Monthly Roundup, December 2014

Man, what a month. School was as busy as ever for the first half of December, leaving me precious little time to play video games. Then for the second half I had a holiday break, which I took advantage of to plow through as many games as I could. This resulted in a whirlwind of Bayonetta 2, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, The Fall, and Far Cry 4; I played through all four games in their entirety in a roughly two week span. Part of that rushed playthrough was wanting to make sure I considered them for my top 10 list for 2014, but really, I know that once school starts back up I wouldn’t have time for them for quite a while. If I didn’t play them now, it would be a long time before I got to them, so I took advantage of the opportunity while it was there. It made for quite a bang to end the year too.

I’m going to structure this blog slightly differently this month as well. Once I started writing I realized that the game I had by far the most to say about was Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. To avoid this blog becoming a damn novel, I’m relegating everything but Shadow of Mordor to a few sentences via bullet points. I feel I can say what I really need to about those games in a quick overview, which frees up space to deep-dive into Shadow of Mordor. I recently declared it my favorite game of 2014 after all, and I haven’t had a chance to go into why I like it so much yet. This is the time to do that, and hopefully someone finds it a fun read. Be warned: it’s a lengthy one.

Things That Are Not Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Bayonetta still be crazy.
  • I finally wrapped up what I wanted to do in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call at the start of the month. There wasn’t much left, but it’s nice to get some closure to what’s turned out to be a wonderful rhythm game that I played a lot of in recent months. I’m sure I’ll pick Curtain Call back up and jam through some favorites here and there, but the heavy lifting is done.
  • Velocity 2X was the only other game I spent any time with during the first half of the month, and I’ve worked my way through most of the game at this point. Like its predecessor, I enjoy Velocity 2X on the whole, but it’s a fairly simple game that I never find myself wanting to play more than a few levels at a time. It’s taken me most of the month to slowly work through it, but I only have a few levels left to polish off in January.
  • Bayonetta 2 was the first of my big holiday jams, and I really dug it. I had a high appreciation for the original Bayonetta’s ridiculously over-the-top nature, and also enjoyed its combat. Bayonetta 2 is essentially more of the same, which isn’t bad by any means, but if you played the first then you know what to expect. Based on my memory, I do think the combat is slightly tighter this time around, even if Bayonetta 2 isn’t quite as entertainingly insane as the original on the whole. Either way, I had a fun time with this spunky action game.
  • I also played through The Fall during break, which isn’t a long game by any measure. In most ways it’s a pretty typical adventure game, but it succeeds due to its strong art style and sharp writing. The puzzles often boiled down to “try using every item on everything” for me, which could be annoying, and the combat wasn’t that great. But I liked the narrative aspects more than enough to carry me through, and am curious what the future holds for The Fall.
  • As I did in 2013 with Earthbound, I spent the final hours of 2014 finishing a video game; this year it was Far Cry 4 that I wrapped up an hour before midnight. While Far Cry 4 is certainly “more Far Cry 3”, this is a formula that hasn’t worn out its welcome just yet (much like Bayonetta 2 in that regard). In fact, I think Far Cry 4 is slightly more polished than Far Cry 3 in some subtle ways that led to me liking it slightly more. I think most of the side activities are better, the story is more coherent, and by extension the main missions weren’t as much of a drag. Still, the best part of Far Cry 4 very much remains the open world mayhem you can get into, and this game delivers that in spades. I had a blast with it.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The main game I wanted to tackle during my holiday break was Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and boy did I ever accomplish that. Knowing I was operating on a tight time frame for the ambitious goals I set for myself during break (on top of my other duties), I blitzed through Shadow of Mordor in just under four days, with a 100% completion rate at that. I’m often the first to scoff at open world action games; I’ve never bought in to Rockstar’s ever popular style, and I fully abandoned Assassin’s Creed after I didn’t like the second game. But I knew I had to at least give Shadow of Mordor a shot, despite its obvious similarities to genre stalwarts. That nemesis system sounded pretty rad, and the word was that Shadow of Mordor played much better than its competition. After playing it for myself, I fully agree with that assessment, but that also doesn’t get to the heart of why this is such a good game. In fact, Shadow of Mordor has me doing a complete 180 on the potential of open world action games, and is my favorite such game in a long, long time… if not ever.

The nemesis system really ties the whole world together.

I’ve never disliked the underlying concept of open world games, and I’ve liked entries just fine on the rare occasion where they control well enough and/or have some interesting activities to engage in; Infamous and Far Cry are good examples. But the main conceit of open world games -- the fact that you are in an “open” world where you can go “anywhere” and do “anything” -- has rarely felt justified to me. Most open world games tout their open worlds as big features, only to go on and make missions that take place in limited, quarantined areas. The open world serves merely as a hub area between missions, a dumping ground for collectibles, or in the worst instances, an obstacle between you and the next objective marker. While Shadow of Mordor’s world does serve some of those ancillary functions, the nemesis system adds a new dimension to the entire thing. The hierarchy of orcs you can interact with are dynamically scattered all around the map, and to locate the orc leaders you need to interrogate regular orcs and uncover intel. Furthermore, each leader has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, as well as some amount of personality (and badass/hilarious name). Identifying those strengths and weaknesses is a key part of successfully toppling them, and the whole process had me feeling like I was invading the enemies’ territory and hunting them down. To top it all off, as the game progresses you get the ability to “brand” orcs and make them fight for you. This adds another thick layer to proceedings, where you can have orcs you control infiltrate a warchief’s personal bodyguard, or just plain fight each other. There are also “nemesis missions” that show up from time to time, where you can help an orc gain followers, help settle an orc duel, invade a celebratory feast, and plenty more. Oh, and did I mention that if an orc kills you, they get promoted and grow stronger? You have a surprising amount of influence on the orc’s hierarchy in all sorts of ways, making for a really impressive system that’s a ton of fun to engage with.

Your foes remember you, establishing a more personal connection.

The way the nemesis system is so thoroughly implemented into everything you do makes Shadow of Mordor feel like the first big open world action game I’ve played that truly justifies having an open world; I can’t imagine this system working any other way. You are a part of this world and its ever evolving social structure, and the way the player is so integral to it all creates a highly tailored, personal narrative for everyone. While the game has a guiding plot in the background, it’s one I mostly ignored, and is clearly secondary to the player driven story that occurs on the world map between you and all the orc leaders. The way open world games traditionally force lengthy, “closed” stories into these large, presumably “open” worlds has always felt incongruous to me. Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system shines a light on an area where open world games could have way more potential than we’ve seen thus far, and is a much richer experience for it.

Stealth is one of the many pieces Shadow of Mordor gets right.

For all the cool things the nemesis system brings to the table, it would all be a wash if Shadow of Mordor didn’t play as well as it does. My other big gripe about open world games (past the poor use of the open world), has always been that they’re usually substandard action games from a mechanical sense. You know, jack of all trades and master of none. Shadow of Mordor doesn’t have that problem, as it’s a joy to play in every facet of its gameplay. The combat system is straight up Batman: Arkham style, which works just as well here. The stealth is also very reminiscent of the Arkham games; it’s simple and straightforward, yet more intuitive and satisfying than many full blown stealth games I’ve played. I had a lot of fun slinking around orc outposts, stealthily killing unaware orcs, only to engage in large, equally fun brawls if detected. You also have a handy bow with you, which I used as much as anything, and there’s plenty of room to cause some enjoyable chaos too. Similar to recent Far Cry games, you’re able to unleash beasts into enemy camps, and you can also engage with explosives, bee hives, and plenty other hazards littered around. There’s a surprising amount of things to interact with, and it all controls incredibly well while you’re doing it. Even the basic traversal feels heads and shoulders above similar games, allowing you to quickly and smoothly maneuver all over the place. Whether you’re speeding across the map at a surprisingly snappy pace, or swiftly climbing any of the game’s elaborate structures, there’s a refreshing responsiveness to your character’s movement. Nothing about the way Shadow of Mordor plays ever got in my way or frustrated me in the slightest; I’ve never been able to say that about an open world action game before.

It’s hard to fully convey in words, but the proficiency of the nuts and bolts of every facet of Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay is real, and even without the nemesis system it would make this a fantastic game; it may even be my favorite open world action game based on its play mechanics alone. Everything just clicks as it should, and even more impressive is that it all works that well in spite of there being so much of it. This is a busy game with a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of ways it could crumble under its own weight, but never does. That’s in large part due to how impressively intuitive the mechanics are, but the pace of the game helps out as well. The story missions do a good job at focusing on introducing and using all the mechanics, rather than try and conjure up silly set piece moments that never work as well as the normal gameplay. That’s what usually makes the story missions the worst parts of open world games for me, and while they aren’t the best part of Shadow of Mordor, I enjoyed them. Past the story missions, virtually all of the side missions are totally fun and worth doing, and you’re free to tackle them as you see fit right from the start.

You'll need to use every skill at your disposal.

There’s a really great sense of progression to Shadow of Mordor, not only in the mission structure, but also in regards to Talion’s skills. The game starts out being surprisingly tough for an open world game, if not actually “hard”. It’s easy to stumble into an encounter that’s over your head, and this does two things. First, it increases the chance of death, which feeds right into the nemesis system in some cool ways. Shadow of Mordor is one of the few games that implements player death in a thoughtful way that doesn’t break the narrative, and its difficulty seems balanced to take advantage of that. Second, and more importantly, it forces you to consider every tool in your wide arsenal. A lot of games give you a lot of abilities to use, but most of them end up feeling unnecessary. This is the rare game where there’s no such waste, with every ability you gain having its place, and the difficulty of the game (along with the encounter and environment design) gives you ample opportunities and incentive to use them all. This becomes amplified as the game goes on, and you level up and get more skills. The new skills you acquire are exciting and powerful, and more importantly they give you a lot of additional functionality, rather than just make you stronger by the numbers. This makes leveling up and progressing through the skill tree a delight, and while I think these skills do make the game a little easier as you acquire more of them, it never becomes trivial. The encounters only get bigger and hairier, continually forcing you to apply your ever expanding skillset to new, interesting situations. It’s incredibly satisfying, and there aren’t many action games that handle player progression better than Shadow of Mordor.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I like Shadow of Mordor a lot, and I think it does two important things that all great video games do. First, it brings together the best parts of similar games that came before it, and goes on to assemble and execute those parts drastically better than its inspirations. Second, it introduces a great new idea (in this case, the nemesis system) that will, in all likelihood, become a new standard in the genre. That combination of looking back and perfecting existing standards, along with looking forward to set new ones, is a rare and impressive thing. Shadow of Mordor pulls it off, and manages to be a hell of a lot of fun too.

Looking Ahead to January

December was such a blur (like the rest of the fall for me) that I haven’t really looked ahead to 2015 yet. In terms of new video game releases, I believe Dying Light is the only one that’s caught my eye for January. Realistically though, my time this month will be spent between school duties and catching up on the 2014 games I missed. Right now that’s primarily a laundry list of smaller games I’ve picked up in recent Steam sales. I’ve already started playing This War of Mine, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Always Sometimes Monsters, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Fract OSC, and The Wolf Among Us are all ready and waiting. There are plenty of longer games from 2014 I’d like to get to someday (Divinity: Original Sin, The Evil Within, and Dragon Age: Inquisition chief among them), and I have other backlog ideas as always, but I’m not going to overextend my reach until I see how this semester goes. I had my break, and made good use of it, but it’s back to the grind for now; longer games will have to wait once more.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2014

As I attempt to plow through a few final games before scrambling together a top 10 list, I’ve also been thinking about the year in video game music. I won’t say that 2014 has been one of the better years for video game music (just like it hasn’t been one of the better years for the games themselves), but I still played plenty of games with excellent soundtracks. In fact, some of these soundtracks join my all-time favorites, and all of them did a lot to enhance their respective games. Video game music can be a powerful thing when used well, and props to these 10 games for doing it better than any other I played in 2014.

One minor aside before I start. Every year I’ve debated whether I want to consider licensed and/or remixed music for this list, and this year I’ve finally settled on being all inclusive. If a game has great music and uses it well, then it’s eligible, plain and simple. Every year there’s at least one game that uses pre-existing music to great effect, and I’m going to give those games some well deserved recognition too.

Finally, games are ordered by release date, not by preference.

The Banner Saga

Featured track: We are all Guests upon the Land

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Featured track: Homecoming Hijinx

Luftrausers

Featured track: The Original

Child of Light

Featured track: Aurora’s Theme

Transistor

Featured track: Paper Boats

Electronic Super Joy: Groove City

Featured track: Entire soundtrack... it's all I could find :)

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Featured track: Main Theme

Shovel Knight

Featured track: Strike the Earth! (Plains of Passage)

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U

Featured track: Mega Man 2 Medley

A Bird Story

Featured track: A Bird Story (Piano)

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Monthly Roundup, November 2014

Not to sound like a broken record, but November was another busy month for school. I’ll spare the rhetoric though, and just leave it as a reiteration that my gaming time was very limited once again. I did find a few precious hours for games though, and am sharing those thoughts below. Like last month I also didn’t have as much time to edit this entry as I would like, so apologies if the quality of my writing is not up to par again. On another note, in my haste last month I may have stumbled across a decent way to quickly run down games I spent little time with during the month and/or don’t have substantial thoughts on. I have typically just mentioned those up top before diving into the bulkier stuff, but starting this month I’ll round up "the little guys" in their own section via bullet points. I’ll try it out for a bit and tweak as I see fit, and if I don’t like it I may revert back. It’s worth a shot at least, so let’s get to it!

The Little Guys

A story. It's about a bird.
  • I really liked To the Moon a few years ago, so I quickly checked out A Bird Story this month. It may be incredibly short (an hour and a half tops), but it’s a really sweet game that’s absolutely worth playing for those who appreciate a simple, touching, and well told video game story. Kan Gao has a talent for such stories, and while A Bird Story doesn’t hit as hard as To the Moon, I still found it impactful.
  • I first heard about Hero Academy via Greg Kasavin’s top 10 list for 2012, and seeing as he’s a man with great tastes in games, I always kept that one in the back of my mind. So I grabbed it on the Steam sale and spent an hour or two with it. I won’t say it hooked me, but there’s something to the simple tactical combat here, and I might mess with it some more someday. It’s not a priority at this point, but I’m not writing it off either.
  • For the third month in a row, the game I likely spent the most time on was Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. It remains a great game to pick up and play for 15-20 minute breaks as I’m working, which adds up during the month. I think I may be near the end of my Curtain Call journey though, at least for now. I only have one character left to unlock, and a handful of songs on the highest difficulty left to pass. That will satisfy the remaining main goals I set for myself, and while I’m sure I’ll still play when I’m in the mood, I expect my Curtain Call playtime will see a drastic reduction after those goals are met. Then I’ll have to find a new short burst game...

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

I continued playing Super Smash Bros. for 3DS this month (I gave initial thoughts last month), and while I continued to enjoy it on the whole, I wasn’t enjoying it nearly as much as previous Super Smash Bros. games. While a good portion of my indifference was surely due to my lack of free time this fall, I also feel that just as much of it was due to feeling uncomfortable playing Smash Bros. on a handheld for any substantial period of time. The circle pad never felt quite right for the game, the Nintendo 3DS’ design made my hands hurt after a few rounds, and online play usually resulted in a good amount of choppiness. I like the 3DS design on the whole, and it works just fine for a lot of games, but Smash Bros. is a certain breed of rambunctiousness that demands a sturdier kit. So while the game was fun in spurts, I had to accept that it was never going to hook me in that format.

Smash looks great on Wii U. Not sure about 8 players yet though...

After playing the 3DS version here and there for about a month and a half, the Wii U version finally arrived, and boy howdy what a difference playing Smash Bros. on a proper console makes. The two versions are essentially the same game, with the exact same characters and mechanics (the Wii U version has noticeably better stages though), but the sheer act of playing it on a big screen with a more capable controller makes all the difference. On top of that, having the option for local play is where Smash Bros. is at its best, and the Wii U version looks really nice at well (not to mentioned the enhanced audio for this game’s wonderful soundtrack). Ultimately, however, I already felt like the core fighting was pretty strong on the 3DS, and playing it on the Wii U illuminates this notion even further. In fact, this version of Smash Bros. may be the most thoroughly polished entry in the franchise yet. As I mentioned last week, the balance of the physics feels right, and the diversity of the characters and their moves is well considered. I feel that there are plenty of equally viable ways for players to play, and the fighting in Smash Bros. Wii U is as robust as it’s ever been in the series.

Still trying to figure out my favs, but both of these fellas are early contenders.

That said, the game isn’t perfect either. While I really enjoy the core fighting of Smash Bros. Wii U, none of the auxiliary modes do much for me at all, especially the pair of version specific ones. Smash Run (3DS) and Smash Tour (Wii U) are a miserable time at best; Smash Run is just dull, while Smash Tour is a jumbled mess that takes noticeable effort to figure out, and continues to be frustrating once you’re over the hump. Even stuff like Classic and Events are things I don’t care for a ton, though they’re serviceable enough. Most disappointingly, the online still doesn’t work as well as I’d want. It does seem a little more stable on the Wii U (yes, I have the LAN adapter), and I’ll admit that I haven’t tested it a ton yet, but it’s been a little bit of a bummer so far. Finally, to really nit-pick, I’m tired of having to unlock characters and stages in these games, there are too many clone characters, the menu designs continue to be atrocious, and with Sakurai at the helm we get an annoyingly unproportional amount of Kirby and Kid Icarus material in these games (his babies). Maybe that only bothers me because I don’t like either franchise though. Anyway, that’s Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Minor grievances aside, the core fighting is a blast, and I’m very happy with it overall. I might even venture so far as to say it’s the best constructed Smash Bros. game yet, but I need more time with it to cement that thought. All I know right now is that I’m eagerly looking forward to that time when I can find it.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’m a sometimes fan of first person shooters, harboring a weirdly up and down relationship with the genre for a long time. Generally speaking, I frequently feel like it’s a very simple and unambitious genre with little difference between entries, and I can get easily bored with the rote gameplay loop I’ve performed countless times already. That said, I still like a good FPS here and there, diving back in for landmark titles, or just to keep my finger on the pulse. Or, in the case of Wolfenstein: The New Order, I dive in when something seems just offbeat enough to be worth a look. This game’s reception was positive in a way that made me think there might be something worth seeing here, so I made the plunge and blitzed through it over Thanksgiving. Long story short, I wasn’t disappointed. The New Order is definitely not going to set the world ablaze with innovation by any means; gameplay-wise it’s extremely straightforward. In place of anything new, however, it has polish, attention to detail, and a little bit of craziness for good measure.

The New Order is a simple, yet effective romp.

While The New Order doesn’t tweak the formula, it still manages to be a very well playing shooter, with some nice design touches. I always lamented the “Master Chief pockets” that have plagued shooters ever since Halo’s debut; why limit ourselves to only two guns? The New Order brings back the big pockets, letting you carry a large arsenal all at once. Better yet, you can dual wield almost any gun, including shotguns and sniper rifles. It’s ridiculous, but also great. Most of the guns have a nice pop to them, and have a secondary fire mode as well to give them a little more variety and functionality. I still wish the selection of guns would have been a little larger and/or crazier, but overall I appreciate The New Order’s take on guns. Otherwise the game controls nicely, the level layouts are fun to poke around in, and the stealth works surprisingly well. In fact, I usually hate stealth (especially in first person games), but often found myself gravitating towards stealth in The New Order. There’s nothing complicated about it either, and while it’s probably fun mostly because it’s easy, I still enjoyed it more than a lot of actual stealth games (here’s looking at you Dishonored). The game then compliments that stealth with the bombastic shooting you’d expect from the series, and it’s the well paced combination of those extremes that I really appreciated.

Finally, I enjoyed The New Order for its completely bizarre tone. I think it may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but by not taking any of it seriously at all I got a laugh out of the way B.J. Blazkowicz remained a Nazi murdering machine after 14 years in a coma, not to mention all the corny dialogue or the fact that you fight Nazis on the moon. The way the game flirts with being serious just often enough, only to fall back on its unusual brand of campiness worked in its own charming way for me. Again, The New Order doesn’t break from genre convention, but the way its pieces are assembled was a specifically entertaining concoction that kept me engaged where a lot of other shooters have failed to do so. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that, but either way, The New Order was a good time.

Looking Ahead to December

Things will keep on rolling, as busy as ever through the first half of December. I’m ever hopeful that I will be able to spend a few days during the second half of the month’s holiday break to catch up on some games, despite work never going away entirely. My top candidates are Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Bayonetta 2, and Far Cry 4. I highly doubt I can get through all three during the month, but why stop setting my sights high now? In fact, while we’re at it I’ll mention The Fall, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and This War of Mine as a trio of indie games I’d like to get to soon as well. Now that I’ve definitely piled on more than I can manage (and there are still plenty of games left unmentioned I’m interested in), I’ll take my leave to see just how much I gaming I actually can fit into December. Or maybe just catch up on sleep instead… that may be more important.

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Monthly Roundup, October 2014

This month's entry is going to be a bit more forcefully punctual than normal, as I simply didn’t allot enough time to perform my normal due diligence. It always takes me hours to write these things up, at least to the point where I'm satisfied with them (I do a lot of proofreading and editing), and I unfortunately didn’t make ample time for writing this week between my busy school schedule and actually playing games. Apologies in advance if this comes off as a bit sloppy (I don’t feel it’s my best writing, that’s for sure), but I'm trying to roll with the punches.

Most of my gaming time in October was spent on short burst, pick-up-and-play games that I could treat as breaks between working. This made things feel pretty choppy, and I didn’t spend more than an hour or two on most of these games. In bullet form are the myriad of games I played in quick bursts, followed by a few more substantial items under the normal headers.

Umm, groovy?
  • I played through the stand-alone expansion/sequel to Electronic Super Joy, subtitled Groove City, in one sitting. It took less than an hour, but I had a blast with it. I probably enjoy that game more than I should, but I think it’s a fun, energetic platformer that controls well and provides a rewarding challenge. Also, that soundtrack is something to behold.
  • I spent about an hour playing Vib-Ribbon, which I had never played before. It comes off as a bit dated, but I like it’s style, and really dig that soundtrack.
  • I finally finished Velocity Ultra, which I had started months ago and only had a few missions left to polish off this month. It didn’t take long, but I’m glad I finished it. It’s a neat game, and I’d like to continue into Velocity 2X someday.
  • I tried out Pix the Cat, courtesy of PlayStation Plus, and liked the little I played. I don’t know that it has the legs to hook me in the long run, but it’s a fun, simple arcade game that’s got style, and plays pretty well too.
  • I also tried TxK via PlayStation Plus, and found it pretty dull. There’s not a lot going on that’s more interesting than what arcade games did in the 80s, and I don’t think it controls well either. I didn’t spend more than an hour on it, and doubt I will go back.
  • I booted up Titanfall for an hour or two to check out the new Frontier Defense mode. The main thing that struck me was just remembering how smooth Titanfall is, and how much fun it is to move around and shoot stuff in that game. Frontier Defense seems like a cool new mode that allows for co-op play, and may even reward different loadouts than the normal PvP. I played with some friends, and we had a lot of fun, and it’s especially neat that each map seems to have different enemy compositions in each wave. I don’t need much of an excuse to go back and enjoy more Titanfall, but from the little I played, Frontier Defense seems like a solid one.
  • The exception in this list, and the game I probably spent the most time on during the month, is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. It was my default game for 15-20 minute breaks all month long, which added up. I continue to enjoy that game a lot; there’s so much content, and so many good songs, that it could entertain me for quite a while. I don’t have anything else to add that I didn’t say last month though.

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS

It's less than ideal on a handheld, but it's still Smash.

Yes, I’m a sucker and picked up the new Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, despite knowing that the likely superior Wii U version is around the corner. I like Smash, what can I say? And so far, the new one has been good. I’ve unlocked all the characters, and have played a handful of multiplayer matches with friends online, though not much more than that. I don’t particularly care for playing Super Smash Bros. on a handheld, and don’t find the circle pad to meet the requisite tightness for the game. I’ve also had lag issues online; some days are better than others, but once or twice is was borderline unplayable, which is a shame. As for the underlying game itself, it seems good. Based on my limited time with it so far, it feels like things are more balanced than in past games. At least to me there’s no obvious handful of characters that you have to play to be competitive, and most of the roster can hold their own if used well (Ganondorf still seems terrible though). I especially like the feel of the physics, and how it varies between characters. Some are fast and snappy, like in Melee, while other are floatier like in Brawl, and I think the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are more pronounced than before too. Fast and weak vs. slow and strong, ground vs.air, melee vs. projectiles, and so on. There are also a deluge of seemingly minor yet incredibly smart tweaks that help certain characters be more playable. For example, you can now jump out of Yoshi’s shield, and Bowser has “power armor” on his forward smash attack. The large roster runs the gamut, and everyone should be able to find a character that suits their style. I’m still trying to suss out what characters I do or don’t like the most, but I have some leads. I look forward to playing more Super Smash Bros. over the coming months, and plan to report back further after I have had more chances to play (including the Wii U version).

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Valiant Hearts is a touching tale, and it looks amazing from start to finish.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short and sweet adventure game, which I played through in its entirety in October. Valiant Hearts: The Great War looks and sounds fantastic, and somehow manages to implement a personable, almost cartoony tone on top of its decidedly dour subject matter, and does it well. It walks a fine line between showing the horrors of war, while also getting us to smile or cheer for the human elements that can triumph in such circumstances. It also has some fun along the way; who knew dodging bullets fired at you in time with classical music could be a jauntily fun activity? That’s not to say there aren’t sad moments, but it’s that slick presentation of its delicate subject matter that I liked most about Valiant Hearts, and I came away from it really appreciating the game’s story and characters. The puzzles themselves are also competent, and I felt they they struck a good balance between being too obvious and too obtuse. I also found it interesting how most of the puzzles were not focused on combat, despite the game taking place during World War I. Some of the most intense moments came from digging tunnels with a spoon, or bandaging up a wounded soldier. Not every puzzle was as strong as the last, but the overall mix was good, and I felt they did a fine job of guiding the game’s narrative flow. It may be a bit short and/or simple, but Valiant Hearts has a lot of heart to it (pun not intended), and I’m all for adventure games of this scope so long as they are executed as well as this. Also: best use of a dog in a game. Calling it.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Beyond Earth is totally more Civ.

I also managed to plow through one game (on the quick setting of course) of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth in October… though if I’m being honest, most of that happened yesterday, November 1. Either way, it’s worth talking about my initial impressions now, while reserving the right to update them when I play more. At any rate, Beyond Earth is totally a Civ game, and dutifully exists in the Civilization V framework; Alpha Centauri this is not. The differences from Civ V are mostly cosmetic, and the actual gameplay differences are pretty minor. The one that stood out to me at first was the aliens you encounter. They are much more prominent than barbarians ever were, and battling them in the early game was a big focus for me as I expanded. I kind of enjoyed it though, as it gave me a reason to use those early game units. As the game went on, however, the aliens couldn’t keep up. On top of that, the AI seemed a lot more passive than they’ve ever been in Civ. As such, I did virtually no fighting in the second half of the game, and whenever I did I steamrolled whatever I fought. It should be mentioned that I played on the normal difficulty, and on that setting neither the aliens nor the AI pose a military threat at all. I’ll make sure to bump up the difficulty next time. That said, I kind of like the way units upgrade based on your progress in whichever affinity you align with. It gets rid of the tedium of upgrading each one manually, as well as gives bonuses based on your overall affinity. That affinity system seems pretty neat in general, and the way it works with the tech “web” appears to allow for more flexibility in how you grow your Civ. I’m not sure how many of those deviances make a difference in the long run though. By the end of the game I had way more of every currency and resource than I needed, and more useless buildings available to build than seemed reasonable. All of this might be solved by bumping up the difficulty, but as of now the progression and balance doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t know when it will happen, but I want to play more of Beyond Earth in the future, and will likely update my thoughts when I do.

Looking Ahead to November

Whew, October was a doozy, and things look to be just a busy at least until Thanksgiving. Between now and then I’ll continue to poke away at smaller games during work breaks, with Theatrhythm and/or Super Smash Bros. being the most likely candidates. I may or may not get to another game of Beyond Earth this month, and if possible I’d like to finally play Wolfenstein: The New Order. I just picked it up in a sale, as I’ve heard good things about it; maybe that will be a good Thanksgiving break game. As for November releases, the aforementioned Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. is the hot one, and I’m also really interested in what I’ve seen of Far Cry 4 so far. That one may have to join Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Bayonetta 2 on the sidelines for now, but those are all games I definitely want to check out when I have time.

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Monthly Roundup, September 2014

Following last month’s short break, school raged on in September, becoming busier than ever. Only by pure circumstance am I able to keep up with video games at all; this fall looks to be the lightest fall in decades when it comes to video game releases. Still, keeping up is going to be a challenge, and I did what I could during the month. I played a few hours each of a few different games, and have some thoughts to share about them. One game I spent even less time with was Sportsfriends, which I played about an hour of with some friends. We sampled the three non-motion games (sorry Johann Sebastian Joust), and I found it to be a decent collection of multiplayer games. HOKRA was easily my favorite of the bunch, as I found it immediately intuitive and fun. Super Pole Riders was really goofy in an entertaining way, though something about BaraBariBall didn’t click with me. It was the game I expected to like the most, but I just never got comfortable with the controls/physics in the short time I spent with it. I’ll hopefully try it all again someday, after which I might have more to say. At any rate, below are the games I played a nontrivial amount of in September.

Super Time Force Ultra

So many people!

Super Time Force made its way to PC (picking up the “Ultra” moniker along the way) just before the fall picked up steam, and I quickly squeezed it in when I had the chance. It’s not a long game by any stretch, but I’m still glad I got around to it when I did. I’m additionally glad because Super Time Force is a fun game. Its core idea is robust enough to produce plenty of entertaining moments; the whole notion of your previous character repeating your actions after you die is supremely clever. If you haven’t seen it in action, it can be kind of hard to explain, but it basically allows you record a bunch of runs and stack them on top of each other. This can be used to all sorts of effects, from stacking damage from multiple characters at once, to coordinating characters to take down different enemies simultaneously. The different characters you unlock all have different abilities too, and I feel like the game is at its best when it leverages those abilities to create more puzzly scenarios. This most prominently occurred for me via Shieldy Blockerson (a guy with a… shield), who can be used to defend certain areas while your other characters fire from safety. You can come up with some neat stuff if you want. The game also has separate challenge rooms that limit both the characters and the number of rewinds available, which lead to some pretty devious challenges. It’s good stuff.

The main drawback is that I did find Super Time Force to wear thin at times. Many of the characters aren’t unique enough to really bother with; I imagine everyone will end up relying on a relatively small “toolbox” set of at most 3-5 characters (I primarily used only three characters). On top of that, many scenarios simply require you to deal a lot of damage in a short amount of time, which devolves into the tedious process of summoning in more characters to rotely shoot at a thing for a few seconds, over and over. I think the good easily outweighs the bad, however, making Super Time Force a fun time.

Destiny

Destiny tries to be everything, but ends up feeling like a lot of nothing.

Destiny is a weird game; I still don’t know what to make of it. Sometimes I think it’s totally alright, and other times I think it’s just a bad game. It’s been a roller coaster of conflicting feelings thus far, and I think my unusual struggle to settle my thoughts on the game goes a long way in indicating just how weird it really is. At times Destiny echoes Halo, Diablo, Borderlands, World of Warcraft, or even Animal Crossing… sometimes all at once. And yet, it never really channels the best aspects of any of those games, nor does it establish an identity all of its own either. There’s no thing about Destiny, no clear aspect that one can point to and say “See that? That’s Destiny.” Destiny is a first person shooter from the makers of Halo, but its campaign and story are, quite bluntly, abominations. Destiny contains loot and RPG mechanics like Diablo or Borderlands, but those mechanics are so light that they almost feel like afterthoughts. Destiny creates a persistent world for players to inhabit like a MMO would, but that world is bafflingly devoid of meaningful content. Furthermore, Destiny generates mundane public/world events in attempt to engage and/or reward those that choose to live in its world. It reminds me of how games like World of Warcraft or Animal Crossing do similar things to make their worlds feel alive, and Destiny’s efforts feel cold and lifeless by comparison. Everything Destiny does has been done better elsewhere, and while it’s tempting to say Destiny’s "thing" is that it tries to pull all of these features together in one space, I don’t think its loose assembly of poorly executed pieces is strong enough to justify the combination. Destiny is your extreme example of "jack of all trades, master of none", and it suffers for it; I would get a lot more out of both my time and my money by playing a polished game that does any one of those things exceptionally well.

Destiny's combat is a rare strong spot, but it's not enough.

All of this has me thinking that I’ve ultimately landed on the “bad game” side of the divide. Destiny’s combat and audiovisial presentation are the only things I think it does well, and while those are very important core pieces, they’re neither unique nor good enough to carry the game all on their own. Let’s face it; while Destiny controls great, I’ve played plenty of other FPS’s that control just as well, and then surround those controls with trappings infinitely better than Destiny’s. Great combat by itself isn’t enough for a modern FPS, and I could say the exact same about how the game looks and sounds. Big budget games in 2014, especially of the ever popular FPS variety, simply play, look, and sound fantastic. It’s the dressing that often makes the difference, and Destiny’s dressing is a boring and repetitive grind. The game seems to expect players to have an innate desire to exist in its world indefinitely, yet gives them hardly any meaningful reasons to do so. I was bored of the game well before finishing the “campaign”, but I’ll at least try the Crucible, and perhaps get a taste of the endgame content before moving on (which seems to be even more of a tedious grind, despite everyone claiming it gets better). Otherwise I don’t know that I have much Destiny left in me, but we’ll see how it goes.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

Sequels are a tricky business, but there’s something to be said for sequels that all but make their predecessor obsolete. It’s hard to fault a game that improves upon the core of what came before it (even if only slightly), and then proceeds to pile so much content onto that core that you’re left wondering how they got away with making so little the first time around. Even better is when they say “to hell with it” and just include the entire first game within the second anyway. That, in a nutshell, is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call’s approach to sequels. It takes the already solid core of the original Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, makes a few tweaks to address some issues fans had with it, and then unloads the content. Theatrhythm had 70-something songs; Curtain Call has over 200. Theatrhythm had 29 playable characters; Curtain Call has 65. Theatrhythm focused solely on the first 13 numbered Final Fantasies; Curtain Call adds Final Fantasy XIV and about a dozen spinoff games to the mix. Curtain Call’s quests are substantially longer, there are about twice as many trophies to collect, and it adds a competitive multiplayer mode. And I’m willing to bet there will be a lot more DLC for Curtain Call than there was for Theatrhythm… assuming they don’t run out of music to sell.

Theatrhythm is back, bigger and better than ever.

The best part about the enormous content and feature boost is that all of the songs and characters that were in the original are also in Curtain Call (even most of the original’s DLC is in Curtain Call from the start). This makes Curtain Call a strictly better game than its predecessor, and as much as I have a soft spot in my heart for that first Theatrhythm and the novelty factor it held that can’t be replicated, it certainly is now obsolete. As for the tweaks Curtain Call makes to improve the formula, they’re mostly minor, but all welcome. First, after a short tutorial period, you are given access to almost every single song and all three difficulties right off the bat. No longer do you have to slog through lower difficulties or play those silly “Dark Notes” to play all the songs on the highest difficulty; Curtain Call gives you the reins almost immediately. Second, there are new button control options if you want them. I still prefer the feel of the touch screen controls, but I could see the button settings having their own appeal. Everyone can play it how they want. Third, the Quest Medleys are a noticeable improvement upon the Chaos Shrine from the first game. The game’s RPG elements are still predominantly superficial, and they remain the one aspect of the game that doesn’t really click. But the quests are both lengthier and more varied than the awful Dark Notes ever were, making grinding for unlockables much less of a downer.

Ultimately, however, in spite of all the additions and tweaks, what makes Curtain Call a good game are the same things that made the original so damn fun: good rhythm fundamentals and wonderful music. Tapping and swiping continues to feel natural and precise, and the greatly expanded soundtrack contains even more of what’s among the best music in video game history. To be honest, what I enjoy most about the game is simply going into the standard play mode and jamming through a series of my favorite battle themes on the highest difficulty. It’s intense, satisfying, and a ton of fun. But Curtain Call is a big game, and there are a lot of other viable ways to engage with it. I think that’s its best attribute, and what ultimately makes it a better game than its predecessor (loss of novelty aside). Anyone who likes a solid rhythm game or great video game music would likely find something to enjoy in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and I know it’s a game I’ll happily be coming back to for quite some time.

Looking Ahead to October

October will no doubt be another busy month in school, but as I mentioned before, 2014’s fall release schedule isn’t exactly daunting. I’ve already conceded that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor will have to wait until later (which is a bummer, as the game looks cool), but otherwise I’m going to try and keep up with the season’s big releases as best I can. For October that primarily means Civilization: Beyond Earth, which is easily the month’s most exciting game for me. Against my better judgement, I also just picked up Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. I probably would have been better off waiting for the Wii U version, but I do really want to play the new Smash; Nintendo got me again. There are a few other curiosities coming out in October, but nothing critical. I’m also going to try and squeeze in Valiant Hearts: The Great War if I can, which I already own via a recent sale. That’s probably more than enough for my limited gaming time, but we’ll see how it goes!

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Monthly Roundup, August 2014

August was very much a month of two halves for me. The first half contained my summer break, which I used to cram as much gaming time in as possible. The second half saw school become busier than ever, which left me devoid of gaming time once more. I knew what I signed up for when I entered this program, however, and am prepared to deal with it between now and May; there will likely be little let-up from here. Anyway, video games. I played a few of them to completion during the month, and my thoughts on them can be found below.

Shovel Knight

He's a knight. He wields a shovel.

I was a little too young to have a NES during its prime (I was a SNES kid), and while I have played a number of NES games in some fashion, I didn’t grow up on those games proper. Thus, I don’t have the same nostalgia for them that many do, even if I find myself able to enjoy the modern homages to that style. Given that, Shovel Knight is perhaps one of the most enjoyable such homages I’ve played. From my viewpoint, its most direct comparison is to the NES era Mega Man games. The visual style, the feel of the action, and the level/boss designs all seem to be in the Mega Man spirit. Toss in a Super Mario Bros. 3 inspired world map and a DuckTales style bounce move, and that’s your basic (if a little reductive) recipe for Shovel Knight. It all works too, not so much because Shovel Knight draws its inspirations from good games, but more because Shovel Knight is simply a good game itself. The controls are super responsive, the combat and platforming are satisfying, the levels have a lot of variety to them (both aesthetically and mechanically), and the bosses are downright awesome. These crazy foes are highly memorable, and are a ton of fun to fight. There’s also a lot of synergy in the way the levels progress to set up the bosses, and I think Shovel Knight exhibits consistently smart design from start to finish in this regard. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful game, and is completely unwasteful in its construction.

There's a fun world map and plenty of secrets to find.

Shovel Knight is more than a direct homage too. This is a game that, despite how much it wishes otherwise, couldn’t and wouldn’t have actually been made in the 1980s for the NES. To begin with, the NES would not run this game very well, even with its throwback visual style. Everything is colorfully rendered and smoothly animated, and the game manages to squeeze a lot of cool art on screen without ever slowing down. Its soundtrack is also impressively busy, yet also manages to maintain that distinct NES era “catchiness”. It’s a really entertaining soundtrack, especially in how each stage has its own identifying theme, and will likely go down as one of my favorites of the year. Past the presentation, Shovel Knight never resorts to being "NES hard"; it strikes a perfectly fair difficulty balance from start to finish. It also incorporates plenty of modern design techniques such as checkpoints, and even those are handled with more care than you’d expect from most modern games. Destroying checkpoints nets you additional gold, but you obviously can’t use them once they’re destroyed. It provides a great risk/reward feature that shows the developers put more thought into something as seemingly standardized as checkpoints than most do, and is a great example of the level of detail present throughout the entire game. There are plenty of other equally interesting touches too, and suffice it to say I really appreciate the nuance and personality permeating the entire experience. I had a ton of fun with Shovel Knight, and don’t think you need to be a die-hard NES fan to like it in 2014 either. It’s a good game all on its own.

XCOM: Enemy Within

I picked up the expansion for XCOM: Enemy Unknown some months ago in a sale, and finally got around to actually playing it this past month. Given how much I liked XCOM, I was fully prepared to like Enemy Within, and I wasn’t disappointed. Almost right off the bat you’re introduced to the two news ways to augment your soldiers: cybernetics and genetics. The former allows you the enshrine your soldiers in large, tough MEC suits, and the latter allows you to augment them with a variety of genetic modifications. I personally found myself enjoying the MEC suits more, as I appreciated the tank-like role they filled on my team. I trained two MECs, and between them I tried out virtually every ability available, all of which I found useful. I especially liked the kinetic strike, which lets you straight up punch things for massive damage. Combine that with some mobility and armor upgrades, and it’s awesome to be able to sprint across the map punching all those pesky chryssalids right in their face. My second MEC was more defensive in nature, with some useful buffs and healing (and a flamethrower!), and both of them proved to be rocks on my team. I relied on them more than I had any right to, and I can’t imagine playing XCOM without MECs again.

Enemy Within adds a lot of cool stuff to an already great game.

The genetics weren’t as uniformly useful or interesting as the MECs to me, but I did like some of the abilities. Having a “second heart” to save a downed soldier is an incredibly handy safety net, and being able to leap up buildings in a single bound is pretty rad. Still, I spent more of my meld on MECs, which is the new resource introduced in Enemy Within. Most maps have two canisters of meld to find, and they both run on a turn timer. If you don’t find them before the timer runs out they are lost, which is an interesting way to add a little extra tension to each map. Meld is by no means necessary to complete the game, and I ended up having plenty of it, so it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I think it’s an interesting new aspect of the game nonetheless. Finally, the other really big additions to Enemy Within are the new enemy threats, which come in many different forms. The most basic ones are the two new aliens you encounter in regular maps, the seeker and the mechtoid. I personally never found the seeker that threatening, as it doesn’t have much health and has to get close to you to attack; they usually died from reaction shots. I felt the mechtoid filled out the midgame with a pretty tough new foe though. The bigger new enemy threat, however, is EXALT, a human terrorist cell actively working against XCOM. You fight these soldiers throughout the game in their own unique scenarios, and eventually raid their HQ. I found it a neat change of pace to actually fight other human troops in addition to aliens, as they have essentially the same abilities you do, but I also never found EXALT as engaging or as threatening as the aliens. They were fun for a little while, but I did tire of them before their time was up.

Finally, there are a lot of interesting new one-off missions in Enemy Within, including a mission where the aliens attack XCOM headquarters, which was super intense. It was one of the most memorable parts of my playthrough, and really put the cherry on top of my return to XCOM. Between all the new additions, tweaks, and some basic streamlining to the progression (things feel noticeably more balanced now), Enemy Within has made a great game even better. I think it makes returning to XCOM totally worth it for fans.

Child of Light

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Child of Light is gorgeous. From the moment I saw the game’s very first trailer, I knew this one was a looker, and I can easily say the final product delivers on that front tenfold. Not only are the characters beautifully animated, and all the hand-drawn art a sight to behold, but there’s an astonishing amount of variety in the game’s visuals. Every area you visit is crammed full of detail, and is pleasantly distinct from everything that came before it. From wistful forests to fiery caverns, windy cliffs to somber oceans, Child of Light covers a lot of territory, and looks equally impressive at every turn.

Child of Light looks gorgeous at every turn.

So what about the rest of the game? While the visuals are easily Child of Light’s standout feature, it does enough interesting stuff to be worth actually playing, rather than just looking at. The game sounds great too, with a lovely soundtrack guiding procedures, though the voicework can be a little pedestrian at times. Gameplay-wise, Child of Light is your typical turn-based RPG, and at first I found it pretty dull; there have been countless turn-based RPGs more engaging than this over the years. The game also has a lot of fiddly aspects that can make it drag, requiring you to constantly manage things that don’t make that big of a difference. After virtually every battle at least one character will level up, prompting you to go into a skill tree to assign an upgrade point to any number of very minor stat boosts. On top of that, the only equippable items in the game (gems called oculi) demand constant fusing and rearranging to have any real effect. All told, I simply don’t feel like the game’s customization options are meaningful enough to be worth the management they require. Otherwise, Child of Light doesn’t have a lot for the player to engage with for the first few hours. While the battles have a neat mechanic that allow you to interrupt enemies while they are casting (and they can do the same to you), most early battles devolve into plainly attacking the enemies until they invariably die.

Battles got better as the game progressed.

Fortunately, Child of Light only gets better as it goes along. While the customization remains pretty bare throughout, you’re constantly getting new characters, and each has their own unique abilities. Furthermore, enemies require you to use those abilities more carefully as the game progresses. It all remains pretty simple, but by the end of the game I was enjoying swapping multiple characters around mid-battle, trying to exploit enemy weaknesses, putting up the proper buffs, and using faster characters to interrupt enemy attacks. Once everything is in place there’s a nice puzzle feeling that a lot of good turn-based RPGs share, and Child of Light does it well enough that I genuinely enjoyed the final hours. If you can put up with the slow early going, I think it’s a game worth seeing through. Finally, as a minor aside, I feel compelled to point out Child of Light’s poor forced co-op "feature". Basically, when playing co-op the second player controls a small spirit, which can perform a few minor actions such as stun enemies or heal your character for a few HP. That’s all fine, if you’re actually playing co-op with someone who doesn’t want much of an actual role. If you’re playing single player, however, I find it annoying to be forced to control that on top of the normal gameplay. It reminds me of the Murfy stuff from Rayman Legends, and I wish Ubisoft would drop these co-op mechanics from single player altogether. Until proven otherwise, “single player co-op” just seems like a really stupid idea.

Looking Ahead to September

Now that the summer is over, real video games will begin coming out once more, and that kicks off right away in September. While I am very interested to check out Destiny, I think my most eagerly awaited game of the month is… Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. It looks to be a bigger and better version of the original, which I already liked a hell of a lot. Past those two heavy hitters, I’m also curious to see how Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor turns out, and Dead Rising 3 finally lands on PC as well. And Massive Chalice might also come out in September? Maybe? Either way, I’ve already kicked off the month with Super Time Force Ultra, and I have plenty of other backlog items in mind as always. There’s no way I’ll get to everything during the month, but it’s a healthy serving of interesting games to choose from, and we’ll see where it takes me!

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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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