Monthly Roundup, July 2014

To be honest, I didn't have a lot of time for video games this July, especially not single player games. School was very busy, and the vast majority of those precious free hours I had for video games were spent on multiplayer endeavors. Primarily, that time was spent on Pokemon X/Y. A friend recently took the plunge, and as he built his own team I found myself eager to build another team myself. That team is now complete, and I’ve played with it a handful of times. I’m happy with the result too; it plays very differently from my previous teams, and I feel like it’s forcing me to become a better Pokemon player as a result. Anyway, I won’t dive any further down the Pokemon rabbit hole. I’ve talked about Pokemon plenty before, and don’t have anything to add past “Pokemon still has its hooks in me, and is still fun”. Other than Pokemon I played a pair of local multiplayer games this month, Nidhogg and TowerFall: Ascension, and a lone single player game, Valdis Story: Abyssal City. Below are some thoughts on those three games.

Nidhogg

Have at you!

Nidhogg is great. Can I just drop the mic here? The Giant Bomb crew seemed to have a lot of fun with the game on their videos, and to my delight, I’ve had just as much fun with it myself. I’ve only played a dozen or so games of it at this point, but I really dig the simple, fast-paced action. The concept is great in its simplicity, and the back and forth nature of it can produce some tense, exciting matches. There’s also a surprising amount of nuance to the game that give it some depth, and there’s definitely room to develop some real skill. Managing the different sword heights to poke at your opponent’s defenses, knowing when to roll or jump, and looking to catch your opponent off guard with a timely sword throw offer plenty of options, and the interplay between those mechanics works really well. Pulling off the right move at the right time is what it’s all about, which incites a healthy dose of mind games between the two players as well. The four levels also play very differently from each other (screw the clouds), and I really dig the game’s look and sound. The presentation is pretty simple, but it’s effective, which is more or less a summary of the entire game. Some of the best games ever made have taken simple ideas and gotten a lot of mileage out of them, and that’s true of Nidhogg as well. It does a lot with some very simple, yet strong ideas, and it all manages to come together to be a whole lot of fun. In fact, it’s probably about as much fun as I’ve had with either a two player or a local multiplayer game in a good while, and I look forward to playing more of it.

TowerFall: Ascension

The Ouya’s sole game of note made its way to other platforms this year (making the Ouya even more of a worthless item), and has quickly made the rounds by becoming one of July’s free PlayStation Plus games. I was quick to add TowerFall: Ascension to my catalog afterwards, and have had some fun with it. It’s not my favorite local multiplayer experience (I’d take Nidhogg over it in a heartbeat for starters), but it’s not a bad time by any stretch. Hopping around these small maps, trying to peg an opponent with an arrow while dodging theirs works well enough, and those simple mechanics can create some pretty amusing scenarios at times. Being able to jump on each others’ heads for a kill is a great touch, as is the ability to kill yourself with your own arrows. Despite not having played it a ton, I’ve seen some pretty hectic situations spawn out of these mechanics, resulting in some hilarious deaths. The dodge move is probably the game’s best feature, however, which not only keeps you alive, but can also be used to catch arrows out of the air. Arrow management is a big part of TowerFall, and if you can perform a well-timed dodge to nab them out of the air, you’re a step ahead already. That makes dodging useful on multiple fronts, and it’s almost certainly the game’s most skillful maneuver to boot.

I think better movement and controls would do a lot for TowerFall.

Where TowerFall falls short for me is in its movement, controls and longevity. Put bluntly, the platforming doesn’t feel very sharp to me; there’s a combination of floatiness and stickiness that makes it hard for me to move how I feel like I need to. On top of that, you can only fire arrows in the direction you are moving, as both your movement and aiming are tied to the left thumbstick simultaneously. Without getting too deep into armchair design, I think it would feel a lot better and allow for a lot more precision if these actions were split up, with your aiming on the right thumbstick instead. As it stands I feel like a bumbling fool who’s fighting the controls most of the time (even when I’m successful), and I would prefer to feel like the game supported careful/skillful play more readily. Finally, when it comes down to it, it simply feels like I’ve gotten my fill of TowerFall after a mere handful of matches. The different levels and goofy powerups do nothing for me to extend its life, and the core combat isn’t quite satisfying enough to keep me hooked for long. Still, it’s worth checking out for a handful of matches if you have people to play with. Especially if you’re getting it for free.

Valdis Story: Abyssal City

Valdis Story: Abyssal City was the lone single player game I played in July, and is a game I’ve had an eye on since it came out. I didn’t really know what to expect, as not many people seem to have played it, but it looked neat. After playing it for myself, part of me still doesn’t know what to make of it. While there’s plenty to like about the game, I also think there’s a few stumbling blocks, the most immediate of which are the technical issues I had right off the bat. Regardless of whether I tried playing with a controller or keyboard, the game was laggy to the point of being unplayable. I was almost ready to give up entirely before figuring it out (which wasn’t intuitive at all), and after that it was fine. From there, the game became a somewhat standard 2D action/adventure game. The closest points of reference I can think of are the numerous post Symphony of the Night 2D Castlevania games. You explore a fairly large world while fighting monsters, the world is gated by items and/or abilities you find periodically (usually from beating bosses), and you level up and acquire new equipment throughout. I will add the caveat that the equipment played a fairly minor role, to the point where I wonder if it should have been in the game at all, but it was there.

The boss fights are easily my favorite part of Valdis Story.

All of that played out pretty well for the most part, with the highlight easily being the boss battles. Valdis Story has a lot of bosses, and I think the game does a really good job at making most of them unique. There are certainly some traditional pattern bosses in the mix, but most of the bosses have at least one additional quirk that you have to consider while fighting them. Every boss feels pretty distinct as a result, and I generally enjoyed the process of figuring each one out. The combat itself is more of a mixed bag, however. I like the game’s quick dodge move, and some of the magic spells are neat, but otherwise I don’t think it controls quite as smoothly as comparable games. There also aren’t that many moves in the game overall, and I found myself repeating the same basic combo for the game’s duration. By far the worst part about the combat though, and also my least favorite thing about the entire game, is the knockback your character suffers upon taking a hit. There are many spots in the game where you can easily get juggled around due to the knockback, without any way to get out on your own, and this becomes way more prevalent as the game nears its conclusion. As more things fill the screen later in the game, this becomes a constant source of frustration, and not in a good way. In fact, one particular pair of stationary spikes in one of the final areas are placed so perfectly that hitting either one causes you to bounce back and forth between them until you die, regardless of how much health you have. Pretty lame.

Finally, I really dig the look and sound of Valdis Story. The artwork is super colorful, and the different areas all have wildly different looks that are all equally thematic; the game has style. It can get a little too self serious at times, I found the character I played as (Wyatt) to be wholly unlikable, and I think the story is a bunch of nonsense, but the game has style nonetheless. That’s especially apparent in the soundtrack, which I like quite a lot. It hits a lot of different tones to fit all the different areas, and the music really does a lot to bring the world to life. It also gets appropriately intense during boss fights, further helping them stand out as the highlight of the game for me. At any rate, that’s Valdis Story. I enjoyed my time with it, even if there were frustrations, and anyone who generally likes 2D action/adventure games would probably find something to like here too.

Looking Ahead to August

Fortunately, August shouldn’t be as devoid of gaming time as July was. As of the start of the month I have a short break before classes resume, and I’m going to use that time to catch up on as many games as I can fit in. I’ve already started XCOM: Enemy Within, and Shovel Knight and Child of Light follow it at the top of my list. I think I should be able to do some damage to all three over the next two weeks. We’ll see where I am after that, but I have plenty more ideas if time allows, as always. August is also the final summer month (in gaming terms), so there remain no new releases that I’m super interested in for the month (though Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney remains a mild curiosity). That means I’m able to simply continue catching up on games I’ve missed. And with that, I’m off to indulge in some much needed gaming time!

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Monthly Roundup, June 2014

June turned out to be a pretty leisurely gaming month for me, at least until the final week, as I’ve reached a point where I’m happy with my backlog. While there are always more games I would like to play, I’ve covered the ones I feel strongly about at this point. As such, I’m able to poke and prod at whatever I feel like playing without any time pressure attached. This month, that resulted in me replaying a pair of short handheld favorites: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. I hadn’t touched either since playing them upon their initial release, and revisiting them was a fun reminder of why I liked them to begin with. If possible, I’d like to do more of that in the future. I also played Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale, which is a very short, but super charming game that celebrates the joys of childhood. It put a constant smile on my face :) The rest of what I played in June can be found in more detail below.

Mario Kart 8

I’ve played almost every Mario Kart game in existence (all but Super Circuit and Mario Kart 7), and while I don’t exactly consider myself a big “fan” of the series, I tend to have fun every time I jump in (Mario Kart 64 being the only dud, but that’s another story). I feel that’s probably true of a fair number of people; in my experience Mario Kart is a franchise that readily lends itself to having a good time without fostering much hardcore loyalty, so to speak. Mario Kart 8, then, follows in the series’ footsteps dutifully, and after skipping Mario Kart 7 I was ready and willing to get back to some karting action. It certainly helps matters that Mario Kart 8 is the best looking, best playing, and most online capable Mario Kart yet.

Totally Mario Kart.

For me it’s that online component that’s most important, and helps set Mario Kart 8 apart from the rest of the series, especially in 2014. I don’t necessarily cotton to the “Mario Kart Alpha Theory”, which states that everyone’s favorite Mario Kart game is their first one. I think it’s more likely that most people’s favorite Mario Kart game is the one they were most easily able to play with a group of local friends. Mario Kart is an inherently social game, and often times there’s that one Mario Kart that came out at just the right time to facilitate that, whether it was you first Kart or not. Super Mario Kart was my first, but I played a lot more Double Dash!! than any of them thanks to where I was at in life, with plenty of friends around to play with. Hence, Double Dash!! is my favorite. Nowadays, however, my friends and I are ostensibly grown-ups, and local Mario Kart play is much less feasible. Mario Kart 8 still offers local play for those who can support it, but also has a robust selection of online modes for the rest of us. Being able to view the series as something more than a local party game opens up a lot more possibilities, and even if Mario Kart 8 doesn’t necessarily do more than cover the online basics, it still does those basics well (much better than previous online Mario Karts I’ve played). Nintendo is only recently starting to embrace online play, and being able to effectively race with friends who live far away is enough for now. Though maybe next time they can develop proper party and voice chat features for their consoles...

The new tracks are fast and furious, and might be among the series' best.

As for the game itself, it’s more or less a bigger, better version of the Mario Kart we’ve always known. The most obvious improvement is the visuals; we’re still in the process of seeing Nintendo’s franchises transition to HD, and the results remain great. The kart handling also continues to be refined, and if it’s only marginally improved from what I remember it feeling like in Mario Kart Wii, it still feels better than it ever has before. Power-sliding just feels right to me in Mario Kart 8, and the game’s well designed tracks give you all sorts of opportunities to exercise those sliding skills. In fact, with their rapid successions of curves, jumps, and anti-gravity sections, the new courses in Mario Kart 8 might be the busiest and most intense in the series. Toss in tricks, and how quickly you’re punished for going off the road, and this is almost certainly the most skill based Mario Kart game yet, which I’m in favor of. That’s not to say an unlucky blue shell still can’t ruin your day; in fact, the AI can feel downright ruthless with their items sometimes. But I feel that the actual racing mechanics and new courses reward clean driving more than ever. Nothing here is a revolution, but these gameplay tweaks, along with the addition of online play, have me enjoying Mario Kart 8 quite a lot. Who knows, given enough time it could even overtake Double Dash!! for top honors.

Patapon 2

I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about Patapon 2 specifically, as I only played it for a few hours. Rather, I have some more general thoughts on Patapon as a concept and a franchise. After playing through the entirety of the first Patapon last summer, and now enough of the second to know I don’t want to play any more of it, this series that I expected to really like has turned out to be something I find pretty middling. The idea of a weird rhythm/strategy mix sounds cool, and Patapon has the aesthetic and charm to pull me in. Seeing it in action was one of the main things that always made me wish I had a PlayStation Portable, and it was at the top of my PSP list that pushed me to get a PlayStation Vita in the first place. Sadly, that long standing desire to play the series only serves to make my failed appreciation of it that much more disheartening.

Executing the same handful of commands eventually gets old.

That said, I don’t hate Patapon by any stretch. I stuck with the first game through to the end after all, and some parts of the series I still like just fine. Primarily, I really like the rhythm aspect of the core gameplay. Issuing commands in rhythm is regularly mesmerizing, and it gives the battles a certain beat that’s easy to get sucked into. The music is also hella catchy (even if there’s not enough of it), and the entire look and feel of the series is quirky and endearing in all the right ways. But most everything else about the the games’ flow doesn’t sit that well with me. While the basic rhythm of the combat is good at its core, there isn’t nearly enough variety to stretch it out as long as they attempt to. Between the games, I’ve seen a total of five or six commands at most, and a similar amount of unit types. Having to input those handful of commands (which take mere seconds to execute) for those handful of unit types (none of which you have direct, individual control over) for a dozen hours or more wears way too thin, way too fast. It didn’t take long to realize that while the core idea is cool, it was going to need something a little extra to make it hold up over the long haul. Some way to continually augment your functionality could have gone a long way to give Patapon some much needed legs.

Instead, Patapon tries to stretch itself out in a much more direct, and ultimately duller way. Namely, the games add a thin layer of RPG ideas to proceedings, encouraging you to grind for money and materials to improve the status of your troops. While that’s a fine thing to have in a game, it’s not sufficient to keep a game interesting for long all by itself. Simply improving your stats does nothing to alter functionality, meaning the actual gameplay doesn’t change; the numbers are merely getting bigger. Furthermore, Patapon’s difficulty curve is very uneven, to the point where I frequently feel I need better gear and/or stats to advance. This implies grinding, which I don’t think is the best thing you can implement for a rhythm game, especially in one with such a small set of commands and music. All of this came together to create a situation where I felt like I had to spend the bulk of my time replaying levels and fiddling in menus, all to make the numbers go up without changing the actual gameplay experience. In other words, it made the game feel busy and bloated without really doing much at all. Patapon somehow manages to do very little with what seems like a lot; I personally prefer it when games can do a lot with very little. As such, all that stretched out busywork eventually weighed me down, and while I managed to see the first game through to the end, once I realized Patapon 2 wasn’t going to allay my grievances I decided it wasn’t worth it. I still think Patapon is a cool idea in general, but it needs to be a tighter game for me to enjoy it at any reasonable length.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Starting Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together at roughly the same time as Patapon 2 turned out to be, ironically, a weirdly parallel experience in some ways. Like Patapon, Tactics Ogre is one of the PSP games that drove me to get a Vita. And also like Patapon, Tactics Ogre demands a certain amount of grinding, and a lot of fiddling in (poorly designed) menus to set up gameplay that ultimately doesn’t change that much during the course of what’s a very lengthy game. The big difference is that Tactics Ogre’s core gameplay is much more intricate than Patapon’s, and better lends itself to a long game. I’ve always inherently enjoyed turn based tactical RPGs, and that appreciation carries over to Tactics Ogre. As of now I would guess I’m just over halfway, and while it’s a slow burn in some respects, I would like to eventually see Tactics Ogre through to its conclusion.

Tactics Ogre is a solid tactical RPG. No more, no less.

As for the actual gameplay of Tactics Ogre, while I certainly enjoy it overall, I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite tactical RPGs. The maps and scenarios aren’t as ambitious and strategic as Fire Emblem’s, the unit customization isn’t nearly as robust as Final Fantasy Tactics’, and the balance between the battles and “meta game” isn’t nearly as fine as XCOM’s (it’s weighed much more towards the “meta game” here, which is not my preferred balance). There’s a bit of a sense of “going through the motions”, without an added spark to stand out on its own. In some ways, that makes sense; this is a remake of a game that preceded, and from my understanding inspired the original Final Fantasy Tactics (to which it bears the closest resemblance among games I’ve played). And to be fair, the core of Tactics Ogre holds up well enough in 2014, but I still would enjoy the game more if it could somehow separate itself from the pack. As it stands, it’s purely my general appreciation of the genre that’s carrying me though. Maneuvering a group of varied troops around a battlefield in turn-based fashion has always held a strange appeal to me, and Tactics Ogre hits those beats well. It also helps that it boasts some sharp writing (even if the overarching story is kind of nonsense), and there are even some branching story paths. I have no idea how big of a difference the choices you make have on the game in the end, but I feel like that’s something the game could have potentially leveraged a little more to help stand out. The choices I’ve made have been interesting, but there haven’t been enough of them. Otherwise, I don’t really know what else to say about Tactics Ogre, weirdly enough. It’s a large, complex and time-consuming tactical RPG that nonetheless hits all the beats you would expect, which leaves me at a loss of unique, interesting things to say. I am enjoying it and plan to see it through, after which it’s possible I’ll have more to say about it. We’ll see.

Looking Ahead to July

As I alluded to in my opening sentence, the final week of June got real busy, real fast. School has finally started in earnest, and the first week gave me a good idea of just how busy these next ten months are going to be; it’s a pretty intense program. As such, I’m not really sure exactly how much gaming time I’ll have going forward, but the good news is that there aren’t a lot of games coming out in the near future either. In fact, I can’t think of a single game announced for release in July that interests me. That leaves me to continue working on Tactics Ogre, and to try and squeeze in as many other games as I can before the always packed Fall. I’ve just started Valdis Story: Abyssal City (a curiosity I picked up in the Steam sale), and Child of Light follows it at the top of my list. I have plenty of other ideas if time allows, but for now I’m keeping it simple, and we’ll see how it goes!

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Monthly Roundup, May 2014

Things got a little “western” this May. Despite beginning with a few weeks off before school started, I didn’t have as much pure gaming time as you might think during that first half of the month, and a lot of that time was pretty scattershot. As a result, I ended up playing a small amount of a large number of “little” games that I’ve managed to acquire over the years: Super Stardust HD, Velocity Ultra, Everyday Shooter, Critter Crunch, Bit.Trip Saga, Super Hexagon, Dear Esther and Proteus were all played to some degree. Most of these I didn’t like enough to dive further into (the exceptions being Super Stardust HD and Velocity Ultra), and none of them are elaborate enough where I have much interesting to say; at least not without making this overly long entry even longer. One bigger game I also won’t elaborate on is the original Advance Wars. Despite being one of my favorite video game franchises (hence my avatar), I had never played the original, so when it recently came to the Wii U Virtual Console I couldn’t resist. That said, assuming you know anything about the series, the only thing I can say about the original is “It’s Advance Wars, and it’s awesome”. At any rate, I did actually play some games in May worth talking about, and those can be found below.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dawnguard and Dragonborn

I played the crap out of Skyrim when it first came out in 2011; I’m talking “over 100 hours and got all the Xbox 360 achievements” levels of playing. Then after I finished, I didn’t feel like touching anything related to Skyrim for a long, long time. I always assumed that I’d eventually get around to the game’s well received DLC, but I didn’t think it would take this long for my Skyrim hangover to pass, and yet here we are. I actually picked up the full “Legendary Edition” in a Steam sale, as it was ironically much cheaper than buying just the DLC on the Xbox 360. This led to me starting a brand new character on a better looking platform, which set the stage for a clean return to Skyrim: I played through Dawnguard in February, and wrapped up Dragonborn this past month.

Skyrim's DLC is, well, more Skyrim.

The return came with mixed feelings, however, as I’ve found over time that Bethesda’s style of open world game has diminishing returns for me. Oblivion was the first game of theirs that I really dug into, and I loved it. I’ve subsequently enjoyed Fallout 3 and Skyrim, but the more I play them the more the magic wears off. Bethesda remains unparalleled at making big, interesting worlds full of stuff, and I think Skyrim is easily their densest and most polished effort yet. But much of that stuff remains very thin and insubstantial when taken on its own merits; the enjoyment comes from simply having something to do in such a large and expansive world. Returning for the DLC has made this even clearer to me, as I frequently found tedium within the game’s various tasks. Many quests boil down to generic fetch quests or dungeon crawls, which don’t have enough variety or engaging enemies to support the game’s simple combat for dozens of hours. The storytelling and writing can also frequently be sophomoric, often needlessly conjuring another silly MacGuffin to seek out. Perhaps worst of all is the crafting. I naturally want to make statistically better gear, but I’ll be damned if I ever waste time crafting another iron dagger ever again. Granted, all of this is true of a lot of games, but perhaps it stands out in Skyrim because there’s so much of it.

I found all of this to be at its worst in Dragonborn, which to me is the weaker of the two DLCs. The primary questline boils down to a mundane “There’s a bad guy doing bad things so we need to kill him”, and along the way you experience the full suite of generic Skyrim quest types. Dragonborn does add a new island to explore, but I don’t feel like it added anything worthwhile to the already enormous landmass found within vanilla Skyrim. In short, it feels like more Skyrim where more Skyrim is not needed. Dawnguard is largely the same, but I feel its primary questline is one of the better ones in the entire game. The characters involved are more interesting, with more developed motivations and personalities (relatively speaking), and the writing and plot are slightly more nuanced than average. The quest structure still suffers from the same old problems, but I found the context to be more engaging, and one of the locations you visit is visually really impressive. At any rate, despite all the griping, I did have fun revisiting Skyrim’s world on the whole, but the aftertaste has me wondering how much more of Bethesda’s style of game I really want to partake in in the future. Something to consider before the inevitable Fallout 4 drops.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea

Irrational doesn't want you to forget these guys.

I’m not going to say too much about BioShock Infinite’s premier DLC, Burial at Sea, as it’s an easy one to spoil, and the narrative is the only good reason to play it. I also don’t need to say a lot to get my points across, because everything other than the narrative is the same BioShock Infinite you’ve likely already played. The combat (especially in Episode 1) remains pretty dull for the most part, though Episode 2 freshens it up a bit with some fairly neat stealth ideas. But when it comes down to it, Burial at Sea is all about giving the “BioShock” franchise a proper sendoff from the now defunct Irrational Games. To be honest, when I originally heard this DLC was going to send Booker and Elizabeth to Rapture, I thought it sounded more like a cheap marketing tactic than a legitimately interesting narrative hook. And through Episode 1 I was proven right, as the episode is nothing but BioShock Infinite’s combat in the original BioShock’s setting, doing little more than saying “Hey, remember this place?” I found that first episode an extremely boring waste of time, and was feeling pretty down on the DLC upon its conclusion. But to my surprise, Episode 2 does a complete turnaround. I won’t say it redeems Episode 1, but Episode 2 goes to great lengths to justify the return to Rapture. While it’s by no means perfect, and is still plenty pandering, it connects the two games in interesting and profound ways that had me wanting to see where it went each step of the way. I was satisfied with how it all eventually wrapped up, and even if Burial at Sea showcases two wildly different halves, I think it’s ultimately worth seeing through for fans of the series.

Transistor

Part of me wanted to write about Transistor purely on its own terms, but it quickly became clear that I couldn’t avoid making comparisons to Supergiant Games’ previous work, Bastion. Despite being a mere two games old, that team has already established its own clear style that’s very much present in both of their games, and so far it’s a style I’m really liking. I consider Bastion an all-time favorite, and even if I don’t like Transistor quite as much as its predecessor, it still executes on a number of incredibly interesting ideas and mechanics in ways that connect with me more than most games. Much of what Bastion did so well is replicated in Transistor: this is a super crisp action game that smartly incorporates well considered RPG elements, and wraps it all in a slick presentation and a whole lot of heart. Chances are if you like one, you’ll like the other.

Transistor's turn mode makes the combat much more tactical.

There are plenty of subtle differences between the two games though, many of them found in the way combat works. While you can play Transistor purely as a real-time action game, you also have the ability to pause combat at any time and queue up a series of moves; think of something like Fallout 3’s VATS system. It lends an interesting tactical nature to the combat, and it feels a little more natural than the real-time action, which isn’t as smooth or responsive as it was in Bastion. Ultimately, however, which way you choose to fight seems most dependent on what skills -- or as the game calls them, functions -- you are using. Each of the game’s sixteen functions does something drastically different, and I think the game’s coolest aspect is how you’re able to combine said functions in a myriad of ways. Each one has three different ways it can be used: It can be an “active” function that you use in combat, it can be used to augment an active function with an additional property, or it can be equipped as a passive function to provide some sort of boost. The sheer number of builds you can create with this template is pretty mind-boggling, and I had a ton of fun just experimenting with it all. It’s especially great because each of the functions provides radically different functionality, and I think that variety is one of the best staples of Supergiant’s games so far. Most games are content to just raise the stats on your weapons and call it a day, but Bastion and Transistor go to great lengths to make sure every new thing you get is a markedly different and unique addition. This philosophy is also applied to the enemy designs, and the result is much more dynamic combat that evolves as you play past things simply becoming numerically stronger. This approach combined with the extreme levels of customization made Transistor a game I found highly engaging from beginning to end.

Transistor is a gorgeous game.

Past the great combat, Transistor looks and sound absolutely incredible, much like Bastion did. I think there’s a slight trade-off here though. For as good as Transistor’s soundtrack is, I don’t think it’s as consistently excellent as Bastion’s. Many of the instrumental tracks seem to lack a soul of their own, mostly blending into the background. The handful of vocal tracks are really something, however. I feel like they form the thematic and emotional center of the entire game, and I like them much better than Bastion’s vocal tracks (which were already amazing). On the other hand, while Bastion was no visual slouch, I think Transistor looks leaps and bounds better. In fact, from an artistic standpoint I genuinely think Transistor is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played to date. The city of Cloudbank is a striking local, with bright colors and a high attention to detail that really bring it to life. If you’re an astute observer you could learn a whole lot about this city just by paying close attention to the environments, and I like how the game’s computer/programming theme defines it so thoroughly and consistently (both artistically and mechanically). The character portraits look fantastic as well, and do a lot to imbue them with personality, which is furthered by their awesome voicework. All told, it’s pretty insane how much audiovisual talent is contained in this small team, and it really serves to inject the game with an imaginative, personal touch.

Finally, the one aspect of Transistor that didn’t really click with me is the story itself. The central plot is fine enough, but I always felt like there was something more I was supposed to be getting from it. In a way, Transistor carries itself in a somewhat opaque, artsy manner not too dissimilar from a poem. I feel like every detailed piece of imagery, and every line of dialogue or writing down to the word is there to lend some insight, or contribute to your own interpretation of what’s going on. I’m personally not a big fan of that kind of literary analysis, and even if it worked fine in a poem that was a dozen lines or so long, I’m not going to spend hours dissecting every little nuance in between playing a longer video game. It left me feeling like I was constantly missing something, and the disconnect it created wasn’t helped by the frequent audio logs and data terminals that require breaks in the action to digest. These add welcome flavor to the world, but are handled in a way that disrupts the game’s flow. At any rate, these narrative “missteps” are the only notable downside to a game I enjoyed quite a lot on the whole. Transistor is a wonderful game that I couldn’t stop playing until I consumed it in its entirety, and is a very easy game to recommend; especially if you liked Bastion.

Infamous: Second Son

Fun combat + fun traversal + fun world = fun game.

I really liked the original Infamous, and at the time it was one of the only open world action games I had ever enjoyed. Infamous’ level of control and snappy action made the act of playing it a lot more satisfying than other comparable games, which helped me put up with some of the tedium and repetitiveness in open world design. I skipped Infamous 2, which came out a little too soon after I finished the first, but I was ready and willing to dive back in for Infamous: Second Son. Not least of all to play something shiny on my PlayStation 4, which I hadn’t touched during the first four months of the year. Fortunately, Second Son makes welcome use of the hardware. It’s a gorgeous game, with fluid animations, crisp lighting and a high attention to detail bringing Seattle to life. In fact, I became more impressed with the game’s visuals over time, as I continued to notice how much they were able to pack onto the screen while maintaining those good looks. It also ran super smooth for me throughout, though I did encounter my share of bugs. They primarily came in the form of pathfinding and clipping, most noticeably the fact that I literally got sucked into a piece of geometry on two separate occasions. Both times I feared I was going to have to restart the game, but to my surprise it worked itself out, and reset my character on its own after a few seconds. Take that for what you will.

Otherwise, Second Son is totally an Infamous game. That means fun powers, fun combat, a fun world, and a pretty fun but cheesy comic book style story. After a slow start I did end up liking the characters and story by the end, even if I wouldn’t call them particularly well done (though not bad either). Ultimately, however, it really is Infamous’ fast paced combat and breezy traversal that make it a more likable open world action game for me, and I feel like the world and missions service those strengths. In most such games I feel bogged down by the sloppy combat and tedious traversal, and I get tired of quest design that makes me feel primarily like an errand boy. The Infamous games put combat front and center, and they know how to make their combat worth that spotlight. Second Son follows in those footsteps, and it joins the original as one of the few open world action games I’ve genuinely enjoyed.

Looking Ahead to June

I’ve already picked up and started playing Mario Kart 8, but otherwise June is… well, pretty bare; Valiant Hearts: The Great War is the month’s only scheduled release that’s caught my eye so far. Thus begins the annual summer gaming drought, which is a period of the year I tend to love. I’m free to catch up on games I’ve missed, and with my class schedule being relatively light for three more weeks, I might make even more headway on that front that usual. At the top of the list is Patapon 2, followed a long game I’ve wanted to get to for a while, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. June seems like the perfect month to dive into that one, and given the time I have plenty of other ideas as always!

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Monthly Roundup, April 2014

April was somehow simultaneously a very slow and a very busy month for me. On the one hand, not a lot of new gaming releases meant I had time to breath and catch up a little. On the other hand, I left my job at the end of April (to go back to school) and spent a lot of the month planning for and making a big move. That made for a lot of logistics that took up a fair amount of time, but I did manage to squeeze some gaming in as always. In addition to what I talk about below I also played some Luftrausers, which I think is a pretty fun arcade shooter with a good progression of weapon unlocks and challenges if you want more specific goals than chasing high scores (as I do). I don’t have much more to say on that, however, so let’s move on to the trio of games I have more substantial thoughts on.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

Diablo III has had a weird life. When I played it upon its initial release, I immediately liked it more than any other game I had played of that style, previous Diablos included. That was primarily due to the game’s snappy, fun combat, and the robust skills system that you could experiment with on the fly. It made for a game that I could enjoy for the moment to moment gameplay, rather than rely solely on Skinnerian random loot drops for satisfaction (which rarely work on me). Yet Diablo III did have its issues here and there, and many longtime series fans had even more ingrained complaints with the game’s core design, to which Blizzard clearly listened. This led to regular patches and updates that have culminated in the release of Reaper of Souls, all of which combine to change the game in some pretty drastic ways.

Diablo III has gone through a lot of changes.

I haven’t touched Diablo III in any form for roughly a year and a half, so I’m not 100% sure what was changed in patches, and what is specific to Reaper of Souls; it all runs together for me. Regardless, Diablo III today is a drastically different beast from when it first came out nearly two years ago. Fortunately, the core aspects that I liked right out of the gate remain largely unchanged, meaning the combat and skills remain extremely fun to engage with. But most everything else around the periphery has gotten an overhaul to varying degrees, and in my opinion almost all for the better. Among the bigger changes is that the auction house is now gone and replaced with “Loot 2.0”, which essentially means that you find much better loot all the time. After finding a single legendary item in roughly 100 hours of play before, I now seem to find at least one every hour or two, and rare (yellow) items drop in abundance. It’s made the game a lot more about loot, which is probably for the better in the big picture, even if I’m kind of indifferent to it. The other big change to me is the new difficulty structure: no longer are there four sequential difficulties with set enemy levels. Instead, enemies automatically scale to your level, and you can change the difficulty independently at any time. Higher difficulties yield tougher monsters and higher rewards, and it’s now very possible to hit the level cap in a single playthrough of the game. This difficulty restructuring is easily my favorite change, as it was previously a pain to grind through the overly easy normal and nightmare difficulties just to get to an interesting challenge. Now you can set your level of challenge as low or as high as you want right out of the gate, and get rewarded for going big if you so choose. It also makes leveling much faster, thus making the game much less of a grind.

I feel like those are the two most meaningful changes, but there’s plenty more ranging from minor interface and/or balance tweaks to smart content additions. The crafters have been adjusted to feel more meaningful (including the new crafter), many skills have been rebalanced or changed altogether, the level cap has been raised to 70, and you can now in theory gain infinite paragon levels (a programming impossibility, but I get what they mean). Then you have a new character class, a new act and the new adventure mode. The new act and class are essentially more of the same, which is all good if nothing drastic. Adventure mode seems like the real key addition, however, which gives players ways to take on random challenges and dungeons indefinitely in search of better and better loot. I think it’s a really neat mode that adds a viable endgame to Diablo III, even if my case of “loot lust” has never been dire enough to need such an option. All of these changes culminate to make the game feel much more refined and complete, and I think the result is a higher quality product. Ironically, I think I might have had more fun with vanilla Diablo III, but I also know that’s purely because it was new. The things I liked about Diablo III originally are the things that have changed the least, and it’s no surprise that some of the novelty has worn off. At any rate, as of Reaper of Souls I do think Diablo III is a noticeably better game than ever, and I’m pretty impressed by Blizzard's ability and devotion to keep updating and improving what was already a really solid game.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I've always liked DKC's style of platforming.

I’ve really liked the Donkey Kong Country series ever since the wonderful original trilogy on the SNES, and have always felt the series harbors a unique position among Nintendo’s large stable of platformers. Compared to the likes of Mario, Yoshi, Kirby and so on, the DKC series has consistently been the toughest Nintendo platforming series. Furthermore, at least compared to the ever prominent Mario, DKC is more of a timing based platformer rather than an action or twitch based one. The big ape has a certain momentum to him that makes you really commit to and respect your movements, which lends it a more unique, methodical feel. I like that difference in feel, not only because I think DKC’s controls feels extremely comfortable in their own way, but it’s nice to see that different styles of platformers can coexist. I also appreciate games that take the time to stop and smell the roses, which is something DKC has done quite well. A lot of platformers are incredibly fast-paced and action oriented, but DKC’s more measured nature makes it easier to enjoy the sights and sounds of your adventure. Lush visuals and vibrant music have long been staples of the series, and that level of production is a wonderful complement to the series’ tough, timing based platforming.

Tropical Freeze both looks and sounds incredible.

I’ve always appreciated DKC’s unique blend of challenge, feel and production, and Tropical Freeze replicates those traits skillfully. The controls feel spot on, and are finely tuned to the style of platformer on offer. And thankfully, unlike Donkey Kong Country Returns, there are no motion controls in sight; everything’s carried out via good old fashioned buttons, d-pads and thumbsticks. In spite of that I think the challenge level is about on par with Returns, which is not as hard as a lot of reviews make it out to be, and not nearly as hard as the original SNES trilogy, but it still offers a stiff test by today’s standards (especially if you chase all the collectibles). A lot of other elements are comparable to Returns as well, though there are some subtle differences that make Tropical Freeze stand on its own. Most immediately obvious are the visuals and soundtrack. Thanks to the Wii U’s hardware superiority over the Wii, and David Wise’s return as composer, Topical Freeze looks and sounds noticeably better than Returns (which didn’t look or sound bad by any means). This is a gorgeous game, with lots of detailed environments, and the style and tone of the musical score match every level to a tee. 2014 will be hard pressed to cough up many soundtracks better than this, and it’s hard to overstate how important music is to the feel of a DKC game. In that department, Tropical Freeze is as good as any in the series.

In addition, while the individual level design is also on par with what I remember from Returns, Tropical Freeze feels like a more assuredly assembled game in the larger picture. Despite a somewhat slow start (a staple of all modern Nintendo platformers), the progression of levels feels smoother and more consistent in terms of both difficulty and design, and the mechanical elements mesh with the visuals and music more naturally. It’s kind of hard to describe, but where Returns felt like it was banking heavily on the nostalgia of the SNES games, Tropical Freeze feels more like its own game that’s nevertheless built in a very similar mold. Despite the two games being more similar than they are different, that feeling, along with the lack of motion controls and the enhanced audiovisual presentation, has me liking Tropical Freeze more than I liked Returns (which I did like quite a bit). The two newer DKC games still fall shy of the SNES classics on the whole, but they manage to capture most of the spirit of those games while being good platformers on their own. This is especially true of Tropical Freeze, which I had a lot of fun with, and I think anyone partial to a good 2D platformer would enjoy it too.

Beyond: Two Souls

Don't expect to have much input in Jodie's story.

I was among those who enjoyed Heavy Rain quite a bit, warts and all, which left me super curious to see what Quantic Dream’s follow-up game would be like. The result, Beyond: Two Souls, is just as much a mixed bag as its predecessor, but it’s also one I appreciate markedly less. That may seem a little odd at first, but while the two games employ many similar techniques, and it’s easy to look at them as being very much in the same lineage, I find them to be very different experiences in practice. Heavy Rain was surprisingly interactive, and told a story that could change in subtle but substantial ways based on the composition of your actions and choices throughout the game. Characters could live or die, and large plot threads could go unresolved depending on how you chose to play, which felt fairly progressive in regards to video game stories at the time. Beyond, while similar on the surface, not only offers fewer meaningful choices, but also doesn’t incorporate them in any meaningful ways. The repercussions of the handful of choices you do make are confined to the particular chapter you’re in, and even then they don’t have any impact on where that chapter ends up. Once you jump to the next chapter it all gets left behind, with even the game’s multiple endings resulting solely from a few contrived last minute decisions. This is a much more linear and authored story than Heavy Rain; this is Jodie Holmes’ story through and through, and it’s going to follow the same beats for everyone who witnesses it.

From a pure story standpoint that authorship could be totally fine, but it defines the entire play experience just as thoroughly. It comes across most egregiously in the way you interact via Aiden, an ethereal spirit and the second playable “soul” the title refers to. In theory, at any point you can switch to Aiden and interact with objects or people in the environment. And yet, this central mechanic is almost fully scripted. You’re only allowed to switch and interact with objects as dictated by the story, which feels very arbitrary to the extent that it’s virtually pointless to even be designated a participant in the first place. For example, during the chapters where you fight enemy soldiers, you can choke some soldiers, you can take control of some soldiers, and others you can’t do anything to at all. Each soldier has a specific action or inaction assigned to them, which more or less turns it into a poor “color by number” exercise. This not only makes no sense fictionally, but it’s a frustrating denial of player interaction that makes me think Beyond might be the rare video game I would enjoy more as a movie. That’s a regressive quality that I tend to consider a pejorative, and I wouldn’t say the same about Heavy Rain. The ironic part is that I probably like Beyond’s story better than Heavy Rain’s (especially given Beyond’s top notch acting performances), but when it comes to the actual play experience, Beyond doesn’t do much for me as a video game, which is a shame.

Looking Ahead to May

Now that I’ve made my move, and have a few weeks off before school ramps up in earnest, I have high hopes that I can do some real damage to some games in May. I’ve already started playing Skyrim’s Dragonborn DLC, and plan to tackle BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea DLC after that. Infamous: Second Son remains a top candidate as well, and I have a few other backlog items in mind that I hope to get to if there’s time. As for new May releases, I’m really excited for Transistor; I love what those guys do, and will almost certainly play that as soon as I can. Watch Dogs and Mario Kart 8 are the other two May releases I have my eye on, both of which I’m skeptical but hopeful for. That’s the outlook on May, let the games begin!

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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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