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.

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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.

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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.


Thirty Flights of Scam

A few items of note before I begin. First, I was on a podcast with a handful of Giant Bomb duders last week to do our own GOTY deliberations. I think it turned out pretty well (and it was a lot of fun to do), and if you want to give it a listen you can find it over here. Secondly, this is my first attempt at replacing my “Weekly Roundup” writings I did last year. Bear with me and treat it as an experiment for now, as if it sticks I’m sure it will get more refined as it goes. The basic idea is the same, but the format is slightly different to accompany various wants, and I won’t necessarily be posting every week (consecutive weeks are possible, it’s just not my goal). Anyway, we’ll see how it goes!

Resident Evil of the Year

Nothing revolutionary, but it's proof that Resident Evil still has merit.

I played through Resident Evil: Revelations recently, which is surprisingly good. Given that 2012 was riddled with multiple lackluster Resident Evil games (you know which two I’m talking about), it’s a welcome sight to see that all is not lost for a franchise that delivered something as spectacular as Resident Evil 4. Revelations does a decent job at emulating what made that classic so great, and even if it doesn’t do it nearly as well, it’s good enough to be worth playing. The over-the-shoulder controls work well on the Nintendo 3DS (even without the circle pad pro), the gun upgrades are cool, exploring the Queen Zenobia and its winding, atmospheric hallways is tense and exciting, and the game looks absolutely incredible. If Revelations is any indicator, the 3DS has some serious horsepower under the hood. It’s nothing revolutionary by any means (despite the name), and it bogged down a little for me near the end. But if you have a 3DS and appreciate a solid Resident Evil game, or merely want your faith in the franchise restored, Revelations fits the bill.

All We Have Are Raisins

Resonance of Fate is a whole lot of this.

I really wanted to give Resonance of Fate an honest shot. My brother liked it a lot, and it seemed to have some interesting ideas; its battle system is certainly different in a neat way. I kind of appreciate the way the game opens everything up right from the get-go too, even if it also creates an insanely high learning curve up front. The in-game tutorials do a terrible job at teaching you the ropes as well, and if you’re anything like me you have to just get in there and try it (and die) a few times before you really figure out what’s going on. That was initially frustrating, but I was fine with it after a few hours. Ironically, I ran into my biggest problems once I had figured out the battle system. I feel like the game focuses on the core battle system to the point where that’s all it’s really about. Any semblance of variety and/or pacing is completely absent, as during the almost 10 hours I played I simply fought the same enemies over and over as I went on fetch quests and crawled through dungeons. From what I can tell the game seems to go on like that for upwards of 50+ hours, with battles forming at least 90% of that playtime. You simply have to be up for the grind, and I don’t think I am with regards to Resonance of Fate right now.

I don’t mind long winded RPGs on principle, but they need to do something past “fight battles for 50+ hours”. Past better variety and pacing, most good RPGs do it with upgrades and/or character progression that constantly change how the game plays in interesting (and perhaps subtle) ways, or a compelling story and characters. Resonance of Fate has none of that for me. While I think the gun modification stuff is neat, I also feel like it’s fairly thin. Maybe twice in the almost 10 hours I played I spent roughly 10 minutes tinkering with my guns, decking them out with the best upgrades available. Not only was that a small part of my playtime, but it also didn’t really change how battles played out. Past that, there’s no other meaningful customization or progression that I saw, meaning that battles seemed destined to play out mostly the same for the majority of the game. The game’s “story,” if you could even call it that, is virtually non-existent as well (and what’s there is laughably cheeky and dumb). By itself that wouldn’t bother me, but for a game that needs something past fighting battles, it seems like a missed opportunity. I’m glad I finally checked out Resonance of Fate for myself, and I don’t think it’s a bad game, but I ultimately decided that my gaming time is currently better spent elsewhere. It’s not like I have a shortage of games to play.

Thirty Flights of Scam

I feel like I was the one robbed here.

A lot of people have been giving Thirty Flights of Loving a lot of praise, and I’m not talking about the “That game is fun” kind of praise. I’m talking about the “This is a very important and innovative game” kind of praise. In fact, David Jaffe himself dubbed it his favorite game of 2012, claiming that it creates a new paradigm for video game storytelling. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I played through Thirty Flights of Loving (all 15 minutes of it), and didn’t think it was fun, innovative or... good. You do essentially nothing as the game drags you through a handful of bare bones, disjointed scenes via hard cuts, and attempts to tell a simple, loosely connected story through rough environmental cues. Not only is that completely terrible from a gameplay perspective, as you have virtually no input on proceedings (if you want to invoke the tired “is it a game?” debate, here’s your candidate), but the ambiguous storytelling it attempts to conjure is nothing new by any means. It’s also been done much better elsewhere, making Thirty Flights of Loving feel like a step backwards in that department.

To be honest, I found Thirty Flights of Loving to be straight up bad and worthless to the point where it felt kind of like a scam. Despite only costing me $2.50 (via Steam sale) and only taking me 15 minutes to play, I found it to be a complete waste of both time and money, and it didn’t feel any more substantial than any number of free flash shovelware games you can find all over the internet. I rarely feel regret for buying and playing a game, but Thirty Flights of Loving joins that dubious company, as I’ve now funded something terrible that I don’t want to see any more of ever again.

Gameplay Second?

Spec Ops' great story deserves better gameplay.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot more than normal lately are video game stories. I feel like 2012 saw a lot of different games succeed purely on the strength of their stories and characters, often times in spite of mediocre or dull gameplay. Binary Domain, Asura’s Wrath and Spec Ops: The Line are all examples of this trend, and I heard the following recommendation for all three of these games: “Play it on easy to get through it, because you’re playing it for the story.” I don’t know that I can think of many more damning things you could say about a video game. After all, if you’re actively trying to circumvent the part that makes video games distinct from other forms of media, then why even bother playing video games in the first place? (For the record, I have no problem with playing games on easy, if it’s done for the right reasons.) I’m all for having better stories in our games, and we shouldn’t have to settle for bad ones by any means. But I also don’t think we should settle for lackluster gameplay just because it’s in service of a decent story either. It’s an incredibly slippery slope that has me questioning the current status of the once commonly held notion that you play video games for “gameplay first.”


12 Video Game Soundtracks for 2012

I've always been a huge supporter of video game music, and have always felt that a strong video game soundtrack can elevate an otherwise good game to new heights. 2012 saw tons of games with great, memorable soundtracks; I feel like it's been a particularly good year for video game music. I've certainly enjoyed my fair share, and I'd like to give the soundtracks that have had the biggest impact on me their due. I've picked out 12 soundtracks from 2012 that stand out to me, and have posted my favorite song from each one here. It should be noted that I'm only counting original soundtracks, so licensed or reused stuff doesn't cut it (here's looking at you Theatrhythm). Also, there's no ordering of note (I've alphabetized it to avoid confusion), and while I thought about writing a few words for each song, I think it's best to leave it at just the audio; this music speaks for itself. Anyway, I hope you enjoy listening, and let me know what some of your favorite soundtracks of 2012 are!

EDIT: Neither Closure or Dust: An Elysian Tail seem to have their soundtracks on Youtube, and I've been having problems trying to embed their Bandcamp players on this page (this page locks up whenever I try). For now I've simply linked to those two songs, but if any technical wizard out there has advice, I'm all ears.

Botanicula - Juchu

Closure - Shadows of the Forest

Dust: An Elysian Tail - The Sorrowing Meadows

Dustforce - Cider Time

Fez - Adventure

Hotline Miami - Hydrogen

Journey - Apotheosis

Little Inferno - Reporting From the Weather Balloon

Mass Effect 3 - A Future for the Krogan

Nintendo Land - Main Plaza

Sound Shapes - Cities

The Walking Dead - Alive Inside


Weekly Roundup 12/09/2012

This week has been largely spent playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as I plugged away at my attempt at beating the game on Ironman Classic difficulty. My first game (a few months ago) was on Normal, and it became pretty clear pretty early on that Classic is a substantial step up. The main differences I’ve noticed have been that my chance to hit enemies is substantially lower, and global panic levels seem to rise a lot faster. I’ve had to fairly drastically adjust my approach to missions to account for lower hit chances (by playing more cautiously, making better use of guaranteed damage like grenades, and trying to flank when I can), and increased panic levels make getting those satellites up quickly even more imperative. It can be pretty nuts, yet I was doing pretty well for a while. I got past the alien base, had satellites up everywhere, and my squad, while not perfect, was doing well enough. I was digging the challenge, and Ironman made everything much more tense in a way that was genuinely thrilling.

When you don't stop spinning, you might be in trouble.

Then I got hit with a game breaking bug that halted all progress. Basically, going to Mission Control and hitting “Scan for Activity” resulted in endless scanning, but never finding anything. For a second I thought I was getting a little lucky, as I was able to accumulate some funds and catch up the research that I had resources for. But pretty quickly it became apparent that something very bad was happening. By the time something did pop up it was a story related event, and all the enemies were way more powerful than I could hope to combat. Put bluntly, taking out sectopods with the starting weapons is nigh impossible. As such, I had to completely abandon that game. Ironman mode is neat, but man, you feel it when a game breaking bug hits. I’m giving the game one more chance, as I started a new game on Ironman Classic this weekend. So far it’s been pretty smooth, and I’m feeling good so long as I don’t get any horrible bugs. If that happens again, I doubt I’ll try a third time, but hopefully I’ll get through uninterrupted.

I also played through Little Inferno early in the week, which wasn’t a long game. I think it’s a really neat game though, but maybe not so much due to the “game” part of it. Billed as a “fireplace simulator” (never thought I’d see that), you spend most of your time tossing all sorts of items into a fireplace and burning them. You have to buy the items, and as you burn them you get even more money back, which you can then use to buy bigger, better items. The game has upwards of 100 “combos” that you perform by burning different items together, and it will often require you to perform a certain number of them before you can unlock more items and advance. The combos are only described in vague hints, and that’s where the game gets pretty much all of it’s challenge, in trying to puzzle out what the combos are. It’s still never that hard though, as there are enough obvious combos, and the requirements for combos aren’t high enough to stump you for long. But it did add a nice, thin layer of stuff to think about.

Burn ALL the things!

Anyway, the basic gameplay is a simple, somewhat repetitive cycle that I found to be surprisingly entertaining, if not for the actual gameplay itself then for the dressing around it. It’s pretty clear pretty early on that Little Inferno is made by the same people what made World of Goo. The aesthetic is similar, and it has a comparable charm permeating the entire game. The art style, the music (oh the music!), even the dialogue and quirkiness of the story all bear a resemblance. I appreciate that, as not only does it give these talented dudes and their work its own unique and identifiable flavor, but that’s one of the things I really loved about World of Goo, and it’s equally strong here. There’s also a great sense of humor throughout the game, especially in the descriptions of the game’s many, varied items (not unlike Plants vs. Zombies’ unit and item descriptions), and there’s a subtly engaging narrative that’s full of plenty of commentary happening in the background. The actual plot meshes well with all the burning you’re doing on screen, and it all culminates into a thoughtful, touching ending that I thoroughly enjoyed. World of Goo had a similarly subtle and thoughtful story, and it’s nice to see that trend continued. That alone made Little Inferno worth playing for me, and I’d recommend it to those who liked World of Goo’s style, even if I don’t think the base gameplay is as strong as World of Goo’s.

Finally, I have decided to put my “Weekly Roundups” on indefinite hiatus, making this the last entry for the foreseeable future. As I tend to do at the end of the year, I’ve been contemplating changing some things up. I haven’t decided exactly what I want to do quite yet, but I have some ideas, none of which involve this exact format. I’ve certainly enjoyed this frequent “What have I been playing?” style of informal writing about games, but it does have its limitations. After doing a full year of them (hardly missing any weeks at that), I’d like to try some slightly different things. Before that, however, I’ll be doing some end of year reflections and thoughts over the next few weeks. Then once the new year begins I’ll hopefully have a better idea of how exactly I want to do things going forward. So it’s not an end by any means, just a new beginning. And with that said, that’s going to do it for now! Until next time!

Currently playing: XCOM: Enemy Unknown


Weekly Roundup 12/02/2012

SPOILER WARNING: I talk about The Walking Dead’s ending very vaguely here. I don’t think it really counts as spoilers, but anyone overly sensitive to that kind of stuff probably shouldn’t read the first three paragraphs.

In theory, new releases should be slowing down heading into December, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. The first thing I made sure to do after Thanksgiving break was play the final episode of The Walking Dead, which was of course fantastic. Season 1 has gone out on a real high note, giving a good sense of closure to a lot of the main characters, while leaving just enough open questions to provide a jumping off point for Season 2. It’s smartly done.

It's been a long journey for Lee and Clem.

Anyway, Episode 5 continued to do what the entire season has so done well, which primarily comes down to great writing and characters. It all builds to a head here though, and for many of the characters we finally get some real emotional payoff, and frequently closure. Episode 5 might be my favorite episode, but that’s not really because it’s fundamentally better than the others; it’s the simple fact that this is a memorable end to a long journey, and it’s a well done one at that. And, ironically, the ending is great without incorporating one of the series’ selling points, which is the idea of player choice. Like Mass Effect 3 before it, in spite of all the various choices you’ve made across each episode in the series, everyone’s ending winds up being essentially the same (I’m talking about literally the final few moments). Granted, it’s an extremely well executed ending, but the game still does that diamond shaped thing with the different paths players can take. Everyone may deviate wildly in the middle, but the beginning and end are the same for everyone. After finishing it I talked to two other friends who had also finished, both of whom had made drastically different choices than me during the course of the season, yet all of us saw the same ending.

That fact about the ending does not bother me one bit though (just like it didn't bother me in Mass Effect 3). I bring up that point because I think it highlights what I consider to be the most brilliantly subtle thing about The Walking Dead on the whole, which is the illusion of choice. You’re constantly making choices throughout the game, and each and every one of them feels incredibly important and potentially game changing. And yet, none of them really do change the game, as I’ve found out by comparing my choices and their results with others. It’s the way said choices make you feel that makes them resonant though, and the fact that I came to be deeply invested in my own personal playthrough despite recognizing this fact makes it that much more impressive. In the end, it’s not so much that your choices change the game, but more that your choices change you. That, to me, is the defining feature of The Walking Dead, and explains why I think it’s so great.

Not as similar to Smash Bros. as it initially appears to be.

Moving on from The Walking Dead, I’ve been playing a fair amount of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale this week, which is a super weird game. I’ll go ahead and get the obligatory Super Smash Bros. comparison out the way right up front by saying that it’s not as similar to Smash Bros. as it initially appears to be. Sure, the idea of taking some of the biggest "PlayStation" characters and pitting them against each other in a four player free for all has a similar ring to it, but the unique fighting style that defines Smash Bros. at its core isn’t here at all. Where Smash Bros. is a wild, rambunctious brawler that’s almost more of a party game than a fighting game, PlayStation All-Stars is a lot more technical in its execution, having more in common with the Street Fighters of the world than with Smash Bros. in a number of ways. There’s a real measured, methodical pacing the the game’s movement that’s built around a more delicate system of combos and counters than you might expect. Smash Bros., on the other hand, is built around pure chaos.

Connecting with your supers is everything.

PlayStation All-Stars mostly tries to fit in that middle ground between Smash Bros.’ more unruly nature and Street Fighter’s more demanding, technical one. And that’s where things get weird, as the game doesn’t really find a great balance in a lot of ways. The weirdest thing by far is how you kill other players. Rather than knocking them off a ledge or whittling down their health bar, you damage them to build up your own super meter, which you then use to unleash super moves (which can miss, thus wasting your meter). Connecting with these super moves is the only way you can get kills, which means virtually everything rides on these handful of all-or-nothing moments once your meter fills. That’s where PlayStation All-Stars runs into the most trouble too, as I don’t think the super moves are balanced at all. My brother can smack people around all day with Big Daddy, but he can’t connect with his level one super to save his life (it's mind-bogglingly terrible). Other characters like Raiden, on the other hand, are easily and consistently able to get multiple kills with their level one super. It’s a total shame too, because I feel like other than the super moves, most of the roster is fairly well balanced. But the game puts so much stock in the super moves that it becomes real apparent real quick when one is more effective than another, rendering most other aspects of the characters useless.

Those super moves, to me, are the core of the game’s design, so it’s a bummer that I don’t think they work that well from a balance standpoint. Everything else around that can be kind of hit or miss. The rest of the fighting (ignoring the supers) feels pretty solid for the most part, though the movement and timings can be a little sluggish, and there’s a lot of animation priority here (not uncommon for the genre). I still prefer Smash Bros.’ more rambunctious approach, but I also like this middle ground better than a pure technical fighter, which is a genre that I’ve never gotten into at all. What makes it better is that I’ve played quite a bit online and have had almost no issues; it runs smoothly with a full four players virtually every time. I’ve been playing a lot of 2v2s with my brother online, which is something I’m not sure any other decent fighting game reliably offers, and that right there is a pretty big plus to me. Finally, the game’s roster could be a lot better (why are there are two Coles again?), and the single player offerings are super lame. The arcade mode is too long and boring to be worth grinding out more than a few times, and the various challenges and trials aren’t much better. Playing free-for-alls or 2v2s online is hands down the way to get the most out of PlayStation All-Stars, and by that limited and occasionally flawed measure, the game does manage to be pretty fun.

I’m sure I’ll keep playing PlayStation All-Stars this week (my Ratchet needs practice), and Borderlands 2’s second DLC recently came out as well; in theory I’ll find time for that at some point. Last but not least, I finally made the plunge and started my Ironman Classic game in XCOM: Enemy Unknown this weekend, and that thing doesn’t mess around. Anyway, that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, XCOM: Enemy Unknown