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Severed!

I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me.  I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out.  This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them.  Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld.  It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.

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I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee.  It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well.  Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere.  The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.

While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities.  When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time.  The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen.  When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot.  Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.  

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Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws  will negate any damage dealt to the player.  The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter.  The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.  

In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS.  There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen.  Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside.  I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way.  There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between.  But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.

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Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed.  I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons.  This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds.  The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make.  Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be.  So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed.  Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session.  I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.

In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become.  Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest.  The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.  

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It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens.  It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves.  Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens:  A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title).  She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.

RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt.  Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more.  Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving.  Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion.  And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.

Severed is a great game for the Vita.  It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome.  It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on.  Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience.  It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.

 

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.  

Holiday Travels Gaming: Mario & Luigi Partners in Time and Rayman Legends

Thanksgiving and Christmas always mean handheld gaming for me, as I have to make a long arduous journey southward to visit my parents house where I grew up.  I always stress out over which few games I’m going to carry along with me.  I have no idea why I do this.  I don’t put nearly as much time into thinking about clothing or the other things I need to pack. 

I’ve often mentioned my love of the Mario RPG series here on the blog.  I’m excited for the release of Paper Jam, but it’s still over a month away here.  It’s already out in Europe and Japan, but I suppose Nintendo of America feels that Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon just came out and releasing any more games for this holiday shopping season would be just a little too generous to its fans.

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Anyway, during the break I decided to player Partners in Time which is the second Mario and Luigi RPG game.  This is the only Mario and Luigi game I’ve never played.  I didn’t get to play it when it was originally released on the DS, and, in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever saw a copy of the game on store shelves.  I can only assume it was a very limited release.  I had to ebay the copy I’m playing on now.  

The plot of this game begins with Professor E. Gadd (of Luigi’s Mansion and Mario Sunshine fame) demonstrating his new time machine at Peach’s castle.  An excited Peach travels alone to the past to when she was an infant, but when the time machine returns to the present, Peach is missing, and in her place an alien monster jumps from the machine and attacks the castle before being neutralized by Mario and Luigi.  The brothers, E. Gadd and Toadsworth learn that Peach has been kidnapped by alien invaders who are running amok in the Mushroom Kingdom of the past.   Why no one in the present remembers this alien invasion that took place in the past is never explained…….

As a result of damage to the time machine, time holes to the past begin appearing across Peach’s castle which the brothers to search the past for the princess.  There they meet up with the baby versions of themselves that were first seen in Yoshi’s Island.  For most of the adventure, the babies ride piggyback on their adult counterparts, but they can also detach and head off on their own.  This is important as they are capable of reaching areas that the big bros can’t such as by crawling through tiny holes in the walls or being lofted up onto high ledges by the adults.  This is used to create some interesting mechanics in the dungeons.

There are two pillars of M+L that I think are the critical factors in making the games so special.  The first are the turn-based battle systems which incorporate timing and reaction-based elements which makes enemy encounters quite a bit more stimulating to me than what is encountered in typical Japanese turn-based RPGs.  The second is the humor and offbeat imagination found throughout the series.  There are just so many funny and clever characters and situations found in these games.  

I’ve heard more than a few people call this the most boring and uneventful game in the M+L series.  Now I’m only a handful of hours into the game so far, but I’m having a hard time understanding that position.  In terms of the pillars I’ve outlined above (humor and battle system), I would put it (so far) on the same level as Superstar Saga (the first game), which isn’t too far behind Bowser’s Inside Story.  The babies don’t really add much to the battle system, but they don’t really detract anything from it either.   And one thing I really appreciate is that the game packs a lot more references to the various Mario spinoff games than other titles in the M+L series.  Professor E. Gadd is one of my favorite Mario spinoff characters, and he plays a fairly important role in guiding the brothers in this game.  I’ve also seen references to other “deep cut” games like Yoshi’s Cookie and both the Japanese and American versions of Super Mario Bros. 2.  Kamek also has a funny little “ohhhh….. it’s you kids again” moment when he first encounters the baby brothers for the first time after trying to kidnap them in Yoshi’s Island.

So far, I’m looking forward to completing this game.  Also during my break a few weeks ago, I got into Rayman Legends on Vita.  I really enjoyed Rayman Origins, but I think Legends may actually top it.  I think the art is a significant step up as it features a level of embellishment that wasn’t present in Origins.  But more importantly, there’s just something about the level design in Legends that is more “fast and free” than Origins.  I’m afraid I have a hard time articulating my feelings on what I mean by that.  I think it’s because I always felt a little bogged down searching for the caged electoons in Origins, while their counterparts in Legends, the captured Teensies, are significantly easier to find.  The result is that you can move through the levels at a faster pace that results in more satisfying platforming.  Also, there’s not as many swimming levels which I found to be a huge relief.

I’ve let too many weeds grow in this blog for the past month, but I hope to get back on a (semi)regular posting schedule soon.  Thanks to you all for reading!

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