Monthly Roundup, June 2015

In a sense, June was a reboot for me; after a year of being back in school, followed by a needed month off, I’m back to the working world. I’ve settled into my new job nicely though, and am slowly getting back into a solid gaming rhythm. Still, I managed to sink a good chunk of time into a big ass CRPG, a handful of multiplayer games, and a few other oddities to boot. Not a bad month for games!

Pillars of Eternity

By some odd twist of fate, I had not played a true “CRPG” before 2015. The closest I’d gotten were a handful of BioWare games during the 2000s, such as Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. To varying degrees, those all could potentially be likened to traditional CRPGs; some like Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR even used Dungeons and Dragons rules. However, per my understanding, they still diverged from the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world in various ways. I missed those games back in the day, by some combination of not playing a lot of 90s PC games and simply not being “in the know”, but I’ve always felt I would enjoy them. I like me some regular old D&D after all (in fact, I’m currently participating in a 5E campaign), and see no reason why I wouldn’t like it in video game form. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit those classics someday, but a recent surge of throwback CRPGs got me to wonder if I’d be better off easing into something a bit more modern. After rolling it around in my head for a bit, along with asking some helpful Giant Bombers, I finally settled on jumping into Pillars of Eternity. I spent a good chunk of time on the game this June, and would estimate I’m just past the halfway mark.

Combat can be intense and engaging.

So far, it’s been a very positive experience. While it doesn’t use official D&D rules, it’s very comparable, and much of the same logic, structure, and even terminology still apply. Hell, eight of the game’s eleven classes are straight up in D&D 5E, and one of the remaining three is pretty analogous. That actually prompted me to try one of the other two classes, and I ultimately settled on a cipher. It seems like a nice mix of using martial weapons and magic, and I think it’s a neat addition to the class roster that I’ve enjoyed playing. Really though, it’s not one class that makes the combat in such games, but the interaction among a group of characters from different classes. Pillars of Eternity lets you roll with a sizable party of six, and while it was a somewhat slow build to reach that full size (and I felt vulnerable until I had four or five characters), coordinating a group like that can be intense and exciting. Sure, there are some mundane encounters where you just spam basic attacks and “per encounter” moves without fear of dying. But the game regularly throws you into situations that require you to constantly pause and line up a series of carefully planned attacks if you want to make it through. I’ve had to reload to try different strategies on a handful of particularly tough encounters, which can be very satisfying when you finally get it right. Especially as you learn your characters and what they can do, coordinating their many abilities can be a real treat.

While I find combat to be fun overall, there is some amount of “bloat” to it, along with most other aspects of the game (as in most big RPGs). How many unthreatening skeletons do I have to demolish to clear this dungeon floor? How many spell options do I really need, and how many of them are that useful anyway? How much vendor trash do I need to sift through and manage? How many side quests to solve personal problems am I going to get sucked into? Pillars of Eternity is a big game in pretty much every capacity, sometimes unnecessarily so. This was at its worst near the beginning of act two, where I spent hours and hours just running around a giant city talking to people, collecting fairly mundane fetch quests. That section felt pretty bogged down for me, but otherwise I feel I’ve been moving at a decent clip. Pillars of Eternity is certainly a chunky game, and there is some filler here and there, but I’ve also seen much worse. That’s not necessarily an excuse, but it’s to say that this game doesn’t cross that line into being a worthless and tedious slog. I’ve avoided plenty of games the past few years for fear of wasting my time, but this game is not one of them (so far). It manages itself well enough.

The writing is consistently sharp, and really carries the game.

The interesting nature of the combat likely saves Pillars of Eternity from feeling too grindy or repetitive, but I think what really helps the game hold up over the long haul, and is also its strongest aspect at large, is the quality of the writing and storytelling on display. If Obsidian is known for anything, it’s for making buggy games with great writing. Thus far I haven’t encountered much in the way of bugs here (I’ve had it crash on a load screen twice, and a character got stuck in a wall once, forcing me to reload), but their patented writing is pervasive. They’ve created a rich world, and you have plenty of chances to learn about it from talking to all sorts of people and reading all sorts of books. I’ll be honest; I don’t read all of it. In fact, I generally don’t read the books, unless they pertain to a quest. I even click past dialogue if it seems long in the tooth. Pillars of Eternity is a long game already, and you could probably double your time if you read every single thing, which I don’t care to do. If that is your style, however, you’ll likely eat it all up, as everything I have read has been excellent. The highlights for me are the souls you peer into (an ability your character acquires near the beginning), and the varied personal histories you get from them. You find citizens from all walks of life, with all sorts of histories, and that little glimpse you get into them can be fascinating. In fact, I think Pillars of Eternity does a great job in general of focusing on the personal, rather than the grand. I’m sure at some point there will be a larger world-threatening crises, but thus far a lot of my goals have been smaller in scope. They’ve focused on how various injustices or otherwise unfortunate situations have put a strain on individual people, and the game is able to impart a gravitas on such situations without being showy. Everything feels important in the moment, regardless of whether or not it is built up to be important in the long run, which has made for a fascinatingly realist adventure thus far.

Pillars of Eternity has some other nice touches as well. I’ve particularly appreciated its more modern concessions, such as easy access to your (presumably infinite) stash, and a really clever balance of regenerating health versus long-term health. They impressively get around making you micromanage health after every fight, while also putting emphasis on not taking more damage than necessary over the long haul. There’s also a potentially interesting system where you build up your own stronghold, and there’s an optional fifteen floor mega dungeon that could end up being a lot of fun. Ultimately though, the strong combat and great writing are the things that really stand out to me about Pillars of Eternity, and are undoubtedly its primary strengths. It can be slow at times, but I also feel like there’s often an exciting encounter or interesting story beat around the next corner. That’s rarely the case for 50+ hour RPGs, but I think Pillars of Eternity is going to have the legs to carry me through. I plan to keep going with it, and hope its second half is as good as its first. I’d like to finish it next month if possible (fingers crossed), and will report back on my progress.

Heroes of the Storm

It's definitely a MOBA, but one I can get into.

The only MOBA I’ve tried before is Dota 2, and I was immediately pushed away by its archaic, exclusionary design. Dota 2 very deliberately enforces nonsensical rules that seem to exist to serve its long-standing, weirdly devoted community, all of which signaled that it was not a game for me. This month I decided to dip my toes back in the MOBA waters, spending a decent amount of time on Heroes of the Storm. Right up front, it was apparent that HotS (using that acronym for something other than Heart of the Swarm still feels wrong) could not be more philosophically different from Dota 2 while still being essentially the same type of game. HotS is incredibly welcoming, and gets rid of a lot of the tedium that plagues games like Dota 2. There’s no “last hits” rule for doling out experience, and as far as I can tell you can’t attack your own minions to “deny” kills. All of that stuff in Dota just felt weird to me, almost like it was an overlooked design quirk that was somehow embraced by the community because it added a higher “skill ceiling”. I just found it to be another thing to micromanage that was tedious and annoying. Furthermore, everyone on the team shares the same experience and level in HotS, which feels like a more straight-forward and logical way to support teamwork. There’s also no item shop to manage during battle, or items period. Instead, as your character levels up you get to periodically choose among a variety of talents that augment your existing abilities or provide new passive bonuses. These talents add a lot of flavor and customization to how you play your character, and they may even provide just as much variety as the items in other MOBAs. By being character specific, talents may provide even more variety, and they’ve allowed Blizzard to get really creative.

In fact, the characters in HotS seem more varied and creative on the whole than I would expect from a MOBA. Take Abathur for example: he’s basically worthless when fighting on his own, but he can provide any ally with some powerful new abilities that he actively controls from a safe distance. Or take Murky, who can put an egg anywhere on the map, which provides a new instantaneous spawn point after death. There’s some fun stuff in here, and yet it all feels a lot more streamlined than I would have expected. I suppose that’s Blizzard’s MO -- making streamlined games that nevertheless have a ton of depth -- and that’s certainly the case with HotS. Any given game can be pretty intense, and definitely requires focus and teamwork to come out on top, but the basics can be learned quickly. Blizzard continues to bring a high level of polish to games that are both accessible and rewarding, and they have also been treating the free-to-play model with care (HotS is handled similarly to Hearthstone in that regard). Anyway, I’ve quite enjoyed what I’ve played of HotS thus far, and while I don’t expect to dive too deep down the rabbit hole, I’m sure I’ll continue to dip my toes in here and there.

The Other Stuff

  • I’ve continued to play Evolve with some friends, which I’ve enjoyed more as I’ve opened up some different characters for some classes. The game’s strength (to me) continues to be the delicate interdependence between the four hunter roles. I've come to appreciate what each one brings to the table, and you really feel it when someone doesn’t pull their weight. Like Left 4 Dead before it, Evolve is a game that makes you work together, which can be cool. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the few times I’ve played as the monster, there’s some frustrating knockback in the game that I’ve seen people abuse, and I do have some questions about balance. But otherwise, Evolve remains a pretty neat game.

Teamwork makes the dream work?
  • My brother and I have been playing through Ibb & Obb, a co-op puzzle game that came through PlayStation Plus a while ago. I’ve been really enjoying it, and think it does what most good puzzle games do: it takes very simple mechanics and pushes them to their limit, continually creating new and different scenarios that are fun to solve. Ibb & Obb manages to do all of that in a way that works in co-op too; you feel like you need both players to advance. It’s also got a cool look to it. It's a good time.
  • I’m not much of a fighting game guy, but I had always wanted to try out the 2011 Mortal Kombat for whatever reason. I finally got around to it this month, and spent a few hours dabbling in its various modes, as well as playing some matches against my brother. All in all I enjoyed it, and found it to be pretty accessible for a genre that’s always felt over my head. I was quickly able to pull off the moves I wanted to, and while I’m never going to execute never-ending juggles, I felt solid with the basics. That goes a long way for me in a fighting game.
  • Continuing my fighting game exploration, I also tried Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition this month, which I’ve never found to be as accessible as MK. I played some Street Fighter II back in the day, yet even after spending a few more hours with SFIV I still can’t reliably perform a shoryuken or a sonic boom. While I know I’m no fighting game maverick, I’m a pretty competent game player in general, so not being able to pull off the game’s more basic moves after a few hours of practice seems pretty ridiculous. In some ways I feel like this should be the fighting game for me, but experience suggests it most definitely is not. Oh well.

Looking Ahead to July

Ah, July. The slowest month for new game releases every year, almost without fail (every now and then December bests it). 2015 is looking no different, as I don’t see a single game scheduled to come out this July that catches my interest. That’s perfectly fine with me, however, as I never have any shortage of games to play; no new games could come out for well over a year and I’d be fine. On top of that, by some bizarre coincidence I’m attending three weddings this July. So my weekends, where most of my gaming tends to happen, aren’t going to be very fruitful on that front. When I do have gaming time this July, however, I will be venturing forth with Pillars of Eternity, along with some ongoing multiplayer games. I will try to pluck a few other games off my backlog as well; one game I’ve had for a while and not started yet is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. That’s at the top of my list at the moment, along with some recent Steam sale acquisitions. We’ll see where all that takes me!

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Monthly Roundup, May 2015

Well, I am a working man once more. After having a welcome month off (I would welcome more time off if I could) I started my new job this week. I am excited about it though (and lucky to have it), so no complaints here! Before work gets into full swing, I do want to wrap up what I played during my month off. Unsurprisingly, I did get to a lot of games in May, and ended up breaking my roundup into two parts as a result. The first part, which covers the first half of the month, can be found here. This is the second part, covering the other games I played over May’s latter two weeks. And with that preamble out of the way, let’s get to the games!

Sega Genesis

Despite having one of these, I never fell in love with it.

Bear with me here, as this one is a little different. Earlier in the year I got it in my head that I should try a lot of the Sega Genesis “classics” that I never played. We actually had a Genesis in the house growing up, but I spent way more time with our Super Nintendo. In my mind, there was never a real rivalry there; the SNES simply had substantially more, better games. At some point it dawned on me, however, that I never played most of the games people loved the Genesis for. I did play the Sonic games back in the day, but otherwise my Genesis experience in the 90s primarily consisted of Disney games (Aladdin, The Lion King, etc.), other licensed games (Jurassic Park, Batman, etc.), the Strike games, and a few other oddballs here and there (Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, etc.). I did play a few other well-loved games, such as Ecco the Dolphin and Earthworm Jim, but to be honest none of those ever grabbed me. I remember liking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Aladdin just fine, and enjoying a few other games in spurts, but the Genesis seemed like a big step down compared to the great library of the SNES.

Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself wanting to go back and give the Genesis its due. This was more of an academic exercise than anything; I never expected playing a bunch of Genesis games 20 years later to make me love the system. Rather, I wanted to get a good sense of what endeared the system to so many others, and what I had missed. So I did my research and compiled a list of highly regarded Genesis games that I had never played, yet looked like games I would have played had I been more informed at the time. This resulted in a nice pile, and I’ve tried out almost all of them over the past two months (mostly in the past few weeks). I didn’t finish any of them (which was never the goal, as most are rather hard), but I played enough of each to feel like I understood them. With all of that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of what I tried (in the order I tried them in), and my brief impressions. Side note: my brother joined me for all co-op beat ‘em ups, as I felt those would be better with a buddy.

Altered Beast is a special game.
  • Altered Beast: This game is preeetty hilarious. Imagine knowing nothing about this game in 2015, and then seeing your character transform with those late 80s animations. It’s a trip. The game plays pretty terribly by today’s standards, but it’s a sight to behold if nothing else. I got a kick out of it.
  • Golden Axe: We tried all three Golden Axe games, and I did not get them at all. They all feel equally sluggish, and the way you get stun locked from every single attack is infuriating. I know it’s old, but I can think of plenty of its contemporaries that did similar stuff, yet felt infinitely better; even older NES beat ‘em ups like Double Dragon and River City Ransom seemed heads and shoulders above this. Despite this series having such a storied legacy, I have a hard time understanding the appeal for it, and had nothing but a bad time with it.
  • Streets of Rage: Contrary to Golden Axe, this trio of beat ‘em ups seems pretty cool. The original feels fairly dated, but the leap from the first game to the second is immediately apparent. I had a pretty good time with what we played of Streets of Rage 2 and 3, and see why they have the reputation they do; they look, sound, and play pretty well. In fact, they’re probably on par with the best such games on the SNES, and we may go back and try and beat one of them sometime.
  • Strider: I had never played any version of Strider before, so why not start with the Genesis one? I won’t say I got super into Strider, but it wasn’t a bad time either. I even gritted through a few continues to try and push further, which is a good sign. It doesn’t always control great, and can be frustrating as a result, but there’s some cool stuff there.
  • Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle: Jeff is right; Alex Kidd is total garbage top to bottom. No idea why anyone would enjoy this game...
  • Comix Zone: This game seems to have some really neat ideas, but man is it tedious. It was a huge effort for me to beat the first stage, and while I understand that’s actually a third of the game, that stage is still pretty frustrating. It’s a very long stage where damage taken at the beginning can doom you later, and there are a number of spots where it’s easy to take damage if you don’t know the trick. This resulted in edging ahead a little further with each attempt, until I had memorized every little detail. That’s not my prefered style of play, even if it was somewhat common in those day. Either way, I didn’t come away that impressed.
  • Columns: This seemed alright, but it’s not really my kind of thing. It didn’t take long for me to get bored, but it’s neat that Sega had a well regarded game of this type.

Ristar is a pretty swell little game.
  • Ristar: Now here’s the good stuff. I genuinely enjoyed what I played of Ristar, and it’s probably the game I played the most of this bunch, and got the farthest in. It just seems like a solid platformer; it looks good, sounds great, and controls pretty well for the most part, despite a few dated/frustrating kinks here and there. All you do is grab things, but the way that grab is translated into so many actions is pretty cool. I think this is a game I would have really liked had I played it as a kid.
  • Gunstar Heroes: I had actually played Gunstar Super Heroes on the GBA before (along with other Treasure favorites), so I more or less knew what to expect from this. And that’s pretty much what I got; a totally ridiculous side-scrolling shooter with more explosions than you could ever need. Like Treasure’s other games, it can be a bit too frantic at times, to the point where I don’t feel I have much room for finesse or accuracy. But there’s still a certain appeal to such madness, and I had an alright time with this. That board game style level is pretty annoying though.
  • Shinobi: I tried two Shinobi games, The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. While I had heard a lot more positive things about the former, it was the latter that I enjoyed more, and by a good margin. It just feels a lot smoother to play, which makes sense being the newer of the two. Regardless, both games can feel kind of clunky in spots, but I did get some enjoyment out of Shinobi III. There’s something neat there.
  • Vectorman: I tried both Vectorman 1 and 2, and of all the Genesis games I tried, these perhaps feel the most modern. That makes sense, given they were released at the tail end of the system’s life, but it still makes for a more pleasantly playing game than most. In other words, I enjoyed both of the Vectorman games (which are extremely similar). I don’t know that they strike me as anything super special, but they are solid games that I probably would have liked as a kid.

That’s a (very) brief look at the selection of Sega Genesis games I played these past two months. While most of them were noticeably dated, it was still interesting that my enjoyment of them ran the gamut. And while it’s really hard to compare them to other Genesis and SNES games that I played back in the 90s, I do think I came out of this exercise with a better understanding of what the Genesis had to offer. There’s some good stuff there that I think I would have gotten into, and I no longer think people who genuinely love the Genesis are delusional :P I still have two more games I want to check out for the system as well. They are a pair of RPGs that were too long to lump in with the pile of short action games: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium and Shining Force II. I’ll get to them when I can, and cover them appropriately. Who knows, they may even help the Genesis’ cause even more!

The Evil Within

This should probably be said up front: Resident Evil 4 is easily one of my favorite games I’ve ever played. At the same time, I’ve never considered myself a Resident Evil fan at large, nor have I ever considered myself a fan of “survival horror”. The only other Resident Evil I’ve liked is Resident Evil 5, and I never got into anything like Silent Hill or similar survival horror games. I think it comes down to the fact that RE4 and RE5 (and also Dead Space) were fun action games and/or shooters above all else. They may have had creepy atmosphere here and there, and some gross monster designs. But the things I really appreciated about those games was the feel of the gunplay, the way the enemies reacted to your shots, the weapons and their upgrades, and how that all came together to create some intense and varied encounters against mobs of exciting enemies. In other words, it was the action and combat scenarios I liked about those games. The “survival” and/or “horror” aspects of them, if they even existed at all, I could take or leave. They made no difference to me.

The Evil Within is at its best when forcing you to manage a large horde of foes at once.

Enter The Evil Within, a game spearheaded by Shinji Mikami and co., and thus shares some DNA with RE4. Needless to say, I was curious. I unfortunately missed this game when it came out (thanks to school), and despite its mixed reaction I still wanted to give the game a shot. It seemed like a “love it or hate it” type of game, and I could only know where I stood if I played it for myself, which I have now done. The result, weirdly enough, is that I both love and hate things about The Evil Within. For starters, the strong combat that defined RE4 is mostly present and accounted for; moving through an environment and using everything at your disposal to take out the enemies in your way can be thrilling in The Evil Within. There’s a scenario early on that shows off this strength in a way eerily similar to RE4, and the movement and feel of the guns, if occasionally a little clunky, still feel very satisfying in general. I highly enjoyed these combat scenarios, and scurrying to pick up ammo and health as enemies lumber towards you, only to turn around and blast their heads off in the knick of time is as fun as ever. The Evil Within also adds some new wrinkles to the formula, in the way of stealth mechanics and traps. The stealth is pretty simple, and aside from a terrible opening chapter, mostly optional. It fits in well enough with the existing action though, and I relied on it regularly. The traps can be hit or miss, though I don’t feel like they're a big enough part of the game to have much impact one way or another.

Unfortunately, I feel like The Evil Within doesn’t hit its strengths frequently or reliably enough. The aforementioned early scenario is one of the game’s high points, and counting that one there are maybe four or five similarly strong sections in the entire game. Each one is probably under 30 minutes, which leaves a lot of time to fill for a game that easily took me over 15 hours. The rest of that chunky playtime consists of slowly slinking through creepy environments picking up supplies, fighting small groups of non-threatening enemies, or participating in some form of set piece, the quality of which can be all over the place. Some are totally fine, but the game’s worst moments come from set pieces that have you navigate an obstacle or avoid an enemy that kills you in one hit, or some other QTE style variant. Otherwise, crawling through corridors and fighting a few easy enemies here and there is rarely that exciting. I feel like the game tries to rely heavily on its decent, but not amazing atmosphere in these situations, which is backed up by its weirdly paced, nonsensical, and generally underwhelming story. Put all of that together, and I simply don’t think the game taps into its strengths nearly enough. The Evil Within has some very high highs, and between that and its pedigree I expected to like the game a lot more. But while I certainly never hated it, its other sections never clicked for me either. There very well may be survival horror “purists” that like those moments, but I would have gotten more out of it had it focused on those large action scenarios much more frequently.

Looking Ahead to June

I’ve only been out of work for just over a year, but it will probably still take me a bit to get into a rhythm with it again. June is a reboot in that sense, which may lead to some weird gaming patterns, but I would be willing to bet I’ll get my fair share of gaming in. As for what I’ll actually play, that’s a bit up in the air right now. I’m currently poking away at some final Pokemon team-building tasks, and after that I have a handful of ideas that I’m not fully willing to commit to just yet. Rest assured, something will be played. There are some potentially interesting June releases as well. Massive Chalice officially just came out (finally), and Batman: Arkham Knight is the month’s big release. I may or may not dabble in one of those, but I have plenty of other options either way.

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Mid-Month Roundup, May 2015

Seeing as I have the month of May off, I’m going to shake things up and write not one, but two roundups this month. It’s a designated gaming month for me after all, which means I’ve been spending quite a bit of time catching up; if I saved it all for a single blog, it would be a lengthy one. Thus, here is my mid-month roundup for May, which covers the games I played during the first half of the month. Let’s get to it!

Bloodborne

I've been working my way through Bloodborne these past few weeks, and currently find myself right at the end of the game. While I'm technically not quite done with it yet, I'm more than close enough to elaborate on it. The main thing that needs to be said up front is that I really like Bloodborne, and it's another fantastic game from the folks behind the Souls games. It should also be said that, yes, Bloodborne is very much like the Souls games in the ways that matter most. There are certainly differences, but they are incredibly subtle, and the high points of what made the Souls games great also make Bloodborne great. A meticulously designed world to explore, plenty of secrets and mysteries to discover, hard hitting combat, fairly robust RPG systems, and a stiff but rewarding challenge are once again the order of the day, and combine to make another wonderful action RPG.

Combat is fast and furious in Bloodborne.

I don't think I need to dive into all those details any further, seeing as this is the fourth game in this line; you know what this game is by now. As such, I'll focus more on the minor differences, but just keep in mind that they are indeed minor in the grand scheme of things. To me, the two most meaningful such changes are the combat and the character building aspects of Bloodborne. The combat has been altered to incentivise more fast-paced action, becoming more about dodging and countering than circle strafing and blocking. The lack of shields or heavy armor are the most obvious incentives for being more active in combat, but the way you recover lost health by quickly hitting enemies also encourages more aggressive play. That said, it's not like you can't still hang back if you want to, poking your head in for the occasional opportunistic attack before retreating once more. You can still be fairly passive in combat, the game simply doesn't give you as many tools to do so, and enemies are generally more aggressive as well. This all works in Bloodborne, however, because the controls are noticeably tighter than they were in previous games; the action here feels precise, and responsive. Once you get a feel for the timings, combat is an exhilarating flurry that's more satisfying than it’s been in the previous games, or at least the pure tactile feel of it is.

Along with the combat, the character building aspect feels different in Bloodborne. I would guess the impetus of the change is to support the stronger focus on pure action, but the result is really that there just aren't as many character building options to be found. We're down to six stats, two of which seem relatively useless from my experience (bloodtinge and arcane), there's not a big difference between armor sets, and there's no real magic or archery to be found. At least, not to the point where you could build a character around them. The classic heavily armored tank is also MIA, which means pretty much everyone is going to have a slightly different variant of a lighter, faster, melee focused character. The only real divergences are whether you focus more on strength or skill (dex), and which weapons you upgrade and primarily use. Fortunately the game does have a decent stable of different feeling weapons, and everyone should be able to experiment with them and find something that suits their style. But once you’ve found that weapon you like, well, that seems to be about it. And if you’re like me, and stick with your starting weapon the entire game (the hunter’s axe), there’s not really much character development going on. That may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it, but I do miss the more nuanced character building from the previous games. I considered that one of their stronger aspects, and Bloodborne loses that in its more focused, streamlined approach.

Yharnam is another fantastic world to explore.

Almost all of Bloodborne’s changes seem to be aimed towards doing just that: making it more focused and streamlined. While I can bemoan the simpler character building, it surprisingly hasn’t lost much else in the process. In fact, I think the world and boss designs in particular are more or less on par with the best in the series. The only two things that seems less streamlined, and are among my biggest nit-picky gripes with the game, are the way it handles your healing items and leveling up. Having a set number of estus flasks that refilled at every bonfire worked perfectly in Dark Souls, but Bloodborne’s blood vials no longer refill automatically. On top of that, they don’t drop from enemies often later in the game, which means I’ve found myself tediously grinding for them regularly. I have absolutely no idea why they changed that aspect, which worked so well already. As for leveling up, the first Dark Souls is the only game in this line that let you level up directly at a bonfire. Bloodborne once again makes you warp back to the central hub area to level up, which needlessly forces you through two extra loading screens every time you do so. Those gripes aside, however, I’ve been having a blast with Bloodborne. It’s another intensely rewarding action RPG from From Software, and while it’s not my favorite one they’ve made, I still like it a lot better than most games out there right now. As far as I can tell I’m in the final area of the game, so unless I dive too deep into chalice dungeons, I should be wrapping it up shortly.

Broken Age

I don’t have much experience with classic “point-and-click” adventure games. I remember having a few of the Goosebumps games as a kid, and I’ve played some of the modern Telltale stuff, but when it comes to the Monkey Islands and Grim Fandangos of the world, I have essentially no experience. Those two games in particular are backlog items I’m keen to go back and visit, but in the meantime I decided it would be worth checking out a more modern entry from Tim Schafer himself. Regardless of the game’s history with Kickstarter, I was curious to see what a veteran of the genre would do with it in 2014-2015. And while I don’t have much direct experience myself for comparison, I would imagine Broken Age is a fairly faithful homage to the classic style. I played through the entire thing (that’s both acts without a break in between) within a few week span, and I really enjoyed its writing and characters, but found most of the “puzzles” to be fairly tedious and unsatisfying.

Vella and Curtis might be my favorite characters.

Fortunately, it is the writing and characters that primarily take center stage. Vella and Shay are two very different, but equally charming protagonists, and their stories intertwine in some interesting ways. I especially liked learning about the strange world they live in, and discovering what was really going on behind the scenes, with the most interesting moments occurring when their paths crossed. This happened most directly at the end of each act, but occurred in other, more subtle ways throughout. I also liked a lot of the characters you interact with along the way, and my conversations with them frequently made me laugh; there’s some really great writing in here. I also dug the look and tone of the game quite a bit. It all combined to make for a great narrative that I wholeheartedly enjoyed seeing, but alas, the act of playing it wasn’t quite up to par. At their best, interactions were fairly harmless, and involved walking around and talking to people or picking up/using items in fairly obvious ways. Not terribly exciting, but completely inoffensive. As the game went on, however, and the puzzles got more involved and more obtuse, they began to feel like a nuisance that merely obstructed the game’s better qualities. Often these required you to use or combine items in completely unintuitive ways, such that you’d have to tediously click on basically everything to figure it out (I may have resorted to a guide at times). Worse were the puzzles that, even when you knew the solution, were a pain to execute. Two in particular stand out: one involving a knot, the other involving guiding an NPC character around a damaged ship. Both of these caused minor headaches, and I’m glad I never have to see them again.

But that’s how adventure games go, right? As someone who’s not that well versed in the genre, that’s been my impression of the typical adventure game over the years. In which case, Broken Age is indeed an adventure game through and through. I’m certainly glad I played it, and my experience with Broken Age leaves me just as interested to check out a few other “classics” somewhere down the road. It may never be my favorite genre, but I’m willing to trudge through some tedium in favor of writing and characters as good as this. Broken Age also didn’t overstay its welcome, and I would imagine anyone with even a mild interest in such games would have a good time.

Pokemon Alpha Sapphire

Sharpedo. It's a shark... torpedo.

I found myself deep down the Pokemon rabbit hole again these past two weeks, and while I don’t have the numbers to prove it, I’m pretty sure I spent more time on Pokemon Alpha Sapphire than anything else during that time. I’ve been training competitive Pokemon on and off since the Diamond/Pearl days, and I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time now to update all of my scatter-shot and/or dated teams for the current “metagame”, so to speak. Therefore, I gave a serious re-examination to each and every Pokemon I’ve ever trained, and performed tweaks to almost all of them; in some cases this meant re-training them from scratch. I also reworked my team compositions, and trained a few brand new Pokemon to fill some holes. All in all, it was an incredibly involved and time-consuming process that could only reasonably be done during a break (the planning alone was an ordeal), but it was also somewhat cathartic. Now I have a large stable of modern, fighting fit Pokemon (even if they’re not all top tier), and I really look forward to seeing them in action. I’ve played a small handful of matches with them, and while it always takes a while to fully digest the results (nothing happens fast in Pokemon), the early signs seem positive. I’m particularly liking a new team spread that utilizes a hazing Skarmory with a set-up Volcarona, and I’m also excited to finally have a speed boosted Sharpedo in my ranks (on a different team). Because, you know, Sharpedo. Anyway, I hope to play more matches in the near future, and see how my new teams do. I’m sure I’ll find some more things to tweak here and there, but it feels good to have some fun and updated Pokemon.

The Other Stuff

  • I picked up Evolve recently, and have played a handful of matches with some friends. There are some interesting mechanics at work here, and the balance between the monster and the hunters is pretty neat. The hunters really have to work together to survive, and the monster really has to exploit any weakness present on the hunter team. I still feel like I’m getting my feet wet and learning the ropes, and I also don’t feel like I’ve gotten the genuine Evolve experience yet; I’ve not played against someone who really know what they’re doing as the monster (it’s always been one of us, who generally play hunters). I’m looking forward to trying more though, and will have more to say once I do.

He's a boy. He makes boxes.
  • I finally got around to playing another game of Civilization: Beyond Earth last week. I played one game right when it came out, but it’s been left untouched since, and I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit it. I finally got around to doing that, and tried out some different aspects of the game. I bumped up the difficulty, pursed different virtues and affinities, and focused more on combat than science, but my takeaways are much the same. Beyond Earth is a very fun Civ game, but it’s also so similar to Civ V that it feels like a mod as much as anything. Some of its tweaks are interesting (I like the way it handles unit upgrades in particular), but in the end I’d probably still get more out of playing the more fully featured Civ V instead. I have no idea if I’ll play much (if any) more Beyond Earth in the future.
  • I picked up BoyBox! last week, and have played through the first few worlds. It’s been a really neat little puzzle game so far, with some really clever ideas. So far it does what all great puzzle games do, which is to introduce simple ideas, then end up getting a lot of mileage out of them. It’s been constantly introducing new things you can do with said abilities, and if the pacing keeps up like this, it could turn into something pretty special. I also really like the look and style of the game, and it’s been an awesome thing to just pick up and play here and there. I’m looking forward to more of it.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of May

As May continues, so does the gaming. Polishing off Bloodborne is right at the top of my to-do list in the near future, along with playing more Evolve, BoxBoy!, and of course Pokemon. I would also really like to get through The Evil Within while I’m on break, which should be doable. Otherwise I’ll be cherry picking some more items off the backlog here and there. And maybe I’ll consider plunging into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Probably not yet, but you never know.

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Monthly Roundup, April 2015

Well, I’ve made it. After the busiest year of my life I have a brand new master’s degree, which is honestly a little bittersweet at the moment; for as busy and difficult as the year was, I know I’m going to miss it. Otherwise I have a whole month off before I start my next job, and I’m pretty excited to use that time to rest and catch up on some video games I’ve fallen behind on. Before I get to that, however, it’s time to round up the games I did manage to get to during my final month of school. It turned out to be a mostly low-key month, at least compared to the rest of the year, and I had some solid gaming time. I think I used it to good effect too, and played some pretty darn good games. Let’s get to it!

Axiom Verge

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Axiom Verge since I first saw it in motion, albeit with a cautious optimism. Metroid is one of my favorite franchises after all, and given Nintendo’s current (and lengthy) neglect of the franchise, it’s been left to others to try to recreate what it has done so well in the past. While a scant few have gotten close (Shadow Complex being perhaps the best example), no one else has really captured that Metroid spirit. I still cringe whenever the term “Metroidvania” is used, because, as mentioned last month, it’s a poor word that has essentially lost all meaning. We throw it around freely to describe games that barely feel like Metroid and/or Castlevania (two series that in themselves aren’t all that alike), and trying to describe an entire “subgenre” with a portmanteau of two very specific games simply doesn’t hold up; imagine if we described all 2D platformers as “Mariosonics” or something. Yet we keep doing it, with Axiom Verge being the latest game to fall into that trap.

Exploring Axiom Verge's world is a treat.

Hence the skepticism; it always feels like that often inaccurate term is meant to be nostalgia bait more than anything. But something about Axiom Verge seemed genuinely intriguing, so I held out hope that it would pan out regardless of how much it deserved its dumb label. Fortunately, it is interesting. Very interesting. And lo and behold, it also happens to be the most “Metroid” of any game I’ve tried that’s not actually Metroid; it well surpasses Shadow Complex for that title. You have a large, intricately designed, and mysterious alien world to explore, one that hides a rich history. You acquire a host of weapons and upgrades throughout your journey, and each one adds substantial functionality to your ever expanding repertoire. You fight larger than life bosses, search every nook and cranny for hidden secrets, and are accompanied by some fantastic visuals and a killer soundtrack while you’re at it. It checks all the boxes I want, but none more so than that exploration element. For a game of this style to work, I feel it really has to nail the exploration above all else. Metroid never had best in class combat or platforming or anything; it succeeded by giving you an incredibly well designed world to explore. Most importantly, it gave you compelling reasons to explore that world. Axiom Verge does this extremely well, matching the classics. There’s just a lot of variety from start to finish, which is apparent in the visual style of the areas, the enemies and bosses, the environmental puzzles, and the useful abilities you’re constantly picking up. All of this makes it exciting to round the next corner, as there’s always a high potential for something new, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. Exploring Axiom Verge’s dirty sci-fi world is constantly enticing, and easily the best part of the game.

Axiom Verge has some really cool bosses.

That’s not to say the rest of the game is a slouch. The combat is at least as solid as it is in any Metroid game, and its variety of guns may make it better. The story is also something I found uniquely interesting, and the audiovisual presentation is top notch; I can’t stop listening to its soundtrack. Every piece of the game comes together beautifully to produce an experience that I was consistently eager to push forward. I didn’t put it down until I had meticulously explored every corner many times over, squeezing every last drop out of it I could. I’m still ready for more too, and will likely dive back in someday. Finally, for as much as Axiom Verge successfully replicates what Metroid has done so well, it subverts those tropes just as frequently. In particular, the abilities you acquire function and combine in unique ways that I never could have predicted. Many of my favorite moments in the game came from realizing how two seemingly unrelated abilities combined to increase my mobility in profound ways. These moments were incredibly exciting, filling my imagination with all sorts of new possibilities, and sparked lengthy expeditions. The way the game hides items also requires a fresh logic that’s more nuanced than your typical “lock and key” situation. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a lot of subtle information conveyed within the world, its creatures, and their language; it’s worth paying attention to even the tiniest of details. Many of these items aren’t required at all either, and the order you can obtain them is much more dynamic than similar games. Axiom Verge also has some incredibly smart boss designs, and they’re often susceptible to different weapons. I imagine your strategy for some bosses could vary wildly depending on which weapons you’ve acquired, and it’s cool to see such a dynamic structure in a type of game that typically relies on certain items for certain bosses.

All of this to say, I really, really like Axiom Verge. In many ways it takes the essence of the best Metroid games, and then spins off into an alternate timeline to create something that is very much its own thing. It looks great, sounds even better, and is a joy to play every step of the way. In particular, its world is extremely well designed, and I eagerly explored its countless hallways until I had left no stone unturned. It’s a surprisingly fresh take on a style of game I’ve always held dear, and it certainly doesn’t need that “Metroidvania” label to stand out. Axiom Verge is an awesome game, plain and simple, and while this type of game isn’t for everyone, I’d have a hard time not recommending it in any circumstance.

The Talos Principle

The puzzles here will keep you on your toes.

Almost every year there’s at least one game I don’t get around to playing by year’s end that should have ended up on my top 10 list. This is now the case for 2014, thanks to The Talos Principle. It simply came out too late to make my 2014 top 10, but I feel pretty confident in saying it would have had I played it. This is a class act puzzle game from start to finish, combining surprisingly intricate puzzle design with a world and mythos that ends up being pretty fascinating by the end. It was the puzzles that grabbed me at first though. Like Portal and Antichamber before it, The Talos Principle is a first person puzzle game that relies on a few seemingly simple mechanics that end up proving to be very robust. It’s able to combine and permute its ideas in different, interesting ways, introducing new layers of complexity with each one. This leads to a series of puzzles that feel like they continually ramp up without having to introduce new mechanics; it’s a perfect example of a game getting a lot of mileage out of a few good ideas. For the game’s opening hours I was hooked, and wanted to see what new logic the next puzzle introduced. I learned to move boxes, place jammers, and redirect light beams in all sorts of clever ways, and only rarely did I encounter a solution that was even slightly frustrating. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are as rewarding as just about anything out there. Only the game’s length dragged them down for me, as I felt it bogged down towards the end ever so slightly. Still, it’s a very minor complaint of what’s otherwise a stellar suite of puzzles.

Given the caliber of its puzzles, The Talos Principle would be a great game if that’s all it was, but it layers in a story that’s almost as interesting on its own merits. I wasn’t sold on it at first, however, as it begins with some pretty stereotypical philosophical musings, such as the definition of humanity, the nature of free will, or the role of religion. These story bits occur via computer terminals scattered in each level that you scroll through and read, and I initially found this process to be a distracting hindrance to the exquisite puzzles. As the game went on, however, and the puzzles started to bog down, the text within these terminals lifted the game with a broader subtext. While the esoteric musings still never did much for me, I grew more curious about the true nature of what was really happening with these puzzle chambers. You start to uncover details about how all of this became constructed, and while the multiple endings were fairly obvious, I thought they were very well done nonetheless. The ending I got was really cool, and was accompanied by a fairly impactful final sequence. So in the end I appreciated the game’s story component, and when combined with the puzzles it makes for a game that’s engaging on multiple levels. The Talos Principle is a game that will make you think in a myriad of ways if nothing else, making it a game worth checking out for anyone who isn’t opposed to doing so.

The Other Stuff

  • Some friends and I spent a few hours with The Jackbox Party Pack, which marks the first time I’ve played any of the games contained within. Though if I’m being honest, we mostly just played Fibbage, which is easily the standout of the pack. It’s a hilarious and entertaining way to spend time with a group of people who aren’t comfortable with a controller in their hands, and it all works because the questions posed are just odd enough to allow the players to devise all sorts of lies that are just believable enough. I can easily see myself playing more Fibbage in the future.

Delicious!
  • I spent a surprisingly hefty chunk of time on Cook, Serve, Delicious! last month, which turned out to be way more addictive than I expected. There’s something mesmerizing about putting together customer orders under strict time pressure; think about applying something like Papers, Please’s document checking dynamic to a fast paced restaurant. On top of that, there’s an interesting metagame where you upgrade your restaurant itself. It’s all quite fascinating, with the only downside being that it sadly and needlessly feels drawn out and repetitive. I played a few hours and got a little past a one star restaurant, and I’m not sure if I will go back. But I really like what I played.
  • At long last, I finally got around to playing through Monument Valley in April. Seeing as the game is under two hours long, it really shouldn’t have taken me this long to play it, but here we are. Fortunately I enjoyed it though, even if it was a bit simple in the end. I feel like there was room to push those ideas further, but the core concept is still interesting and strong enough to be worth it. Plus, the game looks and sounds really cool. It’s a neat thing.
  • Despite genuinely liking the Wii (seemingly one of the few), I had never gotten around to trying one of its rare lauded WiiWare franchises, LostWinds. Correcting that had been in the back of my mind for some time, and I finally played a few hours of LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias last month. As these things can often go, I ended up not liking it that much. The way you push your character around via the Wii remote was a frustrating hindrance more often than I felt it should have been, and the game’s environmental puzzles were too shallow to be that engaging. I enjoyed the charming presentation, but otherwise I didn’t find much that grabbed me in LostWinds, which was a bit of a bummer.

Looking Ahead to May

As mentioned up top, for the first time in a long time I have a genuine gaming month ahead of me in May, which I plan to use to its fullest. I sunk quite a few hours into Bloodborne over the past two weeks, which will remain my primary focus for the time being. I’ve also started Broken Age, and I will have things to say about both those games in the future. The next “big” game I really want to get to this month is The Evil Within, which seems doable, and I’ll pepper the month with some as-yet-to-be-determined backlog games as well. We’ll have to see where I am after that, and if I make quick progress I may even do a “mid-month roundup”. Finally, there are a few interesting games coming out in May: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Splatoon, and Galactic Civilizations III are all scheduled for release this month. I’m not totally sold on any of those yet, but they’ve all caught my eye. Regardless of what games I manage to get to, I expect May to be a pretty serious gaming month. It’s been a long time since I’ve said that, and it feels pretty good :)

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Monthly Roundup, March 2015

March was the month where I finally started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After a long, busy, and very tough year in grad school, graduation is only a month away. And realistically, most of the work will be done around mid-April. That means some genuine gaming time looms in the not too distant future, but March still carried a heavy workload for most of the month. In fact, I barely played any games at all during its first half. As the second half started to lighten up ever so slightly, however, I was able to sneak in a handful of games here and there. All of the games I played this month were very short, and I’m still having to delay diving into March’s big game (Bloodborne), but hey, games are games. Let’s talk about ‘em!

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Unfortunately it doesn't play as good as it looks.

After hearing all the praise it got at the end of 2014, I’ve had The Vanishing of Ethan Carter at the top of my list for some months now (there’s a “paper trail” of that on this very site). After months of pushing it off for one reason or another, I finally got around to playing it in March. And in an ironic twist that I kind of saw coming, I ended up not really liking it. While the game is absolutely gorgeous (one of the few games I’ve ever played where I stopped to gawk at the scenery for minutes on end), the puzzles and story did not grab me at all. Most of the “puzzles” didn’t have any consistent logic I could identify, which led to me blindly interacting with everything until it worked. At different times this involved both “pixel hunt” type situations (not in the literal sense, but you get the idea), and pure trial and error. The latter primarily occurred when trying to piece together the chronology at the end of each puzzle, as those sections felt very arbitrary to me. I therefore found all of the gameplay very unsatisfying, and the story didn’t fare any better. It was a supernatural murder mystery of sorts, but the way it laid everything out felt very soulless and meaningless to me. I never acquired more than a baseline understanding of what was going on, and the understanding I got was not interesting in the slightest. It just didn’t have any punch to it, which is really what I could say for the entire game. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sure is pretty to look at, but I can’t say I’ll remember it fondly for any other reason.

Xeodrifter

Shootin'. Explorin'. Xeodriftin'.

I played through Xeodrifter this month, which didn’t take but 2-3 hours. I was interested in this game when I first saw it at the end of last year, as it seemed like a bite-sized exploration focused game that nonetheless had some real substance to it. That’s pretty much what it is too, and I quite enjoyed it. Despite its brevity, I think it does what it sets out to do very well. It keeps up the pace from start to finish, the levels are well designed and fun to explore, and the upgrades you regularly get feel meaningful. They gave me that sense of constantly becoming more capable of surviving in the world around me, and looking for extra power-ups was pretty satisfying as well. I enjoyed the iterative boss design too; each boss in the game was the same basic creature, but every time you fought it saw it gain new, more powerful tricks. That created a neat and consistent through-line for the game that glued it all together. I also enjoyed the art style and music, but the one thing I didn’t care for as much was some of the combat and enemy design. Much like Mutant Mudds before it, combat mostly boils down to standing and shooting a creature in a dull rhythm, while jumping over the occasional counter fire. Some later enemies are a little more interesting and demand more dexterity, but the real issue is that many enemies are big bullet sponges. It wasn’t uncommon for me to rotely shoot through a series of nonthreatening enemies for 5-10 seconds each, which gets old fast. Other than the somewhat lackluster combat, however, I think Xeodrifter is a nifty little game, and worth a look from anyone who likes an exploration focused action game.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ever since I saw the debut trailer for Ori and the Blind Forest, my interest was piqued. The game looked and sounded absolutely incredible right out of the gate, and it seemed to have some tight platforming to boot. All of those initial impressions proved to be correct, which is a rare and wonderful thing when it happens. I played through Ori in its entirety during March, obtaining practically 100% (more on that in a minute). Needless to say, the game’s presentation is outstanding. You really have to see it in action, but the way the art moves on screen is a sight to behold, and really imbued a lot of personality and life into the whole experience. The soundtrack is just as good as the visuals, if not better, and it comes together to convey a surprisingly touching narrative. I found it easy to become invested in the game’s happenings, and willingly let it guide my emotions from start to finish. That said, this is very much a gameplay focused game above all else. Ori is driven by some tight, action heavy platforming, which could get satisfyingly tough in a few spots. There was only one sequence near the end that I found frustrating, but Ori’s platforming otherwise felt great to me. It formed a rock solid core that I never got tired of engaging with.

Impressively, Ori plays about as good as it looks.

What wasn’t apparent from that initial trailer, however, was Ori and the Blind Forest’s exploration aspect. Or, to resort to the overused description, how “Metroidvania” it is. That word is falsely mentioned so often that it’s practically lost all meaning at this point, but in the case of Ori the sentiment is mostly accurate. The game has a sprawling 2D world with all sorts of nooks and crannies, and its many different paths and areas weave back in on themselves frequently enough to make the world feel like a single interconnected space. You acquire new abilities as you progress, which compliment your platforming to allow you to access new areas, or empower you to better combat enemies. There’s also experience points to be gained and spent on a skill tree, and tons of collectibles to find that include health upgrades, energy upgrades (for saving and special moves), and large experience pickups. All in all, I think the exploration and upgrades are handled very well. It may not be as intricate or sharp as, say, Super Metroid, but Ori does that stuff noticeably better than most games have in a long time. I for one enjoyed poking and prodding at every part of the game’s large, diverse map. One side comment that doesn’t apply to just Ori, is that I’m not sure how much I like the modern trend of games with important collectibles eventually showing you their location on the map. I understand the frustration of retreading the entire world for that one last collectible (trust me on that one), but at the same time collectibles feel even more like busy work when it’s all mapped out for you. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I feel like there should exist a better balance on that stuff.

My only substantial gripe with Ori and the Blind Forest, however, is that there are missable collectibles and upgrades in the game; that seems downright criminal in a game so focused on exploration. Not only that, but once you beat the game you can’t load your file back up at all. It still sounds completely crazy, but once you beat the game you can only play more Ori by starting a new file. I have no idea if this was a design choice or a massive oversight (or if it may be patched later), but either way it’s super lame, and will drive any completionist nuts. Fortunately for me I knew that ahead of time, and was prepared to just let some items go. As far as I can tell I only missed a single item, which was a permanently missable energy orb . That was a little annoying, but I quickly let it go and moved on, accepting my experience. And on the whole, it was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone who likes strong 2D platforming and/or exploration. The sweet presentation doesn’t hurt either, and the result is a beautifully complete package that delivers on all fronts.

Grow Home

Climbing, then falling. The cycle of life.

Grow Home is a game I just want to hug. It’s so gosh darn cheerful about everything it does; it has that joie de vivre about it that I always wish more games had. And while it’s not perfect, it’s a pretty fun game to play as well. The gameplay primarily boils down to collecting crystals and climbing a giant plant, never getting any more ambitious than that. In some ways it reminds me of very early 3D platformers on the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation, in the way that they were primarily about roaming a 3D space and picking stuff up. Grow Home is a similarly simple game (maybe even simpler than those games), but maintains the same positive spirit. And truth be told, the climbing can be pretty fun. The way you can stick to just about anything, holding on as you alternate one hand over the other, can be pretty mesmerizing in spots. It can also be kind of dull after a while, and there came a point where I grew tired of slowly and tediously climbing a giant formation looking for another trinket. The frustrating camera was the worst part of it, as I frequently had issues trying to look around to see where I needed to go. Less of an issue, but an issue nonetheless, was you character B.U.D.’s movement. Billed as “procedural animation”, I found it prone to just spazzing out here and there. I’d become oriented in a random direction, or sometimes just straight up fall down unprompted. I’m not sure what the benefits are of doing movement that way either, which made it feel like a fancy tech demo as much as anything. In fact, that’s almost how I feel about Grow Home on the whole. It’s short, cheap, has a few neat ideas, but still feels too lacking in some key areas to be a complete thing. It’s got some real heart to it, and the low barrier to entry makes it totally worth a shot, but Grow Home is really a simple collectathon more than anything. I’m not sure how much it will stick with me as a result.

The Other Stuff

  • I tried Crypt of the NecroDancer with a dance pad this month. Naturally, playing with a dance pad made things a lot harder, and that’s even playing on the dance pad (ie., easy) difficulty. I’ve played a lot of DDR over the years, and consider myself pretty good at it, but maneuvering around and reacting to a randomized dungeon is another beast entirely. It was kind of fun though, and I’d like to play it that way some more; it’s a good challenge, and in a way makes the game more interesting to me. Crypt of the NecroDancer is perfectly fine with a controller, but I’m not one to get super into such games, and adding that physical workout to it may get me to come back more often.

A simple but charming rhythm game. With Pokemon.
  • I went back to OlliOlli (the original) this month, and made my way through the rest of the levels. I ended up ignoring the challenges for the sake of simply finishing the levels, as I have no interest in chasing high scores. That’s probably missing the point entirely, but it just didn’t grab me enough to want to dive that deep. I will say I got more used to the controls as I played, and I think it’s a neat game for those who want a very involved, technical skateboarding game that they can perfect and chase high scores with. That’s not me, but it was still a neat game to see. Who knows, I may check out the sequel someday.
  • I played through the entirety of Gunman Clive in about an hour, which I had gotten for a dollar or so in an eShop sale. It’s a pretty bare bones platformer/shooter, kind of reminiscent of the old Mega Man games in a way, just with a lot less meat to it. It made for an enjoyable enough hour, but I’ll admit I wouldn’t care to play more of it. I’ve played enough similar games that do something interesting past the basics, and I don’t even know that Gunman Clive did the basics all that well; the controls felt kind of stiff to me. I did enjoy that game’s style though, for what that’s worth.
  • I’ve been playing HarmoKnight as March comes to a close, which is a simple eShop rhythm game from the Pokemon folks. I’m a sucker for weird Japanese rhythm games in general, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to drop my Club Nintendo coins on it when presented the option. At any rate, you control a character moving across a side-scrolling screen, attacking and jumping in rhythm with the beat. It’s nothing new or complicated, but it’s executed well enough, and has some welcome challenge to it. It also has a goofy but likable personality, and that’s probably the main thing that’s keeping me going. That and the Pokemon themed bonus stages. Otherwise the game’s almost too simple to really stand out, but it’s not a bad time by any means, and has been a solid pick-up-and-play title as I wrap up some big school projects.

Looking Ahead to April

The two March releases I was most eager to play were Bloodborne and Axiom Verge. I simply didn’t have time for Bloodborne during March, and Axiom Verge only came out on the last day of the month. Needless to say, that pair of heavy hitters is right at the top of my list for April. I’ll tackle Axiom Verge first, and if school lightens up the way I expect it to, I just may be able to dive into Bloodborne as well. Otherwise I have a lengthy backlog as always, which is currently led by The Talos Principle, and there are a few games of interest coming out in April. Titan Souls, Mighty No. 9, and the second act of Broken Age are all due for imminent release, and I’m curious how each turns out. I have plenty of gaming options, that’s for sure, and here’s hoping I can find some solid gaming time during this final month of school!

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The Big 5-0

For years I’ve kept a running list of my favorite games. I prefer to think of it more as my personal “Hall of Fame”, to which I make a few inductions every year or two. There’s no science behind it, but I do put a lot of thought into every single game that goes on the list; additions don’t come lightly. I only add a game when it feels right, and every game on there has proven to be one that had a huge impact on me in some way. I also always have numerous games that sit “on the edge” of making the list, as there are countless other games I hold hear. But I have to be absolutely sure a game deserves it before making the cut, that it hangs with the games already present. I think the list’s exclusivity is one of its strengths, and I’m very conscious of losing that. It’s a special list of special games (for me personally), and one I handle with a lot of thought and a lot of care.

I say all of that to give a clearer picture of what the list is about. The main reason for this blog, however, is that I recently made a round of “inductions” to the list that happen to bring the grand tally up to an even 50 games. In light of that milestone, I found myself reflecting on the wonderful games that comprise the list, and I felt like giving it a little shout-out. That’s really all I’m doing here; getting a little nostalgic and self-indulgent, and taking a light-hearted look at some interesting things that stood out to me from the list. Others may or may not find this interesting, but I at least had fun looking back and identifying some trends. Think of this as basically a haphazard collection of “fun facts”. And away we go!

Yep.
  • I was born in 1986. That probably influences a lot of the list.
  • I also didn't have a gaming PC until the late 90s, and never got that into Sega consoles.
  • Super Mario World is the oldest game, released in 1991 for the SNES.
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the newest game, released in 2014 for the PC, PS4, and Xbox One (ok, there are technically PS3 and Xbox 360 versions too).
  • On average, from 1991-2014, there are just over 2 games per year.
  • The only year from 1991-2014 without a game represented is 1993.
  • The most represented year is 2003 with 5 games, followed by 2005 with 4 games.
  • I don’t know which year is, but I now feel pretty confident in saying 1998 is not my favorite year for games. That’s right, I said it :)
  • Still, 1998 was pretty amazing, with 3 wonderful games represented.
  • 16 platforms are represented on this list: 4 handhelds, 11 consoles, and the PC.
  • 36 games on this list are exclusives, including every game before 2003. Since then about half of the games are exclusives.
  • The SNES has the most exclusive games represented, with 7 games, followed by the PC with 6 (StarCraft is an exclusive in my book!).
  • The GameCube was a good system. 7 games on this list are playable on a GameCube, including 4 exclusives. QED
  • Every platform represented on this list has at least 1 exclusive, except for the new consoles (the PS4 and Xbox One).

Still yep!
  • Genres can be subjective and hard to formally quantify, but there’s quite a range of them represented any way you look at it.
  • Still, there’s likely a skew towards action/adventure games, RPGs, and strategy games.
  • No franchise has more than 3 games represented, and 3 franchises meet this count: Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy.
  • No, I don’t count Yoshi’s Island or Super Mario RPG as traditional “Super Mario” games :)
  • 14 games on this list were developed by various Nintendo studios, and many others were published by Nintendo.
  • Needless to say, Nintendo is the most represented company on this list, though there’s only 1 game from them since 2007 (Pokemon X/Y).
  • Square Enix is the next most represented developer (including games from Squaresoft before the merge), with 6 games represented.
  • 31 games on this list are direct sequels. Most of them are Nintendo games, Square Enix games, or PC games.
  • Almost exactly half of the games on this list (26) were made in Japan, with the rest being western developed games.
  • While the west has become slightly more prominent recently, the trend is more evenly spread over time than I would have guessed.
  • To no one’s surprise, Nintendo platforms are dominated by the east, and Microsoft platforms (including PC/Windows) are dominated by the west. Sony platforms are fairly balanced.

And there you have it, roughly two dozen “fun facts” about a list nobody but me probably cares about! It was a fun exercise nonetheless, and maybe someone found it entertaining. It’s nice to sit back and reflect from time to time, and 50 seemed like just the right milestone to do so. Who knows how long it will take, but here’s looking ahead to 100! :)

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Monthly Roundup, February 2015

It’s been a long, stressful February for me in a lot of ways, which also meant my gaming time suffered pretty heavily (making this a shorter entry as a result). School was busy, the weather was busy (way worse than normal for my area), and I was also busy job hunting, preparing for post-school life once more. Some of those stressors are winding down, some are still going strong, and gaming time remains at a premium. This month practically all of that time was spent on Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, which is going to be my primary focus here. I managed to work in a few hours across a handful of other titles as well; you can find all the details below!

Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire

This little guy has been great to have this past year.

In a strange way, I’ve found that playing on handhelds has produced my most fruitful gaming time during the busiest parts of this past year. It’s only strange because I don’t actually “game on the go”; I rarely take my handhelds with me outside my apartment, and I actually use them elsewhere even less. Virtually all of my handheld playing is done in the exact same room where my consoles and PC live, and yet I’ve found playing on handhelds much more conducive to getting through games while busy. Both the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita boot quickly, have easily activated sleep modes, and can be played at my computer desk without having to move to the TV or load anything on my PC (which generally has schoolwork on screen). All of that makes jumping in and out of a game quick and easy, and even more important is that many handheld games are designed with this style of play in mind. Therefore, when I need to be working and can’t afford lengthy breaks, but welcome short and somewhat frequent ones, handhelds are the way to go.

Weirdly, seeing this made me want a Pokemon spinoff in space. With space Pokemon.

In February, that meant playing a lot of Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (I specifically have Alpha Sapphire, but I’ll refer to the pair as ORAS for short). As I briefly mentioned last month, the original Generation III games are the only core Pokemon games I’ve never played. And while playing their Generation VI remakes is not really the same thing, it does fill in enough of the holes in my personal Pokemon history to satisfy my curiosity. Plus, I think Generation VI is a noticeable leap forward for the series, and going backwards might be tough at this point. In fact, in addition to all the above reasons, I’m also playing ORAS purely because, well, I liked Pokemon X/Y so much that I’m still in the mood for more Pokemon. To that end, ORAS has been a pleasant experience for me. I finished the campaign last week, including the additional “Delta Episode”, and in some ways I found it to be one of the better Pokemon campaigns. Its story is still pretty dumb and uninteresting overall, but I think the delivery is among the better in the series. This is particularly true in regards to Team Aqua’s motives and story arc, which is a noticeable step up from the usual nonsense of the “evil” teams in Pokemon (if still not that great on its own). As for the game itself, it plays just as you’d expect a Pokemon game to play, with all the Generation VI enhancements in tact. Those additions made breezing through the campaign relatively quick and painless, and I’m excited to continue further into the post-game, which is where the new additions shine brightest. ORAS is even more feature-filled in that regard, sporting more Pokemon (including almost all the legendaries), move tutors, and hidden abilities than probably any game to date. I’m not going to lie: another reason I got ORAS was to have access to that content for my competitive teams. At some point I’d like to give my trained Pokemon an upgrade, and ORAS will be instrumental to that effort. I’ll probably take a Pokemon break before diving into that too deeply, but my desire for competitive Pokemon battling is still high.

While I did enjoy the experience overall, there are a few gripes I have about ORAS in particular. First, the common complaint: too much water. I’ve never found water routes that fun in Pokemon, and Hoenn has more water than any other region. Second, I really hate the randomness of the “Mirage Spots”. Basically, every day you have one of 32 possible islands appear in your game, and they are only accessible for that day. The bad part is that certain Pokemon and items (including some ever useful TMs) are limited to certain islands. It’s super frustrating if you’re after something specific, and is another example of Pokemon putting stuff behind unreasonable barriers for no respectable reason. I also don’t care about secret bases, and more generally continue to not care about mega evolutions or contests. Fortunately those things are largely ignorable, and even with all my gripes I’ve enjoyed playing ORAS. It worked nicely during breaks, filled in a missing piece of my Pokemon history, and set the table for more competitive play in the future. Not too shabby in my book.

The Other Stuff

I gave Apotheon an honest shot, but just could not get into it.
  • I played a few hours of Apotheon, courtesy of PlayStation Plus, and really wanted to like it. But I could not get into the way it controls at all. I thought I would get more used to it over time, but I found myself liking it less and less as I played. Everything from the movement to the targeting in combat felt super loose and imprecise, and I found myself just bumbling my way through each encounter. It seemed like a pretty forgiving game (at least in the early going), so I was making progress, but it was not satisfying at all. I really like the look and style of the game, and it’s possible if I played it more it would eventually click for me. But right now it’s not worth my very limited free time.
  • I tried out a few rounds of Lethal League with my brother (after introducing him to the wonders of Nidhogg). I won’t say that Lethal League is a favorite among the local multiplayer resurgence, but it was fun for a few rounds. It is pretty crazy/entertaining when the ball gets moving real fast, but it’s way too light of an experience to hook me, and also doesn’t feel that great to me. I’d still be up for playing a bit more though.
  • I finally got around to giving OlliOlli a shot, after picking it up for dirt cheap in a sale. I think it’s neat, but difficult in a less than ideal way. The controls feel pretty unintuitive to me, primarily by not having a dedicated jump button; that took a lot of getting used to. I can see what they’re going for with the trick system, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is a better way to implement that system without losing any depth. My other gripe is that when you’re falling you can’t always see the ground with enough warning to ready the appropriate landing input (landing on the ground vs. rails require different inputs). That said, there is something here, and I’d like to play a little more of it when I can.
  • So… they released some songs from The World Ends With You as DLC in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. Of course I had to check those out. I picked up the Chrono Trigger songs while I was at it, and had a fun afternoon jamming through the songs from those two games (and replaying some other favorites too). It’s uncanny how much amazing music is in Square Enix’s history, and as long as they dole it out in a reasonable fashion, I’m ok coming back to the well from time to time.
  • This last one is not a video game, but Dungeons & Dragons took over some of what would traditionally be “video game time” this month. Specifically, I got the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, and have been reading through the rules. Ironically, this has nothing to do with Giant Bomb jumping on the D&D bandwagon; my brother has been messing with 5E for months now, and I’ve wanted to join a campaign since it came out. With only two months left in school, I’ve decided it’s time to start slowly getting up to speed. I’ve played 3E and 4E before, and from what I’ve seen thus far the changes to 5E seem like a smart compromise between the two. Things seem clean and balanced, but still allow a lot of room for freedom. I’m still just scratching the surface for now, but may include more D&D updates in future roundups if there are no objections.

Looking Ahead to March

I’m not quite sure what to expect in March. It continues to be the second biggest release period of the year, and 2015’s installment holds a lot of potential: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Ori and the Blind Forest, Sid Meier’s Starships, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., Bloodborne, and Axiom Verge all come out in March. All of those look potentially fantastic to me, with the last two in that list being my top picks at the moment. Bloodborne speaks for itself, and there’s something about Axiom Verge that has me really eager to see it. Unfortunately, I’m of course still busy with school, and don’t know exactly how much gaming time I will have. I’ll do what I can though, and I have plenty of backlog items waiting in the wings as always. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter remains at the top of that list for like the fourth month in a row; I swear I’ll play that game someday. Flip a coin on whether March is the month.

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Monthly Roundup, January 2015

After last month’s gaming-fueled break, it was back to the grind this January. School picked up as if it had never let off, and my gaming time all but disappeared once more. Still, while I don’t have nearly as much to talk about this month as I did last month, I still managed to play a few (smaller) games here and there that are worth speaking to. So with that short preamble out of the way, let’s dive right in!

This War of Mine

There's a lot to manage early on. If only it kept it up.

I started This War of Mine right at the beginning of the month/year, and managed to successfully complete the game after two to three weeks of on and off play. Despite all the positive praise I heard about the game, I was still unsure of what to expect going in. I had heard modest comparisons made to, weirdly, both The Sims and Papers, Please, but all I really knew was that it had people interested and talking about it, and that I wanted to check it out for myself. After doing so, I can see where people come from when they make the aforementioned comparisons, but This War of Mine also manages to feel like its own thing. By day you manage a group of survivors in a war-torn city, tending to their every need in their desperate struggle. By night you venture out into the city to search for much needed supplies. The former is a light management sim, the latter a light stealth game, and while neither half is that strong on its own, they bounce off of each other pretty well. You need to take risks at night to get the resources and crafting materials you need during the day, and if you don’t make sure your survivors are fit and healthy by the end of the day, you’ll have a tough time at night. I enjoyed engaging with this dynamic for a while, and the way the two halves interact is easily the game’s most engaging aspect to me.

Unfortunately, while it started off strong, I only became more and more bored with This War of Mine as it went. In short, I don’t think its progression is that strong, and I found myself becoming almost completely self sufficient about halfway through the game. Early on I had fun trying to plan and upgrade important features for my safe house, weigh risk vs. reward decisions on where to raid at night, and establishing an efficient routine for survival. Then that routine became, well, too routine. After about 20 in-game days I had acquired all the important upgrades (along with some equally unimportant ones), and had a pretty good system for producing my own food and water. All I needed were a few basic “materials” per day (the game’s most easily obtainable items), and I could seemingly live out the war forever. What ensued was another 20 days of rote repetition, with no risks or fear of failure; the game ended with a whimper of nothing more than watching the days calmly pass by. This War of Mine could have really used a big end-game hurrah, or at least something to make things interesting down the home stretch. Instead, this otherwise clever game wore out its welcome well before it ended, leaving me feeling pretty middling about the entire thing.

The Wolf Among Us

While I very much enjoyed the first season of The Walking Dead back in 2012, I was also not nearly as high on it as a lot of people were. It was an extremely well written adventure game that made good use of the kind of player choice games like Mass Effect, The Witcher, and Heavy Rain had been using for some time, but wasn’t much more fleshed out than that. And while there’s absolutely a place for such games (especially when done that well), Telltale’s subsequent explosion of similarly structured licensed adventure games almost felt like too much. Or at least, too much for me to care about in any serious capacity. I more or less pushed off the idea of playing any more Telltale games unless they met the following criteria: the entire season was complete, I could get it on a sale, and I was in the mood for a predominantly story-driven game. As it turns out, that’s the situation I was in during the most recent Steam sale, so I went ahead and grabbed The Wolf Among Us.

Come on Bigby, give up the smokes.

I just finished the season yesterday, and I enjoyed it overall. I don’t think it’s as sharply written as The Walking Dead’s first season was, but it’s done well enough. I particularly liked some of the characters as they developed, and many of them revealed more nuance as the season went on. I also really liked the setting’s bizarre take on well known fairy tales, and their struggle to adapt to a more human environment. I think playing the entire season through within a two week span helped too. Some of the episodes were pretty short, with relatively minor happenings, but by playing them all together I felt like it flowed pretty well. The one thing that I didn’t like as much were some of the dialogue choices, which goes back to the weaker writing I mentioned. While I get that Bigby is his own character, there were plenty of times where all the options available were merely permutations on being a big jerk, primarily by yelling at or fighting someone. The game seemed to really want to make every conversation as heated as possible, despite it often feeling totally unnecessary; many shouting matches I would have preferred to avoid altogether. It ultimately made the story feel less dynamic than I would have liked, or maybe it just didn’t coat it as well as other games have (including The Walking Dead). Anyway, The Wolf Among Us is a good adventure game from Telltale, and it’s certainly worth it if you like their style.

The Other Stuff

Gotta keep up with that phat beats.
  • I wrapped up Velocity 2X at the beginning of the month, having played most of it in December. The last few levels were certainly the best and craziest in the game, and those levels are what ultimately set it above the original Velocity. I still think the game could push those ideas further, and apply a better progression throughout the entire game (parts of it can drag in its simplicity), but it’s a decently enjoyable action game nonetheless.
  • Mutant Mudds Deluxe took Velocity 2X’s place as my go-to short burst Vita game (also courtesy of PS Plus), and is a similarly simple game that can still be enjoyable here and there. That said, I also don’t know if Mutant Mudds has quite enough variety to carry me through. I’ve completed the first four worlds, and I’m already feeling like I’m just going through the motions. This is as no frills as platforming gets, with basic enemies and level design, and the controls aren’t exactly best of breed. As someone who’s played (and loved) a lot of platformers, Mutant Mudds just doesn’t have the chops, and I haven’t decided if I want to play any more of it yet.
  • I picked up Crypt of the NecroDancer during the holiday Steam sale, which makes it the first Early Access game I’ve ever bought. My research led me to believe that the game was in a pretty good state despite not being completely done, and I’m pretty happy that turned out to be true. Anyway, while I appreciate the rhythm aspect of the game (that’s what got my attention), including its great soundtrack, Crypt of the NecroDancer very much resembles games like Spelunky in its design. It does have some permanent progression to it (think Rogue Legacy), but it mainly focuses on the “rogue-lite” style gameplay that can be hit or miss for me. So far I’ve enjoyed it in spurts (I’ve played about an hour), but have no idea how deep I will get into it. I’m certainly not done with it, but it’s more of a “when the mood strikes me” kind of thing, and I haven’t the slightest idea how that will continue to unfold. I would kind of like to try it with a dance pad though...
  • Against my better judgement, I picked up Pokemon Alpha Sapphire this month, and put a few hours into it (I just got the 3rd badge). In some ways it’s a fruitless time sink, but the original Ruby/Sapphire are the only generation of Pokemon games I’ve never played, and I still haven’t shaken the Pokemon bug I caught from Pokemon X/Y last year. Plus, a breezy handheld RPG like that seemed like perfect comfort food to consume during work breaks this semester. So, for better or worse, here I am plugging my way through another Pokemon game. So far so good through the early hours, and I’ll have more substantial updates as I get further into it.

Looking Ahead to February

February will surely be another busy month at school, and we’ll see what that means for my gaming time. For now I’ll continue to play Crypt of the NecroDancer and Pokemon Alpha Sapphire as I see fit, and I’d like to work in OlliOlli and/or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter if I can; they’re currently at the top of my lengthy backlog. Evolve, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, The Order: 1886, and Apotheon are the February releases I’m keeping an eye on, but I doubt I’ll get to any of those this month. I think any of them could be great, or could be a dud, so I’ll wait and see how they shake out (and until I have more time). Anyway, that’s going to do it for now, and we’ll see where the month takes me!

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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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