By GrantHeaslip 19 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.