By dankempster 5 Comments
There's no denying that 2012 has been a slow gaming year for me. Even by my own snail-paced standards, I've been much slower to play and complete games than in past years. Heck, it took me almost two months to finish my first title of the year, and just a few weeks ago I'd only managed to beat nine games since starting my usual annual list on January 1st. In stark contrast to the rest of the year, though, the month of June was incredibly productive. In the last month I've seen the end of four different titles. The first of these was Vagrant Story, a game I've already blogged about at length. The other three games were... Actually, you might as well just scroll down to find out what they are. Then you can find out what I thought about them, too.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
I'm not a Batman fan. I've never read the comics, I've never seen the movies, and up until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never played the games either. Despite having no personal ties to the franchise, though, I found myself picking up Arkham Asylum last year. I think it was partly because I needed another game to round out a '3 for £20' deal, and partly because of a sense of obligation I seem to feel about playing titles that receive so much critical acclaim - Arkham Asylum would never have been on my list of games to check out had it not received such glowing reviews on its release way back in 2009. Thankfully it transcended my doubts, providing me with an incredibly fun and pure action experience that I won't soon forget.
Every component of Arkham Asylum's gameplay feels wonderfully refined. The combat, which initially looks like a copy-and-paste of the 'face-button-combo' archetype used in so many games before, is surprisingly difficult to master. There's a great emphasis on countering your opponents; quick thinking is required to process what kind of enemy is attacking you, and how best to halt their onslaught. There's a satisfying flow to the combat as well, which made me feel great whenever I strung together a multiplier of twenty or more. The stealth portions of the game are equally engaging because rather than simply asking you to sneak past a room full of goons, Arkham Asylum encourages you to creatively utilise your toolset and take them out from the shadows. Even the collectibles, which could easily have felt tacked-on, have been seamlessly integrated into the game-world. Not only that, they're both challenging and fun to pursue. It feels like Rocksteady have scrutinised every single aspect of their game under a microscope, continually asking the question, "How can we make this part of the game the best it can possibly be?". In every single case, they found the answer to that question in a manner fitting the World's Greatest Detective himself.
Arkham Asylum took me five or six days to beat, playing large chunks of it in long sittings because I just couldn't bring myself to put the game down. It's a masterfully crafted title that somehow manages to be even greater than the sum of its already-excellent parts. The next logical step is to pick up Arkham City and experience the continuation of the Dark Knight's battle with the Joker, something I'll probably end up doing next year.
June actually saw my second tussle this year with Supergiant Games' breathtaking debut. I first tried to play Bastion way back in January after buying it on Steam, but found it to be a struggle to play with the mouse-and-keyboard configuration. More recently I bought it on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, hoping that having a familiar controller in my hands might improve my experience with the game. Sure enough, it dismissed most of the woes I'd been experiencing at the start of the year, allowing me to enjoy the Kid's journey right through to its end.
What impressed me most about Bastion was its presentation. From the colourful hand-drawn artwork, through the incredible soundtrack (which I really need to buy), right up to Rucks' drawling narration, everything about the way Bastion is presented just oozes polish and style. Greg Kasavin clearly knows a lot about effective world-building, because for the few hours I spent with Bastion, I was completely immersed in Caelondia, its mythology, and the Calamity that had torn it apart. There's a striking parallel between the way the game's story is told piecemeal by Rucks, and the way the path through each level rises up under your feet as you progress - a parallel that really drove each sentence home for me. The themes of the game's story, concerning loss and the decision between clinging to the past or moving on, really struck a chord with me, and to be honest it's something I could probably write a whole blog about in its own right. Suffice it to say, having had to come to terms with a loss of my own this year, I found the thematic content of Bastion particularly stimulating. Having grown to know and understand the pre-Calamity world, the game's final choice was something that I deliberated over for a great deal of time. When I made that final choice, it was a reflection not only on my time with the game, but on my 2012 as a whole - how I've endeavoured to move on to new things and not get bogged down by the baggage of the past.
Even though I'd already seen two-thirds of it at a much more deliberate pace, I couldn't help but scold myself for rushing through Bastion in just three days. The resonance of its message with me suggested that I really should have taken my time with it, drinking in every last piece of content and savouring every drop of backstory along the way. I guess the presence of a 'New Game Plus' mode is at least some consolation, providing me with an impetus to dive back into the world of Caelondia in the near future. I'm also really excited to see what Supergiant Games decide to do next, whatever it might be.
Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent
It's been quite some time since I last played a point-and-click adventure. Almost two years to be specific - Machinarium was my last adventure game all the way back in August 2010 (unless you count L.A. Noire under the same gaming umbrella, in which case it's only been a year). I hadn't even intended to play Puzzle Agent, either. After finishing up Bastion, I asked a friend to pick a game from my Pile of Shame for me to play next, and his answer was the randomly-selected number 'fifty-six'. This being the fifty-sixth game on my list, I installed it on Steam and set about playing it.
The general consensus on the internet seems to be that Puzzle Agent is a rip-off of the formula established by the Professor Layton games. However, because I've never played a Layton game myself, all I can do is judge it on its own merits. Personally, I found it to be a nice little adventure/puzzle hybrid, and a fun distraction from the kinds of games I usually play. The presentation was particularly impressive - Graham Annable's art style and the minimalistic animation left a very distinctive impression, reminding me of some of the old TV shows I used to watch as a kid. The adventure side of things felt a little 'on-rails' at times, because there was very little freedom to actually explore Nelson's surroundings. It's more a vehicle to lead Nelson from one puzzle to the next. The puzzles themselves were good on the whole, offering a wide range of puzzle styles and ensuring that no one style dominated the game. Although one or two of the puzzles had me scratching my head, I found most of them to be fairly straight-forward, solving perhaps 80% of the game's puzzles on my first try. Given I was playing it as a distraction from my regular gaming habits, this didn't bother me too much, but if you were going into the game specifically expecting a cerebral challenge then I could see it disappointing in that respect.
Puzzle Agent took me just a couple of days to beat, but considering I picked it up very cheaply as part of an indie bundle, I feel it was more than worth it. I'm currently contemplating picking up the sequel on Steam and checking it out. If it offers more of the same in a longer, slightly more difficult package, then I could see myself having a lot of fun with it. It's also helped me re-acquire my taste for adventure games, meaning I'm very likely to play another in the near future.
So that's how June panned out for me. July is already looking set to be a slightly slower month, having kicked it off with a pretty lengthy RPG underway in the form of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I don't have any personal investment in the Star Wars franchise, but if my experience with Arkham Asylum has taught me anything, it's that I shouldn't let such prejudices sway my game-playing decisions. I'm about six hours in and have just started to reach a point where the game is clicking for me. Expect some in-depth views later in the month. I had also been planning to begin playing Final Fantasy VIII in an attempt to finally remove it from my Pile of Shame, but I've decided to postpone that until after reaching the end of my Enduring Final Fantasy VII series of blogs. It boils down to a matter of personal preference, really - I want to play FFVIII on my PSP, but would have to delete FFVII to make space for it. In the meantime, I'm sure KotOR will keep me busy, along with any other games I might decide to play alongside it. As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC)