By MajorMitch 0 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!