Woof. Reached 4-3 three times trying to get Spelunky's "Speedlunky" achievement. I believe I'm just about done procrastinating, so here we go: The Comic Commish for February, covering the first half of 2009. Whether it's my fault or the industry's, the first half of that year was surprisingly light on releases that I recall fondly. I guess I can't be too surprised, given the tumbleweeds we've been seeing rolling through the first two months of 2014 (though March certainly looks like it might get a bit on the crazy side).
Anyway, I can absolutely blame myself for spending some time creating a Mirror's Edge comic despite being a bit too on the tardy side for this era. Blame the various lists that feature it as a 2009 release due to the slightly delayed PC port. Just so I don't look like a phony, here it is:
So to that effect, and to the additional effect that there weren't a whole lot of games out during these months to base comics on, I've only got two comics for this period. But hey, at least the latter half of 2009 is pretty full, so maybe I'll make up the deficit there. I know I'm going to be checking those release dates a little more meticulously, lemme tell ya.
I'll Admit It, 2009 is Sort of a Blind Spot
The Last Remnant is a game with problems, but with enough innovation that those problems feel more like growing pains in an attempt to implement new ideas than careless errors from an apathetic development team. The player assumes the role of Rush Sykes, a mop-topped anime protagonist who is very insistent with the local monarch David Nassau that they get to rescuing his sister from a shady bunch of villains while simultaneously also dealing with an unstoppable Conqueror that threatens the peace of David's kingdom of Athlum. Rush is a figure like Final Fantasy XII's Vaan, not only in the sense that he's kind of annoying and petulant, but that he plays a cipher role that feels like an outsider removed from the bigger decisions being made, as if to focus the game's attention away from all the interesting political upheaval going on to this smaller adventure running this odd world and investigating a bunch of enormous relics that some ancient civilization left behind. Ancient relics of a bygone era is a trope as old as the proverbial ancient civilizations themselves, but the world of Last Remnant can often feel very alien and almost post-apocalyptic with the amount of enigmatic magical detritus littering the countryside and taking central positions in most of the game's settlements.
Stranger still than these magical whoosits, though, are the myriad JRPG systems introduced in this game. Though superficially similar to a standard party turn-based RPG, The Last Remnant takes a leaf from Langrisser and has each playable unit actually be a "union" of up to five characters. True to their name, these unions act as one entity, and the player issues vague commands (such as "attack" or "defend") for that union to perform that turn with some degree of autonomy. Rather than worrying about magic points or a strict finite number of special attacks, the player is left to the mercy of a "random command generator" which creates a limited selection of commands for them to use based on the situation and their stock of "action points" that accrue after each round of combat. It's weirdly limiting, though it's configured in such a way that many commands are more likely to appear whenever they're necessary and less likely when they aren't (say, if you have a healer, you'll have an option to heal a union way more frequently when they're actually in critical condition). On top of this is how the game decides what characters learn which skills as they grow stronger depending on how you've been using them, how the game will scale difficulty but only to an extent and then there's all the stuff like morale, crafting, granting characters the resources they ask for so they can go craft on their own, and monster capturing to consider. Just going over all these features in my head again is giving me a migraine.
So, The Last Remnant is a game that demands a lot from its player, and doesn't really offer too much in return with regards to a solid story (though it has its moments) or anything approaching a character development aspect that isn't nonsensical. It's certainly unique, though, and that can often be a big plus in a genre as defiantly immutable as the humble JRPG. It has a great rock orchestral soundtrack too, and beyond the small matter of that texture pop-in it looks about as good as you'd hope for a 2008 Square-Enix game. It's also one of a handful of JRPGs available for PC on Steam, which is by far the preferable platform to play it on - hence why I'm counting this as an early 2009 game instead of a late 2008 game, in case you thought I screwed up again. To buy a fully-featured, 40 hour long JRPG for peanuts in one of Steam's regular sales isn't something to turn one's nose up at, as inherently busted as several of its elements may be.
Suikoden Tierkreis is in some ways a pale shadow of the core Suikoden series. Many trademarks of the series - specifically the strategic battles - had to be gutted to make room on the tiny DS cart, it drops the active party from six members to a more conventional four, and it lacks the full 108 "Stars of Destiny" recruitable characters that the series has been using for years as a hyperbolically incredulous bullet-point on the back of cases. The space economy for that tiny DS cart was so severe that they actually had to speed up the dialogue of the protagonist to fit all his sound clips onto the cartridge, hence the above comic's not-entirely-facetious premise. It's worth keeping in mind that Tierkreis is still a Suikoden game, however, and thus belongs to a very well-regarded RPG series from Konami, who usually don't deign to leave their cardboard boxes and monster castles to delve into pure-blooded JRPGs too often.
The game also has an odd personality, which is something you often see with portable spin-offs (just recall back to Link's Awakening for instance, or a more recent example with something like Devil Survivor or the wonderful Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime). The game has more gratuitous German than usual - the hero's called Sieg, the German word for victory, and Tierkreis is German for "Zodiac" - and it focuses on a multiverse story where worlds seep into one another when interfered with. It sets up an eerie antagonist in The One King; a character that I still don't fully understand (he's essentially the manifestation of entropy? Sort of?). Honestly, as much as I didn't appreciate how it dropped many of what I consider core facets of Suikoden, the way it goes off on a really bizarre tangent from the series exonerates it somewhat in turn. There's been no dearth of great DS/3DS RPGs over their lifespans, and I'd like to think Suikoden Tierkreis is one of them.
I introduced this section of the Comic Commish last time, but for those just joining us: here's where I stash some of the comics I've made in my time blogging here that pertain to games released in this period of time. I cannot in good conscience throw them in with the strips made specifically for this month, but I figure it's worth coming back to them in order to (MS) paint a broader picture of what was going on with games released this year. If nothing else, I can use them to artificially lengthen this blog. You know, for all the click-baiting I'm engendering.
Deadly Creatures is an easy game to dismiss, at least on first impression, but - as the game itself proves with its clever narrative - there's a lot going on beneath the surface that's easy to ignore with a cursory glance. The player assumes the alternating roles of a scorpion and a spider, who have an adversarial role for much of the game, and the various other bugs, reptiles and small mammals fighting to survive in an inhospitable patch of the Sonoran Desert. Adding to the complications are two would-be treasure hunters digging up the desert for lost Civil War booty, snippets of their "A Simple Plan" story filtering through to the underworld in which both arachnids spend much of the game. I bring up A Simple Plan because that movie's co-star Billy Bob Thornton plays one of the ne'er-do-wells, with the late great Dennis Hopper playing the other in his final role. A little ignominious, perhaps, but hardly the worst video game-related character he's portrayed (King Koopa: one evil, egg-sucking son of a snake).
Deadly Creatures has surprisingly complex level design, with areas folding over and under each other, and the spider in particular is able to climb walls and ceilings with ease making for a fairly vertiginous platforming experience you don't see too often. The scorpion's side of things is a bit more combat oriented, with many of the game's "duels" playing out tactically in real-time as you try to outmaneuver the opponent and leap in for the killing sting. The combat's a bit QTE-heavy, but the game finds lots of varied opponents for the duo to fight, ranging from weaker wolf spiders to rats to enormous Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes. If you aren't put off by creepy crawlies, or you are and kind of want a game that will make you feel a little uneasy, then Deadly Creatures might surprise you with its quality. Hidden pleasant surprises were what the Wii was all about, after all.
I spoke quite a bit about Zeno Clash when I covered it for May Madness last year, and most of what I said still stands. It's an exceptionally, aggressively weird game both in its structure as a first-person arena brawler and just in general. I've likened it before now to Dark Crystal, just in how everything seems so bizarre but having a few relatable characters at the core who take the more alien aspects of their world in stride makes it a lot easier to come to terms with. It does go to some very dark and strange places, though, and raises far more questions about the nature of its world than it ultimately answers.
I've actually been meaning to play its sequel for a while now, so perhaps I'll get around to it later this month. All of the visceral fisticuffs and androgynous bird monster nonsense is vividly flooding back to me.
The Other Ones!
You know the drill. These are other games from this January to June of 2009 I didn't get around to making a comic for, but can still recommend for those who slept through most of that year like I apparently did.
Flower (thatgamecompany, PS3, February): Flower really begat this whole tedious "is a game/isn't a game" discussion with how very few traditional criteria of a video game are present in its depiction of a flower petal floating on the breeze and activating a world of colors and happy thoughts. It doesn't stop it from being quite an interesting and novel gameplay experience, as limited as it is, and set the stage for thatgamecompany's later Journey which did a lot to silence Flower's detractors.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Starbreeze Studios, PS3/360/PC, April): Very much the definitive Riddick experience, including the movies as far as I'm concerned, Dark Athena provides a second adventure for Vin Diesel's space-faring recalcitrant rebel that really doubles down on David Twohy's hostile universe of incongruously gothic spaceships and uncompromisingly brutal fauna. It's easy to argue that the previous game in the series, Escape From Butcher's Bay, is the superior of the two, which is why that game was included in its entirely with a new facelift and some important mechanical upgrades. If Dark Athena is your first exposure to the series, it definitely leaves a good impression.
InFamous (Sucker Punch, PS3, May): Sucker Punch put aside their procyon purloiner to focus on a more serious superhero sandbox game that felt like the next natural step after Realtime Worlds' Crackdown. As well as allowing players to leap around a city, throwing out lightning bolts and taking down entire squads of put-upon soldiers with cool electricity powers, the game indulges in some classic comic book tropes, some motion comic cutscenes and offers a flexible morality system that gradually mutates your powers to suit your behavior, in much the same way as the Jedi Knight games. It's anyone's guess why people are still playing sandbox games where you can't fly (or leap tall buildings in a single bound, at least) and have to drive around like a sucker.
Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 360/PS3/PC, June): Some unfortunate things happened to the Red Faction franchise after (and some would say before) Guerrilla, but this game remains the peak of Volition's less insane series. And, just to digress a moment, when the game franchise that is set on Mars is somehow your more serious and grounded one, that's quite an achievement. Guerrilla's open-world chaos and fun-to-blow-up destructible environments greatly elevated what was already an interesting and imaginative sci-fi shooter series based around Total Recall-esque Mars dissidents. You can usually buy it on a Steam sale for a song these days, which seems almost as criminal as collapsing a government building with controlled explosions and an enormous sledgehammer.
Prototype (Radical Entertainment, 360/PS3/PC, June): Prototype closely followed inFamous with its presentation of another comic book superhero story set in a large open-world city, albeit with a far darker Todd McFarlane sort of tone. A living biological weapon, each of Alex Mercer's powers were more gross than the next, and morality barely ever entered into the equation. InFamous was probably the better game overall, but they were close enough in quality and release dates to give people pause to consider their options.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Terminal Reality, 360/PS3, June): There were a few Ghostbusters games released around the same time to coincide with absolutely nothing else new from the series, in much the same way as that recent Rambo: The Video Game, but it's clear that the developers of the 360/PS3 versions were at least dedicated fans of the supernatural comedy movies in question. The attention to detail with the movie's background paranormal apocrypha, like Tobin's Spirit Guide and the occultist architect of "Spook Central" Ivo Shandor, makes the game a worthy draw for fans already, and it's one of very few Ghostbusters video games to make ensnaring ghosts with the proton pack actually work and be fun. Any Ghostbusters adaptation that gives you an achievement for sliding down the fireman's pole or lets you talk to Vigo the Carpathian (now depowered, and so can only belittle you with childish insults) knows what the Hell it's doing.
Overlord II (Triumph Studios, 360/PS3/PC, June): The Overlord games can be a bit too chaotic for their own good at times, allowing the player to direct entire hordes of rambunctious minions around to destroy idyllic fantasy landscapes who tend to treat your orders as a sort of basic guideline rather than an absolute command. There's plenty of Fable-esque slapstick comedic elements (the story's written by Rhianna Pratchett, who comes from good stock as far as satirical fantasy goes) and a lot of Pikmin-esque hauling upgrades and collectibles around to make it all worth it, though, and Overlord II evolves many of the first game's slightly unstable mechanics in some meaningful ways.