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


(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.


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.


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


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.


PC Rising

Preparing For Phase Jump

Sins is a great strategy game from any number of angles.

When Sins of a Solar Empire came out back in 2008, it was the one PC game that made me sad I didn’t have a gaming quality PC at the time (coincidentally, more on that below). I picked it up recently in one of the many Steam sales, and finally got around to giving it a shot. I’m glad I did too, because Sins is totally awesome. It’s an incredibly clever hybrid of real-time and 4X turn-based strategy conventions, combining the tactical combat of something like StarCraft with the long range planning of something like Civilization. In fact, pretty much everything about Sins lives in a comfortable middle ground between those two extremes. Battles occur in real-time and require some micromanagement, but it’s more big picture and less frenetic than your typical RTS, with only light tactical management and the ability to pause anytime. Empire building is broad in scope and has you managing different colonies like your typical 4X game, but there aren’t quite as many resources, units or technologies to consider. The tech tree finds a similar middle ground, and diplomacy options with your potential adversaries even manage to split the difference. Finally, my average game has taken around 3 hours to complete thus far; much longer than a RTS, yet much shorter than a 4X game.

Sins strikes this balance in every facet of its design, which sounds like it should be absolutely disastrous. Yet somehow it isn’t, and the game manages to nail exactly what I like about both genres in equal measure; it’s part building units and counters to compose armies with very specific tactical makeups, and part addictive “one more turn” style empire management. The game gives you enough of both without piling on so much of one that it would override the other, and it's executed to work better than it has any right to. In short, I really like it. It could probably be a little better balanced in spots, but the only thing that potentially seems like a large issue is that I could see the game reaching a kind of stalemate scenario at times. Granted, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but since resources are infinite and there’s no timer on a game, I could see two players splitting control of the map and maxing out their tech tree, only to end up butting heads indefinitely. Fortunately I have yet to encounter this scenario, so I’ll go on thinking that Sins of a Solar Empire is the magical melding of ideas that it’s proven to be thus far.

PC Rising

Who needs a PC when you got Mode 7!?

For most of my life I’ve spent the vast majority of my gaming time on consoles. From the Super Nintendo to the PlayStation 3, and covering just about everything in between, I’ve always gravitated towards the controller and TV experience. I could go on and on about the various reasons and historical details why, but it mostly came down to two primary things: the games coming out for consoles appealed to me more, and consoles were easier and cheaper to maintain. Sure, I played PC games here and there; StarCraft is an all-time favorite after all. It was simply never my platform of choice. The PC hit a personal low during the first half of the current console generation (meaning about 2005-2009), as the combination of very few interesting PC exclusives and me not having ample means to invest in a gaming quality PC meant that I played virtually no games on the PC during that stretch. All the talk about PC gaming dying seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, and I was perfectly satisfied and content to ignore the platform in favor of the flourishing consoles.

That slowly started turning around in 2010, when after getting my first “real” job I was able to buy a legitimate gaming PC. The double hitter of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Civilization V then kicked off what’s turned out to be a surprising turnaround for the platform. It’s not any one thing either, as a whole host of different factors have combined to give the PC a new life for me. They include:

Digital distribution and sales are among the main areas where consoles are falling behind.
  1. Some great “big budget” exclusives like the aforementioned StarCraft II and Civilization V, along with Diablo III, which are all endlessly playable games that make use of the PC’s strengths.
  2. After years of bad ports, PC versions of multiplatform games like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Battlefield 3 and Far Cry 3 are now regularly surpassing their console counterparts.
  3. Near universal controller on PC (I’ll always be a controller guy).
  4. Day one digital downloads for literally everything. Sony is doing much better at this recently, but Microsoft is strangely content to ignore this on the Xbox 360.
  5. The growing “small games” movement (be it indie or otherwise) has shone brightest on the PC recently, where developers don’t have to fight strict console certification processes. Games like To the Moon, FTL: Faster Than Light and Hotline Miami may have never happened on consoles, and prominent figures such as Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish have had many well documented issues with putting their games out on those platforms.
  6. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, PC gaming is cheaper than ever. Digital pricing is often cheaper than retail to begin with, and regular sales (primarily through Steam) are simply incredible; the rate at which games dip below $20 makes buying any game at $60 feel antiquated. The upfront investment for a PC is still higher than consoles (though that’s also cheaper than ever), but I believe PC gaming is currently cheaper in the long run due to digital pricing and sales. Not to mention that you don’t have to pay for any online services to get the most out of your games; here’s looking at you Xbox Live Gold.

Those last three points are the biggest ones for me, and are the areas where the consoles have the most catching up to do. The PC has proven to be a highly adaptable and varied platform over the past few years, and the way you can now get tons of quality content on the cheap, from both big and small developers, be it retail or digital, is the way of the future. It’s likely that the consoles are lagging behind due to their protracted cycle, and it’s completely possible that they will catch up and I will switch right back to them once the next generation begins in earnest. But for the time being the PC is the way forward, and for the first time in my life it’s my platform of choice.


Act II is Always a Desert

Survival Non-Horror

Good atmosphere, bad combat.

Continuing my recent foray into genres I don’t traditionally like (that’s what a backlog is for right?), I decided to give Lone Survivor a shot and recently played through it. Maybe this was a little naive of me, but I was kind of hoping that if something like Mark of the Ninja could make me like a stealth game, then maybe the same could be done for survival horror. If that’s possible, Lone Survivor isn’t it. Pretty much everything I dislike about the genre is present and accounted for in Lone Survivor, including messy inventory management, painfully clunky combat, and poor communication. In fact, that lack of communication was the most frustrating thing about Lone Survivor to me. It’s often incredibly unclear what objects in the environment you can interact with, which results in a few almost “pixel hunt” type moments. There’s also no real explanation for how a lot of the items and systems in the game work (such as food and eating), and the combat (in addition to controlling poorly) gives little feedback; I often couldn’t tell if I was hitting enemies or not. I actually can’t tell how much of this is by design either. Survival horror has always been the type of thing to actively handcuff players to try and make them feel uncomfortable, even during the most menial tasks. It all just ends up being annoying to me, and I can’t tell if Lone Survivor is intentionally trying to be that way, or if it did so by accident. Either way, I don’t like it.

All of these issues are things that feel like old school staples of the genre, and are the exact same things that never endeared me to the likes of the original Resident Evil or Silent Hill in the first place. I will give Lone Survivor credit for its atmosphere (how sad would it be if it didn’t do that well?), and I really like the look and the art style. That said, I also didn’t find the game to be scary at all, and pretty much everything about the gameplay was either dull or frustrating. Survival “horror” continues to not be my thing.

The Biggest Bo

That was SWEET!!!

I also played through Binary Domain recently (it’s been a good few weeks for getting through some shorter games I got on the cheap; thanks Steam!), which is a really dumb game. The gameplay is super generic third person shooting, even though it actually tries to do a few clever things with party management and gaining favor with your party members. There are almost hints of a BioWare style party dynamic in there, but it never goes as far as it could, and what’s there is really silly. I mean, you can respond “God damn” or “Love you” to most questions your party members ask you, and it never makes any sense. Anyway, 95% of the gameplay is very bland third person shooter gunplay, which is mostly serviceable if uninspired. Ironically though, the gameplay doesn’t even compromise the majority of the game. Binary Domain is surprisingly heavy on story, complete with tons of dialogue and cut scenes. All the characters are the biggest stereotypes imaginable, and the actual plot is dumb in that summer blockbuster kind of way. And yet, I still managed to like the story overall. It’s ultimately pretty pointless, but the delivery is good enough, the characters are fun (Big Bo!), and it makes for an enjoyable ride if nothing else. Binary Domain doesn’t win any points for originality in either gameplay or story, but it does both of those things just well enough to be entertaining. It’s still pretty dumb though.

Act II is Always a Desert

I feel like I've done this before.

Some friends and I had been making our way through Torchlight II over the past few weeks, beating it last week. There’s not really a whole lot to say about Torchlight II; it’s one of those kinds of games through and through. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Diablo-inspired subgenre of RPGs, as I’ve never given a crap about randomly generated loot. And that’s ultimately where Torchlight II fails to grab me as well, as it’s pretty exclusively focused on pure and simple loot. I can see why some people might enjoy that over Diablo III, because it does emulate the slot machine vibe much more directly. Put bluntly, you keep clicking and colored goodies keep popping out of everything in sight. But as someone who doesn’t care about loot, Diablo III was still able to grab me with with its snappy, great feeling combat and its robust, varied skills (it's perhaps the only game in the genre to do so). By contrast, Torchlight II’s combat is mindless clicking, and the skills don’t seem to have a lot of functional variety to them (most of them are simple damage dealers). I also prefer the way you can mix and match skills on the fly in Diablo III, which rewards experimentation and allows for more diverse combat options. In Torchlight II I was more or less stuck with the few skills I chose early on, and spent most of the game putting more points into the same skills rather than earning new ones. That meant that the play experience remained mostly unchanged throughout, and it got pretty old pretty quick to me as a result.

Anyway, enough about Diablo III. Torchlight II is generic, lighthearted fun, and was fine to play through with friends. It's also cool that it's priced at $20, which feels like a solid price for a game like this. I’ll probably forget it just as quickly though, as it was pretty uninspired on the whole. You know exactly what you’re getting before you even begin; Act II is still in a desert, as always, which speaks to the game’s lack of imagination and creativity as much as anything. But if you crave nothing more than the clicky-clicky and loot geysers, it will probably give you your fix.


Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Komodo Dragons and...)


Between Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light, I’ve played more games in the past year that can be compared to roguelikes than I ever have before. FTL has been the one occupying me recently, and like Spelunky before it I’ve had an up and down relationship with it. My first impression was fantastic, thanks to the game’s solid underlying mechanics. The balance it strikes between fighting battles and upgrading your ship is incredibly exciting and interesting, and the game moves at a snappy pace to be constantly engaging. It also has great atmosphere and and an even better soundtrack (continuing the trend of indie games absolutely nailing their soundtracks). But as with all games that are kind of like roguelikes (roguelike-likes?), FTL relies on randomness a lot, which is where my relationship with it becomes a little rocky.

Oh FTL, I would like you more if you weren't so random.

Pure randomness is fine to an extent, but at some point I get frustrated when I feel like my ability to progress is hindered by a roll of the dice. Even the best runs have a chance of going south regardless of what you do, and while there is certainly a layer of strategy to the game, and you can improve your odds of success by playing better, it’s never entirely in your own hands. This makes it especially hard to learn from your mistakes, as it’s often difficult to tell if (and where) you did something wrong, or if you simply ran into some plain old bad luck. Finally, it can be tough to make strategic decisions when you don’t know what’s coming up ahead; the best you can do without any concrete information is attempt to play the percentages and hope it works out. I feel like all of these problems are more pronounced in FTL than they were in Spelunky, for the sole reason that a single game of FTL can take over an hour to play. When I die in Spelunky I’ve wasted maybe five minutes, but playing a game of FTL for over an hour with nothing to show for it can be hard to swallow.

I realize that the primary way to enjoy such games is to let go of results, and to focus more on the journey than the destination. And by that measure, I have enjoyed playing both Spelunky and FTL to a certain extent. Almost every run has a lesson to learn, but I simply don’t know if or when I will learn enough of them (and get lucky enough) to “beat” either game. Ultimately, only the dice can help decide that, while I will likely decide that my time is better spent on the giant pile of other games I have to play.

Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Komodo Dragons and...)

Interacting with animals is my favorite thing about Far Cry 3.

I recently finished Far Cry 3, which I really enjoyed. In fact, had I played it during 2012 it would likely be on my top 10 list for the year. But alas, it was not to be. Anyway, I generally don’t care for open world action games that much, as I feel like they tend to stretch themselves too thin and often become really bogged down with menial tasks. Far Cry 3 certainly has some of that, but I also like a lot of its tasks more than most open world action games, and find it easy to ignore the rest. The standout for me is easily the hunting, or more accurately animal encounters in general. The animals have a certain ferocity to them that’s exciting, and they are absolutely everywhere. The game basically infuses animals into everything you do, which can lead to intense standoffs with a bear in the middle of the thickest jungle, or hilarious moments where enemy pirates get overrun by a roaming pack of komodo dragons. It gives the game a certain primal edge that you generally don’t see in games of this quality, and it ended up being my favorite aspect of the entire game.

Not only is interacting with animals in Far Cry 3 a total blast, but the upgrades you earn from hunting them are totally worth it. More weapon slots, higher ammo capacity, etc. If I have one gripe against the hunting it’s actually that it’s too tempting and too easy to blow through it all right up front. A few hours into the game, before doing virtually anything else, I had maxed out all of the meaningful upgrades. Maybe that’s my own fault for not pacing myself, but I still wish a larger percentage of the game involved hunting. When it comes to the other activities, I really liked climbing the radio towers and clearing out enemy camps. I feel like the towers rewarded me for exploring the game’s gorgeous island (something I’d be prone to do anyway), while the camps let me make use of all the weapons and abilities I had acquired. The stealth and combat in Far Cry 3 are surprisingly fun in small bursts, and I feel like those qualities shine brightest when infiltrating these camps. Most of the other side activities I found to be pretty dull, such as the “Wanted” quests, supply runs, Rakyat challenges, and the myriad of pointless collectibles. At the same time, they were all easy enough for me to ignore, and didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the game.

Vaas is amusing, but otherwise I didn't like much about the story missions.

The main thing that did hinder my enjoyment of the game was the other thing I tend to not like about open world action games, which are the main story missions. They’re super rote and generic, if not just plain bad, and are by far the weakest part of Far Cry 3 to me. Boring corridor crawls, escort missions, rail gun sequences, fetch quests, driving time trials, and lots of repetitive combat in general (all without the open ended aspect that makes taking enemy camps so fun) plague the main missions, none of which I care for at all. The story itself didn’t do anything for me either, but I didn’t find it as aggressively offensive as some people seem to. For me it’s just kind of “there,” not really hurting or helping matters, which is only a bit of a shame since the story missions do need help. Anyway, those missions were pretty easy to mindlessly plow through, and ultimately didn’t ruin the other great stuff Far Cry 3 does in the long run. I may not be a fan of open world action games in general, but Far Cry 3 has proven to be one I can get behind, and is probably among my favorite such games I’ve ever played.