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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Monthly Roundup, November 2014

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

The Little Guys

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

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfenstein: The New Order

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

The New Order is a simple, yet effective romp.

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

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

Looking Ahead to December

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

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Monthly Roundup, October 2014

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

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

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

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS

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

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

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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

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

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Beyond Earth is totally more Civ.

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

Looking Ahead to November

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

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Monthly Roundup, September 2014

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

Super Time Force Ultra

So many people!

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

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

Destiny

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

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

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

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

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

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

Theatrhythm is back, bigger and better than ever.

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

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

Looking Ahead to October

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

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Monthly Roundup, August 2014

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

Shovel Knight

He's a knight. He wields a shovel.

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

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

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

XCOM: Enemy Within

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

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

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

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

Child of Light

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

Child of Light looks gorgeous at every turn.

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

Battles got better as the game progressed.

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

Looking Ahead to September

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

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Monthly Roundup, July 2014

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

Nidhogg

Have at you!

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

TowerFall: Ascension

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

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

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

Valdis Story: Abyssal City

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to August

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

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