Holiday PS Vita gaming roundup

I played a bunch of handheld games while visiting home over the break. 13 hours on the bus, tons of downtime, and the worst ice storm in a decade resulted in my spending a lot of time with my Vita and 3DS.

Despite my love for Nintendo, I think the Vita's a better system. I've never liked the DS or 3DS resistive touch screens, or the dual screen paradigm for that matter. The 3DS is maddeningly slow to load certain parts of the OS, the screens are low resolution in ways that show on the XL, and the 3DS generally feels a bit behind the times. Don't get me wrong, I'd pick the 3DS over the Vita in a heartbeat for its games, and I'll deal with the Wii U for the same reason, but spending a bunch of time with both handhelds has revealed how much I prefer the Vita as a system.

The Vita screen looks amazing, the system's a powerhouse, the control layout is great, the multitasking is useful, and the OS is almost always snappy and smooth. I'm not in love with the analogue sticks, but they're pretty good, and unlike the 3DS, the D-pad isn't awkward to reach. The PlayStation Store opens up in a fraction of the time the eShop takes to load (especially after the Nintendo Network update), saves are automatically backed up, software is automatically updated, and the online infrastructure feels robust.

On the Vita, I can open the web browser, start downloading a podcast episode, return to the game, hit the notification when the podcast finishes downloading, start the podcast, return to the game, and use the quick-access menu to control playback without suspending the game again. I can suspend a game and use the YouTube app and decently modern browser to look stuff up. The OS isn't as robust as Android or iOS, but it looks and feels surprisingly like a full-fledged mobile OS.

It's a shame the Vita seems doomed to obscurity. I was getting Near pop-ups proclaiming there had been a major shift in the local Whitchurch-Stouffville game rankings because one person (myself) had played a game, and there were just two other local players. I'm fine with this being the system I used to play Persona 4, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, some decent free and cheap PSN games, and the PSP games I never got to play, but a part of me thinks its unjust that the better system will probably end up going out with such a whimper.

Lumines Electronic Symphony

I like the idea of Lumines so much. The music and overall sense of style is fantastic. When I'm on a roll, the right track is playing, and sound effects are triggering left and right, the game's engrossing like nothing else. Electronic Symphony's music selection is great, so much so that I might end up using it as a jumping-off point to get more into electronic music. The Future of the Future is no Shinin', but it's a smart opening track with an appropriate degree of musical variance and hooks for gameplay triggers. Based on a quick perusal of the tracklist, 4am, Autumn Love, and Bang Bang Bang were standouts. I'm no electronic music connoisseur, but James Mielke clearly knows his shit.

If you know Electronic Symphony well, you might have noticed my favourite tracks were all in the first third of the playlist, and that's a manifestation of how Electronic Symphony falls apart for me. I'm just not very good at it, and playing through the entire set from start to finish took me the better part of two hours, at which point I was exhausted, and completely sick of playing Lumines. Lumines gets demanding enough that even pausing the game is a risky proposition, and I just don't have to the endurance to keep up with it for extended periods. I like the idea of playing the tracks in their intended order, but it means that I'm almost never going to see the latter half of the game. I'd feel like I'd be much more into Lumines if there were four or more self-contained playlists.

WipEout 2048

F-Zero GX is the only other memorization-heavy futuristic racer I've played, and while I enjoyed my time with WipEout 2048, it didn't stand up. The core racing mechanics of 2048 are deep and really satisfying to master, but almost everything else about the game is flawed.

The framerate isn't egregious, but I'd have taken a graphical hit for a solid 60 FPS rather the struggling 30 that 2048 usually delivers. I'm rarely one to complain about framerate, but this is clearly a case where unwavering smoothness would palpably improve the experience. The framerate was even poorer during online play, which already seemed (at least on my parents' 3 megabit connection) pretty janky. 2048 is a pretty game and a great showcase for the Vita, but in a lot of ways, it might have benefited from less track detail muddying up your view of the track lines.

Technical difficulties aside, what really drags 2048 down is the combat. Outside of the lowest speed classes, just keeping your craft from bouncing off the walls requires pretty much 100% of your attention. I know I'm not a master WipEout player, but managing weapons was such an unrealistic goal outside of the early game that I pretty ignored them during races. The combat challenges seemed to boil down to luck -- getting the best weapons, and happening to land killing blows -- and getting hit during the last lap of a race usually meant I was going to be replaying it. One particular rocket-only combat race near the end was so brazenly fucked that I still can't believe it made it through QA. Even making contact with other ships often proved problematic, especially when the AI insisted on turning directly into you in order to take a different path.

2048 would straight-up be a better game without weapons, and maybe even without collisions. I had a great time repeating time trials over and over again, slowly learning the courses and whittling away tiny inefficiencies to hit the target times. For most racing games, 10 courses would seem lean, but WipEout is so demanding and requires such mastery of each course that it's almost too many. There's such a solid core here, and it's frustrating to see it squandered.

P.S. Don't get me started on their decision to turn Pilot Assist -- a feature that attempts to "assist" you by unpredictably shifting your craft during turns -- on by default. It makes the game more difficult, and prevents you from learning the mechanics properly. I can't figure out why it's even in there.

Jet Set Radio

Man, Jet Set Radio was a bummer. It's got a great sense of style both musically and graphically, and I really love the extent to which the game is old-school Japanese crazy. I love the idea of Jet Set Radio, but it was actively unfun to play.

Right off the bat, it hits you with a poorly-designed tutorial that bizarrely jumps from explaining basic concepts to asking you to string together massive combos. The controls manage to simultaneously be too responsive and not responsive enough. I found myself constantly wanting to do a very simple thing and having Beat completely miss it in a way that felt out of my control. This is the kind of game where something comes out of nowhere, knocks you over, and puts you in the path of another threat. The controls are bad, the camera is bad, and even the simple graffiti-drawing system feels unresponsive and at odds with the pace of the action.

There's a part in the second stage in which you have to grind on a steel beam and jump to an adjacent crane to reach the other side of a gap. If you miss, you have to waste the better part of a minute to get back there. And miss I did, because I'd point the stick in the direction of the crane and hit jump only to have Beat sail way over it. I'm sure there's some trick to it, but I just didn't have the patience to figure it out, and the rest of the game was so unappealing that I just deleted it and moved on.

Spelunky

This is another game that didn't click with me. I think I see what other people see in it, but I just don't want to play a platformer in which the core conceit is "make one wrong move and you lose all of your progress!". I'm fine with difficult games, but only when I feel like I'm learning a lesson rather than being punished for not playing in a sufficiently plodding way. I didn't like the feel of the controls, the art style felt super generic, and I didn't like running around collecting money.

Frankly, the game reminded of the the 90s-era PC shareware that 8-year-old me knew wasn't as good as the stuff I was playing on my garage sale NES. That probably says more about me and my prejudices, and I don't begrudge people for liking Spelunky, but I found it unappealing.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

I played All-Stars Racing while listening to podcasts, it has some pretty maddening technical problems, and I wouldn't have given it a second thought if it wasn't free for PlayStation Plus members, but I had a surprising amount of fun playing it. It's a solid kart racer with a lot of fun Sega references, imaginative track design, robust (though near-deserted) online play, and a ton of content.

I liked the way the single player campaign had a bunch of different event types, and I prefer the character mod system (which lets you choose from a variety of unlockable stat breakdowns for each character) to modern Mario Kart kart customization. Many of the courses vary wildly from lap to lap, and there's a welcome sense of chaos and unpredictability throughout. There's an elaborate meta-goal system that has you doing stuff like hitting multiple racers with an explosive weapon (they call it "Blast Processing", of course) and inputting Virtua Fighter moves in mid-air.

I think Mario Kart 7 is a better-designed game, and my enjoyment of All-Stars Racing was pretty ephemeral, but I'll give Sega credit for making a solid and likeable kart racing game that one-ups Mario Kart in a surprising number of ways.

Limbo

I went into Limbo fairly skeptical -- I've been burned by indie darlings a few too many times. So when I say that I loved Limbo, know that I'm saying that in spite of my expectations. I knew Limbo had style and atmosphere, and it absolutely does, but what really caught me off guard was how good of a puzzle-platformer it is. If you stripped away the presentation, it wouldn't be an amazing game, but it would be a pretty solid one.

Limbo consistently challenged me, but never to the point where it was frustrating or made me think about turning to a walkthrough. Whenever I was stuck, it was always because I needed to take a step back and rethink my approach and scope. This might be the first game I've played in which the physics system made the puzzles more fun, rather than rote and unpredictable. The controls were rock solid, and there was never a time in which I felt like the character wasn't doing exactly what I wanted him to. Some of the more abstract puzzles employ subtle but useful environmental clues to point you in the right direction. Limbo never reuses a gameplay concept one too many times, and it doesn't overstay its welcome.

I don't think I can say anything about the presentation that hasn't already been said. Suffice it to say Limbo's art style is singular and cohesive. It really benefits from the Vita's OLED screen, particular the great black levels. The character animation is some of the best I've seen in a 2D game, and its quality makes your deaths all the more unsettling. I would have liked the story to have more of an obvious arc, but at the same time, there's something compelling about how little it ends up conveying.

Limbo is an excellent complete package, and a notable example of why middling gameplay doesn't need to be tolerated in the name of great presentation.

19 Comments
19 Comments
Edited by Rorie

I thought people who liked Spelunky were crazy people for like, the first two hours. Now I've died 500 times and I'm starting to feel like I get it. And then I realize that there's stuff like this still to go and I can't wait to play another game.

I didn't even know there was a Lumines game for the Vita! I want that.

Staff
Posted by Rorie

But holy shit, I don't want $27 worth of that. I guess I'll stick to the demo for a while.

Staff
Posted by TrafalgarLaw

I'm probably getting a Vita tomorrow, thanks for at least confirming Lumines is still great as ever. How about soul sacrifice, played that?

Posted by believer258

Props to the OS from me as well, the Vita might be the snappiest, quickest portable device I've ever used.

I got mine in late November before all of the ones with OLED screens were sold out (though I might have been able to wait a year or two for that). I have been playing Persona 4 Golden (duh), Disgaea 3, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and Final Fantasy IX on it. All four games look great on the OLED screen, even FFIX in its PS1 polygonal glory. Ys... well, it's colorful, but some of its looks are questionable.

I also think it feels better in my hand than the 3DS XL. It's huge, but not unwieldy. It doesn't feel like paper, but it also isn't too heavy to hold for hours on end. I kind of wish the analog sticks were a little more comfortable and the triggers were a little less squishy, but this thing gets an A+ in design. It just really, really needs some great exclusives.

Posted by Sergio

I think hardware-wise, the Vita is the better system. Outside of Tearaway, I don't think games really show off the touch capabilities of the system. It's often just an afterthought. The system needs games similar to Ghost Trick or Oendan.

Edited by GS_Dan

Apart from the combat events and the lack of a racebox mode, 2048 is godlike to me. Of course, wipEout HD is probably in my top 5 games of last gen, so take that as you will.

If you haven't played Persona 4 Golden, do it.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@rorie said:

I thought people who liked Spelunky were crazy people for like, the first two hours. Now I've died 500 times and I'm starting to feel like I get it. And then I realize that there's stuff like this still to go and I can't wait to play another game.

I didn't even know there was a Lumines game for the Vita! I want that.

Yeah, it does seem like the game's rewarding to a certain mindset, but I feel like if I was going to go down that road, I'd invest that time in Dark Souls. And realistically, I don't think I'm that kind of gamer.

Lumines was free on PlayStation for a while, but it looks like it's gone now. I think the only two games on that list I actually bought were Limbo and Spelunky, and they were both pretty discounted for Plus members. PlayStation Plus is pretty great!

I'm probably getting a Vita tomorrow, thanks for at least confirming Lumines is still great as ever. How about soul sacrifice, played that?

I downloaded it a couple of days ago (also free on PS+!), but I may not get to it for a while. The style doesn't really appeal to me very much, but I've read good things.

Props to the OS from me as well, the Vita might be the snappiest, quickest portable device I've ever used.

I got mine in late November before all of the ones with OLED screens were sold out (though I might have been able to wait a year or two for that). I have been playing Persona 4 Golden (duh), Disgaea 3, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and Final Fantasy IX on it. All four games look great on the OLED screen, even FFIX in its PS1 polygonal glory. Ys... well, it's colorful, but some of its looks are questionable.

I also think it feels better in my hand than the 3DS XL. It's huge, but not unwieldy. It doesn't feel like paper, but it also isn't too heavy to hold for hours on end. I kind of wish the analog sticks were a little more comfortable and the triggers were a little less squishy, but this thing gets an A+ in design. It just really, really needs some great exclusives.

Yeah, it's a really nice system. It makes a lot of the PS3 firmware feel pretty slow and outdated, which is a pretty amazing achievement for a handheld.

Unfortunately, those great exclusives might never arrive. It's a bummer, but on the other hand, having access to the PSP catalogue and the trickle of free games I get through PS+ will keep me busy for quite a while. And hey, Persona 4: Dancing All Night is exclusive, right?

@sergio said:

I think hardware-wise, the Vita is the better system. Outside of Tearaway, I don't think games really show off the touch capabilities of the system. It's often just an afterthought. The system needs games similar to Ghost Trick or Oendan.

I'm pretty okay with the front and back touch not getting much use. Most of my favourite handheld games are ones that don't use touch at all, and while the Vita has a nicer touch screen than the DS systems, touch still isn't a great control mechanism for most games.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@gs_dan said:

Apart from the combat events and the lack of a racebox mode, 2048 is godlike to me. Of course, wipEout HD is probably in my top 5 games of last gen, so take that as you will.

If you haven't played Persona 4 Golden, do it.

Persona 4 Golden was the reason I bought the system :). I'll probably grab WipEout HD at some point, as it seems like the better (and certainly better-performing!) game.

Posted by ichthy
@rorie said:

I thought people who liked Spelunky were crazy people for like, the first two hours. Now I've died 500 times and I'm starting to feel like I get it. And then I realize that there's stuff like this still to go and I can't wait to play another game.

I didn't even know there was a Lumines game for the Vita! I want that.

Holy shit. I have thousands of deaths in Spelunky and there's still stuff I haven't figured out, like using the ghost to make money.

Posted by Slag

I'm really excited for Vita TV and really hopes it comes stateside. I don't really have a transit situation where I'd use a portable much so I'd love to be able to play Vita games on TV.

Limbo is gosh darn incredible. Not surprised you dug it. Playing a game like just shows me how much garbage filler a lot of games have today. Sometimes simplicity really enhances the experience.

Online
Posted by PSNgamesun

I love my vita and ps plus helps too but the 3ds has too many IT games imo. Seriously the latest Zelda is just other wordly lol.

Posted by RecSpec

I bought a bunch of games in December and I can't stop playing All Stars Transformed. A way better game than the first one, which was pretty solid.

Posted by Sergio

@sergio said:

I think hardware-wise, the Vita is the better system. Outside of Tearaway, I don't think games really show off the touch capabilities of the system. It's often just an afterthought. The system needs games similar to Ghost Trick or Oendan.

I'm pretty okay with the front and back touch not getting much use. Most of my favourite handheld games are ones that don't use touch at all, and while the Vita has a nicer touch screen than the DS systems, touch still isn't a great control mechanism for most games.

I don't think it needs to be added on to games as a gimmick. Touch isn't great on games where traditional controls should be used, like the majority of ports to iOS. However, designed with touch in mind, games like Ghost Trick are great.

Posted by Nightriff

I couldn't recommend the Vita to anyone really, but I really want to. It is getting to the point where it is well worth the game for a few games on it and some psn stuff. Love the hell out of Spelunky, being able to play the persona psp and ps1 games, Hotline Miami, and it just keeps going. It isn't for everyone but it certainly has come long way since the launch and even when I got the system. I pretty much bought it for P4G and that isn't the only reason for me to continue to play it like it was a year ago.

Edited by Flappy

The Vita will find new life in 2014. Probably. Hopefully. Need more games in da West.

Posted by believer258

@believer258 said:

Props to the OS from me as well, the Vita might be the snappiest, quickest portable device I've ever used.

I got mine in late November before all of the ones with OLED screens were sold out (though I might have been able to wait a year or two for that). I have been playing Persona 4 Golden (duh), Disgaea 3, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and Final Fantasy IX on it. All four games look great on the OLED screen, even FFIX in its PS1 polygonal glory. Ys... well, it's colorful, but some of its looks are questionable.

I also think it feels better in my hand than the 3DS XL. It's huge, but not unwieldy. It doesn't feel like paper, but it also isn't too heavy to hold for hours on end. I kind of wish the analog sticks were a little more comfortable and the triggers were a little less squishy, but this thing gets an A+ in design. It just really, really needs some great exclusives.

Yeah, it's a really nice system. It makes a lot of the PS3 firmware feel pretty slow and outdated, which is a pretty amazing achievement for a handheld.

Unfortunately, those great exclusives might never arrive. It's a bummer, but on the other hand, having access to the PSP catalogue and the trickle of free games I get through PS+ will keep me busy for quite a while. And hey, Persona 4: Dancing All Night is exclusive, right?

@sergio said:

I think hardware-wise, the Vita is the better system. Outside of Tearaway, I don't think games really show off the touch capabilities of the system. It's often just an afterthought. The system needs games similar to Ghost Trick or Oendan.

I'm pretty okay with the front and back touch not getting much use. Most of my favourite handheld games are ones that don't use touch at all, and while the Vita has a nicer touch screen than the DS systems, touch still isn't a great control mechanism for most games.

Well, Persona 4 Dancing All Night is exclusive but... it's a dancing game. Made by the guys who made that Hatsune Miku dancing game, if I'm not mistaken.

Honestly, I didn't have much interest in Persona 4 Arena either. My interest in the Persona 4 story starts and stops with the original game.

As for the touch screen, I do agree it's not a great control mechanism but there's some things that can be done with it. If anything, the edges of a touch screen can serve as shortcuts to menus or something, freeing up face buttons for other things.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@slag said:

I'm really excited for Vita TV and really hopes it comes stateside. I don't really have a transit situation where I'd use a portable much so I'd love to be able to play Vita games on TV.

Limbo is gosh darn incredible. Not surprised you dug it. Playing a game like just shows me how much garbage filler a lot of games have today. Sometimes simplicity really enhances the experience.

I wonder how they handle communicating to people which games are compatible with the Vita TV and which aren't. Even something as obvious as Lumines would presumably require a patch to replace the way the let you mash on the back touch to build up your special meter. They'll have to have some plan to stop someone from walking into a store and buying a Vita TV and Tearaway.

@sergio said:

@grantheaslip said:

@sergio said:

I think hardware-wise, the Vita is the better system. Outside of Tearaway, I don't think games really show off the touch capabilities of the system. It's often just an afterthought. The system needs games similar to Ghost Trick or Oendan.

I'm pretty okay with the front and back touch not getting much use. Most of my favourite handheld games are ones that don't use touch at all, and while the Vita has a nicer touch screen than the DS systems, touch still isn't a great control mechanism for most games.

I don't think it needs to be added on to games as a gimmick. Touch isn't great on games where traditional controls should be used, like the majority of ports to iOS. However, designed with touch in mind, games like Ghost Trick are great.

You're right, it's got its uses and its time and place. I guess what I meant to say was that I'm glad that most of the games I've cared to play haven't required it or tacked it on. I'm always worried we'll see more games like The World Ends with You and Zelda: Phantom Hourglass -- good games that were dragged down by awkward touch controls.

@believer258 makes a good point that it's useful for ancillary functions, especially rarely-used actions, menus, and text entry. I do like having it around, I'm just glad it's not used too much in games.

Well, Persona 4 Dancing All Night is exclusive but... it's a dancing game. Made by the guys who made that Hatsune Miku dancing game, if I'm not mistaken.

Honestly, I didn't have much interest in Persona 4 Arena either. My interest in the Persona 4 story starts and stops with the original game.

As for the touch screen, I do agree it's not a great control mechanism but there's some things that can be done with it. If anything, the edges of a touch screen can serve as shortcuts to menus or something, freeing up face buttons for other things.

Yeah, I was half-kidding there! I do find Dancing All Night oddly appealing though. I really like the Persona 4 music, and the prospect of a bunch of remixes is enticing in and of itself. I've also never played a rhythm game of that type before. It sort of makes sense that it's on the Vita, since 3DS games are pretty limited in size, and being on the Vita sidesteps the latency issues rhythm games tend to run into with modern TVs.

I'm not a fighting game guy either, so when I finish up with Persona 3, the draw of the characters and story will serve as nice excuse to spend some serious time with a fighting game. I do see where you're coming from, and Dancing All Night is far from a system seller.

Posted by Slag

@slag said:

I'm really excited for Vita TV and really hopes it comes stateside. I don't really have a transit situation where I'd use a portable much so I'd love to be able to play Vita games on TV.

Limbo is gosh darn incredible. Not surprised you dug it. Playing a game like just shows me how much garbage filler a lot of games have today. Sometimes simplicity really enhances the experience.

I wonder how they handle communicating to people which games are compatible with the Vita TV and which aren't. Even something as obvious as Lumines would presumably require a patch to replace the way the let you mash on the back touch to build up your special meter. They'll have to have some plan to stop someone from walking into a store and buying a Vita TV and Tearaway.

Dunno, assuming it does release stateside, I'm going to guess there will be new game packaging that that maybe has a dot "VITA TV" on the front TV, and something on the back that lists VITA TV compatible on the back.

In any event with the right marketing etc, That's a certainly solvable problem, assuming Sony is willing to spend what it will take to differentiate it.

Rumor has it that Vita TV is a preemptive answer from Sony to a mini-ouya like box Apple may be announcing that will allow x-play of iOS games on TV. So my guess is that they will eventually try to have a hardware answer for the touch interface if the sub-platform succeeds.

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Edited by crusader8463

The Vita is a sexy piece of tech, but they just need some damn games. I keep looking for stuff to get on it but nothing appeals to me or I feel like the games are too over priced for what they offer.