Monthly Roundup, March 2014

March’s annual onslaught might have been as strong as ever in 2014, and I did my best to keep up. After wrapping up my time with Bravely Default, I spent most of March bouncing back and forth between Titanfall and Dark Souls II; I talk about all three of those below. I also spent a little time with both Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Threes!, which are a pair of fun, light games that are easy to pick up and play for cheap, but neither grabbed me enough to warrant any serious dedication. There’s plenty to talk about though, so let’s dive in!

Bravely Default

Despite a strong start, Bravely Default eventually went off the rails.

I talked quite a bit about Bravely Default last month, but wanted to add a few final thoughts now that I’m done with the game. I’m especially keen to give an update on this particular game, because my appreciation of it took a sharp turn after Chapter 4. Most of what I previously wrote remains true: I still like the game’s job system and combat overall, and I still don’t care for its story or characters. The big change comes in the pacing and structure of the game. At the risk of mild spoilers, by the end of Chapter 4 you’ve been everywhere in the game’s world, and have acquired most of the jobs (and even most of the spells and equipment). The remaining chapters concoct story reasons for you to retread the world multiple times over, and the real kicker is that you end up fighting the exact same bosses each time as well (albeit with stronger stats). Even the story beats are parallel in a Groundhog Day sort of way. I don’t think that’s necessarily the worst idea in the world, and maybe it could be done well, but Bravely Default is not the game to do it. Chapters 1-4 took me almost 40 hours of play already, and by that point I felt like I had gotten ample fill of the job and battle systems. The game was starting to bog down as it was, and I was ready for it to wrap up, especially given that I wasn’t really into the story or the characters. To then take that gameplay and stretch it out further without any new or meaningful additions, all explained by a story that continually goes further and further off the rails, is pretty ridiculous. It’s very blatant filler in my eyes, and I think it’s pretty disrespectful of the player’s time.

Given that, once I discovered what was happening in Chapter 5 onwards, I had no desire to play any more Bravely Default, and put the game down for good. The only thing I feel like I missed by not finishing it is a real sense of closure for the story, but after reading ahead and spoiling it for myself I don’t think I’m really missing anything. It’s all a shame, and makes Bravely Default a weird game to judge. On the one hand, the first four chapters form a solid, well paced adventure with a robust job system and combat that I genuinely enjoyed. On the other hand, it was already starting to bog down near the end of Chapter 4, and the stunt they pulled after that made me not want to play the game anymore. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic that leaves me more confused than anything, and I honestly don’t even know how much I like the game overall. I think it would have made a wonderful (and already lengthy) game if it wrapped up after four chapters, but the bloated final product is not something I want to even finish. Take that however you will, but I’ve decided to move on from Bravely Default.

Titanfall

There was a period of time where I played Call of Duty pretty heavily (which itself was more of a social thing), but I’ve by and large never been that into multiplayer shooters. I’ve dabbled with various Halos, Battlefields, Gears of Wars and others here and there, and while I’ve generally had fun with their multiplayer in spurts, they’ve never been something I’ve wanted to spend a ton of time with. Titanfall, then, being a multiplayer only FPS, from the guys what made Call of Duty no less, shouldn’t have been something I was interested in. I don’t even care about mechs to be honest, but something about Titanfall looked so… smooth. Despite being a little worried about how my nearly four year old PC would handle the game, I decided to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. Right out of the gate I was impressed with how well it ran on my machine, and how well the servers held up from day one. I don't know if I’m just lucky, but I’ve had no technical or server issues with Titanfall, and it’s nice to play an online game that simply works as intended right out of the gate.

Did I mention how smooth Titanfall is?

As for the game itself? It’s smooth. The thing that drew me to Titanfall initially remains my favorite thing about it, and that’s the player movement. Moving around the game’s well designed maps is consistently fun and exciting, as you can chain multiple jumps and wall-runs together in seemingly endless succession. It’s almost like someone figured out how to put Prince of Persia style platforming into a FPS, and it feels better than it has any right to. It’s also easily the standout feature to me in what’s otherwise a pretty typical FPS. That’s not to say Titanfall doesn’t execute those standards very well, but it does play it by the book pretty often. Past the movement, the two other notable changes/additions in my mind are the titans themselves, and the AI grunts that populate every game. The titular titans act kind of like potentially powerful killstreaks that everyone gets in roughly equal measure, which I think lends the game a better balance while also giving everyone something powerful to play with. They’re also fun to control, and being able to customize titan loadouts separately from the pilots makes for some interesting, if not terribly expansive options. I still think I prefer playing as a pilot purely for the movement, but getting in a titan a few times a match has its own thrills. The titans also seem to have this effect of creating hot spots that draw in the action. When a titan drops, people seem to naturally move towards them, making it always easy to find the party. The AI grunts supplement this by giving you something to shoot nearly everywhere you go, and between them I almost never find myself without a target. I was initially worried that the grunts would break the game, but they work surprisingly well. They not only make sure you always have something to shoot, but they incorporate into the scoring in a way that makes sense, and along with the way they reduce your titan’s countdown timer there’s a real incentive to shoot as many of them as possible. They can potentially be interesting game-changers, but not to the point where you can ignore enemy players either. It’s a fine line, but I think Titanfall walks it very well.

Yet in the end, it all comes back to how smooth the game is for me compared to other shooters. There’s no legitimate campaign, there’s not a ton of modes and options, and the overall experience isn’t drastically different than what the genre has been doing for years, if not decades. Given that, there’s nothing fundamental here that’s going to grab anyone who already shuns multiplayer shooters. At the same time, if I’m going to play a multiplayer shooter, it’s going to be Titanfall for the foreseeable future. It has the things I want, and does them with the appropriate amount of flair and execution to make it stand out. I’ve put a decent chunk of time into it already, and suspect I’ll continue to periodically play it for some time. It’s no revolution, but it’s a whole lot of fun. And smooth.

Dark Souls II

March’s other big game for me, released on the same day as Titanfall, was Dark Souls II. Given how much I loved both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, this sequel was one of the games I was most looking forward to in 2014. I managed to plow all the way through it during the month, and boy, it did not disappoint. Dark Souls II does everything I’ve appreciated about this series from the start as well as ever (much of which I’ve talked about plenty on this site already). It offers a big, expansive world to explore, one that holds countless dangers and secrets. It puts on thick atmosphere that makes it easy to get absorbed in every little detail. It boasts strong, hard-hitting combat that feels right, and offers incredibly robust character building options. It remains a deep, challenging RPG that demands every ounce of investment from the player, yet also duly respects both the player’s time and intelligence. In the ways that matter most, Dark Souls II is every bit as good as its predecessors for all the same reasons, and anyone who liked those games will almost surely like this too.

"More Dark Souls" is by no means a pejorative at this point.

As for the differences, there are a handful of subtle ones that don’t affect the experience too greatly overall, but they will be noticeable to returning players. First and foremost, the world design harbors some sort of middle ground between Demon’s central hub world and Dark’s somewhat open world. There is a hub town that you constantly go back to, with many long paths fanning out in all directions, but those paths rarely cross with each other. It feels more open than Demon’s almost “level select” style, but the world isn’t nearly as interconnected as Dark’s is. While I think many of the individual areas are incredibly well designed (in fact, I think some of them are as good as any in the series), I do prefer the previous game’s larger design, as it made the world feel more intricate and whole. Another minor quibble is the way you’re required to return to the hub and talk to the “Emerald Maiden” every time you want to level up (similar to Demon’s). I miss being able to level up at any bonfire, as going through loading screens and listening to her monologue just to level feels completely unnecessary. Another notable difference is the way enemies don’t respawn indefinitely. Initially that sounded like a mixed blessing; if you died enough times on a boss then the run back would eventually become hassle-free, but that also means there are potentially less soul acquiring opportunities. It all turned out to be a non-issue for me, however, as I only had enemies stop spawning on two separate occasions (including one from failing to kill a damn lizard too many times). But even had it happened more often, I feel like the number of souls required for leveling has been substantially reduced such that you simply don’t need as many souls in Dark Souls II as you did before. I leveled up super fast, and hit the soft caps on my most important stats before the halfway point of the game.

Easier or not, you still have to give your all to succeed in Dark Souls II.

Finally, while I think the difficulty in these games is generally overblown, I do find Dark Souls II to be the easiest of the series so far, if only slightly. It’s hard to say exactly how much of that is due to my overall experience with the series at this point (it would be interesting to see what newcomers think), but I still think there are a few things about the game that just plain make it easier. First and foremost, while Dark Souls II has a lot of bosses, I found a lot of them to be pretty straightforward and unthreatening. Many of the bosses are beatable by merely circle-strafing and counter-attacking after they attack; their patterns are simple and easy to read, and a fair number of them don’t even deal much damage (and I was no tank mind you). That said, there are a few optional bosses later in the game that can test your mettle. Between those and the new game+ options (which seem to more meaningfully increase difficulty than before), there’s a stiffer challenge here for those who want it, it’s just not on the critical path. I also think, with a few exceptions, that bonfires are placed more closely together than before, reducing how long you have to survive without a respite. In addition, the combination of estus flasks and consumable healing items makes it easier to remain fully healed, and the way leveling has been sped up means that your character can become much more powerful much sooner. It’s a handful of relatively minor tweaks that add up, and for the most part I don’t mind them one way or another. A lot of it feels like streamlining that just happens to make the game a little easier (as well as easier to understand and get into), but I personally would have liked a few more of the bosses to be a little tougher and more memorable if nothing else.

That’s not to say Dark Souls II is a walk in the park; if you’re careless, you still get punished fast and hard. This is Dark Souls after all, which is how I would qualify any changes it may have made. This series continues to tweak and fiddle with some of its finer details, but its core tenets that have endeared it to so many remain as true as they ever were. I don’t think Dark Souls II is my favorite Souls game, but the margin is extremely slim, and I’d easily take it over the vast majority of video games out there. And if Dark Souls II is any indication, this series isn’t losing steam anytime soon, and is still strong enough to deliver more great adventures in the future.

Looking Ahead to April

With March’s barrage behind us, I’m looking forward to a few relatively calm months (at least in terms of game releases) where I can do some catching up. The first order of business is Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, which I’ve already started messing with. Past that, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Beyond: Two Souls, Infamous: Second Son, Skyrim’s Dragonborn DLC and BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea DLC are the myriad of games at the top of my list, and I should be able to get to at least a few of those during the month. As for April releases, Child of Light is the only one I’m currently keeping an eye on, and it’s slated for the very last day of the month. That leaves April open for focusing on those other games I’ve missed, which is always more than welcome.

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Failing Better

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Samuel Beckett

Next to video games, my favorite hobby is tennis, which I both play and watch a good amount of. The biggest pro tennis tournaments are dubbed the “Grand Slams,” and the most recent one -- the Australian Open in January -- produced an interesting twist on the men’s side. For those not familiar with the happenings of pro men’s tennis, I’ll keep it short and sweet. For the better part of the past decade, almost all of tennis’ most important tournaments have been won by one of four men: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. They are often referred to as the “Big Four,” due to how thoroughly dominant they have been for so long. And with the way tennis works, and the way there is only a single winner at any given tournament (which can have up to 128 players in the draw), that means a lot of other players have been doing a lot of losing for a very long time. You’d be forgiven for thinking, after so many losses by all but the vaunted Big Four, that most pro tennis players would be ready to throw their hands up in exasperation, say “to Hell with it” and go find something more productive to do.

Stanislas Wawrinka did what few others have done during the "Big Four" era.

The alternative to that approach is to take something from those losses. Traditionally, you gain confidence from winning, but what if you could gain something from losing? What if you could use those losses to fuel you, to learn from your mistakes, to make you better and stronger? At least one man has done this in pro tennis: Stanislas Wawrinka. He recognized that he and everyone else kept losing to these same four players over and over, that the Big Four were simply better than the rest. Rather than bemoan that fact, he decided to focus on something other than beating them. He decided that if he was going to keep losing like everyone else, then perhaps he should try to lose a little better, to improve with each loss. He embraced the idea so fully that he had the above quote tattooed on his arm. He kept trying, and he kept failing, but he kept working on improving, and each successive failure was better than the last. Eventually, after more than a year of steadily better failures, he managed to do what almost nobody else has done for a decade: he beat the Big Four and won a Grand Slam at the 2014 Australian Open.

Wawrinka’s win was inspiring for any number of reasons, but most of all because it was no fluke; this was the result of hard, diligent work by a man who’s been on the tour for a long time, but has always been overshadowed by the legends of the game. He didn’t let those continuous losses against the top players set him back or bum him out, but instead used them to get better, slowly but surely, until he finally broke through. I find this idea of “failing better” fascinating, and I don’t think it’s limited to tennis, or even sports in general. Wawrinka’s win prompted me to think about many of my own failures, in all areas of life, and how I have often learned from them to become, in my mind, a better and stronger person. Nobody’s ever perfect, and my own mistakes can provide the most poignant, resonant lessons I can ever learn, and give me the experience to hopefully avoid making similar mistakes again.

Perhaps nowhere is that more directly applicable than in games of all kinds, from sports to our favorite pastime here on Giant Bomb, video games. Games often have binary win/lose states, which can make your successes and failures even more transparent. The downside of that is that you can’t run from your failures very easily, and you can’t shift the blame somewhere else. If you lose a tennis match or a round of Street Fighter, that’s on you. It extends to non-competitive games just as easily; you die in Super Mario Bros. because you messed up, plain and simple. That can sound overly harsh, and it’s easy to see how that could be stressful and/or frustrating for people at times, but there’s an upside as well: with your failures being easier to see, it’s also easier to learn from them. And if you can learn from them, you can use that knowledge to help you do things that initially seemed impossible, as Wawrinka has shown. His win has led me to consider how I look at failure in video games, which I tend to see as a positive, instructive force.

Video games can use player failure as a powerfully instructive tool.

To avoid going in circles, it might be best to use a strong example for illustration, and what better game to examine than one known for inviting failure: Dark Souls. It’s often been said that Dark Souls (or any Souls game) is strict but fair, and that when you die you know it’s your own fault. That second point is one I iterated above: you can’t run from your failures in a game. Dark Souls, more than most games, refuses to hide that fact. It never takes the blame for itself, it never sugar-coats your deaths, and it never tries to hide what you did wrong. The message is often clear, and usually along the lines of “You were too careless”. All of that works, however, because Dark Souls applies its own strict set of consistent rules. Video games can be surprisingly great teachers, and from my experience the best teachers are the strictest ones. Dark Souls is one of the strictest, and I think that strictness is one of its greatest aspects. There’s no bumbling your way through, hoping for the lucky headshot or the random dice roll to work in your favor. Everything in Dark Souls is calculated and raw, and it never deviates from the ground rules it lays down. That consistency is what makes it fair, and what makes it possible to learn from your mistakes. There are very few meaningless deaths in Dark Souls; each is a lesson to be considered carefully, and Dark Souls is a strict teacher that won’t let you pass until you learn damn near all of them.

The result of all of this is that by the time you beat Dark Souls, you feel like you’ve earned it. You feel like you’ve genuinely improved over the course of the game, that you’re in a different place from when you started. It feels like it was no fluke, just like Wawrinka’s win wasn’t a fluke either. I use Dark Souls as an example, but many video games of all kinds use failure as such an instructive tool (some do it better than others, and there are plenty of bad ways that games use failure too), and I’ve always preferred video games that challenge me and allow for failure. I’m not sure I’ve always understood exactly why, but Wawrinka’s win has made it pretty clear: without room for failure, there’s no room to learn. I can sometimes get bored in a game that’s designed such that I never fail, because I don’t feel like I’m going to improve or grow in any tangible, meaningful way. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy games for other reasons, or that easy games are always a waste; the threat of failure can be potentially be instructive enough. But the games I find myself most invested in usually incorporate failure into their core design. It’s a strong feedback mechanism that exists to guide the player’s improvement at the game, and I find that process to be one of the most satisfying aspects of the entire medium.

Video games give us countless blank canvases on which we can paint our own successes and failures, and while it’s tempting to view failure of any kind as a negative outcome, I prefer to see them as a positive force in video games. My failures help me learn and improve at the games I play, and help me push myself to understand and accomplish tasks I might have initially thought impossible, thus enriching the experience. I don’t want to run from my failures; I want to embrace them, just as Wawrinka embraced his and won a Grand Slam. I want to keep failing the best I can.

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Monthly Roundup, February 2014

For the second month in a row it’s been almost all RPGs all the time. I’ve spent the better part of the first two months of 2014 playing a lot of RPGs, and looking forward suggests the trend isn’t going to change soon. Fortunately I’ve been enjoying them, and thus far they’ve also been distinct enough from each other to not wear me down. February’s primary culprits have been a pair of Nintendo 3DS JRPGs: Pokemon X/Y and Bravely Default. Those are the games I spent the bulk of my time on this month, so that’s what I’ll talk about below. I also played a pair of DLCs this month, one RPG and one not. The first was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s Dawnguard, and the second was The Last of Us’ Left Behind. Both are solid pieces of content in much the same ways their respective main games are, and I think both are worth playing if you want more of those games. Neither requires further explanation, however; plenty has been said about both of those great games already, and their DLCs are more of them. So with that in mind, let’s dive right into JRPG mania.

Pokemon X/Y

Man, Pokemon got its hooks into me what good this month. I played through Pokemon X/Y’s campaign when it came out last October, and thought it was another good if unspectacular Pokemon campaign. But I also knew that wasn’t the reason I had picked the game up; that reason was purely to dive headfirst into more competitive training and battling. The catch was that I needed the Pokemon Bank to make that happen, which didn’t successfully launch in North America until early February. Once out, the Bank allowed me to migrate all my previously trained Pokemon -- and more importantly all those critical Ditto -- from Pokemon Diamond/Pearl all the way up to X/Y. Then I strapped on my training boots and got to work!

Breeding and training involves a lot of time spent on a bike.

Training a competitive Pokemon is a surprisingly convoluted and time-consuming endeavor. For all the good things Pokemon does, and for how great of an idea it is, the series’ biggest bugbear in my mind has always been how needlessly tedious the training process is. That feeling hasn’t changed much with Pokemon X/Y; training is still obtuse, and still takes forever. You still can’t see explicitly what EVs your Pokemon have, and IVs still remain completely hidden, though you can go through a lot of hassle to figure them out if you really want. Those hidden numbers remain the most ridiculous and frustrating aspect about the entire series to me. Hidden abilities are also still a nightmare to obtain, and riding your bike back and forth to hatch eggs is still the most boring thing in the world. That said, training is not quite as bad as it used to be, thanks to a few subtle, but noteworthy tweaks. For starters, the addition of Super Training is a welcome one. Not only is it a slightly quicker way to EV train, but it also allows you to see a rough sketch of a Pokemon’s EVs (maybe someday they’ll reveal actual numbers). Other minor improvements run the gamut: holding an Everstone guarantees a Pokemon passes down its nature, female Pokemon can pass down egg moves, its seems more likely to pass down abilities, and the new EXP Share makes leveling multiple Pokemon at a time much faster. It still takes a while overall, but a not insubstantial amount of mess around the edges has been cleaned up to speed things up ever so slightly. Pokemon is slowly but surely becoming a better game.

Battling online makes the rigors of training worth it.

In some ways, it’s easy to wonder what’s the point of all this in the first place. That’s a valid question, and one you can’t really fathom an answer to until you experience competitive Pokemon battling for yourself. There’s a certain edge to battling with fully trained Pokemon that never manifests against the AI, much less in the campaign. Properly trained Pokemon are so finely tuned, so carefully optimized to perform very specific tasks extremely well that they’re incredibly deadly in the right situations. This leads to a lot of prediction and mind games, as one wrong move could lead to one of your key Pokemon being crippled in one fell swoop. It’s all incredibly thrilling, and given how many creatures and moves there are now, there’s a ton of variables to consider, and a ton of creative ways to put a team together. This combination of creative construction and high stakes battles is something I find a lot of fun, in much the same way that something like a collectible card game might be. I used to play a lot of Magic: The Gathering (and still do occasionally), and I frequently find parallels between constructing a team in Pokemon and building a deck in MTG, and battles share similar thrills in both. There are so many variables playing out against each other, it’s exciting to see how it all plays out time and time again. It’s a wonderful payoff, and it makes the rigors of training worth it.

Pokemon X/Y hasn’t done a ton to change battles themselves; they remain excellent on their own. But it has implemented a fair amount of online infrastructure that provide more ways to play. I haven’t played Pokemon competitively since the Diamond/Pearl days, so some of this may have been put in place for Pokemon Black/White, but the ability to battle strangers online makes a world of difference. It’s extremely unfortunate that you can’t battle online with a full party of six (maybe they’ll get there someday), but even with smaller teams it’s worth being able to play someone at any time. There’s even proper matchmaking, along with ever evolving competitions with their own special rules, and a lot of ways to connect with and trade with others online. Pokemon is far and away a much more online, social experience than ever, which is the direction I’d personally like to see the series head. I’ve gotten a lot more enjoyment out of building and battling competitive teams than I have out of the campaigns in a long, long time, and I don’t plan to stop battling anytime soon.

Bravely Default

Time to play "dress up" and fight monsters!

When I haven’t been deep in the Pokemon rabbit hole, I’ve been playing a fair amount of Bravely Default. Despite both being turn-based JRPGs on the Nintendo 3DS that require a lot of grinding, they feel fairly different from each other. In fact, Bravely Default feels mostly like a 16-bit era Final Fantasy game. In fact… it feels like Final Fantasy V. That’s primarily due to Bravely Default’s robust job system. There are a wide range of “jobs” (the Final Fantasy word for “classes”) that your four characters can take at any time, ranging from thief to knight to black mage, and you can switch these jobs on the fly at any time outside of battle. You level up each job independently, and each comes with its own stable of active and passive abilities that are unlocked as they level. There’s quite a bit of variety in the large number of jobs available, and trying out and experimenting with them all is a lot of fun. What makes it better, and what lends the game its most interesting layers, is that you can equip a limited number of active and passive abilities from other jobs you’ve leveled in addition to your currently chosen job. For example, if a character is currently a ninja, but had previously obtained levels in the thief and white mage jobs, I might also be able to equip white magic as a secondary active ability and a passive speed boost from the thief class, all while technically being a ninja. It’s all about mixing and matching, and the sheer number of options lends the game an almost overwhelming amount of customizability.

The job system in Bravely Default is very similar to what I remember it being like in Final Fantasy V (though it’s been a long time since I played it), and it’s the reason I really liked that classic. And while Bravely Default owes much of its core design to Final Fantasy V, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t experimented around the edges. In fact, Bravely Default has made a number of seemingly minor, but very welcome tweaks that allow players to circumvent a lot of the potential hangups common to JRPGs. Three tweaks in particular combine to make that traditional JRPG pitfall -- grinding -- infinitely more tolerable. First, you can adjust battle speed with the D-pad at any time, and the fastest speed is pretty darn fast. Secondly, pressing Y flips a toggle that will repeat the last commands you assigned manually. Finally, you can set the rate at which you encounter random battles, ranging from double all the way down to none; yes, you can turn them off entirely. All three of these things combine to make grinding through battles against the same enemies move super quickly, yet also allows you to slow it down whenever you want, and also pick when and where to have your battles. It’s a surprising concession of control to the player, one that doesn’t change what JRPGs are for those that love them, but it allows everyone to enjoy the game and all it is at their own speed.

I really dig Bravely Default's look.

Bravely Default implements another interesting twist in its battles, via a pair of aptly named moves you can always make called “Brave” and “Default.” They’re essentially opposite sides of the same idea: Brave lets you take up to four future turns now, Default lets you store the current turn for later use. It sounds a lot more confusing than it plays out (at least it did for me initially), but it basically allows you to take a lot of actions at once at the expense of doing nothing for a few turns. It can be powerful if used well, and a lot of times against normal enemies it helps you end battles quickly by taking all your turns up front. Against bosses it requires more judicious use, and since enemies can do the same thing, a little bit of cat and mouse can sometimes occur. It’s not a drastic change to traditional turn based battles, but I do find it to be an interesting one (and it can also help speed up grinding).

I’ve enjoyed Bravely Default overall thus far, though it hasn’t been perfect either. Primarily, I don’t find myself caring about any of the characters or the plot. It’s all very typical JRPG stuff, and I think both the writing and voice acting in particular are sub par. None of that has grabbed me, which leaves me playing solely for the job system and combat. Those things are great, but I also get the impression that the game is a lot longer than I initially expected. I’ve been playing almost 30 hours, and get the sense that I’m not even halfway (I’m near the end of Chapter 3). If my gut is accurate, then Bravely Default may end up wearing me down well before it’s over. That would be a shame, because I have enjoyed it thus far. Finally, as parting thoughts, I think the game’s look is gorgeous, especially some of the town backdrops. It has a lovely art style, and it’s accompanied by a solid musical score. I’ll plan to keep plugging away at Bravely Default, and may share some additional, final thoughts once I’ve finished it.

Looking Ahead to March

Thanks to the way fiscal years work, March has slowly but surely become one of the biggest gaming months year after year. 2014 only strengthens this trend, with a flood of new releases coming out during the month of March. Among the avalanche, the main four I’m interested in are Dark Souls II, Titanfall, Infamous: Second Son and Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. Dark Souls II is the only one I’m desperate to play ASAP, and plan to pick it up on release (continuing my RPG trend). The rest I will get to as I can, which may or may not be in March. I also want to play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at some point, along with Skyrim’s second DLC, Dragonborn, but those are turning into more distant goals for the time being. For now, I’ll continue to chip away at Bravely Default, while bracing for gaming’s version of “March Madness."

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Monthly Roundup, January 2014

January turned out to be a pretty solid “catch up” month for me, which is not a bad way to start the year. I managed to polish off practically all of 2013’s overflow, played the lone new release I was interested in for the month, and even shaved a little off my backlog while I was at it. I feel it was a successful gaming month, and one where I have quite a bit to talk about. Two games I played but won’t talk about in detail (to save time and space) are Tearaway and Risk of Rain. Tearaway is absolutely as charming as everyone says, and put a constant smile on my face; I really enjoyed it. Risk of Rain is kind of neat (and has a killer soundtrack), but I ultimately have the same problems with its randomness that I do with similar games, which I’ve talked about at length before. I don’t feel a big need to say much more about either game than that, so let’s dive into the rest of it!

Path of Exile

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Diablo inspired RPGs, and yet I’ve found myself playing a fair number of them over the past few years; they can be decently fun time-wasters when played with friends. Path of Exile follows Diablo III and Torchlight II in this trend, and while I don’t think it’s the best game of the type, it has enough interesting ideas to be worth checking out. The best reason to check it out may be the fact that it’s 100% free, no strings attached. Anything you can spend money on in the game is purely cosmetic, with all gameplay relevant content open to everyone from the start; it’s a nice example of the model used positively. That said, Path of Exile doesn’t feel as polished as Torchlight II, which itself doesn’t feel nearly as polished as Diablo III. The combat feels less responsive, the general performance isn’t up to par, and the audiovisual presentation lacks both variety and punch. It’s all certainly playable, but it’s also impossible not to feel the rough edges by comparison, and I wonder if creating it for free gave the team less room to smooth over some of those edges. That may or may not be fair criticism of a legitimately free game, where its competitors are not, but it’s worth considering.

Path of Exile plays like you'd expect, with perhaps a little less polish.

Fundamentally though, Path of Exile is very much like the plethora of other games that attempt to chase Diablo’s addictive loot driven design. Path of Exile does its best to follow that mold, with the general action and progression adhering to the blueprint dutifully. The one area where Path of Exile attempts to leave its own mark is on the way it handles stats and skills. Every time you level up you earn a skill point that you can place in the game’s ridiculously large passive skill tree. The tree is reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, except that here it’s almost entirely passive stat buffs rather than active skills. Your active skills instead come from skill gems, items you find as drops or quest rewards that slot into your gear. I think both the passive and active skills are incredibly interesting in concept, but aren’t that exciting in practice. Just looking over the passive skill tree hints at a world of possibilities, and if you put in enough time it might be possible to come up with something really creative. But during a full playthrough of the game I primarily acquired static stat buffs that offer no change in functionality, such as increased dexterity or bow damage (I played an archer). These things make the numbers go up to make your character strictly more powerful, but otherwise don’t have any real impact. The active skills do give you different moves to use, such as fire or ice arrows in my case, but again I didn’t find there to be enough variety in functionality for any given character build. Most archer skills I found were just slightly more powerful versions of my basic attack, and I ended up only using two or three different skills during the entire game. All of this led to a game that didn’t see much change or evolution during the course of play, making it a more straight-forward and plain entry to the genre. For my money there are more polished and more ambitious games in this style, but perhaps the point is that Path of Exile doesn’t cost any money at all. It’s an impressive feat as a genuinely free game if nothing else, and if cost is your highest priority then you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than Path of Exile.

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

At its best, Dragon's Dogma can be really impressive.

Dragon’s Dogma is one of those games that, despite modest initial reviews, seems to have connected with people in a lasting, substantial way that’s kept them talking about it passionately well after its release. That made me think it’s probably a weirdly flawed gem that, love it or hate it, I should play for myself to see what it’s all about, which I did this past month (via the Dark Arisen version). The result? I think it’s a weirdly flawed gem, a game with plenty of ups and downs that is ultimately worth playing despite having its fair share of frustrations. Easily my favorite thing about it is that it makes you feel like you’re on an expedition in the truest sense of the word. There are plenty of games that value adventure, exploration or journey, but I can’t think of another game that embodies the particular nuances of an expedition (which itself can include those other aspects) quite like Dragon’s Dogma. You frequently gather up your loyal band of soldiers (called “pawns”) to set out on long treks with the explicit purpose of reaching some far off destination and/or slaying some giant creature. You rarely have any chance for rest along the way, and have to be mindful of all sorts of details. It’s the kind of game that makes you respect the need to carry and manage a well oiled lamp because it gets too dark at night to see without one. These kinds of details are abundant, and make the act of setting out on a quest feel daunting and involved in a way that games rarely do. That most of these quests are punctuated by some exhilarating fights against some large foes is a worthy payoff as well. It’s a big, oppressive world that requires you to pay attention, and you often have nothing more than your companions and your wit to help you survive.

Golems are virtually immune to magic, which meant I had to rely on my dumb pawns.

Those highs are surprisingly high, but Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t deliver them quite frequently or consistently enough, and a lot of the time in between is filled with needless tedium. For much of the game, and especially early on, this comes from fiddling in menus. Dragon’s Dogma has a lot of unintuitive systems that aren’t explained well (pawns, crafting, vocations, etc.), and you have to dig through layers and layers of menus to not only get a handle on it all, but to continually manage them throughout the game. This is on top of tons of item management, which I found to be a constant annoyance. For a game that excels at the grandiose, too much of my time was spent on menial tasks. Running errands around town, escort quests and “kill 20 goblins” style quests only serve to distract from the game’s strengths; I think Dragon’s Dogma would be much better served by cutting out a lot of that fat to focus on those expedition style quests it does so well. All of that said, even on those premier quests I did eventually find the combat and enemy variety to get tiresome. I played as a sorcerer, and after a while I wasn’t getting much enjoyment out of roasting my 100th goblin or wolf... though my pawns never got tired of telling me that they were weak to fire; those little chatterboxes never stop talking. Even the larger monsters got old after a while, but to be fair, some of my combat fatigue may have been due to my class. I almost never had a reason to climb on things, and combat was more about waiting for meters to fill up than engaging in any real action, which makes me think that other classes might be more exciting. Finally, while I did have an easy time nuking everything that got in my way through the vast majority of the game, I occasionally ran into these weird difficulty spikes. Basically, there are a few enemies that resist magic to the point where I was essentially useless. These fights required me to rely heavily on my pawns, which exposed their unreliable AI, and made those fights incredibly long and tedious.

I could go on about some other nitpicky things, but the main point is that Dragon’s Dogma is a weird game with a lot of weird issues (which can also make it kind of hard to talk about clearly and succinctly). Perhaps the single best word I can use to describe it is sloppy. Dragon’s Dogma has plenty of grand, ambitious ideas, and I think it tackles enough of them with enough gusto to be worth playing for anyone interested. But it’s also messy in a number of ways that make the overall game kind of frustrating, to the point where I’m not sure how much I actually like it. Either way, I’m glad I played it for myself, and if anything I would like to see a sequel that tries to smooth over the game’s many rough edges.

The Banner Saga

I’m really digging this resurgence of turn-based tactical RPGs, and the best part about it is that I feel like we’re seeing the genre expand and experiment more than ever. The Banner Saga is a great example of this, as it implements its own twist on the format by wrapping its turn-based battles in an interesting series of almost Oregon Trail-like events. As your group travels across this rough and desperate land, situations regularly pop up requiring you to make decisions that can have all sorts of effects. Through them you may engage in or avoid battles, raise or lower your morale and/or supplies (two resources that govern your performance both in and out of battle), or even impact which characters live or die. Those life and death situations aren’t particularly common, but they do highlight some of the game’s most dramatic moments. For the most part I really like the way you’re asked to make tough decisions, as it imparts an extra layer of gravitas to proceedings; it’s like adding The Walking Dead’s tough choices to Fire Emblem’s tough battles. On the flipside, the results of your decisions can sometimes feel a bit arbitrary. You rarely have any tangible information to base your decisions on, so you’re often making them blindly. That can sometimes be a little off-putting, and left me less invested in my choices than I could have been.

Battles in The Banner Saga are unique and interesting.

Otherwise, you spend most of your time in The Banner Saga fighting turn-based tactical battles, which also have their own twists. First, a unit’s health and strength are the same thing, meaning that it deals damage equal to its health. Thus, getting hurt reduces a unit’s damage output (similar to something like Advance Wars). Secondly, and more importantly, rather than have each side alternate moving all of their units at the same time, as is the genre norm, each side alternates moving a single unit at a time. This happens regardless of how many units each side has left (until one side only has one unit at least). These two subtle changes produce an interesting dynamic that took me a few battles to get used to. Namely, it’s much better to have a few healthy units than it is to have a large number of weaker units. Having less units means that each one moves more frequently, and weak units are more or less dead weight; you want as many of your moves as possible to be taken by strong, healthy units. This is also true for your opponent, however. It was initially counter-intuitive to me, but it’s better to leave weak enemy units alive rather than finish them off, as they will essentially become wasted turns for your opponent. All of this took some getting used to, but it ultimately produces an interesting battle system that requires a different way of thinking than most turn-based tactical games I’ve played. I don’t know that I like it better or worse, but it’s different in a refreshing way. That freshness extends to the game’s gorgeous art style, lovely music and grim story, which come together to create a gripping world I’m eager to see more of. The Banner Saga a wonderful turn-based tactical RPG in any number of ways, and one that fits into the genre nicely while also offering enough worthwhile twists to create an identity of its own.

Looking Ahead to February

February will likely be spent trying to polish off whatever games I can before March’s now annual end-of-fiscal-year-dump, which looks to be as big as ever in 2014. I’ve been dabbling with some competitive team building in Pokemon X/Y, which won’t get underway in earnest until the Pokemon Bank is up and running, but I’ve been able to lay some of the groundwork. I’ve also starting replaying Skyrim solely for the DLC/expansions, which I’ve never played before, and I have a few other backlog candidates that I might try to squeeze in during the month as well. Finally, there are two February releases than I’m genuinely interested in: Bravely Default and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. There’s a good chance I’ll dive into one or both of those during the month, but as always, no promises!

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Monthly Roundup, December 2013

I’m going to issue an apology and/or a warning up front: this month’s entry might be a little too ranty with regards to Super Mario 3D World. I apparently had a lot more to say about it and stronger feelings on it than I originally thought, and the words just kind of came out in a single uninterrupted stream. I thought about trying to edit it down after the fact, but if that’s how I feel about the game then I’ll let those words stand. Maybe it’s for the best.

In addition to Super Mario 3D World, I played a fair amount of Need for Speed Rivals in December, which is my latest failed attempt to find a driving game I like in a post Burnout Paradise world. I don’t have much to say about it other than “I hate evading cops in driving games with a burning passion.” I also played through Electronic Super Joy, which is an awesome platformer similar to something like Super Meat Boy, and played about half of Crush, which is a super rad PSP puzzle game. Both of those are great and totally worth checking out, but I won’t expound upon them here. Past that I finally gave Rogue Legacy a shot, and also played through EarthBound. You can find thoughts on those two games behind the Mario wall.

Super Mario 3D World

Super Mario 3D World, ironically, feels more 2D than 3D.

In the grand scheme of things, Mario is awesome. I rank a handful of Mario games among my all-time favorites, and I want to stress up front that I like Super Mario 3D World just fine in a general sense. The core of the game is pretty good; it controls well enough, the levels can be creative, and the game looks and sounds great while sporting that Mario charm. That clarification out of the way, I find myself personally disappointed with Super Mario 3D World in some ways that I will probably have a difficult time expressing. In fact, a lot of my feelings on it are rooted firmly in my history with the series, so maybe a brief recap is in order. I’ve played virtually every Mario platformer since the original Super Mario Bros., and have always felt that the series was striving to push the boundaries of what a platformer could do (even if there were a few speed bumps along the way). From Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario World to Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Galaxy I felt like the core Mario games were continuously getting better, while simultaneously raising the bar for the genre. Towards the end of that stretch the New Super Mario Bros. games came into play, and I felt like those were deliberate throwbacks that tried to cash in on many people’s nostalgia for the NES games, primarily Super Mario Bros. 3. These games proved incredibly popular, and Nintendo ran with them.

I have never cared for the New Super Mario Bros. games, as I feel like Mario moved past those 2D roots a long time ago for the better. It was fine as a one-off nostalgia trip or marginal sub-series, but as its own franchise it seems really limiting, and the idea of favoring that style in the face of something like Super Mario Galaxy is crazy to me. Yet, after Super Mario Galaxy 2 came out, that team famously transitioned to Super Mario 3D Land, which is, despite the term “3D” in the title, much closer to the 2D Mario games than it is to something like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy. Levels are more straightforward and less open, sporting layouts and obstacles that share a lot of design sensibilities with the 2D games. You also have a timer, you find suits that you carry between levels, and you jump on a flagpole at the end. There’s a weird 8-way run to the movement too, along with a dedicated run button, and the game replicates the “three gold coins per level” thing that the New Super Mario Bros. games introduced. It was, in Shigeru Miyamoto’s own words, a "3D Mario that plays as a 2D Mario game." Being the direct follow-up to Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World implements this same design philosophy. And while I felt this method was, again, a fine one-off experiment or handheld sub-series, I find the idea that this is now the flagship console Mario experience to be kind of a bummer.

3D Mario games controlled better over 15 years ago, on a shitty controller no less.

It’s not that any of those little details are game-breakers on their own, but when you add them up I find them bothersome. Why am I stuck with 8-way run in a fully 3D environment? Likewise, why do I need to hold down a run button when analog control over your movement speed worked so much better as far back as Super Mario 64? Why is there a timer, a frustratingly short one I might add, in a game that seemingly wants you to explore to find three hidden stars and a stamp in each level? That timer is the worst by far, as I frequently ran out of time as I scampered up walls in search of those silly collectibles that I never liked to begin with. It all makes for a less consistent Mario experience that simultaneously doesn’t even control as well as the series has before. Nor are the levels as big or as ambitious, or reward exploration nearly as much, instead sticking closer to the blander designs of the 2D games. All of this leads to my real problem with the whole situation, which is that it feels like the innovations of the real 3D Mario games of the past 15+ years are being ignored in favor of regressive 2D design. In other words, while Super Mario 3D World is a good 2D style Mario game, and would make a more than worthy replacement for the New Super Mario Bros. games, I think it’s a poor substitute for the previously excellent and ground-breaking 3D titles in the series. It’s not the direction I prefer to see the series go, and yet the release pattern of Mario games over the past three years suggests it is very much the direction the series is going. Maybe I’m wrong and a proper 3D Mario game is actually on its way, or maybe I’m just being unfairly critical of a game that’s not even that bad. Either way, Super Mario 3D World is not what I want from the Wii U’s premiere Mario game, and has left me feeling down on the current status of a franchise I’ve loved for a long time.

Rogue Legacy

Despite rarely actually liking games with many “roguelike” elements, I continue to give them a shot. I appreciated Spelunky and FTL for their interesting ideas, but found the act of playing them past the learning phase not to my liking. Rogue Legacy joins that group, and having done this rodeo enough times now I think I’ve developed a better understanding of what exactly it is that I do and don’t like about these kinds of games. The good, and what continues drawing me back in, is that (in these three examples at least) they can have gameplay mechanics that I find genuinely interesting. Rogue Legacy is no different; I think playing with a different character with different attributes each life is a cool idea, and I think the game has a neat upgrade system that carries over between lives, applying an intriguing sense of progression to death. One thing all of these games share is that they treat death as something you have to deal with and manage, an integral part of the experience rather than an annoying stumbling block that merely leads to reloading a checkpoint. In that sense, Rogue Legacy’s character progression might lend it the most interesting deaths among the bunch, and is perhaps my favorite thing about the game.

Rogue Legacy's high amounts of pure randomness eventually turned me off.

As for the “bad,” I’ve come to realize that I simply don’t like the high amount of pure randomness that is fundamental to their core design. With Spelunky it’s the level layouts and item drops, with FTL it’s the sequence of encounters and shops. While skill can certainly increase your chance of success, my progress in both games still depends highly on these random factors; it’s very possible to play well and still not have much of a chance. This always leads to a fair amount of beating your head against the wall until everything falls into place. You need a certain combination of skill and luck to succeed, and the particular mix of those aspects in these games takes too much of my fate out of my own hands, which ultimately serves to artificially lengthen the process. Rogue Legacy is similar, with its random level layouts, boss locations, and most importantly, the character classes you can choose from. There are many times where I simply want a specific class, but that class is not an option, which leads to many wasted runs where I know it’s virtually impossible to accomplish what I want. Not to mention that the dungeon layouts can be of varyingly difficult compositions. All of that randomness makes the game much more grindy than I’d like (on top of traditional grinding, which is also present in abundance), and I’ve come to understand that I tend to prefer more structure in these games (think Dark Souls). Rogue Legacy, like Spelunky and FTL before it, has an interesting set of systems and mechanics that I find fun to engage with up to the point where the game demands I grind and cross my fingers. I think I’ve reached that point with Rogue Legacy (I’ve beaten two bosses), and while I could continue bashing my head against that wall until it breaks, I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time.

EarthBound

Ignoring all the words I’ve already written above, the game I actually spent the most time playing in December was EarthBound, which I literally beat in the final three hours of 2013. I played at least a third of EarthBound about ten years ago, but never finished it for whatever reason. With its official release on the Wii U Virtual Console earlier this year, combined with my dedication to tackling my backlog in earnest in 2013 (now carrying into 2014), I figured this was as good a time as any to finally finish what I’ve always heard described as a classic.

EarthBound's a crazy game.

That said, upon beating it I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about EarthBound that hasn’t been said many, many times before. From a pure gameplay/combat standpoint it’s mostly classic 8 or 16-bit era JRPG stuff, which works well enough to get the job done, but also doesn’t do much for me on its own these days. I do think that the game’s pacing holds up surprisingly well, however. It keeps you moving from one place to the next before anything gets too old, which also services what I feel are the best parts of EarthBound: the world it creates, the characters and the writing. You’re constantly moving to wild new locations full of ridiculous characters who all say the darnedest things. It’s just a wacky and fun (and funny) world, and when I hear people say that EarthBound is their favorite game of all time, I’d imagine it’s for these reasons rather than for the serviceable but generic combat. Hell, I still find the game incredibly charming and endearing as a grown man playing it nearly 20 years after it was released. It’s not a stretch to envision someone playing this game during their nostalgia years and going on to think it’s the best thing ever made. Truth be told, that’s almost how I feel about Super Mario RPG. Deep down I know that Super Mario RPG is pretty standard JRPG combat wrapped in a weirdly charming and endearing world, but I played it at just the right age to enshrine it in an impervious shell of nostalgia as one the most incredible things ever. I can absolutely understand how someone could feel the same way about EarthBound, and if I had played it when I was a kid I might be such a person. Even as an adult I still had a lot of fun with it, and highly respect what it does. I get you EarthBound, and I salute you.

Looking Ahead to January

How better to kick off the new year than with more games!? As always I have plenty on my plate, starting with Path of Exile. Some friends and I played a few hours of that before Christmas, but lots of holiday travel derailed us over the past few weeks. Now that the holidays are over we should be getting back to it in earnest. Past that I already managed to start both Tearaway and Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen in the first few days of 2014, both of which I’ll continue to play. Risk of Rain (for better or worse) is the next game at the top of my list, and if I have time after that I’ll delve even further into the backlog. As for actual new January releases, The Banner Saga is the only one I’m really keeping an eye on. I think that could potentially be neat, but I also don’t know quite enough about it yet. Either way, I have more than enough games to play at the start of 2014, and play them I shall.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2013

As I continue gnashing my teeth trying to finalize my top 10 games of the year, I find myself reflecting on the great music that accompanied many of the year's best games. As an appreciator of not only quality music in video games, but also how a great soundtrack can enhance an otherwise good game, one of my favorite trends of recent years has been the influx of wonderful video game soundtracks. 2013 continues this trend, providing tons of great video game music, and I'd like to highlight some of my personal favorites. I've picked out 10 video game soundtracks that I particularly enjoyed this year, and then picked a standout track from each one to share below. I hope you enjoy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite video game music of the year!

Note: Games are ordered by release date, not by preference.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch - Field

Skulls of the Shogun - Shell

Fire Emblem: Awakening - Main Theme

Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien - Main Theme

The Swapper - Greenhouse

The Last of Us - Main Theme

Papers, Please - Main Theme

Pokemon X/Y - Route 15

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - Lorule Field

Tearaway - Gibbet Hill Pilgrimage

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Monthly Roundup, November 2013

The annual November deluge is now behind us: new consoles are out, and so are a ton of new games (on platforms both new and old). I’ve done my best to keep up with it all, but I can only do so much. I came out of the month with one of those consoles (a PlayStation 4) and a handful of new games, some of which I managed to play through. A chunk of The Wonderful 101 and the Dark Souls DLC (finally) compromised the first half of my month, and Resogun, Killzone: Shadow Fall and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds the second half. I don’t feel a need to talk more about Dark Souls (though I liked the DLC), and don’t have much to say about Killzone (it’s a Killzone game), but here are my thoughts on the rest.

The Wonderful 101

You do a lot of this for a long time in The Wonderful 101.

I played about a third of The Wonderful 101 in the first half of the month (I finished "Operation 003" out of 9 total), which took a surprisingly long time. I’ve spent at least six or seven hours with the game thus far, and if that pace holds firm for the rest of the game then that’s one lengthy action game. That could be a good or bad thing depending on your tastes and priorities, but for me in this particular case it’s become a downer. While I don’t think The Wonderful 101 is necessarily a bad game, I can’t say I’ve been having much fun with it, and I also find it to be a drag. The individual stages are very long and repetitive, and there’s precious little variety in both the enemies and your moveset. Even with all the different attacks you can “draw,” all the ones I’ve unlocked so far are functionally the same in a fight. In other words, they’re simply different tools for you to mash A with. The combat boils down to basic attack, dodge and block patterns, and while that standard template does its job competently, it also gets old fast against the same enemies ad nauseum. There’s a reason most action games are closer to 10 hours than 20, and that’s where The Wonderful 101 is losing me. It feels like it’s stretched way too thin for its own good, and I’ve already gotten bored only a third of the way through.

When The Wonderful 101 does manage to break out of the constant cycle of combat, I think it fares even worse. So far I’ve encountered a few terrible puzzles, some rote quick-time events, a bad platforming section or two, and one really awful on-rails chase sequence. The worst of these alternate scenarios are the indoor sections, which force you to play on the gamepad screen with gyroscope camera controls (gyroscope camera controls are quickly becoming one of my least favorite video game trends). Other than this glaring abomination, however, I haven’t had many issues with the game’s controls, despite all the brouhaha over them (I haven’t found the game too confusing or overwhelming either). I feel like I can attack, dodge and block as well as I need to, the only difference being that the game occasionally misinterprets the attack I’m trying to draw. It’s a slight encumbrance, but nothing game-breaking by any means, and these minor control issues pale in comparison to my larger issues with the game. Those issues are with its pacing and variety, those oft-overlooked critical ingredients that greatly influence how fun a game can be. Even The Wonderful 101’s vibrant look and energetic “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe hasn’t been able to liven it up for me, and I’m not sure exactly how much more of it I’ll play. I plan to give it at least one more solid shot before moving on for good, but I can’t promise how far I’ll get. I may write more if and when I play more, but that’s where things currently stand with The Wonderful 101.

Resogun

The first game I played on my PS4 was, naturally, Resogun. It’s an awesome little game that’s easily among the system’s best at launch (likely the best), and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t typically get into arcade shooters very much, as I’ve never been a “score chaser,” even if I often appreciate what those games do. Resogun makes a subtle but important change to that design: it offers a fun progression of levels across multiple difficulties. This allows me to focus on beating the levels and ramping up the difficulty for a stiffer challenge on successive playthroughs, rather than focusing purely on my score. That’s merely a personal preference of mine, but I do feel like it opens up the game to others like myself, and I would assume it still satisfies those who do like chasing top scores on leaderboards. Games like Geometry Wars or Pac-Man Championship Edition DX were arcade games that I really liked for their mechanics, but I didn’t play either one very long because I don’t care about high scores. Resogun fixes that issue for me.

Resogun rarely feels as cluttered as it looks.

I also really like the mechanics of Resogun. The side-scrolling shooting that forms its core is simple and fun, with smooth movement and three distinct playable ships (with different speeds and weapon capabilities) forming solid groundwork. Even better is the enemy variety. Each of the five levels has a vastly different set of enemies that require different approaches, which makes each level feel pretty distinct. This all culminates in a boss for each level, which ended up being my least favorite moments of the game. Their set patterns are just not as exciting or interesting as the hordes of other dynamic enemies that can fill up the screen. Those encounters definitely get tough at times, and potentially overwhelming, yet I rarely felt like the game was too cluttered. It does a surprisingly good job at presenting things clearly amidst the chaos, and I rarely found myself frustrated as a result. The one occasion I did have visual issues pertains to the “keepers,” specific enemies that guard the humans you’re supposed to try and save in each level. They’re identified by a light green glow, which can be hard to spot when things get busy. This is especially problematic for the special keepers that need to be killed in a specific order, but the saving grace is that you don’t actually have to save the humans to progress. Saving them mostly gives you extra points, and occasionally extra bombs or lives. Nice things to have, but not necessary; human lives are only worth so much, after all. Anyway, Resogun is pretty great. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, and think it’s a great arcade style shooter that could appeal to a lot of different people. It’s also a great freebie to have on my PS4 on day one, and if you have access to it I think it’s totally worth checking out.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

I remember this place! It's still super fun to explore too.

I managed to more or less blitz through The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds last week. Generally speaking, I consider The Legend of Zelda one of my favorite franchises, but the past few entries in the series haven’t really done much for me. Ever since Twilight Princess, each successive Zelda game has felt more restrictive and smaller in scope; the overworlds have gotten less ambitious, the side activities and secrets have gotten less exciting, and the amount of boring dialogue, fetch quests and other filler you have to put up with between dungeons have become a growing source of frustration. The dungeons themselves have remained excellent, and have kept the series at a certain level of quality regardless of whatever surrounds them. But as the years went on I found myself increasingly unimpressed with all of the shallow dressing around them. A Link Between Worlds, then, I can happily say is a return to form. Its overworld (pulled and “remixed” from A Link to the Past) is a joy to explore, full of exciting secrets and surprises that I had a blast discovering. Fetch quests are virtually non-existent, and the game spends hardly any time yapping at the player, instead content to let them go about their business with hardly any interruptions. A Link Between Worlds harkens back to the days where Zelda games simply dropped you into a world in peril, and let you set out on your quest. It doesn’t aim to guide you every step of the way, and the adventure is much richer for it.

A Link Between Worlds is visually impressive.

And yet, A Link Between Worlds doesn’t feel stuck in the past as much as you would think (and as much as I feared it might). First of all, this is a visually impressive game; easily the best looking top-down Zelda game to date, and I also think its controls are more responsive than they’ve ever been in the series (top-down or otherwise). Even more impressive is the soundtrack. Wind Waker has long held my favorite Zelda soundtrack, but A Link Between Worlds might give it a run for its money. Everything is beautifully orchestrated, and many of the rearranged pieces from A Link to the Past in particular are breathtaking (my heart skipped a beat the first time I heard the new Dark World theme). Furthermore, despite being “hands off,” the game is never as obtuse as, say, the original The Legend of Zelda. It does a smart job of communicating clearly through design and environmental cues in a way that’s simultaneously beneficial and unobtrusive. I felt that the past few Zelda games spent too much time spelling out every little detail to the player, almost as if they were afraid player wouldn’t “get it.” A Link Between Worlds more confidently and quietly guides the player, but guides them nonetheless. Finally, the game also experiments with the standard ways you acquire items and tackle dungeons. After only the first dungeon, most items become available to purchase, and the subsequent dungeons can be accessed in varying orders. This is most pronounced when you reach the Dark World, and all seven of its dungeons are immediately marked on your map. It’s a refreshing concession of agency to the player, and I loved being able to explore this world so freely.

All of this makes A Link Between Worlds the first Zelda game in a long time that I’ve found consistently fun to play. I don’t have to sit through awful reminder text or painful fetch quests just to get to the excellent dungeons. Those dungeons remains equally great (I haven’t talked about them much, but they are expertly designed as usual), and everything in between is just as good. The game looks to the series’ past, keeps a lot of the good while dropping most of the bad, and then updates and modernizes it in smart ways while managing to sprinkle in a few experimental twists of its own. A Link Between Worlds is not my favorite Zelda ever, but it’s easily my favorite in a long time, and has reinvigorated me on a beloved franchise I was starting to lose faith in.

Looking Ahead to December

I still have plenty of November games to catch up on, with Need for Speed Rivals, Super Mario 3D World and Tearaway topping my list. December (thankfully) rarely has big releases of its own, and generally ends up handling the excess from November’s annual gaming avalanche. This year is no different, and I haven’t given much thought to it past those November games. But if I have time I’d like to resume playing my backlog games, starting with Rogue Legacy, and also revisit the aforementioned The Wonderful 101. It’s anyone’s guess after that, but I plan to send off 2013 the way I know best: by playing lots of games.

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Monthly Roundup, October 2013

Life got a little busier than usual for me in October, but I still managed to squeeze some quality gaming time in. In addition to what I talk about below I also played 140, which is a cool but short game. There’s not a lot to say about it, but I did enjoy it (check out Patrick’s actually quick Quick Look if you’re curious what it is). Anyway, on to what I spent most of my gaming time on in October!

Jeanne d’Arc

Turns! Grids!

When I got my PlayStation Vita earlier this year, perhaps the primary deciding factor in the purchase was that I never owned a PlayStation Portable. There were a handful of PSP games I always wanted to play, and all (but one) of them are playable on a Vita, essentially making it a two-in-one handheld for me. Near the top of the PSP list was Jeanne d’Arc, which I finally got around to playing this month. I like that style of turn based tactics in general, and Jeanne d’Arc is certainly a very good one. At its core, it’s mostly comparable to things like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, but it also has some touches that give it an identity of its own. Most of those touches come from developer Level-5, whose fingerprints are all over this game. Similar to recent Dragon Quest games (or even the more recent Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to some extent), Jeanne d’Arc is a purer, more focused take on its genre. You don’t have anything like the wildly intricate class customization of a Final Fantasy Tactics, or the ambitiously large and intense battles of a Fire Emblem. Instead, it focuses on fewer, more well defined characters and smaller battles, while still managing to throw in a few simple customization options for good measure. Those options primarily come from a tried and true equippable skills system. Skills generally range from special attacks or spells to basic stat buffs, and there’s also the option to fuse two skills together into another one. It wouldn’t be a Level-5 game without what amounts to an “alchemy pot,” after all.

I find Level-5’s style to be both hit and miss in Jeanne d’Arc, much like I do in their other games. In many ways I really appreciate simple and focused game design, and think a lot of games would benefit from such an approach. At the same time, Level-5 likes to make a lot of long, grindy games (Jeanne d’Arc included), and I don’t know that their approach does much to benefit the grind. Most of the battles in Jeanne d’Arc follow a standard pattern, and that routine repeats for quite a while. More bluntly, I think the game could use a little something extra as the game goes on to make the constant battling a little more interesting (alternatively the game could have been a little shorter). That gripe aside, I personally enjoy the core of that routine more than enough to carry me through the game, and other aspects of the package do a fine job of supporting it. I find the game’s bizarre alternate history entertaining, and like the story overall. Parts of it can get a little too “anime” for my tastes, but I enjoy the main beats and the characters more than I probably should. Even better are the animated cut scenes, which are surprisingly frequent for a handheld game, and absolutely gorgeous. These touches are welcome, even if they aren’t the main reason to play Jeanne d’Arc. That reason is for its turn based tactical battles, which I think are good enough to make Jeanne d’Arc worth playing for anyone interested in the genre.

The Stanley Parable

"Choices!"

The Stanley Parable is a very, very silly thing. I spent a good few hours with it, and feel like I’ve seen most of the “endings” (all the ones I could find on my own at least), but I still don’t really know how I feel about it. I think the fact that the Internet is so weirdly militant about keeping it spoiler-free (I’ll avoid spoilers as well) speaks to just how reliant the game is on its jokes, meta-commentary and unpredictable left turns, which is also a big part of what makes the game so silly. It’s almost like a big in-joke made into a game, a stream of amusing commentary on modern game design expressed in the form of the very thing it’s commenting on. I don’t think that’s the worst idea in the world, and for the most part I think it does what it sets out to do, and has plenty of funny moments to boot. At the same time, I think the jokes miss plenty of times too, and a lot of them aren’t super original; if you’ve played a lot of games then you’ll likely have heard a lot of this before. Maybe not expressed in the form of a game with a narrator who has a sharp accent, but you’ve heard a lot of this somewhere. And if you haven’t played a lot of games, then you might not even get what The Stanley Parable is talking about to begin with. It’s a weird aspect to pin the hopes and ambitions of a game on, and truth be told I don’t know if I like it or not. It’s a game about games that doesn’t do much more than comment on games. In other words, as a game itself I don’t find it that interesting. Come for the jokes and the commentary with reasonable expectations and you’ll probably have a good enough time with The Stanley Parable, but I don’t think I got much more out of it than that.

Pokemon X/Y

When the month began I wasn’t sure if I was going to play Pokemon X/Y or not. I like Pokemon in a general sense (I consider the original Red/Blue among my all-time favorite games), but I’m not so into the series that I care to play every single release; call me a fair weather fan. Once it came out, however, Pokemon X/Y appeared to offer just enough improvements, and my slate was clean enough, that I decided to take the plunge. Overall X/Y is, like every game in the series, very much an iterative step forward, but it also might be one of the bigger steps forward in the ways I care about. The campaign itself is the same basic setup as always, and is still a big old grind; I think at this point it’s safe to say I don’t get much out of Pokemon campaigns anymore. But X/Y has implemented a few subtle refinements that smooth out the process just enough, such as giving you access to roller skates and a bike much earlier for quicker movement. Other things like inventory and Pokemon management seem snappier than ever, but most importantly is the new EXP Share, which almost seems broken. With it on, all the Pokemon in your party gain experience for every fight, whether they are used in battle or not. It makes leveling Pokemon super fast; I finished the game with my team around level 75, which is at least 20 levels higher than usual. It may be kind of broken, but I personally appreciate it. You can turn it off if you want to grind even more, but for people like me who have played a lot of Pokemon campaigns and primarily want to see the post-game stuff, it was nice to be able to power through a little more quickly.

Pokemans! (It looks really good!)

Now that I’m done with the campaign I’m looking forward to trying out some of the post-game activities in Pokemon X/Y, which in all honesty is why I got the game to begin with. I likely won’t dive back in for a little while (I need a Poke-break), but I’ve already gotten a slight taste of what’s perhaps X/Y’s biggest improvement: its online features. This is easily the most online focused Pokemon yet, with slick and easy ways to trade and battle with all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. I haven’t built a serious competitive team since the Diamond/Pearl days, but the prospect of online battling in X/Y has me wanting to suit up and make a new team. The desire to make a new team is further bolstered by Super Training, which seems like a more hassle-free method of EV training. For how fun competitive battling is I still think creating a competitive team is way more obtuse and time consuming than it should be, but X/Y does appear to be making that process slightly simpler, which is the right direction. Baby steps, right? As for the rest of the changes, I’m mostly indifferent. The new Pokemon seem cool enough, and the new Fairy type is probably worth having; Dragon did need a nerf. I do really like the new visuals, and this is far and away the best the series has ever looked. I do wish all the Pokemon were voiced like Pikachu, but again, baby steps. Finally, perhaps my biggest gripe with the game so far is actually a camera and control issue. Basically, I think 8-way movement with the circle pad is weird (why not full 360 degree motion?), and the camera is occasionally awful, most notably in Lumiose City. In fact, that whole city is just a mess. The city layout, the camera and the movement make me dread going there. Those gripes aside, however, I think Pokemon X/Y is a good Pokemon game, and probably one of the better ones in a while. It remains to be seen how much I get into the post-game content, but early prospects are positive. It may still be making baby steps, but at least it’s making the right baby steps.

Looking Ahead to November

Consoles!

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but new consoles are coming out! I’ve had a PlayStation 4 pre-ordered since they’ve been available, and I’m pretty excited about it. Regardless of what you think of the launch lineup, I’m still curious to check out some combination of Knack, Need for Speed: Rivals, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4. I haven’t settled on exactly which of those I’ll play, but I bet I’ll play at least one or two of them close to launch. And there’s always Resogun too. More than anything though, I’m just excited to finally have a promising new console up to modern standards. That said, the pair of November games I’m most excited for are, ironically, two Nintendo games that have nothing to do with new hardware. I think The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario 3D World are both looking really sharp right now. Oh, and Tearaway comes out too, maybe that will be cool? Anyway, November’s a busy month for games, but all of the new releases I’m interested in happen in the second half of the month. The only thing I know for sure I’ll play before then is The Wonderful 101, which I’ve already started. Otherwise I’ll probably take it fairly easy the next two weeks, which are the proverbial calm before the storm. Come November 15, things might get a little wild.

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Battling the Backlog

2013 is an exciting year for games, a year of change and transition. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are on their way out, the Nintendo Wii U and the PlayStation Vita are fighting to find their place in the market, smaller games (primarily indie games) continue to grow in quality and importance, Valve is bidding to take over the world with Steam Machines, and, of course, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches loom ever closer. And hey, that Nintendo 3DS thing isn’t doing too bad for itself either. Yet despite so much volatility, I feel like 2013 has been a relatively quiet year for new releases I’m interested in spending a lot of time on. Other than a weirdly crowded March, I haven’t been swamped with new games to play, which is traditional for such transition years. Many of the “big boys” are saving up for the new hardware due out at year’s end, after all. Therefore, early in the year I decided this was an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: take on my backlog.

Despite its length, I knew this was the year to finally tackle Persona 4.

You’re no doubt familiar with “the backlog,” that nebulous list of games that you never played but always intended to. There are enough good games coming out all the time (and not nearly enough time to play them all) that I would hazard a guess that many of us miss out on plenty of games we genuinely want to play. I’m no exception, and those games inevitably end up on my backlog. Despite my best efforts, leading up to 2013 the list had continually gotten bigger, reaching an impossible size of over 50 games strong (many of which are lengthy RPGs). In that state, it can quickly become a lost cause, or even worse, a burden. Was I really going to play all of these games someday? Or would the list sit there forever as I tried to fool myself into thinking that one day I’d suddenly come across immeasurable free time, only to let it weigh on me more and more as time went on? It’s a perfectly valid and viable stance to acknowledge that a backlog is never intended to be truly completed, and to be okay with it existing as a never-ending source of games to potentially play. As I stared down my beast of a list earlier this year, however, I decided that I personally wasn’t happy with that fate for these games, nor was I satisfied with the effect it had on my conscience. I wanted to take care of these games one way or another, and decided that 2013 would be a good time to attempt the challenge in earnest. Thus began a process that has turned out to be surprisingly and ruthlessly effective. What began as a list of over 50 games has been whittled down to less than 20 in under a year. My goal is to approach 0 within another year, and keep it there.

I consider the use of save states fair game for Mega Man 2.

There’s no secret to the process, but there are a number of takeaways that may prove interesting or worthwhile. First and foremost, the whole thing requires, as does any lengthy endeavor, a sufficient amount of dedication, patience and perseverance. It’s not something you can rush. The last thing anyone wants is to make playing games feel like a chore, but you also have to be committed enough to make sure the process keeps moving. It’s a fine line, but fortunately that hasn’t been a problem for me; I have enough passion for games to carry me a long way. Second, there are many minor efficiency things that can add up to help ease the process along. I think it’s generally better to prioritize playing shorter games first. It’s easier mentally to process the list if you can get the raw number down sooner rather than later (the site HowLongToBeat has been instrumental in this effort). I also find it helps to not be militant about getting the “full” or “pure” experience for every game. There’s nothing wrong with playing on a lower difficulty, skipping side quests or other optional activities, or looking for help online if you get stuck. The games on my backlog got there because of time constraints more than anything else, and many of them wouldn’t get played at all without cutting a few simple corners. That’s a compromise I feel is worth making, and it allows me to experience the core of what each game has to offer, and move on in a timely fashion.

It didn't take long to realize that Crysis wasn't for me, and not worth spending more time on.

Finally, and what was the toughest thing for me personally, was that I had to acknowledge early on that I won’t (and can’t) officially “beat” every game that originally made the list. While it’s tempting to decree that every game must be beaten, it also betrays the idea of a backlog. My backlog is not a list of games I should strive to beat, but rather a list of games I wanted to play at some point in time. Removing a game from the list simply means that I no longer want to play it, and there are any number of ways to reach that conclusion. The cleanest (and most common) is certainly beating the game, but I’ve also started plenty of games only to decide after an appropriate amount of time that I have no desire to continue. What’s more, I’ve removed some games before even playing them at all. It doesn’t do any good for me to hang onto the idea of playing a game that, over time, I’ve lost desire to play for whatever reason. An effective backlog (that is, one you can make use of and isn’t meant to sit there forever) needs to be constantly re-evaluated, which requires you to regularly have frank, honest discussions with yourself. This was a potential problem for me, as I’m traditionally very stubborn and don’t like to “give up” on things, so I’m hesitant to remove games without beating them first. Fortunately, I continue to get better at knowing when I’m cheating myself, which happens to work both ways: I know when I remove a game too hastily for the wrong reasons, and I also know when I’m keeping a game on the list for the wrong reasons. So far, that’s what makes this whole thing possible for me. Clearing out a backlog is as much about feeling good about what you’ve played and what you want to play as it is about beating some arbitrary list of games. I feel like I’ve been effectively bullish with the list so far, but also fair and honest with myself and what I want out of it.

Getting a Vita meant I could finally play Patapon.

That leads to perhaps the real question: what do I want out of this process? Why even bother with all of this mess in the first place? The short answer is the obvious one: I really like video games, and there are a lot of them I want to play. The longer answer would be a more introspective look at why I feel it’s worth going back and playing older games I originally missed at all. That reason varies from game to game, but there are a few common trends. Some games are revered “classics” I never played, such as Mega Man 2, Deus Ex and Persona 4. I find it really interesting to try and understand why such games are as well loved as they are, and often times I end up enjoying them myself. Some games are ones I originally wasn’t able to play due to lacking the proper hardware at the time, such as Jeanne d’Arc, Patapon and Sins of a Solar Empire. These are generally the easiest to manage, and since they were things I always wanted to play I usually enjoy them. Some games still are simple curiosities that I accumulated over the years (generally through sales or bundles), such as Mirror’s Edge, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, Metro 2033 and Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. They’re games I think might do something interesting, and I’m curious to see what they’re about, even if I don’t always care to invest too much time or money into them. By the numbers this is likely the largest group, and also the one with the largest spread of results. Some I like, some I don’t, but I usually at least come away with a new perspective on what kinds of games are out there.

The last common reason is also the one I’m primarily facing at this final, but daunting stage of the process. Some games are just really, really long (primarily RPGs), and despite wanting to play them I have never been able to reasonably make time for them. Since I prioritized playing shorter games on my backlog first (though I have played a few longer ones like The Witcher and Persona 4), most of what’s left falls into this group, such as Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Dragon’s Dogma. Moving forward from here will likely be the most grueling part of this entire process, as longer games require much more careful consideration and, of course, time. But move forward I shall; I will beat some of these games, I will start some of them and not finish them, and I will likely decide that some aren’t worth it before I even start. That is, after all, the modus operandi for fighting my backlog. It’s a fight I originally thought unwinnable, but given the right opportunity and months of unwavering dedication I find myself in a position to see this fight through. I have every intention of doing so, and look forward to the day when I can put my backlog to rest for good.

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Monthly Roundup, September 2013

I went pretty hard on the games in September. In addition to the games I talk about below, I essentially powered through at least half a dozen other shorter games that were cluttering up my backlog, such as LocoRoco, Mirror’s Edge and Runner 2, among others. It was nice to knock some things off the backlog, even if I don’t feel I have much profound to say about them. I did play a few bigger and/or newer releases though, which I do have some thoughts on.

Pikmin 3

It's still Pikmin, and it's still a lot of fun.

Pikmin 2 is a personal favorite of mine, and I’m happy to say that Pikmin 3, despite taking forever to come out, turned out to be every bit as good as its predecessor. First and foremost, Pikmin 3 oozes quality. In that classic Nintendo way, everything about the game is super polished. The levels are smartly designed with clever puzzles and interesting enemies, and the different Pikmin abilities, both old and new, are well thought out and mesh together nicely. There are some good interactions to be had, and the ways you’re encouraged to mix and match different Pikmin to get through the game’s various challenges allow for a lot of different permutations on the basic gameplay. In fact, that’s probably the game’s biggest strength; the way everything is paced and stays varied makes it consistently exciting, and I found it to be a constant joy to play. It never wears too thin or gets too repetitive, and I had a good time with it from start to finish. The game also has a gorgeous look to it, especially artistically (Nintendo has always made up for lackluster hardware with some of the best art design in the business), and the sound design is pretty charming too. I couldn’t help but smile when my Pikmin started humming the main theme.

One of the other things I’ve always really liked about Pikmin is that it’s the rare series that deals with time as a resource in a fun way (ironically, I write this a month after finishing Persona 4, another game with time management, albeit in a different way). I find a certain excitement in trying to squeeze the most out of every single day, and the addition of a third playable crew member to Pikmin 3 adds an extra layer of frenetic time and squad management to the process; I’d bet this game is ripe for speed runs. I’m sure there are some really creative strategies out there for getting through each day as efficiently as possible, which is pretty cool. I don’t necessarily think a lot of games would benefit from forcing you to worry about time, but when it’s done well in games like Pikmin 3 I dig it. In fact, the game on the whole is pretty rad. If we’re going to get down to it I still think I like Pikmin 2 a little better, as I think it commits to pushing its mechanics a tad farther. But in the most important ways Pikmin 3 is a great game that matches it blow for blow, and may even be the cleaner and more polished of the two. It’s also been so long between releases and the franchise is so unique when compared to everything else out there, that I’m simply happy to have the series back on the map. Pikmin 3 is a weird and unique mix of strategy, puzzles and action that’s executed incredibly well, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer if you own a Wii U.

System Shock 2

Continuing the war against my backlog (that’s turning out to be my theme for 2013, which I may write more on later), I managed to play through System Shock 2 this month. I played the recently released Steam version, and right out of the gate I was surprised at how well this 14 year old game still holds up today. Technically, I don’t know if anything has been done to the Steam version to clean it up, but it looks totally fine (if clearly old) and runs well. And it still holds up from a gameplay standpoint too. Probably the first thing I noticed on this front was Ken Levine’s fingerprints all over this game. Having played his more recent BioShock games, stuff like audio logs, wrenches, revival chambers and scavenging potato chips out of trash cans are among the weirdly specific staples of his games that were already in place in System Shock 2. More importantly, the flow and style of the levels and story feel very much like a Ken Levine game, and I ended up enjoying System Shock 2 for very similar reasons that I enjoyed those other games. The Von Braun is every bit as iconic and detailed a locale as Rapture or Columbia, and your journey through it every bit as memorable. Exploring all its nooks and crannies, and battling its wide array of foes, was a lot of fun, combining exploration and action in a way that still works well today.

Ken Levine likes his wrenches.

Having now played three of his games, I’ve also noticed a very clear trend from System Shock 2 to BioShock to BioShock Infinite. As time has gone on, each successive game has become more and more of a pure first person shooter (and the combat has gotten better). Earlier this year I thought that Infinite was more of a FPS than BioShock was, and now I’d say the same about BioShock compared to System Shock 2. System Shock 2 has a layer of RPG-like stats and upgrades that becomes less of a factor in the later games, lending it an almost Deus Ex vibe. I feel like how you choose to upgrade can drastically affect your play style, and there are all sorts of powers and weapons and items to fiddle with and manage. Some of this I felt could be a little tedious (mainly research and inventory management), but overall I welcomed this extra layer of things to engage with, and felt it worked really well; It kind of makes me wish the newer games had more of it. The other big difference between System Shock 2 and the newer games is difficulty. Straight up, each game has gotten easier. I played Infinite on hard and barely had any trouble, but System Shock 2 on normal could get pretty rough in spots. I think being forced to be careful about properly managing your gear is part of it, but I also think the games have simply gotten a lot more forgiving over time. You’re pretty squishy in System Shock 2. I’m totally fine with the difficulty though, and I’m glad I got around to finally playing this “classic.” I had a lot of fun with System Shock 2, and think it holds up well enough to still be very much worth playing.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers' puzzles and platforming never get very creative.

I’m just going to say it up-front: I think there are at least ten other games this year already that are better than Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Brad may be crazy, but he’s not totally off the mark with his professed love for Brothers, as it is a generally well made puzzle/adventure game that attempts to tell a touching story. I can understand the appreciation for it, even if I don’t necessarily share it myself. Mainly, I don’t think any of the puzzles are interesting at all. They’re all very basic puzzles you’ve seen before, and Brothers’ only real twist on them is that you control two different characters at once. It’s the kind of brain-bending control scheme that I thought made Schizoid sound kind of cool at the time, but Brothers is such a slow and measured game that the controls aren’t much of a factor one way or another. In fact, you could probably only move one character at a time for most of the game if you really wanted to. That leaves you with very basic block pushing, lever pulling, ledge climbing and simple “co-op” actions (done between the two characters you control) that have been standard in countless games before, and they never did much for me in Brothers.

Otherwise there’s the story of Brothers, which is arguably the reason to play it. Yet I felt the story was about as boilerplate as the puzzles; you can see where it’s going well before it gets there, and I didn’t find the delivery to be entirely nuanced either. It seemed to toggle back and forth between being overly ambivalent and trying too hard to leave a strong impression, and I don’t feel like it ever really struck the right tone. That said, I do really like the look of Brothers, and the fairy tale world it’s constructed is fantastically bizarre. It’s artistically beautiful, and as the game kept going the world kept getting weirder and weirder in a way that I could get behind. The main story beats may have been easy to see from miles away, but the details of the world itself kept surprising me, and that was easily my favorite aspect of the entire game. Otherwise I found Brothers to be fairly mundane.

Rayman Legends

I could have done without the Murfy levels, but Rayman Legends is otherwise a good time.

After considerable debate on which version to get (I ultimately went with the Wii U version), I also managed to squeeze Rayman Legends in this month, and like Rayman Origins before it I really liked it overall. I don’t get nearly as infatuated with the current Rayman games as some seem to, but they are charming, generally well made platformers, and I think Legends is a little better than Origins to boot. I think the levels on average are better designed, with a better difficulty curve, and there’s noticeably more content and variety. The craziest part may be that Legends straight up contains a lot of levels from Origins, which more or less makes Origins obsolete at this point. Perhaps the only thing I liked less about Legends compared to Origins were the “Murfy levels” when playing solo (I’ve heard they’re better in co-op, but unfortunately I wouldn’t know). I didn’t enjoy performing simple touch screen actions to ferry a questionable AI companion through levels one bit. I would have much rather just played them myself, and the few times when the AI would stubbornly jump to his death were incredibly frustrating. On the flip side, Legends almost makes up for this by adding in these pseudo rhythm based levels, which are wonderful. There are unfortunately only five of them in the main game (and the post game ones are merely abominations of the main ones), but those were some of my favorite levels in the entire game.

Past that, the only other thing of note I have to say about Rayman Legends, which applies to Origins as well, is that while these games are solid platformers overall I don’t think the movement in them feels as good as I’d like. There’s something a little too rambunctious and slippery about the way Rayman moves. which makes simply maneuvering through various situations (usually ones that require quick changes of speed and/or direction) feel a little sloppy. The game never gets too hard though, or present too many of those situations that it becomes a huge problem, but as a fan of tightly controlled platformers it stood out. Super Meat Boy this is not: its challenges aren’t as tough, but its controls also aren’t as responsive. But I digress, Rayman Legends is still a worthy 2D platformer, movement issues and Murfy levels aside. It’s totally worth checking out for fans of the genre, especially if you can play it co-op.

Looking Ahead to October

I don’t really know what to make of October at the moment. There are a handful of new releases I’m keeping an eye on, such as Beyond: Two Souls, Pokemon X/Y and a pair of Batman games, but I don’t really know what to expect from any of them. As such, I’m taking a “wait and see” approach for now, and don’t know which (if any) of those games I’ll end up playing. So for the time being I’ll continue to assault my backlog, which at the moment means playing Jeanne d’Arc. I also do want to play The Wonderful 101 at some point, I’m just not sure when. That’s a tentative outlook for the month; October will happen, and one way or another games will be played.

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