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs.  But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.  

Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now.  After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot.  Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer.  As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds.  The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point.  I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.

And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre.  The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story.  There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made.  I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out.  But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal.  There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats.  I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen.  But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.  

But what about Until Dawn as a scary game?  After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post.  I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played.  It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it.  There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though.  In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason.  It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night.  I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them.  It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out.  I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.  

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One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares.  This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on.  This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them.  I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start.  I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.  

One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs.  It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself.  I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.

Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end.  It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play.  The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story.  I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.

Thanks for reading!

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