Monthly Roundup, October 2013

Life got a little busier than usual for me in October, but I still managed to squeeze some quality gaming time in. In addition to what I talk about below I also played 140, which is a cool but short game. There’s not a lot to say about it, but I did enjoy it (check out Patrick’s actually quick Quick Look if you’re curious what it is). Anyway, on to what I spent most of my gaming time on in October!

Jeanne d’Arc

Turns! Grids!

When I got my PlayStation Vita earlier this year, perhaps the primary deciding factor in the purchase was that I never owned a PlayStation Portable. There were a handful of PSP games I always wanted to play, and all (but one) of them are playable on a Vita, essentially making it a two-in-one handheld for me. Near the top of the PSP list was Jeanne d’Arc, which I finally got around to playing this month. I like that style of turn based tactics in general, and Jeanne d’Arc is certainly a very good one. At its core, it’s mostly comparable to things like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, but it also has some touches that give it an identity of its own. Most of those touches come from developer Level-5, whose fingerprints are all over this game. Similar to recent Dragon Quest games (or even the more recent Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch to some extent), Jeanne d’Arc is a purer, more focused take on its genre. You don’t have anything like the wildly intricate class customization of a Final Fantasy Tactics, or the ambitiously large and intense battles of a Fire Emblem. Instead, it focuses on fewer, more well defined characters and smaller battles, while still managing to throw in a few simple customization options for good measure. Those options primarily come from a tried and true equippable skills system. Skills generally range from special attacks or spells to basic stat buffs, and there’s also the option to fuse two skills together into another one. It wouldn’t be a Level-5 game without what amounts to an “alchemy pot,” after all.

I find Level-5’s style to be both hit and miss in Jeanne d’Arc, much like I do in their other games. In many ways I really appreciate simple and focused game design, and think a lot of games would benefit from such an approach. At the same time, Level-5 likes to make a lot of long, grindy games (Jeanne d’Arc included), and I don’t know that their approach does much to benefit the grind. Most of the battles in Jeanne d’Arc follow a standard pattern, and that routine repeats for quite a while. More bluntly, I think the game could use a little something extra as the game goes on to make the constant battling a little more interesting (alternatively the game could have been a little shorter). That gripe aside, I personally enjoy the core of that routine more than enough to carry me through the game, and other aspects of the package do a fine job of supporting it. I find the game’s bizarre alternate history entertaining, and like the story overall. Parts of it can get a little too “anime” for my tastes, but I enjoy the main beats and the characters more than I probably should. Even better are the animated cut scenes, which are surprisingly frequent for a handheld game, and absolutely gorgeous. These touches are welcome, even if they aren’t the main reason to play Jeanne d’Arc. That reason is for its turn based tactical battles, which I think are good enough to make Jeanne d’Arc worth playing for anyone interested in the genre.

The Stanley Parable

"Choices!"

The Stanley Parable is a very, very silly thing. I spent a good few hours with it, and feel like I’ve seen most of the “endings” (all the ones I could find on my own at least), but I still don’t really know how I feel about it. I think the fact that the Internet is so weirdly militant about keeping it spoiler-free (I’ll avoid spoilers as well) speaks to just how reliant the game is on its jokes, meta-commentary and unpredictable left turns, which is also a big part of what makes the game so silly. It’s almost like a big in-joke made into a game, a stream of amusing commentary on modern game design expressed in the form of the very thing it’s commenting on. I don’t think that’s the worst idea in the world, and for the most part I think it does what it sets out to do, and has plenty of funny moments to boot. At the same time, I think the jokes miss plenty of times too, and a lot of them aren’t super original; if you’ve played a lot of games then you’ll likely have heard a lot of this before. Maybe not expressed in the form of a game with a narrator who has a sharp accent, but you’ve heard a lot of this somewhere. And if you haven’t played a lot of games, then you might not even get what The Stanley Parable is talking about to begin with. It’s a weird aspect to pin the hopes and ambitions of a game on, and truth be told I don’t know if I like it or not. It’s a game about games that doesn’t do much more than comment on games. In other words, as a game itself I don’t find it that interesting. Come for the jokes and the commentary with reasonable expectations and you’ll probably have a good enough time with The Stanley Parable, but I don’t think I got much more out of it than that.

Pokemon X/Y

When the month began I wasn’t sure if I was going to play Pokemon X/Y or not. I like Pokemon in a general sense (I consider the original Red/Blue among my all-time favorite games), but I’m not so into the series that I care to play every single release; call me a fair weather fan. Once it came out, however, Pokemon X/Y appeared to offer just enough improvements, and my slate was clean enough, that I decided to take the plunge. Overall X/Y is, like every game in the series, very much an iterative step forward, but it also might be one of the bigger steps forward in the ways I care about. The campaign itself is the same basic setup as always, and is still a big old grind; I think at this point it’s safe to say I don’t get much out of Pokemon campaigns anymore. But X/Y has implemented a few subtle refinements that smooth out the process just enough, such as giving you access to roller skates and a bike much earlier for quicker movement. Other things like inventory and Pokemon management seem snappier than ever, but most importantly is the new EXP Share, which almost seems broken. With it on, all the Pokemon in your party gain experience for every fight, whether they are used in battle or not. It makes leveling Pokemon super fast; I finished the game with my team around level 75, which is at least 20 levels higher than usual. It may be kind of broken, but I personally appreciate it. You can turn it off if you want to grind even more, but for people like me who have played a lot of Pokemon campaigns and primarily want to see the post-game stuff, it was nice to be able to power through a little more quickly.

Pokemans! (It looks really good!)

Now that I’m done with the campaign I’m looking forward to trying out some of the post-game activities in Pokemon X/Y, which in all honesty is why I got the game to begin with. I likely won’t dive back in for a little while (I need a Poke-break), but I’ve already gotten a slight taste of what’s perhaps X/Y’s biggest improvement: its online features. This is easily the most online focused Pokemon yet, with slick and easy ways to trade and battle with all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. I haven’t built a serious competitive team since the Diamond/Pearl days, but the prospect of online battling in X/Y has me wanting to suit up and make a new team. The desire to make a new team is further bolstered by Super Training, which seems like a more hassle-free method of EV training. For how fun competitive battling is I still think creating a competitive team is way more obtuse and time consuming than it should be, but X/Y does appear to be making that process slightly simpler, which is the right direction. Baby steps, right? As for the rest of the changes, I’m mostly indifferent. The new Pokemon seem cool enough, and the new Fairy type is probably worth having; Dragon did need a nerf. I do really like the new visuals, and this is far and away the best the series has ever looked. I do wish all the Pokemon were voiced like Pikachu, but again, baby steps. Finally, perhaps my biggest gripe with the game so far is actually a camera and control issue. Basically, I think 8-way movement with the circle pad is weird (why not full 360 degree motion?), and the camera is occasionally awful, most notably in Lumiose City. In fact, that whole city is just a mess. The city layout, the camera and the movement make me dread going there. Those gripes aside, however, I think Pokemon X/Y is a good Pokemon game, and probably one of the better ones in a while. It remains to be seen how much I get into the post-game content, but early prospects are positive. It may still be making baby steps, but at least it’s making the right baby steps.

Looking Ahead to November

Consoles!

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but new consoles are coming out! I’ve had a PlayStation 4 pre-ordered since they’ve been available, and I’m pretty excited about it. Regardless of what you think of the launch lineup, I’m still curious to check out some combination of Knack, Need for Speed: Rivals, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4. I haven’t settled on exactly which of those I’ll play, but I bet I’ll play at least one or two of them close to launch. And there’s always Resogun too. More than anything though, I’m just excited to finally have a promising new console up to modern standards. That said, the pair of November games I’m most excited for are, ironically, two Nintendo games that have nothing to do with new hardware. I think The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario 3D World are both looking really sharp right now. Oh, and Tearaway comes out too, maybe that will be cool? Anyway, November’s a busy month for games, but all of the new releases I’m interested in happen in the second half of the month. The only thing I know for sure I’ll play before then is The Wonderful 101, which I’ve already started. Otherwise I’ll probably take it fairly easy the next two weeks, which are the proverbial calm before the storm. Come November 15, things might get a little wild.

Start the Conversation

Battling the Backlog

2013 is an exciting year for games, a year of change and transition. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are on their way out, the Nintendo Wii U and the PlayStation Vita are fighting to find their place in the market, smaller games (primarily indie games) continue to grow in quality and importance, Valve is bidding to take over the world with Steam Machines, and, of course, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches loom ever closer. And hey, that Nintendo 3DS thing isn’t doing too bad for itself either. Yet despite so much volatility, I feel like 2013 has been a relatively quiet year for new releases I’m interested in spending a lot of time on. Other than a weirdly crowded March, I haven’t been swamped with new games to play, which is traditional for such transition years. Many of the “big boys” are saving up for the new hardware due out at year’s end, after all. Therefore, early in the year I decided this was an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: take on my backlog.

Despite its length, I knew this was the year to finally tackle Persona 4.

You’re no doubt familiar with “the backlog,” that nebulous list of games that you never played but always intended to. There are enough good games coming out all the time (and not nearly enough time to play them all) that I would hazard a guess that many of us miss out on plenty of games we genuinely want to play. I’m no exception, and those games inevitably end up on my backlog. Despite my best efforts, leading up to 2013 the list had continually gotten bigger, reaching an impossible size of over 50 games strong (many of which are lengthy RPGs). In that state, it can quickly become a lost cause, or even worse, a burden. Was I really going to play all of these games someday? Or would the list sit there forever as I tried to fool myself into thinking that one day I’d suddenly come across immeasurable free time, only to let it weigh on me more and more as time went on? It’s a perfectly valid and viable stance to acknowledge that a backlog is never intended to be truly completed, and to be okay with it existing as a never-ending source of games to potentially play. As I stared down my beast of a list earlier this year, however, I decided that I personally wasn’t happy with that fate for these games, nor was I satisfied with the effect it had on my conscience. I wanted to take care of these games one way or another, and decided that 2013 would be a good time to attempt the challenge in earnest. Thus began a process that has turned out to be surprisingly and ruthlessly effective. What began as a list of over 50 games has been whittled down to less than 20 in under a year. My goal is to approach 0 within another year, and keep it there.

I consider the use of save states fair game for Mega Man 2.

There’s no secret to the process, but there are a number of takeaways that may prove interesting or worthwhile. First and foremost, the whole thing requires, as does any lengthy endeavor, a sufficient amount of dedication, patience and perseverance. It’s not something you can rush. The last thing anyone wants is to make playing games feel like a chore, but you also have to be committed enough to make sure the process keeps moving. It’s a fine line, but fortunately that hasn’t been a problem for me; I have enough passion for games to carry me a long way. Second, there are many minor efficiency things that can add up to help ease the process along. I think it’s generally better to prioritize playing shorter games first. It’s easier mentally to process the list if you can get the raw number down sooner rather than later (the site HowLongToBeat has been instrumental in this effort). I also find it helps to not be militant about getting the “full” or “pure” experience for every game. There’s nothing wrong with playing on a lower difficulty, skipping side quests or other optional activities, or looking for help online if you get stuck. The games on my backlog got there because of time constraints more than anything else, and many of them wouldn’t get played at all without cutting a few simple corners. That’s a compromise I feel is worth making, and it allows me to experience the core of what each game has to offer, and move on in a timely fashion.

It didn't take long to realize that Crysis wasn't for me, and not worth spending more time on.

Finally, and what was the toughest thing for me personally, was that I had to acknowledge early on that I won’t (and can’t) officially “beat” every game that originally made the list. While it’s tempting to decree that every game must be beaten, it also betrays the idea of a backlog. My backlog is not a list of games I should strive to beat, but rather a list of games I wanted to play at some point in time. Removing a game from the list simply means that I no longer want to play it, and there are any number of ways to reach that conclusion. The cleanest (and most common) is certainly beating the game, but I’ve also started plenty of games only to decide after an appropriate amount of time that I have no desire to continue. What’s more, I’ve removed some games before even playing them at all. It doesn’t do any good for me to hang onto the idea of playing a game that, over time, I’ve lost desire to play for whatever reason. An effective backlog (that is, one you can make use of and isn’t meant to sit there forever) needs to be constantly re-evaluated, which requires you to regularly have frank, honest discussions with yourself. This was a potential problem for me, as I’m traditionally very stubborn and don’t like to “give up” on things, so I’m hesitant to remove games without beating them first. Fortunately, I continue to get better at knowing when I’m cheating myself, which happens to work both ways: I know when I remove a game too hastily for the wrong reasons, and I also know when I’m keeping a game on the list for the wrong reasons. So far, that’s what makes this whole thing possible for me. Clearing out a backlog is as much about feeling good about what you’ve played and what you want to play as it is about beating some arbitrary list of games. I feel like I’ve been effectively bullish with the list so far, but also fair and honest with myself and what I want out of it.

Getting a Vita meant I could finally play Patapon.

That leads to perhaps the real question: what do I want out of this process? Why even bother with all of this mess in the first place? The short answer is the obvious one: I really like video games, and there are a lot of them I want to play. The longer answer would be a more introspective look at why I feel it’s worth going back and playing older games I originally missed at all. That reason varies from game to game, but there are a few common trends. Some games are revered “classics” I never played, such as Mega Man 2, Deus Ex and Persona 4. I find it really interesting to try and understand why such games are as well loved as they are, and often times I end up enjoying them myself. Some games are ones I originally wasn’t able to play due to lacking the proper hardware at the time, such as Jeanne d’Arc, Patapon and Sins of a Solar Empire. These are generally the easiest to manage, and since they were things I always wanted to play I usually enjoy them. Some games still are simple curiosities that I accumulated over the years (generally through sales or bundles), such as Mirror’s Edge, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, Metro 2033 and Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. They’re games I think might do something interesting, and I’m curious to see what they’re about, even if I don’t always care to invest too much time or money into them. By the numbers this is likely the largest group, and also the one with the largest spread of results. Some I like, some I don’t, but I usually at least come away with a new perspective on what kinds of games are out there.

The last common reason is also the one I’m primarily facing at this final, but daunting stage of the process. Some games are just really, really long (primarily RPGs), and despite wanting to play them I have never been able to reasonably make time for them. Since I prioritized playing shorter games on my backlog first (though I have played a few longer ones like The Witcher and Persona 4), most of what’s left falls into this group, such as Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Dragon’s Dogma. Moving forward from here will likely be the most grueling part of this entire process, as longer games require much more careful consideration and, of course, time. But move forward I shall; I will beat some of these games, I will start some of them and not finish them, and I will likely decide that some aren’t worth it before I even start. That is, after all, the modus operandi for fighting my backlog. It’s a fight I originally thought unwinnable, but given the right opportunity and months of unwavering dedication I find myself in a position to see this fight through. I have every intention of doing so, and look forward to the day when I can put my backlog to rest for good.

12 Comments

Monthly Roundup, September 2013

I went pretty hard on the games in September. In addition to the games I talk about below, I essentially powered through at least half a dozen other shorter games that were cluttering up my backlog, such as LocoRoco, Mirror’s Edge and Runner 2, among others. It was nice to knock some things off the backlog, even if I don’t feel I have much profound to say about them. I did play a few bigger and/or newer releases though, which I do have some thoughts on.

Pikmin 3

It's still Pikmin, and it's still a lot of fun.

Pikmin 2 is a personal favorite of mine, and I’m happy to say that Pikmin 3, despite taking forever to come out, turned out to be every bit as good as its predecessor. First and foremost, Pikmin 3 oozes quality. In that classic Nintendo way, everything about the game is super polished. The levels are smartly designed with clever puzzles and interesting enemies, and the different Pikmin abilities, both old and new, are well thought out and mesh together nicely. There are some good interactions to be had, and the ways you’re encouraged to mix and match different Pikmin to get through the game’s various challenges allow for a lot of different permutations on the basic gameplay. In fact, that’s probably the game’s biggest strength; the way everything is paced and stays varied makes it consistently exciting, and I found it to be a constant joy to play. It never wears too thin or gets too repetitive, and I had a good time with it from start to finish. The game also has a gorgeous look to it, especially artistically (Nintendo has always made up for lackluster hardware with some of the best art design in the business), and the sound design is pretty charming too. I couldn’t help but smile when my Pikmin started humming the main theme.

One of the other things I’ve always really liked about Pikmin is that it’s the rare series that deals with time as a resource in a fun way (ironically, I write this a month after finishing Persona 4, another game with time management, albeit in a different way). I find a certain excitement in trying to squeeze the most out of every single day, and the addition of a third playable crew member to Pikmin 3 adds an extra layer of frenetic time and squad management to the process; I’d bet this game is ripe for speed runs. I’m sure there are some really creative strategies out there for getting through each day as efficiently as possible, which is pretty cool. I don’t necessarily think a lot of games would benefit from forcing you to worry about time, but when it’s done well in games like Pikmin 3 I dig it. In fact, the game on the whole is pretty rad. If we’re going to get down to it I still think I like Pikmin 2 a little better, as I think it commits to pushing its mechanics a tad farther. But in the most important ways Pikmin 3 is a great game that matches it blow for blow, and may even be the cleaner and more polished of the two. It’s also been so long between releases and the franchise is so unique when compared to everything else out there, that I’m simply happy to have the series back on the map. Pikmin 3 is a weird and unique mix of strategy, puzzles and action that’s executed incredibly well, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer if you own a Wii U.

System Shock 2

Continuing the war against my backlog (that’s turning out to be my theme for 2013, which I may write more on later), I managed to play through System Shock 2 this month. I played the recently released Steam version, and right out of the gate I was surprised at how well this 14 year old game still holds up today. Technically, I don’t know if anything has been done to the Steam version to clean it up, but it looks totally fine (if clearly old) and runs well. And it still holds up from a gameplay standpoint too. Probably the first thing I noticed on this front was Ken Levine’s fingerprints all over this game. Having played his more recent BioShock games, stuff like audio logs, wrenches, revival chambers and scavenging potato chips out of trash cans are among the weirdly specific staples of his games that were already in place in System Shock 2. More importantly, the flow and style of the levels and story feel very much like a Ken Levine game, and I ended up enjoying System Shock 2 for very similar reasons that I enjoyed those other games. The Von Braun is every bit as iconic and detailed a locale as Rapture or Columbia, and your journey through it every bit as memorable. Exploring all its nooks and crannies, and battling its wide array of foes, was a lot of fun, combining exploration and action in a way that still works well today.

Ken Levine likes his wrenches.

Having now played three of his games, I’ve also noticed a very clear trend from System Shock 2 to BioShock to BioShock Infinite. As time has gone on, each successive game has become more and more of a pure first person shooter (and the combat has gotten better). Earlier this year I thought that Infinite was more of a FPS than BioShock was, and now I’d say the same about BioShock compared to System Shock 2. System Shock 2 has a layer of RPG-like stats and upgrades that becomes less of a factor in the later games, lending it an almost Deus Ex vibe. I feel like how you choose to upgrade can drastically affect your play style, and there are all sorts of powers and weapons and items to fiddle with and manage. Some of this I felt could be a little tedious (mainly research and inventory management), but overall I welcomed this extra layer of things to engage with, and felt it worked really well; It kind of makes me wish the newer games had more of it. The other big difference between System Shock 2 and the newer games is difficulty. Straight up, each game has gotten easier. I played Infinite on hard and barely had any trouble, but System Shock 2 on normal could get pretty rough in spots. I think being forced to be careful about properly managing your gear is part of it, but I also think the games have simply gotten a lot more forgiving over time. You’re pretty squishy in System Shock 2. I’m totally fine with the difficulty though, and I’m glad I got around to finally playing this “classic.” I had a lot of fun with System Shock 2, and think it holds up well enough to still be very much worth playing.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers' puzzles and platforming never get very creative.

I’m just going to say it up-front: I think there are at least ten other games this year already that are better than Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Brad may be crazy, but he’s not totally off the mark with his professed love for Brothers, as it is a generally well made puzzle/adventure game that attempts to tell a touching story. I can understand the appreciation for it, even if I don’t necessarily share it myself. Mainly, I don’t think any of the puzzles are interesting at all. They’re all very basic puzzles you’ve seen before, and Brothers’ only real twist on them is that you control two different characters at once. It’s the kind of brain-bending control scheme that I thought made Schizoid sound kind of cool at the time, but Brothers is such a slow and measured game that the controls aren’t much of a factor one way or another. In fact, you could probably only move one character at a time for most of the game if you really wanted to. That leaves you with very basic block pushing, lever pulling, ledge climbing and simple “co-op” actions (done between the two characters you control) that have been standard in countless games before, and they never did much for me in Brothers.

Otherwise there’s the story of Brothers, which is arguably the reason to play it. Yet I felt the story was about as boilerplate as the puzzles; you can see where it’s going well before it gets there, and I didn’t find the delivery to be entirely nuanced either. It seemed to toggle back and forth between being overly ambivalent and trying too hard to leave a strong impression, and I don’t feel like it ever really struck the right tone. That said, I do really like the look of Brothers, and the fairy tale world it’s constructed is fantastically bizarre. It’s artistically beautiful, and as the game kept going the world kept getting weirder and weirder in a way that I could get behind. The main story beats may have been easy to see from miles away, but the details of the world itself kept surprising me, and that was easily my favorite aspect of the entire game. Otherwise I found Brothers to be fairly mundane.

Rayman Legends

I could have done without the Murfy levels, but Rayman Legends is otherwise a good time.

After considerable debate on which version to get (I ultimately went with the Wii U version), I also managed to squeeze Rayman Legends in this month, and like Rayman Origins before it I really liked it overall. I don’t get nearly as infatuated with the current Rayman games as some seem to, but they are charming, generally well made platformers, and I think Legends is a little better than Origins to boot. I think the levels on average are better designed, with a better difficulty curve, and there’s noticeably more content and variety. The craziest part may be that Legends straight up contains a lot of levels from Origins, which more or less makes Origins obsolete at this point. Perhaps the only thing I liked less about Legends compared to Origins were the “Murfy levels” when playing solo (I’ve heard they’re better in co-op, but unfortunately I wouldn’t know). I didn’t enjoy performing simple touch screen actions to ferry a questionable AI companion through levels one bit. I would have much rather just played them myself, and the few times when the AI would stubbornly jump to his death were incredibly frustrating. On the flip side, Legends almost makes up for this by adding in these pseudo rhythm based levels, which are wonderful. There are unfortunately only five of them in the main game (and the post game ones are merely abominations of the main ones), but those were some of my favorite levels in the entire game.

Past that, the only other thing of note I have to say about Rayman Legends, which applies to Origins as well, is that while these games are solid platformers overall I don’t think the movement in them feels as good as I’d like. There’s something a little too rambunctious and slippery about the way Rayman moves. which makes simply maneuvering through various situations (usually ones that require quick changes of speed and/or direction) feel a little sloppy. The game never gets too hard though, or present too many of those situations that it becomes a huge problem, but as a fan of tightly controlled platformers it stood out. Super Meat Boy this is not: its challenges aren’t as tough, but its controls also aren’t as responsive. But I digress, Rayman Legends is still a worthy 2D platformer, movement issues and Murfy levels aside. It’s totally worth checking out for fans of the genre, especially if you can play it co-op.

Looking Ahead to October

I don’t really know what to make of October at the moment. There are a handful of new releases I’m keeping an eye on, such as Beyond: Two Souls, Pokemon X/Y and a pair of Batman games, but I don’t really know what to expect from any of them. As such, I’m taking a “wait and see” approach for now, and don’t know which (if any) of those games I’ll end up playing. So for the time being I’ll continue to assault my backlog, which at the moment means playing Jeanne d’Arc. I also do want to play The Wonderful 101 at some point, I’m just not sure when. That’s a tentative outlook for the month; October will happen, and one way or another games will be played.

2 Comments

Monthly Roundup, August 2013

August turned out to be quite a strong month for games. Between Papers, Please and Gone Home I played a pair of new releases as strong as any one month could hope to muster, and I haven’t even gotten into the meat of Pikmin 3 yet. Not to mention things like Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Saints Row IV and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, all of which look like decent games, even if I don’t currently have the time and/or desire to play any of them. I did spend the month playing a number of cool games though, including wrapping up a particularly lengthy one.

Persona 4 Golden

Persona 4 is all about making the best use of the days you have.

I ended last month’s roundup by giving some thoughts on my ongoing personal endurance run of Persona 4 Golden, and I’m happy to start off this month’s by saying that I’ve now finished that lengthy quest. I’ve already said most of what I have to say about it, but I do have a few final closing thoughts to add, as Persona 4 was once again the game I spent the most time playing during the month. First, as the final weeks of the game wound down and I tried to max out as many social links as I possibly could, it further sunk in just how much the game is simply about time. Not only is it a really long game, but it also also requires you to constantly manage that time and complete certain goals within certain time frames. It (and by extension Persona 3) is the rare game that gives you a finite amount of time to work with, and offers more things to do than you can actually accomplish in that time (at least without a very detailed walkthrough). The vast majority of games don’t have such restrictions; you can spend as long as you want collecting every item, doing every quest, and otherwise completing every single thing the game has to do in a single playthrough. It certainly wouldn’t work for every game, but I think the way Persona 4 forces you to make the best use of your time is one of its more interesting aspects.

Otherwise, Persona 4 is about time because, well, it’s a damn long game. My final time clocked in around 97 hours, which is pretty ridiculous. As much as I enjoyed the game overall, I still feel like that’s just too long. I started to feel it after around 70-80 hours in, which made the last portion feel like an unnecessary slog at times. It didn’t help that the game reached it’s natural climax well before the end of the game (for those who have played it, I felt it peaked at the end of December). I didn’t feel like anything after that had much punch, or really added much to the game (that includes the “true” ending, which I did get). When I played Persona 3 a few years ago I remember thinking I would have enjoyed it twice as much had the game been half as long. I would say a similar thing about Persona 4, even if the feeling isn’t nearly as extreme this time. Finally, as one last parting thought, I found Persona 4 to be incredibly easy. I remember a few bosses in Persona 3 being a little tough, but nothing in Persona 4 was the least bit difficult; especially not the bosses. I was somewhat disappointed with that, mainly for the final bosses. Without any challenge they didn’t feel very worthwhile or important, but I guess that’s not the worst thing in the world. At any rate, those minor caveats aside, I did really enjoy Persona 4, and I’m glad I finally got around to playing it.

Civilization V: Brave New World

Trade routes are one of the many tweaks that help make Civ V even better.

I don’t have too much to say about Civilization V’s latest expansion, Brave New World, as I’ve talked about Civ V plenty before. But I do feel compelled to mention that between whatever patching has happened over the years and Brave New World’s new tweaks and additions, I think Civ V is currently far and away the best it’s ever been. I’ve played two games of Civ V since getting Brave New World, and they’ve almost certainly been the most fun I’ve had with the game yet. In a way, Brave New World’s specific additions are subtle; things like tourism and ideologies aren’t game changers by any means. But I think where the expansion really shines is in tying together all the different things that Civ V has tried to do over the years, but maybe hasn’t always executed quite as gracefully as it could have. Brave New World feels like that final polish, the thing that turns Civ V into the game it has been trying to be all along. Everything, be it from the main game, God & Kings or Brave New World now feels like it has its place and purpose, enabling a wider variety of viable and enjoyable strategies as a result (diplomacy in particular feels vastly improved). It’s awesome, and I’m looking forward to playing more.

Papers, Please

I’ve had my eye on Papers, Please for quite some time, and fortunately the final game turned out to be every bit as good as I (cautiously) hoped it would be. It’s kind of hard to explain my fascination with this game too, as it simply has you working what should be a dull desk job. The gameplay consists almost entirely of checking the documents (passports, ID cards, entry forms, etc.) of the countless people who want to enter your country through your border checkpoint. Comparing all the information on various papers to make sure everything lines up, thus either clearing them for or denying them entry, may sound really tedious and boring, but there’s a engaging and methodical pace to it that I found pretty mesmerizing. The game also does a great job at starting out very simple, then constantly layering on additional rules to check. This keeps the game feeling consistently fresh, and always kept me on my toes.

Papers, Please has plenty of personality.

If that basic interaction was all Papers, Please offered, it would be a fun, well made and interesting game, if not a very substantial one. What really endears it to me in the long run, however, are the various characters and plot threads that come together to form an overarching narrative as the days play out. Sometimes they’re more personal situations that pop up; a guard may try to bribe you to let his girlfriend through, even though she doesn’t have the right papers, for example. Progressively more common are politically tinged interactions, as your country (Arstotzka) is a fictional “east bloc” communist country in the early 1980s, and there’s all sorts of political and economic tension between you and the neighboring countries. Diplomats and mysterious rebel organizations may try to convince you to approve or deny various key people, or your border checkpoint could come under attack from a terrorist group. The way you handle these situations can change the flow of the narrative in interesting ways, leading to all sorts of different twists and endings. What starts off as a simple game of trying to process as many people as quickly and as accurately as possible eventually turns into a more nuanced and surprisingly dramatic story, and the way you get to participate in that story is fantastic (in fact, it might do "moral choices" better than anything I've played). It also helps that the game is well written, many of the characters are memorable, and the look and sound of the game leaves one hell of an impression. Papers, Please is just an all around awesome game. I highly recommend it.

Gone Home

A strong attention to detail brings Gone Home to life.

Games that focus on telling a specific story above all else can be hit or miss for me, but Gone Home is definitely one of the good guys. This is a focused, well executed game that absolutely tells a memorable and affecting story; it knows what it wants to do and pulls it off with aplomb. What really makes it work for me is that I feel like Gone Home lets you participate and explore the story in a fulfilling way. A lot of explicitly story driven games either task you with rote, boring gameplay that feels woefully out of place (often some form of unnecessary combat), or they offer virtually no gameplay at all. Gone Home shuns both approaches, instead setting you loose to explore the house on your own volition in a way that makes sense and feels entirely natural. I found the process highly enjoyable, and I had a great time poking and prodding at every nook and cranny, essentially playing detective as I pieced together the story of this house and its inhabitants. I also appreciate that you can pick up and examine any old object. Even minor things that don’t have any direct connection to the governing story (say, a logo bearing pen or a fictional SNES cartridge) can add a lot of flavor to Gone Home’s version of 1995. There’s an incredible amount of detail to everything in the game, which really brings it to life.

Of course, this all works because Gone Home’s story is as good as it is. The main thread is well written, well voice acted, and is something that will stick with me for quite a while. I also like that, in addition to what’s clearly the game’s main plot thread, there are any number of additional subplots that you can discover and unravel all over the place. It’s neat that these additional threads are just there; you could potentially come across all or none of them, or anywhere in between. The way all of these threads unfold and intertwine with each other is wholly organic as well, painting a satisfying picture regardless of how much of it you actually uncover. In fact, this is perhaps Gone Home’s biggest, yet most subtle strength. The exact way it plays out is dependent on how much, and partially in what order, the player makes their discoveries. Yet no matter what the player does they will still come away with a coherent and (in my eyes) worthwhile experience. Gone Home trusts the player to successfully navigate this large house and its wonderful story on their own, and it’s a welcome and refreshing take on story driven games.

Looking Ahead to September

With August already behind us, I think we’re officially moving into the “holiday” season, a period that seems to get a little bigger every year. My personal outlook for the month starts with Pikmin 3, which I’ve already started playing. I’ve also begun dabbling with Animal Crossing: New Leaf here and there, and may try to dig into some more backlog items if I find time (top prospect: LocoRoco). As for things coming out in September, there’s a quartet of new releases I’m keeping an eye on: Rayman Legends, Total War: Rome II, Puppeteer, and The Wonderful 101. We’ll see how those go; there’s a decent chance I play at least one of them during the month. I should also probably get around to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons at some point, which hits both Steam and PSN in September. That’s all pretty ambitious as usual, but regardless of how much of that I manage to fit in, it will hopefully be another good month!

Start the Conversation

Monthly Roundup, July 2013

I haven’t done much video game related writing this year, for a number of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to get away from weekly writing; for as much as I can enjoy it, it simply takes too much time. Once a week is also a little too frequent to consistently say meaningful things about video games for a guy with a 40 hour job that has nothing to do with either video games or writing, and I don’t like forcing it. I had a few other ideas for things to try this year, but ended up writing and scrapping a lot of stuff because it ultimately didn’t feel right. Without going into any more detail, I think I’m realizing that my most natural (and enjoyable) form of video game writing is to simply talk about the nuts & bolts of what I’ve been playing, and the challenge for me is finding the right balance of when and how to do that.

To that end, I want to get back to some more regular writing, and it’s going to be about finding that balance. To start, I’m going to aim for a “monthly roundup” style post and see how it goes. I thought about first trying to go back and collect some thoughts on various games I played earlier in the year and haven’t written about, but that’s simply too much. Instead, I’m just going to dive right on in with a July roundup. One final note: I don’t plan on mentioning every game I play each month, only the ones for which I feel like I have something interesting to say. Anyway, with all of that out of the way, let’s get to it!

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

By focusing on so many different characters, I didn't have enough time to get attached to any of them.

I came away from the first piece of content for The Walking Dead since Season 1’s fantastic ending feeling pretty underwhelmed. One of the biggest strengths of that first season was how easy it was to become invested in the game’s large cast of great characters over an appropriate amount of time and scenarios. This gave a lot more weight to your actions, and it’s impossible to pull that off in a stand-alone episode like 400 Days. Not only does it stand alone, but it’s shorter than the normal season episodes (it took me about an hour and a half to complete), and it’s divided into five separate sections, each one containing a different set of characters. That’s giving you at most 15-20 minutes with any given character, which is not nearly long enough to be able to care about them. My hope is that these characters feed into Season 2 in interesting ways, which might make the experiment worth it. Otherwise I wasn’t very happy with 400 Days on its own merits.

Additionally, there was a particular moment in 400 Days that really pulled me out of the experience, and it’s something I think any story driven game that portends to give you agency has to deal with in some form or another. Without spoiling anything, it’s a situation where you (the player) can notice something that your in-game character does not, and the game limits your available responses to what your character would actually say or do given their artificially handicapped awareness (not too dissimilar from my frustration with the “white phosphorus” scene in Spec Ops: The Line). This creates a disconnect between your supposed agency as the player and the clear, singular actions the game demands your character take in a way that feels contrived and jarring. I’m all for games having a singular creative vision and forcing your path to meet that vision, but don’t pretend to give me a choice where I’m actually forced to choose a “bad” answer (or else meet a fail state) only because the character isn’t as aware as I am. The problem is solely in the execution, as the scene could have easily played out in a way that served the creative vision without disconnecting the player this harshly.

The Walking Dead as a whole already walked that fine line, but for the most part it’s done it well. During the entirety of Season 1 I never felt that disconnect, which looking back is pretty impressive. It’s tough to pull off, and to be fair most of it is smoke and mirrors to begin with. But on this occasion I saw through the smoke and mirrors, and I didn’t like what I saw. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t happen again.

Cart Life

Everything's a hassle in Cart Life. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

I finally got around to trying out Cart Life after picking it up in the Steam sale, and I think it’s a very interesting game without being something I want to actually play very much. Cart Life’s basic message is that being a street vendor is hard, and it delivers this message by making absolutely everything in the game a huge hassle. Sometimes I think this comes across in neat ways. For example, once I (finally) got my cart set up one of my first customers was a police officer. After buying a bagel, he then asked if I had a permit. I didn’t even know I needed a permit, so I told him “no” and got fined for it. I then had to spend the majority the day going to the courthouse and figuring out how to get through the line and buy a permit. I found that entire scenario fascinating; it mirrored all sorts of dumb bureaucratic procedures that we all have to deal with, and the way I felt while playing through that lengthy process in Cart Life was very analogous to how I’ve felt having to deal with similar things in real life (DMV anyone?). It’s something I haven’t experienced in a video game before, and it’s cool to see a game experiment with something different.

Unfortunately, I feel like Cart Life takes this idea to the extreme to the point where it makes things that shouldn’t be a hassle a hassle. For example, at the end of my first day I went back home and needed to sleep. I spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to figure out how to go to sleep, and eventually had to look it up (turns out you can’t sleep on an empty stomach). Needing to eat before bed is fine, but why not tell the player that? There’s no benefit to such things being so obtuse, and there are numerous other, similar usability issues that the game doesn’t communicate to the player. It makes simply interacting with the game more trying than I would like, which I think ultimately brings it down. It’s the wrong part of the package to turn into a hassle, and ended up making me not want to play Cart Life that much in the long run.

Persona 4 Golden

Finally, the game I spent (by far) the most time playing during July was Persona 4 Golden. I picked up a PlayStation Vita a few months ago (that’s another story), and Persona 4 has, unsurprisingly, been its breadwinner thus far. While I’m well aware of Giant Bomb’s Persona 4 love, my own Persona history isn’t super rich. I played Persona 3 FES when it came in 2008, and overall I liked it quite a bit. But the game was also super long, and I got incredibly burnt out on it after playing it for over 100 hours. Thus, when Persona 4 came out later that same year I was in no hurry to dive in. I always thought I would eventually get around to it, but didn’t think it would take this long. Yet here I am, playing Persona 4 for the first time in 2013, and on a Vita no less. Strange times.

The "simulation" side is well written, and the characters are all likable.

Anyway, I’m really liking Persona 4 so far. Most of what I like about it are the same things I liked about Persona 3: I like the characters, the writing is sharp, the combat is simple but satisfying, etc. My favorite thing about these games, however, is the balancing act it pulls off between traditional JRPG dungeon crawling and the more simulation style gameplay that defines your typical school day. The games toggle back and forth between two drastically different gameplay styles in a way that flows well, and both sides have a clear impact on how the other unfolds. Each piece is also completely engaging on their own merits, but it’s the way they combine to become even better that makes it stand out to me. All of that translates very well from Persona 3 to Persona 4, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them roughly equally. If I have to compare, I do like Persona 4 a little better. I feel like there’s something about the pacing that’s smoother (I think not having one, seemingly endless dungeon helps), and I personally prefer the small town setting and characters. Perhaps the most substantial changes, however, come from some interface/usability improvements. Foremost among them is having full party control in battles; not having that in Persona 3 was the worst.

And the dungeon crawling is simple, but effective.

Persona 3’s biggest downside for me was simply its length. I played the game very heavily from start to finish, and I was ready to be done well before I reached the end (never a good feeling). This made the last few dozen hours a tedious slog, which was the main reason I was hesitant to start Persona 4 for so long. To try and counter that, I’m conducting an experiment with Persona 4. I typically play one or two games at a time, focusing pretty heavily on them until I’m done. I know if I do that with Persona 4, however, I’ll burn out on it. So I’ve been playing it more lightly, only when I feel like it, while still playing a normal slate of other games. I try and make sure I play at least a few times a week just so it doesn’t fall by the wayside, but I haven’t been forcing it if I don’t feel like it. And on the times I have felt like it, I’ve put in a few lengthier sessions. I feel like this has helped me stay fresh on it (I just passed the 50 hour mark and feel good), and also lets me continue to play other stuff. I’ve played at least half a dozen other games since starting Persona 4 in June, and I’ve made plenty of progress on Persona 4 at the same time. As such, I feel like the experiment is working, and it feels like a better way to play games this long. I’m going to stick with it.

The only other thing I have to say about Persona 4 for now is that, from what I’ve gathered about Golden’s changes to the PlayStation 2 original (which I never touched), I’m really glad I’m playing this version. Some of that old interface stuff sounds insane (some of it was held over from Persona 3, like abilities carrying over after fusing being randomized), and hopefully Atlus will incorporate Golden’s changes moving forward; that stuff only creates unnecessary barriers. Anyway, none of that has been an issue in this version. So far so good on Persona 4, and I’ll keep playing it well into August.

Currently playing: Persona 4 Golden, Civilization V: Brave New World, Capsized

August releases I'm keeping an eye on: Pikmin 3, Papers, Please, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Gone Home, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

2 Comments

(Don't) Tell Me A Story

Have you ever played a game that you felt shed light on how or why you live your life?

People like stories. We inherently like stories of all shapes and sizes, in as many areas of life as we can get them. Naturally, this extends to the realm of video games, where stories have only become more and more of a focus for the medium as it’s grown in popularity over the years. A friend recently asked me the above question when we were talking about video game stories, which initially sounded weird to me. While it’s not uncommon for other mediums, such as books or movies, to tell stories that can strongly affect people in that way, I generally don’t think about video games in the same light. At the same time, I have deeply enjoyed numerous video game “narratives” over the years, which got me thinking about what it is I personally get out of my favorite video game narratives.

The World Ends With You has led me to reflect on my life as much as any game, which still isn't all that much.

First and foremost, there have been plenty of video game stories that I like for having endearing characters, an interesting plot with memorable moments, or themes that stick with me for some time after playing them. These games include things like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Cross, God of War, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, BioShock, The World Ends With You, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, To the Moon, and so on. These types of games, for the most part, I consider to offer “traditional” storytelling, where a concrete story is told in a way that’s largely removed from the input of the player (aka, gameplay). This is probably still the most common form of storytelling in video games, and it also lies on the non-interactive end of the spectrum, thus making such stories the most analogous to other, non-interactive mediums. While I have highly enjoyed many such stories (particularly those in the games listed above), I don’t know that I would say any of them have made me reflect on my life to any substantial degree (then again, I’m not sure many stories in other mediums have either, but that’s another topic). Furthermore, I don’t think they’re the kinds of video game stories that have had the biggest impact on me while I’m actually playing games, as these stories exist separately from gameplay.

When I’m playing a game, its story is rarely at the forefront of my mind. I’m much more focused on grappling with what I, as an acting agent in a (hopefully) well realized world, need to be doing to complete whatever tasks lie before me. As such, the only narrative that immediately registers to me is that which pertains to what I can actively engage with. This is where some video game stories can often lose me; games can spend too much time explaining their overly convoluted context for what’s going on in a way that doesn’t involve the player (Metal Gear Solid is a prime example). Such lengthy exposition is often too far removed from what I can reasonably care about as the player, and can make me feel like I’m not a meaningful participant in the world, regardless of the quality of said exposition. On top of that, it’s simply too much to be introduced to dozens of characters and plot threads while also trying to grapple with any number of potentially complex (and hopefully interesting) gameplay systems.

Games can use a lot more than words to tell stories.

In most cases, only once I’m in well versed in and engaged by those gameplay systems will I appreciate the greater context that they exist in (and even then games can still go off the rails later on). This context can certainly include traditional story and characters, but it also includes art, sound, world design and everything in between; the tiniest details can greatly affect the nature of the experience, and I would argue that all of these features should be considered when talking about a video game’s “narrative.” Video games are in the unique position where the author doesn’t have complete control over how the user digests their work. They can certainly guide and direct the process, but the player ultimately sets their own pace (outside of forced dialogue and cut-scenes, which is why those things can cause trouble if not used well), and thus discover and be affected by any number of potentially captivating details that exist within the game. This also means that each player can view the experience from a slightly different angle that’s uniquely meaningful to them, dependent to some degree on how they go about playing.

This relates to what I’ve frequently heard called “player driven narrative,” which is the best way I’ve found to describe my favorite video game narratives. Part of me hesitates to even call them “narratives,” because the word carries a certain amount of expectation, and what we’re talking about is a bit more abstract. Put as succinctly as I can, it’s the idea that the narrative of a game is that which describes the player’s own actions and experiences. When retelling the story of a game, you would tell it as the story of your character(s) and what they saw, what they heard, and ultimately what they did. The more detailed the story is the more interesting it becomes, and the more it’s told through your own choices and actions, rather than through forced exposition, the more player driven it becomes. As such, player driven narratives lie on the exact opposite end of the video game storytelling spectrum from the traditional storytelling I described above, as they are intrinsically tied to the interactivity of the medium. I have a hard time describing it any more directly than that, so let me try using a few examples to hopefully further illustrate what I mean.

Everyone has their own story to tell in Civilization.

When people think of great video game narratives, I don’t think Sid Meier’s Civilization series is usually at the forefront of the conversation, but I think these games create wonderful player driven narratives. If I were to tell one of my (many) Civilization stories, it might be about how I played as a peaceful Gandhi who was committed to scientific research and cultural prowess, and dealt with other leaders diplomatically rather than by force. It would be about how Tokugawa invaded in the Middle Ages, prompting me to muster up a small but advanced army to desperately protect my territory. It would be about how my citizens went on strike when they weren’t happy, and while I got frustrated at their lack of desire to work, I constructed cultural works and secured luxury resources to appease them. It would be about catching English spies who were trying to sabotage my construction of a space shuttle, and in the end it would be about launching said shuttle to Alpha Centauri. Those are very broad strokes of the story, but you can imagine the other nuances that fill in the gaps along the way to color the experience and make it more fulfilling, and how every player would have their own unique story to tell.

Video games can let us partake in our own personal narratives.

I would argue that every video game allows for player driven narratives to some degree, only that some games simply embrace the idea substantially more and/or do it better than others. Civilization is a favorite example of mine, but there are plenty of others that have captivated me over the years. Unsurprisingly, Firaxis’ other recent strategy game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, succeeds with its narrative in much the same way as Civilization; everyone has a story about how their own squad came together, and how they did (or did not) stop the alien threat. Some other games that stand out to me as allowing for strong player driven narratives include Metroid Prime (or equally, Super Metroid), Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s/Dark Souls and Journey. None of these games have much in the way of a traditional “story,” but I find myself thinking about my experiences with them substantially more than most games. While on the surface they appear to ignore what we often think of as story to focus on gameplay, I would argue that their narratives (including all that entails) are so intrinsically tied to their gameplay that it’s all basically the same thing. Take Metroid Prime for example. Nowhere is it explained or directed that Samus explores Tallon IV’s ancient Chozo Ruins, uses a spider ball suit enhancement to traverse the fiery Magmoor Caverns, or searches the Space Pirates’ data archives for information on their experiments. And yet players of Metroid Prime know these things happen because we do these things. The game doesn’t explicitly tell us to do these things either, but by participating in the game’s beautifully designed world we’re able to process what we see and hear into useful information that guides our own narrative. The gameplay is the story, which creates a very seamless package that’s much easier for me to become immersed in, compared to those where gameplay and story are disjoint.

I think it’s that immersion that ultimately wins me over on player driven narratives when compared to other ways of telling stories in video games, and why it dramatically helps a game’s cause to successfully merge gameplay, story, characters, art, sound, world design, and so on into one unified whole. If a video game can create a rich, immersive setting for me to participate in and discover on my own volition, with minimal direct exposition, then I’m much more likely to feel invested and connected to what’s happening on screen. That opens the doors for an infinitely more powerful and lasting (and oddly personal) experience for me than traditional storytelling can hope to muster, which goes to great lengths to explain why I find video games such a unique and fascinating medium in the first place. I still don’t know that any video game story has ever caused me to reflect on my life in the way my friend was asking, which may simply be more a reflection of me as a person (and/or my drama-free life) than a trait of video game storytelling in general. What I do know, however, is that the most meaningful video game narratives for me on a personal level are often player driven ones.

21 Comments

JRPGs Were Never Dead

JRPGs Were Never Dead

Despite claims to the contrary, JRPGs have been alive and well throughout the past generation of hardware. From Lost Odyssey to Tales of Vesperia to The World Ends With You to Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story to Radiant Historia to Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, and the many in between, there’s been plenty of well loved JRPGs year-in, year-out. Simply put, they’re not dead. They may not be as popular (relatively speaking) as they were in those halcyon days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but JRPGs are still very much here. And I still like to play the good ones when I find time for them, as I always have.

Ni no Kuni looks consistently incredible.

Enter Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, 2013’s first premier JRPG. I played through the game recently, and really enjoyed it overall. My favorite aspect of the game is by far its gorgeous visuals (insert Studio Ghibli nod here). I can’t overstate how beautiful and colorful the game’s art is, and it’s wonderfully varied from start to finish. A few animations here and there can be a little stiff, but the game otherwise looks absolutely incredible. It sounds almost as good too, between its fantastic orchestrated musical score (that world map theme is going to be stuck in my head for weeks) and enthusiastic voicework. Some of the voice acting was a bit monotone and strained to me; mainly the villains and, ironically, Oliver himself. But most of the heavy speaking roles are great, the clear standout being Drippy. The little dude nails it. I also really like the world itself. There’s a liveliness to it that’s infectious, making it a place that’s just fun to be. That is, unless you’re allergic to puns. Ni no Kuni is rife with them, and while they can occasionally be clever, they’re mostly just dumb. One king is a cat, and everyone addresses him as “Your Meowjesty.” Enough said.

The combat never felt as refined as it could.

Ni no Kuni does have its problems though, and the main ones for me are the story and combat. I found the actual plot to be standard and predictable for the most part. Not much happens for the vast majority of the game, and while there are a few genuinely good moments sprinkled in here and there, a lot of it doesn’t feel earned to me. Ultimately this is a very rote “Chosen boy goes on a quest to save the world” tale. Additionally, I think the characters are extremely bland. Most of them start out as lazy stereotypes, and they don’t really go through any kind of growth or development either. The game plays it unflinchingly straight in both its story and characters, so whether you enjoy that depends on how much you’re down with established cliches. The combat is my other big sticking point, as while I like a lot of the ideas it’s going for, I just don’t think it’s executed that well. The Pokemon-esque aspect of catching familiars has a similar charm, but I don’t think the familiars themselves are functionally that diverse. That makes the actual strategies I felt like I could pull off in combat pretty limited, and I spent my entire 50 hours with this game repeating the same combat routines. The worst part about the combat by far, however, is your party member’s AI. They are just plain dumb, and given that you can only control one character at a time, this makes it impossible to pull off any meaningfully intricate strategies. It’s a shame too, as I feel like there’s plenty of potential with the combat, but actually playing it is more annoying than I’d like.

The rest of the gameplay is very basic JRPG stuff, which involves a lot of fetch quests and dungeon crawling. I felt that the dungeons were fine; they did their job without either overstaying their welcome or doing anything that interesting. The fetch questy stuff really got to me at times though. I’m talking about stuff like having to walk to one end of a town, talk to person A, walk to the other end of the town, talk to person B, then back to person A, then back to person B. It’s maddening, especially since the story that’s unfolding through such sequences is rarely interesting in the slightest. It makes dull tasks take artificially longer than they should. Otherwise Ni no Kuni has a decent selection of side activities that give reasonable rewards, including optional mini-boss fights, an alchemy system and a colosseum, so there’s a lot to do for those who want it, which is pretty nice. Anyway, I enjoyed Ni no Kuni overall, but I do feel like there’s a lot to improve. I’m certainly glad I played it though, and I think on the whole anyone who likes dabbling in JRPGs would likely feel the same.

Zombie Souls

I also got around to playing ZombiU recently (after finally buying a Wii U via the ZombiU bundle, which I’m still not entirely convinced was a good move, but there you have it), and I think that game is fantastic. It takes a lot of ideas and design philosophies that I really appreciate, especially those from the Souls games, and implements them in smart ways in a first person shooter/survival horror. Neither of those are my favorite genres on their own, so it speaks highly of ZombiU that I came away liking it as much as I did.

Every encounter requires your attention.

The main thing ZombiU does that I like is to make each and every encounter feel meaningful. We get so used to normal enemies being such a non-issue in most games that it’s refreshing to play one where even your regular zombie poses a threat, and requires you to pay attention. It adds extra weight to each of your actions, and lends the game a decidedly methodical pace compared to a lot of games, which I like. This is the main thing ZombiU has in common with the Souls games, and it issues a similar manner of punishment for not taking things slow and minding your surroundings. The level design and enemy variety do a great job at backing this up too, constantly keeping you on your toes; there are some surprisingly gripping and memorable moments throughout. ZombiU also has a “corpse run” style thing going on, akin to the Souls’ death mechanic. When you die, all your gear remains on your corpse, and you spawn as a new, different character. You’re able to make your way back to your previous character (who has risen as a zombie) and retrieve your gear if you kill them. If not, you’re left with nothing but the pistol you always spawn with, and whatever else you’ve put in your permanent stash. It’s a great risk vs reward setup that makes every encounter a bit more tense, since you stand to lose more than a few minutes of your time (which is how most games punish deaths, via checkpoints).

Supplies were never a concern for me, which was kind of a shame.

Despite what this may sound like, ZombiU is not a hard game at all (especially when compared to the Souls games). In fact, I only died once during the game, and even that death was due to my own carelessness. That’s actually one of my bigger complaints with the game; not so much the difficulty itself, but the reason the game is easy is because I feel like there’s too much ammo and health lying around. I was well overstocked for the vast majority of the game (even my stash filled up early on) to the point where I never felt like I was up against it, and in many cases I felt overpowered. That robs the game of some of the tension it otherwise goes out of its way to create, and made all the time I spent scrounging for resources seem a little wasteful. The game gives such a strong survival horror vibe, and the atmosphere is surprisingly effective in a lot of ways, that I would have preferred it if I felt like I had to make better use of the supplies I did find. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the game was a late sequence where they temporarily strip your gear from you. It forced me to be more effective with the limited tools I had at my disposal, and it would have been great if the game had been able to create that level of tension more often.

The only other gripes I would level against ZombiU are technical ones. The game doesn’t look that great from a technical standpoint, though the tone and art style are still able to create a strong sense of atmosphere in spite of this fact. The game also controls a little sluggishly, which doesn’t hurt as much as you would think given its more methodical pacing, but it could still be better. Also, load times can be quite long, but that’s probably more a fault of the console itself than the game. Otherwise, I think ZombiU is awesome. It’s a pretty unique game, and I really appreciate what it’s going for. It’s well worth checking out... if you’re one of the few Wii U owners out there that is.

3 Comments

In Defense of Grids

“Do you like turn-based strategy games, but find them a bit too rigid? Would you rather have the ability to move at your own pace than have that pesky grid system holding you down? Do you see a hex-based map as The Man?”

-Taylor Cocke, IGN Skulls of the Shogun review

One of my favorite sub-genres has long been that of the turn-based strategy/tactics variety, especially when RPG elements and customization are involved. That’s perhaps a long winded way to describe such games, so for the sake of simplicity I’m going to stick with calling them “turn-based tactics” (or TBT for short). I’m talking about games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre and Disgaea. I would also throw in games like Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM: Enemy Unknown into the mix, which deviate slightly but retain most of the basics. Many of these games are among my all-time favorites, yet the genre has never been a popular one in the West by any measure. They’ve never sold well here, and prior to 2013 not a single entry in the entire genre had, to my knowledge, amassed a review average of 90% or higher (according to sites like Metacritic and Gamerankings). Is there any other genre that can make that dubious claim?

Grids worked just fine for Final Fantasy Tactics.

Turn-based tactics has always been super niche, to the point where I’m kind of surprised they still get released in North America (thankfully they do). I’ve often wondered why these games aren’t more popular too, and I think the above excerpt from IGN’s Skulls of the Shogun review (a game that shares enough traits with the genre to warrant the comparison) does a pretty good job at getting the gist of it, even if they’re not taking themselves too seriously. A lot of people seem to find the genre too slow and restrictive, plain and simple. And for the most part, that’s a fair critique depending on your own personal preferences. I personally find the genre fast paced and dynamic, but who am I to tell someone else that they’re wrong for not seeing it the same way? The complaint that is weird to me, however, is the one against “grids.” A lot of people seem to become immediately disinterested if they see a grid or hexes or any other form of map dissection in a game. Grids present a clean, organized and unambiguous way to present information; what’s the harm in that? I asked my brother about it, because he’s among those typically turned off by grids, and after much back and forth he clarified: “Disliking grids is my dumb way of saying I don't care for slow, turn-based tactical combat.” Fair enough. That’s basically a taste thing, as I stated above. But if that’s really the case then stop harping on grids, because they exist separately from “slow, turn-based tactical combat.” You can have one without the other.

And I think they would have benefited Skulls of the Shogun.

Furthermore, there are cases where grids make perfect sense, with Skulls of the Shogun ironically making a great example. I’ve stated before how maddening it can be to select units among a bunched up group in Skulls, and I believe if the game employed grids you wouldn’t have this issue, and wouldn’t lose anything else in the process. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all of this because between XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Skulls of the Shogun and Fire Emblem: Awakening, there’s been a lot of TBT going around lately, which has been great for me. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the newest one of the bunch, and the one that’s been on my mind recently. I consider myself a fan of the series, and Awakening is a fantastic entry. It’s also been much better received than the genre ever has before, and the sole reason I had to clarify “before 2013” when talking about reviews above. Awakening currently has an average around 92%, making it the highest reviewed TBT that I’m aware of. Not that that means anything in the long run, I just find it interesting.

Awakening is a fantastic entry to the series.

To dig into the details of Awakening, it’s a pretty pure Fire Emblem game through and through. That means great TBT battles, fun RPG mechanics via interesting classes and equipment, and solid storytelling. It’s not my personal favorite Fire Emblem (I like both the GBA ones better), but it’s not my least favorite either, and on the whole I don’t have much to complain about. If I want to nitpick, I still think the GBA games looked better; the series' 2D art has always looked much better than its polygonal models to me. The battle animations in particular have never been as impressive as they were on the GBA. That said, the cinematics in Awakening look incredible, even in 3D. The rest of the package is about what you’d expect, and is done as well as ever. That mix of tactics and RPG is still awesome to me, and Awakening pulls it off nicely. Perhaps the game’s biggest change comes with the way you can switch your characters’ classes using a specific, but common enough item. This opens up a lot of crazy min/maxing character build options for those who are tackling the higher difficulties and/or want to grind, which is now an option thanks to an explorable world map. Not that you have to if you don’t want to though (I didn’t mess with it much), because the game has an impressive host of difficulty options that really let you tailor it to your own style. I think newcomers and veterans alike can find a setting that fits what they want, which is fantastic.

Finally, the story itself is solid, if not spectacular. I generally like Fire Emblem’s brand of storytelling, and Awakening’s is more or less on par for the series. Again, I like the GBA stories better, but Awakening’s was plenty engaging. It also does a good job at switching up the main story beats as one starts getting old, and there are plenty of memorable characters to go around. All in all I think Awakening is a great TBT, and a great addition to the Fire Emblem series. It’s been a while since we’ve had an original one here in the US; not counting 2009’s Shadow Dragon (a remake) we haven’t seen one since Radiant Dawn in 2007, which wasn’t very strong to begin with. So it’s great to see the series make such a triumphant return. The 3DS is really picking up some steam and becoming a nifty little system. and if you own one, and aren’t allergic to grids, Awakening is well worth it.

Start the Conversation

Don't Look Down

I foolishly posted this on the Sunday before the new site launched. Needless to say, it got gobbled up... so here it is again!

Eatin' Skulls

I’ve been following Skulls of the Shogun’s development for quite a while (there’s been plenty of it to follow), and despite modest reviews I decided to pick it up and see for myself; I had to know. Ultimately, I think Skulls is a pretty sweet game. True to what the team at 17-Bit had been saying all along, Skulls takes a lot of cues from stuff like Advance Wars (a personal favorite of mine). It’s a turn-based strategy/tactics game that’s pretty simple on the whole, yet there’s some extra depth under the surface. It never gets quite as intricate as its inspiration, but there’s enough meat to Skulls to make it engaging and substantial enough. The handful of units are cool and all have their uses, and eating the skulls of fallen enemies to power them up is a nice touch. Eating three skulls turns a unit into a “demon” and lets them take two actions per turn, which is a literal game changer. Once you get a few demon units you feel pretty unstoppable, and figuring out how to get to that point can be exciting. Otherwise the game’s general flow and mechanics are enjoyable, and I really like the look and sound of the game. The soundtrack in particular is catchy.

Skulls of the Shogun is both fun and busted.

While I think the core of Skulls is pretty fun, the game’s certainly not without issues. One of the weirdest things to me is the fact that you can only use five units per turn. You generally start with more than five units, and often have the option to buy more, which feels pretty pointless (unless you lose a lot of units). Basically, you have access to a larger army than you can actually use. Also, the whole “no grids” thing comes off as kind of a pandering/desperate marketing angle that doesn’t work as well in practice. Trying to select a unit among a bunched up group can be downright maddening at times. I know the average person hates the idea of grids (one of the reasons such games aren’t popular), but I think Skulls shows why grids make sense. I personally think selecting units would be much easier with a grid, and that you wouldn’t lose anything in return. Those two issues are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, however. By far the worst thing about Skulls of the Shogun is that it’s a technical mess. I don’t know how a game in development for so long can perform so terribly, but any technical bug you can think of can probably occur in Skulls. Among other things, I experienced numerous game freezes, saving issues, and frequent frame rate drops. The worst and most bizarre issue was a dashboard level error message (I played the Xbox 360 version) that popped up and booted me out of the game for no discernible reason. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and it happened to me twice in Skulls. It’s completely baffling and inexcusable.

It’s a bummer that Skulls of the Shogun is so rife with technical problems, because a few other minor issues aside, it’s a pretty fun, lighthearted turn-based strategy/tactics game. It’s a genre that doesn’t get a lot of exposure too, and while Skulls is a somewhat “lite” entry, it’s still an enjoyable and worthwhile one. Just be prepared to put up with a lot of technical problems.

Don't Look Down

I also played through Antichamber recently, and I think that game is totally rad. When I first heard the game described using the term “non-Euclidean geometry” I was a little skeptical for a number of reasons. First, that sounds a little pretentious. Second, there’s no way to know what is actually meant by that, especially in the context of a video game. Third, would it end up being more of a tech experiment than an interesting and fun game? Fortunately, most of those fears were unfounded (it might still be a little pretentious, but that’s up to taste I suppose). I was once again reminded that it’s always good to take a “wait and see” approach with this stuff, because you just never know.

Antichamber's puzzles can get a little trippy.

After playing Antichamber for myself, I feel like I “get” what is meant by “non-Euclidean geometry,” even if it’s a bit too abstract to describe as concisely as I’d like. The best I can do is to say that physical space doesn’t always behave as it does in the real world, and is subject to your own perception. Think about it as kind of like being inside a M.C. Escher painting. Effectively describing it gets murkier past that, because the game’s world doesn’t always seem consistent and symmetrical with its own properties. Which is maybe the point? I don’t know. What I do know is that this abstracted design allows for a whole lot of highly creative and mind-bending puzzles. Walls can shift or disappear based on how you look at them, stairways can loop around on themselves, and floors can form based on how fast you are moving. It’s completely bizarre, and equally awesome. The game demands that you think outside the box in all sorts of ways, and constantly forces you to question how things work. I think this abstract nature is a great alternative to the nuts and bolts style of most video game puzzles, and that’s the core of what makes Antichamber so cool.

Antichamber has a clean, bold look to it.

I also really like the way the world is designed, and think it’s a great fit for this style of puzzle solving. At any point you can bounce back to the game’s starting room, which not only resets the puzzles and gets you out of sticky situations where you might be straight up screwed, but that room also has a map. From this map you can see how rooms connect, and also choose any room to instantly warp to, which makes getting around this crazy world convenient. The map is also pretty sprawling, and the game certainly has a substantial exploration element to it, which I really enjoyed. Whenever I got stuck on a puzzle for too long, I could go explore somewhere else, and often find another way around. There’s simply tons of varied stuff to discover, and I was consistently excited to see what was around the next corner throughout the game. It also helps that the game looks pretty striking. I like the brightly bold color palette, and they way is uses visual cues to guide a lot of your progress throughout the game is slick and smart. The game does a good job at communicating to the player without actively speaking to them. Finally, I appreciate that the game, unlike most, doesn’t feel the need to shoehorn a “story” in there. Antichamber focuses purely on doing what it does best, and I think it’s all the better for it. Not every game has to be all things to all people.

If you couldn’t tell, I really like Antichamber. That said, it’s not a perfect game either. One of the abilities you gain is wholly unintuitive, and unless I missed something it’s never so much as hinted at. I also think some of the late game cube manipulation puzzles get really tedious and aren’t that interesting. But by and large, I think Antichamber is pretty incredible. It has an ambitious and unique take on both puzzle and world design, and manages to execute it all with a high level of craft from start to finish.

Start the Conversation

Waaagh!!!

I dove head first into the Warhammer 40,000 universe recently, taking a whirlwind tour of its various video game offerings, all of which were developed by Relic Entertainment. I knew virtually nothing about the Warhammer 40k universe going in, but I did play a lot of regular old Warhammer (the tabletop game) growing up, so I’ve always been aware of its futuristic, space-faring alternative. And for the most part Warhammer 40k takes your traditional fantasy universe (Warhammer, Lord of the Rings, etc.) and translates it as directly as it can to a space setting. There are equivalents to many standard fantasy races like Orcs and Elves, and everyone talks with the obligatory British accent you’d expect. This actually makes the universe feel more like fantasy than sci-fi, despite the setting. The tone, plot and characters follow more traditional fantasy stereotypes, it just happens to take place in space instead of Middle-earth, and they use guns and machines in addition to swords and magic (both of which are still present). I find this to be an amusing mix, and really enjoy the universe’s setting and style. I mean, where else can you find British space Orks? (Yes, with a ‘k,’ that’s how they do it in space.)

Spayce muhreens!!!

Anyway, I kicked things off with the newest game of the bunch, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. The game is pretty much what you would expect: a straightforward, often mindless romp that involves shooting and smashing a lot of Ork and Chaos forces. It’s a super linear third person action game that lets you bounce back and forth between shooting and melee on the fly, and that’s certainly the game’s brightest spot from a gameplay standpoint. Otherwise it’s so rote and so simple that I felt it got old well before the end, which is telling since the game only took me like 6-7 hours to beat. Also, something I felt was off, the game goes out of its way to stress that you are this incredible badass, a 10 foot tall ultramarine that’s too powerful to be bothered with things like taking cover (hence no cover system). Yet even on the normal difficulty bullets can chew you up pretty good. The game never gets hard, but you do have to spend time hiding behind objects to regenerate health, and that time increases throughout the game. It felt weird.

While I think Space Marine’s gameplay is ultimately way too shallow, it is entertaining for a little while, and is at least backed up by the Warhammer 40k universe. My favorite thing about that is the way Orks and Goblins consistently yell “Space Marines!” almost every time they see you, which is basically every two minutes. Remember, this is all with a British accent too. They also yell “Waaagh!” a lot, which has always been a thing in Warhammer, and it’s equally funny. Everything in the game is also super meaty and tough looking, and it all generally looks and sounds pretty great (at least on the PC). This all comes together to make it an alright romp for a few hours, especially for the right price. Just don’t expect anything more than that.

Dawn of War focuses the action on key control points.

Afterwards I moved on from action to strategy. I had always wanted to try the Dawn of War games, especially since I consider Company of Heroes a personal favorite. I started, naturally, with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, and despite it being over eight years old I think it’s still really cool. I can definitely see how Dawn of War was a stepping stone towards Company of Heroes, and I really like Relic’s style of RTS that focuses on control points. It gives you incentive to move around the map right from the start, and focuses the action on key points without also including large, wasted sections of map. Otherwise, Dawn of War feels more like a traditional RTS than Company of Heroes. The large number of units, base-building and tech trees are pretty expansive, and it’s all done well. In fact, my favorite part about Dawn of War might actually be the wide variety of units between all the different armies. The bundle I got included the first two expansions (Winter Assault and Dark Crusade), which brought my total army count up to seven, each of which have unique units. While there are plenty of analogs between armies, there’s still a lot of different stuff to learn, and seeing how all of that plays out is really interesting to me. Some armies have other unique mechanics as well, such as how they improve their population cap or gather resources. There’s a surprising amount of variety in the game, and while I have no idea if it’s actually balanced or not, it makes the game really fun to mess around with.

Perhaps Relic's best mix of strategy and tactics.

Part of me wonders if the control points idea came from Relic’s desire to translate a tabletop wargame to a video game. They clearly wanted to make a faster paced game than Warhammer 40k’s slower turn based roots, but by adding control points to a RTS they’ve included an extra element of battlefield control that’s inherent to tabletop wargames. The idea of building squads rather than individual units also seems like a very tabletop thing, as does the way you can equip units with different types of weapons (which you can do in Warhammer, and presumably Warhammer 40k too). That may or may not be how the idea came about, but I would be curious to know. Either way, I think it’s a great fit. I also think they refined the idea in Company of Heroes, where they reduced the number of buildings and units in the game, and designed maps more smartly with control points in mind. It got a little bit farther away from your traditional RTS, and focused even more on getting you out on the battlefield as quickly as possible. I feel like Company of Heroes struck a good balance that ultimately works a little better than Dawn of War, but I still like Dawn of War quite a bit.

Dawn of War II tosses out big picture strategy in favor of battlefield tactics.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II then takes the idea another step past Company of Heroes, almost to its logical extreme. It has no base-building at all, and virtually the entire focus is on the battlefield. The maps feel even smaller and more action-oriented than they did in Company of Heroes, and the way you always start with a hero who has their own unique abilities (and can equip gear) makes it even more clear that your attention should be on your troops rather than your base. It has a really snappy pace to it that can be intense, as you’re pretty much in the thick of things from start to finish. I had fun with Dawn of War II for many of the same reasons I like Relic’s other strategy games, and I think the fast paced nature of it can be pretty exciting at times. But I also think they might have taken it a little too far. In fact, while I enjoy all three of Relic’s strategy games, I think Company of Heroes finds the best overall balance. Dawn of War gets a little too bogged down with some traditional RTS management, and Dawn of War II loses a little too much of it. Those are minor complaints at best, as I think all three games are great; I’m simply splitting hairs at this point.

Both Dawn of War games also make great use of the Warhammer 40k license. I didn’t play any of the campaigns in either game or their expansions, as I was more interested in experimenting with each army in skirmishes than being tied to one army for a dozen hours or so. But the way the units look and sound, the bold world design, the bombastic music (Dawn of War was composed by Jeremy Soule, he of Elder Scrolls fame) and the general aesthetic all combine to bring the universe to life. It’s a good universe to spend time in, and I’ve enjoyed my time with it. The games themselves are no slouch either, and hopefully we’ll see more Warhammer 40k inspired work from Relic in the future.

Start the Conversation